In Praise of Annoyance

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A review by Steve Wright of L’operaismo politico italiano by Gigi Roggero (DeriveApprodi 2019)

More than fifteen years ago, Gigi Roggero helped to produce an important work that assessed the merits – along with many of the failings – of the tendency that had come to be known as operaismo. More than simply an “ism”, the book that Roggero co-authored with Francesa Pozzi and Guido Borio (Futuro Anteriore, DeriveApprodi 2002) concerned itself with the legacy of the operai-“isti”, those militants whose lived experience had created one of the most dynamic class political projects in postwar Italy. For a brief but decisive moment in the 1970s, subjects infused with operaista sensibilities were enormously influential in the country – in social movements, in the official labour movement, in scholarly fields from philosophy or political economy to historiography or sociology. Then it all came crashing down, along with the grand cycle of struggles with which it had been entwined. And while there was something of a revival of interest in operaismo within certain circles at the beginning of the millennium, during the height of the No global movements, this was part of something rather different, a “post-operaismo” with a difficult and at best partial relationship with what had come before.

Introducing the book of interviews entitled Gli operaisti (DeriveApprodi 2005), Roggero, Pozzi and Borio made the important point that operaismo was neither ‘un corpus dottrinario né un unitario soggetto politico’, but rather ‘molteplici sentieri che hanno la propria radice in una comune matrice teorica’. Rightly or wrongly, many of those pathways became associated with specific individuals: most famously, Mario Tronti or Antonio Negri. Less well known, but no less important, are the operaismi associated with other names – from Sergio Bologna or Romano Alquati to Mariarosa Dalla Costa or Leopoldina Fortunati. And perhaps most important of all, there was the operaismo of militanti operai e operaie who, as Riccardo Bellofiore and Massimiliano Tomba have reminded us, ‘fosse ben piu’ avanzato della riflessione dei teorici della corrente’, while remaining the least known of all the workerist experiences.

Now, with L’operaismo politico italiano: Genealogia, storia, metodo (DeriveApprodi 2019), Roggero sets out to make the case, in concise and accessible prose, as why the experience of operaismo and the gli operaisti might be worthy of consideration by a new generation of readers today. Above all, he asks on the opening page, “perché parlare di operaismo quando ormai si è consumata da tempo la sconfitta di quel soggetto che sta alla radice della sua definizione, cioè della classe operaia di fabbrica, ovvero il tramonto della sua centralità politica?” His answer, as set out across six short chapters and a concluding interview, is that if operaismo was a product of its time, the method it has bequeathed – its way of reading class politics, the questions that it posed about class subjectivity: in sum, ‘a method and style’ developed from a partisan perspective – continue to offer something that reaches beyond the particular context within which the tendency emerged.

This book will be useful to a number of audiences. For those who are new to the trajectory of operaismo, it provides a clear overview of the central moments in that tendency’s development – from the labour movement's crisis of direction in the 1950s, the encounter with the “new forces” within the working class at FIAT and elsewhere in the early 1960s, through to the undertaking of Potere Operaio and other organisations a decade later. For readers more familiar with this story, the book provides a re-reading of operaismo that is both salutary and provocative, one that stresses above all the role within it of subjectivity and militants.

The first chapter of L’operaismo politico italiano sets the scene: above all the 1950s, the years of crisis in the labour movement even as capital itself could begin to boast of a new ‘miracle’ of economic development. The hidden side of that miracle, of course, was the (often migrant) workers whose labour power fuelled this new cycle of postwar accumulation. Here we meet a host of young, disaffected and imaginative comrades, who would play crucial roles in what subsequently unfolded. The second and third chapters chart the work of the journals Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia, within which Raniero Panzieri and Mario Tronti would respectively play pivotal roles in the development of approaches to political engagement that were rather novel in the Italy of that time, revolving around the analysis of class composition, understood in turn as a dynamic relationship. Classe Operaia, of course, heralded the birth of operaismo proper, and as Roggero makes plain, its legacy was both complex and ambiguous, leading ultimately to a significant parting of the ways within the operaista camp.

Tronti has often argued that operaismo had come to an end by 1968 or thereabouts. As Roggero demonstrates in his fourth chapter, however, there was ‘un operaismo oltre l’operaismo’ that extended well into the 1970s. If anything, the tendency was invigorated by the struggles of the late 1960s – not only winning more militants to its banner (as did most currents in the far left at that time), but also engaging in important further reflections about class composition. At this point I want to register my biggest regret with this book, in the fact that its author did not devote as much space for the 1970s as he did to the decade that came before. What Roggero writes here is useful and informative – indeed, in his account of Alquati’s reflections of the time, it is fascinating – but I for one would have liked to seen more, not only about Potere Operaio or Rosso, but also other workerist circles in and beyond Autonomia, including more heterodox projects such as Primo Maggio or Collegamenti. Then again, perhaps that is something to consider for a second edition…

