Migratory Flows: The Mass Worker And The Socialized Worker - Comitato Senza Frontiere

An autonomist analysis of immigration in and around Italy in from 1950s-1990s.

Article from London Notes #1 1992, translated from an article by Comitato Senza Frontiere (Without Frontiers Committee), Via Avesella 5b, Bologna, Italy, dated 28 May 1991 and published in Incompatibili (the magazine of the self-organized workers of Rome), #6 Summer 1991.

Submitted by Fozzie on March 31, 2021


We present here an article which was originally published in Incompatibili, an Italian autonomist magazine, as an initial contribution for a class analysis of the current massive flow of migrants from the South of the world into - especially - continental Europe. The immediate political importance of this phenomenon is obvious, given the racist campaigns being mounted across Europe, the growth of fascist organizations, and the repatriation policies being supported by the various European governments.

A class position on migration and against racist strategies of division of the working class cannot rely only on militant anti-racist action and a political denunciation of racist attacks. This is good and necessary political work, but it is not enough. We need a class analysis which goes deeper into the issue of migration in order to grasp the relation between contemporary migratory flows and the present transformations of the productive system in the North. To what extent are these phenomena interrelated? How is the internal hierarchy of the working class affected? What are the new qualitative forms (not only in terms of income difference, but also in terms of forms of work) developing within this hierarchy? Which sets of needs might we expect to burst out in the form of new movement and new struggles? It is only within this analytical framework that we can and must begin to express new forms for the political organization of the class antagonism, for the politicisation of needs.

The article which we publish here does not give any definitive answer to these questions. But it indicates a direction for analysis. The strength of this article is one of method, in its most political sense. It uses as the background to its analysis of the migratory flows the relation between class composition and the form (and content) of struggle. In this way, "struggle" - that is, the movement of class subjectivity - is not interpreted as a mere voluntaristic process, but is grounded in its own historical and material condition.

A given class composition represents the particular form in which the working class finds itself scattered around within the capitalist production process, both inside and outside (the territory) the factory. In this sense, it corresponds to a certain form of productive cooperation among workers - a certain set of relations existing between them. In general terms, within the framework of this analysis the political leap comes about when the working class transforms the material condition which constitute the basis for capitalist organization of production into the material basis for its own power. With this "political recomposition" of the working class, struggle and resistance circulate among different sectors; the daily diffusion of antagonism and the latent process of constitution based on needs acquire a new qualitative political dimension; working-class needs explode and assert themselves both in antagonism and as constitutive of new social relations which go beyond capitalism.

The key political issue underlying this article is therefore the following: what is the material foundation of a new phase of political recomposition of the working class? It does this by focusing on the migratory flows in Italy and, to a less extent, in continental Europe. It focuses its analysis on a new subject carrier of new needs, the migrant-as-subject. It is only on the basis of these needs that the subject-migrant can reconstitute itself as political subject. The struggles of this subject and their circulation across other sectors of the working class is the central pivot of this analysis.

The article was written with the Italian reader in mind and therefore refers to the present forms of migratory flows in that country. Here is not the place to extend the analysis to Britain, but a few observations can be made. Unlike Italy, Britain has a long history of immigration. Therefore, the new migrants find an already established hierarchy of "race" and a network of communities already more or less structured within the social and productive fabric. How the flow of recent and future migration will effect this structure is an open question - as is the question of the effect of their struggles - which will depend on, among other things, the quantitative dimension of the migratory flows.

Capitalism and Migratory Flows

At the basis of the wealth produced in every epoch of capitalist society, there is the experience of the migration of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. This means dramatic movements, up-rooting from their original communities, poverty and exploitation which repeat themselves each time capital plans a massive effort in the restructuring of production and the labour market.

During the last two centuries the phenomenon of migration has grown without precedent. This has involved both forced and voluntary emigration, the flows of which initially concerned mainly Europe, at least up to the Second World War, and have covered all five continents. Forty million Europeans migrated to the Americas between 1800 and 1930, among whom 9 million were Italians. In the same period, tens of millions started to move due to the effects of regional and world wars, and of colonialism in China, South East Asia, Africa, the Middle East ...

