Mapping the Terrain of Struggle: Autonomous Movements in 1970s Italy

Submitted by vicent on February 17, 2016

The most recent capitalist offensive has sparked a vibrant new wave of struggles over the question of social reproduction. Water, housing, education, to name only a few, are now decisive sites of confrontation, and activists across the globe experiment with new tactics, forms of struggle, and models of organization.

In some ways, our renewed focus on social reproduction shares interesting parallels with the “Italian Revolution” of 1968-1980, the most radical upheaval in postwar Western Europe. For while originally firmly anchored to the struggles of the factory proletariat, many movements began to wage a multitude of struggles beyond the point of production, developing class power on what was called the terrain of social reproduction.

In fact, each phase of the political evolution of the autonomous social movements was characterized by its focus on social reproduction issues, such as self-reduction campaigns on shopping, energy bills, and public transport, often in conjunction with the more radical sections of the unions in the early to mid-Seventies. Housing occupations and rent strikes became important in the mid-1970s as the crisis of Fordism-Keynesianism deepened, particularly in Rome where Workers Autonomy was strong in the urban periphery. Reproductive struggles were also carried out by students on school, university, and education issues. As the decade wore on, youth in the new, smaller, and more repressive post-Fordist factories of the Milanese hinterland began to organize themselves more outside of work and in the social territory as the “Proletarian Youth Circles,” defying the national-popular logic of PCI-championed austerity politics by demanding access to luxury goods, services, and cultural products, not just the basic means of survival, as their parents had. And as factories were restructured and decentralized, involving the laying off of tens of thousands of industrial workers and the automation, robotization, and elimination of their posts, social movements of the unemployed, particularly in the less developed South, or Mezzogiorno, began to make a guaranteed social wage (salario sociale garantito) for all, both working and unemployed, their central demand. But the most important reproductive labor struggles were those of Wages for Housework and other feminist and women’s movement campaigns for the self-valorization of the social reproduction of the workforce by women, particularly housewives, sex workers, and nurses.

While we must certainly forge our own political forms today, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Much has changed, but many of these issues remain as crucial as ever. In this context, critically revisiting the robust arsenal of political struggle bequeathed by the Italian movements of that era can provide us not only with inspiration, but also models to help guide us as we find our own way.

Theorizing Social Reproduction

The aim of this brief summary of the theoretical debates on social reproduction within Italian Autonomist Marxism and the part of the feminist movement closest to it in political and theoretical terms, above all the group of feminist intellectuals and activists around the Wages for Housework campaign in Italy and internationally, is to outline a theoretical framework within which to analyze the autonomous struggles on social reproduction in 1970s Italy. The main nodes of these debates are seen as Italian workerism, post-workerism, post-autonomism and, for want of better terms, workerist-influenced and post-workerist feminism.

Karl Marx’s rather limited discussion of reproduction and circulation in Capital Volume II was taken as the starting point by Antonio Negri and others in Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia, the main workerist publications of the 1960s, to develop their analysis on the relationship of reproduction with class antagonism. Negri was one of the first workerists to identify the antagonistic nature of reproduction as part of social production, rather than just circulation within capital, while criticizing his more orthodox comrades, such as the PCI-based Mario Tronti who continued to reduce the problem of reproduction to circulation, as indeed had Marx:

we would be forced to reduce the Marxian approach to the issue of reproduction to a question of circulation: this would be absolutely illegitimate – even though it is common, especially within Italian workerism … In fact, the constant upheaval of the terms of class struggle from within the workers’ struggle and capitalist restructuring demonstrates exactly the opposite: the terrain of reproduction is dominated by the antagonistic categories of production and the process of production does not disappear in the commodity but re-emerges in all of its elements (as identified by Marx rather than Smith) in the reproduction of capital and workers’ struggles.… The working class, through its struggles, motivates capital to restructure production as well as reproduction (which is increasingly equivalent to social production).… At the current level of class struggle, worker organization only emerges when the struggle can have an impact on factory production and from there be transferred onto the whole mechanism of reproduction of social capital.1

