Wildcat interview with Steve Wright, author of Storming Heaven. Class composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (Pluto Press 2002).
What did you do before the book came out, what are you living on?
I became interested in anarchism and then council communism as a teenager, then discovered operaismo in the late seventies as a university student in Melbourne, Australia (where I live). I later became active in the anti-nuclear movement, and then in the federal public service as a union delegate. In the late nineties I joined a local IWW branch; after that collapsed a couple of years ago, I went back to being 'a dog without a home'. After holding a number of short term contract or casual university jobs during the nineties and early noughts, from this year I have a continuing position as a lecturer in information management (eg classification theory, information seeking) at Monash University.
What is your main political intention with your book »Storming Heaven«?
The primary political intention is twofold: a) to provide some sort of historical context for comrades who wanted to find out more concerning the Italian operaista tradition, which today is known (if at all) as the background from which the authors of Empire emerged; b) to document the development of the category of class composition as operaismo's distinctive contribution to our understanding of class dynamics.
The book is an updated version of my PhD thesis, which I completed in the late 1980s. At that time there didn't seem to be much interest in English-speaking circles to find out more about operaismo, despite the efforts of a number of circles like Red Notes, or the comrades who'd been involved in Zerowork1 . It's only been in the last decade that a growing curiosity about the Italian movement has emerged, parallel with more attention to Negri (thanks in part to his association with particular strands of French thought?).
What kind of feed-back did you get and from whom?
Sales have been modest – I won't be giving up my day job, unfortunately. On the other hand, at least one person has placed a scanned copy of the book online, which was flattering – I just wish they'd done a better job scanning it.
A German edition is due later this year, which I'm very pleased about. I've had informal enquiries from comrades interested in translating the book into Turkish and French. I would also be very pleased if an Italian edition appeared, but so far no one has put their hand up to do that. I've had a fair few communications from friends, and friends of friends, who've read the book, and they seemed to find it useful. The reviews that have mattered most to me have come from people like Sergio Bologna, Damiano Palano and Patrick Cuninghame: people who are very familiar with the contours of operaismo, and so are in a position to judge whether »Storming Heaven« might actually be a useful introduction to that history.
Sergio Bologna and Damiano Palano both praised you for having understood the »complexity« of operaism and thus for your ability »to break with the dominant tendency to either discredit or idealize operaismo« (Sergio Bologna). How do you avoid »idealizing« or »discrediting« a tendency whose proponents were on one pole always the most radicals against institutions like the state and the unions, and on the other pole have always been inside those institutions, who were famous for the insight: strategy lies in the working class and turned that only a few years later into: »strategy lies in the party«?
I think in part the answer lies in that: trying to understand why many of the operaisti had truly radical intuitions, and then shied away from following them through, turning to shortcuts instead. It's one of the themes in my book: that so many of those who first sought a systematic approach to class composition were unable to follow through with what they had begun. I didn't have access to the dozens of interviews with operaisti that inform the book »Futuro Anteriore«, which was also published in early 2002. I think some clues to answering this question might lie in those transcripts.
In your book you try to differentiate several tendencies inside operaismo, one you call the »rational« component...
For me, the »rationals« (Primo Moroni's term?) were the ones in the seventies who kept trying to »look for political content and strategy within class composition itself« – as opposed to the likes of Negri, who just »took their dreams for reality«. My sympathies are obviously with the likes of Bologna and the self-styled »school of class composition«, as well as with younger circles like »Collegamenti« who were influenced by them (and anyone who is familiar with »Collegamenti« can immediately tell how influential their work has been in turn for my own understandings). I respect the »rationals« because they tried to ask the hard questions, to say »yes, but ...«, rather than indulge in the triumphalist rhetoric that can be found in the pages of »Rosso«. In that sense the »rationals« seemed to continue the more playful, ironic and self-questioning voice within operaismo...
You could also make a distinction between operaists in reference to the »law of value« – Negri, Marazzi, Montano and so on clearly abandoned the notion of »value«, even if Negri continues to affirm, that his various findings of new compositions produce surplus-value! »Irrationals« in great part are the ones that abandoned the notion of value as central for capital relation.
