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Mapping Pathways within Italian Autonomist Marxism

Mapping Pathways within Italian Autonomist Marxism: A Preliminary Survey Historical Materialism 16 (2008) 111–140

How to interpret the contours of autonomist Marxism over the past quarter century? Before 1979, any discussion of the topic would necessarily have centred upon the Italian experience.

And yet by the early eighties, with the previously close bonds between labour process, movement and theory seemingly broken, the project that had come to be known within Italy as operaismo (workerism) looked to be smashed ‘into pieces’.1 As a consequence, whatever could still be called Italian ‘autonomist Marxism’ appeared at that point to be, outside the work of a few isolated individuals, largely a matter of historical curiosity. As Valerio Evangelista later recalled, by that time:

all the best militants were in jail or on the run, we found ourselves with hardly any theorists … there were few comrades left, the young people who earlier had been with us in consistent numbers (if not all of them) distanced themselves. The response to such a situation was the social centres – but in the sense of their negative side, of an almost natural tendency, where the social centre became an oasis, a ghetto, even if that wasn’t true in every case.2

A decade later, however, the picture had changed significantly within Italy. The preparedness of many social centres to come out of their shells and engage with other social forces was matched by a growing intellectual curiosity amongst new generations of young activists: in part for the practices and ways of seeing that emanated from the operaista experience, but even more so for the work of some of that movement’s survivors. By the beginning of the present decade, this interest in the writings of Italian theorists commonly labelled as autonomist – first and foremost, Antonio Negri, but also Paolo Virno and Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi – had become evident in the English-speaking world as well, whether on the streets with the so-called ‘anti-global’ movement, or at the sales counters with the publishing success of Empire. To put it in Enda Brophy’s words, the resurgence of interest in the work of some former participants in operaismo may well pay testimony:

to the fact that far from being anachronistic, autonomist thought has demonstrated a tremendously resilient ability to mutate along with the times.3

The purpose of this paper, then, is to provide some leads for those interested in exploring in detail what has happened within ‘autonomist Marxism’ since the defeats of the Italian movement at the end of the seventies. As will be seen, any such discussion will oblige us to cast our gaze far beyond the Italian context. As countless writers have indicated4, ‘autonomist Marxism’ has never been a purely Italian phenomenon, and its international diffusion is one of the most distinctive aspects of its development since 1979. Of course, the notion that this exercise can be carried out in sufficient detail within the confines of a single paper is absurd. Nonetheless, it may be possible at least to engage in some sort of preliminary reconnoitres, survey the broad lay of the land, poke around in a few nooks and crannies, and from all this compose questions worthy of those braver souls prepared to accept this challenge.

But first a few cautions concerning labels. If some of us who have puzzled over the question tend to equate Italian ‘autonomist Marxism’ with many of the threads stemming from operaismo, it’s also worth remembering that a) this label is not typically embraced within such strands; b) these threads hold quite divergent views as to the relationship between their current work and the workerism of the sixties and seventies. Berardi, for example, prefers to speak of ‘compositionism’5 (referring to the method of reading class composition), while Negri is emphatic that fundamentally new forms of social relations demand a break with conceptual frameworks developed in a different era, starting with operaismo itself. If we turn to the person who first coined the term ‘autonomist Marxism’ – Harry Cleaver – we find that his own usage implies something broader than operaismo and its aftermath:

What gives meaning to the concept of ‘autonomist Marxism’ as a particular tradition is the fact that we can identify, within the larger Marxist tradition, a variety of movements, politics and thinkers who have emphasized the autonomous power of workers – autonomous from capital, from their official organizations (e.g. the trade unions, the political parties) and, indeed, the power of particular groups of workers to act autonomously from other groups (e.g. women from men). By ‘autonomy’ I mean the ability of workers to define their own interests and to struggle for them – to go beyond mere reaction to exploitation, or to self-defined ‘leadership’ and to take the offensive in ways that shape the class struggle and define the future.6

If nothing else, then, perhaps the term ‘autonomist Marxism’ itself deserves to be reviewed as part of the process of making sense of what has come after 1979: does it help to explain the processes under review, or might they indicate its very limitations?

For that matter, how cohesive was Italian workerism itself, even in its heyday? The extensive primary research carried out since the late nineties by Guido Borio, Francesca Pozzi and Gigi Roggero bears out their characterisation of operaismo as ‘neither a homogenous doctrinaire corpus, nor a unitary political subject’, but rather ‘multiple pathways with their roots in a common theoretical matrix’.7 All the same, certain core elements can be identified. Speaking at a moment when the tendency had seemingly reached its nadir, Sergio Bologna offered the following thoughts on this ‘common theoretical matrix’:

I believe above all that operaismo was an exaltation – sometimes uncritical – of the working class, but also a great exaltation of power. operaismo was born, not by chance, with Operai e capitale. It’s not clear which was greater: the paean to the working class, or that to the capitalist capacity of subsuming this working class from the point of view of its components. So it was not by chance that many of its theorists later became theorists of the State, and today are only theorists of governability. And I don’t believe that we can call the latter traitors, because this eulogy of capital’s power [potenza] is a risk within operaismo, which later became the eulogy of the power of the political as such, of the autonomy of the political. This is an extremely coherent consequence, I believe. It is not some leap, a moment of transformation: in my opinion, it is a logical consequence.8

Nor did this dichotomy disappear with the embrace by Tronti and others of the Italian Communist Party. Berardi has shown in some detail the manner in which these two spirits played themselves out within Potere Operaio9, while Bologna would conclude in the mid seventies that a permanent contradiction existed between political organisation and class autonomy.10 And if some of those who embraced the project of class autonomy in this period would place the emphasis upon the party, others, like Yann Moulier Boutang, saw things somewhat differently: ‘Naturally what I liked about the invisible party of Mirafiori was not the party but rather the invisibility’.11

