'Labour-power in Formation?'

Submitted by Juan Conatz on November 20, 2011

Despite its relative isolation, workerism would leave its mark upon at least one of the Movimento Studentesco’s most important debates. In February 1967, during an occupation of the University of Pisa, dissidents within the ‘official’ left student organisation drew up a document that set out to delineate both the class location of students within Italian capitalism and their relationship to working class struggle. Rewritten and partially reformulated a few months later as the Tesi di Pisa, their analysis had considerable impact during the early days of th­e movement, being praised by Rossana Rossanda (1968: 65) of the PCI left as ‘the most complex and persuasive of the MS’s “theoretical” attempts’.

Gianmario Cazzaniga and the other authors of the Tesi played a central role in the local group Il Potere Operaio, which would later supply much of the leadership of Lotta Continua. They had first been formed politically within the organisations of the historic left, where they had come into contact with the networks around Panzieri and Tronti. Il Potere Operaio was a hybrid group ideologically, containing workerists as well as radicals motivated by more conventional Marxist-Leninist and Third Worldist precepts. It was also one of the few far-left formations then able to command respect within the new student movement. If elsewhere, Cazzaniga (1967) had written critically of Classe Operaia, the influence of Quademi Rossi – and, to the lesser extent, that of Tronti’s journal- was clearly discernible within the Tesi. A qualitatively new model of capitalism, the document argued, was currently emerging. Capital’s ever increasing centralisation had ‘profoundly’ altered its laws of development, and the enormous growth of its organic composition was now leading to the ‘disappearance’ not only of the tendential fall of the rate of profit, but the law of value itself. As a consequence, class composition could no longer be conceived as a simple function of the valorisation process, but must of necessity also be examined in terms of the social division of labour (Cazzaniga et al. 1968: 174).

According to the Tesi, there had always existed intermediary strata in capitalist society, ‘social figures of the waged, who as such are formally producers of surplus value, but who are not internal components of the working class’. Now, however, capital’s socialisation had reached such a magnitude that the barrier separating them from blue-collar workers had begun to fall (Cazzaniga et al. 1968: 173). This was particularly the case for those engaged in intellectual labour, whose subsumption was of growing urgency for capital. Such a process was not, however, without attendant risks for the class relation. Even as the incorporation of science and intellectual labour within constant capital strengthened the latter’s political power over the potentially insubordinate, deskilled ‘masses’, the parcellisation and generalisation of intellectual labour generated an ‘intellectual proletariat’ open to an anti-capitalist struggle in pursuit of both material and political demands (ibid.: 171, 172). For its part, the labour market was forced to undergo a 'radical evolution' so that it could be 'planned in time and space', alongside 'the 'growing average rate of qualified labour-power' demanded by capital. As a consequence, the state was increasingly compelled to intervene in order to guarantee tertiary training as a 'long term productive social cost' (ibid.: 167, 171). Since schooling was 'the place of production of qualified labour-power, counting as a social cost in the cycle of capital's enlarged reproduction', the student must be understood first and foremost as labour-power 'in its process of qualification' (ibid.: 176-7). -

Although they were to prove no less flawed than other contemporary Italian attempts to grasp the nature of intellectual labour, the Tesi are distinctive for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most important of these was their location of students within capital's total circuit of reproduction, as an early attempt to make concrete operaismo's allusion to a horizon beyond the immediate process of production. Caught none the less between the implications of the social factory thesis and the political significance of productive labour, the Tesi ultimately followed earlier workerist texts in privileging the latter. The student was already a proletarian by virtue of a subordinate location within the university division of labour. To the extent that existing stipends became a fully-fledged wage, she would be transformed from an 'impure social figure on the margins of the valorisation process' into a fully-fledged 'wage worker producing surplus value' (Cazzaniga et al. 1968: 177).

While this argument was to generate the greatest controversy upon the appearance of the Tesi, little serious effort was made by its authors to sustain or develop the point before more orthodox critics. For contemporaries concerned with its practical implications, the document was also marred by a discussion of students which perceived them only from the restricted viewpoint of what they would eventually become. By contrast, one of the proponents of Student Power could boast:

If we do not offer a definition of the student, if we underrate politically both their social background and their 'probable' future class position, we do this in order to reflect something that has emerged from the struggle, which is, precisely, the specific political negation which the students have made of their 'past' and of their 'future', not evading the problems raised, but passing through and beyond them, affirming the 'present' as history to be constructed ... the definition of the student is given by the student struggle (Rostagno 1968: 203-4)

While plainly demagogic, such a position was infinitely closer than the Tesi to the spirit then prevailing within the early MS. Finally, the document's chance of having a lasting impact on the MS were severely hampered by its conception of student relations with the labour movement. On the one hand, it advocated the eventual formation of a new revolutionary party, and exalted the new movement's discourse on anti-imperialism, direct democracy and confrontation. On the other, the call for a student 'union' to defend the particular interests of nascent labour-power as one component within the labour movement as a whole, only grated with the dominant student thematic of autonomy from all existing social institutions. For this reason above all, the document was to be largely forgotten by the end of the decade: when cited, it was as an artifact left over from the old movement, not a weapon suited to the needs of the new.