I Get Knocked Down, But I Get Up Again?
This is an excellent introductory article to Autonomist Marxism written by Steve Wright that was published in a Melbournian magazine/newspaper called State of Emergency (2004). It has disappeared from the interwebs since, so I thought I’d republish it. Steve has written lots of material, some of which appears on libcom.
I Get Knocked Down, But I Get up Again?
Do autonomist ways of seeing the world still have anything to offer? Certainly many of those once influenced by them — including a few prominent autonomist thinkers themselves — have in recent times moved a long way from some of their earlier standpoints. For that reason alone, it’s worth thinking for a moment about what was once one of the most important phrases in the autonomist vocabulary: class recomposition. A generation ago, the editors of the journal Zerowork defined it in these terms:
the overthrow of capitalist divisions, the creation of new unities between different sectors of the class, and an expansion of the boundaries of what the ‘working class’ comes to include.
Over the years, those influenced by autonomist perspectives have often argued about how best to facilitate this process. At the same time, they have tended to agree that, however devastating the previous round of defeats, capital’s tendency to ‘expand the boundaries’ of class relations can only lay the basis for further mass challenges sometime in the future. Some of the Italian workerists of the sixties (from whom the autonomists later sprang) developed quite an elaborate model of recomposition based upon a recurrent cycle of struggle/crisis/restructuring. Capital would bust up one configuration of workers who had built their power within the accumulation process — say the craft workers who dominated so many Western labour movements a century ago — leading to ‘decomposition’ and defeat. In time, another configuration would arise to challenge the divisions imposed by capital: perhaps making use of existing forms of organisation, more likely inventing something new, better suited to its needs. According to these Italians, the next entrant into the fray in the twentieth century would be the ‘unskilled’ and interchangeable worker employed in mass production. The apparent anonymity and individual lack of worth of this new ‘mass worker’ eventually became the basis of a collective identity that demanded ‘more money, less work’. The new class composition in turn threw the existing social regime into crisis, necessitating another round of restructuring which aimed to decompose and defeat the class yet again. And so on and so on until a world without bosses, or ‘the mutual ruin of the contending classes’ (Marx).
The process of recomposition has often been attributed a privileged site: typically the workplace, but sometimes beyond it. One classic location for the original Italian workerists was the assembly line at FIAT’s enormous Mirafiori plant, which brought together a migrant, usually male, young and restless workforce in an environment where hatred for work discipline was contagious. On the other hand, some workerist historians of the seventies saw the territorial forms of organisation developed by Spanish and Italian syndicalists nearly a century ago as an effective means of forging links across a multiplicity of small enterprises. In a similar fashion, Sergio Bologna’s essay ‘Tribe of Moles’ cast some of the Italian universities of the late seventies in the role of meeting places for workers scattered between a range of small and medium enterprises or the public services. The point that these workerists wanted to make was that there could be no single organisational formula suitable for every circumstance, since organisation and program were of necessity a function of the particular issues thrown up by each process of recomposition.
One of the more thoughtful discussions of recomposition was penned in the mid nineties by Monty Neill and other editors of Midnight Notes, as part of a broader reflection upon the significance of the Zapatistas. In making their case, they criticised the traditional workerists for tending to privilege one layer of the working class over the rest: that is, for claiming that this stratum’s strategic location within the accumulation process (eg car workers in the sixties) made it a fundamental reference point and trend setter for other sectors in struggle. This traditional understanding of recomposition had already been shaken up somewhat in the seventies however, when the womens’ movement forced the question of gender relations onto centre stage. As Maria Rosa Dalla Costa and others pointed out at the time, marxists had long argued that capitalist domination rested upon the appropriation of unpaid labour in the process of production, yet had been blind to the function of women’s unpaid labour in the home and other sites of reproduction. Of equal importance to this widening of the notion of the working class was the need to unravel and challenge capital’s efforts to divide workers, both waged and unwaged, along gender lines. For this reason, in 1972 the group Lotta Femminista, of which Dalla Costa was then part, criticised the workerists of Potere Operaio for accepting the viewpoint of those male wage workers who felt that the employment of women ‘diluted’ their own pay and conditions:
In seeing women as the instruments of capitalist attack upon the wage, P.O. navigates in dangerous waters. The traditional motive for attacking the migrant worker, especially if he or she is black (or Southern), is that their presence threatens the conquest of the indigenous working class. It is exactly the same thing that is said of women in relation to men. The anti-racist (and thus anti-nationalist and anti-sexist) point of view, the point of view of struggle, is to discover the organisational weakness which permits the more powerful sections to be divided from those with less power — in other words, the organisational weakness which, by permitting capital to plan this division, defeats us. Today this question is one of the fundamental questions which the class must confront.
