A New Working Class

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 10, 2011

The existence of a new working class with needs and behaviours no longer commensurate with either those of the labour movement or capital was a theme that ran through nearly all of the major essays published in Quademi Rossi. The most sustained discussion of the problem, however, was that carried out by Romano Alquati and his associates in their studies of two of Italy’s major firms, FIAT and Olivetti. The ‘Report on the New Forces’, which Alquati was to present to a conference of the PSI’s Turin federation in early 1961, drew primarily upon interviews with FIAT workers hired since the late 1950s, along with some of the firm’s longtime CGIL activists. As an example of a ‘workers’ enquiry’, the report was somewhat impressionistic and rudimentary. Even so, it registered problems undetected by the leadership of the traditional left. The latter, as Alquati had already noted in 1959, was now so often out of touch with working-class reality that ‘sometimes it is enough to describe it ... at the level of common sense and in everyday language to produce a work of political and cultural interest’ (quoted in Merli 1977: 48).

Like Olivetti, the FIAT of the early 1960s could hardly be considered a typical Italian company. On the other hand, the modern nature of its production process and value system, along with its size, marked it out both as a major pole of capitalist power and an industrial pace setter for the future. Additionally, as a former stronghold of class militancy now seemingly impervious to leftist influence, it stood as a symbol of the labour movement’s current disarray. In fact, Alquati argued, the ground had begun to be dug up from beneath the CGIL’s feet from as early as 1949. In that year the exploitation of the workforce had been intensified with the parcellisation of labour, followed after 1953 by the introduction of radically new forms of machinery which required little or no training to operate. By these means, management had been able to change the composition of its employees radically, first des killing or marginalising its old core of professional workers, then introducing a mass of inexperienced youths to staff the expanded production lines (Lichtner 1975: 194-212). Indeed, such were the firm’s new margins of manoeuvrability that, for a time at least, it was able to offer wage rates and social services for ‘semi-skilled’ labour which were amongst the best in the North. In these years, FIAT met with a certain success in projecting a new identity of high wages, valuable skills and dynamic career structures to overshadow its traditional reputation as a ruthless employer. If for some it embodied all that was benign about the Italian ‘miracle’, for many on the left, by contrast, FIAT evoked images of poor working conditions, company unionism, and a docile workforce besotted with consumerism. Both, however, could agree upon one thing, namely the success of FIAT management in constructing a cordon sanitaire around the firm, sealing it off from disturbances in the rest of the manufacturing sector (Partridge 1980: 429-30).

By contrast, the central thesis of the circle with whom Alquati worked was simple, if daring: in their opinion a whole series of objective and subjective processes were unfolding at FIAT such as to lay the basis for a resurgence of class struggle within the firm. The first task of ‘co-research’ was to strip bare the public myths attached to FIAT, and this the group accomplished with consummate skill. The much-vaunted ‘FIAT wage’ was shown to now lag behind that of many other Italian firms. It was also revealed that, far from acquiring new skills, most of the workers taken on since 1958 had remained in the bottom category of the gradings ladder, many of them working as ‘common’ labour on the assembly line. Finally, it was established that the prospects of a ‘career’ promised to a new generation of firm-trained technical workers simply did not exist (Alquati 1975: 31, 35-8). This, Alquati argued, was proof that the system of gradings which separated the great unwashed of the common labourers from the skilled workers and technicians did not have any basis at all in the ‘objective’ technical division of labour; instead, its function was fundamentally political, operating to make employees

accept the existence of hierarchies within and without the factory as a natural fact, in order to combat the ever-clearer need of self-management which technological progress itself engenders in the executants. (ibid.: 42)

Unfortunately for FIAT management, the effectiveness of this attempt at mystification was increasingly desultory, inspiring a disappointment with conditions that frequently bred only cynicism as to the firm’s structure and mode of operation. ‘Absurd’ is the adjective which most frequently recurred, Alquati (1975: 33, 36) noted, when newer workers described the nature of work at FIAT, and while such disillusionment might take three or four years to set in, once attained it was irrevocable. Many technicians sought to make up for their frustration at work through the purchase of such consumer goods as their higher wages permitted, but even this did little to appease them; its most common result, he argued, was only to add to the sense of ridiculousness surrounding their lives. Nor did such alienation automatically degenerate into nihilistic behaviour, as more orthodox Marxists might suppose. Indeed, the discovery of a political link between exploitation in the factory and the determination of social life beyond its walls by mass production - emblematic in a factory-City like Turin -led many of the ‘new forces’ most fixated with the acquisition of consumer goods to participate in nascent forms of collective resistance to management (ibid.: 39-40).

