The working class and development

by Mario Tronti

Contropiano 3, 1970, pp. 465-77.*

I will intervene here by attempting to navigate a very problematic path through the issues, and hope to find, perhaps, a middle way between a theoretical and a practical approach, keeping in mind that the theme under discussion is only one of many problems that today bring themselves to the attention of working-class theory, and that there remain outside of it a series of other major problems that it will not be possible to even outline here. To arrive at the problem that we are confronted with today, I would like to start from a place that seems the most correct to me from the viewpoint of its political formulation. Which is to say I would like to start from the place of the struggle over the wage; not from the discussion of the category ‘wage’ and how it is configured within a contemporary class structuration, but precisely from the theme of the struggle over the wage. I think that one can give at least two meanings to the wage struggle, which today we can see and distinguish with a certain degree of clarity:

1. A general, hence historical, meaning.

2. A more specific, and hence political, meaning.

The general-historical meaning stems from the fact that, if we look back at the general history of the workers’ struggle, we see that the worker’s struggle is always about the wage; that is to say the working class, as long as it has existed, struggles now defensively, now offensively over the wage and for the wage. Thus, the theme of the struggle over the wage is a permanent theme of class struggle, and in precisely this sense you can render a discussion of this sort general – thus historical – and less political.

It is clear that we are concerned with another kind of discussion. When we were talking about the struggle over the wage, we evidently intended the second meaning: the politico-specific meaning. The historical model – if here too we can talk of a history of the problem – was that of certain American workers’ struggles, above all in the 1930s, when the working class met with a certain type of capitalist initiative. This historical reference is very important because the famous outbreak of workers’ struggles in 1960s Italy – which we always have at the forefront of our minds as a problem to resolve, as a problem to be responded to politically – we might say that this working-class outbreak is probably a sort of delayed resumption of that type of workers’ struggle that precisely took place in the United States in that stretch of time. I repeat: the thirties – we could probably specify the dates – and going beyond the thirties, into the first part of the forties, perhaps as late as 1947. Why are we locating the meaning of the struggle over the wage on this American terrain? Because we evidently find that it is there that the struggle over the wage is no longer faced with the response of the individual capitalist – or rather the disorganised response of capital – but is rather faced with the response of a certain economic policy of capital; that which we call the capitalist initiative or in certain cases the great capitalist initiative, such as it was in America in that period. The struggle over the wage only interests us in the moment in which we find on the one hand the workers choosing this terrain of struggle, and on the other the capitalist response at a political level; not as a theoretical problem, but as a problem of struggle on a specific political terrain. When the struggle over the wage finds itself not only faced with this new economic policy of capital, but provoking that policy, that is compelling capital to make policy, in that moment the terrain of the wage struggle becomes specific, that is to say this type of wage struggle compels capital to take a certain type of historical initiative. It is a model to follow in this sense too, a model for the workers’ movement, that is for the organisational level of the workers’ struggle, that must keep in view this conscious objective (not unconscious as sometimes happens) of provoking on the part of capital a political response, at the level too of political economy, to name the type of policy most congenial to the nature of capital. I say this because a certain distortion has emerged around this theme of “the struggle over the wage” that is detrimental to its correct, even its political, application. Out of this theme of “the struggle over the wage” has been made a sort of revolutionary ideology; that is, it has ended up remaining embedded in the continuity of a tradition, a tradition inferior even to traditional Marxism, of what we’ll call vulgar Marxism, in the continuity of those traditions that discover and rediscover within themselves a continuous rebirth of the catastrophic ideologies of capital and the capitalist system. The struggle over the wage has been made into a new ideology of the capitalist catastrophe. Now, here we find two errors: first, that of making an ideology out of a struggle of this sort; second, that of making this type of inferior ideology out of it. The struggle over the wage is today imagined to come just before the collapse of the entire capitalist system. Whereas the correct understanding of the formulation requires that the struggle over the wage come before a leap forward in development of the system itself. Thus, it is anything but an ideology of catastrophe, it is rather a theory of capitalist development. So, if the workers’ movement were to succeed, if the organised part of the working class were to succeed at imposing the theme of “the struggle over the wage” with a clear understanding that it is precisely a question of making it play out within a new type of capitalist development, and indeed through these means of imposing a new type of capitalist development, I believe we would get much closer to the correct understanding of the problem and the most effective political application of the thing. This poses a question along the following lines: the putting in crisis, that famous jamming up of the economic mechanism through the explosion of the wage contradiction is – should be – on the part of the worker, only a way of waving around a gun, which is to say a conscious threat, and express in a conscious fashion, a sort of blackmail that encourages capital to undertake that modern political initiative which was previously mentioned. Why should it undertake that modern political initiative? Because it serves us more than them, it better serves the workers than the capitalists. And I think that when we see why it better serves the workers than the capitalists, it will perhaps be in this section that the theme of class composition emerges.