Is recomposition sufficient in itself to dissolve the capital relation? Is the overcoming of its own internal divisions and hierarchies all that the working class needs to do in order to undermine the state? The fear that capital and the state would never permit class recomposition to reach fruition led many in Italy’s autonomist movement of the seventies to ‘whip out their Lenin masks’ (as Sergio Bologna once put it), and try to spur things on every time the process seemed to falter. The Italian movement of that time ultimately ended in defeat: in part, thanks to the very actions of its own self-styled vanguards. If anything, the situation in terms of class recomposition has only got messier over the intervening years. Today there are no obvious ‘driving sectors’ of struggle, even if it is possible to point to some ‘strange loops’ connecting apparently unrelated struggles across the globe. Perhaps some of the former autonomists are right to argue that the cycle of struggle/crisis/restructuring, which had informed their original understanding of class recomposition, has finally come to the end. And yet, for all the bleakness that surrounds us at present, it’s worth asking whether, we too, might not be living through a period in which a new process of recomposition is once again underway. Since making sense of today’s class composition puzzle is a task too important to be left to specialists, it might be useful to conclude with the list of things ‘to do’ that ends the Midnight Notes text mentioned above:
- ‘Exchanging knowledge (not just ‘information’) about how new class political recompositions are emerging or trying to emerge in particular struggles.
- ‘Proposing strategies as to how such emerging recompositions can themselves deepen or can interact with other class forces in mutually reinforcing ways. This involves listening to and watching the struggles, but also participating in them.
- ‘Carefully analyzing how such recompositions or suggested strategies might be levelling existing class hierarchies or capitalist relations within the working class, and doing so to push and prod each of us past the narrowness and limitations we necessarily have as products of a capitalist world division of labor.
- ‘Using analysis of capital’s strategies and development to suggest cautions the working class should heed; by learning from struggles, we might help each other avoid capitalist traps.
- ‘Strengthening an analysis of capital that actually helps in figuring out its weaknesses and how best to attack it.
- ‘Figuring out forms of immediate political organization that can utilize their own division of labor without reproducing internally a capitalistic division. Since it seems highly evident that no one person can keep up even in a cursory manner with all the aspects of struggle, sharing that work though political organizations is necessary, as is developing supportive and cooperative relations among many organizations.
- ‘Translating as well as developing new political language, so we can actually communicate.’
If any of the above sounded interesting, you may want to look at:
Harry Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically — a useful introduction to autonomist theory <http://www.eco.utexas.edu/facstaff/Cleaver/357krcp.html>
Harry Cleaver — an interview on autonomist theory <http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/3843/cleaver.html>
Sergio Bologna, ‘The Tribe of Moles’ — a classic discussion of Italian revolutionary politics in the seventies <http://www.emery.archive.mcmail.com/public_html/sergio_bologna/moles.html>
Sergio Bologna, ‘Nazism and the Working Class 1933-1993’ — learning from the German experience <http://www.emery.archive.mcmail.com/public_html/sergio_bologna/nazism.html>
Antonio Negri, ‘Archaeology and Project. The Mass Worker and the Social Worker’ — a text reviewing the Italian debates of the seventies <http://www.geocities.com/cordobakaf/massworker.html>
Monty Neill and others, ‘Toward the New Commons: Working Class Strategies and the Zapatistas’ — rethinking class recomposition in the nineties <http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/3843/mngcjm.html>
Beverly J. Silver, ‘The Time-Space Mapping of World Labor Unrest’ — a world systems theorist looks at cycles of struggle on a global scale <http://www.irows.ucr.edu/conferences/globgis/papers/silver.htm>
Wildcat — writings by a German circle that draws upon class composition analysis <http://www.wildcat-www.de/en/eindex.htm>
Kolinko — an enquiry into call centre workers from a class composition perspective <http://www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/kolinko/engl/e_index.htm>
Aufheben — critical surveys of autonomist theory and research on class composition (eg the Kolinko project), as well as analyses of current social movements <http://www.geocities.com/aufheben2/>
Dave Graham — a first hand account of the Liverpool dockers’ dispute in the nineties <http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/3843/dockhome.html>
Nick Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-Marx — ‘an analysis of information-age capitalism and the movements currently dissolving it <http://www.fims.uwo.ca/people/faculty/dyerwitheford/ >
The Commoner — contemporary writings on class composition by Maria Rosa Dalla Costa, Massimo De Angelis and others <http://www.commoner.org.uk/>
Steve Wright, Storming Heaven — an attempt to trace the origins of Italian autonomist theories of class composition and struggle
Aut-op-sy — a discussion list that occasionally addresses class composition <http://lists.village.virginia.edu/~spoons/aut_html/>