Farewell to the Mass Worker

Third section of chapter 7 in Steve Wright's "Storming Heaven".

Submitted by Fozzie on August 18, 2023

Gasparazzo is not eternal ... (Longo 1975: 30)

It was against this background that Negri's Proletari e Stato was written in mid-1975. A short work, the pamphlet brimmed over with hypotheses on the changing nature of class struggle. Finally casting aside all hesitation concerning talk of a new class composition, the dominant theme was one of renewal in crisis, of a continuity in rupture for both the critique of political economy and the process of social antagonism. For Negri, capital's attempts in the wake of the Hot Autumn to divide the class through an alteration of its technical composition and the further socialisation of the wage relation had backfired badly. Like a modern sorcerer's apprentice, capital's efforts to regain control had only multiplied its difficulties, for whilst the offensive of the mass worker had been halted, new proletarian layers - indeed a new class figure - had entered the fray in its stead. If this new class figure was the child of the preceding round of struggles, its midwife was the crisis of capitalist development. Like 'Partito operaio contro il lavoro', Proletari e Stato sought to locate its analysis of class composition within a discussion of the tendential fall of the rate of profit. In following the arguments developed by the workerist journal Primo Maggio, however, Negri now called for a substantial modification of crisis theory. Certainly, he agreed, the 'Marxian tendency' had become actual, and the problems associated with the rate of profit exacerbated by working-class struggle. Precisely because of this, however, capital's traditional counter-tendencies had so far failed to take effect,

despite the greater flexibility imposed on labour-power, despite attempts at the territorial disarticulation of production (at all levels: local, regional, national, multinational), despite capital's new mobility in the world market, despite the disconcerting effects of the inflationary process: despite all this and many other attempts, therefore, the aggregate rigidity of the proportion between surplus value and total capital - namely the rate of profit - has not been dissolved ... Profit 'stagnates' ... even in the presence of inflation and all the other antagonistic operations. (Negri 1976b: 12-13)

As a consequence, capital was forced increasingly to rely upon the peculiar properties which the money form offered to the task of re-establishing a correct proportion between the mass and rate of profit. Given this, the critique of political economy had now to be extended so as to grasp money’s new function as command. At the same time, capital's difficulties had not prevented it from reorganising its organic composition and with it the technical composition of the working class. Yet, even as restructuring had 'devastated' the mass worker, it had also entailed a greater socialisation of capital with an attendant ‘further massification of abstract labour, and therefore socially diffused labour predisposed to struggle’. Whilst the ‘category “working class” has gone into crisis’, Negri (ibid.: 14-15): concluded, ‘it continues to produce all its own effects on the entire social terrain, as proletariat’.

Similar arguments were then not unknown in workerist circles. Franco Berardi (1974: 8), for example, had already written of the emergence of a new class composition in the wake of the 1973 Mirafiori occupation. The new class was one, he argued, within which 'intellectual and technical labour, productive intelligence (Wissenschaft-tecknische-Intelligenz) tends to become determinate'. And it had been Alquati (n.d.: 90-3) who had first coined the phrase 'socialised worker’ in the early 1970s, understanding by this a new political subject which was overtaking the mass worker, and as such bound up with the proletarianisation and massification of intellectual labour. Negri's definition, by contrast, both encompassed this stratum and stretched far beyond it. To his mind, as he was to put it when interviewed in 1978, 'the fundamental thesis underlying the theory of workerism is precisely that of a successive abstraction of labour parallel to its socialisation’ (Negri 1979a: 11). If the mass worker was the 'first massified concretisation' of this (Negri 1976b: 15), its figure was yet tied to determinate sectors of the class, in particular to those producing consumer durables. The mass worker did not therefore encompass a whole class composition, but rather its only its vanguard. Or, as Alquati say,

[t]he mass worker, and even before it the skilled worker in relation to peasants ... have taught us that hegemony resides not in numbers, but in the quality of the relation within accumulation and within the struggle against accumulation. (Alquati 1976: 75-6)

