The term Workerism (English translation of the Italian word Operaismo) refers to a political and cultural tradition that can be traced back to political and theoretical practices emerging in Italy in the early 1960s. Workerism is nowadays a globally well-known current of thought. The publication of prominent works such as Empire (2001), Multitude (2005), Commonwealth (2011), and Assembly (2017) by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri has contributed tremendously to it. Moreover, the publication and translation into English and other languages of seminal works by other workerists such as Christian Marazzi, Paolo Virno, Maurizio Lazzarato, Mariarosa dalla Costa, and Silvia Federici, to name only a few, has established workerism on an international scale. Workerism is not a unitary political theory; it does not refer to a school of thought or to a single political subject. It is rather the encounter of multiple and diversified pathways in which we can recognize some common roots. Workerism pays specific attention to the function of subjectivity; it describes political and social processes as intrinsically ambivalent and considers the ideas of conflict, dissent, or transformation as crucial elements for interpreting the changes of our contemporary societies.
The attention workerists (operaisti) pay to the dimension of subjectivity can be traced back to the primary importance they have attributed to the notion of class composition since the beginning of the movement. This dimension was already important in the Italian workerism of the early 1900s. This was a kind of workerism imbued with the anarcho-syndicalist positions of Georges Sorel and the experience of the newspaper “Ordine nuovo” co-edited by Antonio Gramsci. It referred to the subjective figure of the professional worker, in which the handcrafted skill with its know-how still played an important role, although this professional worker was about to be integrated in the factory.
When the term workerism is employed today, one immediately thinks of the kind of political and theoretical experience which emerged in the Post-War years, or more precisely, in Italy in the early 1960s. Crucial works such as Workers and Capital by Mario Tronti, and the political work around the Italian journal Quaderni Rossi, which counted among its founders Raniero Panzieri, Romano Alquati, and Danilo Montaldi, can be considered as the pillars of the initial experience of workerism. If, on the one hand, the question of class composition and of subjectivity were still crucial in the new form of workerism of the 1960s, on the other the new workerism broke with the previous form since it introduced a new concept and practice centered on the idea of the refusal of work. In the workerism of the early 1900s there was still an idea of the pride of producers towards their own activity. This pride could not but disappear with the theorization of the refusal of work. This refusal was not only a political theorization, but the acknowledgement that the working class refused the work discipline imposed in the factories. Through political interventions in the factories, based on the method of “con-ricerca” (co-research, collaborative research), workerists could show that workers hated their work and refused their condition as workers. This refusal of work functioned as an impulse for political and social transformation. In this connection workerism was breaking with an ideology based on an ethics of work that has been the ideological cement of all socialist and communist traditions.
Workerists paid special attention to the great transformation of the capitalistic mode of production. In the 1960s and throughout the 1970s there were important changes of the mode of organization of work in the factories. A new class composition and a new subjective figure was about to emerge. The traditional figure of the professional worker was disappearing, since automated processes centered on the employment of machines were replacing it. The assembly line, a pillar of the Fordist mode of production, did not require a professional worker anymore, but rather an unskilled worker, who could perform repetitive, alienated and standardized tasks. This new figure of the worker, which emerged in this so-called Fordist stage of capitalism, was centered on the figure of the mass-worker, as the workerists called it.
While the transformation of the reality of capitalism was not at the center of the interest of the classical left wing political organizations, it was, in contrast, the main interest of groups of intellectuals, activists and researchers who conducted their first inquiries in the factories. These experiences contributed to the emergence of the current of Operaismo. The workerists looked at new forms of struggles that were invisible to traditional working-class organizations. Being unable to see the new forms of resistance, of alliances, of active struggle, the classical socialist and communist organizations could assume that struggles were simply not taking place, or that the working class was slumbering. On the contrary, the workerists were able to bring to light the multiplicity of new forms of struggle: refusal of work, sabotage, individual and collective resistance to the organization of the factory discipline. A new microphysical landscape of resistance was emerging. It was this new landscape that the irruption of 1968 couldn’t but enlarge. In fact, 1968 was the irruption of a new cycle of struggles, which were no longer based only on the opposition between the working class and capital, but also on conflicts involving several other issues: culture, imagination, language, forms of life, reproduction.
