Social Composition, Refusal of Work
I do not intend to
make an historical recapitulation of the movement called
autonomy, but I want to understand its peculiarity through
an overview of some concepts like "refusal of work",
and "class composition".
use the word "operaismo" to define a political
and philosophical movement which surfaced in Italy during
the 60s. I absolutely dislike this term, because it
reduces the complexity of the social reality to the
mere datum of the centrality of the industrial workers
in the social dynamics of late modernity.
The origin of this philosophical
and political movement can be identified in the works
of Mario Tronti, Romano Alquati, Raniero Panzieri, Toni
Negri, and its central focus can be seen in the emancipation
from the Hegelian concept of subject.
In the place of the historical
subject inherited from the Hegelian legacy, we should
speak of the process of subjectivation. Subjectivation
takes the conceptual place of subject. This conceptual
move is very close to the contemporary modification
of the philosophical landscape that was promoted by
French post-structuralism. Subjectivation in the place
of subject. That means that we should not focus on the
identity, but on the process of becoming. This also
means that the concept of social class is not to be
seen as an ontological concept, but rather as a vectorial
In the framework of autonomous
thought the concept of social class is redefined as
an investment of social desire, and that means culture,
sexuality, refusal of work.
In the 60s and in the 70s the thinkers who wrote in
magazines like Classe operaia, and Potere operaio did
not speak of social investments of desire: they spoke
in a much more Leninist way. But their philosophical
gesture produced an important change in the philosophical
landscape, from the centrality of the worker identity
to the decentralisation of the process of subjectivation.
Félix Guattari, who met the operaismo after 77 and was
met by the autonomous thinkers after 77, has always
emphasized the idea that we should not talk of subject,
but of "processus
de subjectivation". From this perspective we
can understand what the expression refusal of work means.
Refusal of work does not mean
so much the obvious fact that workers do not like to
be exploited, but something more. It means that the
capitalist restructuring, the technological change,
and the general transformation of social institutions
are produced by the daily action of withdrawal from
exploitation, of rejection of the obligation to produce
surplus value, and to increase the value of capital,
reducing the value of life.
I do not like the
term "operaismo", because of the implicit
reduction to a narrow social reference (the workers,
"operai" in Italian), and I would prefer to
use the word "compositionism". The concept
of social composition, or "class composition"
(widely used by the group of thinkers we are talking
about) has much more to do with chemistry than with
the history of society.
I like this idea that the place
where the social phenomenon happens is not the solid,
rocky historical territory of Hegelian descent, but
is a chemical environment where culture, sexuality,
disease, and desire fight and meet and mix and continuously
change the landscape. If we use the concept of composition,
we can better understand what happened in Italy in the
70s, and we can better understand what autonomy means:
not the constitution of a subject, not the strong identification
of human beings with a social destiny, but the continuous
change of social relationships, sexual identification
and disidentification, and refusal of work. Refusal
of work is actually generated by the complexity of social
investments of desire.
In this view autonomy means that
social life does not depend only on the disciplinary
regulation imposed by economic power, but also depends
on the internal displacement, shiftings, settlings and
dissolutions that are the process of the self-composition
of living society. Struggle, withdrawal, alienation,
sabotage, lines of flight from the capitalist system
Autonomy is the independence
of social time from the temporality of capitalism.
This is the meaning of the expression
refusal of work. Refusal of work means quite simply:I
don’t want to go to work because I prefer to sleep.
But this laziness is the source of intelligence, of
technology, of progress. Autonomy is the self-regulation
of the social body in its independence and in its interaction
with the disciplinary norm.
There is another
side of autonomy, which has been scarcely recognized
so far. The process of the autonomisation of workers
from their disciplinary role has provoked a social earthquake
which triggered capitalist deregulation. The deregulation
that entered the world scene in the Thatcher-Reagan
era, can be seen as the capitalist response to the autonomisation
from the disciplinary order of labour. Workers demanded
freedom from capitalist regulation, then capital did
the same thing, but in a reversed way. Freedom from
state regulation has become economic despotism over
the social fabric. Workers demanded freedom from the
life-time prison of the industrial factory. Deregulation
responded with the flexibilisation and the fractalisation
The autonomy movement
in the 70s triggered a dangerous process, a process
which evolved from the social refusal of capitalist
disciplinary rule to capitalist revenge, which took
the shape of deregulation, freedom of the enterprise
from the state, destruction of social protections, downsizing
and externalisation of production, cutback of social
spending, de-taxation, and finally flexibilisation.
The movement of autonomisation
did, in fact, trigger the destabilisation of the social
framework resulting from a century of pressure on the
part of the unions and of state regulation. Was it a
terrible mistake that we made? Should we repent the
actions of sabotage and dissent, of autonomy, of refusal
of work which seem to have provoked capitalist deregulation?