As the logical conclusion of the line of thinking which Negri had first postulated with Crisis dello Stato-piano, his understanding of the socialised worker represented therefore a radical break in the genealogy of class figures classified by Italian workerism. To begin with, it had not been forged wholly within a qualitative remoulding of the immediate process of production. Even less was the operaio sociale tied to a particular industrial sector: rather, it was the whole proletariat, subject qua abstract labour, constituted throughout the arc of the valorisation process. This time round, Negri (1976b: 36) oTthe capital relation had failed to break the continuity and generalisation of struggle. Rather than a technological defeat, restructuring had generated a new class re-composition.

Proletari e Stato discussed its subject in a very general, indeed generic manner; after proclaiming its profoundly social nature, the text was to say very little about the changes to the physiognomy of the mass worker which have led to the new class figure's formation. For Negri, rather, the most important questions revolved around what he saw as the socialised worker's 'massive revolutionary potential', and an unfolding process of recomposition 'extraordinary in breadth and intensity' (Negri 1976b: 36). Capital's project of restructuring had not destroyed, but rather invigorated the political composition of the proletariat, uniting the various strata it had sought to divide. There was now, Proletari e Stato told its readers, 'a single law of exploitation present over the entire process of planning of capitalist society', making it obligatory 'to read in restructuring the formation of an increasingly vast unitary potential of struggles' (ibid.: 36-7).

The pages of Rosso help to flesh out the constituent elements of this novel class figure somewhat better than Proletari e Stato itself. In 1975 a new cycle of disputes had opened for the renewal of contracts; as in 1972-73, the autonomists' emphasis was placed upon the need for workers to take the offensive over the price of labour-power. In this way, they hoped, the class struggle would aggravate what many business and political leaders continued to see as the Italian economy's chief problem: its blown-out wage bill. On the fundamental terrain of the division between necessary and surplus labour, the paper argued, the only working-class response possible was a campaign for a further reduction of the working day with no loss of pay, a demand Negri's organisation proceeded to propagate amongst Milan's carworkers (Rosso 1975).

Whilst large factories had remained the pinnacle of Italy's industrial pyramid, widespread territorial dispersion of many labour processes, along with the traditional importance of minor firms producing components, lent more and more weight to workers in smaller workplaces. In line with this shift, Rosso began to document the early efforts at self-organisation amongst young workers in the small shops of Milan and Turin. Known as 'proletarian youth circles', these precursors of today's social centres attempted to coordinate disputes in different firms, whilst also engaging in new forms of selfreduction such as the mass gatecrashing of cinemas, concerts and other cultural activities (Comitati Autonomi Operai 1976: 361-5; Balestrini 1989).

Moving beyond the workplace, the paper kept a watchful eye upon the 'organised unemployed' movement of Naples. Combining direct action and lobbying in a city synonymous with both squalid living and government by patronage, the Neapolitan movement quickly mobilised thousands of unemployed workers, becoming the region's central reference point for militant activity (Comitati Autonomi Operai 1976: 156-8). Elsewhere, the burgeoning women's movement began to move from the problem of divorce, over which it brought down the national government in 1974, to challenge all aspects of social domination. Like the unemployed, the feminists were also seen by Rosso as an integral component of the new social subject, and the journal now began to speak of the emergence of 'a new female proletariat' (Rosso 1976a; 1976b). Finally, the continuing practice of self-reduction, and in particular the increasing instances of organised looting, was seen by Negri's organisation as one of the red threads which tied these layers into a unifying process of recomposition (Comitati Autonomi Operai 1976: 246-9).

