Silver Debate: Worker's Power and Operaism

The following article asks what will come out of Operaism. It asks on the basis of the current debates around the subject and on the theses of Beverly J. Silver in her book "Forces of Labor".

[see other articles on the debate on Silver's theses in ppnews #2 and #3; online at and]. The German version of this article was published in Analyse und Kritik, no. 500, November 2005 [see].

The Heart of the Beast - An Unknown Entity
Worker's power and the future of Operaism

Today, talking about the future of Operaism for many people means to start with Hardt and Negri's "Multitude" or John Holloway's fetish-critique. In comparison Beverly Silver's historical analysis of the tendencies of worker's power seem politically colorless and sociological.[1] No doubt, "Forces of Labor" is an academic book, not a political manifesto, and it avoids all revolutionary vocabulary. But in all its understatement, "Forces of Labor" contains sharper theoretical tools to grasp capitalism theoretically and practically than what the rather philosophically oriented renewal of Marxism offers us.
Silver's main thesis is that cycles of capitalist accumulation also increase workers' power on a global scale in a stage-like form - through production relocation, technological and organizational innovations and the transition to new core industrial products. In 1972, Giovanni Arrighi had already formulated this in a more general way: "The process of capital accumulation is at one and the same time a process of subordination of labor to capital, and a process of development of labor as a force in conflict with capital. In developing the social character of production, capitalist accumulation progressively deprives the individual workers of any method of producing the necessary means for their existence outside of the productive apparatus controlled by capital... From the ashes of the individual bargaining power of workers there is born the collective power of labor."
The basis for this is the increasing concentration and centralization of capital.[2] Arrighi here refers to the ambivalence and dialectic of the real subjection and the increasing power of the "collective worker" (Romano Alquati), one of the core theses of Operaism in the 1960s.
In an epilogue to the English translation (1978) Arrighi says that this hypothesis was too "schematic," the real historical process was not that "linear and consistent."
In further historical studies and though the work of the "World Labor Group" - "Forces of Labor" is based on the outcomes of the latter - this discontinuous development of global workers' power is more thoroughly traced. The basic idea, that within the process of capital accumulation are inescapable mechanisms built in which at the same time expand the basis of workers' power, are not abandoned, but the original mere hypothesis was developed and modified into a historical analysis.
The power of the "collective worker" is not just based on the concentration of capital in the sense of a social and political aggregation, but also on the increasing destructive potential of workers' actions. This power evolves from the structure and organization of the respective production process: on one hand from the closer linking of different steps of production, on the other hand from the increasing importance and vulnerability of fixed capital. Silver insists that this "workplace bargaining power" needs to be shown in every single case and every single struggle. It should not be misunderstood as a super-historical master key.
Beverly Silver shows how historical processes of class formation are closely linked to the development of newly discovered forms of workplace bargaining power. Using those examples she clarifies how we can get involved in new processes of "class formation". While the current debate on precarity suffers from the search for a new class subject based on "new identity-based self-concepts" and starts from similarities in legal employment status, [3] "Forces of Labor" explicitly argues against any identity-based concept of class. Instead, it puts the development of structural power vis-à-vis capital into the center. In the Marxist terminology - that Silver avoids - we could talk about the tracing of processes undermining the very same process of alienation that constantly turns the social potential of living labor into the rule of past labor, i.e. the rule of capital over the individual workers. The legal status is not crucial here as in the case of precarity but the structure of the chain of production is, i.e. the social character of labor, in which workers are involved.
In the 1920s work in the automobile industry was highly precarious and seasonal since every year when the car model was changed the multinational workforce was regularly sacked. Silver points to the historical irony that leftists at the time thought that due to the precarity and heterogeneity the class struggle in the Fordist car factories was irretrievably lost. Only after the great strikes in the mid-1930s did it became obvious that the new technology of the assembly line had not only brought the real subjection to capital to perfection but at the same time it gave the collective worker an enormous potential power, thus facilitating the transition from an atomized labor force to the subject of collective workers.