This criticism of Marx, orthodox Marxism and even of some sections of Italian workerism over the question of reproduction in fact owed much (although not apparently acknowledged by Negri) to previous debates within Italian and later U.S.-based workerist-influenced feminism. Silvia Federici took Marx and all forms of Marxism, including operaismo to task for ignoring or underestimating the central role of social reproduction as both sexual reproduction and unpaid domestic labor in capitalist accumulation and from there in class antagonism. Referring also to a broader feminist critique of Marx, based on the work of the activists of the Wages for Housework campaign in the 1970s, such as Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, Leopoldina Fortunati, and more recently of the Australian eco-feminist Ariel Salleh, and the Bielefeld feminist school of Maria Mies, Claudia Von Werlhof, and Veronica Bennholdt-Thomsen, Federici states that

this critique argues that the analysis of Marx on capitalism was hindered by his incapacity to conceive of an activity as being productive of value unless it was for the production of goods, and his consequent blindness before the meaning of the unpaid reproductive activity of women in the process of capitalist accumulation. To ignore this activity limited his comprehension of the true extension of the capitalist exploitation of work and the function of the salary in the creation of divisions within the working class, beginning with the relation between women and men. If Marx has recognized that capitalism needed to support itself, not only in an immense quantity of unpaid domestic activity for the reproduction of the work force, but also in the devaluation of these reproductive activities with the aim of reducing the cost of the labor force, possibly he would have been less inclined to consider capitalist development as inevitable and progressive.2

As an at least partial riposte to such a critique, the Italian workerist theory of the “social factory” can be seen as an attempt to go beyond its originally exclusive focus on factory-based autonomous struggles to include the related movements of 1968-69, particularly of students, and of working-class community struggles over reproductive issues such as housing, bills, and transport, although the central role of women in the social factory is again brushed over. In Italy in the early 1970s the extraordinary wave of autonomous workers’ struggles launched during the 1969 “Hot Autumn” within the centralized Fordist factory were gradually being rolled back by tactical capitalist retreats and strategic reforms, such as the Factory Councils and the 1970 Workers Charter, and the fulcrum of social conflict began to shift towards the “social factory,” leading Tronti to extend his factory-centered approach over the rest of society, so defining the social factory as:

At the highest level of capitalist development, the social relation becomes a moment of the relation of production, the whole society becomes an articulation of production; in other words, the whole of society exists as a function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination over the whole of society.3

Thus, the “social factory” theory did not deal sufficiently with the feminist critique of Marxism in general and operaismo in particular, as neither did Negri’s theory of the “socialized worker” (operaio sociale), supposedly the new antagonist subject of the post-Fordist social factory of decentralized production, given the neutralization of the struggles of the “mass worker” in the Fordist factory of centralized production in the early 1970s as alluded to by Tronti in the previous paragraph. Although Negri developed his theory of the socialized worker in the early to mid-1970s, the period of the rise of both radical feminism and Workers Autonomy as social movements based, in quite different ways, on issues of social needs and reproduction, his attempt to lump together women and other emergent social antagonists of the period within a “general theory” was received with skepticism and accusations of lack of analytical rigor within Autonomia itself, never mind the feminist movement, although his critics, in this case at least, can in turn be accused of empirical fetishism:

(y)our interest for the “emergent strata” (proletarian youth, feminists, homosexuals) and for new, and reconceptualized 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).4

Self-Reduction and Social Reproduction Struggles in 1970s Italy

The huge wave of working class unrest begun in the “Hot Autumn” of 1969 continued unabated, reaching its peak with the armed occupation of the gigantic FIAT Mirafiori plant in Turin in March 1973 by a new generation of even more militant workers, the Fazzoletti Rossi (Red Bandanas), who organized autonomously even from the vanguardist groups of the New Left. However, from then on the effects of technological restructuring, redundancies, and the unions’ recuperation of consensus and control through the Factory Councils began to dampen down the autonomous workers’ revolt, which nevertheless continued at an exceptionally high level, compared to the rest of Western Europe, until the end of the decade.5 The largest outbreak of industrial unrest in Italy since the “Red Biennial” of 1920-21 soon spread to working class districts, where the emerging women’s movement, along with students (an increasing number of whom came from the working class since the advent of mass scholarization in the early 1960s) and the New Left groups became active in the self-organized neighborhood committees (comitati di quartiere) which organized rent and bill strikes, the self-reduction (autoriduzione) of public transport tickets and housing occupations to demand an overall improvement in working class living standards, as the growing economic, oil, and stagflation crises of the mid-1970s began to be felt.

