(Eng) The Class Struggles in France. And in Italy?

Steve Wright (sjwright@vaxc.cc.monash.edu.au)
Sat, 10 Feb 1996 17:10:38 +1000


"The Class Struggles in France. And in Italy?"

Without rhetorical and useless exaggerations such as "The Paris Commune and
the Civil War in France", one thing is certain: the recent long weeks of
strikes in transport and in significant sectors of the civl service,
together with the struggles of hospital workers, students, and miners, are
- leaving aside any possible further developments in the new year -
significant events, richly suggestive in the points that they raise.

What is immediately impressive is the vastness, the force, the radical
presence in the streets of this genuine social revolt against the Juppe
plan and the neo-Gaullist government. For the first time in Europe, after
fifteen years of dominance, neo-liberal policies have suffered a
significant setback. As to whether this signifies a real reversal of that
trend, it is still too early to say . . .

In Italy meanwhile, the pensioned-off old crows of the union bureaucracy,
such as Bruno Trentin, have tried to set their headstone upon the French
movement, liquidating its struggles as "corporative and defensive". It
would be easy to wax ironic about how it was precisely people like Trentin
who were the first in Europe to experiment with neo-corporative union
policies, playing off the "guaranteed" workers of large scale industry
against other segments of social labour, with the results we all know.
Trentin and others seem determined to exorcise the spectre of class
struggle, which has presented itself in the French case with tempos, modes
and forms adequate to the new social organisation of exploitation. It's
fundamental, therefore - through the cronicling of this French "Hot
December" - to reconstruct the successive passages of the struggles'
generalisation and socialisation, clearing away any mystifications and
equivications along the way.

* On the "Hot December"'s contents and demands: it wasn't a matter either
of protecting the traditional superannuation "privileges" of historic
sectors of the skilled [profesionale] working class (for example, rail
workers) guaranteed by "public" employment, or of defending the welfare
State on the basis of a constitutional pact now overtaken by the last 20
years' changes to production. Rather, the widespread consensus which the
struggles found, and the active involvement which they inspired, are
explained by the massified realisation that the Juppe' Plan put in question
a whole series of rights which had come to be seen as universally held and
thus inviolable. The stakes were and are the subordination of such rights
to an evermore intolerable capitalist command that extends itself over the
whole arc of social existence [tempo di vita].

* On the "Hot December"'s social composition: unlike in Italy, the most
combattive sectors (rail and public transport workers, teachers throughout
the school system, postal and telecommunications employees) exhibit a
composition that is both young in a generational sense and highly educated
and trained. This in turn demonstrates how intellectual content is a new
and pervasive quality of labour, and not simply an attribute of the
"highest rungs", of those sectors that are privileged within the productive
hierarchies of postfordism. The manner in which the movement in the
universities linked up with the struggles of other sectors, again posing
with force the nexus between knowledge, formation and income, reveals a new
student composition that is already inserted in the networks of production
(as for example at Paris-VIII Saint Denis, where 54% of those enrolled said
they were 'salary earners').

On the "Hot December"'s organisational forms: each further passage of the
struggle was decided by the A.G. - the general assemblies of the station,
depot, workplace or faculty. Over the course of the last 10 days of the
strike, corresponding with the broadening of social recomposition within
the huge street marches, the first forms of territorial coordination
between various general assemblies began to emerge. This tells us that, as
much as one can discern these things from afar, it was certainly not the
union leaderships who led the strike movement; rather, its pace and forms
were set overwhelmingly from below. A range of factors were at play within
the unions' ambiguous management of things: classic forms of the "workers'
use of the union"; direct economic interests, such as Force Ouvriere's
control over a good percentage of pension funds; the low level of
unionisation in France. A subterranean continuity of French social
movements since 1986 has also intervened in the struggles' development: the
experiences of high school and university students, of young proletarians
in the banlieu, the struggles against a "youth wage", and above all the
coordinations, the self-organised experiences which so often were the
protagonists in the struggles in recent years of hospital workers, rail
workers, and teachers. This continuity can essentially be seen as a process
of accumulating themes, strength and subjectivity: the legacy of
coordinations and the other movements has been less the multiplication of
self-representative organisations and little groups [TN - a dig at Italy's
"alternative" unions?] than a living subjective experience, a pulsating
presence in the recent struggles.

On the "Hot December"'s forms of struggle: it would be misleading to
reduce this first social strike within and against postfordism simply to
the mobilisations, however vast, that developed in the public sector. The
French media (_Le Monde_, for example) spoke of a "strike by delegation" in
these driving sectors. Why? A sort of distribution of roles could be seen:
there were those who participated in the social revolt by blocking the
transport and telecommuncation networks (and gambling their wages in the
process); there were those cast in the prefabricated role of
"users/clients" ready to denounce the strikers and who instead developed
informal networks of solidarity and cooperation, experimenting with
innovative and creative living patterns that upset the routine of
metro-bulo-dodo (train-work-home). The rythyms of the social working day
were invested and subverted by the movement's breadth in society. From this
point of view the French lesson throws light on the modern characteristics
of forms of struggle: in fact, the blockage of the overall social machine
of capitalist reproduction showed itself to be a strategic weapon, an
instrument of power. The passage from fordism to postfordism can be grasped
in these very actual forms of metropolitan conflict. Once upon a time,
workers' power was measured in terms of the blockage of machinery and
commodity production within the factory; today the terrain of conflict
shifts directly to the level of society as a whole, to the blockage of the
"social machine of reproduction", to the circulation, mobility and flow of
information.

