A Brisk March through the Creeping May

part 5

parts 1234

One step forward and two steps back. All my attempts to advance the story of communization seems to have led me back to its antecedents in left communism and council communism, if not Marx and the Second International. This is because the theory of communization is always narrative in presentation, as I have learned. Gilles Dauvé and Francois Martin’s essays are translated and titled in English as The Eclipse and Reemergence of the Communist Movement, a narrative of the worker’s movement and its counterrevolutionary eclipse, told from the standpoint of a new cycle of struggles, moving forward on a new basis. Here, the critique of the historical ultraleft is the theoretical counterpart of a real shift in class struggle, first visible in ’68 but confirmed in the years since. The point of the theory of communization is to take stock of what has changed, and that requires at the very least a then and a now.

The sections dealing with May ’68 and its afterlives were written not by Dauvé but by Francois Martin (the penname of Francois Cerruti), who tells us that May ’68 was significant mostly for what did not happen, for “the great silence of the proletariat,” who rose up to interrupt and to paralyze capital, to shut down the industrial machinery, but nowhere formed workers’ organizations adequate to the task of a revolutionary seizure of that apparatus. Only in Censier, in the occupied university, did an explicitly communist workers’ committee of any size form, bringing thousands of radical workers together with students and ultraleft intellectuals, proposing “general self-management” and immediate revolutionary measures.

While these appeals fell on deaf ears, elites in the university, in the boardroom and in the halls of state were listening. In a great irony, workers’ control was understood as the explicit demand of the uprising at the precise moment that the working class refused to take control in practice, refused to form organizations of workers’ self-management:

The P.C.F itself includes ‘real participation’ in its governmental programme. The other large union, the CFDT advocates self-management, which is also supported by ultraleft groups who are in favor of workers’ councils. The Trotskyists propose worker’s control as a minimum programme for a workers’ government.”

Employers, too, quickly recognized in the language of self-management not their own imminent euthanasia but a means to intensify labor, subjectively, to compel investment in the labor process, seducing workers to participate in their own exploitation and think it liberation.

1968 was a riddle, and still is, for it did not emerge in response to manifest political or economic crisis. It emerged from an antagonism produced by growth itself, not its interruption, by the epochal reorganization of French society across the trentes glorieuses. Getting to the root of the antagonism was not easy, since it seemed to emerge from a mélange of qualitative and existential complaints, most visible in the student and youth movements of the era. Fulfilment, meaning, dignity, participation, creative expression. Between these demands and the capitalist workplace, however, there was a contradiction, and so Martin argues that the absence of concrete institutions of workers’ control in ’68 derives not from the timidity of the working class, but its intransigence—workers were no longer interested in assuming responsibility for their reproduction as workers, now clearly incompatible with their needs as human beings. In the heat of struggle, something else is revealed, something that is foreclosed by the moment of negotiation and even by the identity of worker. After 68, in France and in Italy, where this subjectivity will be even clearer, self-organized groups of workers strike it seems, in order to strike, and against the end of the strike, finding in means an end itself, and displaying an indifference to the conduct of final negotiations, which always lead back to disempowerment.

The ultraleftists at Censier were prosecuting what they believed was the maximal communist program, based on self-organized seizure of the means of production by workers’ committees. It took those who participated months and years to come to terms with the proletariat’s silence, its curiously aggressive passivity; the theory of communization is one form of that coming to term, emerging directly from the discussions of those who continued meeting, in order to figure out what happened. But the explanation Martin gives in his book is less explanation than observation, a flag marking the problem. We can understand the theory of communization as a series of attempts to come to terms with this silence, which would reappear, in one form or the other, in every significant struggle since. Here is how Dauvé and others describe it in a subsequent document, that offers a much fuller and richer account of 1968:

In the factories in 1968 one hardly found the festive atmosphere of 1936. People felt that something had happened which could go further but they avoided doing so. The atmosphere of gravity which reigned was coupled with a resentment against the unions, a convenient scapegoat, whereas they were only able to keep control through the behaviour of the rank and file. The gaiety was elsewhere, in the streets. This is why May 68 could neither reproduce, or lead to, a revolutionary return during the years which followed. The movement generated a reformism which fed on the neutralisation of its most virulent aspects. History doesn't pass the dish around a second time.

