No Past? No!
An Interview with the Italian Analyst of Post-Fordism, Sergio Bologna
Klaus Ronneberger / Georg Schöllhammer
The social upheavals of the past two decades have invalidated conventional professional and class identities. Traditional forms and resources of a collective solidarity arising from the common experience of work under alienated conditions are vanishing. Social resistance is having a hard time finding an answer to the new and flexible strategies of post-Fordian capitalism. While some want to rescue the national welfare state to counter the tyranny of the market, others feel that new forms of independence have been created along with the changed balance of power within society. From this point of view, union-oriented labor and social policies have few chances of being popular with »Arbeitskraftunternehmer« [people who act as entrepreneurs of their own labor. Tr.].
Sergio Bologna, one of the most important European analysts of this change, has given us the most comprehensive study to date of the circumstances and perspectives inherent in this form of work in his book on the »new self-employed« in North Italy. In the following interview, Bologna outlines the genesis of the »class« of the »new self-employed,« not only as the consequence of economic strategies and technological developments, but also as a reaction to subtle forms of in-house resistance and post-modern patterns of socialization.
Despite his background as a left-wing activist and intellectual associated with the Autonomia Operaia who was forced to leave his university position and enter the sphere of the new self-employment, Bologna mistrusts the current forms of criticism leveled at capitalism by the old and new Left. He pleads for a - cultural, or even esthetic - utopia: for new spaces, concepts and forms of organization, for a »re-engineering« of the city as a way out of the present death throes of the Left. The concept for the Milan Free University that we present here is a first concrete plan towards realizing this.
Klaus Ronneberger: Mr. Bologna, in the seventies you became known in German-speaking countries as a theoretician of the autonomous Italian left wing, who concentrated above all on the phenomenon of the Fordian mass worker. In your more recent works, the »new self-employed« have become the focus of your analyses. What economic, social, and political developments brought this about?
Sergio Bologna: It was already clear in the latter half of the seventies that the Fordian manner of production had great weaknesses both as an accumulative and a disciplinary model. Factory workers - particularly in Italy, aided by certain groups of intellectuals - had developed a fighting technique that showed the sensitivity of the assembly chain to precisely planned strike actions. A small group of workers acting at strategic points of the production process was in a position to paralyze a company of 40,000 workers and force the board of a large firm to negotiate. The disciplinary model of scientific organization of labor was completely powerless against a strike technique like this, which was basically no different from that which the anarcho-syndicalists had already discovered at the beginning of the century. That is, unless the basic freedoms of the unionistic order were abolished - which was politically impossible. In a word: the machinery of Fordian production could be crippled using a relatively small amount of energy. At first, the answer was sought in the area of technology - robotization, replacing human labor with robots. But they were just as rigid. Only the idea of flexibilization - with the reduction of the size of production units, the organization of the production process in networks consisting of small and medium-sized companies, the endless chain of subcontractors, the delocalizations, the atypical contracts, the flexible working hours, and, of course, the repression through the »early retirement« of the most active worker groups using rehabilitation plans, restructuring measures etc., up to the beginning of the era of information technology, the »New Economy« ? was able to solve the problem of the social conflict. With a personal computer and a mobile phone, every person is a company on his or her own: a service company. And they cannot strike against their computer, because they sit basically alone in front of their screens and often do not know who their client is.
But this is only one side of the phenomenon. The other side seemed to me perhaps more important: the social organization of Fordian labor with its notion of a »permanent job« was no longer attractive to the new generations, which live differently, try different things, want to keep their freedom, etc.. They regarded the strike actions of the factory workers with a certain skepticism. In the vast majority of cases, they had ended with small pay rises, which, in times of high inflation such as the seventies, led to terrible frustration. The myth of the »strong working class,« the revolutionary working class, that had aroused the spirit of the '68ers, remained completely foreign to them. They did not see any substantial improvement in the social conditions of the factory workers. They belonged to the disillusioned post-68 and post-Vietnam generation. Marxism no longer played any role for them. Sex-specific initiatives, sexual freedom and environment were perhaps more important to them. They considered the Fordian form of social conflict to be a Sisyphean task. They preferred working here and there to having a permanent position. In other words, the changes came from below as well as from above.