Ironically, one of the strongest affinities binding those who have shared in the tradition of operaismo is precisely a contempt for traditions – particularly ‘revolutionary traditions’. After all, it was a commonplace within the workerist literature of the sixties and seventies to exalt the discontinuities and leaps both in struggles and in ‘working class science’, in organisational projects no less than theoretical developments. To put this in the words of Tronti’s classic text Operai e capitale, all great discoveries—‘ideas of simple men which seem madness to the scientists’ – have been made by ‘dangerous leaps’, by breaking ‘the thread of continuity’.12

As with the relationship between autonomy and power, however, this notion of discontinuities could be taken in quite different directions: at one extreme, perhaps, there was Negri’s argument in the early eighties celebrating ‘Communist transition [as] absence of memory’13 (and the abandonment of the dialectic as a useful explanatory tool of social antagonism), at the other Peppino Ortoleva’s insistence a few years earlier, in reference to class antagonism in the United States, that

the hegemony of capitalist culture, and its version of American history, does not translate into a tabula rasa of the ‘collective memory’ of the American working class. A store of working class traditions remains, but it is the patrimony not of the American proletariat as a whole, but rather—disarticulated and sectionalised—of individual groups of workers, of rank-and-file union experiences etc.14


In trying to make sense of all this, before 1979 and after, it will be impossible to survey the terrain properly without constant reference to the work on operaismo by Borio, Pozzi and Roggero, published in 2002. Their book Futuro Anteriore provides a rich (and at times provocative) overview of the themes addressed in the interviews, while its associated CD-ROM of nearly sixty interviews is the richest single documentary source to date of reflections from participants in the operaista experience. Here is how Sergio Bologna made sense of that project:

It was a strange event and it surprised all of us, considering that amongst us there were people who had not spoken nor had any personal relations with one another on any level for years and years, so divergent were our individual paths. One day in 2000, without denying their past, though critical of their experiences, they agreed to recognise themselves in a common tradition.15

What follows, then, will draw not only on materials produced across the arc of time from 1980 to 2005, but also some of the reflections captured in the fieldwork of Borio, Pozzi and Roggero. Along the way, it will illustrate a point made in Enda Brophy’s excellent survey of ‘operaisti after operaismo’, Recounting an important conference held in Rome in 2002, called in part for the launch of Futuro Anteriore, he reminds us that for all the talk of a ‘common tradition’ after 1979,

Deep differences over key issues of theory and practice have further distanced some of the protagonists of those years from each other, a process which had already started by the end of the 1960s as the level of social conflict in Italy escalated.16


How to map this fallout from the operaismo of the sixties and seventies? A number of different approaches spring to mind here: maps constructed in terms of tendencies, or of projects, or of categories. As regards the first approach, Chris Wright has produced a very interesting chart of ‘different tendencies within libertarian Marxism’, which is useful in situating autonomist Marxism against a broader political and intellectual history [Figure 1]. Originally designed to accompany an online text archive, the stress is placed upon ‘track[ing] unique contributions in theory and practice’, while acknowledging that ‘these are not perfect matches and the relations are in fact much more complex’. Wright’s map differentiates between ‘operaismo (1960-72)’, ‘Autonomia (1972-80)’, and ‘Autonomist Marxism’, while indicating the influence upon each of other currents, such as the Johnson-Forest Tendency. Turning to an accompanying discussion document, however, it becomes clearer just how complex some of the relationships have been. Take relations within the English-speaking world between ‘open Marxism’ and autonomist Marxism, something we will return to below. As Wright himself indicates,

Depending on who one talks to, Open Marxism includes autonomist Marxism or autonomist Marxism includes Open Marxism, though the separation over the importance of Hegel and the question of dialectic seems to provide a basic grounds for differentiating the two tendencies.17

Another limit in organising a map in this manner is apparent when we seek some correlation between ‘tendencies’ on the one hand, and individuals or collectivities on the other. For example, where might we situate Primo Moroni – a quintessential ‘libertarian marxist’ – within such a diagram? For rather than move from tendency to tendency over time, as more than a few have done in their political education, Moroni’s work was long infused by what he himself once called ‘this indefinable area that stretches from the bordighists to the proto-situationists, the councillists, to the internationalists, the anarchists, to the anarcho-communists, the libertarian communists’.18


All of which brings us to my original starting point: a map that Primo Moroni drew up sometime in the late eighties [Figure 2]. Moroni had something of a flair for the visual representation of information: those who have seen his maps charting the placement and displacement of movement spaces in Milan will already be familiar with his handiwork.19 The ‘map’ to which I refer here, however, is different: it seeks to show the connections between the major expressions of revolutionary media in Italy for the thirty years that followed the workers’ uprising in Hungary. In doing so, it aims to tell a story across time about space: not so much geographical space — although that too is hinted at, in part — but rather that kind of ‘space’ that spawned talk of an ‘area’ of autonomy.

