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(en) Europe, Prol-position* #5 - Silver Debate: Worker's Power and Operaism

Date Thu, 23 Feb 2006 09:08:39 +0200

The following article asks what will come out of Operaism. It asks
on the basis of the current debates around the subject and on the
theses of Beverly J. Silver in her book "Forces of Labor" [see other
articles on the debate on Silver's theses in ppnews #2 and #3; online
at http://www.prol-position.net/nl/2005/02/silver and
http://www.prol-position.net/nl/2005/03/silver]. The German version
of this article was published in Analyse und Kritik, no. 500,
November 2005 [see http://www.akweb.de/ak_s/ak500/07.htm].
The Heart of the Beast - An Unknown Entity Worker's power and the future of Operaism

Today, talking about the future of Operaism for many people means
to start with Hardt and Negri's "Multitude" or John Holloway's
fetish-critique. In comparison Beverly Silver's historical analysis of
the tendencies of worker's power seem politically colorless and
sociological.1 No doubt, "Forces of Labor" is an academic book, not
a political manifesto, and it avoids all revolutionary vocabulary. But
in all its understatement, "Forces of Labor" contains sharper
theoretical tools to grasp capitalism theoretically and practically than
what the rather philosophically oriented renewal of Marxism offers

Silver's main thesis is that cycles of capitalist accumulation also
increase workers' power on a global scale in a stage-like form -
through production relocation, technological and organizational
innovations and the transition to new core industrial products. In
1972, Giovanni Arrighi had already formulated this in a more general
way: "The process of capital accumulation is at one and the same
time a process of subordination of labor to capital, and a process of
development of labor as a force in conflict with capital. In developing
the social character of production, capitalist accumulation
progressively deprives the individual workers of any method of
producing the necessary means for their existence outside of the
productive apparatus controlled by capital... From the ashes of the
individual bargaining power of workers there is born the collective
power of labor."

The basis for this is the increasing concentration and centralization
of capital.2 Arrighi here refers to the ambivalence and dialectic of the
real subjection and the increasing power of the "collective worker"
(Romano Alquati), one of the core theses of Operaism in the 1960s.

In an epilogue to the English translation (1978) Arrighi says that this
hypothesis was too "sche­matic," the real historical process was
not that "linear and consistent."

In further historical studies and though the work of the "World Labor
Group" - "Forces of Labor" is based on the outcomes of the latter -
this discontinuous development of global workers' power is more
thoroughly traced. The basic idea, that within the process of capital
accumulation are inescapable mechanisms built in which at the
same time expand the basis of workers' power, are not abandoned,
but the original mere hypothesis was developed and modified into a
historical analysis.

The power of the "collective worker" is not just based on the
concentration of capital in the sense of a social and political
aggregation, but also on the increasing destructive potential of
workers' actions. This power evolves from the structure and
organization of the respective production process: on one hand from
the closer linking of different steps of production, on the other hand
from the increasing importance and vulnerability of fixed capital.
Silver insists that this "workplace bargaining power" needs to be
shown in every single case and every single struggle. It should not be
misunderstood as a super-historical master key.

Beverly Silver shows how historical processes of class formation are
closely linked to the development of newly discovered forms of
workplace bargaining power. Using those examples she clarifies how
we can get involved in new processes of "class formation". While the
current debate on precarity suffers from the search for a new class
subject based on "new identity-based self-concepts" and starts from
similarities in legal employment status,3 "Forces of Labor"
explicitly argues against any identity-based concept of class.
Instead, it puts the development of structural power vis-a-vis
capital into the center. In the Marxist terminology - that Silver
avoids - we could talk about the tracing of processes undermining
the very same process of alienation that constantly turns the social
potential of living labor into the rule of past labor, i.e. the rule of
capital over the individual workers. The legal status is not crucial
here as in the case of precarity but the structure of the chain of
production is, i.e. the social character of labor, in which workers are

In the 1920s work in the automobile industry was highly precarious
and seasonal since every year when the car model was changed the
multinational workforce was regularly sacked. Silver points to the
historical irony that leftists at the time thought that due to the
precarity and heterogeneity the class struggle in the Fordist car
factories was irretrievably lost. Only after the great strikes in the
mid-1930s did it became obvious that the new technology of the
assembly line had not only brought the real subjection to capital to
perfection but at the same time it gave the collective worker an
enormous potential power, thus facilitating the transition from an
atomized labor force to the subject of collective workers.

