Radical media, politics and culture.

More books - Vogliamo Tutto (Balestrini)

A couple of months ago Steve Wright published an essay - "Operaismo, Autonomia, Settantasette in Translation: Then, Now, The Future" - of particular interest to me, both as an english speaker who has lived and explored Italy in recent years, and as occasional translator, fascinated by the one-sided perceptions of the Italian experience common abroad, largely (IMHO) deriving from the very selective range of material available in the english language.

Wright makes this point in the context of the celebration of Hardt and Negri's Empire, underlining the fact that they represent only one element of a broader tradition and also that some Negri's work cannot be considered to be representatiove of the positions or interests animating operaism and its various derivatives today. His own book remedies some of these defects (Storming Heaven) and is a fundamental text for anyone interested in the revolutionary politics in the second half of the twentieth century as it provides a roadmap to the convoluted "percorso" that led from Quaderni Rossi to La Classe, Potere Operaio, Lotta Continua and Autonomia Operaia.

Anyway, I'll discipline the tangents which are tempting me. I mention Wright because there are two books in his list of 12 (to be translated) which I like a lot. The first is Nanni Balestrini and Primo Moroni's ""L'Orda D'Oro" (The Golden Horde) and is easily the best historical account of the modern Italain revolutionary movement. Ballestrini, a militant and poet, produced several key novels in the 1970s and 80s which insert the political conditions inside first-person narratives that allow one to make sense of the subjectivity involved.

We Want it All (1971) Currently I'm reading another of Ballestrini's tales, Vogliamo Tutto - We Want it All. The protagonist is a young worker from the south forced to emigrate to Milan in the search for income. He hates work but needs money to support a hedonic lifestyle at night and finance extended vacations in his home town. After burning his bridges in Milan, he moves to Turin and takes a job in Fiat. The year is 1969 and Mirafiori is boiling. Initially his shirking strategies are private and individualistic, faking injury, playing the dullard and generally subtracting himself at every opportunity from the gruelling labour of the factory. Meanhwile students are hanging around the gates to Fiat, talking of politics, of strike, of action against the bosses. After confrontations with the managers and line-supoervisors he decides that it's time to struggle collectively. So begins the epic struggle of 1969, central to the hot autumn, a huge confrontation with the aristocracy of Italian capital - Agnelli - conducted outside of the unions. The latter in fact are savagely critiqued as sell-outs, uninterested in workers' real concerns, collaborators in the commodification of their labour. The workers want to take back control over time, subtract themselves from the infernal rhythm of the factory, abolish the system of categories that keeps them separated according to grade, and fight for equal and uniform wage increases for the entire workforce. That July the demonstration against pension cuts in Corso Traiano transformed itself into an enormous battle with the police. The energy and violence of that day, that grounded an important part of the imagination of the radical left for the next ten years. The cinema would occasionbally portray this rejection of the factory system, notably in Petri's "La Classe Operaia Va in Paradiso" (The Working Class Go To Paradise), where a Milanese factory worker who enthusiastically reaches his quota and cooperates with management befgore losing a finger in a workplace accident. This is the catalyst for the breakdown of his compliance. He demands a strike 'till the end, is fired and then reinstated due thanks to the union. In the interinm he has a terrible dream of pushing his way through a wall to get to paradise, which turns out to be populated by workers who are still sweating. The factory has so overwhelmend him that he can only see things in its terms. Thus even a meeting with his son outsidfe of a school becomes the occasion for him to remark that the children seem like "so many little workers!"

Another stylistic element is the shift in voice, from a freewheeling indivuidualism in the first part of the book to a collectivist language lifted from leaflets, slogans, addresses to assemblies... The assumption of class consciousness is literally materialized in the subsumption of preceding egoism in the 'mass'.

Anyway it provides a fascinating insight to those times, ways of life and mentalities. The style is similar to The Unseen: no punctuation, retention of a vernacular feel to the account - I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out that also Vogliamo Tutto is a product of interviews.

The Unseen (1987) His only work to have been published in english is "The Unseen", translated by Liz Heron and published by Verso. In my view this unjustly ignored novel is in bad need of resucitation - perhaps the rejuvenated intertest in "autonomism" will inspire Verso to re-issue. The Unseen tells the story of a young militant in the Milanese hinterland and his experience of the movement as it gathered pace and faced crises as the seventies progressed. I love it for being set in a small town where the decision to assault the heavens carries a much heavier burden thatn the relative anonymity of the metropolis. The protagonist recounts his everydfay existence, the misery of labour and the its increasingly determined refusal, the confrontation over the use of armed force, the passage to prison and the terror of state retaliation following the prisoners revolt at Trani. Some years after first reading the book I discovered that "Gli Invisibili" (as it's callled in Italian) is actually the story of Sergio Bianchi, founder of the publishing house Derive Approdi -- as well as being a lover of good whiskies ;) -- Apparently Balestrini interviewed him and then assembled the transcriptions. Balestrini has a curious style that eliminates punctuation altogether, giving the writing both a sense of stream of consciousness and also preserving an idea of oral history. This is probably no accident given his intimate friendship and collaboration with Primo Moroni, archivist of the movement and arguably the father of social and oral history in Italy.