Let’s look at Moroni’s map for a moment. For those who have seen them, it recalls a number of other cartographical efforts: one, back in an issue of L’Espresso from around 1969, that seeks to chart all the tendencies that passed through or near the student movement of that time. A similar diagram illustrates the Red Notes (1979) volume Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis, where the names of leading militants are added to the jumble of political organisations and publications that attempted to challenge the hegemony of the Italian Communist party (PCI) during the seventies. Moroni’s map, by contrast, is both more austere in its presentation and more intricate in its detail. As it shows clearly, if the broad array of journals established in the sixties rarely lasted more than three or four years, they spawned a lush outburst of publications in the seventies – although in many cases, not before an interregnum when party-building projects predominated within the Italian far left. And as the forest of arrows highlight, the cross-fertilisation between many of these projects was continuous and often ‘virtuous’ (i.e. the arrows do not by any means represent only a parting of ways within particular circles, but in some cases connections through joint projects or even overlapping membership).

A careful examination of Moroni’s map suggests a number of other things worthy of note. The first, which is perhaps not so obvious to begin with, concerns the three broad columns that flow down the page [Figure 3]. Looked at more carefully, it becomes possible to discern, on the left of the chart, projects associated in some way with the libertarian and/or counter-cultural sensibilities within the Italian radical left: from the situationists and Collegamenti on the one hand, to Re Nudo and Radio Alice-A/traverso on the other. Another column on the right records projects whose lineage can be traced (bearing in mind the significant breaks involved in each stage) from the PCI through to Il manifesto and then the Roman autonomists (and the Trontians of Laboratorio Politico make an appearance here for good measure). In the middle column there is ‘the central trunk’ of operaismo, passing from Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia, via Potere Operaio, to a host of autonomist publications such as Rosso, as well as Primo Maggio and other enterprises (many of which were linked in some way to Moroni’s bookshop Calusca).

The second point is that, to Moroni’s mind at least, the most important expressions of revolutionary media in Italy by the mid eighties – those difficult years characterised earlier by Evangelista – were largely on the broadcasting front. There are some notable exceptions, but all the same it is radio stations such as Onda Rossa and Radio Proletaria in Rome, Sherwood in Padova and Onda d’Urto in Brescia that are to the fore. Worthy of note too are ‘radical Metropolitan events’ associated with punk, a movement with whose exponents Moroni would develop an extraordinary affinity during these years.

Why labour the point over this map? One reason is that it may be worth considering what can be learned by attempting to extend Moroni’s map forward twenty years, into our own decade. Any such effort would need to address the radical media that became so important by the nineties: not simply the Internet, but also the new generation of publications that circulated at that time, alongside the networks of electronic bulletin boards (often associated with individual social centres) that interpenetrated with those journals. A very partial mapping of the early nineties would note publications like Luogo Comune, Klinamen, Riff Raff in Padua (but also the journal of the same name – but not content! – in Turin), Altreragioni, the workplace-oriented Incompatibili, alongside the likes of Virus in Turin and Zeronetwork in the Veneto, both of which attempted to make accessible, to those not online, debates and reflections circulating in the European Counter Network and other electronic forums. Some old stalwarts would also be there, such as Collegamenti and, for the first part of the decade, Autonomia (Padua). Last but not least, this flowering on the media front was also fuelled by a new engagement between a younger generation of activists and participants from movements of earlier decades. Whereas in the eighties, as Sandro Mezzadra recalled, it was ‘rather difficult’ to establish links with such people – ‘a bit because many of them were in prison or out of the country, a bit because the others (at least in my experience) were not particularly disposed’20 – now the social centres and other movement spaces hosted a range of seminars that enabled just such encounters.21

At the same time, it may be that a different kind of mapping is needed. It could be entertaining to try and trace the trajectories of individuals – then again, it might be more useful to attempt to map out the development of particular categories and concepts. So here is a different kind of map, which tries to represent the evolution of categories over time since the eighties [Figure 4]. The terms should be familiar enough: they represent some of the key categories used in efforts by certain writers touched by the workerist experience to understand the nature of social subjectivity over the past generation or so. The dominant term for the past decade or more within this framework is, of course, multitude. As can be seen, other key concepts connect it back to a category popularised by Negri and others in the seventies – operaio sociale. And while they continue to be used, and are of interest in their own right, terms such as mass intellectuality and general intellect can also be seen as bridges from operaio sociale to multitude: especially in the late eighties and early nineties, when movements such as the Pantera within higher education prompted some circles to engage in new reflections concerning the nature of intellectual labour.

There is unlikely to be great controversy in an exercise like this – these terms are now familiar to many English-language readers. The real point I want to make here is different: what picture emerges when we attempt to broaden the parameters of discussion, and try to encompass all those ways of seeing that have been touched in some important way by operaismo and its fallout, bearing in mind that in doing so, we are obliged to reach well beyond Italy itself?

If we attempt this, the picture before us is rather different [Figure 5]. Indeed, surveying the literature over the past 25 years, one uncovers a whole panoply of social figures. In the next section I’d like to explore each of these in turn, since they can tell us a lot about developments on this front since 1980 or so. For now we can note that whatever else, most are recognisable as class figures. In its earliest use, perhaps, multitude might have been more ambiguous in this sense – but there were always exponents of the term who have insisted on its class nature (for example, the editors of DeriveApprodi), while Negri has also been emphatic in recent years in arguing that multitude is a class category.

We could draw a similar conceptual map to represent different understandings since the seventies of Power, with terms like Empire, Warfare State, Integrated World Capitalism, Planetary Work Machine, cognitive capitalism, postfordism or New Enclosures, alongside old favourites like imperialism, capital and the state. And we could sketch out a third map that looks at the processes that characterise the relationship between capital and class (or Potere and potenza if you prefer): older terms like self-valorisation, self-determination, restructuring, the refusal of work; newer terms like exodus, strange loops, cooperation, common, guaranteed income, and non-state public sphere.

