• Labour and Life: Memorandum for a Future Investigation of (Class?) Consciousness

  • By Mimmo Porcaro | 27 May 09 | Posted under: Theory
  • The paradox of our times is that the more class position determines people’s lives, the less people think of themselves as members of a class (or of a coalition of classes). 

    This is another way of saying that while the social relations of production continue to play a decisive role, the collective entities that take shape, even if only in the embryonic stage, seem not to orient their political initiatives chiefly around these social relations. What gave rise to this paradox, and how should we interpret it?
    My attempt at an answer is based on the following assumptions (which cannot be argued theoretically nor demonstrated empirically within the compass of this short essay):
    1) the fact that today labour and life (production and reproduction) tend to intertwine does not mean they are identical; to the contrary, the more they intertwine, the more they need to be kept conceptually distinct; 
    2) in most cases, when life “enters” work, it is not people’s relational capabilities that transform work in a positive way; it is work that imposes its own logic on relational capabilities;
    3) the fundamental distinction between labour and life lies in the fact that labour (being immediately directed toward valorizing capital) is a formalised, regular and visibly other-directed activity, whereas life is less formalised, regular and other-directed, and therefore has innovative potential.
    Let us start with labour. Labour is unquestionably far more subservient to capital today than in previous decades. But because of the form that capitalism has now assumed, the greater concentration of power in the hands of management is matched by a dispersion of labour – not only organisational fragmentation, but above all legal and cultural fragmentation – that makes it very difficult for labour to respond. 
    Outsourcing is the best-known way by which labour is dispersed, but its dispersion is also due to differences in the terms of the contracts of employees
    hired for identical tasks, to the transformation of many employees into independent (and often individual) suppliers of services, and to the organisation of work by groups (or teams) that are considered clients, suppliers
    and competitors of other groups located upstream or downstream in the production process. Moreover, in such groups workers are induced to discipline themselves and to act as controllers of fellow-workers.
    I hardly need to dwell on the effects of all this on class consciousness, or even simple union- consciousness. What I would point out, though, is that on the one hand this process of individualising work makes it have a still greater impact on life than work used to have, while on the other hand it makes workers (hence their lives) far less free than what is claimed by those who extol (with less and less conviction) the alleged superseding of the oppressive and levelling “Fordist” order.
    A great many of us have the good fortune to recall an era when there was a perceivable difference between work and life. An era in which, moreover, living time – time when people can freely build relationships of their own choosing – was continually becoming more important than work time. Today, though, all too many people experience only the invasion of living time by work time, and confusion between the two. 
    Longer workdays, frenetic switches from one task to another in the same day, anxious and ceaseless job-hunting, looking for employment of any kind: in all these forms, work seizes life and seems never to let it go free. But there is also a movement in the opposite direction: since the relatively regular connections and relatively stable hierarchies proper to the previous form of capitalism have given way to the dispersion of production and the weakening of direct employment, social relationships (cooperative and hierarchical) must be built from scratch time and time again. The end of automatism means that each individual has to perform linkage functions, has to repeatedly redefine relationships, and is very often forced to make risk-laden choices instead of simply following orders. (It must be said that this situation arises out of a sort of ploy on authority’s part. Today authority seems to be drawing back and becoming less oppressive, because it simply demands results, saying nothing
    about the ways and means of achieving them. But in a situation of scarce resources, it’s exactly this silence about ways and means that compels workers to perform more daring stunts than when they had only to obey clear instructions.)
    All this requires people to invest the whole of their experience in their work, including their relational capabilities, which, as we shall see, tend to be shaped by this new function, and formalised so as to make them more efficient.
    Accordingly, it would be hard to argue that work (and, in the last analysis, class position) does not decisively condition life and does not constitute a significant element in the construction of identity. What has been cancelled out in the present-day form of production is not only the centrality of work for life and for identity; above all, it is the linkage between work and collective action for emancipation. Work is a pressing need, or the way to try to implement an individual project (or a group or corporate project); it’s no longer the venue for creating a collective entity intent on building a future.
    This fracture is obviously related to the historical defeat of (state) socialism and to the effects of mass consumption, a subject to which I shall shortly return. It’s important to add here, though, that the presentday lack of faith in collective action aimed at a clear goal and steadfastly pursued is also due to modes of work that make it hard to think of individual life as a rationally describable chain of events.
    In fact, work is not only being outsourced and fragmented, technologically and legally; it is also characterised by two further dimensions. On the one hand, it presents itself more and more often as “project work” (even when it is performed on a permanent basis in large-scale production facilities). On the other hand, it is constantly exposed to risk: the risk of project failure, which would translate into personal failure. As Richard Sennet observes, once a project has been completed, another one must be thought up and carried out. As soon as one risk has been forestalled, another risky situation appears. The reappearance of risk prevents the individuals concerned from thinking about a narration of their own lives, because each time they must start over again from scratch; at each throw of the dice, the possibilities of winning or losing are the same1. As Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello note,2 what is required of a worker
    today is not so much the ability to complete a project, verify and modify it, and consider its effects in relation to his or her own life; rather, it’s the ability to be immediately available for another project, of whatever kind it may be.