Ironically, while the broader movement of Autonomia was gaining strength during the decade, its historical antecedent since the early 1960s, the autonomous workers’ movement, went into decline. This development was theorized by Negri, as the result of the “decomposition of the mass worker,” induced by industrial restructuration, and the “recomposition” of the new central actor in the class struggle, the “socialized worker,” situated more in the social territory outside and around the Fordist factory.6 This post-workerist theory was to prove highly controversial within Autonomia and its still workerist intellectual milieu, accentuating the divisions between Negri’s circle around the journal Rosso and Sergio Bologna’s around Primo Maggio, whose analysis continued to privilege the struggles of the industrial “mass worker.”7

One of the most important examples of social reproduction struggles in the “social factory” was the autoriduzione (self-reduction) campaign in Turin in 1974 where working class communities organized to pay self-reduced fares on public transport, involving the printing and issuing of their own tickets; a struggle in which radical sections of the trade unions, especially the PCI and PSI-based CGIL, were also engaged.8 Similar struggles took place over community control of reproductive needs: low-cost social housing, regulated low rents, and secure tenancies in the private sector, domestic energy consumption bills charged at the same low rate as industry, and “free” or “proletarian” shopping in supermarkets as depicted in Dario Fo’s 1974 play “Can’t pay! Won’t pay!.”9 Later on in the decade leisure and luxury needs became paramount for young urban proletarians, especially in Milan, as part of their critique of and opposition to the division of labor between the “right” to basic needs for the working class and the “right” to luxury and privilege for the bourgeoisie: self-reduced or expropriated eating out in expensive restaurants in the city center, the demand for and sometimes direct practice of free access to any kind of culture, whether it be a Lou Reed rock concert or an art house movie.10

These broader social reproduction conflicts were allied to the struggle of the women’s movement against the nuclear family as the site of the division of reproductive labor and domestic work, and for control of their own bodies and lives through more liberal and properly enforced divorce and abortion laws (many conservative doctors in the public health service refused to carry out abortions under a clause permitting “conscientious objection,” some while continuing to do them clandestinely in their own “back street abortion” clinics) and the democratization and feminization of medical and social services. Other forms of self-reductive and social reproduction struggles took place in the early and mid 1970s through housing occupations and rent strikes, particularly in the outskirts of Rome, a particularly hard-fought conflict by the homeless, marginalized youth and unemployed proletariat, which became one of the early focusing points of Rome Autonomia.

Reproductive Labor Struggles and Wages for Housework

Some ex-Potere Operaio theorists, active in the feminist movement, concentrated on the category of unpaid reproductive labor, which was seen as vital for the reproduction of living labor and therefore capital, particularly Dalla Costa and James on women’s unpaid housework,11 and Fortunati on reproductive labor as both housework and sex work.12 On the basis of this research, a section of the women’s movement close to Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua, Lotta Feminista,13 began a campaign known internationally as “Wages for Housework,” linking up with Selma James’ campaign in the USA and later Britain.14 In June 1974 Rosso (the weekly newspaper of Milanese “Organized Workers’ Autonomy”), as part of a debate between those demanding wages for housework and those who saw this as a “ratification” of housework, published a report by the Padua Committee for Wages for Housework on three days of discussion with the feminist movement in Mestre, near Venice.15

A large number of housewives, teachers, shop assistants and secretaries had gathered to denounce their triple exploitation by their employers, their husbands and the State, rejecting the misery and appalling conditions of work that all imposed: “Our struggle is against factories, … offices, against having to sit at a check-out counter all day … We are not fighting for such an organization of work, but against it.”16 They rejected the view of the political parties and extra-parliamentary groups that women’s emancipation lay in external paid employment, instead demanding that the State, whose most basic cellular structure was the nuclear family, pay them wages for their unpaid housework since they were reproducing and caring for the next generation of its citizens and workers, as well as for the old and infirm. They also denounced the inadequacy of the few “social services” provided, the lack of crèches and nurseries for housewives as well as for employed women, and the objectification and abuse of women’s bodies by the “masculinist” public health system. They called on women to reclaim their bodies and take control of their lives:

We women must reject the conditions of pure survival that the State wants to give us, we must always demand more and more, reappropriate the wealth removed from our hands every day to have more money, more power, more free time to be with others, women, old people, children, not as appendages but as social individuals.17