Ever since "primitive accumulation", migratory movement has been essential for the valorisation of capital: the most precious commodity - labour power - arriving from different continents, has from time to time the function of breaking up the rigidity of the work and wage of the national working-class, i.e. more work and less wages! But the new working class composition has started once again to organise itself, to refuse exploitation and the models of behaviour imposed by integration and segregation. Thus, by reaffirming its right to exist and not to be treated as a mere thing, the class composition re-emerges with all its unrestrainable drive for subversion and transformation and the political struggle between capital and labour affirms itself in this rupture. From a mere objective variable of the cycle, the class composition imposes itself as conscious, antagonist subjectivity.

Since the end of the Second World War, there have been two major migratory cycles which correspond to two cycles of production and to two class compositions: the mass worker and the social worker. The first was the protagonist of the 1950-70 era of struggles, the second continues to establish itself through a multiplicity of subjects, following the rhythms of the restructuring begun at the beginning of the 1970's which ended with the information technology "revolution". Both the mass worker and the social worker are mostly immigrated labour power. In the following pages, the genesis of these two figures will be synthetically reconstructed, showing their underlying characteristics and diversities, their balances and perspectives.

Turkish, Algerian and Italian Workers in North Europe

In the 1950's and 1960's millions of immigrants were utilised in France, Germany and England, for post-war reconstruction due to a considerable lack of internal labour power. The South of Italy became the reservoir of labour power in Europe. In the first half of the 1950's the most important migratory flow was that of those expelled from the eastern territories of the Reich, and of the refugees of East Germany who settled in the Federal Republic. This was labour power highly skilled and to constitute the basis of German development, political consensus and stability. This labour power was also to play a crucial role in the control of the new labour power that was later to pour into German factories in successive waves.

North-Central Europe therefore functioned as a pole of attraction for unskilled labour power, to be used on the assembly line: millions came from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece. Yugoslavia, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. By the end of the 1960's, foreign immigrants were more than 3.2 million in France (6.4% of the total population); 3 million in FRG (4.8% of the population); 2.6% in Britain (5% of the population); 1 million in Switzerland (16% of the population) [see Castles & Kosak, Immigration and Class Structure in Western Europe, Milan. Angell, 1984]

As far as Italy is concerned, the migratory flow follows a double track: one addressed to the internal market, from the South to the North; the other addressed to the external market with an exodus of almost 7 million expatriates between 1946 and 1970, resulting in a migratory balance of 3 million people. There is an aspect which it is necessary to point out: in this phase, both international migration towards northern Europe and the South-North internal migration appear to be motivated by a strong demand for labour, to the point that unemployment among immigrants was almost unknown. Today's situation is instead very different: the immigration of the 1980's, which also affects Italy, finds itself in a different condition with respect to the possibility of employment. From this point of view, the motivations at the basis of present-day immigration can, and to a certain extent, must be necessarily different.

In the 1950's and 1960's, the mass worker not only made up for the insufficient internal labour supply, but was also useful for the satisfaction of the needs of the labour market which were induced by the transformation of the productive apparatus itself. The resort to the use of foreign workers and in Italy to the labour power of the southern and north-eastern parts of the country - facilitated the development of determinate activities, allowing for the easy and rapid mobilisation of a new, abundant and not particularly skilled industrial labour force.

In other words, there was a passage from the organisation of work centred on the craft worker (who was in possession of the technical knowledge of the productive cycle which was used against factory management) to the organization of the assembly line based on the mass worker. This passage was possible through the injection into the productive cycle of this mass of unskilled immigrant workers.

Secondly, capital could take advantage of the cultural, existential and political divisions between the two working-class compositions. One unionised, often communist, tied to the work ethic, to reformism. The other with an atavistic hatred for the state and alienated work, often considering the unions as their opponents.

Thirdly, capital was able to obtain notable advantages from a mobile and flexible labour force.