The recomposition of social class sectors is visible, extraordinary. The
images of deserted stations, of pickets occupying railway lines, of
occupied computer control centres, the streets overflowing with
demonstrators (not only in Paris, but also in all the provincial cities),
the clashes withthe police: the determination and combattiveness of the
struggles have struck the collective imaginary. Right here, in the heart of
Europe, in one of the most important capitalist powers in the world. The
Juppe' government was forced to negotiate, to retreat; the rail workers and
universities obtained significant results in terms of material conquests;
themes such as a new concept of "public service", free transport, and the
"optimal guaranteed income" entered into the debate of the general
assemblies and neighbourhoods: a first phase of the struggle has concluded,
but the French situation is far from pacified . . .

This seems an appropriate point at which to raise some problematic and
completely inital considerations: in the first place, concerning the
analogies and differences with the Italian reality.

Analogies: the dismantling of the welfare State and the destruction of the
old fordist pact beween labour and total capital [capitale complessivo],
the crisis of the nation-State and its mechanisms of mediation with
national labour-power are structural phenomena, common to both France and
Italy. They stem from the new dimension of economic globalisation, of the
internationalisation of markets and finance capital. It's no coincidence
that the cuts to public spending, the shift of wealth away from social
needs towards the requirements of international finance capital are always
justified in the name of a "Single European Currency" or, more simply, by
the dictates of the IMF. These choices are expressed through the free
market theories of "hard economic necessity", the sacrifice of workers'
interests on the altar of profit. Once upon a time, sacrifices were
demanded in the name of the "national economy"; now it's in the name of the
"international economy" - hardly an insignificant shift! For it's precisely
on the basis of directives from the transnational organisms of the "global
economy" that geo-political and productive areas are reshaped, State
budgets "reorganised", old compromises and equilibria between classes
shattered.

But if this is the common thread underlying the social contradictions of
the welfare State's crisis, we need also to examine the often profound
differences between Italy and France:

1. In Italy too, against Berlusconi and the Right, the streets were packed
with demonstrators, precisely on this question of social insurance - but in
no case did such radical and widespread moments of conflict develop. Why?
More than this: the counter-reform of pensions and a murderous budget (even
worse than that proposed by Berlusconi) were passed by the Dini government
with the "institutional left's" support, and nothing happened in response.
This is an evident sign that the role of the union and the PDS is still
very strong in containing and sterilising any conflictual dynamic and
radical struggle.

2. France has a different State-form, one that is semi-presidential with an
extremely centralised executive: the collision with state power is more
direct and immediate, the rupture of mediation more evident. Not by chance
the image projected by the French struggles is that of "the street": an
image, we might say, of an insurrectional type, as occurs with a
generalised struggle against a strong central power. In Italy all this is -
for the moment - very diluted: the chain of mediations, the network of
compromises between political forces, State, unions, class sectors
continues, despite everything, to function.

3. The struggles in France demonstrate nonetheless that it is impossible to
dismantle welfare completely, whatever the aspirations of the neo-liberal
utopia. A hard core of consolidated rights conquered through struggle, a
threshhold of "social security" and income redistribution is irreversible -
the French government has learnt this to its cost.

4. If present and future scenarios of conflict centre around the problem of
welfare, it's also true that it is difficult, for now, to recognise
significant elements of class autonomy, if not in some embryonic behaviours
and tendencies.
Looking again at the Italian situation spontaneously prompts a malicious
question: would all of this struggle have happened if Mitterand or a Left
coalition had still been in government?
It's clear how, in Italy, the overdetermination of the political continues
to weigh upon the development of movements and social conflict. What can
the French situation teach us, after the latest struggles and
mobilisations?

5. Here is a final, not inconsequential contradiction: while the revolt of
the French workers extended outwards from the public sector and
transportation, no significant action occurred against nuclear testing.
Ignorance, indifference, or an instance of a traditionally "nationalist"
attitude rooted in French society, stemming from colonial ties and the
spirit of "power politics"?

Attempting to respond to these and other questions strikes us as a
potentially enriching way to grapple with a number of issues of strategic
importance for all those committed to social self-organisation. For this
reason we propose at Padova, upon the occasion of the opening of the new
territorial office of the Associazione Difesa Lavoratori (federated to the
Slai-Cobas), two days of discussion on the theme "The Class Struggles in
France. And in Italy?", according to the following program:

Friday 23 February 1996

4:30PM press conference
6:30PM opening of the Associazione Difesa Lavoratori's office
9PM public assembly with a representative of the General Assembly
of the Gare du Nord train station (Paris); a comradeof the XVIII Parallele
neighbourhood coordination (Paris); Giuseppe Bronzini; Marco Revelli.

Saturday 24 February 1996

10:30AM a round table discussion broadcast on Radio Sherwood.

Further contributions from Paris will be provided by CARGO (Agitation
Committee for an Optimal Guaranteed Income), editors of _Futur Anterieur_,
and Oreste Scalzone.

________________________
Profit Margin
xchange BBS
Melbourne, Australia
pmargin@xchange.apana.org.au
________________________