Milan was the main center of the women’s movement and women in Rosso and Autonomia often found themselves torn in two directions by their “double militancy.” They contributed to the debates on violence and subjectivity both within feminism and Autonomia, from the position that “violence, [understood as aggressive self-assertion as an antidote to patriarchal representations of female passivity and subordination], is a basis for subjectivity.”18 Otherwise, the principal areas of intervention were the factory and the refusal of work (together with Lotta Continua’s Women’s Collective), discrimination in the workplace, deregulated informal work (lavoro nero), prisons, sexual violence and machismo within Autonomia and the overall “Movement,” as well as the body and health. Action was taken in hospitals, over the unequal doctor-patient relationship and the denunciation of those doctors and medical centers that refused to carry out abortions, and of the service in general which victimized women and did not meet their actual health needs. Another area of intervention was international “solidarism rather than solidarity,” based on the feminist practice of “starting from yourself” (partire da se). They were also in touch with radical separatist feminists, who used psychoanalysis for “consciousness raising” and were close to the Radical Party, although relations with the broader feminist movement with its emphasis on the private sphere, consciousness raising, and non-violence, were conflictual. A joint action of denunciation of the Catholic Church’s negative impact on women’s control over their own bodies and lives was the occupation of the Duomo, Milan’s main cathedral and the religious symbol of its official identity. Other actions were taken to contest the stereotyping of women in patriarchal capitalist society as passive consumerist sex objects, including against wedding dress shops and dating agencies. They also participated in Lea Melandri’s “Free University of Women,” where housewives and intellectuals carried out an interclassist work on the representation of women in capitalist society. The crossover between Rosso and radical feminism produced two magazines itself, Malafemina and Noi testarde,19 making the “politics of the personal” and the questioning of gender roles part of Autonomia’s collective identity, although disagreement with Organized Workers’ Autonomy’s “workers’ centrality” position was permanent.20

School and University Struggles

The post-workerists of Autonomia also saw the cognitive labor of students as essential to the reproduction of the highly skilled sector of the work force ( the “general intellect” of Marx’s Grundrisse) and of cognitive capital as intelligence and knowledge, their studies for a higher entry into the labor market being considered as unpaid reproductive labor. This was one of the theoretical innovations that helped operaismo in 1968-69 to break down the historical divide between two of mature capitalist society’s main antagonist groupings – the industrial working class and the hitherto mainly middle-class university student – and build the alliance which was to form the basis of the Hot Autumn and the “Long Italian ‘68.” Here again the question of class composition would be crucial in explaining the arrival of the students as a mass movement, not simply for the much-needed reform of the university system but for the radical transformation of society. As the Italian economy expanded and society urbanized during the 1960s there was a growing need for qualified professionals, technocrats, and bureaucrats in both the public and private sectors. Thus, the social basis of university recruitment was widened to include large numbers of working class students. Simultaneously, the “Miracle” of unprecedented economic growth and relative prosperity since the 1950s meant that many working class families could afford for the first time to put at least one child into higher education who could then aspire to socially upward mobility.

However, despite the center-left reforms of the 1960s, the education system was completely unable to meet such aspirations, becoming one of the main causes of the 1968-69 Italian students and workers uprising, according to Robert Lumley.21 By 1974, there were mass mobilizations of school students and their parents, particularly women, throughout Italy against the dilapidated and under-funded education system, one of the first areas of public spending to be affected by post-Oil Crisis austerity measures.22 Both parents and children demonstrated and occupied schools left empty in protest against an acute shortage of classroom space, equipment, materials, and teachers which left large areas, particularly in the poorer South, operating part-time education with a shift system. Worse, inflation and austerity measures forced the price of schoolbooks beyond the reach of many working-class families. While Malfatti, the Christian Democrat Education Minister, ordered the sacking of militant Left teachers, the overall number of teachers was reduced as 600,000 prospective teachers applied for 23,000 positions.23 The government’s running down of the education system in working-class areas was balanced by its introduction of the “Schools Councils,” made up of delegated parents, teachers and students, with the aim, similar to the Factory Committees with regard to industrial action, that “they would institutionalize the struggle in the schools and re-establish political control by the right-wing.”24