I had tried to work out a theory of the mass worker as early as the mid-sixties. I had presented the article published by Merve in Berlin in 1972 as a paper at a seminar in Padua in 1967. In 1977, ten years later, there was a new wave of social movements in Italy, and I had the feeling that we had reached a turning point: »Here is something new, Fordism and 68 are both over.« But what is it that is new? That is how the article »The Tribe of Moles« came about, which was published by Feltrinelli. And that is how the long search began for new forms of labor, which reached its first stage in 1997 with my book »The Self-Employment of the Second Generation« (still published by Feltrinelli). This research took twenty years. But in between there was an event that changed my personal social status: to be precise, being relieved of my post as professor in Padua, and shortly after this, expelled from teaching altogether, and starting a new existence as a freelancer. Without this personal experience, without this social demotion from the position of a public servant to that of a freelancer, my publications on self-employed labor would perhaps never have been written. They certainly would not have taken this form.
Klaus Ronneberger: Many critics of neo-liberalism warn about the disintegrative effects created by periodic or permanent removal from a normal situation of salaried work. If one takes the diagnosis of Pierre Bourdieu, for example, »unfettered capitalism« makes a »defense of the state« necessary in order to break the dominance of the market mechanisms. The French social scientist Robert Castell is of the opinion that, with the decline of gainful employment regulated within a welfare state, even the social cohesion of society is in danger. Do you also yearn for the »Golden Age of Fordism«?
Sergio Bologna: Yearning is not the right word. I have always been very interested in historical research on the Fordian era. I am of the opinion that, on the level of business history and the history of company towns, of technology, industrial design and advertising, as well as the level of the union movement, industrial law, everyday life, women, and education, there is still a lot to do. We need an ever-changing understanding of Fordism, on all levels of social, political and economic life. We have to compare different models (the USA, the Soviet Union, Western Europe), different phases (the 20s, the 30s, the two world wars, the post-war period, etc.) to become completely conscious of the specificity of the present time and the present forms of labor. That is why, for these past twenty years, I have tried, parallel to my analysis of the new forms of labor - which was partly identical with self-analysis - to intensively read literature on industrial history, to critically analyze earlier theses on the Fordian phenomena, and to study literature on certain burning questions, such as the relationship between National Socialism and the working class. I have devoted quite a few essays to these questions, several in German, which have not yet been translated into Italian, like the article on the history of the automobile industry at Fiat and Alfa Romeo in »1999« (the magazine published by Angelika Ebbinghaus and Karl Heinz Roth), the essay on »Americanismo e Fordismo« by Antonio Gramsci in the same context, and finally the little book »Nazismo e classe operaia,« which recently came out in Spanish.
Dealing with these historical subjects was made easier for me by my friendship with several historians (I myself am a historian, and until 1981 I was the professor for the history of the labor movement at the uni in Padua): Karl Heinz Roth with his research on the National Socialist system, Cesare Bermani, co-founder of »oral history« in Italy, Duccio Bigazzi, perhaps our greatest industrial historian, who died a few years ago at a much too young age, Nando Fasce, a historian of industrial society in the United States - his history of the public relations policy of the big American corporations came out this year, and some years ago he received the American Historical Society prize for the best study by a foreigner of the history of the USA -, Pier Paolo Poggio, head of the library of contemporary history at the Luigi Micheletti Foundation in Brescia, and Franco Amatori, the chairman of the Italian Association of Business Historians.