The roots of the workforce’s potential antagonism lay, therefore, in ‘that very production which is the keystone of the system’. Particularly decisive had been the part played by the massive socialisation and deskilling of labour, which had served to empty work of its intrinsic content as concrete labour, rendering things ‘the same for all’. But the progression from here to a political class consciousness was not for Alquati automatic. While most workers eventually dismissed the organisation of labour at FIAT as a ‘bluff’, only a minority had taken the further step of seeing collective organisation against capital as the logical answer (Alquati 1975: 40, 41-2). Nor did the latter perspective usually translate itself into sympathy for the CGIL or left parties, considered to be tired and ineffectual in their factory activity. Instead, for the most militant of the ‘new forces’,

the traditional organisational form of the union flows necessarily into the attitude and mentality of the old workers of the factory; between this process and integration they feel a reciprocal correspondence (ibid.: 43-4).

Such attitudes led in turn to an ‘inevitable vicious circle’, with many young workers rejecting the union’s demands as abstract, formulated by bureaucrats ‘in Rome’ themselves subservient to politicians. Meanwhile, those unionists who were genuinely interested in communicating with the new levy of employees felt increasingly daunted by the enormous gulf in age and values that separated them (ibid.: 44-7).

In this manner, and despite the absence of the term itself, Alquati’s Report began that discourse on class composition - understood as the various forms of behaviour which arise when particular forms of labour-power are inserted in specific processes of production – which would soon come to be synonymous with workerism itself. While such a stress upon the relationship between material conditions and subjectivity, being and consciousness, had been a commonplace with Marx, too often his followers had approached the reality of working-class existence with rigid preconceptions deemed immutable through time and space. What was important about the Report, by contrast, was its refusal of that measuring stick of a ‘completely mythologised class’ which had inevitably led many left intellectuals to berate the real thing for its spontaneism and lack of socialist ideology (Alquati 1975: 64-5). This was not to say that Alquati rejected outright Lenin’s discourse on organisation, simply that his was a peculiarly ‘libertarian’ brand of leninism derived from Montaldi and some of the latter’s international contacts. In particular, the argument in What Is To Be Done? That spontaneity is only consciousness ‘in an embryonic form’ (Lenin 1978b: 31) was read not as a dismissal of spontaneous actions, but as the recognition that the latter already possessed an innate political significance. Used in this manner, the term spontaneity drew attention to the already existing forms of ‘invisible’ organisation produced by workers iiI the absence of a formal class organisation under their control. Similarly, Alquati reasoned, if Lenin was right to insist that class consciousness be brought to workers from the outside, it was wrong to think that this could occur beyond the sphere of production itself. Finally, unlike the Bolshevik leader, who had been quite content to see the factory provide the necessary discipline for working-class struggle against capital, Alquati did not conceive of proletarian organisation as the mere reflection of the capitalist division of labour. Rather, it was a response to the latter’s very irrationalism, one that prevented capital from moulding workers completely to its liking:

[T]he fundamental contradictions seem to me to be precisely those internal to technical-productive ‘rationalisation’, which creates mere executants and then in order to proceed must give them responsibility, which systematically separates and counterposes levels and then has to join them all together in a rigid system that annuls individuals and groups, posing shops etc. as minimum technological units ... which promotes a professional career and annuls professions .... (Alquati 1975: 68-9)

What this demanded, according to Alquati, was the exploration of the political nature of workers’ daily problems on the shopfloor. In conversation, FIAT workers tended to move from criticising their individual job role to questioning the rationality of the firm’s division of labour as a whole. Their critique – despite its often confused and naïve form – revealed a preoccupation with ‘the problem of workers’ management, even if these young workers have never heard the expression’:

The new workers do not talk abstractly of social revolution, but neither are they disposed towards neo-reformist adventures which leave untouched the fundamental questions of class exploitation as they verify them in the workplace.(Alquati 1975: 51)

If the collective possibilities which their individual belligerence to modern capitalist production offered could be conveyed to the ‘new forces’, then some hope for a consciously socialist development of that ‘alternative line’ already implicit in their actions was not misplaced (ibid.: 33, 48).

