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3.4) Farewell to the working class? Or the limits of post-workerist dissent As discussed in the introduction, the work of Bologna and Formenti (reviewed in sections 3.2 and 3.3 above) challenges the “continuist” Anglo-American reception of (post-)operaismo by offering different interpretations of contemporary dynamics to those central to the Negrian consensus. While the work of these post-workerist dissenters shows variety in the postworkerist reflection on the KBE, it also raises the issue of dis/continuity within the (postoperaista paradigm and of the latter’s fortunes directly. Indeed, in reviewing Wright’s history of operaismo (Wright, 2002), Bologna emphasises how the heritage of operaismo has been a contested issue ever since the death of the journal Classe Operaia (Bologna, 2007, Sulla storia dell’operaismo, pp.244-257), asking whether the ‘category of continuity’, typical of the history of ‘dynasties’ and ‘parties’, is an appropriate organising principle to trace the history of a movement refusing and refuting the perspective and logic of the party itself (p.257).
Tronti, 2011 proposes Gruppo Lavoro del Centro per la riforma dello Stato, 2011 as better suited to fit within the description of neo-operaismo.
indifference to the nature of work’ and its privileging the concept of general intellect to work in crafting a ‘political lexicon’ (Bologna, 2007, p.241).
Nonetheless, however much these stances show malaise with, and provide scathing critiques of, the Negrian consensus, Bologna and Formenti’s dissimilarity from the latter should not be overstated. Indeed, it could be argued that, similarly to Negri, both authors carefully pick and choose from operaismo and its past in terms of what to retain and explicitly to discard, with past intellectual content functioning as a suspended point of reference, combined with eclectically selected empirical fragments from the present magnified into descriptions of the essence of contemporary capitalism (independent work for Bologna, prosumption for Formenti), theoretical constructs more or less arbitrarily grafted onto Marxian concepts (with what Foucault and French post-structuralism are for Negri replaced by Lederer and Weimarian sociology for Bologna, and McLuhan – although purged of ‘undue extension to digital media of his ethical point of view concerning the emancipatory potential of electrical media’, Formenti, 2011, p.148 – for Formenti), and prefigurative political analysis. However, it is in the debased use of class recomposition as analytical and organising principle that the work of postworkerist dissenters reflects the Negrian consensus, albeit in complex ways and mediated by the concepts borrowed from other theoretical bodies. Indeed, similarly to Negri, more or less implicitly and with more attention (analytically, but also practically for Bologna) to the issue of political organisation, Bologna and Formenti locate the actor of change away from, respectively, the working class or the Western working class: in Bologna’s case this is done through identifying second generation autonomous workers as class-in-the-making (thus dislocating the locus of contradiction and conflict within the reorganisation of the structure of society), whereas in Formenti’s case this is done through emphasising the importance of the outcomes of social and class struggles in China in determining ‘alignment to the western model or’ the ‘ascent of an alternative model’ (Formenti, 2011, p.138) (thus dislocating the locus of class struggle geographically). These views and analytical outcomes recall traditional responses to the decline of labour movements and struggles in the West: the demise of the capital-labour relation as locus of the main societal contradiction within advanced capitalism, and the identification of exploitation, the lasting valence of value production, and the potential for social revolution in the developing world as opposed to the capitalist core. However, rather than simply dismissing them as such, it is worthwhile to stress how such analytical outcomes depend on immanent contradictions likening this post-workerist dissent to the Negrian consensus.
Let us begin by assessing Bologna’s proposal of reconceptualisation and renewal of coalitionbuilding practices and processes within post-Fordism through emphasis on ‘second generation autonomous workers’ as ‘best candidates for’ re-founding ‘society on new and more humane bases’ (Bologna, 2007, p.70). Underlying this agenda is the assumption that this ‘way of organising productive labour’ has ‘characteristics of “typicality” for’ this ‘specific historical epoch’, with the condition of second generation autonomous work encompassing both ‘the coercive character of a specific’ (post-Fordist) ‘organisation of capital’ and the emancipatory potential intrinsic to its yearn for self-determination (p.35). Thus, to assess this agenda, two related issues need to be analysed: whether independent work can be considered as a distinct homogeneous class or class-in-the-making or, on the other hand, as a category ‘formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes’;150 and whether and how it can be considered “typical” within the contemporary organisation of productive activity. On the first of these issues, simple considerations lead to rejection of the class character of second generation autonomous work. This is not to deny that freelancing comes with its own (very often painful) constraints (especially in the Italian context, acutely covered by Bologna and Banfi), nor that part of independent work constitutes disguised waged labour.151 But, if, as Bologna asserts, assimilating second generation autonomous work to a “business” as opposed to “independent work” is an ideological operation forcibly incorporating ‘the activity of autonomous work in the symbolic and cultural sphere of the capitalist firm instead of that of work’ (p.65), the opposite operation is at least equally analytically doubtful. If anything, independent work functions as a ‘catch-all statistical category’ including ‘a range of different class positions’: at ‘one extreme are the self-employed with a few employees who can perhaps be regarded as petit bourgeois in the classical sense’, then ‘there are genuine freelancers’ working ‘for a range of different employers’, and ‘at the other extreme are casual workers whose self-employed status is a reflection of labour market weakness – people who lack the negotiating muscle to insist on a proper contract even though they are effectively working for a single employer’. Furthermore, self-employment is often not a permanent state (as also widely acknowledged by Bologna and Banfi), with well-documented high rates of churning, which makes it even more ‘difficult to regard self-employment as a stable marker of class identity’ (Huws, 2003, p.168). This is even more so given that many of the phenomena that Bologna associates with second generation autonomous workers have affected the labour force in general. Indeed, and firstly, since the 1970s, neoliberal restructuring has resulted in the intensification of the pressure for working hours to augment with increase in working hours across advanced capitalist countries, both for individual workers and socially (Basso, 2003). Thus, the phenomenon of working time spilling over into the free time of workers is certainly not confined to independent work.