With the exception of Amatori, we all worked for the journal »Primo Maggio« (1973-1986), a publication that once had a certain significance for the autonomous Left in Italy, and in which the question of the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism was discussed at an early stage on a historical, sociological, and political level. Why do I want to underline this interest in industrial history? Because I want to stress the specificity of our analysis, our methodological approach, and in particular the close connection between personal involvement, historical perception, and social analysis. Without a clear understanding of Fordian forms of labor, we will never arrive at a true, deep awareness of the meaning of flexibilisization in the New Economy, and we can never grasp the fundamental differences between these epochs. Moreover, there would otherwise be a danger of our being tempted to consider the new so new and incomparable, so rich in future and poor in past, that we simply give up the heuristic power of historical knowledge. Some years ago, we saw the danger of political resignation in the »no-future« ideology. Today, the »no-past« ideology is the real danger. Especially after September 11, where the unimaginable, the unprecedented, devalued our historical awareness just as much as it did the Nasdaq shares. This is where we must intervene.
Just one example that is closer to your work on present-day art: How can one photograph the work of a freelancer? Industrial photography has a long tradition in Fordism; a certain esthetic of factory work even developed. Photos of early industrial studios, of Fordian steel works, shipyards, and assembly lines are an important source of information on industrial history. Pictures of miners and female textile workers are sources for the history and perception of exploitation. How can one illustrate the history of the »New Economy«? How can one record the traces of exploitation in the face of a freelancer with the same power as the »black muzzle« of a miner? How can one find professional pride in the face of a freelancer? How can one photograph his psychological destructuring after long years of work in front of a computer screen? And how can one give an account of something today that cannot be represented in visual form? When storytelling fails, historiography is difficult. There is thus a twofold danger: on the one hand the »no-past« ideology, on the other, the undepictable nature of the new.
And now I come to your question. Bourdieu and Castell have spoken of the danger of an disintegration of the social network. They were probably thinking »with yearning« of the old concept of solidarity between work colleagues, between people who go the same way to work every day, who have the same working hours, who weld under the same factory roof, who stop work at the same alarm signal, who eat together in the canteen, etc.: in other words, a micro-society in which the clock regulates the working day like a bell in an monastery. They were probably also thinking of the European welfare system. These types of solidarity, one of them at the human level, the other at a state level, could be gone forever. What seems to me questionable is the idea that is sometimes implicit in such descriptions: that solidarity grows up naturally in the case of »normal wage earners,« while egoistic, individualistic behavior is the sole domain of the self-employed. This is true neither of the past nor of today. Solidarity has always been a political process, has always been the effect of education. Factory workers are not born showing solidarity: on the contrary. Militant actions and figures have long since disappeared from the large concerns. And today, the same is the case with the self-dissolution of the left wing: the largest workers' party in Italy is the Lega Nord of Umberto Bossi. Its followers show »solidarity« with one another, because they are trying to defend what they have achieved (level of pay, etc.) from the flood of immigrants. Where is egoism, where is solidarity?
That is why I do not yearn for the good old days. They have gone for ever. We should rather be worried about our inability to depict the present. That is the real disintegration, the disintegration of a culture that is no longer in a position to illustrate present-day labor or to give an account of it, as people like Studs Terkel or Martin Glabermann have done in their writings on the multinational working class in the USA.
Klaus Ronneberger: If one were to summarize descriptions of post-Fordian capitalism, »flexibility,« »entrepreneurial behavior« and »self-regulation« seem to have already asserted themselves in all areas of society as a social fact of life. But to what extent are these just performative concepts thought up by intellectuals, concepts that - whether deliberately or involuntarily - set such processes in motion in the first place or produce apparent evidence through their constructions? Seen in a historical light, the success of the Taylorian method of operation at the beginning of the 20th century was propagated by scholars like Werner Sombart as a necessary model in keeping with rational, logical social development. Are today's intellectuals carrying out a similar function with their conceptive ideologies, or has something changed in this regard?
Sergio Bologna: One should have a theory of »intellectuals as a social class,« as Theodor Geiger said, and readopt his distinction between high intelligence and half intelligence, between intellectuals, the educated and academics, to be able to give a correct answer to this question. However, flexible production methods are not a projection of wishes, are not a rationalization of a spontaneous change ex post caused by the market. The intellectual contribution to establishing the post-Fordian form of labor cannot be compared with that of the Taylor era. In the past twenty years, capital has been able to mobilize such a mass of intelligence for itself that the area of oppositional thought is not only extremely small, but is also always being absorbed and appropriated for the needs of an achievement-oriented society. It is unbelievably what has been achieved on the level of rationalization of procedures and organizational change. Hundreds of thousands of advisers, information scientists, academics, and engineers have made their contribution to the »re-engineering« of the work process.