The movement of autonomy actually
forestalled the capitalist move, but the process of
deregulation was inscribed in the coming capitalist
post-industrial development and was naturally implied
in the technological restructuring and in the globalisation
There is a narrow relationship
between refusal of work, informatisation of the factories,
downsizing, outsourcing of jobs, and the flexibilisation
of labour. But this relationship is much more complex
than a cause-and-effect chain. The process of deregulation
was inscribed in the development of new technologies
allowing capitalist corporations to unleash a process
A similar process happened in
the media-field, during the same period.
Think about the free radio stations in the 70s. In Italy
at that time there was a state-owned monopoly, and free
broadcasting was forbidden. In 75-76 a group of media
activists began to create small free radio stations
like Radio Alice in Bologna. The traditional left (the
Italian Communist party and so on) denounced those mediactivists,
warning about the danger of weakening the public media
system, and opening the door to privately owned media.
Should we think today
that those people of the traditional statist left were
right? I don't think so, I think they were wrong at
that time, because the end of the state-owned monopoly
was inevitable, and freedom of expression is better
than centralized media. The traditional statist left
was a conservative force, doomed to defeat as they desperately
tried to preserve an old framework which could no longer
last in the new technological and cultural situation
of the post-industrial transition.
We could say much the same about
the end of the Soviet Empire and of so-called "real-socialism".
Everybody knows that Russian
people were probably living better twenty years ago
than today, and the pretended democratisation of Russian
society has so far mostly been the destruction of social
protections, and the unleashing of a social nightmare
of aggressive competition, violence, and economic corruption.
But the dissolution of the socialist regime was inevitable,
because that order was blocking the dynamic of the social
investment of desire, and because the totalitarian regime
was obtruding cultural innovation. The dissolution of
the communist regimes was inscribed in the social composition
of collective intelligence, in the imagination created
by the new global media, and in the collective investment
of desire. This is why the democratic intelligentsia,
and dissident cultural forces took part in the struggle
against the socialist regime, although they knew that
capitalism was not paradise. Now deregulation is savaging
the former soviet society, and people are experiencing
exploitation and misery and humiliation at a point never
reached before, but this transition was inevitable and
in a sense it has to be seen as a progressive change.
not mean only the emancipation of private enterprise
from state regulation and a reduction of public spending
and social protection. It also means an increasing flexibilisation
The reality of labour flexibility
is the other side of this kind of emancipation from
capitalist regulation. We should not underestimate the
connection between refusal of work and the flexibilisation
I remember that one of the strong
ideas of the movement of autonomy proletarians during
the 70s was the idea "precariousness is good".
Job precariousness is a form of autonomy from steady
regular work, lasting an entire life. In the 70s many
people used to work for a few months, then to go away
for a journey, then back to work for a while. This was
possible in times of almost full employment and in times
of egalitarian culture. This situation allowed people
to work in their own interest and not in the interest
of capitalists, but quite obviously this could not last
forever, and the neoliberal offensive of the 80s was
aimed to reverse the rapport de force. .
Deregulation and the flexibilisation of labour have
been the effect and the reversal of the worker’s
autonomy. We have to know that not only for historical
reasons. If we want to understand what has to be done
today, in the age of fully flexibilised labour, we have
to understand how the capitalist takeover of social
desire could happen.
and Fall of the Alliance of Cognitive Labour and Recombinant
During the last decades
the informatisation of machinery has played a crucial
role in the flexibilisation of labour, together with
the intellectualisation and immaterialisation of the
most important cycles of production.
The introduction of the new electronic
technologies and the informatisation of the production
cycle, opened way to the creation of a global network
of info-production, de-territorialized, de-localised,
de-personalised. The subject of work can be increasingly
identified with the global network of info-production.
The industrial workers had been
refusing their role in the factory and gaining freedom
from capitalist domination. However, this situation
drove the capitalists to invest in labour-saving technologies
and also to change the technical composition of the
work-process, in order to expel the well organised industrial
workers and to create a new organisation of labour which
could be more flexible.
The intellectualisation and immaterialisaton
of labour is one side of the social change in production
forms. Planetary globalisation is the other face. Immaterialisation
and globalisation are subsidiary and complementary.
Globalisation does indeed have a material side, because
industrial labour does not disappear in the post-industrial
age, but migrates towards the geographic zones where
it is possible to pay low wages and regulations are
In the last issue of the magazine Classe
operaia, in 1967, Mario Tronti wrote: the most important
phenomenon of the next decades will be the development
of the working class on a global planetarian scale.
