04/01/22 | By Matteo Mandarini


A ‘Mass of Molluscs’: Reflections on the Quaderni rossi and the Managing Away of the University

Reading back over some notes on the 1962 strikes at FIAT, I realised the echoes of yesterday resound loudly in the contemporary.

In a concise resumé of the development of capitalism in Italy during the so-called ‘economic miracle’ (1958-‘63), the authors of ‘Note sulle condizioni e lo svolgimento dello sciopero alla FIAT’[1] noted the massive investment that had transformed Italian capitalism and class composition in the post-war period. Pointing to the centrality of relative surplus-value extraction (i.e. excess value, for our purposes, profit, derived from technological and organization transformation of the process of production), it operated as follows: a first phase of innovation-automation for ‘labour-saving’, followed by a period of increased ‘sweating’ of the remaining workers in order to accumulate over the average profits in the service of reinvestment; another round of investment in innovation-automation for ‘labour-saving’, followed by a period of increased ‘sweating’ of…, etc.

Gian Maria Volontè in Elio Petri’s The Working Class Goes to Paradise (1971)

Through these ‘ever more colossal investments, the capitalist class advanced its productive cycles through increasing integration and coordination and unification at all levels’ (26). However, as a response to this process of ‘concrete unification of the productive process’, the working class[2] is exploited collectively and thus is able to turn the processes of the unification of its own exploitation into the tools for ‘political unity’ against the bosses.

This poses a problem for the boss: the processes of production, the labour processes require ever greater unity of action, of labour, whereas at the same time, the tightness of the productive circuits require workers to be ever more integrated, made disposable, moulded for the productive process; but all this integration, unification, homogenisation, by uniting the class adversary, renders that adversary a political service – making it conscious of its own unity, as a class, against the unity of the subject of capital, i.e. the capitalist. How can the boss hold together this tightly integrated, contradictory, tendentially conflictual unity?

The ‘ultimate weapon of the boss lies in the effort to render the view of the whole productive process invisible to the workers: isolate the workers in a “slice” of this process so that they cannot “see” how things are proceeding elsewhere, so that they must depend upon the boss to realise their assigned restricted and partial tasks’. The collective worker is then artificially fragmented by process of hierarchisation and the separation of roles. Inevitably things do not proceed smoothly, the reality of the labour process tends to exacerbate unhappiness, disappointment, discontent that eats away, erodes the neat, cheaply thrown together partitions, at times reaching the points of unabsorbable contradiction, conflict, antagonism.

So far, so ‘labour theory’.

Workers on the FIAT 500 assembly line, Mirafiori plant (c. 1955)

Things begin to become interesting when the authors of the Quaderni rossi article (and I think this is mainly drawn from Alquati’s work) turn to the notion of the ‘accumulation of functions’ (27). This process, which is essentially the overloading of individual workers with tasks for which, nominally, line-managers are responsible. This, of course, seems to run against the process of segmentation, division, deskilling, etc. that is part of capital’s attempt at creating epistemological blinkers, so that the collective worker fails to see the process of production as a whole, and thus their own class unity in opposition to that of the boss. But the fragmentation of tasks reaches increasingly ‘absurd levels’, to the point that it begins to come into contrast with the ‘ever-greater need for coordination, streamlining, elasticity and the requirements of the quality of the product’.

At this point, the boss pauses the process of the reduction of the worker to pure labour-power, and instead loads individual workers with specific responsibilities over operations, over targets to be fulfilled, delegating tasks of oversight, fulfilment of control, resolution of problems. The boss sets the overall structure, the workers’ delimited range of ‘free choice’, but the contradictions arising out of the needs of integration, requiring the division of the workers from themselves, throws up contradictions that the accumulation of functions is supposed to resolve.

Middle managers remain nominally responsible, but the tasks are delegated down, so that each individual worker becomes responsible for the fulfilment of those functions: so many little Calvinists, so many dutiful Kantians, purely formal subjects operating in a ‘factory democracy’ (29) based upon the ‘juridical recognition of each single worker[3] in as much as he is the free seller of his own labour-power’ (29-30).

"I am labour-power" and "I am variable", Gasparazzo (c. 1972), Biblioteca Multimediale Marxista

Anyone with even a passing experience of work in the UK university, cannot fail but to be struck by the accuracy of the description of this process almost sixty years old: overall targets set in 10-year strategic plans set by VCs who are not going to be there to see them through (or be held responsible), the rationale for which is as mysterious as the Trinity – and a good deal less interesting.[4] The fulfilment of those ‘grand plans’ proceeds by way of the accumulation of functions: increased fragmentation of roles (with ever grander and more senseless titles); tasks divided or multiplied infinitely (it really doesn’t matter which, they are all infinitely meaningless); the rigid need to perform tasks whose meaning is long since lost (and whose performance would in any case sully even the memory of them); even oversight requires oversight (because it’s only a phantasm of responsibility that is delegated); ‘responsibilities’ accumulate projecting the flickering image of the ‘academic’ as dimly recalled, while guilt towards overworked colleagues or unhappy students is introjected to confirm the depth of ones’ unworthiness; a mystical collegiality whose existence must be celebrated in a mass that lasts the length of a ‘school board’; all duties to be executed with such seriousness that the everlasting life of your soul depends upon it.

The contradictions proliferate, the flimsiness of the partitions is now transparent to all but still they function in an interminable game of Call My Bluff. It is as if the very frailty of the apparition calls for the exacerbation of the accumulation of functions amongst a ‘mass of molluscs’ (35), participant-witnesses at the managing away of the university.

There are perhaps positive lessons that can be drawn from the experiences of 1962. For now we live amongst the invertebrates.

[1] ‘Notes on the conditions of development of the strike at FIAT’ by Romano Alquati, Monica Brunatto, P. L. Gasparotto, and Romolo Gobbi in Quaderni rossi. “Cronache” e “Appunti”dei Quaderni rossi, pp. 25-43.

[2] As I have pointed out in other posts on this site, operaio or classe operaia is specifically the industrial working class. This should be born in mind, unless I indicate otherwise.

[3] In this case they write lavoratore rather operaio – generic worker not industrial worker – since their collectivity is lost. An industrial worker cannot exist in isolation; they are always essentially collective.

[4] Of course, for FIAT, the tasks were a good deal more concrete, less mystical – although irrational in the way that M-C-M’ is irrational.

Matteo Mandarini is lecturer in Politics and Organisation at Queen Mary University of London, an editor for Zer0 and Repeater, translator of books of Italian Workerism, most recently three books published or forthcoming from Seagull Books: Alberto Asor Rosa's The Writer and the People, Mario Tronti's The Twilight of Politics, and Massimo Cacciari's Hamletics. He also writes on Marxist thought and practice and is behind the blog https://polemos.online.


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