What 1968 exposed was a profound de-subjectivation, a disidentification with work that was often a disidentification with the workers’ movement as such, a negativity manifesting in refusal of labor, in strikes and sabotage, but just as capable as turning to nihilism, cynicism, and passivity:

Abandoning control of the factories to the trade unions was a sign of weakness, but also of the fact that they were conscious that the problem lay elsewhere. Five years later, in 1973, in a big strike at Laval, workers purely and simply left the factory for three weeks. Like the « de-politicization » of which so much has been said, this loss of interest in the company, in work and in its reorganisation, is ambivalent, and cannot be interpreted except in relation to everything else. Communism was certainly present in 1968, but only in relief, in negative. At Nantes in 1968, and later at SEAT at Barcelona (1971) or Quebec (1972), strikers would take over districts or cities, go as far as seizing radio stations, but would make nothing of it : the self-organisation of proletarians « is possible, but at the same time, they have nothing to organise » (Théorie communiste, n° 4, 1981, p. 21)

But if the problem wasn’t in the factory, where was it? And what was the problem anyway? Presumed here is that proletarians had already recognized the critique of workers’ self-management which communist theory was just then digesting—proletarians did not set up workers’ committees because they recognized, in some way, such structures would block the way toward communism. They did not swell the parties of the extra-parliamentary left because they recognized that these parties, too, had adapted themselves to capitalism, become its loyal opposition.

The 1970s did provide confirmation for this thesis about subjectivity, especially in southern Europe. In Italy, refusal of work and autonomy from rotten workers’ organizations became the slogan of an insurrectionary movement which brought the country to the brink of civil war; in Portugal, Spain, and Greece, where the liquidation of the left by fascism and authoritarianism favored the spontaneous and the insurrectionary, new tactical and strategic immediacies confirmed what had been seen in the gas of May. In Poland and Iran, workers’ councils did emerge too, though largely without a vision of workers’ self-management, indicating that something of the old dream did yet live.

As a negative claim, the theory of communization has stood the test of time. That the workers’ movement began dying, and with it all sorts of subjective investments in work and workplace, does seem indubitable, but an argument from subjectivity is not enough, even if it were provable. From whence comes such a subjective shift? This is what needs to be explained in some manner neither circular nor self-verifying. The best explanations have proceeded not only from an assessment of some shift in subjectivity but from an examination of the restructuring of capitalism. New tactics and new attitudes index changes in the nature of work and capitalism. In other words, it is less that workers have intuited both problem and solution than that there is something about capitalist enterprise as it has developed, about the entanglement of property and technique, that precludes a vision of workers’ self-management.

At Censier, after May had ended, general assemblies of the ultraleft continued to meet, and discuss these questions. The first answer they came up with was that capitalism had become so productive that a passage directly to communism was now possible, and that workers recognized as much. 1968 occurred during a moment of relative abundance, in which wage-demands were overwhelmed by a whole host of qualitative demands. In rejecting the “augmented survival” that linked productivity to wages, and the working class to the imperatives of capitalist accumulation, the proletariat seemed to break with all developmental logics. In the Censier commities, then,

the point of convergence was the conviction that the proletariat does not have to install itself as a social force before changing the world. There is thus no workers organisation to create, to arouse or to hope for. There is no transitional mode of production between capitalism and communism. There is no autonomous proletarian organisation outside of what the proletariat does in order to communise the world and itself with it.

As the crisis of the 1970s unfolded, this assessment would need to be revised. Reformism was not off the table so much as altered entirely. In Italy, in the Hot Autumn of 1969 and the revitalized proletarian movement that followed, refusal of politics and work, enabled by the watchwords of autonomy and workers’ power, instead floated on a sea of achievable demands whose power lay in their diversity rather than maximality. In Italy, the immediacies of May became local, molecular, insurrectionary mostly in their extent and duration, which seemed to lead to revolution only by way of civil war.

The extended, “creeping” May of Italy resembled the French case, however, inasmuch as workers began against the unions and employers a fight they would let the unions resolve for them in the end. As in France, the student radicals of the late 60s linked up with workers in the factory, but in Italy the connection was more productive, forging a durable and reciprocal link between Marxist intellectuals and wildcatting strikers. At the Pirelli rubber plant, in Milan, one of many sites in the north where the collective bargaining structure linking productivity to wages broke down in the face of accelerating growth and a changing division of labor, “unitary base-committees” (CUBs) emerged, forming networks of contacts independent of the foremen within and across worksites. Influenced by the ideas of operaist journal Quaderni Rossi, and later by Potere Operaio, the base committees, in which students could participate on an equal footing with workers, made their power felt through the practice of autoriduzione (autoreduction), essentially a slowdown strike, taking output rates as their object and using any and all means, including sabotage, to set factory-wide rates. From this moment, linking theory and practice, autoreduction would become a veritable metonym for a vast repertoire of refusals.

The events at Pirelli and the spread of the CUBs through the industrial triangle of Milan-Turin-Genoa confirmed, powerfully, the one-sided “science of class hatred” that Mario Tronti had proposed in Workers and Capital (1967). There he had argued, apropos of the struggles of the early and mid-1960s, that the “working class had discovered, or rediscovered…its political capacity to impose reformism on capital and then make rough-and-ready use of that reformism for the purposes of working class revolution.” In the Keynesian planner-state, which brought parties, unions, and employers’ associations to the bargaining table in order to agree on output targets and wages, one in fact saw the power of the working class to set the primary economic determinant, productivity. It is workers who set the pace of the economy, and capital which scrambles to respond, Tronti argued. The fact that the workers of Pirelli set the rate at which the economy’s wheels would spin was explicit confirmation of the inverted relationship between capital and labor.