The education cutbacks were also seen as a political attack on a key social antagonist, which had allied itself closely to the overall autonomous workers’ movement since 1968. In October 1974, 45 secondary schools and adult education colleges in Turin went on strike in solidarity with the FIAT national strike of October 17 and 4,000 students and teachers marched through the city center to picket the main gates of the Mirafiori plant. An analogy was drawn between the number of people losing their jobs and the rising number of working class children being failed in exams and expelled from the education system. The same month there were school strikes and demonstrations all over Italy making the common demand for an end to part-time schooling, smaller classes, immediate building programs for new schools and classrooms, no reduction in the number of teachers, improved hygiene, and facilities, local councils to make available funds they were holding back, free transport, books, and equipment for students, and free day centers for preschool children. Links were made between the committees campaigning against the education cuts and the autonomous workers’ movement.

In Rome, 3,000 construction and engineering workers joined a demonstration against education cuts. Students and workers set up joint commuter committees to oppose the increase in public transport fares. Women were especially active on this issue, as they were on virtually all social issues in the mid-1970s, the peak of the mass mobilization phase of the women’s movement, marching on schools, organizing pickets, occupying classrooms, setting up road blocks, all with the demand for better schools and day-care facilities.25 These mobilizations were self-organized with the participation of Autonomia, the New Left groups, particularly Lotta Continua in the South, as well as some of the unions, but were otherwise characterized by their autonomy from and hostility towards the political parties.

Another important element in the youth movement of the mid-seventies were the “autonomous student collectives” (ASC). In the secondary schools students and parents demanded and practiced direct participation in decision-making, which had previously been regulated by institutionalized electoral rules and representative bodies. So were born in the early 1970s the ASC, one of the social bases of Autonomía and the ’77 Movement. They organized strikes, occupations, the “trial” and expulsion of fascists, and autodidáctica (self-teaching) where students in dispute excluded their conservative teachers and taught themselves, sometimes for months. Increasingly, conflict in and outside high schools took place not only against the FUAN and other neo-fascist youth groups but also with the FGCI, the PCI’s youth wing, and with Comunione e Liberazione, a fundamentalist Catholic youth movement. In the most radical situations, autonomous students effectively “liberated” schools from their function as total institutions for the inculcation of capitalist integrative values based on work and the family, converting them into prototype “social centers.”26

Social Autonomia: The Socialized Worker in the Social Factory

One of the key aspects of Autonomia that separated it from the “bureaucratic legalism” of much of the New Left groups was its practice of “mass illegality” through housing squats, occupations of public spaces, the self-reduction of cultural as well as social costs, and forms of social expropriation such as “proletarian shopping.” The New Left, which continued to privilege struggles at the point of production, attacked this as “subproletarian” adventurism. Autonomia’s lauding of “proletarian illegality against bourgeois legality” as an aspect of the “refusal of work” extended to micro-criminal behaviors; the individual circumventing of the law in everyday life, typical of the Italian proletarian arte di arrangiarsi (art of getting by), particularly in the South where poverty and mass unemployment were rife. Here, Autonomia meridionale (southern autonomy) became a diffused social force among workers, the unemployed, and their communities, although relatively ignored by the late-1970s’ press campaign against Organized Workers Autonomy, based more in northern and central Italy.

The “area of diffused Autonomia” (or social autonomy) was the broader movement of workers, students, women, and youth, who preferred to develop their antagonism to capitalist society through a horizontal network structure, guaranteeing the autonomy of each sector and local reality from any attempt at unification and homogenization within a national party structure, and therefore in opposition to the stated aim of the Organized Workers’ Autonomy tendency of the need to create a “Party of Autonomy”27 This “autonomy of the periphery from the center” was closely linked to Autonomia’s different social composition (a mixture of “subproletariat and the intellectualized proletarian labour force. (…) The invasion of the university students without a future.”28 ), compared to that of Potere Operaio and the broader autonomous workers’ movement, which were based on the mass worker:

One can talk about the autonomy of workers who tend to deny their survival as such and to assert their life as communists, of the autonomy of the proletarianized who reject the mercantile-spectacular society, placing themselves against it (nobody believes outside it).29

Organized Workers’ Autonomy, contrasted with the “area of social autonomy” and other new social movements. However, the disparate and localized basis of even this more formally organized sector of Autonomia, which attempted unsuccessfully to privilege the party form, if under a different guise, had contrasting local characteristics and social compositions in its principal locations: in Milan, more linked to industrial factory struggles and the newer post-Fordist productive circuits, but also to struggles around reproduction and the self-reduction of social costs; in Padua, around the students’ movement, public transport and youth issues, but also involved with struggles in the Autonomous Workers Assemblies, post-Fordist factories and sweatshops; in Rome, where a more “populist” and council communist-influenced version militated among the unemployed and marginalized youth of the urban periphery, but also among the growing number of service sector workers, with a strong emphasis on internationalism.