While Roggero evidently has his own distinctive approach to operaismo, it is also evident how much his thinking has been shaped by a prolonged encounter with the work of Alquati. So much so, indeed, that the whole fifth chapter of L’operaismo politico italiano, penned by Guido Borio,is given over to a discussion of this comrade – “un cane in chiesa” – who continues to be the least discussed of the tendency’s founding figures. Alquati’s theoretical contributions, formulated and reworked in the course of more than forty years, were idiosyncratic in the best sense of the word. By this I mean that they were driven by the need to understand both the nature and the shifting context of the process of class recomposition, through which those possessing nothing but their ability to work have sought to challenge the divisions imposed upon them by capital. Not only did Alquati play a central role in developing two of operaismo’s most important gifts to anti-capitalist politics – the analysis of class composition, along with its own distinctive approaches to conricerca – but he continued to pursue the exploration of these themes wherever they might lead him, long after others had dismissed them as “inattuali”. “Segui il tuo corso, e lascia dir le genti”, the author of Il Capitale had once advised, paraphrasing Dante. In Alquati’s case, “le genti” were first and foremost the ceto politico of the Italian left, which has largely snubbed his work to its cost. Although much of his later work can be difficult at first reading, there is still much to be learned from Alquati’s sometimes “annoying” reflections upon the themes of ambivalence, formazione and subjectivity in (and potentially against) the capital relation. After all, as Borio concludes his chapter, “dare fastidio è forse la più significativa qualità di una soggettività rivoluzionaria”. 

Roggero’s sixth chapter reprises L’operaismo politico italiano’s central themes, arguing for why operaismo cannot be treated simply as a dead dog: we can return to this question in a moment. First, however, it is worth mentioning the interview contained in the book’s appendix, which functions in part as a summation of the book’s central themes, as well as something new: a short but vigorous polemic against “post-operaismo”. Tronti once said of operaismo itself that its legacy contained “molti fiori, pochi frutti” – but if anything, this aphorism could apply even more to “post-operaismo”. The advocates of this new current can hardly be faulted with trying to make sense of the many important social changes that followed operaismo’s defeat. But as Roggero indicates, there may well in fact be much more to be learned from those following in the footsteps of Alquati, and seeking to understand the new forms assumed in the industrialisation of labour (including “intellectual” labour), rather than in all the talk of across the past twenty or more years of the “immaterial”.

Without a doubt, something very important broke in the operaista conceptual model at the end of the 1970s. The perspectives of feminists such as Dalla Costa and Fortunati had already made clear that the earlier ignoring of reproduction was a fundamental error, but the problem extended further than this. In particular, the crushing of mass struggles raised the possibility that the cycle of ‘recomposition/capitalist restructuring and decomposition/emergence of a new recomposition at a higher level of socialisation’, so dear to how the operaisti read the interplay of accumulation and struggle, no longer functioned. Roggero puts it this way:

“La spontaneità organizzata delle lotte operaie degli anni Sessanta non è diventata la spontaneità organizzata dell’operaio sociale, non ha cioè trovato un passaggio di organizzazione adeguato. Quella figura ha continuato a essere sociale ma ha cessato di essere operaio, alla supposta oggettività della composizione tecnica non si è contrapposta la soggettività della ricomposizione politica. La spontaneità e l’organizzazione sono così diventate quelle del nostro nemico. Attorno a quei nodi, in altre forme, ci siamo dibattuti nei quarant’anni successivi.”

As Giorgio Ferrari has pointed out in a recent interview when reflecting upon the history of Autonomia romana, so much these days is different from the 1970s, when operaismo appeared to be in its prime: “è cambiato (quasi) tutto. La composizione sociale; le forme di comunicazione; i bisogni; il controllo del territorio da parte dello stato e della criminalità e (non da ultimo) la soggettività di compagni e compagne”. If operaismo has any continuing relevance, therefore, it is because some of the important questions that it then asked about class politics largely remain unanswered. Curiously, in at least one part of the world – China – the old workerist trope of capitalist innovation being driven (at least in part) by workers’ struggles seems to be very much alive.

In arguing that key elements of the operaista method continue to be relevant, starting with the analysis of class composition, Roggero finds himself in good company – amongst others, the young researcher-militants who run the website Notes from Below. With this in mind, L’operaismo politico italiano deserves to read alongside two other books that help provide important context for today: I dieci anni che sconvolsero il mondo. Crisi globale e geopolitica dei neopopulismi (Asterios Abiblio Editore 2019) by Raffaele Sciortino (another writer touched by Alquati’s analysis), and Una storia del mondo a buon mercato. Guida radicale agli inganni del capitalismo (Feltrinelli 2018) by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore. As for what the operaista tendency has to offer us today in understanding political subjectivity, that is a question over which where many of those who once traversed its “multiple pathways” were often in strongest disagreement. Roggero is correct to argue that most operaisti aimed not only to turn Marx against marxism, but also Lenin against leninism, above all on this question. Then again, some (coincidentally, perhaps, those with whom my own sympathies lie, such as Primo Maggio or Collegamenti) were no less passionate about moving beyond Lenin as much as leninism. In another short but robust book (La misteriosa curva della retta di Lenin, La casa Usher 2011) Roggero has offered his thoughts as to why perspectives such as mine are inadequate. Let us hope this debate can continue, above all in circumstances that can be both collective and practically effective. In the meantime, readers can do worse than to read L’operaismo politico italiano for themselves, before going off to explore the many related titles in the DeriveApprodi catalogue.