In this manner Alquati began to touch upon what, towards the end of the piece which served to introduce the Report to Quaderni Rossi’s readers, he would call ‘the fundamental theme of MarxismLeninism, of the transformation of objective forces into subjective forces’: in other words, that of political organisation. He did not question the need for a separate party-institution; rather, the existing parties were condemned for failing to remain ‘organic’ to the class and the world of the factory that underpinned all social power. ‘An organisation that responds to the actual reality of class exploitation’: this was the goal to which Alquati aspired (1975: 71, 74, 72). It would also remain the least developed theme in his early work. Indeed, whilst always implicit, the notion of organisation as a function of class composition would lead a difficult existence within workerism so long as Lenin remained the principal reference point of its political discourse.

At the same time, Alquati’s early work on FIAT was strongly imbued with that self-management ideology held in common by both Panzieri and the ultra-left which had so influenced Montaldi. In the Report, for example, Alquati counterposed a ‘parasitic’ management to workers ‘united as producers’. Here his reading of class struggle followed Socialisme ou Barbarie in seeing the fundamental social division of labour as that between ‘a stratum directing both work and social life, and a majority who merely execute’ (Cardan 1969: Wi Alquati 1975: 71, 64). And if Alquati lacked Lenin’s own heavy-handed determinism, he still at times presented the workers’ thirst for self-management in plainly objectivist terms, speaking in his introduction to the Report of ‘a structurally motivated demand to wield political and economic power in the firm and throughout society’ (Alquati 1975: 69). In addition, this stress upon self-management and the polarity between ‘order-givers’ and ‘order-takers’ as the essential divide between the contending classes was to lead Alquati to some strange distortions when examining the relation between workers and technology. Like other Quaderni Rossi editors, he refused to accept that the process of rationalisation possessed any objective, class-neutral basis, seeing its ‘classical’ aim instead as being

the increase of capital’s domination over labour through the increasingly forced technical decomposition of tasks in order to crush politically workers’ class consciousness and so exclude them from the firm’s policy decisions. (ibid.: 74)

Yet, in discussing this process, Alquati had nothing to say about the role played within it by machinery. Indeed, despite his use of Tronti’s notion of ‘the complex dialectic of “decomposition” and “recomposition’” in the later introduction, the Report itself assigned no great importance to the explanatory value which Marx’s category of the organic composition of capital might possess for an assessment of class behaviour (ibid.: 68). As a consequence, his understanding of the deskilling engendered by mass production was at best equivocal. After having insisted on the political nature of the division of tasks and pay scales, he was led to consider deskilling to be ‘as forced as it is false’. Even as old forms of professionality were destroyed, the incompetence of FIAT’s managers, along with the ‘increasingly parasitic’ nature of its technical staff, returned more and more ‘executive and technical’ responsibility to the workers themselves. Later, in recalling the circumstances under which the piece had been written, Alquati would speak disparagingly of those who dwelt upon ‘the presumed objective contradictions in the relation between man [sic] and machine’, stressing instead the social aspect of the class antagonism within capitalist production (ibid.: 29, 74). Yet, while such an objection is an appropriate response to those who see technology as the fundamental problem of modern production, it also completely misses one of the major themes in Panzieri’s reflections: namely that in determinate circumstances, class relations can themselves take the form of machinery. Without this element, Alquati’s discussion in the Report of the ‘collective worker’ would still lack an understanding of the peculiarities of that operaio massa soon to be dear to workerism’s heart.