Its Milan-based national newspaper Rosso took an increasing interest in social reproduction struggles:

[Rosso’s] greatest novelty consists in the awareness that the factory (…) is not the only terrain where the initiative of struggle has to develop. Other previously neglected social conditions assume an increasingly important role: those of women, youth, and the marginalized, never considered before as political subjects. Not immediately political but fundamental themes and problems are faced, such as personal relationships and the “general conditions of life.” Subsequently, the newspaper individualized three different sectors of the public to address: the factories, which the section Rosso fabbrica was devoted to, consisting mainly of interventions by the autonomous committees of various factories (Porto Marghera, Alfa Romeo, Zanussi etc.) (…); Rosso scuola, that included both the broad debates and news of the various high school committees; “Rosso tutto il resto,” where space was given to sectors of the youth movement organized outside the groups and of the feminist movement, that were fighting against marginalization. (…) [It] was one of the first magazines to deal with the transformation (…) from the mass worker of the big industrial concentrations to the socialized worker of the diffused factory in the territory. (…) This new political subject was to have its moment of maximum expression in the ‘77 movement. At the beginnings of 1978 the magazine identified four sectors of intervention and debate: 1) directly productive work, “for the reduction of the working day and for the conquest of time freed from work”; 2) public spending, “as the central moment of capitalist control and the reduction of the costs of social reproduction”; 3) the nuclear state and the production of death; 4) the legitimization of revolutionary action, against the repressive apparatus that the statemobilizes for the perpetuation of its dominion.30

“Diffused” and “creative” Autonomia, parts of the “autonomy of the social,” were composed of counter-cultural, unemployed, and semi-employed urban youth, students, radical feminists, homosexuals, and the cani sciolti (“stray dogs,” unaffiliated militants and activists). Youth and graduate unemployment reached crisis levels in the mid-1970s. Many young people consciously chose to avoid even looking for work (let alone the “refusal” of the late 1960s). Increasingly, they fled from the suffocating patriarchal authoritarianism of the traditional Italian nuclear family to live collectively, often in squatted flats and occasionally in communes.31 They survived partially through “black market jobs”32 and partially through mass expropriations of food from supermarkets and restaurants, but also through the “self-reduction” of bus fares, rock concerts, and cinema tickets:

[It was] a swarming process of diffused organization whose real protagonists were young proletarians, marginal to the organized autonomous groups, but inserted into dynamics of spontaneous, magmatic, uncontrollable aggregation.33

The experience of the “Proletarian Youth Clubs” (PYC/ circoli proletari giovanili) was centered in the metropolitan periphery, such as the Quarto Oggiaro and Sesto San Giovani districts in Milan where the effects of the mid-1970s economic crisis were worst felt. The satisfaction of the more complex aspirations of the individual had to be achieved “here and now” and not postponed to the future election of a leftist government or the aftermath of a socialist revolution. Likewise, there was no demand for “the right to work,” but instead one for a “guaranteed social income.” The ethics of self-sacrifice, austerity, and the “dignity of labor,” central to the PCI’s projected “moral culture” and economic strategy, were rejected in favor of the “right to luxury” in the depths of Italy’s worst postwar economic crisis, which the PCI sought to force the Italian working class to accept as “theirs” and not just of capital. Rather than demands, there were diffused behaviors and practices, such as espropri proletari (proletarian shopping) and self-reduction, but now of restaurant bills and cinema and rock concert tickets, as well as of transport costs and household bills: “The superfluous [was] at the center of [their] demands to the indignant consternation of politicians and journalists, intellectuals, and industrialists.”34