Still, it’s the pathways that are the most intriguing things to explore: the various threads of argument, with all their twists and turns: the intersections, the echoes, and the silences that resonate between both these threads, and the movements and events they seek to comprehend. The next part of this paper, then, will review some of this material, conscious – as stated at the beginning – that much remains to be done before we can properly understand the wealth as well as limitations of the various threads that have descended from operaismo’s collapse a generation ago.

After 1980

There are worse ways of following some of these pathways than by examining in turn at each of the social figures displayed in the last map. The first – easy to overlook, since many have long considered it as much a dead dog as Hegel – is mass worker. Here some of the most fascinating work was carried out in the aftermath of the FIAT defeat, often by editors of the journal Primo Maggio, culminating with Marco Revelli’s magisterial history of Lavorare in FIAT.22 But can the mass worker be dismissed as a subject of purely historical interest? Guido Bianchini once pointed out that ‘The end of development in one place is development elsewhere’, and the past twenty years have certainly seen ‘mass workers’ place their stamp upon a range of once ‘peripheral’ social formations, from Korea to South Africa.23

Another important exploration of class composition after 1980, again spearheaded by some members of Primo Maggio, concerned workers in the transportation sector, and the journal’s work in this area can be seen as anticipating significant cycles of struggle that continue into the present day.24 While Primo Maggio would finally close its doors in the late eighties, Bologna has continued with research into working class history, with studies of the German workers and Nazism, and the development of class composition in Italy. As always with historical research conducted by exponents of the ‘school of class composition’, contemporary political concerns were never far away.25 But to Bologna’s mind, much of his most important labour-related research has addressed a social subject quite removed from those examined by operaismo in its glory days: the self-employed worker, whose numbers in Italy were increasing markedly in the early nineties. As he put it at one of the public meetings called to discuss the research of Borio, Pozzi and Roggero,

Self-employed labour, to go back to a theme dear to my heart, is no longer capable of that conflict of which operaismo conceived: that is, of workplace conflict [conflitto sindacale] as conflict par excellence. Not because it is not so disposed subjectively, but because the structure of the relations of production has changed. So a pedigree workerist [l’operaista would cancel self-employed labour from the list of subjects, and treat it as the multitude’s swamp and Vendée.26

In the mid eighties, many Italian ‘pedigree workerists’ took heart from the COBAS phenomenon, wherein networks of unofficial rank-and-file groupings primarily based in the public sector (first and foremost, railway staff and teachers) challenged both their employers, and the traditional role of unions in representing employees’ interests within the wage relation. While articles on the COBAS can be found across the ex-workerist and left libertarian press of the time, it was in those journals with a particular focus upon the paid workplace – Collegamenti, and later Incompatibili – that the most space was devoted to the new groupings, along with the so-called alternative unions which came in their wake in the nineties. With similar movements appearing in France and Spain, the question of such workers’ struggles against restructuring – their potentialities for extension into the private sector, the corporatist temptations which they faced – meant that the circumstances of public sector employees were often to the fore within concrete class composition analyses carried out in the years that spanned the mid eighties to the early nineties.27

As Paolo Virno has argued, the experiences of the ‘Movement of ’77’ left a vast range of questions unanswered, questions which would resurface again from the eighties around discussions of social conflict in a time of so-called ‘post-fordism’.28 In terms of the meaning of political recomposition, such questions included matters of representation and organisation; in terms of changes within class composition, they included the growing importance for capitalist accumulation of labour processes apparently outside the fordist workplace regimes that had engendered the mass worker. One of these key concepts raised in and around 1977, only to make a significant resurgence in the last decade, is that of precarity. The matter continued to concern the likes of Collegamenti and Primo Maggio into the early eighties, where the focus was often upon short term work projects provided for government authorities.29 In terms of a continued practical reference point for this concept within Italy, the struggles of precarious workers wove themselves in and out of a number of broader social conflicts as the eighties progressed, starting with the education sector. By the mid nineties, ‘precarity’ had become a theme taken up by a section of the social centres movement (an early manifestation of the Tute Bianche was as activists around casualised working conditions) with whom a younger generation of workerist-influenced theorists were engaged.30

The exploration of casual workers’ experiences was also a central theme for a German circle that took up class composition analysis in the eighties.31 As some of them later explained to John Holloway,

In the beginning of the 1980s the cycle of factory worker struggles was over, but for many young people it was inconceivable to adjust to wage labour and to work away at a job until reaching pension age. Additionally, we ourselves refused to strive individually through a professional career for a better place in the capitalist hierarchy. Out of this grew the practice of jobbing: to do any old shitty job for a short time, in order then to have time for ourselves, for political struggle and for pleasure. In formal terms, we worked under conditions that would later be characterised by the sociologists as ‘precarious’ in the sense of being vulnerable to one-sided measures by capital. But it was even easier then to use the regulations of labour law and the welfare state for our own needs.32

As the editors of Wildcat went on to detail, their initial stance shifted significantly as the decade advanced. In the middle of the eighties, however, a former member of the journal Zerowork could be heard arguing that a critical engagement with the informal economy might also provide a ‘basis for social autonomy’. In contrast, Sergio Bologna’s comments at a 1984 Canadian conference on operaismo and Autonomia characterised the notion of ‘precarious labour as self-liberation’ as no more than a passing phase, doomed to extinction with the shakeout of the informal economy itself.33