In fairness, it must be pointed out that although both essays appeared in the first issue of Quademi Rossi, ‘The Capitalist Use of Machinery’ had been written some time after the piece on FIAT. Moreover, in its wake Alquati’s reflections upon Olivetti would advance quite a different position on the question. But there is another important point shrouded in ambiguity in the Report – its handling of the union question. On the one hand, Alquati was emphatic that the ‘new forces’ would have nothing to do with a body considered a spent force. Indeed, at times his own analysis hinted at a similar dismissiveness which drew unflattering comparisons between the top-down nature of the labour movement and that of the modern labour process. In the end, however, he was to shy back from such extremist conclusions, locating the main problem not in the union’s function or organisational structure as such, but in the distortions introduced into these by the interests of the PCI and PSI leadership (Alquati 1975: 57-8). Unlike that regarding machinery, therefore, this ambiguity seems a fully conscious one, reflecting acutely the precariousness of Quademi Rossi’s relations with the CGIL. According to Negri (1979a: 50), many in the group had already come to accept the characterisation of unions – advanced by Socialisme ou Barbarie, Correspondence and much of the traditional ultra-left – as ‘completely bureaucratised’ institutions functional only to capital. That the advocates of such a view had been swiftly dealt with in the past was a fact of which Alquati and others like him were only too aware. To avoid a similar fate, therefore, they found themselves forced to be, in the words of a Fortini essay, ‘As Cunning as Doves’ (Negri 1983: 101; Fortini 1965). Given this, perhaps one can see, along with an air of duplicity, even an element of momentary self-delusion in some of Alquati’s more extravagant claims for the local FlOM. Amongst these was his question as to whether, given its new sensibilities towards young workers, it could still be considered a union at all. In any case, the Report was to achieve its aim, helping for a brief time to cement a close collaboration between leading Turin FlOM cadres and local Quademi Rossi editors. For Alquati, in fact, this experience would be remembered as ‘perhaps the only’ example of the sort of practice Panzieri had originally envisaged with the journal’s foundation (Alquati 1975: 46, 54).

Thus, while they served to deepen the group’s understanding of recent changes within the Italian working class, Alquati’s pieces on FIAT in the first issue of Quademi Rossi were in many ways the product of a quite traditional, if dissident, political outlook. By contrast, his work dealing with Olivetti workers – the most complex and sustained of the journal’s analyses of class composition – was to be enriched by Panzieri and Tronti’s reflections upon the labour process. Written before the metalworkers’ struggles of 1962 made plain the deep divisions amongst the journal’s editors, it is important as a major transitional piece. Within it, a number of themes central to operaismo can be seen to emerge alongside, and in certain instances against, those conceptions which had informed Alquati’s earlier work.

Olivetti, whose headquarters were situated some forty miles northeast from Turin in the town of Ivrea, was a company which at that time most fully embodied all the myths as to the coincidence between the interests of labour and capital. Owned by a family connected with liberal-socialist circles during the fascist period, the firm was noted for the presence both of its company union within the workplace, and of its owner Adriano Olivetti in the parliamentary arena (Negarville 1959). A maverick in a country where employers were traditionally happy to delegate such responsibilities to professional politicians, Olivetti was also one of the first of Italy’s industrialists to sense the possibilities which industrial sociology could offer in securing domination over the labour process. He was also shrewd enough to recruit within progressive circles for the intellectuals ready ‘to study’ the Ivrea plant and its environs. Perhaps the best known of these would be the sociologist Franco Ferrarotti, whose effusive public enthusiasms for his employer’s ideas prompted one Communist intellectual to declare that ‘Olivetti is Allah and Ferrarotti his prophet’ (Onofri, quoted in Ajello 1979: 325).

Alquati was fortunate in his work at Olivetti to receive the aid of ten or so workplace militants active in the local branch of the PSI. The initial response within the broader workforce, however, was more cautious: after the contributions made by previous left sociologists to the intensification of labour, few were prepared ‘to lift a finger’ to help research work which did nothing to benefit them. Alquati (1975: 83, 91) too was cautious: despite the industrial unrest of 1960-61, he was of the opinion that ‘the reality of the proletariat today is one of political atomisation’. This fragmentation most commonly led to passivity; where resistance did occur, its isolation was such as to render it ‘functional to the system’. Modern capitalism had shown itself to be a social formation which ‘rationalises all aspects of social life, which plans exploitation on a world scale’. To defeat it, revolutionaries would have to break the ‘blind empiricism’ of localised conflicts, and discover a more global point of view from which to launch their attack.