An extreme version of the ideology of consumerism was proposed, including the need and the right to consume all kinds of products whatever the extant economic circumstances. Indeed, even among the more libertarian sections of the social movements like the counter-cultural magazine Re Nudo (Naked King) there was preoccupation over the “death of [the collective ideals of] proletarian youth,”35 as this new, more individualist youth culture, based more on “subjectivity” than “solidarity,” overwhelmed the boundaries of the post-1968 counter-culture at the Parco Lambro Free Festival in Milan in June 1976. The expropriation of alternative products, the protagonism of the spectators rather than the performers, feminist separatism and the growing visibility of the heroin problem led to the Festival’s implosion and seemed to signify the end of the ideal of the collective transformation of the status quo.36

The event that presaged the ’77 Movement was the riot by the PYC and others from the “area of Autonomía” outside the La Scala opera house in Milan against the first night of the opera season in December 1976, the first display of a new kind of violence, more of urban youth gangs than of classical extreme Leftism, expressing the “prepolitical” anger of the unemployed, marginalized youth of the “dormitory suburbs,” riddled with despair and a heroin epidemic, against the politics of austerity and sacrifice:37

[This] year the first night at La Scala is – for the Milanese middle class – an occasion of political affirmation over the proletariat and a display of force (…) it is an insult against the proletariat, forced to make sacrifices so that the bourgeoisie can go to its first night. The first night at La Scala is a political date today. The proletarian youth present themselves, together with the women [’s movement], as the detonator and cultural vanguard of the detonation of the present equilibriums of power between the classes, but there is something more than 1968. The logic of sacrifices is the bourgeois logic that says: for the proletarians pasta, for the middle classes caviar. We claim our right to caviar: … because nobody can ever convince us that in times of sacrifices the bourgeoisie can go to the first night but we can’t, that they can eat parmesan but we can’t, or they can even force us to starve. The privileges that the middle class reserves for itself are ours, we pay for them. This is why we want to defeat them and we do so as a matter of principle … The right to take possession of some privileges of the middle class has been a new element since 1968, yesterday rotten eggs today self-reduction … Grassi, “socialist” and director of La Scala has told us that it’s all right to make the middle classes who want to go the first night pay 100,000 lira a head, so that cultural production can be financed; we reply that the first nights’ takings must go to the centers of struggle against heroin, that culture must be for proletarians.38

Movements of the Unemployed for a Guaranteed Social Wage

A major section of the movement of the organized unemployed in Naples also became part of “Autonomia meridionale,” the relatively forgotten part of the movement in the less developed South. It was among the self-organized unemployed movements in Naples and Catanzaro that “Autonomia meridionale” made its greatest impact, through the demand for an adequate “guaranteed social wage” from the State to counteract the social devastation caused by endemic unemployment and economic underdevelopment. The historical struggles of the unemployed for work in Naples, Italy’s poorest major conurbation, and throughout the Mezzogiorno, appeared to be in contradiction with the movement’s refusal of work. In fact the unemployed were seen as performing “unpaid labor”: through their necessary “job search” for a source of income they unintentionally depressed wages in the South and ultimately throughout the national economy as a reserve army of industrial labor, so performing a vital function for capital. The Naples unemployed were well aware of their objective capitalist function, leading them to campaign through sometimes violent mass marches and pickets of the city council’s offices for a “guaranteed social wage” and increased welfare, so that they would not be forced to accept depressed wages and could delay their entry into the labor market if necessary.

Mass unemployment also wreaked havoc with working class communities in the industrial North that were used to secure, rising incomes during the previous 20 years, and there was a significant increase in the number of suicides among redundant factory workers in cities like Turin in the early 1980s. However, for the “No Future” generation of the “socialized worker” and in particular for the ‘77 Movement, unemployment was seen as an inevitable fate which could be turned into a positive personal and collective opportunity given the right conditions: not only to “refuse work,” but also to found what Virno has called the “society of non-work,” based more on “exodus” from work as the defining identity-formation experience than resistance to work in the workplace.39

How successful this campaign of refusal to be blackmailed by unemployment was remains unclear. The implosion of Autonomia and most of the new social movements in the early 1980s, the sharp rise in heroin addiction and the suicide rate among under-30s, and the search for individual neo-mystical solutions through membership of religious cults seems to indicate an extensive collective psychological crisis due to the loss of the solidarity and bonds of communities of struggle (including those based in the workplace), resulting in much higher levels of individual atomization, alienation, and despair.40 An informant describes the “implosion of subjectivity” he witnessed on returning to Padua from abroad in 1979 to find the piazzas deserted, where previously young people had socialized almost permanently during the ‘77 Movement, now replaced by a withdrawal into private life, heroin addiction, and compulsive television viewing.41