"The migration of the 1950's and 1960's was composed of workers who were employed for a limited period. The migratory process conformed to the model of alternating migrations, so-called because there was a high turnover both in workers and in workplaces: the project for most of them was to work for a limited period of time...the average stay was between two and five years." ("Community orientations and the politics of immigration in Italy and Europe". Degree thesis, 1989-90, p. 49)

It is interesting to notice how this immigrant composition seemed to be anchored initially to the system of production without major conflicts:

"the immigrants as a matter of fact do not appear to want to settle, they do not look for integration, neither do they aspire to obtain citizenship; they are prepared to accept temporary housing and their express needs are very limited...the system by which the countries try to control the phenomenon is that of 'guest workers'." (Thesis, p.51)

However, things did not go as expected. The 1968-69 wave of struggles broke out. The policies of the various states to repatriate "guest workers" to their country of origin failed.

"The closing of the frontiers did not have the hoped-for consequences of making foreign workers leave, or at least of not letting them enter, but had exactly the opposite effect of not letting them leave or of making them reconsider their migratory plans in a radical way" (Thesis. p. 53).

The Struggles of the Mass Worker

From the beginning of the 1960's the immigrant workforce was increasingly employed in the core sectors of the economy. Moving from services and construction work, the foreign workforce became more and more massively present in the heart of capitalist production: in engineering, electronics and in the chemical industries. This process delivered the immediate production of the wealth of the advanced capitalist countries of Europe into the hands of immigrant workers. This naturally led to a complete contradiction with the living conditions of immigrants: lack of housing, ghettoes, mass redundancies, attacks against the combative workers, strongly discriminative EEC legislation against non-EEC workers and so on. This became less and less acceptable and led to an increasing element of cohesion and collective identity.

With the coming of 1968, the capitalist post-war plan was over.

Developments founded on mobility and low wages were finished. Political consensus for reformism broke down. But above all the mass worker became a recompositive figure in relation to the national workforce, the students and in general with the social whole. The struggles came out of factories on wages and work conditions, but then they switched to a broader terrain.

"The struggles were not only aimed at the organisation of work in the factory but more generally they hit social organisation as a whole. The attack was directed against capitalist wealth. The process which had been ignited was that of a chain reaction of struggles and of their contents which were seen in the years after 1968-69.

This process increasingly involved the national working classes of Europe putting every reformist project into crisis, in the sense that it badly shook up the social democratic framework. In the first place, this happened through the breakdown of trade union control which had been one of the main pillars of that (social democratic equilibrium)." (From: A. Serafini (ed), The Multinational Worker in Europe, Feltrinelli, Milan, 1974, p. 17).

It was in this context that the capitalist crisis came into being, interrupting the mechanism of profit which seemed to have had an exponential growth since the immediate post-war period, and turned it into its opposite: the fall of the rate of exploitation, the loss of disciplinary control in the factory and in society in general, the political opposition of a subjectivity which did not leave any room for manoeuvre for the trade unions or the parties, but rather pushed them to the very edge of massive increases in social spending. Only technological restructuring and the expulsion of workers from factories, the modification of the capitalist organization of work based on automation and the substitution of living labour, the transfer of complete traditional sectors to the South of the world, and the widening of world markets, could eliminate the problem at its roots. But not without a crucial contribution from the state, consisting of a profound and extensive process of repression and social militarisation.

The 1980's. Between Crisis and Restructuring: the Socialised Worker.

It in this context that the crisis began, with its respective processes of the restructuring of production on a world scale and of the new market of international labour. The crisis of accumulation caused by the struggles of the mass worker, the shock of the oil crisis, the end of the Bretton Woods agreements (the end of the convertibility of the dollar into gold) are all at the root of the restructuring which is still under way. The big factory is no longer at the centre of the political reproduction of the social. The decentralisation of production and the transfer of entire cycles of production to the countries of the South, along with the creation of an information technology-based tertiary sector, have produced a new kind of class composition, employed in every corner of society, which has become productive in its every expression and activity.

The globalisation of markets and the internationalisation of the labour market, the real subsumption of every job in the movement of capital, the massive introduction of automation within systems for the production of commodities, has required a much more mobile and flexible workforce, precarious and without ties, whose upper sectors are as willing to go through continuous re-training as its lower sectors are to work at an ever-increasing pace in the "informal economy". in terrible conditions in unskilled, manual activities.