As is well known, circumstances surrounding casual or precarious work would be rather different by the late nineties, when a younger generation connected to Wildcat developed links with small groups elsewhere in Europe (e.g. Precari Nati in Italy) and initiated a workers’ enquiry into the condition of call centre workers.34 While their efforts would provoke controversy in some quarters35, they can also be seen as an important spur to a new – and welcome – round of enquiry and co-research undertaken in recent years across a number of European countries.36 In terms of movements, work around precarity has likewise been fundamental to the networks that have made such a success of EuroMayDay of late. Then again, as Angela Mitropoulos has argued in a recent issue of Mute, if precarious labour has in fact been the norm rather than the exception during the capital relation’s history, then perhaps in certain cases ‘the recent rise of precarity is actually its discovery among those who had not expected it’, given their blindness to longstanding hierarchies within waged and unwaged labour.37

In the seventies, migrant worker was almost another way of saying mass worker within the operaista lexicon, and a number of studies on the subject appeared in the Materiali Marxisti book series and elsewhere.38 As Yann Moulier Boutang makes clear, however, even during workerism’s heyday, the differing circumstances between Italy and elsewhere paid short shrift to any attempt to transpose insights mechanically from one social formation to the other, particularly in terms of understanding what migration might mean for the process of class recomposition:

I have not yet spoken of an encounter that was decisive for me: that with the comrades of immigation. In fact the question of immigration interested our Italian comrades, especially those of P[otere] O[peraio]. However Italian immigration was interesting as a mode of propagation, but it was not the theoretical problem of immigration as a fracture [spaccatura] within class composition, as a real problem of the latter. I remember that it was difficult to explain to our comrades at FIAT or to Romano Alquati that having 22 nationalities is not the same thing as having one Italian working class: even if there were Italians from the South, it was something different. And when 300 Tunisians were hired at FIAT in ’73, I remember perfectly that I said to Alquati, to Toni and to others that this phenomenon needed to be watched closely, because it was very important. That they did not was, I think, a great error …39

Moulier Boutang’s own work, as is known, has placed migration at the centre of its reflections. And in Italy itself, particularly since the beginning of the nineties, there have been a number of important studies of migrant workers and migration, beginning with writers connected to the journal Altreragioni.40 In terms of the emergence of an identifiable postoperaista sensibility, an attentiveness towards migration has dovetailed with political work around migrants and detainees in Europe. For Sandro Mezzadra, it was an encounter with the research of Moulier Boutang, alongside his own political work in Genoa, that brought home an understanding of migrants as active agents, rather than simply passive victims at the mercy of their circumstances.41 According to Mezzadra, then, the circumstances of migrant workers can be seen as emblematic within contemporary class composition, so long as one avoids reductionist temptations:

We cannot get rid of ‘generalizing’ concepts precisely because we are aware of their limits, which are the limits of a commonality which cannot be stressed at the expenses of the plurality of peculiar subject positions which defines the composition of living labor. In this way we can talk for example of migrant labor as a subjective figure which shows an element of commonality which is shared by the whole of contemporary living labor (that is, a general attitude to mobility and flexibility, the subjective counterpart of the ‘flexible regime of accumulation’ described for instance by David Harvey), without for this reason on the one hand sacrificing the subjective and objective peculiarity of the experience of mobility by migrants, and without on the other hand forgetting the radical diversity of migrants’ experience itself.42

Thus far the social subjects explored have each had a certain sectoral specificity, for the all the claims that might be made on their behalf in terms of commonality. Before turning to the category multitude, I want to address two other concepts that others with an operaista past have engendered in their efforts to construct a more global reading of class composition today. The first of these is the hyper-proletariat, a term coined by Romano Alquati. Long a subterranean influence within the social centres in Turin, Alquati’s writings have continued to appear, largely through small publishing houses, across the eighties and nineties. Alongside detailed reflections upon the techniques of co-research, his work has advanced a distinctly original approach to class analysis, the origins of which can be traced back to his ruminations in the seventies on the proletarianisation of intellectual labour. For Alquati, hyper-proletariat must be understood as ‘a great meta-class’ that today is instantiated in a panoply of moments. So many moments, in fact, that it seems to have disappeared, at least within the self-awareness of its members, who perceive themselves instead as part of ‘an enormous multitude’ made up of seemingly diverse (and sometimes counterposed) interests. Encompassing the unemployed and many of the formally self-employed, the hyper-proletarians, according to Alquati, currently endure circumstances wherein they ‘admire, exalt, copy, fetishise means (and technologies and machines in particular), even in work. They are convinced that means are more capable than they are. They are mistaken’.43 For Alquati, nothing less than a ‘hyper-communism’ is needed to achieve ‘the suppression of the hyperproletariat, even as multitude’ …44

Franco Berardi’s notion of the cognitariat has certain points of convergence with Alquati’s work, especially in the attention paid to the subsumption of intellectual capacities to capital, as well as its curiosity as to what that subsumption might mean for the psyche. But like other postoperaista approaches, many of the most important premises informing Berardi’s outlook are quite alien to Alquati’s efforts to maintain, come what may, a particular reading of marxian categories such as value. Evolving from earlier reflections upon ‘the virtual class, that is the cycle of globalised mental labour’45, Berardi’s is an optimistic view that sees possibilities for the self-organisation of ‘cognitive labour’ in the wake of the dotcom crash and global opposition to the current war in Iraq. His cognitariat is narrower, however, than the multitude: perhaps it is the ‘online’ facet of that immaterial labour described by Lazzarato and others. At the same time, Berardi’s analysis is far from being a celebration of so-called ‘virtual’ culture. As he argued in a 2002 interview,