Much ‘as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes’ (Marx, 1852).
However, assessing how substantial this part is remains an empirical task.
Secondly, in the current climate of corporate restructuring, ‘changes in work contexts and content’ have entailed a compulsion for employers ‘to seek a more intensive utilization of labour power’, resulting in ‘a qualitative intensification of labour’ which, neither classifiable as ‘conventional upskilling or deskilling’, requires the mobilisation in the workforce of ‘a broader palette of skills and sources of labour power’ (including tacit knowledge and skills, emotional commitment and involvement, etc.) (Thompson, 2010, p.10). Coupled with the reconfiguration of production according to the imperatives of the tight flow,152 and its effects in terms of increased flexibility and labour market segmentation, this has led to a new form of ‘constrained involvement’ for workers, whereby greater autonomy and (albeit limited) creativity on the job are counterbalanced by the increased ‘effort required to keep the flow tight (no breakdowns, no stoppage of the flow and so on)’ and salary structures based on performance (Durand, 2007, p.5). Thirdly, new forms of organisational structures at the core of the networked firm and tight flow production involve disaggregation of functions and operations through increased recourse to market relations (e.g. franchising, subcontracting, etc.), imposing a phenomenal form of real subsumption on the workforce where hierarchy, discipline and constraint exercised through direct bureaucratic control of the labour process are replaced (or complemented, depending on how “real” in practice is the formal distinction between buyer and seller)153 by those provided by market relations (thus bypassing labour market regulation and social protection, as capital-labour relations are masked as commercial contracts) (Tinel et al., 2007). Judging from the account of Bologna’s work and intellectual trajectory provided in section 3.2 of this chapter, it seems fair to say that he would probably agree with much of the above. However, precisely because of this and Bologna’s own focus on the effects of the current crisis on the middle class (in terms of its decomposition), the significance of privileging independent work as analytical category or class-in-the-making is directly brought into question. Indeed, while the arguments discussed above highlight the relevance and depth of change in the organisation of contemporary economic activity, they also provide elements and rationale for ‘rethinking’ the ‘forms of aggregation and organisation of conflict’ along class lines (inclusive of the various and differential forms taken by the wage relationship within the current organisation of economic activity under capitalism) rather than a justification for the ‘loss of centrality of the fundamental contradiction of the socio-economic capitalist formation’ (Burgio, 1999, pp.96-97). Furthermore, class being a relational concept, That is, ‘the elimination of the intermediate stock in the course of production (the buffers) of goods and services, and the disappearance of commercial stocks between factory and outlet’. Resulting ‘in large part from the development of ICT, which allowed the implementation of complex flow structures, the sequential stages in production have been replaced by continuous movement – as in the case of… “process industries”’ (Durand, 2007, p.28).
As, for example, in subcontracting ‘buying firms resort to entities which depend on them, not only on a monetary level, but also in terms of power of control of the labour process’ (Tinel et al., 2007, p.158).
Bologna’s account of second generation autonomous work implicitly (though not necesarrily voluntarily) puts the emphasis, on the other side of this relation, on the state – guilty of neglecting the condition and needs of second generation autonomous workers – as opposed to capital, and this contributes to shifting the attention further away from the capital-labour relation as fundamental contradiction within advanced capitalism.
But, if these transformations have affected, albeit in different ways, the labour force in general, in what sense can a(ny) specific segment of the latter be considered “typical”? The issue of the “typicality” of second generation autonomous work is consonant with (although not reducible to) the hegemony of immaterial labour posited by Hardt and Negri (see the second chapter of this thesis). Indeed, although Bologna is more nuanced and less deterministic than Hardt and Negri, the “typicality” of second generation autonomous work and the hegemony of immaterial labour share common roots in the reintroduction of the category of post-Fordism within Marxist debate ‘by the Italian autonomists, who used it to draw attention to the narrow social base of the politics of the Keynesian Welfare State in the bureaucratic representation of the “Fordist” mass worker’ (Clarke, 1990, p.153). However, in the post-workerist account of Fordism and post-Fordism, social relations of production and the capitalist mode of production are reduced to, and collapsed into, respectively, specific modalities of deploying and organising labour (the conveyor belt for the mass worker, or the networked computer for the second generation autonomous worker) and specific forms of exploitation of labour (relative surplus value extraction mediated by the hierarchy and discipline imposed via the conveyor belt for the unskilled mass worker; expansion and extension of working time mediated by networked computers – the ubiquity of the workstation – and exclusion from social benefits for second generation autonomous workers).