The role of ideologists, sociologists or theoreticians - like Sombart - has been a very limited one, as has been the role of the media. The strength of the model of flexible production lies in its - so far - unassailable construction: conflict at the level of work performance is no longer practicable. Hence my apparently paradoxical thesis: although conflict at the level of work performance has become impracticable, we must nonetheless return to the roots of work - of paid employment, not of »common human activity,« as many French ideologists claim (»passer du travail à l'activité«) ? to find new possibilities for action.
Klaus Ronneberger: You have criticized the traditional left-wingers in Italy for treating the area of the »new self-employed« as a lost terrain that is now dominated by the neo-liberal right. Where, in your opinion, is the potential for a political project as far as the »autonomous workers« are concerned?
Sergio Bologna: Let's leave the Left, the autonomous Left as well, out of this. Putrid air is emanating from the corpse of the traditional Left, hopelessness from the area of protest: I feel like many characters in B. Traven's novels: without a badge of identity, without citizenship, »exiled« through choice. When it talks about the new forms of work, the autonomous Left speaks either of »Macjobs« or »precarious work,« and ends by demanding »income for all.« Philanthropically speaking, that could be OK. In reality, however, the problem of the new forms of work rather affects the »middle class« and the jobs that need great intellectual ability. The specificity of the new forms of work lies in the character of knowledge. Skills are not evaluated, or, rather, they are subject to a different system of values and evaluation. The number of technical, scientific, practical, and human relations skills demanded of freelancers is enormous, but the freelancers' value on the market depends only on their flexibility, which implies a certain healthy physical make-up. Their skills do not give them any authority compared with the social recognition of an ignorant academic. That is a sign of the present »class differences.« In a society of knowledge, a lack of authority means exclusion from public life.
The second point: the campaign against precarious jobs may well be a good deed from a philanthropic point of view. However, it assumes that the model of a »permanent position« is still seen as a positive one: that people are still thinking on Fordian lines, and yearn for the good old days. Both the traditional and the autonomous Left are wondering what form a unionistic organization of the new types of work could take. My opinion is that the new forms of work have brought about such a shift in the temporal and spatial dimension that the people working in them do not, and cannot, express their ideas or demands for a better life in the language of unions. The possibilities for union action are too limited, and sometimes impracticable. If freelancers want to work less, from whom do they demand a shortening of working hours?
When we were developing the idea of the Free University in Milan five years ago, we wanted to provide an answer to these questions. We started with the term »universitas« in order to immediately delineate the field of conflict we had chosen - the cultural area - and at the same time to demonstrate our distance to academic models. In Latin, »universitas« means a community of people with similar goals. »Universitas« - as opposed to »societas,« which includes an economic project and is closer to the idea of an organization (party?) - can only exist as a cultural project. And what we wanted to achieve and develop culturally were »prototypes of ideas,« »patterns of thought« of the Bauhaus type: not objects, but ideas. From our Marxist background, we retained the idea that no cultural project can be vital unless it links its fate to the fate of a social stratum. For us, this stratum was to be found in the world of self-employed labor. Here, too, we did historical work: What did the German and Austrian social scientists in the 20s and 30s say about it? When all dimensions of political action are too small ? and that is the case with the new forms of work - only the dimension of a utopia can be realistic.
Our utopia was that of a »re-engineering« of the city, which is still organized too much according to Fordian concepts of time. But before this, we should set a mental »re-engineering« in motion, on all levels. It could be the organization of education as well as the restructuring of the social security system. For this, one needs to change the basic concepts. That overtaxed our strength. But you have to be constantly radical today to advance even a millimeter. It was symptomatic that the only place we found people to talk was with in women's groups, where it is usual to think radically.
Translation: Tim Jones