I'm not so sure that the distinction is so clear cut on this front, especially in the seventies. Certainly I can't see how the critique of political economy can survive the abandonment of the law of value. If capital was somehow no longer beholden to the law of value, by definition capital would have mutated into a fundamentally different kind of social domination. The fact that capital continues to find ways to stave off some of the effects of the law of value for (increasing) periods of time has led some people to the mistaken conclusion that capital has somehow broken free from its moorings.
Today there's some sort of déjà-vu: like in the 70s the »irrationals'« voice is much louder. Many speak of operaismo without even noticing that operaismo had »something« to do with workers... How can we intervene in this? What can we put against »Empire«?
For all my criticisms of »Empire«, I believe it has been useful for setting the cats amongst the pigeons in terms of challenging those who think reprinting Lenin's pamphlet is all that is needed in terms of contemporary analysis. I'm not sure how much »we« – i.e. those of us who want to continue the work of the seventies »school of class composition« – actually have at present that can be »put against Empire«. I don't read German, but from what I can tell, it seems that lately some in Wildcat have been reappraising, as I have, the contributions from world systems analysts like Arrighi and Silver. In this regard, perhaps a critical reading of their work has something to offer that we have not been able to develop ourselves.
I think Beverly Silver's Forces of Labor is a very important book, for a number of reasons: its global scope; its emphasis on cycles of struggle that shift over space and time; the cautious optimism that follows on from its central arguments. It's a short work, and there is a lot to argue about in terms of what Silver addresses and what she overlooks. But as a set of hypotheses to inform any initial discussion of what recomposition might mean on a world scale, I believe it has a lot to offer. It also has the merit of being clearly written, accessible to those new to world systems analysis, which is after all an often complex set of outlooks. In this respect it reminds me of a Sergio Bologna quote that seems to annoy some of my friends: »clarity is more important than either optimism or pessimism«.
Let's turn to the central argument of your book. By emphasising the notion of class composition as a central achievement of operaism you brush its history against Negri's malapropisms. What's at the core of »workers research«? The relation »technical composition of capital / political composition of class«? Or is it the observation made by so many that there's no such thing as spontaneity (because when you look at the pre – history or at the »preparation« of a spontaneous struggle you will always find the patient work of rank and file militants)? My idea is that the two converged in the 60s (»Quaderni Rossi«) but diverged in the 70s. Later on comrades talking about »research« were divided in two factions – one became the obsession to find the »central class composition«; the other became »oral history«, losing its »tension to the revolution«.
The experience of Quaderni Rossi was intriguing in that, for a brief period of time, there seemed to be an opening on the margins of the official labour movement for arguments that gestured towards the perspectives of Socialisme ou Barbarie or Correspondence. I don't think we can underestimate the importance of that encounter for a generation of comrades then inside the PSI and PCI. In that sense the circumstances were very specific, not the sort of thing likely to be replicated elsewhere.
When Bologna and others in the 1970s realised that class recomposition was indeed a »cultural« matter, I think this was exactly what they understood: that forms of class self-organisation have their own history, an integral part of which is the role of rank and file militants. This certainly fascinated Alquati in the 1960s as well.
I don't see the »turn« to oral history in and around Primo Maggio in such negative terms: at its best, it was a very powerful means to understanding processes both of recomposition and decomposition, to a level of detail that a reading of technical composition can't provide.
For most part of Primo Maggio you are right – but the last issue was published in 1988, from then on very schematically you have two »branches«: Negri and the likes who continue with their obsession of the »central sector«, a »recomposition« in every book!, and others really doing research but having lost the thrive for »revolution« or being tied to institutions (Rifondazione Comunista for example). The political core of co-research as Quaderni Rossi proposed it, has got lost. Is co-research possible without the notion of centrality? Can you talk of class composition without the idea of a »central sector« of capital? (I feel the book is ambiguous on this point)
On that score, I like Dario Lanzardo's assertion that co-research embodies 'a method of political work implicit in the general formulation of the critique of political economy', namely that of working class self-emancipation. That's not to say that many useful insights can't regularly be gleaned from some conventional sociological studies; or, conversely, that any 'self-managed' piece of research will be innately 'superior' in its findings. What we still don't have, so far as I know, is some sort of critical history of how various exercises in co-research have fared over the years, in Italy or elsewhere.
