02. Civil society and its discontents

The brevity and fragility of the experience of parliamentary democracy in Italy before 1945 had severe consequences for the nature and development of civil society. The parties, unions and other organizations of the working class had a longer struggle to establish their rights to exist and operate freely than in other capitalist countries. It was not until after the Milan massacre of 1898 that the ruling bloc recognized the need for a strategy designed to limit class conflict through the legitimation of some of its forms. Giolitti had to teach sections of capitalists that it was in their interests that the state did not involve itself in labour disputes. He personally tried to strengthen relations with the reformist wing of the Socialist Party and the trade unions. However, the primary role of the Socialist Party in promoting unionism, the stress given to general class representation in the context of uneven, regionalized industrialization and of a working class in the early stages of its making, and the continued resurgence of insurrectionary syndicalism - all these factors politicized industrial relations in country and town. In these circumstances, the formal distinctions between the political and economic roles of party and union, which characterized a reformist politics found a difficult terrain in which to grow. Revolutionary ideas flourished,

The ‘Red Years’, 1919-20 were characterized by the confusion of the roles of union and party, and by the rise of the new factory councils that claimed to combine their functions. It was a remarkable experiment in workers’ control which remained a much discussed experience, especially in the light of Gramsci’s writings. Its defeat, however, opened the way to a wholesale destruction of parties and unions, rather than to a redefinition of their roles within the terms of a parliamentary democracy. The fascist regime replaced them by state-controlled surrogates. The objective of the ruling bloc had become the very abolition of civil society as a sphere of independent activity on the part of the subordinate classes. Even leisure, sporting and extra work pursuits that had previously been carried on through the political parties were subjected to state organization and supervision. Within the workplace a new ideology of labour was constructed by the employers.

The success of the fascist regime in actually creating its own culture, and in actively intervening in reshaping everyday customs and practices was in many ways limited. However, its destruction not only of organizational structures of opposition, but of a popular memory on the part of the young and of traditions and skills of organization, had lasting effects. Through the anti-fascist struggle and the period of reconstruction, the working class had to recreate its own organizations, and to rebuild the fabric of civil society itself.

The framework for this activity was established by the winning of political freedoms and civil rights, but the power of the working class lay in its extensive network of local organizations. In particular, the political parties played the leading role. The Communist Party in Milan organized in every quarter of the city and extended its control through recreational centres, cooperatives and organizations like Unione delle Donne Italiane (Union of Italian Women, UDI). Certain working-class areas in Milan like Sesto San Giovanni (nicknamed ‘Stalingrad’) and Rogoredo became Left strongholds. The PCI implanted its cells in the factories, in Milan in 1945 if it had 360, and by 1947 these had tripled in number. It has been estimated that by 1948, 80 to 90 per cent of Milanese engineering workers were in the CGIL.

As has been noted, working-class organizations developed a defensive rather than offensive strategy in the Reconstruction period. Nevertheless, this imposed limits on managements’ ‘right to manage’ in the factories; workers blocked redundancies, imposed consultation and, in the early stages, purged fascist personnel. The concerted political offensive against the Left, that resulted in the 1948 election landslide, was followed by a longer term and more difficult war against working-class organization in civil society. The political victory had immediate pay-offs for the landlords and property owners, who, with police protection stepped up the rate of evictions, cleared squats and affirmed the rights of property. In the factories the opposition was more tenacious.

The years from 1950 to 1959 were characterized by a long-term decline in working class organization and resistance in the face of the employers’ attacks. In January 1955 Dott, Borletti, vice-president of the Confindustria, the national employers’ organization, spoke of their objectives; he said:

We need to bring order back into the factories by re-establishing those forms of discipline without which it is impossible to work; we must eliminate all those deviations and political interferences that the war, the postwar period and revolutionary illusions have introduced into company life.

The first and crucial step was the imposition of mass redundancies. This enabled employers to sack leading militants and to threaten workers as a whole with the prospect of losing their jobs. High unemployment throughout the fifties put pressure on the employed to conform to the orders of management. Those militants who survived found themselves continually under surveillance, moved from one section of the factory to another, and increasingly deprived of rights to represent or be represented in an effective as well as formal sense.

