By Gigi Roggero
Translation by Silvia Federici
“Look, you went to the wrong floor” Romano Alquati would answer at the beginning of the 1990s to a leftist student who wanted to write a dissertation on (factory) workers. If you want to write a dissertation on (factory) workers you should go to the second floor, to “Archeology.” Like the “rude pagan race” [Tronti’s description of the mass worker], Alquati had no gods and refused myths. The cult of the past is a wretched thing. When he arrived in Torino in 1960, after growing up in Cremona and having lived in Milano in the commune of via Sirtori 2 (a true cultural and intellectual crucible of the 1950s and ‘60s, meeting point of Phenomenology and Marxism, international crossroad of philosophers and revolutionaries), Romano, like the politically and humanly exceptional generation that would give life to operaism, was not in search of a metaphysical, disembodied subject, heroic custodian of the general interest. “There have been and there are still a populist and welfarist operaism (of Christian origin), a trade-unionist operaism, a combination of both, whose characteristic was considering (factory) workers “the weak section” of the population, thus in need of help. These operaists love (factory) workers, the very condition of being a factory worker. The ‘political’ operaists, instead, were interested in proletarian workers because, against all universalisms, they saw them as strong, a power.”
Alquati went to Torino not to cry over cardboard suitcases, but in search of an antagonistic power. The conflict in front of him was no longer between below and above, but between workers and capital. Power against power. To the scandal of the leftist intellectuals and party leaders, the mass worker did not sacrifice for universal justice, did not have conscience and ideals, but wanted more money and less work. The working class liberated itself only by extinguishing itself, refusing work and the identity of oppressed. For this reason it was an extraordinary cycle of struggles. Humanism died forever in the wildcats of Mirafiori and among the rivers of Porto Marghera.
In those years of the Italian transitions to Taylorism and Fordism no one was interested in factory workers. The CPI (Italian Communist Party) has chosen to chase the middle class: half a century later they have neither caught up with them nor have found them. The union, after the defeat of FIOM [Federation Metal Mechanical Workers] at FIAT in 1953, believed the game was over: it believed the working was completely integrated, according to the mantra of a sort of Frankurt School idea but in an opportunistic way.
There was no sociology of work – it did not even exist in Italy – studying the factory. In fact when Romano and the other young militants of the Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks) and then Classe Operaia (Working Class) began to do conricerca (co-research) they were contemptuously labeled anarcho-socialist, both by the Marxists who had no need of bourgeois science and by the academics who were the rentiers of bourgeois science. The co-researchers, instead, studied the global literature of the social sciences in order to understand and anticipate the struggles, for only from a partial viewpoint you can see the whole. And there they found the formation of class composition (On Fiat and Other Writings remains a fundamental text to comprehend it. More than that: they organized themselves within it. For conricerca has never been for Romano a “research from below”: either it was the organization of workers’ autonomy, or it did not exist. He had no populist ideal of horizontalism: the prefix “con” meant to question the borders between the production of knowledge and political subjectivity, science and conflict. It was not simply a matter of knowledge but the organization of a threat. Conricerca was working class science. At the same time, there would not be any sociology work in Italy today without that experience. Radically bypassing it, they invented sociology.
But in no way Alquati wanted to be called the inventor of conricerca. “Political militants have always done conricerca. We would go in front of the factory and speak with workers: there cannot be organization otherwise. If I put shoes on and find a street full of stones, I cannot say I invented them.”
In fact Conricerca is above all a political methodology. Here the traditional categories of spontaneity and organization loose their consistency. “Spontaneity was organized.” But nothing was achieved once for all.
The operaists had broken with the Marxist and Leninist tradition to reread Marx and Lenin within the new composition of living labor. And in this way they grasped the breach represented by the mass worker, which was also a clash within the class producing something that previously did not exist.
Operaism, like conricerca, essentially is this: the methodology of a constitutive breach. Never a thinking at the margins, always the political culture of a transformative power – organization of a development proceeding by leaps. In the 1970s the task was to make a leap again. Romano’s research with the new intellectual proletariat (just think of Universita’ di ceto medio/ Middle Class University) is the future perfect of the contemporary class composition.
A crystal clear wording, formative in the best sense of the word. A difficult, tortuous writing. “It is not my fault if there are less and less people who can read” was his answer. The same was the case with the pictures he painted, that were covered with glass because they were always modified and ready to be made more complex by new designs and paint strokes. They were not artworks, but a process continuously open to its transformation.
Thus, breaking your head again and again over every line of one of Romano’s texts (those of the ’90s on conricerca, subjectivity and the transformations of the university, knowledge and work, though they have circulated very little or are unpublished, are extremely precious) you could see something you had not seen before. And when you thought you had understood something, you were displaced and forced to proceed on a new terrain. Once again you had to make a leap. “They are not books” – he would say – “but machines.” War machines. Adding, “I never said I would write for everybody.”
Of course. In a famous passage of The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx says that the beginner who has just learnt a language continuously retranslates it into his mother tongue, but does not succeed in possessing its spirit and express himself freely in it until he can move within it without reminiscences, forgetting in it his original language. Let us those disapprove then who are only preoccupied with measuring the scientificity of research with numbers and statistics and measure politics by the enlisted and the general interest. It is their loss. Alquati taught us that the problem is to grasp the truth, not to describe it. For the capacity to anticipate a tendency is not an intellectual artifice but the compass of the militant and the condition for the possibility of organization. Thank you Romano for having taught us this new language. And to have taught us that to possess it one has to constantly leap to re-invent it. This is why we will always be free and they will never take us.