This intuition was not based on an analysis of the capital
process of production, but rather on an understanding
of the transformation in the social composition of labour.
Globalisation and informatisation could be foretold
as an effect of the refusal of work in the western capitalist
During the last two decades of
the twentieth century we have witnessed a sort of alliance
between recombinant capital and
cognitive work. What I call recombinant are those sections
of capitalism which are not closely connected to a particular
industrial application, but can be easily transferred
from one place to another, from one industrial application
to another, from one sector of economic activity to
another and so on. The financial capital that takes
the central role in politics and in the culture of the
90s may be called recombinant.
The alliance of cognitive labour
and financial capital has produced important cultural
effects, namely the ideological identification of labour
and enterprise. The workers have been induced to see
themselves as self-entrepreneurs, and this was not completely
false in the dotcom period, when the cognitive worker
could create his own enterprise, just investing his
intellectual force (an idea, a project, a formula) as
an asset. This was the period that Geert Lovink defined
as dotcommania (in his remarkable book Dark Fiber).
What was dotcommania? Due to mass participation in the
cycle of financial investment in the 90s, a vast process
of self-organization of cognitive producers got under
way. Cognitive workers invested their expertise, their
knowledge and their creativity, and found in the stock
market the means to create enterprises. For several
years, the entrepreneurial form became the point where
financial capital and highly productive cognitive labour
met. The libertarian and liberal ideology that dominated
the (American) cyberculture of the 90s idealized the
market by presenting it as a pure environment. In this
environment, as natural as the struggle for the survival
of the fittest that makes evolution possible, labour
would find the necessary means to valorise itself and
become enterprise. Once left to its own dynamic, the
reticular economic system was destined to optimise economic
gains for everyone, owners and workers, also because
the distinction between owners and workers would become
increasingly imperceptible when one enters the virtual
productive cycle. This model, theorised by authors such
as Kevin Kelly and transformed by Wired magazine in
a sort of digital-liberal, scornful and triumphalist
went bankrupt in the first couple of years of the new
millennium, together with the new economy and a large
part of the army of self-employed cognitive entrepreneurs
who had inhabited the dotcom world. It went bankrupt
because the model of a perfectly free market is a practical
and theoretical lie. What neoliberalism supported in
the long run was not the free market, but monopoly.
While the market was idealised as a free space where
knowledges, expertise and creativity meet, reality showed
that the big groups of command operate in a way that
is far from being libertarian, but instead introduces
technological automatisms, imposing itself with the
power of the media or money, and finally shamelessly
robbing the mass of share holders and cognitive labour.
In the second half of the 90s
a real class struggle occurred within the productive
circuit of high technologies. The becoming of the web
has been characterised by this struggle. The outcome
of the struggle, at present, is unclear. Surely the
ideology of a free and natural market turned out to
be a blunder. The idea that the market works as a pure
environment of equal confrontation for ideas, projects,
the productive quality and the utility of services has
been wiped out by the sour truth of a war that monopolies
have waged against the multitude of self-employed cognitive
workers and against the slightly pathetic mass of microtraders.
The struggle for survival was
not won by the best and most successful, but by the
one who drew his gun - the gun of violence, robbery,
systematic theft, of the violation of all legal and
ethical norms. The Bush-Gates alliance sanctioned the
liquidation of the market, and at that point the phase
of the internal struggle of the virtual class ended.
One part of the virtual class entered the techno-military
complex; another part (the large majority) was expelled
from the enterprise and pushed to the margins of explicit
proletarization. On the cultural plane, the conditions
for the formation of a social consciousness of the cognitariat
are emerging, and this could be the most important phenomenon
of the years to come, the only key to offer solutions
to the disaster.
Dotcoms were the training laboratory
for a productive model and for a market. In the end
the market was conquered and suffocated by the corporations,
and the army of self-employed entrepreneurs and venture
microcapitalists was robbed and dissolved. Thus a new
phase began: the groups that became predominant in the
cycle of the net-economy forge an alliance with the
dominant group of the old-economy (the Bush clan, representative
of the oil and military industry), and this phase signals
a blocking of the project of globalisation. Neoliberalism
produced its own negation, and those who were its most
enthusiastic supporters become its marginalized victims.