All these struggles, Negri argued, sought to fulfil the needs of their protagonists outside the logic of capitalist social relations. Since needs are by nature historically determinate, he reasoned, those of the operaio sociale could only be constituted within the universe of capital. Not surprisingly, here his reading again bore the mark of the Grundrisse. Only one use-value could possibly break the vicious circle of capital’s reproduction: living labour. This, the former’s very life-blood, could subvert the class relation when it became refusal of labour, creativity directed towards the reproduction of the proletariat as antagonistic subject. What was urgently required, therefore, was the substitution of the existing system of needs with a 'system of struggles', the promotion of which remained the chief justification for a revolutionary party (Negri 1976b: 44-6). Again, like the Grundrisse, Negri insisted on couching this discussion in terms of the dialectic between productive forces and relations of production. At the very moment when 'the old contradiction' seemed to have subsided, and living labour subsumed to capital,

the entire force of insubordination coagulates in that final front which is the antagonistic and general permanence of social labour. From here the productive force - the only productive force that is social living labour - opposes itself as struggle to the 'relations of production' and to the 'productive forces' incorporated in the latter. (ibid. : 44-5)

In this manner, Marx's traditional formula could now be recast as the direct antagonism between proletarians and state.

If here Proletari e Stato simply gave a characteristically 'negrian' twist to Marx's schema, elsewhere the essay subverted one of the central workerist categories of old - the wage. Long the privileged moment of class recomposition, now Negri criticised the official labour movement for understanding class relations only within such terms. For a whole period, he argued, the wage in the immediate process of production and appropriation in the social sphere had marched separately but struck together. Today, however, the former tended to become the latter, as the working class sought the 'direct reappropriation of the productive forces' (Negri 1976b: 51). Indeed, for Negri, direct reappropriation was no longer 'a vague appendix to the Communist programme but its essence'. Once the wage struggle had subordinated all others to its logic; now it retained meaning only as part of a society-wide attack on the state. To the struggle over division between necessary and surplus labour had been added the struggle to reduce necessary labour itself, as the proletariat strove to accelerate capital's tendency and so hasten the fall of the economy's tyrannical reign (ibid.: 47-8).

According to Proletari e Stato, the hypothesis of the operaio sociale stood or fell with its practical veracity (Negri 1976b: 9). To what extent, then, did its account of a massive process of recomposition - a qualitative leap in class unity - actually tally with the Italian Toni experience of the time? In the pamphlet itself, Negri would offer only the briefest of discussions of the problem of 'marginal disarticulation', by which he meant the idiosyncrasies associated with new socially 'marginalised' layers. Even here, the needs of subjects such as women and the unemployed appeared to possess a political significance only to the extent that they could not be reduced to 'the demand for wage labour' (ibid.: 64). Certainly, it is not at all difficult to point to the temporal continuity of struggle linking the mass worker of the Hot Autumn to the new social subjects of the mid1970s. It is much harder, however, to uncover traces of that concrete unification between sectors upon which Negri's whole argument rested. For the most part, instead, such potentiality was to remain sadly unfulfilled, with the front of fiercest industrial struggle - that of the small factories of the North - finding itself almost hermetically sealed from other sectors of the class. Later, in 1977, a case could be made for the role of the university as one such moment of aggregation. In 1975-76, by contrast, only the practice of self-reduction ¬ especially that advanced by the 'proletarian youth circles' - was able to provide some linkage between the increasingly variegated layers of the Itaiian working class. To add insult to injury, many of the youth circles, like the swirling array of local, non-aligned 'diffuse' collectives with which they partially overlapped, continued to regard the micro-factions of 'organised' autonomists with considerable wariness (Farnetti and Moroni 1984; Moroni 1994).