Until 1968, while analyzing the form of class composition, workerists had focused on the figure of the mass-worker. Mass-workers were migrants mainly coming from the South. The cultural stereotype, still persisting today, consisted in depicting them as “poor guys”, victims of modernity and of under-development. But the inquiries of the workerists produced a completely different account of the situation. To be sure, workerists also described the suffering and the state of deprivation of the migrants. But they also drew attention to the fact that these migrants were forced to move in the search for new forms of life, by desires, needs and curiosity, that gave them the power to flee from the misery of the peasant condition, even though this flight could also assume the guise of an illusory search for mass consumerism. These new subjects were not politicized and did not enter the classical political organizations. Reactionary forces as well as socialist and classical communist organizations targeted them as lazybones, opportunists, and reactionary subjects. In contrast, the workerists understood that behind these forms of “opportunism” there was a refusal of the work and its ethics, and also a refusal of the political and trade-union representation.
As a result, workerism was overturning a picture that had dominated the whole socialist and communist tradition. If the working class has always been presented as a victim, as a passive subject on which the development of capital imposes its own laws, if it has been reduced to an exploited labor force, the operaists were overturning this thesis by showing that capitalist development is subordinated to the working-class struggle. The logic is reversed. Movements, individual and collective resistance oblige capital to resist, to invent new forms of exploitation and new forms of organization of labor in order to bridle the force of living labor.
The mass-worker was a figure on the edge of a structural passage of capitalism. It was a thread stretched between two processes: if the professional worker had been replaced by the mass-worker through the processes which brought about the factory, the introduction of automated processes, the decentralization of factories, and the diffusion of production in the whole of society were contributing to the disappearance of the figure of the mass-worker and to its replacement through the figure of the social-worker, i.e. the worker who no longer works (or not only) in the factory, but is employed in different fields in the whole of society. This is what was at issue in several political interventions by Antonio Negri in the 1970s. In particular his long interview on workerism (Dall’operaio Massa all’operaio Sociale), published in 1979, brilliantly sums up the thesis. However, this new figure needed to be better defined. We could say that workerism becomes post-workerism when it starts reflecting on the passage from the social-worker to the definition of a new subject, a new class composition centered on the idea of the cognitive worker or cognitive labor. Post-workerism elaborated on this definition, involving the new characterization of labor activity as centered on cognitive labor. In this connection post-workerism starts analyzing the capitalist passage towards a post-Fordist society. To some extent post-workerism was fueled by the Italian community in exile in Paris, which gave birth, among other projects, to the political experience of the French journal Futur antérieur starting in the early 1990s, which also converged with many other intellectual experiences coming from French philosophical and political discussion.
Post-Fordism appears as the age of capitalism which was able to metabolize the critique and the antagonistic charge of the movements which struggled against Fordist society: the critique of wage-labor, the flight from the factory-prison and from the assembly line, “flexibility” as a keystone of the critique practiced by political movements in the 1970s, were assumed and reversed by the capitalistic counter revolution which started in the 1980s and which brought with itself new forms of exploitation. If flexibility in the 1970s signified the possibility to conquer new spaces of freedom, to liberate oneself from the slavery of the factory regime, then in the 1980s it became a new regime of exploitation that took the form of precarity, a political attack on the conditions of life of people. The passage from Fordism to post-Fordism was orchestrated by the capitalist counterrevolution; but it was orchestrated as an answer to the struggles of the political and social movements.
If the mass-worker was the political subject who determined the crisis of the Fordist society, post-workerism is nowadays struggling in order to define the new political subject who will be able to determine the crisis of the post-Fordist system.