Here I wanted to arrive at the theme of class composition via this route and using this transition: the struggle over the wage-capitalist development, as a moment at play within a certain type of development, even that of class composition. All of which is to say that in my opinion this theme has an extremely direct relationship, a classic relationship, with precisely the politics of capital more than with its internal structure; more than with its internal composition, it is in relation with and always presents itself in relation to a certain type of capitalist politics. If for us composition means the internal structure of the class, that is the mode in which at a given point the working class internally structures itself, then the given state of technology does not enter into it, or enters into it in a very marginal fashion, thus I would say it has nothing to do with it, if we delve into the issue, in the first person, as a foundational problem; nor does the discussion of labour, of the concept of labour. Because it is not the history of labour, or the history of the saving of labour, that determines a specific class composition, but the history of capital as a succession of capitalist policies, and it is if anything the history of workers’ struggles that is determinate as they precede and impose the policies of capital. What I’m trying to say is that the scientific organisation of labour, as well as the replacement of labour with a system of machines, concerns capital in the first person (i.e. it also concerns workers as capital). Whereas I would see class composition form part of a debate concerning workers as workers, that is as workers’ organisation. The relationship is thus that between class composition and the situation of working-class organisation in a given moment. Now, I think that among all the ideologies that are today revisiting the working class (because in my opinion ideologies have been turning back to the working class), the most dangerous is perhaps the one that predicts or even aims for a slow death or a sort of gradual extinction of industrial labour-power; that is, the ideologies concerned with a thinning out of the herd. These things are very common in less-than-serious, less-than scientific studies, but nonetheless make an impression on a certain sort of scientific public opinion. I am referring here to the ideologies of automation which continue to be discussed (perhaps less today than in the recent past). We have to view them as a sort of theory of non-labour which has a clearly capitalist character. It is not our theory of non-labour, it is not a theory that can be given a particularly working-class significance, but has a clear and precise capitalist bias. It is a sort of threat in response by capital, just as through the struggle over the wage the workers threaten capital: “If there isn’t a development in the system we threaten to jam up that system.” The capitalist response is perhaps on just this terrain: “If it doesn’t develop on a different scale, on a more gradual, more orderly scale, a scale that is more internally capitalist, we will respond to this cycle of struggles with an intensification of these processes of automation.” The ideology of automation within the aforementioned capitalist politics performs the same function today as the threat of the reserve army of unemployed labour once did. As then: “If you aren’t good, we have people to replace you with”, so today the capitalist discourse is nearly identical: “If you aren’t good we will replace your living labour with a system of machines”. This is properly a type of political threat, and if it is political then it is precisely in response to that previous threat by the workers which focused on the wage. Today I think that the boom in this ideology of automation is already on the wane; the pragmatic capitalist no longer believes in it, it no longer works even technologically for him and perhaps it doesn’t even work as a political threat. But it is a type of ideology that is being rediscovered and redeployed today from within and on the part of the workers. It is the ideology that is becoming the ideology of the workers’ defeat, it is the ideology whose bearers constitute a new stratum of intellectuals who want to take the side of the workers, but from outside of their struggles, and from within their individual specialist disciplines instead, disciplines that they pursue like the time and motion men: sociologists on the ground, economists in the technical sense of the word, cold-blooded analysts of workers’ problems; people who are the natural enemies of politics as such, of whatever variety, whether revolutionary or reformist. It is necessary to counter this sort of ideology with another set of hypotheses. Hypotheses that are still underdeveloped, on our part, and on which there is a need to reflect deeply and at length. It seems to me that a process of this sort is occurring and might also be put in service even in these somewhat simple terms. Capital, even on an international level and in a global context, has and continues to have the requirements it has always had: the need to expel manpower from agriculture, for example. Secondly, capital has the potential to transition into a period of instant computerisation in large parts of the service sector. But it must be said that in the industrial sector the process of automation finds insurmountable limitations to its further development. That is to say that labour-power, when we observe it at its most advanced levels, seems ensconced in the secondary sector and, ensconced in this fortress, it resists, waiting perhaps to attempt new sorties beyond its walls. Here much time is given over to talking about the problem of grades of skill, but things aren’t really as simple as that, they are not resolvable in terms of a decisive process of deskilling or some degree of reskilling. We might say that at a certain level modern industry increases living labour’s level of skill, while at another level it deskills living labour. In any case, what interests us here is that modern industry does not abolish living labour. This is the fundamental point of the problem: it is not able to abolish living labour. In all this I don’t wish to suggest a return to the theory of labour-value as it was conceived in classical, pre-Marxian or even Marxian terms. Namely: without labour there is no value, and thus no capital. From which it then emerged that labour was this fundamental thing, for which it was worth the effort of fighting, of sacrificing your own life and so on, because it was this important thing that stood at the centre of the modern world. It is a much more concrete, much more realistic, perhaps even more political, argument: we can see that in sectors of high industrialisation the technical limit to the elimination of labour, precisely that limit which capital is unable to exceed, is determined not by the organic composition of capital, but by its political nature as a social relation. That is, it appears that the technical limit to capitalist production lies in the way in which it deals with the foment of living labour within production. In practice it is this living labour that drives everything, that has always driven everything; that, immersed in dead capital, resuscitates it and even causes it to increase. This is precisely the Marxian argument, the one put forward by Marx at his most advanced, by the Marx who wrote the Grundrisse. But it is also the Marxian argument – and it is no coincidence that we are talking about the most advanced Marxian argument – that is for us, today, decidedly backward, that is today starting to become decisively backward. Because it seems, on the contrary, that political interest pushes capital to abolish the working class, that inconvenient adversary that is always in its way, that hampers the work of the capitalist; for which reason labour saving, and the history of labour saving, could also be regarded as a political necessity, as a response to struggle. From time to time, we have also put forward this argument. It is an argument, however, that holds true only for a particular phase of capital, a phase that is not our own. Labour saving as a response to moments of struggle, of worker insubordination (as it was once called), is something that no longer concerns the current phase of capital. Today the whole thing should be entirely reversed. Technically we may acknowledge the possibility of a gradual transition from the productivity of labour to the man at the machine, and in any case a reduction to the bare minimum of industrial labour-power. We may acknowledge a technical possibility of this sort. It costs us nothing to do so. The limit to this objective process is rather to be found elsewhere. The working class is and is becoming an increasing political necessity for capital. Without the working class there is no capitalist development. This again is the main point of the question. Not labour at the centre of capital functioning as an impetus to capital, but the struggle of workers; not labour as the foment that makes capital increase, but the workers’ struggle as the living foment of capital. This is the modification that we can now, today, quietly introduce into the classically Marxian argument. At the highest points of development, we will probably even see capital fight against its own technological development to preserve the historical existence of the working class. We cannot rule out a paradoxical process of this sort. Whereas at the midpoints of development, and all the more at the low points, those technological reasons are still in play, reasons which are always those from the early days of industrialisation, that as usual push capital to accumulate and concentrate industrial labour-power on one side, and means of production on the other. So, let me repeat myself, on an international level and in a global context we are still, and will perhaps continue to be for a long time, in a phase of quantitative growth in the working class; this is another hypothesis that can be introduced as part of our argument. A continuous phase is, for us, a phase of quantitative growth in the working class, a phase we might also call, using an old word, ever-increasing proletarianization. This is an important argument if we are to avoid a lurking danger, a danger which we must take care against. And the danger is furnished by that other argument, one diametrically opposed to our argument here, according to which productive labour declines quantitatively but increases in qualitative importance: it’s a fact, workers become ever fewer, but also become ever more important. This is an argument that you hear bandied around. It is a revival of the old argument according to which workers should be important in any event and that the labour of the worker should above all be the essential thing, without which nothing could exist under capital. But if we go down this route – the quantitative decrease and qualitative growth of labour – we inevitably arrive at the rediscovery of precisely that quality of labour, which we always do well to reject; and thus if we don’t want, by following this path, to end up rediscovering the dignity of labour, we instead rediscover the essentiality of the worker and thus his right to direct, to manage everything. And we see that by following this argument to its logical conclusion that any talk of a qualitative growth in labour is politically false, politically counterfeit, because it leads to a neo-aristocratic, that is a neo-revisionist conception, of the working class. We always start from the concept that the fundamental enemy of the worker is work. Work is the great enemy of the worker, even before capital. The quantitative growth of the working class leads us in this way to appreciate every process of labour deskilling. Now it is clear that at certain points of low development deskilling can happen at the same time as the process of developing new skills. However, the fact is that at the high points of development deskilling means deskilling and nothing more, that is it has no counterpart and to make sense of it as a concept does not require of us any excessive intellectual effort. When we look at the whole of this process on an international level and in a global context, we see that this process of continuous deskilling – that is, of the quantitative growth and qualitative decrease of labour – is the process that really matters, is the process that drives all the other processes. In my opinion the international development of capital is today leaving behind a theoretical phase, leaving behind, that is, the general phase in which it had been up till now. The international development of capital has instantiated itself, has concretized itself, has decided to advance along homogenous lines, has chosen a gradual sort of supranational development. The most advanced section of capital, American capital, no longer has the power to impose a real hegemony, absolute economic domination, which would then have a real political counterpart. This incapacity of the most advanced section of capital to impose its hegemony has as its consequence the resurgence of a localised internationalism. We can even detect a clear resurgence today of a certain sort of economic Europeanism. An economic Europeanism that is much more efficient than that of the past, because completely void of political ideologies that might be termed Europeanistic. Something like the Werner Plan is only ostensibly futuristic or futurological: on first reading it seems to be one of those things that capital invents at a certain moment and then totally fails to implement. But in my opinion we are in fact in a phase [of capital] in which the implementation of this programme begins to be feasible. The way is being sought to a possible internationalism of capital, a possible supranationality of capital that in Europe might do without, or at least place itself in competition with American capital or with other extra-European capitals, even with the Soviet Union. It is clear to us that faced with an outlook of this sort it is not a question of choosing, as the theorist, the historian, the bourgeois politician might be forced to choose, between a monetary or an economic solution. That is, it is not for us to discuss and decide on whether it were wiser to pursue monetary or economic union first. It is instead a matter of explicitly choosing the path of the supranational development of capital, taking on a kind of workers’ Europeanism at the moment in which we see this possibility materialise; it would be opportune to take into account this type of supranationality because it reproposes the problem of the relationship between workers’ struggles and the development of capital. Indeed, one might ask: for what and for whom do we adopt this kind of discursive terrain, or indeed this field of battle? We must return for a moment to the discussion of the relationship between workers’ struggle and development, and the prospect of a workers’ struggle for capitalist development.

