A Strange Movement of Strange Students

The second section of chapter 9 of "Storming Heaven".

Submitted by Fozzie on August 24, 2023

Primo Maggio's efforts to grasp the significance of the new movement opened with Bologna's essay on 'The Tribe of Moles'1 , the basic premises of which had been set out in a letter penned to the Lotta Continua daily in early March. Unlike Asor Rosa, Bologna insisted that the behaviour exhibited by the new social protagonists did not stem from a material location extraneous to the world of production. Indeed, it was a mistake to conclude that, since the universities served as their common meeting point, those in struggle could best be understood as students comparable to those of 1968:

[T]he best way to distort these University struggles is to pretend that they are only about the University reforms, and therefore only of interest to University workers and students. This is false - because we have seen an entire class composition coming together around the Universities ... (Bologna 1977c: 98-9)

Furthermore, if the participants in the new movement were marginalised, this was first and foremost a form of political marginalisation by a party system which deemed their needs and forms of struggle 'pathological aspects of late capitalism' to be cured or else expunged.

For Bologna, as he went on to explain in 'The Tribe of Moles', the roots of the 'Movement of '77' were firmly set in the world of labour, albeit it one radically different to that found in Mirafiori. Unlike the social protagonist of a decade before, this new class composition was not prepared to see either its collective or individual needs subordinated to the organisational structures championed by Marxism-Leninism. Whereas the average militant of 1970 had tended to view politics as the clash of contesting apparatuses, that of 1977 was conscious that the personal sphere was also political, preferring work in affinity groups based on friendship to the party branches of the triplice (Lerner et al. 1978). Beyond the intrusion of feminist and libertarian norms into the culture of the mainstream far left, this shift was a consequence of a profound alteration in the reproduction of classes, which had now become

a problem of political legitimation rather than material intervention: a question of social and cultural identity, of acceptance or refusal to accept the norms of social behaviour required and laid down by the form of the state. Classes have tended to lose their 'objective' characteristics and become defined in terms of political subjectivity. But in this process the major force of redefinition has come from below: in the continuous reproduction and invention of systems of counter-culture and struggle in the sphere of everyday living, which has become ever more 'illegal'. (Bologna 1977b: 44)

This new subjectivity was not, however, without certain material determinants: above all, the dense undergrowth of small factories which had flourished since the early 1970s, along with the service sector, which had also seen the number of its employees rise significantly over the same period.

Interest in the workers of small firms was still something of a novelty for operaismo in the 1970s. While Guido Bianchini (1990) had attempted to direct Potere Operaio's attention to the peculiarities of small-scale production in Emilia-Romagna, it was only from the middle of the decade that others in the tendency began to take a sustained interest in the significance of Italy's 'marginal' economy. For Massimo Paci (1973), such curiosity was prompted by the growing cycle of accumulation - and industrial disputation - outside traditional epicentres like FIAT. If the thrust of Paci's pioneering research lay in demonstrating the historical importance of marginally located small firms for Italy's economic development, the apparent halt of the mass workers' forward march lent a sense of political immediacy to the question. In what was to be an engaging debate between Italian Marxists of varied formation, a composite picture began to emerge of the intricate structure and robust vitality of the country's 'submerged' economy. In certain cases, the spread of smaller units of production could be seen as a strategy pursued by those large industrial capitals. These hoped, either by means of 'in-house decentralisation (splitting up) or inter-firm decentralisation (putting out) within the domestic economy ... [and] in conjunction with automation, to begin to dismember the large factory proletariat' (Murray 1983: 76, 93). Yet this strategy did not exhaust the phenomenon: other cases, indeed, indicated that the small firm, far from being an anomaly indicative of Italy's backwardness, stood at the centre of the nation's most dynamic accumulation process. Located in the North-East and Centre of the country, this cycle represented nothing less than a new, third pole of development comparable in importance only to the industrial triangle of the North-West and the continuing stagnation of the South (Bagnasco 1977).

Back in 1973, when the debate upon restructuring was just beginning, Bologna (1973b) had been inclined to focus his attention upon the industrial bloc associated with the production of petrochemicals. This, he had argued, was rapidly becoming the driving force of a new cycle of capital accumulation that refused the traditional Keynesian model with its goal of balanced development throughout the economy. Subsuming their employees in an almost militaristic fashion to fixed capital, the state-backed chemical conglomerates appeared to Bologna as the cutting edge of an attempt to supplant the productive centrality of those industries (and working-class vanguards) engaged in the manufacture of consumer durables. In such circumstances, he believed, the proliferation of small-scale industry, through either independent initiative or the productive decentralisation of larger firms, could only be understood as an interregnum presaging the ascent of petrochemical capital.

Criticised by some members of Lotta Continua for imposing the logic of classical workerism upon a reality more complex than that of the 1960s, Bologna's argument was to shift significantly thereafter (1973b), privileging instead the part played within restructuring by credit and the state management of the money-form. This account of 'money as capital' served to draw Primo Maggio's attention to those proletarians consuming revenue outside the terrain of immediate production as an important complement to the mass worker. At the same time, the intensity of industrial conflict within many of Italy's 'marginal' firms - a sharp contrast with the stalemated war of position found in so many of the larger workplaces - had led Bologna to re-examine the problem of small factories in some detail by early 1977.