The idea of the cognitariat, and of the ‘cognitarian’ as a member of the cognitariat, is connected to the idea that during the last years, perhaps the last decade, we lost touch with our body – with our social body, and our physical, erotic body. Net culture and all the new forms of digital production and new media have erased our relationship with our social body. But at the time of social and economic crises we are forced to take account of the fact that we do have a body, that in fact we do have a social and a physical body. Cognitarians are the workers of the virtual production. There is a moment when they can become aware of the fact that they are not purely virtual, they are not purely economic, that they also are physical bodies.46

It would take a separate essay to explore the category multitude, which is unquestionably the best known of all the terms touched upon so far. The central role of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in formulating and popularising the term is unquestionable. Along with its counterpart Empire, multitude has been adopted as an explanatory tool by a range of influential circles within anti-capitalist movements both in Europe, and far beyond. Not surprisingly, and again like Empire, it has also been the subject of considerable controversy: not only in the eyes of those left currents that continue to see the world through the lens of marxist-leninist orthodoxies, but also for many in what might be termed the libertarian and antagonistic lefts. These debates are well-known, and the literature on the subject is already extensive. What is more relevant for the discussion here are the sometimes complex, yet discernible bonds that link multitude to a number of earlier categories, from operaio sociale to mass intellectuality. In trying to unravel that lineage, the reader begins to discern a number of debates in both Italy and beyond, involving not only Hardt and Negri, but also the likes of Paolo Virno, and many of the authors who have been associated in some way with the journal DeriveApprodi. With Virno, for example, we find nuances that resonate differently to some of those central to Hardt and Negri’s work: amongst other things, we are directed to think about what Arianna Bove and Erik Empson have called ‘the dark side of the multitude’.47 And it would be remiss not to mention at this point Nick Dyer-Witheford’s rereading of the categories multitude, general intellect and immaterial labour through the prism of Marx’s concept of species being, which has also been advanced by engagement with the work of Hardt and Negri.48

The last category concerning social subjectivity may well be the least known of those under discussion, at least within Italy itself (although some forums, such as Altreragioni, have provided space for arguments emanating from this camp). Since the late seventies, alongside workerist feminists such Maria Rosa Dalla Costa49 and Silvia Federici, and in the light of mass struggles over reproduction and land, Americans associated first with Zerowork and then Midnight Notes have offered an original reading of class composition that, in positing the centrality of unwaged work (whether in the home or in subsistence farming) has paid particular attention to struggles over debt, energy, and enclosures.50 It also involved a critique of those positions within Zerowork that, like postoperaismo in later times, argued that capital had somehow slipped loose from the yoke of value relations. If anything, the unexpected arrival of the Zapatistas on the global scene has only further stimulated work around these perspectives, which can now be found online at websites such as The Commoner. As George Caffentzis explained to the Greek circle TPTG,


Once you saw that the unwaged sector of the working class is really the foundation of the accumulation process then a new priority inevitably develops … Introducing unwaged workers is not a matter of a contest over who is of ‘more or less importance’ or of who is more or less exploited, but of having a better understanding of what keeps capitalism alive. Once you bring into focus the largely unwaged part of the reproduction cycle of labor power, then your politics change dramatically. You immediately have to deal with divisions and hierarchies that are often neglected by working class movements and are even engineered into working class organizations. One merely has to glance at the scandalous history of working class racism and sexism to get the point.51

So there you have it: a whole gamut of social figures, many of which overlap in content while often differing in emphasis. Which raises another question: is all of this primarily about the search for a privileged layer within class composition, one that can assert its hegemony over the class as a whole? Monty Neill and other members of Midnight Notes have been emphatic on this score: if much of the operaismo of the sixties and seventies entailed efforts ‘in analyzing or searching out class vanguards’, ‘to do a class composition analysis’ today means ‘not to locate a new vanguard, but to help the many class sectors come together’ in ‘the class struggle to cease to be proletarian’.52 One useful exercise, therefore, would be to interrogate the various accounts of the social subjects above from this perspective. Another would be to explore the contemporary meaning of the old workerist category of ‘cycle of struggles’ and its relationship to ‘development’. Can an ongoing dialectic still be posited between the two, as some world systems theorists have done? Or has the bond connecting them snapped forever? In either case, what are the implications for a project of social autonomy aimed at escaping the capital relation altogether, rather than surviving within it as amenably as possible?

Only connect

‘Only connect’, opening up channels of communication internationally, this is at least as urgently on the Italian agenda in the 1980s as it was in the early 1960s – in spite of a new dimension of massive arrests, authoritarian threats, and attempts to atomize collective interests.53

With these words, Ferruccio Gambino closed his brief 1981 account of Italian links to other revolutionary experiences since the days of Socialisme ou barbarie and Correspondence. And if thanks to this and other texts, we now know something about such links, a lot more work needs to be done in tracing the role of those individuals like Gambino, Ed Emery, Harry Cleaver and John Merrington who – before and after 1979 – provided gateways through which reflections upon theory and practice could pass in and out of the English-speaking world.54

If interesting work was undertaken in a number of other countries by operaismo-influenced writers during the seventies, these tended nonetheless to be overshadowed by developments within Italy itself. That situation changed after 1979. While much translation was undertaken of certain Italian materials in the early eighties – in many cases inseparable from solidarity work with those authors in prison – one of the consequences of repression from 7 April onwards was a heightened geographical expansion in theoretical reflection and research marked by some kind of operaista perspective. In part this stemmed from the diaspora of intellectuals in exile: above all to France, but also elsewhere in Europe or the Americas. But it was also the case that the reverses suffered by exponents of autonomist Marxism within Italy also drew attention – to those who still cared – to the work of their compatriots in other places.