I believe that today we find ourselves confronted with a choice between two possible grand strategies for the workers’ movement: the strategy of refusal and the strategy of development. A methodological warning suggests that we should not choose the strategy that appears to us superior in itself, that which has a larger number of implicit virtues, that which is right and proper in itself. We must choose our strategy based on what we think is most feasible, and secondly according to what is likely to be victorious. And we have to know that the obvious winner will be the strategy that finds the way to organisation, the strategy that finds the way to tactics, the way to an implementation of tactics. Avoid contrasting the strategy of tension and the strategy of development in such a way that imposes a choice between a revolutionary and a reformist strategy. It is easy to view the strategy of refusal as quintessentially revolutionary, and the strategy of development as quintessentially reformist. Once things are approached in these terms, we find ourselves making a choice of an old, outdated, pre-political sort. According to this kind of conceptualisation (and thus the terminology that expresses this kind of conceptualisation) revolutionary strategy and reformist strategy increasingly become a sort of relic of workers’ language and thought, a primitive, primeval way of thinking and speaking. The whole of it bound up with an era of class struggle that we considered now past. Behind it lies the old world of values that must be chosen according to a moral – and moral-revolutionary – approach. This old world of values must self-evidently be replaced today with a series of practical processes, concrete plans aimed at specific objectives. If we take a look directly at the level of the workers, which is what interests us, and what we consider decisive in these matters, we see that the strategy of refusal and strategy of development coexist.