What is distinct about this advance on Operaism might become
clearer when we compare it to the concept of the "Multitude." The
original underlying idea is the same: workers' power and workers'
subjectivity arise from the qualities of labor socialized by capital. But
Arrighi and Silver thoroughly examine this hypothesis historically,
thereby not only specifying and modifying it, but also following its
traces onto the level of the capitalist world system. Toni Negri on the
contrary, by declaring the "socialized worker" as the new class
subject, taking the place of the "mass worker," abandoned the
correlation between the material structures of production and class
formation. From the social character of labor in the abstract sense,
that the work of many individual workers is somehow linked
together, the existence and power of a new subject was simply
deduced without being able to grasp it in real developments.

Sometimes the transition to the "socialized worker" is seen as a
justified correction of the one-sided centrality of the factory within
early Operaism, often combined with the thesis that the struggles of
the 1960s, starting in the factories, had expanded to society and the
area of reproduction. But such a view is based on a misconception -
both of the motives of the early Operaists for turning to the factory
and of the turning away from the factory in the 1970s.

During the 1950s, as a Socialist militant, Raniero Panzieri, founder
of the Quaderni Rossi, had taken part in land occupations of landless
farmers in Southern Italy. He had defended their "political and
organizational autonomy" towards a party that saw these movements
merely as economic struggles. Panzieri's decision to turn to the big
factories in the North was not based on any cult of the traditional
proletariat, but on the question of the power of proletarian
assertiveness - in particular of the assertiveness of a Southern Italian
proletariat that had paid for its struggles with bloody defeats and
stayed under the ideological hegemony of the fascists.

The factory was not seen as an exclusive site of a prototype "worker"
in an orthodox-communist sense, but as a center of the power of
capital and, therefore, of the power of the workers in Marx's sense
when he says that in all forms of society a certain production shapes
all other affairs: "It is as though light of a particular hue were cast
upon everything, tingeing all other colours." The tiny Operaist
groups Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia were not forgotten
precisely because their theses proved correct during the workers'
struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, and - notably in Italy - in the
militancy in the factory which spread to the whole society, even to
the most radical movement against psychiatry.

But this summer of workers' autonomy was far shorter than often
assumed. In the early 1970s the unions as mediators regained lost
ground, and neither the workers nor the Operaist groups found an
answer to the crisis. What at first seemed to be the expansion of
struggle into society and the areas of reproduction was more and
more recognizable as the flight out of the factory: "At the same time,
the extra-parliamentary groups began their suicidal retreat from the
factory, and in general ceased to give much attention to problems of
class composition. This has led to a situation where, today, the
factory and the working class are almost unknown entities."4 Negri's
concept of the "socialized worker" carried by a new youth and
student movement could only temporarily hide the erosion and
integration of worker's power in the factory and the
extra-parliamentary groups' own political crisis. Those who see the
turning away from the factory as a necessary corrective ignore that
the loss of power radiated to all areas and colored them with the
destructive power of the common neoliberalism.

This indifference and the dominance of ideology over empirical
research shapes the current debates on "post-Fordism" and
"Multitude." At the same time, in Germany in particular, the factory
and its assembly line production has vanished more from peoples
minds than in reality.5 And while leftist debates on the creativity in
post-Fordist labor structures refer to the "short thaw" of "alternatives
to Taylorist labor organization" in the early 1990s, for years
industrial sociology has identified a renaissance of the assembly line
under pressure from the profit crisis.

We do not know what this "unknown entity", "the factory", will look
like today - not in the sense of a stereotype of "steaming chimneys,"
but as a site and starting point for workers' power that can concretely
and practically disenchant the material rule of capital, thereby giving
space again for antagonistic subjectivity. And sure enough, no clever
minds or polished theories will give us any answer, but proletarian
search processes, in which we take part, which we describe and, at
best, at some points expedite.



1 Beverly J. Silver: Forces of Labor. Workers' Movements and
Globalization since 1870, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

2 Giovanni Arrighi: Towards a Theory of Capitalist Crisis, in: New
Left Review, No. 111, 1978.

3 See Dirk Hauer in ak 498 and express, 6-7/2005.

4 Sergio Bologna: The Tribe of Moles, 1977. Online:

5 "Workers exist, but you cannot see them anymore," write
Stéphane Beaud and Michel Pialoux in a unique study "Retour
sur la condition ouvrière. Enquête aux usines Peugeot de
Sochaux-Montbéliard," Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1999
(German: "Die verlorene Zukunft der Arbeiter", Konstanz,
UVK-Verlag, 2004). They have followed the changes of factory work
at Sochaux-Montbéliard for more than twenty years. For them the
political and representative "deconstruction" of the working class
explains its today's "invisibility". For a review of the German edition
see express 8/2005.

[prol-position news | 2/2006]
* Non-official journal for the international (mainly West Europen)
network of groups dedicated to the self-organised and direct action,
of mainly the new "globalized" proletariat.
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