In the past, Alquati argued, the relative quiescence of Olivetti had owed as much to Ivrea’s isolation from Turin and its traditions of industrial militancy as to the paternalism of its owner. By 1961, however Adriano Olivetti was dead and his philosophy of class collaboration all but discredited; in its place, the firm’s new management intended to utilise the command of fixed capital itself to guarantee its dominance over living labour. It was the struggle against this new organisation of labour – mass production regulated by the assembly line – which could, in Alquati’s opinion, provide just the foil needed to overcome the present fragmentation of class organisation within the firm (Alquati 1975: 95,117,135,141).

The most distinctive element of Alquati’s Olivetti essay when compared with the earlier FIAT pieces, therefore, was the new emphasis that it placed upon the relation between workers and machines. Prompted in equal measure by Panzieri’s reading of Capital and the more advanced form which mass production assumed at Olivetti, Alquati now judged the introduction of new machinery as a gauge of ‘the general level and the quality of the relations of force between the classes in that moment’. With the growing application of Henry Ford’s productive innovations to Northern industry during the 1950s, he noted, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s goal of ‘scientifically’ disintegrating the proletariat as a political force had won an inportant victory: ‘henceforth capital’s command could develop through machines themselves’ (Alquati 1975: 94-6, lOS, 119). In this manner machinery became an integral part of socialised capital’s edifice of domination, realised

above all through its technology, its ‘science’, the diffusion of its structures of exploitation in social life, through constant capital which embraces all, from priests and police (both inside and outside the factory) to the Stalinists. (ibid.: 103)

This process, Alquati observed, had wrought fundamental modifications upon the traditional structure of command within the workplace. Although foremen at Olivetti remained responsible for the fundamental decisions affecting an individual worker’s ‘career’ within the firm, their role – unlike that of their counterparts at FIAT – had become the supplementary one of minimising both the irrationalities of the line and the’ anomie’ of their workers. In addition, the growing socialisation and concentration of capital had destroyed the autonomy once possessed by the smaller firms of the sector. Along with their independence there died a whole tradition of Communist politics. Reduced to managing moments within Olivetti’s overall cycle, the owners of the boite committed to providing components, maintenance or a retail outlet could no longer be seen as potential allies of the proletariat, but simply functionaries of capital (ibid.: 99-103, 156-7).

The possibility that management itself might forestall the full development of the fragmentation which came with assembly line production was also contemplated by Alquati. After Adriano Olivetti’s experiments of the 1950s, his successors had shown themselves reticent to reduce workers immediately to simple appendages of constant capital, preferring to grant space for a token involvement in decision-making from the shopfloor. Such limited participation provided yet another buffer for the firm, one which reconstructed the atomised workforce in capital’s image in a manner more advanced than one based upon naked despotism. In their own small way, these schemes provided the cornerstone for the insertion of the labour movement as a whole – or at least of the unions and PSI – into capital at the national level, a development for which the more farsighted entrepreneurs now clamoured (Alquati 1975: 139).

The key to the successful integration of labour-power into the web of participation, Alquati argued, lay in management’s ability to restore to work that meaning which the new organisation of labour had itself destroyed. Such an observation made clear the decisive shift that had taken place in Alquati’s conception of the bonds linking workers to production. The message woven into the first writings on FIAT – that the proletariat was a class whose rightful place in command of the labour process had been usurped by a parasitic bourgeoisie – was now abandoned. Alquati still advocated the ‘social regulation of the relations of production by the collective worker’ as a ‘necessary condition of socialism’. Now, however, his workers were producers only of surplus value for capital, and the self-management to which the most advanced of them aspired was that of the struggle against its domination (Alquati 1975: 140, 141). Since the simple dichotomy between order-givers and order-takers was no longer adequate to express the contradictions of the capital relation, the earlier discourse on workers as ‘executors’ also came to an end:

Today the worker appears as executor only in the role of ‘fulfilling’ the plan, a role delineated in an abstract, global, generic, but political way. Therefore if workers today are ‘executors’, the sense of this word refers only to their political reification.(ibid.: 143)

Finally, while he continued to dwell at length upon the obstacles which the capitalist organisation of labour posed before the realisation of its own goals, Alquati no longer saw workers’ opposition to such peccadilloes as the expression of a deeper process of rationality.