    Thus “project-by-project life”, as defined by Mauro Magatti and Mario De Beneditis,3 has taken the place of the “life project” for individuals and, I would add, for collective entities as well.
    What makes this form of capitalist social relations especially significant is that – as is always the case – it is not simply a veil behind which one might seek and eventually discover (perhaps thanks to the awareness of an enlightened vanguard) the true, simple and glaring contradiction between capital and labour. This contradiction never exists in a “pure” form, but it exists each time in historically determined forms. The individualisation of work, the features of relative freedom and autonomy that characterise it, are not an ideological smokescreen concealing the opposite reality; they are the very way in which the subjection of labour to capital is achieved today. This subjection is thus especially hard to view as such. Indeed, even when the harsh reality of the facts decides to “reveal” the inanity of project-by-project life, this is interpreted
    as a personal failure or a momentary setback, not as the effect of a common situation that common action might avert.
    It seems, then, that for both internal and external reasons, the idea of collective entities (and still earlier, the idea of individuals) capable of entering into a transformative and rational relationship with their own historical situation cannot grow out of the experience of work. The idea of a socialist-oriented entity seems definitively relegated to the past. 
    But just when the past seems lost and unrepeatable, it shows us how to read present-day reality, and how to change it. It does so indirectly, allusively, sometimes only evocatively, but it does show us how. 
    In our case, the past reminds us that the idea of labour as a collective entity – an entity with political and social rights, hence entitled to take historical action – is not necessarily (or perhaps almost never) the effect of the concentration of masses of workers in “big industry”, of which Marx speaks. Among the many possible examples, let us look at what Thompson says about the formation of the English working class. It was not the the collective worker of the textile industry that constituted class as a political entity; it was the London of a thousand different – and differently subordinated – trades, the London of craftsmen and unskilled labourers. It was the England that resounded with the principles of constitutional government (and the related myth of the “free-born
    Englishman”), speeches and pamphlets on the rights of man, and the enduring
    traces of religious millennialism, all catalysed by the echo of the French Revolution and the movements that followed in its wake in England4. In short, it was the remnants of pre-industrial (but not pre-capitalist) labour that created – thanks to particular historical and cultural situations – the ideas, usages and institutions that produced the concept of the autonomy and value of labour as an entity in and of itself, in counterpoint to others, and handed it on to the industrial proletariat.
    This (too) confirms the fecundity of Raniero Panzieri’s observation that the “level of the working class” cannot be inferred from the “level of capital”.5 There is no necessary relationship between a certain arrangement of production and a certain formation of the working class and its subjectivity. This thesis goes hand in hand with the one that underlies Thompson’s reconstruction of history: class is neither a structure nor a category; rather, it is an event, the result of an encounter among altogether heterogeneous social, cultural, ideological and political elements. It is a “becoming” in which the leading role falls to the way in which workers describe and narrate their experience of an historically determined class; what ties their description to their experiences is not a law, but a logic that must be reconstructed ex-post.6
    But if one cannot infer class from capital, if class is the result of cultural elaboration by working people themselves, and if this elaboration can result only from the condensation of numerous heterogeneous elements, then the structure of the work process is one, but only one, of the elements that contribute to the creation of class consciousness.
    Furthermore, if it is true (and it is true) that this structure is the decisive element in explaining the overall dynamics of the social process, it is equally true that when one analyses the dynamics of the formation of subjectivity, the structure weighs as much as the other elements in an individual’s experience. If it is true that the transformation of the terms of employment is decisive for transforming the overall social process, it is by no means certain that the need and the idea of such a transformation must necessarily arise from within labour, and cannot have external motivations that eventually affect and transform labour itself.
    In the last analysis, even when class consciousness seems almost to reflect
    a “homogeneous” material condition – and here I’m thinking of the protagonist of the 1970s, the one defined, with some approximation, as the “mass worker” – this common social base succeeds in producing that particular form of consciousness and politics only because of the concurrent presence of other conditions. For example, as regards the Italian situation in those years: the construction of a unified national public space through generalised television, the early effects of homogeneous mass schooling, the ingraining of standardised models of consumption. Also, the temporal mismatch resulting on the one hand from the pre-industrial reminiscences of the immigrant working class (which clashed with the “absurdity” of work rules), and on the other from a political system and a welfare state that were notably “backward” compared with the immanent logic of Fordism. Without the concurrence of all these elements, it would be impossible to explain the efficacy and the radical nature of the workers’ movement in those years. And we must also factor in the elements of socialisation induced by communist culture, social-Catholic culture, and the culture of critical minorities and of the student movement itself, none
    of which arise spontaneously and naturally from the assembly line.