Occupied and Self-Managed Social Centers

The occupied and/or self-managed social centers (centri sociali ocupati/ autogestiti /CSO/A) which started to appear in Milan and Rome in the mid 1970s were the main response by the autonomist movements to the crisis of social reproduction of those years, as they sought to provide social spaces for working class youth and their communities to start providing for their own reproductive and cultural needs, with the withering of the welfare state as industrial restructuring and austerity policies began to bite. Since the late 1980s, as post-Fordist globalization deepened and the neoliberal policies of public spending cuts, privatization of public services and the deregulation of the economy became the norm, they have become the “red bases” of the second-wave autonomist movements in Italy, Europe and elsewhere, as autonomism globalized as one of the major components of the “alterglobal” anti-capitalist movement.42

Often squatted and sometimes conceded public buildings, such as disused schools or factories, were taken over by groups of youth, usually from the area antagonista (the post-1983 successors of Autonomia) or anarchists, but also by extra-comunitari immigrants from Africa and Asia, as well as by anti-fascist football fans, to use as meeting places and centers for the provision of alternative social and educational services, as well as cultural and political activities, given official negligence in providing such facilities. Originally, a social phenomenon almost unique to Italy, where squatted housing was much rarer than in other European countries, it mushroomed in the 1990s, resulting in over 100 CSO/A in all the major cities, although many have since been evicted and shut down, particularly by the highly repressive hard right Berlusconi governments after 2001.

The Proletarian Youth Clubs were instrumental in establishing the first squatted and self-managed social centers in the peripheral Milanese working class districts, originally as meeting places for youth deprived of any services or spaces by the city council. Most were either closed down by the police or fell into disuse once heroin addiction reached epidemic proportions in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One of the first to be founded in 1975 (by New Left and Autonomía activists, rather than the PYC with which it had poor relations) was the Leoncavallo occupied social center, which based itself on the immediate social and educational needs of its local neighborhood and in opposition to the property speculators who were already “gentrifying” the center of Milan, inviting local people to discuss how to use the space:

The last city administration never worried about meeting our demands and on the other hand they have never even used the funds paid by industries for social use (1% of local rates). The experiences of the workers’ movement and of those in recent years in the neighborhoods have taught that only mobilization and struggle produce concrete results: as in the factory or in the [self-reduction] of rents and electricity and telephone bills. [T]hinking that only struggle is able to resolve the problems of our neighborhood, the base organisms of the neighborhood have occupied and reactivated the [unoccupied] factory in Via Mancinelli and have also invited the new democratic [red] ‘”junta” of Milan to show in practice its wish to meet the social demands of a popular district such as ours by allowing the social use of the occupied building. (…) Here is a preliminary list of the social structures which are insufficient in our district or even completely missing:











With the building occupied, if we are supported by a mobilization of the whole district we can cover some of these requirements.43


The significance of the 1970s Italian struggles for today’s social reproduction struggles is undeniable, both in theoretical and practical terms, particularly at such a “dark moment” in recent human history when questions of social reproduction, self-reduction and expropriation are once more to the fore. They not only offer an example how social reproduction can become a focal point of movement activity and mobilization in the face of the face of rising policies of austerity and capitalist restructuring, but also provide concrete strategies for connecting this terrain with other spheres which could appear separate: struggles of the unemployed, factory occupations, and industrial labor militancy. In this sense, social reproduction was a nexus, a crucial link, in the chain of building a renewed class power – one that extended from the workplace to the school, from the home to the occupied social center. Moreover, the organizational forms that developed – a dense network (“swarm”) of community councils, clubs, committees, and assemblies – were sufficiently flexible so as to be easily adapted to the divergent urban contexts of Rome, Milan, and Turin. Again, this should not be taken to mean that we can transport these political experiences directly to our present problems; it means, rather, that the autonomous social movements of 1970s Italy are a living laboratory open to investigation, and involved a series of accumulating cycles of struggles that demand careful historical analysis. In other words, tracing the internal trajectory, shifts, and tendencies of these collective experimentations could give us a solid basis for approaching how to politically organize on the terrain of social reproduction today.