The Editor (1989)L'Editore can somehow be seen as a bridge between the events of Vogliamo Tutto and Gli Invisibili. The publisher in question is Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, revoultionary, founder of what is today the biggest chain of bookshops and one of the country'm most impportant publishing houses, and scion of a tremendously rich dynasty built on industrial and financial interests accumulated over the preceding fifty years.

Feltrinelli's mangled body was found at the foot of an electricity pylon near a small town outside of Milan. Official reports hypothesized that he had blown himself up whilst planting explosives designed to blow up the structure and cut-off the supply of electricity to the city. Individual pieces of evidence as well as the fact of Feltrinelli's enormous wealth contradicted the official thesis. Why after all would one so wealthy preform such act himself rather than employing a specialized commando? Was it likely that someone of his resources would be equipped with unconvincing falsified documents?

But the guts of this book - being written fifteen years after the facts hardly presumed to be an intervention into an open case - lie in its unpacking of the left's rerlationship with violence in this crucial period. A long series of bloody fascist attacks had begun with the atrocity carried out in Milan's Piazza Fontana in 1969 (which resulted in the state-murder of Pinelli, made famous in Dario Fo's "Accidental Death of an Anarchist") and intensified the fears of many that a reactionary coup d'etat was in the pipeline. This fear was especially diffuse amongst those who had fought in the resistance, felt betrayed by both the recycling of fascist elements of the state and the Communist Party's succumbing to a moderate electoralist approach. This anxiety was reinforced by the failed coup attempt led by the former commander of the elite fascist regiment X Mas, Junio Valerio Borghese, in 1971 (he subsequently fled to Switzerland). Opposition to the use of political violence, and defense of "republican legality" thus became a tenet of orthodox PC-flavour communism. Feltrinelli had left the PC after the Russian invasion of Hungaria in 1956, had spent substantial periods in Cuba where he befriended both Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.

Yet, as Balestrini explains, Feltrinelli develoiped his taste for the communist guerilla at home, amongst those embittered ex-partisans who did not give up, but concealed, their weapons and continued to bring yopung recruits on camping trips to the mountains to acquaint them with the topography around the cities, and established shadow-cells in local party sections with the responsibility of keeping watch on nearby armouries and generally preparing themselves in the case of any eventual necessity to return to clandestinity. Fascist provocations were frequently the occasion for the re-emergence of this more militant antifascist spirit that could not be contained within party prerogatives but exploded in the street. The most famous example is the popular uprising in Genoa 1961, where the population confronted the police in order to prevent the planned party conference of the MSI (Movimentoi Sociale Italiano, former ruling party under Benito Mussolini). On that occasion members of the PC, the radical left, anarchists, workers organizations (with the legendary dockers armed with steel hooks, tools of their trade at the forefront) administered some stiff lessons in proletarian violence. Partisan culture was the umbrella under which these elements found common ground and many looked forward to the day when the rifles would be disinterred.

This aspects raises its head repeatedly during the 60s and 70s in stories ranging from social criminality as expressed by Sante Notaricola (author of L'Evasione Impossibile and role-model for many of the newly jailed 'political prisoners' at the end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s) who as part of the Cavallero gange was involved in numerous ared robberies in Milan and Turin (immortalised in Baditi a Milano directed by Lizzani which recounts the job done on the Banco di Napoli). Likewise some of the Red brigades first weapons were given to them in trust by former partisans, and in toiwns such as Reggio Emilia some of the latter were in fact the point of aggregation around which such a sensibility gathered. Feltrinelli frequented a PC section in Lambrate charcterised by the same culture, and its influence is evident in his having named his own organization GAP, echoing the historical paretisan formation with the same initials (Gruppo di Azione Partigiano).

Ina ny case street violence was very much part of the cut and thrust of everyday italian political life, as Franco Piperno remarked last year, only a seminary of priests could have been shocked about it at that time. Piperno himself was head of an organization (Potere Operaio) whose watchword was "Insurrection" and who studied and serendaded the IRA in Ireland with the intention of applying the model in modified form in Italy. On hearing they were communists the Provisionals promptly directed them to the officials who showed them round the country and found them billets. Republicans were invited to the annual conference held in Florence in 1971 (the Black Workers Congress, emanation of the struggles in the auto industry in Detroit were also present).

"Danzica, Beflast, Torino, Meridione, Questo e' la marcia dell'insurrezione!" By late 1973 Potere Operaio had dissolved amidst growing internal problems (Rosalina, June 1973), Lotta Continua was also in difficulty and a new game was begining, they too would dissolve although their paper continued to be published and in many regions they survived as recopgnizable formations right up to the early 90s. Part of PO tried to constitute itself as the organizational structure for autonomia (Rosso) whilst others embarked on a path that would conclude in the armed struggle (Valerio Morucci Co.)

That same year the first national assembly of autonomous workplace committeees took place in Bologna and if it's possible to put a location and date to the birth of Autonomia Operaia, this is it. More anon. These are just notes after all...

Christian Marazzi's "Il Posto dei Calzini" - Where the Shoes Go - is the other book on Wright's list that enthuses me. All the theorising of the linguistic turn in the economy etc derives from work accomplished by himself and Virno. I'll resist temptation to go into it now as I don't have the text handy.