The most dramatic and significant divides of the period served both to mark off the workers of the large Northern factories from the rest of the subjects grouped within Negri's class figure, and to force a widening fissure within the mass worker itself. After half a decade of struggle, the chief protagonists of the Hot Autumn now found themselves at best in the limbo world of a 'productive truce' within the factory, at worst engaged in industrial disputes both defensive in tone and subordinate to the institutional ambitions of the official labour movement. Due chiefly to their ability to guarantee the rigidity of labour-power in an increasingly centralised contractual arena, the union confederations had succeeded after 1973 in winning the support of the great majority of factory councils, bureaucratising them in the process. In practice this had meant two things. First, there was the resumption, in a new guise, of the traditional union discourse of a qualification-based pay hierarchy amongst workers which pushed hard against the egalitarian spirit of recent years. Second, there was an explicit union commitment to 168 Storming Heaven tailor labour's demands to the requirements of accumulation (Graziosi 1976; Regini 1980). With the centre-left of the 1960s supplanted by increasingly authoritarian governments, and conscious of the Chilean experience, the PCI leadership now committed itself to the path of a 'Historic Compromise' with the ruling Christian Democrats. Following the party's successes in the 1975 regional elections, this goal seemed to be one step closer to fruition. Even as it utilised the CGIL to rebuild a workplace presence lost in preceding years, such political ambitions only strengthened the Communist Party's traditional hostility to what it deemed 'corporatist' struggles against the necessary restructuring of the economy (Redazione romana di Rosso 1976; Hellman 1980).

On the industrial front itself, there were signs that many employers, far from being cowered by the struggles of the mass worker, had only intensified their quest to subdue the 'labour factor'. At FIAT, for example, management had begun an elaborate war of manoeuvre aimed at undermining the power over production which workers had acquired in the struggles of the Hot Autumn. Making use of the national layoff fund of the Cassa Integrazione to reorganise the whole cycle of production, management wound down output in some shops, while pushing ahead in others through extensive use of overtime. At the same time, more and more components were assigned to smaller plants within the conglomerate, including those recently established outside Italy. Such a disarticulation of the production cycle sharply eroded that capacity for disruption and communication which in previous years the more militant shops within Mirafiori had used to their advantage, while simultaneously allowing management to experiment with new production processes based upon robotics. With natural wastage and sackings for absenteeism combining to cut the total FIAT workforce by 13 per cent in the two years up to September 1975, more and more FIAT employees were forced by mounting inflation to turn to moonlighting, a practice which further blocked the transmission of militancy. As if all this was not enough, in July 1975 FIAT management was to win union agreement on its right to control mobility within the firm, a victory which provoked a spree of transfers between its various plants, and further reduced the rigidity of employees (Collegamenti 1978). As Marco Revelli would later indicate:

This was a period in which FIAT was used by the employers more as a means for the enlarged reproduction of political mediation Toni Negri and the Operaio Sociale 169 (and social consensus) rather than as a means of production of commodities, and it was clear that the union was able to survive, as a shadow, a fetishistic form of a hypostasised 'workers' power'. But it was also clear that, as the class composition which had made the material and social base of that model of the union broke up, so the moment was approaching in which the boss aimed to settle a few accounts. (Revelli 1982: 99)

Whatever other problems they faced, the core of the mass worker formed at FIAT still remained sufficiently strong in those years to retain their jobs. Manufacturing workers elsewhere, however, were not to be so secure. In Lombardy, for example, hundreds of firms now began to decentralise and rationalise their production processes. The most emblematic case - that of the British Leyland-owned Innocenti plant - also offers some insight into the divisions which then ran through the body of the industrial working class. The first round of troubles at Innocenti had opened in April 1975, with management introducing Cassa Integrazione for some workers, and speed-ups for the rest. The situation worsened at the end of August, when employees found themselves facing the prospect of redundancies for a third of their number and permanently increased worktime and production rhythms for those left behind. The most intransigent opposition to these attacks was to come from a small number of militants who, having distanced themselves from the groups of the far left, had formed a rank-and-file body possessed of a certain following in key shops within the plant. Faced with a hostile majority on the PCI-dominated factory council, increasingly outmanoeuvred as the struggle shifted from the shopfloor to the terrain of negotiations between union and company, the Coordinamento Operaio Innocenti soon found itself, in the words of one former member, 'in the eye of the cyclone'. Matters came to a head at the end of October, as PCI and CGIL stewards clashed with members of the group and their supporters. The following day six of its members were sacked, effectively destroying the Coordinamento as a force within the plant, and with it the possibility of a struggle unencumbered by the historic left's commitment to the 'management' of the nation's economic difficulties (Primo Maggio 1976b).