The dismantling of the workers’ representative structures allowed management the freer use of labour within the productive process, and employers increased absolute exploitation by introducing longer and more flexible hours. Managements also brought in new machinery and corresponding hierarchical regimes of control to increase the rate of relative exploitation. The weakening of the nucleus of politicized skilled workers meant that resistance to Taylorization had been undermined. In turn, the changes in the productive process lessened the need for those workers through de-skilling, and opened the doors to the unskilled unemployed. Martinoli, a director of Pirelli, put the case for technological change at a conference on workers’ conditions in industry held in Milan in 1954:

it provides the optimal conditions for the achievement of higher levels of employment because a number of workers look favourably and almost with a sense of liberation on monotonous work; this work does not require responsibility, a spirit of initiative and the obligation to make decisions.

The system of industrial relations created in the 1950s was paternalistic. It heavily circumscribed workers’ freedoms, and punished behaviour which threatened its authority. Independent and active unionism was not recognized. The PCI was excluded from participation in parliamentary government and the CGIL from participation in negotiations within the factory. Union officials did not have permission to enter most Milanese factories between 1948 and 1968. The rights to freedoms of speech and organization sanctioned by the Constitution could not be exercised in the factory. Instead, discrimination and sackings and the careful screening of new employees prevailed.

But paternalism also had its philanthropic aspects. It combined older ideologies of ‘family’ cultivated by earlier generations of entrepreneurs with modern theories of human relations. Companies needed not only to suppress class ideologies but to rearticulate class relations as relations of non-antagonistic reciprocity between employer and employee; the words 'operaio' and 'classe operaia' had to be substituted by 'lavoratore'; a collective identity had to be replaced by individualism. To this purpose companies increased differentials between groups of workers and the variable proportion of the wage linked to piece-rates. The power of foremen to grant personal favours in the shape of job allocation and promotion was increased.

This incentivization of self-interest had a gloss of neo-capitalist consumerism in the bigger, impersonal firms like Pirelli where the management aspired to American Taylorist models in which autonomies and controls in the workplace were exchanged for higher wages. The vogue for human relations spread, but with the emphasis on maximizing productivity through time and motion studies rather than through strategies of job enrichment. Moreover, the tendency was to hold wages down as far as possible, especially among the smaller companies. Older forms of Catholic paternalism held sway especially in the family companies that were still intact in the 1950s. Giovanni Falk, for example, who inherited the Milanese steel dynasty, had a vision of his company as a ‘little country with its enlightened governors and faithful subjects, its glorious history and values to be handed down from generation to generation’. Falk, in his eyes, was the symbol of work and harmony, a solid pyramid that threw out a large and protective shadow. Companies provided nursery schools (usually run by a religious order), holiday homes a for children, medical services and child allowances. The provision of services was especially designed for women workers, to enable them to work, but also to bind them into the company’s family by appealing to them as wives and mothers. The hold of the company ethos, however, was strongest among the white-collar workers, who tended to think of themselves as middle class, and who enjoyed monthly salaries with special secret merit awards for the diligent.

The paternalist strategy aimed to abolish social contradictions. In fact its inflexibility and authoritarianism invested those differences of interest at an economic level with the very questions of power and politics that it aimed to eliminate. Even the big companies did not have the economic resources to act as little states, and gave priority to profit-making. The attempt to cultivate the ‘free’ trade unions, the predominantly Catholic CISL and the Social Democrat and Republican UIL, had some success especially among white-collar workers, but managements preferred to establish clientelistic relations with them rather than to encourage collective bargaining. They therefore built up memberships as a result of preferential treatment, bribery and discriminatory recruitment policies. Whilst this divided and weakened workers’ overall organization in the short term, it did not help create a viable alternative to the left-wing CGIL. Neither did the backstairs bargaining provide an adequate mechanism for dealing with widespread shop-floor discontent. Thus, when conflict occurred in circumstances more favourable to workers, it involved fundamental issues concerning rights and it was infused with political significance.

Statistics on industrial conflict, membership and elections to the internal commissions indicate the extent to which the employers’ offensive did paralyse and dismember the union organization built up before 1948. Strikes caused the loss of 64 million hours a year in 1948-9 and an average 22 million for 1950-58. Industrial conflict in Milanese industry was sustained for a longer period, and the figures for union membership are less disastrous than for some cities. Nonetheless, the percentage of the unionized out of the total employed in the engineering sector fell from 61 per cent in 1951 to 23.7 per cent in 1958. A central factor in eroding unionization was the increase in the number and percentage of unskilled and semi-skilled workers being taken on, especially women and youth. The nucleus of the unionized was based on the skilled section of the workforce who had been the leading protagonists in the antifascist movement. Repression reinforced division between the skilled and unskilled, whilst the growing white-collar section of the workforce remained largely untouched by unionism.