France, of course, assumed a pre-eminent role early on as a centre for the unfolding theoretical aftermath of operaismo, especially with the sustained engagement between Negri and Deleuze and Guattari. By the end of the eighties, the French connection would be taken to a new level with the founding of the journal Futur antérieur, which also involved an engagement with others (such as Jean-Michel Vincent) whose background lay in French trotskyism.55 Other enterprises attempted in exile proved less fruitful, recounts Alisa Del Re, ‘due to the differences we had interiorized at the end of the Seventies’.56

In the Britain of the late eighties and early nineties, there were resonances with the so-called ‘open Marxism’ of John Holloway, Werner Bonefeld and others, some of whose theorists, like those of Collegamenti, made explicit reference to earlier council communist traditions. Within Italy in the early eighties, the journal Metropoli can be seen with hindsight as something of a precursor of postoperaismo, bringing together figures whose paths had often been quite separate in the times of Autonomia organizzata. Prison too proved a space that sometimes enabled new intellectual and personal bonds, closing pre-existing distances based upon political alignment or age, forging friendships between the likes of Sergio Bianchi and Luciano Ferrari Bravo that would have their own significance in the years to come.

Growing access to the Internet complicated the picture still further a decade later. By then, we can also see efforts to bring understandings of autonomist Marxism developed elsewhere to bear upon the Italian scene. Here is how Massimo De Angelis recalls the early days of the journal Vis-à-vis:

I thought that, just as the impact of operaismo and Italian Marxism represented a breath of fresh air for American Marxism, opening it to the thematics of subjectivity, reproposing in Italy a series of works from American autonomist Marxism (which was sensitive and open to a series of thematics left in the margins by us) could in return contribute positively to going beyond musty old diatribes and rigid political and theoretical attitudes.57

Whether that particular exercise proved successful remains a matter of debate. One the other hand, as Enda Brophy has pointed out, for more than a decade there has been an engagement between certain English-language writers in communication studies, and some Italian theorists identified with postoperaismo. Perhaps the emblematic text here on the English-language side is Nick Dyer-Witheford’s Cybermarx, published in 1999.58 From the Italian side, Franco Berardi – whose own reflections frequently percolate into English via media activist channels intrigued with his work in Telestreet and elsewhere – has demonstrated a similar interest in Dyer-Witheford’s writings. Less well known amongst English-language readers, yet of great relevance in this regard, is Christian Marazzi’s work on the place of language in contemporary production, collective identity and conflict.59

If the threads of autonomist Marxism had become even more diffuse by the nineties, there were nonetheless some forums which served as points of encounter. Without question the most successful of these has been the journal (and now publishing house) Derive Approdi, which has become the important crossroads for encounters between different viewpoints from the many strands stemming from operaismo – and the place of a certain contamination and dialogue between them and other experiences. In recent times Derive Approdi has extended its gaze beyond Italy, to examine social conflicts across the globe in the wake of the ‘movement of movements’. The new interest within the academy for Negri's work has also opened a certain space for a new generation of writers/translators/commentators, including Arianna Bove, Timothy Murphy, Alberto Toscano, Matteo Mandarini and Damiano Palano.60

In their account of operaismo, Borio, Pozzi and Roggero argue that at its peak, the tendency established a mechanism through which the ideas of a small band of theorists were transmitted, via a diffuse layer of cadres, to a broad mass movement.61 Whatever the accuracy of their assertions, no-one could seriously advance such claims about the relationship between the theoretical strands of Italian autonomist Marxism and the movements that have emerged since the eighties. All the same, certain linkages can sometimes be traced, especially since the nineties. But while the differences amongst certain autonomist marxist frameworks during the nineties paralleled in part differences within the revived Italian movement itself, anyone with personal experience of such matters can say how imperfect such parallels could sometimes be. To take two examples at random: by the mid nineties a growing affinity could be detected between Antonio Negri and the political formation descended from the dominant autonomist faction in the Veneto twenty years before. On one fundamental level, however, that of self-defined political identity, important contrasts could still be seen, with Negri continuing to claim the mantle of communism, while the circles around Radio Sherwood and the ‘rete autonoma del nord-est’ explicitly abandoned that label. In a similar way, the journal Vis-à-vis then published materials for the most part of a distinctly left libertarian stamp, yet the political tendency with which the majority of its editors were associated – Autonomia di Classe – was rather broader in its composition, shading into neo-leninist positions at odds with the situationist and councillist resonances within the journal itself.

Finally, it mustn’t be thought that many of the connections being established or re-established after 1979 were only the work of threads emanating from the central trunk of operaismo. In the eighties, Collegamenti translated materials not only from Wildcat in Germany, but also Processed World in the US. Alongside the importance it assigned to struggles in Africa, Midnight Notes on the East Coast expressed an early interest in the Swiss autonomist movement, and the book Bolo’Bolo, by a Swiss editor of the journal, found a certain resonance with Processed World on the West Coast. And in Britain, one of the most consistent interlocutors with operaismo and its aftermath has been the editorial collective of Aufheben, a journal whose sensibilities are informed by left communism as much as anything else.