Refusal of work in the factory and struggle for development in society. I believe it is precisely through the coexistence of these two contradictory elements within the working class that we can start to elaborate a type of strategy that might be termed provisional. Today, a provisional strategy must be able to link together precisely these two faces, one of which is the directly working-class face and the other the indirectly working-class face, the capitalist face of the working class. We must be able to see right inside the working class: workers and capital, performing the opposite sort of reasoning to that we did in the past, when we saw both existing within capital: workers and capital. These two faces continuously repropose themselves as two different types of strategy, and we cannot rule out either one, because if we rule out one we lose contact with a real impulse, with a concrete fact, with the only material fact, which is the objective existence of this particular working class occurring in this form. Let me repeat myself: this is a provisional strategy, it is about bridging a sort of void that follows on from grand struggles, and probably precedes grand theorisations. This is perhaps what constitutes today’s void. Regarding the situation of working-class struggle we might give it a definition of this sort. We find ourselves in a sort of post-classical epoch. The great American struggles failed to articulate, either at an organisational level, or in terms of working-class theory, a satisfactory result. For an array of reasons they must be investigated, also historically, they had first perhaps to be translated into a European language, into a tradition of working-class thought that perhaps had and still has greater tools at its disposal, to theoretically systematise and thus politically translate these events. And if it is true that the 1960s have historically repeated this model, then it is also true that exactly the 1960s have triggered a certain type of reorganisation of the class struggle at a different level. If we are saying that we find ourselves in a post-classical situation, we are also saying that the classical level of class struggle is also already obsolete, that we will probably not find ourselves faced with a renewal of those model, but only the necessity of theoretically organising those models, in such a way as we are able to anticipate new models, new models with new contents, new models with new organisational forms. In order to grasp all the general theoretical implications at this level, we will probably need to move towards the formulation by working-class thought, and with a sufficiently long-term perspective, of a workers’ general theory, just as capital has done at its own terms. Because capital, at the level of capitalist science, has succeeded in freezing the process in a classical systematisation of economic thought, which is always the fundamental form taken by its thought. But the workers’ movement has evidently not succeeded. We lag behind this post-classical approach to capital, with a lack of even a theoretical working-class response. Now, from the perspective of this new working-class general theory, we must follow two paths in our exploration of these problems. Impose, with some consistency, and with some force a long period of historical self-analysis from the working-class viewpoint.