The unions’ response to the employers’ attacks was heavily conditioned by the unfavourable conditions in which they operated during the 1950s. In the CGIL, memories of that period evoke pictures of steadfast heroism. The union activists paid dearly for their beliefs, and it was the strength of their convictions that drove them on. Not surprisingly, therefore, it was party members who made up the backbone of the union organization. A young woman organizer who worked at the Borletti factory from the end of the decade remembers:

Almost all the activists were in the Communist Party. Firstly, they trained in Party schools and then they took their battle into the union ... many were regularly sacked ... it was really a way of selecting militants; the more the bosses hit them, the more they became true political militants

However, the strengths of the inner core of the union did not compensate for its relative isolation from the majority of workers nor for serious inadequacies of analysis and policy.

Some of the deficiencies can be attributed to the very influence of the parties: party political issues such as the Korean War and general programmes for economic renewal did not connect up with bread-and-butter questions: ideological divisions got in the way of organizing around common interests; union activities were constantly liable to outside party pressures. But these have to be related to the fact that most activists were skilled male workers who had participated in the Resistance, whilst the majority of newly recruited workers were younger, unskilled and unpoliticized. These divisions along the lines of age, gender and union experience were aggravated by employer policies of divide-and-rule, and by the introduction of new technologies, which greatly changed labour processes, and therefore relations between sections or workers. The failure by the CGIL to develop analyses and appropriate strategies meant that it was marginalized from the everyday problems and experiences of the workplace. The cultural backwardness (a looking-back to older models of class unionism and Marxist orthodoxies) furnished mobilizing ideals, but weakened the CGIL's capacity to meet the needs of a new generation of workers.

The CISL, by contrast, took the American unions as its model, and tried to break with the Italian tradition of left-wing trade unionism in the name of modernity. It represented its members only, and concentrated on productivity bargaining at local levels. In practice, the CISL was anti-Communist. It was tied to the Christian Democrat Party and under the influence of the Catholic Church. Moreover, its predominantly white-collar membership within industry and the service sector made it even more prone to management pressures. The CISL's negotiation of agreements for its members that excluded the CGIL, its dependence on discriminatory recruitment for its membership and its refusal, as far as possible, to go on strike made it a de facto form of company unionism in the 1950s.

Between 1960 and 1963 this system of industrial relations based on paternalism was challenged from below. The defeat of the Tambroni government due to mass mobilizations, gave workers a sense of power. The decline of unemployment and the economic upturn put workers in a position to bargain with employers. The economic transformation of the 'miracle' years increased the umbers of workers and their relative importance as a group in society in the northern triangle. At the same time, huge increases in investment, productivity and profits had been achieved without reform of a low wage regime guaranteed by authoritarianism within the factory. Rebellion in the factories starting with the militancy of the young workers in the electrical engineering sector in Milan in 1960, expressed a demand for a share in the newly created wealth. They called for wage increases and succeeded in winning considerable concessions. In the struggles the union succeeded in using wage demands as a means of unifying different sections of workers. Differentials were reduced, the principle of wage parity for women over eighteen was established, and a two-hour reduction of the working week was won. On the shop-floor, engineering workers experimented with short, sharp strikes, backed by the CGIL, in addition to the use of national general strikes and demonstrations, which were the traditional form of mobilization. The latter were on a scale that had not been seen on the streets of the big cities since 1948. Students too marched alongside workers.

The shift in the balance of class forces in Italy was reflected in the increased percentage of the Gross National Income accruing to the working class. However, it was a temporary advance that was reversed from late1963 to 1967. Deflationary policies increased unemployment and employers clamped down on wage increases. The gains were whittled away through inflation and once more productivity increases exceeded those of wages. The government did not succeed in establishing an incomes policy, and instead provided the conditions for the strengthening of management’s hand. The unions were too weak to mobilize effective resistance. Above all, the unions within the factories had failed to build up their organization; membership did not increase proportionally to the increase in the working population, and continued to depend on the male, skilled and older section of the workforce for its leadership. Measures of union recognition and agreement to plant bargaining by the internal commissions were circumscribed by both management and union preference for centralized negotiation at higher levels. The unskilled and semi-skilled, the women, younger workers and immigrants were the most exposed to the pressures of the labour market and to changes in the labour process. These workers’ interests were inadequately represented. Union analyses of changes in the labour process led to policies of accepting technical change as good in itself rather than as inherently structured by capitalist relations. Bad working conditions were accepted in exchange for monetary compensation. Wage differentials were accepted as a reflection of objective skills together with the introduction of new grades for the highly skilled. In short, the key mechanisms of division and hierarchical control within the factory were not comprehensively challenged by the unions. The anger and explosive militancy of the most oppressed and ’ exploited sections were treated as an abberration, as evidenced by the . celebrated Piazza Statuto incidents in Turin in 1962.