What is distinct about this advance on Operaism might become clearer when we compare it to the concept of the "Multitude." The original underlying idea is the same: workers' power and workers' subjectivity arise from the qualities of labor socialized by capital. But Arrighi and Silver thoroughly examine this hypothesis historically, thereby not only specifying and modifying it, but also following its traces onto the level of the capitalist world system. Toni Negri on the contrary, by declaring the "socialized worker" as the new class subject, taking the place of the "mass worker," abandoned the correlation between the material structures of production and class formation. From the social character of labor in the abstract sense, that the work of many individual workers is somehow linked together, the existence and power of a new subject was simply deduced without being able to grasp it in real developments.
Sometimes the transition to the "socialized worker" is seen as a justified correction of the one-sided centrality of the factory within early Operaism, often combined with the thesis that the struggles of the 1960s, starting in the factories, had expanded to society and the area of reproduction. But such a view is based on a misconception - both of the motives of the early Operaists for turning to the factory and of the turning away from the factory in the 1970s.
During the 1950s, as a Socialist militant, Raniero Panzieri, founder of the Quaderni Rossi, had taken part in land occupations of landless farmers in Southern Italy. He had defended their "political and organizational autonomy" towards a party that saw these movements merely as economic struggles. Panzieri's decision to turn to the big factories in the North was not based on any cult of the traditional proletariat, but on the question of the power of proletarian assertiveness - in particular of the assertiveness of a Southern Italian proletariat that had paid for its struggles with bloody defeats and stayed under the ideological hegemony of the fascists.
The factory was not seen as an exclusive site of a prototype "worker" in an orthodox-communist sense, but as a center of the power of capital and, therefore, of the power of the workers in Marx's sense when he says that in all forms of society a certain production shapes all other affairs: "It is as though light of a particular hue were cast upon everything, tingeing all other colours." The tiny Operaist groups Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia were not forgotten precisely because their theses proved correct during the workers' struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, and - notably in Italy - in the militancy in the factory which spread to the whole society, even to the most radical movement against psychiatry.
But this summer of workers' autonomy was far shorter than often assumed. In the early 1970s the unions as mediators regained lost ground, and neither the workers nor the Operaist groups found an answer to the crisis. What at first seemed to be the expansion of struggle into society and the areas of reproduction was more and more recognizable as the flight out of the factory: "At the same time, the extra-parliamentary groups began their suicidal retreat from the factory, and in general ceased to give much attention to problems of class composition. This has led to a situation where, today, the factory and the working class are almost unknown entities." [4] Negri's concept of the "socialized worker" carried by a new youth and student movement could only temporarily hide the erosion and integration of worker's power in the factory and the extra-parliamentary groups' own political crisis. Those who see the turning away from the factory as a necessary corrective ignore that the loss of power radiated to all areas and colored them with the destructive power of the common neoliberalism.
This indifference and the dominance of ideology over empirical research shapes the current debates on "post-Fordism" and "Multitude." At the same time, in Germany in particular, the factory and its assembly line production has vanished more from peoples minds than in reality.[5] And while leftist debates on the creativity in post-Fordist labor structures refer to the "short thaw" of "alternatives to Taylorist labor organization" in the early 1990s, for years industrial sociology has identified a renaissance of the assembly line under pressure from the profit crisis.
We do not know what this "unknown entity", "the factory", will look like today - not in the sense of a stereotype of "steaming chimneys," but as a site and starting point for workers' power that can concretely and practically disenchant the material rule of capital, thereby giving space again for antagonistic subjectivity. And sure enough, no clever minds or polished theories will give us any answer, but proletarian search processes, in which we take part, which we describe and, at best, at some points expedite.

1 Beverly J. Silver: Forces of Labor. Workers' Movements and Globalization since 1870, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
2 Giovanni Arrighi: Towards a Theory of Capitalist Crisis, in: New Left Review, No. 111, 1978.
3 See Dirk Hauer in ak 498 and express, 6-7/2005.
4 Sergio Bologna: The Tribe of Moles, 1977. Online:
5 "Workers exist, but you cannot see them anymore," write Stéphane Beaud and Michel Pialoux in a unique study "Retour sur la condition ouvrière. Enquête aux usines Peugeot de Sochaux-Montbéliard," Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1999 (German: "Die verlorene Zukunft der Arbeiter", Konstanz, UVK-Verlag, 2004). They have followed the changes of factory work at Sochaux-Montbéliard for more than twenty years. For them the political and representative "deconstruction" of the working class explains its today's "invisibility". For a review of the German edition see express 8/2005.

[prol-position news | 2/2006] Edited by libcom for accuracy.