Technicians - the Missing Link?

Submitted by Juan Conatz on May 29, 2012

Occasionally present in the disputes of the early and mid-1960s, it was only really in the latter half of 1968 that Italian technical workers came into their own as an industrial force in Italy. The epicentre of their mobilisation over wages and the reorganisation of production lay between two poles. The first contained the highly qualified workers of Milan's electronics sector, then the most dynamic within the network of large and medium-sized manufacturing plants of that city. The second was based upon the employees of various industrial research facilities in the North and Centre (Lelli 1971; Dina 1972; Low-Beer 1978; Lumley 1990). With tertiary training increasingly common amongst them, such workers were unusually sensitive to events in the world of higher learning; many followed the vicissitudes of the MS with great interest. For those workerists such as Bologna wary of the theory and practice of 'external' vanguards, these technicians, with their strikes, demonstrations and workplace occupations, seemed momentarily to offer 'the ideal vector' - a 'bridge' between workers and students, to defeat the gulf between factory and university struggles (Bologna 1981: 15).

In Italy at that time, as in much of the West, the terms of Marxist debate on technicians had largely been set by the French sociologist Serge Mallet. The central thesis of his 1963 book The New Working Class held that capitalist development, far from deskilling all layers of the workforce, had led to a substantial rise in the level of qualifications and skills. Along the way, it had created a stratum of specialised workers who occuppied a strategic place in the planning and execution of production. According to Mallet, a deep-rooted sense of frustration with capitalist property relations was widespread amongst such technicians, many of whom yearned to exercise their own control over production (Low-Beer 1978: 14-22). In the expressive prose of Andre Gorz, whose Strategy for Labor advanced similar positions in the following year:

The impossibility of living which appeared to the proletarians of the last century as the impossibility of reproducing their labor power becomes for the workers of scientific or cultural industries the impossibility of putting their creative abilities to work. (Gorz 1967: 105)

For Mallet, the adherence of technical staff to a strategy for socialism - understood as a society whose norms found sustenance in the self-management of production - was a viable political hypothesis which he was to pursue actively as a member of the left socialist PSU (Partie Socialiste Unifie - the (French) Unified Socialist Party) (Howard 1974). While certain exponents of classical operaismo such as Tronti (1967a: 28) were dismissive of {a couple of technicians boasting they produce surplus value by pushing buttons', others, following Alquati's work in Quademi Rossi, would treat the problem more seriously. One such workerist was Bologna{ who possessed firsthand experience in organising white-collar staff from his days as an Olivetti employee. In a brief account of {The discourse on technicians', Bologna (1965: 15) set out to confute a notion popular in Italy amongst the leaders of the CGIL left. For the latter, technicians represented 'not only the expression, as labour-power, of the most advanced level of capital, but also the political expression of the most advanced movements of the class'. This interpretation, Bologna claimed, simply re-echoed all the Second International debates around the labour aristocracy, and risked using purely sociological criteria to make political distinctions within the working class. Further, the theory of the technician as a 'revolutionary' figure was, at least in the minds of its French proponents, tied to an empirically invalid assumption. This was that the deskilling and massification of modern production had reduced the majority of workers to depoliticised atoms lacking 'a general vision of the mechanism of production' (ibid.: 16). For Bologna, instead, 'no sociological distinction between the various levels of labour-power can lead us automatically to a specific discourse on technicians' because politically 'advanced' sectors could not be deduced a priori from the structure of the labour process. Only a post festum analysis 'following the path traced by workers' struggles' could determine their relationship until then, the role of technicians in the struggle against capital could only be an open question (ibid.: 17).

By early 1969, with many technicians actively engaged in industrial disputation, such tentative conclusions were no longer adequate. More concrete was the document produced by employees of the Comitato Nazionale Energia Nucleare (CNEN - the Nuclear Energy National Committee) laboratories near Rome. There the presence of former members of the local student movement amongst staff helped to ensure that many of the central industrial themes of 1969 - flat wage increases, the attack on grading scales, decision-making in the hands of assemblies rather than union officials - were prominent. Scientific research, it was argued, was not a neutral and benign force currently misused by the bourgeoisie. In the age of mass production, science had become indispensable to capital, as necessary to the task of class domination as to the process of valorisation (Piperno et a1. 1969: 173-6). Furthermore, the latter-day socialisation of labour had subordinated research and development to taylorist norms of production. Both in the parcellised and repetitive nature of its labour process, and in the structure of its rates of pay, the modern research institute was now organised according to the same criteria as industry generally. Wage differentials, for example, were 'functional to the maintenance of a quite precise hierarchical- repressive structure and, ultimately, to the political control of the mass of workers'. While a small minority of specialists wielded considerable power within this pyramid of command, the great mass of technical staff, especially those without tertiary training, were simply forced to endure the organisation of labour (ibid.: 186).