In the mid sixties economic development centred on restructuring and rationalization of plant to maximize the rate of relative exploitation, without increasing capital investment to the level of the 1951-63 period. Speed-ups of the line and increases in workloads reached intolerable levels in some factories. Managements replaced women and older workers by young semi-skilled men because of their physical endurance. The atmosphere in the factories was no longer one of fear and intimidation, but unions had still not been readily accepted as bargainers within the workplaces. Leopoldo Pirelli, vice-president of the Confindustria, publicly espoused enlightened acceptance of trade unionism, whilst within his factories he withheld recognition from the CGIL. The idea that the factory was exclusively under management control and that it was vital to defend the conquests of the 1950s in this sphere was shared by the ‘enlightened’ vanguard of Italian industry and the small company owner alike. Negotiation was limited to powerless joint consultative bodies. Repression had become more selective, and management was more self-conscious about control techniques, but otherwise the paternalist model remained intact.

The contradictions within the factory were not, however, displaced into the market, nor were workers’ struggles for higher wages transformed into a mechanism for expanding the home market. Carli, president of the Bank of Italy, did not pursue a Keynesian economic policy characteristic of other advanced capitalist countries. The brief experience of a higher standard of living was cut short. The language of class consciousness promoted in the propaganda of the CGIL connected up with widespread resentment over social inequalities. The propagation in the newspapers and on television of ideas about Italian prosperity, and invocations to spend produced ‘needs’ and expectations that were frustrated by the meagreness of the wage packet.

The relationship between the capitalist interest groups and the government was also fraught with differences. The re-emergence of industrial conflict and the demise of an earlier industrial and political equilibrium made some leading sections of the capitalist class look to government for solutions, Fiat and Pirelli promoted the idea of a trade-off involving reforms in exchange for lower wage increases. For these big companies, planned wage increases and additional taxation were worth conceding if they sought social peace, because their chief concern was with the costs of running capital-intensive plant, Moreover, their representatives, like Pirelli, prided themselves on being long-term thinkers and modernizers. On the other hand, the smaller companies that dominated the Confindustria in the 1960s depended on keeping wages to a minimum, and had a laissez fairist hatred of government interference and taxation. The hostile campaign of the Confindustria against the nationalization of the electrical industry, and its attempt to block reforms characterized its unrelenting efforts to sabotage the Centre-Left government. This lobby proved more determined and influential than the reformers.

The big companies did little to support the government reforms, and went along with deflation because the buoyant international market provided an outlet for their goods. The half-hearted attempt to delegate the task of managing consensus to the state was ultimately a failure because the ruling bloc was not prepared to allow it sufficient autonomy to act against some of its immediate interests. However, there were no comprehensive alternative approaches to industrial relations within the private companies; no policy of greater flexibility was designed to involve the unions themselves in the disciplining of their membership. The relative ease with which the counter-offensive of the mid sixties was carried out gave management the illusion that their prerogatives were safe from serious threat.

The unions and the nuclei of militants formed in the struggles of 1960-63 were thrown into confusion by the downturn in their fortunes. Rifts reappeared between the confederations; the CISL and UIL supported the Centre-left government and its proposed incomes policy, whilst the CGIL was split between its PCI component, which opposed wage control without adequate guarantees that there would be far-reaching reforms, and the Socialists who were loyal to their government. In the interests of formal unity the CGIL ended by expressing opposition without mobilizing it. Attention focused on the development of national negotiations, whilst the politicking dissipated the fragile unity among the rank-and-file.

The gap between the representative structures of unions and Left parties and sections of the working class widened. The unions’ introduction of new factory-based forms of representation remained on paper whilst the internal commissions did not revive their plant bargaining activity because of the limits set by national contracts. Within the factories the PCI cells withered, and many of their papers ceased publication. Outside the factory, neither unions nor parties tried to organize the unemployed. The transformation that had changed the composition of the working class through reorganizations of the labour process had also radically altered its housing and living conditions. Massive urbanization and growth of the northern industrial cities destroyed the roots of older political sub-cultures.