With the dotcom crash, cognitive
labour has separated itself from capital. Digital artisans,
who felt like entrepreneurs of their own labour during
the 90s, are slowly realizing that they have been deceived,
expropriated, and this will create the conditions for
a new consciousness of cognitive workers. The latter
will realise that despite having all the productive
power, they have been expropriated of its fruits by
a minority of ignorant speculators who are only good
at handling the legal and financial aspects of the productive
process. The unproductive section of the virtual class,
the lawyers and the accountants, appropriate the cognitive
surplus value of physicists and engineers, of chemists,
writers and media operators. But they can detach themselves
from the juridical and financial castle of semiocapitalism,
and build a direct relation with society, with the users:
then maybe the process of the autonomous self-organisation
of cognitive labour will begin. This process is already
under way, as the experiences of media activism and
the creation of networks of solidarity from migrant
We needed to go through the dotcom
purgatory, through the illusion of a fusion between
labour and capitalist enterprise, and then through the
hell of recession and endless war, in order to see the
problem emerge in clear terms. On the one hand, the
useless and obsessive system of financial accumulation
and a privatisation of public knowledge, the heritage
of the old industrial economy. On the other hand, productive
labour increasingly inscribed in the cognitive functions
of society: cognitive labour is starting to see itself
as a cognitariat, building institutions of knowledge,
of creation, of care, of invention and of education
that are autonomous from capital.
Despair and Suicide
In the net economy
flexibility has evolved into a form of the fractalisation
of labour. Fractalisation means fragmentation of time-activity.
The worker does not exist any more as a person. He is
just the interchangeable producer of micro-fragments
of recombinant semiosis which enters into the continuous
flux of the network. Capital is no longer paying for
the availability of the worker to be exploited for a
long period of time, is no longer paying a salary covering
the entire range of economic needs of a working person.
The worker (a mere machine possessing a brain that can
be used for a fragment of time) is paid for his punctual
performance. The working time is fractalised and cellularised.
Cells of time are on sale on the net, and the corporation
can buy as many as it needs. The cell phone is the tool
that best defines the relationship between the fractal
worker and recombinant capital.
Cognitive labour is an ocean
of microscopic fragments of time, and cellularisation
is the ability to recombine fragments of time in the
framework of a single semi-product. The cell phone can
be seen as the assembly line of cognitive labour.
This is the effect
of the flexibilisation and fractalisation of labour:
what used to be the autonomy and the political power
of the workforce has became the total dependence of
cognitive labour on the capitalist organisation of the
global network. This is the central nucleus of the creation
of semiocapitalism. What used to be refusal of work
has became a total dependence of emotions, and thought
on the flow of information. And the effect of this is
a sort of nervous breakdown that strikes the global
mind and provokes what we are accustomed to call the
The dotcom-crash and the crisis of financial mass-capitalism
can be viewed as an effect of the collapse of the economic
investment of social desire. I use the word collapse
in a sense that is not metaphorical, but rather a clinical
description of what is going on in the western mind.
I use the word collapse in order to express a real pathological
crash of the psycho-social organism. What we have seen
in the period following the first signs of economic
crash, in the first months of the new century, is a
psychopathological phenomenon, the collapse of the global
mind. I see the present economic depression as the side-effect
of a psychic depression. The intense and prolonged investment
of desire and of mental and libidinal energies in labour
has created the psychic environment for the collapse
which is now manifesting itself in the field of economic
recession, in the field of military aggression and of
a suicidal tendency.
The attention economy has became
an important subject during the first years of the new
Virtual workers have less and
less time for attention , they are involved in a growing
number of intellectual tasks, and they have no more
time to devote to their own life, to love, tenderness,
and affection. They take Viagra because they have no
time for sexual preliminaries.
The cellularisation has produced
a kind of occupation of life. The effect is a psychopathologisation
of social relationships. The symptoms of it are quite
evident: millions of boxes of Prozac sold every month,
the epidemic of attention deficit disorders among youngsters,
the diffusion of drugs like Ritalin among children in
the schools, and the spreading epidemic of panic..
The scenario of the
first years of the new millennium seems to be dominated
by a veritable wave of psychopathic behaviour. The suicidal
phenomenon is spreading well beyond the borders of Islamic
fanatic martyrdom. Since WTC/911 suicide has became
the crucial political act on the global political scene.
Aggressive suicide should not
be seen as a mere phenomenon of despair and aggression,
but has to be seen as the declaration of the end.
The suicidal wave seems to suggest
that humankind has run out of time, and despair has
became the prevalent way of thinking about the future.
So what? I have no
answer. All we can do is what we are actually doing
already: the self-organisation of cognitive work is
the only way to go beyond the psychopathic present.
I don’t believe that the world can be governed
by Reason. The Utopia of Enlightenment has failed.
But I think that the dissemination
of self-organised knowledge can create a social framework
containing infinite autonomous and self-reliant worlds.
The process of creating the network
is so complex that it cannot be governed by human reason.
The global mind is too complex to be known and mastered
by sub-segmental localised minds. We cannot know, we
cannot control, we cannot govern the entire force of
the global mind.
But we can master
the singular process of producing a singular world of
This is autonomy today.