For Tronti, however the auto of auto-reduction lacks a steering wheel that could turn self-organization (here entirely negative) into self-management. On this, he and Bordiga agree: only the coordinating party can turn the proletarian strategy of refusal into socialism, through tactical centralization. Reformism might overflow into revolution, but only through the structure of the party. But this overgrowth grew over the bounds of the parties and the unions, and no new container could be found for it: auto-reduction referred to a whole panoply of tactics for setting not just rates but prices, for transport, for rent, for utilities, for housing.. The base-committees required networks of militants throughout the factory, as well as connection to other organization, but they were not organized in order to take power over the production process, as some thought, but to rattle the employers into concessions. Autoreduction implied the self-organization of the proletariat as a force independent from the means of production, and in antagonism with them. The struggle against speedup was one and the same with a wage struggle, which meant it could only be one-sidedly concluded through direct action. Negotiation was inevitable, and there the organizations of the ultraleft were easily routed. While the parties remained moribund, the unions showed themselves resilient and flexible and, as in France, quickly took on board the language of workplace democracy and the new qualitative demands of the movement.

The self-organization of refusal led away from rather than toward workers’ self-management, which became the part of the language of the official left. In the workplace its metier was organized passivity. Its positive acts and expropriations, when it came to that, were generally undertaken outside of the workplace. Proletarian shopping sprees, occupations of housing blocks. Counterplanning from the shopfloor could become planning only indirectly, because it took the division of labor itself for its object—divisions between skilled and semiskilled workers, between men and women, between managers and managed. Any vision of proletarian revolution and planning would, by necessity, be constructed against not across these divisions. But perhaps for this reason, thinking on communist transition by the partisans of operaismo and autonomia tends to refuse the distinction between means and ends, between proletarian empowerment, organization, and struggle, on the one hand, and communism as object on the other.

In Italy, then, we can see visible most clearly the limits that workplace self-organization as such faces. The self- of self-organization has become newly problematic, fractured by the midcentury refashioning of industry. Workers struggle against their own positionality in the division of labor, as women, as migrants, as piece-rate workers, technicians, etc. The self- of self-organization must lie elsewhere, either in the proletariat as such, independent of the means of production, or in some future communist transformation of those means of production. What is required for revolution is not self-organization as such, but the self-organization of self-organization, which would mean an other-organization, a recoding of the system of places inherited from capitalism. As Theorie Communiste write, encapsulating this insight, “self-organization is the first act of the revolution; it then becomes an obstacle which the revolution has to overcome.”

There is something powerful but also imprecise about this formulation—what distinguishes self-organization as object and as subject, as obstacle and activity? That is not to be found in self-organization itself but, as noted above, the changing division of labor. For the self- of self-organization has at its root some notion of place, of belonging, even when it is the self-organization of those who have no place. One cannot but fight where one is, but if one remains there, then it can be possible that struggle cements the system of places, rather than overcomes them. Self-organization will therefore come into conflict with the self-, with the laws of right and property and belonging which subtend the left and the workers’ movement, or it will simply become nothing, the reproduction of capitalism.

Since the Italian 70s, “autonomy” has as often as not taken up the space self-organization did—an insistence on direct action, direct participation, and independence from the institutions of the moribund left. There is a difference, however. Autonomy is self-organization stripped of any project of self-management of the means of production—its fantasies tend to be fantasies of secession, fugitivity, and perpetual anabasis, since the goal of communism has been suppressed. Autonomy from what? And from whom? And for what purpose? Autonomy has no meaning except in relation to heteronomy—as the name for a positive project, it chooses immanence over transcendence, and gives up the ghost of communism. The shift in the vernacular of the ultraleft—perhaps most visible in the 90s and 00s, before the return of a new crisis communism that has revitalized older thematics—attests to the new prospects of communism in the twenty-first century. One can imagine capital only as an Egypt one must flee.

If it were just Italy, just France, in which one witnessed these dynamics, communization would not be much of a theory at all. There is something unique about the size and strength of the workers’ movements in these two countries, as well as the rapidity of their postwar transition, especially in Italy. One might therefore expect them to be unique. In the 2000s, however, in Argentina, in Greece, in Mexico, in countries quite different from France and Italy, self-organization and autonomy played out similarly. In the 2010s, this dynamic becomes general, global, from Egypt to the United States, from Sudan to Rojava.