Wrapping things up for now

My answer is, ‘it depends’…62

I’d like to end on a provocative note: first with some thoughts about the varying understandings of a few other key terms and texts, then with some comments taken from the interviews carried out for Futuro Anteriore. There are a number of points of references that, whatever the passage of years, remain as crucial markers for understanding what has happened in so-called autonomist Marxism since 1979. Let’s start with Marx’s ‘Fragment on Machines’, which first made its appearance in Italian in the pages of Quaderni Rossi. Here, it’s hard to resist asserting the following: ‘Tell me your views on the “Fragment on Machines”, and I’ll tell you your views on everything else’. Many of us are familiar with the different postoperaista treatments of this text – above all that provided by Paolo Virno, which dovetails with his reading of Marx’s category ‘communism of capital’63 – and can discern easily enough the political consequences that stem from those interpretations. But there are other, lesser known readings that also deserve consideration. Some may be aware of Alquati’s continued insistence that the key consequence of Marx’s line of argument in this section of the Grundrisse is that capital can not escape socially necessary labour time’s function at the heart of its own valorisation.64 But what can we make of his assertion, back in 1977, that

Above all Marx is not speaking here of the future, but of the capitalist system of his time, of the factory as it already functioned then. He is not speaking in fact of the end of capitalist valorisation, but of a passage within the real subsumption of the textile industry towards the middle of the nineteenth century.65

Another theme worthy of exploration is the borrowing from other social theories by strands emerging from the wreckage of operaismo. Some of this ground has been well-covered, particularly in terms of engagement with French theory (but how many commentators reach back before 1979 to examine in detail the French connection to ‘mao-dadaism’ in Bologna?). Other terrain is less well-known. For example: how did the category of post-fordism become a fundamental explanatory device for so many of the ex-workerist strands after 1979? Unlike the debate within the English-speaking left (much of it in the academy, especially in and around the world of radical geography)66, where those who adopted this term as a useful explanatory tool often saw postfordism as a positive development for workers, former workerists in Europe have tended to embrace the category, which imbuing it with largely negative connotations.67 Only Ferruccio Gambino, to my knowledge, has explicitly rejected the term as ‘a rather blunt instrument’. Where others see the ‘smooth world’ of Empire, he sees a growing regionalisation of capitalist blocs within which a diversity of strategies are deployed to secure the subordination of ‘the labour factor’:

not the transition to a post-Fordist model, but a continuous recombination of old and new elements of domination in order to decompose labour power politically within a newly flexibilised system of production.68

This paper takes its title from Tolkien – for family reasons I have been subjected in recent times almost endlessly to the cinematic version of his trilogy. But the sense of return it tries to suggest is rather different to that of Frodo. It is a sensibility evoked by Mario Dalmaviva, one of the many participants in the operaista adventure who deserve to be better known outside Italy. This is how he characterised the state of things when interviewed for the Futuro Anteriore project back in February 2001:

In my opinion there was a great social revolution in Italy. It didn’t become a political revolution as we had wanted, and yet it happened, and it prompted a ferocious reaction from the other side [controparte] that’s continued up until the present day. They won, but not only don’t they know where they’re going, they don’t even know where they are. The problem is that we don’t know either.69

The second comment is from Alisa Del Re, one of the few female voices within what has always been a largely male enterprise70, and whose interview for Futuro Anteriore is the first to be published in English. A workerist feminist whose political and theoretical work charted its own distinctive course from the seventies, Del Re was also amongst those imprisoned as part of the notorious ‘7 April case’. Looking back over the past 25 years or so, she has this to say:

Today, when I hear of the feminisation of labour, affective labour or immaterial labour, I laugh: it feels like they are joking because we used to say these things every day in the ‘70s, when we imagined that there is a form of labour that is neither accountable nor measured and yet is what makes us reproduce the labour-power and allows for material production to take place, something without which material production is impossible. The fact that, when it was emerging, the movement never made these issues its own allowed the capitalist productive structure a great advantage that we are now chasing after, because all current debates on immaterial labour and, I insist, affectivity (Toni calls it precisely that, as well as ‘affection’) in production, are things that capital has already made operative. In this there is another issue that women have long debated and that in my view could correct from a theoretical standpoint this analysis of immaterial production: this is the issue of the body. This is not to say: ‘we have a body that we have to take care of because we have to be healthy, we are not happy with our body and so on’. Capital has already talked about this. Our argument is rather that production is certainly immaterial, but this cannot come into reality independently of bodies.71

The final word goes to Paolo Virno. Reflecting upon the early nineties, when Luogo Comune and Futur antérieur developed different, yet in part complementary, social analyses – analyses dissected with typical aplomb by Ferrari Bravo72 – he identified certain important limits of certain participants in the early postoperaista project:

Its attention was always directed more to understanding, for better or worse, some guiding lights, rather than truly facing up to the processes of class recomposition, with their ambiguity and character which, far from given, was often blocked.73

In a subsequent interview with Borio, Pozzi and Roggero, Virno suggests that since Seattle, there has been a growing ‘representation and self-identification’ of those layers of social labour-power closest to the movements against global capital: ‘mass intellectual labour, linguistic labour, precarious labour’, albeit often in an ‘ethical-symbolic’ sense. Noting that such layers have ‘exploded’ the chain of class figures traditionally identified by operaismo (professional worker, mass worker etc.), he draws us back to:

one of the most interesting questions of the whole workerist tradition, even if it is rarely thematised as such: the form of struggle was the lynchpin [soglia] connecting the class’s technical composition and political composition, it lies at the heart of the various theories of organization. So the problem is how the movement can turn to the terrain of the relations of production and therefore how – on the level of migrations, of intellectual property, of the social working day – it can damage and bring down the adversary.74

The book Empire famously presents the contemporary world system as one in which power is decentred – an assertion that has, of late, been subjected to increased questioning.75 Whatever the truth of the matter, the time has come to examine the various threads stemming from operaismo in a similarly decentred way. Above all, this will mean judging each on its own merits as a contribution to comprehending contemporary global power relations as a whole – not simply those entailing ‘some guiding lights’ – and so in terms of how each such thread can best contribute to the collective project of ‘damag[ing] and bringing down the adversary’.



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