We must rediscover the major historical cruxes through which the workers’ struggle passed to arrive at the current moment and to arrive at the classical level of which we previously spoke, precisely the level that must be overcome. This task of rediscovery, of identifying the historical cruxes, is a task that can be demanding in terms of analysis, in terms of study, in terms of knowledge of things that are anything but familiar, anything but well known. This is an initial path towards the goal of which we previously spoke. There is another path that must coexist together with this one, that must be pushed forward together with it: the discovery, the formulation, the imposition of new dimensions not of political economy (because these new dimensions of political economy are precisely what capital requires), but new dimensions of the political, because this is precisely what the working class requires. We must come to conceive of the political in a new way. We have said it many times: it is probable that the reason on the side of the workers there is no discussion of politics, no discussion of tactics, is because a discussion of tactics is always also strategy, that is, it always ends up strategically fixing things that are then subsequently repeated. Unfortunately, this then inhibits a series of innovations, a series of new steps towards the future, because in lacking new political dimensions, one ends up employing the old dimensions of political activity. And so, to defeat these old dimensions of working-class politics, we will instead have to set out on a labour of this sort. The discovery of a new political horizon that must be made precisely from the working-class viewpoint. It will evidently have to be made with all due care, in order to avoid its being employed as a system to be implemented mathematically on every occasion; but that there is a need for the discovery of new dimensions of political activity, through all the moments of the critique of ideology, of the knowledge of bourgeois science, of the self-criticism of the workers movement, this seems to me an incontrovertible fact. I would therefore like to conclude on these terms.

We are faced with the kind of objective that is still far off: that of a theoretical-strategic recomposition of the movement. Pending this, we cannot help but adapt ourselves to a sort of provisional strategy, and also to a sort of provisional tactic. In the meantime, however, we must continue working in these two directions: one of them analysis, the other concrete political experience, in order to come closer to this new objective of a general theoretical reorganisation. I think that the theme of class composition offers exactly this kind of stimulation, along with other problems that are necessarily not included here. I have posed them in this problematic form only because the current phase of research is, and will continue to be for some time, for an indeterminate amount of time, of a distinctly problematic sort.