Interesting as it was, the CNEN paper's desire to emphasise the deskilled and factory-like nature of labour for the majority of workers at CNEN led it to say very little about the peculiarities of technicians as specialised workers. This question was to be taken up instead in early 1969 by Bologna in 'Technicians as producers and product', an essay he co-authored with Francesco Ciafaloni, a Marxist from outside the workerist tendency. In these authors' opinion, the label technician could be applied to all those workers, whether manual or white collar, whose role in production was based upon the performance not of simple labour, but of skills acquired through specialised training. Such a broad definition, they acknowledged, embraced 'most workers in a complex and diversified society none the less, it retained a certain heuristic value due to its ability to link together workers {in otherwise unrelated situations' (Bologna and Ciafaloni 1969: 152). In this sense, then, it applied most adequately to those employees who, even if massified, were separate from the mass worker: namely, those staff involved the conception as well as execution of production. The subsumption of such labour-power to capital, if an actuality, was only formal, since the peculiar 'tools' for which they are sought on the labour market - in particular, the social knowledge which they physically embodied - could not yet be easily separated and counterposed to them as fixed capital.

Bologna and Ciafaloni (1969: 151) began their discussion by noting the diametrically opposed connotations that the 'proletarianisation' of technicians had come to assume within the Italian left. For some, technicians constituted the central core of the modern working class in quest of self-management; for others they were personnel whose compromising location in producton made them fit only to intervene in others' struggles as external cadres. A different interpretation held that technicians were workers with no distinctive attributes at all, yet another that they were employees with their own specific struggles to fight within the general front against capital. Favouring the last of these conceptions, Bologna and Ciafaloni criticised Mallet's outlook for its potential corporatism. The very nature of many technicians' relation to their product - over whose contents they already exercised far greater control than workers on the line - offered limited but real possibilities of enjoyment, and thus. identification with the existing division of labour. Given thiS, 'a struggle of technicians for self-management could easily transform itself into a struggle to become a ruling technocracy'. In any case, the initial assumption held by Mallet - that the mass of semi-skilled workers had been co-opted by capital- was, 'at least in Italy, empirically false'. While it would be mistaken to say that the mass worker's struggles were intrinsically revolutionary, it would be just as absurd to deny their current breadth and intensity (ibid.: 160). Bologna and Ciafaloni's harshest criticisms, however, were reserved for those who saw technicians as nothing but the raw material for the revolutionary party. To begin with, the great majority of the intellectually trained, who were currently inserted in the labour market as either technicians or executants of 'cognitive roles', were quite different from the vanguard of declasse bourgeois intellectuals bearing 'socialist' consciousness to the masses of Lenin's day. Such a formulation was, in any case, politically objectionable, since it restated 'the division of roles between leaders and led, which is what we want to combat' (ibid.: 159).

According to Bologna and Ciafaloni (1969: 153), the peculiar status of technicians as workers who embodied their 'capital' revealed the limitations of conceptions which posited the basis of class domination within production 'in subservience to a machine'. While such a forced dichotomy between social relations and machines risked undermining their own depiction of technology as 'a political response' to working-class struggle (ibid.: 154), Bologna and Ciafaloni's emphasis upon the division of labour went to the core of the problem of specialised labour. If the pyramid structure of the modern firm derived its sustenance solely from the logic of class domination, it was within the layer of intellectually trained staff that the effort to establish a neat bifurcation between functions of command and functions of production collapsed (ibid.: ISS). Yet a motivation for these employees to challenge capital did exist, according to Bologna and Ciafaloni. Ironically, they offered here the same contradiction as that advanced by Mallet, counterposing the technicians' supposed autonomy in production to the reality of the 'passively repetitive' work which many of them had come to endure (ibid.: 158). If by dint of their social origin and function within the firm, neither clerical nor managerial staff were likely to engage in a collective questioning of the organisation of labour, it was 'precisely technicians who constitute a possible exception to this rule' (ibid.: 156). The essay's final note was one of caution. Given that 'the main victims of the present division of labour' remained the manual workers, it was impossible to determine in any objective manner how and why particular technicians would take their side. In part this was because 'the factory has not yet been analysed as a social reality', in part because 'the alignment of technicians is not a given, but a product of struggles'. Not just any struggles, however; technical staff also had to challenge that division of labour from which many of them benefited. Consistent with workerism's precepts, Bologna and Ciafaloni located the unifying thread of such an attack in the wage struggle: but this, they insisted, could not become a magic formula, since capital was always able to effect new divisions in pay. To be serious, the struggle by technicians against the division of labour within the firm would have to be joined to an attack upon the division between manual and intellectual labour within society as a whole, starting with 'a profound critique of the education system and its complete overthrow' (ibid.: 157).

In this manner 'Technicians as producers and product' pointed towards a strategy involving workers, both specialised and semiskilled, in alliance with students as 'pre-workers'. Recognising that the potentially positive relationship between technical workers and their work demanded that their struggles be closely entwined with those of the mass worker, the essay none the less acknowledged a specific role for the former. Unfortunately, as with Bologna and Daghini's earlier discourse upon students, such an approach was to be quickly swept away with the enthusiasms of the Hot Autumn. If echoes of their position could still be detected at Potere Operaio's 1970 conference (Berardi 1998: 115), the situation had changed fundamentally by the following year. Infatuated with the theme of insurrection, the group would finally dissolve the specific attributes of technical workers into those of industrial labour as a whole. Now all labour was simple labour, and technicians faced with the choice of either bolstering capital's command, or else acting as 'an agent in the enemy camp' (Potere Operaio 1971h: 15). Once again, the problems of complex labour would have to await the uncertainties of the mid- 1970s for a more balanced assessment by the workerist current.