Workerism Beyond Fordism: On the Lineage of Italian Workerism
Workerist groups developed in an historical period in which there seemed to be no alternative to mass production in capitalist societies, where big companies were able to obtain large economies of scale. The large factory, in which thousands of workers always carried out the more simplified operations, while the machines took care of the more complex ones, seemed to be the culmination of a historical process that originated in the rise of industrialism. Mass production was the best way to produce cheap goods that could be bought by everybody, above all by the very workers who produced them, even when these goods were as complex as a car. Thus, the conditions for realizing the irreplaceable counterpart to mass production – that is to say, mass consumption – were created. This was such a perfect and well-functioning system that even communist countries ended up adopting it. Actually, the communist revolution had triumphed in countries where this system was still very imperfect, underdeveloped, or even non-existent. It therefore fell on the governments emerging from the revolution to perfect the development of mass production by organizing it in big Kombinats, industrial complexes with thousands of workers, and also by extending it to agriculture. In the West this system was called, for convenience, “Fordism,” because it found its most complete practical and theoretical application in the organization of the automobile factories of Henry Ford. The idea at the base of workerism, obviously borrowed from Marxian theory, was that the large factory with its thousands of workers could become a large fertile terrain for a revolutionary project, and shift from the site of mass production to a space liberated from capitalist oppression. Capitalism had to be caught right where it lived, the walls of its home becoming the bars of its prison. The Fordist assembly-line had to become the training field where the worker could develop a revolutionary subjectivity, and become the mass worker. As you can see, the primordial idea of workerism was the mold, as inverted footprint, of Fordism. Without a social organization like that of the Fordist factory, workerism would have had difficulty elaborating its revolutionary project; the mass worker formed as a class in a productive system with particular technological characteristics, and was one with this system, which provided his means of subsistence. The mass worker was first and foremost a wage earner. The structure of his paycheck was composed of a fixed part, the base wage, and a variable part, linked to productivity. There were also items that corresponded to contractual gains like pace with inflation, family allowances, overtime, production bonuses, compensation for night work and hazardous work, etc. The organization of Fordist production was not only the dominant system within the factory, but also projected its rigid structure onto society, onto urban and suburban mobility, housing settlements, shopping hours. Thousands of workers left the factories early in the morning after working the night shift, while many others were already outside waiting at the gates to enter for the first morning shift. This was the best moment to distribute and spread the flyers of Classe Operaia and Potere Operaio. These flyers were almost always written according to directions given by the workers of those same factories, after a long labor of “co-research,” a dialogue and exchange of opinions and information between militant workerists and factory workers. Workerism therefore was in all respects the inverted image of Fordism, it was one with Fordism, lived in symbiosis with it. Workerism without a Fordist society, without mass production, without the mass worker, did not seem imaginable.