Again: Is co-research possible without the notion of centrality? Can you talk of class composition without the idea of a »central sector« of capital?
The problem I have with the notion of centrality is that some within operaismo have understood this to mean the dominance of a particular layer of workers over others. For example, in the late sixties, a common argument was that the mass worker had to 'lead' the class as a whole. There is no doubt that the behaviours of the Italian mass worker won a certain hegemony at the time – in part from its example, in part because the extension of taylorist and fordist principles to sectors not involved in the mass production of consumer durables meant that the mass worker's own tactics often had a certain practical relevance for other workers. But that shouldn't mean that other layers of the broader class composition be subsumed to this stratum, as many in Potere Operaio held.
In my eyes that's a distortion to say that a particular layer of workers has to lead! In advance the notion of centrality can only be posed as a problem. QR, too, was wrong when they claimed that the »new forces« (technicians) at Fiat would be the avantgarde. Only when struggles are evolving we can probably see that a specific »layer« is »central«. But that leads to another question: can the instrument of »class composition« be used only afterwards? (in some sentences in your book you seem to say that)
I think class composition analysis can sometimes have a certain anticipatory role. Perhaps not in the more grandiose sense of being able to predict whole new class compositions that might emerge – although even there, a range of likely future scenarios can be sketched out at any given time. But in the more narrow sense, as Alquati did with 'the new forces' at the beginning of the sixties, arguing that mass struggles were likely soon to break out at Fiat – a claim that was considered quite outrageous by many members of the Italian left.
What I find most annoying are the rationalisations about shifts in class composition made with hindsight – for example, Negri's assertion, repeated a number of times over the past twenty years or so, that he could already see at the very beginning of the seventies that the mass worker was in decline. In the book I try to show that the attitudes amongst Potere Operaio members towards the mass worker were more complex – and contradictory than that. And my suspicion that many of the doubts about the mass worker that were advanced in those circles from 1970 onwards stemmed less from prescience than frustration with how many of these protagonists were now doing things they weren't supposed to.
On page 208 you mention Lapo Berti's critics of »The Tribe of Moles« from Sergio Bologna: »In his opinion ... 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.« Is that a fundamental critique or is it a mere conceptual lag behind a changing reality? In your conclusion you say on page 225 »Another of the more obvious weaknesses of Italian workerism ... would be a too narrow focus upon what Marx termed the immediate process of production...« – I think this is not true! Only in the beginning operaists tried to do that, since PotOp most of them have been busy with »building the party«, they spoke to the left and no more to the workers. There were some exceptions (around Primo Maggio, some »Volsci« collectives...) of comrades who continued »research« in the 70s – but for them your critics (»too narrow focus upon the immediate process of production«) is not true. And all the other currents of operaismo (Negri, the Paduans ...) which are much more known todays didn't even care about.
You're right, Berti and many others later ended up throwing the baby out with the bathwater by abandoning class composition analysis altogether.
As for your other criticism: I think I made it clear in the same passage you cite that the workerists' 'too narrow' focus upon the immediate process of production was only true for the sixties.
But already in the very first texts of Alquati you have considerations about the reproduction of the workers (family, schools for kids, even the car they drive and the journal they read....)...
Yes, Alquati does address those matters, although the focus continues to be on what this means for workers subjectivity within the workplace. His Olivetti piece ends right at this point, where it raises (but doesn't follow through) the question of the workers' broader 'social fabric'. And I don't have the sense that many of Alquati's associates in Quaderni Rossi or Classe Operaia were as interested in these matters as he was.
In which way can »Storming Heaven« – as you put it – provide »an opportunity to reflect further on the obstacles that confront class recomposition, and how these might be addressed in ways that are both effective and consistent with social self-organisation«?
The book documents some successful efforts to the problem, even if these are circumscribed by place and time, and so can't serve as easily adaptable models to be emulated today. It also provides some pointers about what not to do. With the possible exception of the »Volsci«, the track record of Autonomia Organizzata as »facilitators of class recomposition« is hardly one to emulate – even some of the more successful, earlier efforts of »intervention«, such as at FIAT in 1969, also need to be looked at critically.2