In the 1950s the grass-roots structures of the political parties - the parish structure on which the Christian Democrats depended, and the sections of the Left parties - had adapted to the relatively slow demographic changes. A political geography of ‘red’ and ‘white’ zones had been fairly clearly delineated and the associations of civil society were a permeated by political affiliations. Especially in the case of the PCI, party life defined social horizons, and an intense and embattled community spirit was formed. Much political mobilization and activity was functional to the preservation of the organization. In the cities there were quarters where the urban space (the courtyards of the tenement houses, the local osteria) served to underpin social solidarity. However the rapid urbanization of the ‘miracle’ years provoked the decomposition of these communities.

The bases of the Left parties were hit in several ways. Thousands of migrants, particularly from the south, went into peripheral areas of the cities where the parties had no pre-existing organization, or into inner city areas that became heavily overpopulated. The party sections were used to relating to relatively stable communities of families, and were ill-prepared to cope with the needs of the solitary male immigrant. The Church organizations for immigrant workers and the Christian Democrats had more adequate ways and means for dealing with immediate material wants. The letter of recommendation for the job and the provision of charity fitted with paternalist practices in the factory. Then the immigrants themselves made up for all the shortcomings of the welfare services with the organization of self-help, usually on a family basis. ln an atmosphere that was often one of discrimination against the Southerner (terrone), solidarity among immigrants led to a certain ‘ghettoization’. The incapacity of the Left parties to respond to the needs of these people by fighting for the provision of housing, against high rents and for real equalities of living conditions with the older generation of inhabitants meant that they were not attracted to the existing political structures.

Urban development also involved a progressive undermining of the traditional working-class strongholds. Previously peripheral areas of the cities suddenly became relatively central, and prone to ‘gentrification’ by the middle classes, whilst the centre was monopolized by the office blocks and big shops. Then more general changes in society overtook the parties. Within the working class a gap grew up between the fathers whose politics were formed in the period of the Resistance and Cold War, and children who were becoming adults within a world of East-West detente and relative international capitalist growth. Both the ideologies of a Stalinist Marxism that forecast imminent economic collapse, and of traditional Catholic morality were losing their relevance. Communist Party membership figures show a steady decline for the period 1954 to 1968. As a percentage of the industrial working class it was falling, but the fall in the membership of the youth federation (FGCI) was even more dramatic.

The inability of the PCI, and of the PSI (which was ceasing to be a mass · party), to recruit, represent and mobilize workers, and particularly immigrant workers, youth and women, signalled a failure to deal with the major social transformations of postwar Italy. Taylorization, urbanization, mass schooling and mass migration were important aspects of the remaking of the Italian working class in the postwar decades. Yet, the Communist Party did not know how to organize around the social conflicts they engendered. The parties’ and unions’ inability to interpret and represent discontent in civil society was accompanied by their tendency to look to parliament and the state to resolve or alleviate the contradictions that had been accumulated in the period of economic boom. Action in civil society was subordinated to parliamentary manoeuvres, electioneering and forms of pressure-group politics. The PSI was immobilized from 1963 because of its involvement in government, and owed its influence in the CGIL to its personnel in the leadership rather than on the shop-floor, whilst in the constituencies it too used the spoils of office to cultivate a clientelist vote. It underwent the classic Italian political process of ‘transformism’. The PCI remained in official opposition, but within parliament cooperated in drafting legislation. Whilst the PCI remained a mass party of the working class, and its leaders stressed the importance of membership and implantation in civil society, in the period 1954 to 1968 it was undergoing a process of ‘electoralization’. The party’s votes marginally increased, but its membership declined. In 1968 the PCI’s capacity to mobilize subordinate groups had seldom been weaker. It followed rather than led the mass social movements of 1968-9.

This incapacity of the political parties of the Left and the unions to articulate and represent discontent within civil society meant that when people mobilized, they resorted to disruption rather than to the ballot-box or to petitioning. The claims of the politicians and trade unionists about the importance of organization, discipline and alternative reforms went unheard. Where the official organizations in centres of discontent (like large factories and universities) were weakest, the forms of protest tended to be the most unruly. One of the most dramatic examples which showed this in1968-9 was social conflict in Turin; the very factors which had weakened the resistance of workers and subordinate groups - immigration, repressive paternalism, scientific management, depoliticization - created the conditions for a highly radicalized revolt. The steady erosion and destruction of the sense of community within the workplace and the city created a need to build that community through collective resistance. However, there was nothing automatic about this process. Resistance grew up because of changes in how individuals and groups perceived their situation.