The events in Argentina give the clearest demonstration, straddling the beginning of the millennium whose logic they seem to imprint. During the 90s, when the structural adjustment programs inflicted upon Argentina by its debt crisis swelled the ranks of the unemployed, one of the most powerful movements of the unemployed in recent decades converged around a particular tactic, the piquete, or corte de ruta, road blockades undertaken by unemployed workers along with a specific demand for aid from the state. First employed by rural workers laid off by the national oil company due to structural adjustments, the piquete could be used to set prices, to demand relief, and eventually, after the crisis of ’98, to demand bulk grants that could be used for self-administered planes trabajar, work plans, that in some areas took over a significant part of proletarian reproduction, with bakeries, canteens, clothing exchanges, brick-making factories, and childcares. This was a robust vision of self-management indeed, but one which could posit autonomy only by first presupposing the state as guarantor of production, in other words, by presupposing heteronomy. In the deepening crisis, after ’98, when firms began to fail, and with them governments, toppled by riots, Argentina witnessed the most extensive wave of workplace takeovers seen yet. But these occurred only in those firms that had failed, that had been bankrupted, and whose ownership not to mention financial prospects were as a result uncertain. Workers therefore inherited deeply indebted and unproductive businesses, the runts of the economy, which could only be operated through state subsidy, on the one hand, and/or solidarity economy on the other. Not a model that could be generalized, since workers did not occupy and hardly even struck the most productive, highly-concentrated sectors of the economy, the conglomerates. As Roland Simon of Theorie Communiste writes:

 In the productive activities which developed during the social struggles in Argentina, something happened which was at first sight rather disconcerting: autonomy appeared clearly as what it is, the taking over and reproduction of its situation within capital by the working class. The defenders of “revolutionary” autonomy can say that this came about because it didn’t triumph, but this was its real triumph. But, at the very moment when, in productive activities, autonomy appeared for what it was, it was the whole basis of autonomy and self-organisation which was    overturned: the proletariat could not find in itself the capacity to create other inter-individual relations (I’m deliberately not talking about social relations), without overturning and negating   what it is in this society, that is to say without entering into contradiction with the content of its    autonomy. In the way that the productive activities have been carried out, in the effective details    of their realisation, it is the determinations of the proletariat as a class of this society which have been effectively shaken: property, exchange, division of labour and, above all, work itself.

It is easy to understand TC’s pessimism here. The piqueteros, the occupied factories, could not become the basis for an overcoming of capitalism, as they presume a division between employed and unemployed workers, presume the state as guarantor, etc. But note also their optimism. There is something untenable about this situation which the partisans of self-organization note immediately, there is something about self-organization that resists the sclerosis of self-organization and that wants to organize it on a basis that would bring it into contradiction with self-organization. TC sees this, in particular, in the radical subjectivity of the movement and its emphasis on free giving and participation, its hostility to all divisions. They quote from one piquetero:

If we create canteens only so the compañeros can eat, then we are dickheads. If we believe  that producing on a farm is just about digging up beans so that so that the compañeros can eat,   then we are really complete dickheads… If we don’t know how to leave the farm and everything which the state throws at us, how to be the builders of a new social relation, of new values, of a new subjectivity, let’s not bet on a new 19/20.” (a militant from MTD Allen4 – south of Argentina, Macache, p. 27). 

It is this attempt to build the whole world anew on a ground that won’t let you which characterizes the dynamic tension of the moment, its possibilities. From this contradiction, one can anticipate an overcoming which is not the generalization of autonomy or self-management but, because it cuts laterally to all notions of self- and other, the immediate production of communism:

An activist of the MTD Allen (Macache) told how the question of surplus, of overproduction, of its distribution, was posed in an occupied factory, how for the Brukman workers taking over the     factory and making it work again was part of a relation of force which included the liaison with the unemployed piqueteros movement. At that moment, we can say that what is lacking is “generalisation of self-organisation” or autonomy. But if so we do not understand that what is called a “generalisation” is not one, it is a destruction of the class as self-organising subject. This generalisation is a supersession by itself of the subject which previously found in its situation the capacity to self-organise. If we do not understand this “dynamic” as a rupture, we are stuck on the vision of a purely formal movement because its content eludes us, we are confusing the taking in hand of the conditions of survival and the abolition of the situation that one has been led to take in hand. If the proletariat abolishes itself, it does not self-organise. Calling for the self-organisation of the whole movement, is to be blind to its content.

Between piquetero and occupier, there can be only some third term which overcomes both and which, as a result, can proceed from neither. They will call this l’écart, a somewhat untranslatable term that might appear in one place as “gap” and elsewhere as “swerve.” The self-organization of self-organization, which overcomes its system of places. This is what must be articulated, as the communist prospect, as communizing activity, its anticipations located in the most intense class struggles of the current era. This is what I will attempt to do in subsequent essays.