To talk of capitalist development in terms of socially neutral productive forces which decadent relations of production had come to restrain was no longer adequate, and was replaced by an image of the open-ended opposition of class against class (ibid.: 142-3).

None the less, Alquati’s emphasis upon the assembly line did not lead to any privileging of unskilled workers within the ‘collective worker’ such as could be found in some other contributions to Quademi Rossi (Paci 1962: 165-6). As in his, FIAT study, that of Olivetti assigned a key role to young technicians in the struggle to organise factory workers as a force against management. In Ivrea, he argued, the technicians’ greater mobility within the firm granted them a global vision of sorts, making them the first to attain a class consciousness ‘in new terms’. By dint of this mobility, they were also able to assume a vanguard role, communicating forms of organisation and struggle throughout the workplace (Alquati 1975: 142).

Beyond the specific situation of technicians, Alquati was also to uncover the exploitation by employees of the organisation’s global structure as a means to pass on experiences of resistance and struggle (Alquati 1975: 143). Here was spontaneity in the true meaning of the term: workers’ informal and often non-verbalised transmission of behaviours antagonistic to the logic of valorisation by means of the ‘cooperative’ structure they were forced to endure. It was, Negri explained years later, a discourse cloaked by Alquati in ‘very abstract’ terms, but one which his own group in the Veneto immediately recognised in the behaviour of workers at the petrochemical works of Porto Marghera:

We began to follow a whole series of dynamics of sabotage: in fact no one had set out to commit sabotage, yet there existed a continuity of imperfect operations such that by the end the product was completely useless ... What is spontaneity? In reality it is my inability to establish an organisational, Le. Voluntary, precise, determinate relationship with another worker. In these conditions spontaneity acts through the very communication which the labour process as such, as a machine foreign to me, determines. (Negri 1979a: 64-5)

Alquati did not, however, believe that such behaviour would in itself lead to the recomposition of employees as a force against capital. Left to their own devices, individual forms of disruption were no match for management’s own attempts at informal organisation, the most interesting at Olivetti being what workers there had come to call ‘ruffianism’. This, Alquati (1975: 135-6, 153-4, 163) discovered, denoted the practice of those employees whose high output set the piecework norms for others. Ruffianism entailed contempt ‘towards oneself, towards workmates [compagni], towards foremen, towards bureaucrats, towards the unions, towards the Commissione Interna, towards the parties’. It was the dialectical unification of ‘the historical opposition of political atomisation and the socialisation of labour’, and as such constituted ‘the current guise of the "disposability” of the working class to the role of variable capital’. The existence of this behaviour demanded, not moral condemnation, but that the existing forms of refusal take a conscious and organised form. Now openly sceptical that the unions could contribute in any positive way to this process, Alquati portrayed the most important function of their continual divisiveness as the unwitting promotion amongst workers of ‘the necessity of surpassing them with a political organisation’. . .

Alquati’s investigation of Olivetti also underscored the identical form of the class relations in which the labour-power of both East and West had come to be ensnared. It was the modern USSR, he argued, which inspired private capitalism at all but the macroeconomic level, as it was young technicians in Poland and Hungary - ‘authentic wage labourers’ - who had shown that the’ spectre of proletarian revolution’ was universal (Alquati 1975: 87, 104). From such sensibilities, common within the American and French ultra-left analyses that had touched Quademi Rossi, Alquati would now draw out a sense of internationalism new to the Italian left (ibid.: 331). This was one based, in Bologna’s words (1981: 11), not upon ‘organisational vectors and ideological affinities’, but rather upon the ‘international homogeneity of the behaviours in struggle of productive workers’.