This new system of production, therefore, needs an immigrant "socialized worker", also in those Mediterranean countries like Italy whose turn it is now to receive international immigration. The jobs available are those in small and medium scale industrial enterprises, not yet touched by technological restructuring, in the cooperative and traditional tertiary sectors and in agriculture.

The new immigration comes from North and sub-Saharan Africa, from the Far East and from Albania. What are the fundamental causes? First of all, the "demographic explosion" in the South of the world. The developing countries have a population increase rate of 2.3% per annum against 0.9% for the advanced developed countries. For every 100 people born, 86 come from the developing countries and only 14 from the developed world. The working population (aged 15 to 64) has grown two and a half times faster in the developing countries than in the developed. A second factor has been the rapid collapse of economic growth, also due to the failure of the regional development plans of the World Bank and other international organisations. More generally, the rigid conditions put forward by the IMF and the World Bank have demanded privatisation programmes, cuts in service industry spending and redundancies. The fall of real "socialism" and regional wars make up some of the other causes both of current and of future immigration. Also in this case we are talking about the immigration, almost on a biblical scale, of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people.

The composition of immigration in the Eighties and Nineties is particularly different from that of the preceding 20 years. The points of cultural and political reference are changing regarding the workplace of the "socialised worker", as are the productive characteristics of the social model which no longer revolve around the big factory but rather the information technology (IT) tertiary sector, automated firms and telematic service industries.

The new immigrants take their chances in the big metropolitan centres of the West, attracted by wealth, by consumption, by cultural models, without being put off by the effective demand for labour. The first characteristic of these young male and female workers is their "wanderlust". Often they do not immediately stop in one country or city but circulate, building up an important collection of experiences, motivations, needs and demands.

More than work, their first needs are housing, services and rights. Between the cracks of society work can be found, even if it is unskilled, precarious and to be abandoned as soon as possible in order then to move on or establish themselves in employment in some small or medium-sized industry. But housing remains the main problem.

"Growing expectations" and "anticipatory socialisation" are among the terms used by sociologists to point to the acquisition, already at the point of departure, of the values and orientations of the society into which they will insert themselves. In other words, the unit of measurement chosen by these immigrants is the wealth they want to consume (the same that the West robbed from their countries of origin), rather than the effective possibilities given by work.

Foreign immigration began relatively late in Italy and has yet to reach the dimension of other countries. There are at least two million workers from outside the EEC, only a part of whom are regularised (700,000). The other two thirds are concentrated in urban areas and slightly less than half gravitate towards the three main cities: Rome, Milan and Naples.

The "socialised worker" is a class composition still mostly to be analysed, not least for the fact that the immigrant component tends to be increasingly representative within it. IT and telematic jobs, the new "professions", constitute the upper, skilled sector, the nucleus on which the present effort to globalise the economy is based. This globalised economy has entered a phase in which everything is money and where the immaterial commodity and the information commodity are strategic for the valorisation of capital.

There is, however, a second, traditional, tertiary sector - the circuit of small and medium industries, the network of cooperatives, all of which are quite developed productive realities in Italy, requiring another type of worker, another "socialised worker": mobile, flexible, unskilled, low-paid, used to the work rhythms of the "informal economy". Naturally, along with the lowest sections of the internal workforce, this labour market is covered by immigrants. "They do the jobs Italians don't want to do any more." Let's list them: cleaners, dishwashers, window cleaners, car washers, petrol pump attendants, night watchmen, day labourers, porters. Or otherwise in the smallest firms of the rich provincial economic hinterland, so flourishing in parts of Italy (Emilia, Tuscany).