As commentators such as Paci, Brusco, Bagnasco and Messori had made plain (Graziani 1979: 235-62), the type of firms involved in Italy's 'marginal' economy were extremely diverse. These ranged from cooperatives to the satellites of large companies, from labour-intensive production for the domestic market to capital-intensive production geared towards export (Bologna 1977b: 50-1). Given the lack of a common thread derived from the nature of the labour process itself, the process of class unification within the sector stemmed from other determinants, above all age and gender. The presence of women and younger men, excluded from many of the larger enterprises by the rigidity of the mass worker, coupled with working conditions frequently exempt from regulation by the Statuto dei Lavoratori, were perhaps the most important points of commonality within this operaio disseminato. As a consequence, its most militant components, while taking up the torch of rebellion let fall by the mass worker, had been forced to invent new forms of organisation quite different to those of the Hot Autumn (ibid.: 47, 48). Of these, the most spectacular were the ronde operaie ('workers' patrols') found in Milan and Turin, which ranged from mobile pickets to genuine forms of 'diffuse' terrorism evocative of Spanish anarchism's 'pistoleros' 50 years before (ibid.: 52; La Fabbrica Diffusa 1977; Balestrini 1989).

Besides the small manufacturing concerns, the new movement also drew its membership from Italy's service sector (Bologna 1977b: 52). Here again, the structure and behaviour of labour-power was far from homogeneous. Instead, it stretched from the increasingly militant hospital employees subjected to quite primitive working conditions, to the relatively privileged bank employees and clerks in state employ; from jobs guaranteed through relations of patronage to those precarious, casual positions offered by subcontractors. If any 'element of homogeneity' existed within this fraction, it was the 'increasing political pressure' to which the various components of the service sector were subjected by Italy's spreading fiscal crisis. Of particular interest for Bologna within this mosaic of class fragments were the growing numbers of casual workers employed at one remove through contractors. Their status, he believed, pointed to a process in which the very structure of the firm began to dissolve 'as a means of producing commodities':

[T]he firm remains merely as chief clerk, as mere administration of decentralised labour; in fact, the firm dissolves itself as a subject or protagonist of conflict, as an institution of the class struggle ... The chain of infinite decentralisation of production breaks the rigidity of age and sex, of geographical location, of social background, etc., all this is a weighty factor in fusing the new composition of the class.
This chain of infinite decentralisation is one of the more 'progressive' elements of capitalism today; it is a far more powerful weapon of massification than the assembly line. (ibid.: 54)

Within this class composition, he continued, the autonomist groups had early won a hegemonic role because of their ability to anticipate political themes profoundly different to those of the late 1960s. Yet hardly had 'the echoes of the clashes in Bologna' died down 'when everyone whipped out their Lenin masks from behind their backs - in particular the Workers' Autonomy (Autonomia Operaia) tendency in the North' (Bologna 1977b: 56). The very failure of Autonomia to force the pace of struggle, however, made it clear that now, against previous vanguardist notions of class politics,

organisation is obliged to measure itself day by day against the new composition of the class; and must find its political programme only in the behaviour of the class and not in some set of statutes. (ibid.: 58)

To map a path back from the inertia which the very complexity of the movement's structure threatened to impose, Bologna sought to locate some 'new Mirafioris' around which a political programme could be constituted (ibid.: 60). In time-honoured workerist fashion, this meant looking for a segment of the class which was both dynamic in its behaviour, and employed in a sector of strategic importance. Such a stratum, Bologna believed, could be found in the world of transport, and in particular amongst truck drivers whose militancy was becoming increasingly evident:

Less well-known [than the rail sector], but infinitely more explosive, is the situation in road transport. Here we are faced with a mass of waged workers and independent operators equal to 20 Mirafioris rolled into one. The 'objective' weight of this workforce is frightening, and it is perhaps the only section of the class today whose movement could paralyse the whole capitalist cycle. (ibid.: 53-4)

The arguments of 'The Tribe of Moles' would provoke controversy amongst many members of Italy's historic left. The Communist historian Gian Mario Bravo (1978: 128), for instance, was particularly scandalised by Bologna's emphasis upon the subjective determinations of class identity. According to this critic, the essay elevated individual desires into political principles: "'Revolutionary impatience", already extolled by the classical extremists, becomes a moment in the development of the personality'. No less harsh was the judgement of some within Primo Maggio. Writing from Bologna, where the influence of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari was strong within the local movement, Franco Gori (1978: l lS, l l7, 122) criticised 'The Tribe of Moles' for attempting to impose 'an abstract factory relation' upon the new social subjects. Taking the 'metaeconomic' categories of Marxism beyond their realm of 'coherent applicability', he insisted, could only lead to an 'abstract formalism' which painted the mass worker as the harbinger of the new movement. Neither the richness of personal politics, nor the intricacies of gender and sexuality, could be grasped within the interpretative schema of workerism, 'this mystical way of conceiving the dynamic of social processes'; rather, a whole new frame of reference was needed.