Hailed in certain circles as the new programme of Autonomia, Proletari e Stato would receive a stormy reception from others for its disinterest in such setbacks for the mass worker. If some of Negri's erstwhile opponents within the Area now embraced many of its precepts as their own, the pamphlet was to bring little pleasure to those of his longstanding associates who had remained apart from the 'organised' wing of Autonomia. Particularly disappointed was Sergio Bologna, who had continued to collaborate with Negri in a number of research projects. With Proletari e Stato, Bologna argued, Negri had grasped some of the 'objective mechanisms of political composition' present in Italian society, only to neglect completely the no-less substantial tendencies running counter to them:

How many workers, how many factories have found themselves in the past two years faced with the problem of closure, and how many struggles have been burnt out in the alternatives between defence of the wage independent from the exchange of labourpower, and production cooperatives? Between guaranteed wage and self-management, closure of the factory or acceptance of restructuring? In such circumstances, the revolutionary left has either not known how to offer other alternatives or, in the best cases, has limited itself to saying that the problem was wrongly posed and as such should be rejected. At its most coherent, the revolutionary left has said that the destruction of the worker as labour-power was a good thing that could only aid the recruitment and selection of the vanguard. There have been many small (or big) battles, but in their course the political composition of the class has changed substantially in the factories, and certainly not in the direction indicated by Negri. Not only that: what has taken place is the opposite of that greater unity of which he talks. Rather, a deeper division has occurred: not between factory and society, but within the factory itself, between the working-class right and left. In sum there has been a reassertion of reformist hegemony over the factories, one that is brutal and relentless in its efforts to dismember the class left and expel it from the factory. (Bologna 1976a: 27, translation based partly on Lumley 1980: 132)

Rather than come to grips with such disarray and confusion, Bologna complained, Negri had preferred to ply the traditional trade of the theorist in possession of some grand synthesis. Indeed, in choosing to invent 'a different social figure with which to impute the process of liberation from exploitation', Negri had simply washed his hands of the mass workers' recent difficulties, along with his own organisation's failure to make any headway within it. Far from being at the beginning of a new era, Bologna concluded,

[quote][w]e are not at year one, we are not back at the reawakening of the 'new left' of the 1960s: we are not even at the redefinition of a social figure different to the mass worker. Even if it were true that the relation between operaio sociale and party is different, that civil society no longer exists, that the theory of consciousness has also changed, why continue to exercise the consummate craft of theoretician and ideologue? The form of political discourse is obsolete, the millenarian language is just a 'ballbreaker', and this form of theory deserves to be negated like every other 'general theory' ... let us conclude by saying that on this ground debate is no longer possible, it's boring. Better find new ground. Certainly, 'great is the disorder the sun, the situation is therefore excellent'. (Bologna 1976a: 28, translation based partly on Lumley 1980: 133)

Equally scathing in its critique was the Roman wing of Autonomia. After a year of participating in the production of Rosso, the Comitati Autonomi Operai had finally had enough by late 1976. Agreeing with Bologna that Negri's abandonment of the sphere of direct production as the central terrain of class struggle could have only disastrous consequences, the Romans believed that such differences were underlaid by a deeper one of method. Complaining that the contribution of Negri's circle to Autonomia's analysis of class composition was characterised increasingly by assertions 'as emphatic as they are unconvincing', they acknowledged that

[y]our interest for the 'emergent strata' (proletarian youth, feminists, homosexuals) and for new, and reconceptualised, political subjects (the 'operaio sociale') has always been and is still shared by us. But precisely the undeniable political importance of these phenomena demands extreme analytical rigour, great investigative caution, a strongly empirical approach (facts, data, observations and still more observations, data, facts) ... (Rivolta di classe 1976: 136)

Turning his back upon such counsel, Negri would henceforth devote the greater part of his energies to the development of a new 'mode of enquiry' adequate to the socialised worker.