They are Arabs, Moroccans, Tunisians, Eritreans, Filipinos, Pakistanis, Senegalese and Nigerians. Certainly, a substantial number of these immigrants either settle down or tend to do so, giving up their "wanderlust", often wanting their families to join them, and looking for some stability in the workplace too. But the "central" characteristic seems to be another. The African immigration coming from south of the Sahara seems, at the moment, to be emblematic. Spreading recently to all the big and medium-sized cities (Bologna, Milan, Turin and Florence), it is mostly made up of young males who move around from one city to another or even from one country to another, without precise migratory plans. They come from countries in a deep crisis, from every point of view, `economic, political, social and cultural', and it makes little sense to enquire if they are here for economic or political reasons or if they are thinking of staying here, of returning home or of going to other countries. They themselves do not know because they live from day to day, content to get by in some way with "black market" or precarious jobs, with ways and means on the margins of legality..." (quote from Inchiesta, October-December 1990, p. 35). [unclear from the original text where the quote starts – Libcom]

There is an important consideration to be made. Sociological research and statistics, rather than analysing the phenomenon in itself, often tend to conceal it, to interpret it as the expression of "someone different" and therefore intrinsically dangerous, to be controlled and ghettoised. The nomadism of this class composition is used as an excuse to paint a picture of the "ruthless immigrant", without values, easy prey to criminality, and so racism is spread in all its forms. Only a serious worker's enquiry on flows, expectations, motivations etc, which is carried out by the immigrants, by comrades, in the knowledge of using it as a ready instrument useful for an effective socialisation and cohesion between various subjectivities can really explain the characteristics of this metropolitan worker. And not only this; also her/his hard-driving demand for self-organisation and utopias.

In this first scrutiny we can say that at the root of this nomadism there are two issues:

1) the lack of housing;
2) alienated and super-exploited work.

As far as immigrants succeed in organising themselves around these two issues they will effectively have choices, such as establishing themselves in one place or moving around and coming into contact with new metropolitan spaces.

The struggles on housing which have been carried out in these last few months in the main cities are the embryonic movement for the identification of participation not only by immigrants but also by comrades. Wherever a process for the participation not only by immigrants but also by comrades, wherever a process for the quality of life comes together, new sedimentation take place and new prospects are opened. When the struggle is the place for the identification of subjectivities, mobility acquires a power which shifts the relations of strength towards the subalternate classes, constituting a wealth and a source of reproduction and contagion. The problem, therefore, is to turn the characteristic of the "social worker's" class composition against capital and its command, to consolidate at the highest point of contradiction the radicalities which it expresses, from the points of view of both production and reproduction. The computerised society is fragile, much more so than that of the past. It is enough to jam its points of command to put it into crisis. A radical critique of the organisation of work, a wave of workers' struggles for wage increases and less hours, for the reappropriation of time as the reappropriation of life and of the sources of culture expropriated by the factory of ideologies, are the basis for the reconstruction, both at the local and international levels, of a social and political opposition to capital.

It needs to be said that struggles only in the sphere of reproduction, in the service industries, are no longer sufficient by themselves. We need to make the leap. Political re-composition cannot happen unless contestation and criticism are activated, also against the organisation of work as far as production is concerned, whether they be linked to the subalternity of the worker to the machine or to cycles where the assembly line and manual work are still predominant.

The immigrant worker alone is not a recompositive figure. There is a need for a scheme of subjectivities, representing the advanced social and political expression of a rich scenario of subjects, diverse in language. culture and imagery, but brought together by their hatred for capital's command and by the creativity and potential inherent in their class composition.

And the means for these metropolitan subjects, atomised by central power, to get in contact with each other is the value of the use of antagonist communication, which creates the basis for a real multi-ethnic, multi-racial society, for a new metropolitan culture with new values - not money but solidarity, not individualism but the community, not the market but social cooperation.

The mass worker destroyed a way of producing and once more made central the ideas of subversion and self-organisation, sweeping away the old ideologies of power and inaugurating a cultural and political movement whose effects are still present today in the social body.

The "socialised worker" has yet to follow that path, if in a completely different historical context, with even greater difficulties ahead. But there is one thing s/he can take advantage of: the fragility of the social system and its relative immune defences, exactly at the moment when the international framework of command is restructuring itself in a blind struggle between the major-power winners of the Cold War. The new "world order" that is currently shaping itself, could already be weakened at birth if the worldwide "social worker" creates her/his means of identity, becoming visible at last.

Translated from an article by Comitato Senza Frontiere (Without Frontiers Committee), Via Avesella 5b, Bologna, Italy, dated 28 May 1991 and published in Incompatibili (the magazine of the self-organized workers of Rome), #6 Summer 1991.