Less hostile in tone was Lapo Berti (1978: 128, 139), who accepted the basic validity of Bologna's dissection of the new movement. In his opinion, however, the crisis of the large factory as a touchstone of class politics threw into question the continuing relevance of that nexus between technical and political composition traditionally established by operaismo. With the state playing an increasing role in social life, class identity was less and less a simple product of the sphere of production; more and more, the starting point of proletarian politicisation lay outside the workplace, in arenas such as the education system. Within this new articulation of the relation between factory and society, the emerging 'molecular' movement constituted itself above all by challenging the legitimation of class society.

A similar approach, if more critical of Bologna, was taken by Christian Marazzi (1978: 85, 86). In looking to small factories and the service sector as the new movement's sites of formation, he argued, 'The Tribe of Moles' continued to situate the class struggle 'within the capital-labour nexus'. In doing so, Bologna failed to realise that the state, through its strategy of bypassing the factory as privileged instrument of command in favour of the regulation of revenue, had begun to induce the formation of a new subject outside the relations of production:

If today it is no longer fixed capital, but the territory as social place of the reproduction of antagonism, which determines class behaviours, then this means that capitalist organisation passes within the functionalisation of the political system. The system of political relations between classes must become productive, politics must act like fixed capital in its relation with living labour. The fetishisation of machinery is no longer enough; politics must also be fetishised, must appear to be 'relatively autonomous'. (ibid.: 89)

In these circumstances, a new definition of productive labour was needed, one which recognised the central part played in the reproduction of capital by that labour-power exchanged with, and under the direct command of, the political system.

Starting from a different point of view again, Giulano Buselli and Mario Zanzani (1978) would also emphasise the collapse both of the factory as an interpretative category, and of any specific productive figure as the embodiment of the overall working-class political project. Like other critics of Bologna within Primo Maggio, they were to criticise 'The Tribe of Moles' for not dissolving the specificity of the large factory into the tendency's longstanding, but little-developed, thematic of modern capitalism as a social factory. For two of the journal's Turin editors, by contrast, Bologna's chief failing lay in his too-ready dismissal of the potential for social antagonism still extant in the traditional strongholds of the industrial working class. By overemphasising 'subjectivity' at the expense of a materialist analysis of the relations of production, the perspective laid out in 'The Tribe of Moles' risked burying the mass worker prematurely, at a point in time when closer bonds between the old and new class compositions still remained possible. Messori and Revelli (1978: 44, 46) did not deny that a profound disjuncture presently existed between the two; rather, their chief concern was to assess the problem from the point of view of workers in the large factories. Examined in this way, the relation between technical and political composition as a determination of class behaviour remained as crucial as ever, as capital's attempts to alter it through restructuring testified.

Above all, Messori and Revelli believed, the mass worker's situation was far from stable. To begin with, the use of productive decentralisation and inflation to sidestep the mass worker's power could only be effective as short-term solutions. And if the PCI had so far stood by the core of this 'central' working class in exchange for support in the electoral sphere, such a project could not long sustain itself when capital eventually summoned the courage to dismantle the technical composition which underpinned the mass worker's power (Messori and Revelli 1978: 56-7). In this context, they insisted, the rigidity of the mass worker within the 'productive truce' of the large factories needed to be seen not merely as an indication of its subordination and passivity, but also as a measure of its strength (ibid.: 62-3).

For its part, Italian capital continued to face a dilemma. On the one hand, the reorganisation of the international division of labour following the recent energy crisis required the introduction of new technology to keep local industry competitive. On the other hand, the necessary restructuring that such a project demanded - a massive reorganisation of the productive structure - was denied it so long as major pockets of working-class rigidity stood in its path. When capital finally embarked upon the path of confrontation, and the welfare system was called upon more and more to regulate the expulsion of labour-power from the large factories, new stresses would be placed upon the already precarious bond between the state's functions of legitimation and domination. In such circumstances, the meaning of the Communist Party's reformism would be stretched to the limit, opening up possibilities for a meeting point between the proletarian generations formed before the mid-1970s and the more recent protagonists of the Movement of '77 (Messori and Revelli 1978: 69-73, 80).

It was wrong, therefore, for Bologna to downplay the strategic centrality of those workers engaged in the immediate process of production. If a crisis existed within the factory, it pertained to its traditional role of defining the universe of working-class values, when recent struggles pointed instead to 'the pre-eminence of the social terrain as the site of the individual management of "livingtime" reappropriated as "use-value'" (Messori and Revelli 1978: 76). Whatever the path followed, Messori and Revelli concluded, the quest to join struggles in the workplace with those in the social sphere must start from 'a more attentive analysis of the concrete manifestations of working-class initiative' (ibid.: 81).