    All of the foregoing leads to another theoretical consideration. According to Charles Tilly, an eminent scholar of social movements, the latter are always produced by an intersection between two dimensions. One of these dimensions is membership in a common social category (what Tilly calls “catness”), and the other is the ability of the members of this category to build relational networks that are independent of those imposed by the dominant social actors (Billy calls this “netness”). The result is a “catnet” – the combination of an “objective” class position and a “subjective” capacity to produce institutions and values that interpret that position in a particular way7.
    When the relational network is connected to the productive dimension (as in the case of many Fordist factories), there may seem to be a univocal connection between belonging to a category and subjectivity, but this is only apparently so. Work emerges and becomes a significant factor for collective action only because it intertwines with the other dimensions of life.
    To conclude this part with a suggestion for a future investigation: Let us ask ourselves, and ask our interlocutors, what experience and what consciousness of the individual and the collectivity is formed outside the workplace, and whether and how this experience and this consciousness intersect with the perception of work.
    If the results of an investigation of this kind confirm that today, as in the past, buds of collective consciousness are born primarily off the job, they would confirm that (especially today) the main venue for the formation of a potential class consciousness is not production, but life itself, in all its many forms. Does this imply a weakening of the socialist discourse? Allow me to observe that a collective movement of workers (and others) oriented toward social transformation can be built only if and when “consciousness” takes shape as the effect of “whole life”, because strong ideas capable of truly affecting politics (“public” ideas accessible to everybody, regardless of their class and family, ideas organised as causes, which Valerio Romitelli has been discussing for some time now8) can be born only as the result of the whole ensemble of life
    I would add that the highest level of awareness is reached not via class consciousness, but via consciousness of the historical situation (individual and collective)9: consciousness that to become fully realistic must incorporate, but cannot be reduced to, consciousness of class position. 
    “Not production, but life itself”, I’ve just said. This way of putting it may be suggestive, but it is doubtless too generic, so I shall go on to a somewhat more careful consideration. Rather than production per se, we should look at the connection between production and reproduction. An analysis of this connection shows how difficult the situation is today. All the spaces outside the workplace that used to be venues for the possible formation of relationships alternative to capitalist ones are ever more tightly controlled by capitalism itself. And not only through ideological influence, strong though that is, but also in a far more subtle and pervasive way. In fact, what we are seeing now is the industrial production of larger and larger parts of social life. Everything from the primary
    elements of reproduction (food and, most important, the cultural models related to it) to symbolic processes has become the business of specific sectors of capitalist industry, which are turning social reproduction into a profit-making enterprise and ensure the training of people disposed to enter still more actively into the field of production.
    This is not a matter of television alone, though television does play a decisive role, because it is a true and proper machine whose raw material is people and whose product is viewers – a machine that transforms and organises our desires and perceptions so as to make us attentive and receptive to a particular type of language.
    Today consumption is organised as a symbolic machine that is much more coherent and persuasive than ever before. In its new formats (or at least its decisive virtual aspect), it captures ever-larger portions of the poorer classes. Except in rare cases, there is no alternative structure mediating between goods and consumers, one that might lower the prices and modify the symbolic weight of commodities. The task of people who try to rebuild such alternative structures is thus more important than ever before, but also much harder.
    This state of affairs is especially portentous, because for most people today it is consumption, more than work, that constitutes the main space for socialisation10. Work is valued precisely because it is the key that enables people to enter the sphere of consumption, the only sphere really capable of providing meaning (in abundant doses) to people’s actions. People bring to their jobs desires, ideas and approaches to reality (these too governed by the logic of self-determination and “project-byproject life”) that have matured primarily in the sphere of consumption and are mediated by the social groups (family, friendships, etc.) within which people consume goods.
    Here is another suggestion for a future investigation among workers: Ask which commodities they see as most significant, how and where (i.e., in which socialisation groups) they consume these commodities, how and where they discuss what they consume, how much of such discussion enters the workplace, and with what effects. This suggestion would also apply to our politics: Oversee the venues of consumption (as the earliest workers’ movement did, out of necessity and intelligence), from the signature of a home-mortgage agreement to weekly grocery shopping, because these too are venues of conflict and of identity construction, and are just as important as the “factory”.11
    And also because – thanks in part to the ambivalence of the dominant ideas – constraints that seem to be unquestionable and inevitable social norms in the sphere of production (due to globalisation, competition, the risk of layoffs, etc.) often appear in the sphere of consumption to be unnecessary and unacceptable surcharges.12 
    Alongside this invasion of what we might call the “median” sphere of social life is the transformation of the more massive and the more subtle structures of socialisation: the state on the one hand, and language on the other.
    The state is fast losing its capacity to coagulate unitary concepts of citizenship, and thereby to encourage the formation of an equally unitary social movement. Evidence of this loss can be seen in the rise of federalism, in a subsidiarity principle that tends to dissolve the possibility of ascribing responsibility to anyone, and in scholastic autonomy and the consequent fragmentation of school curricula and approaches. Once again, everything obeys a principle of growing liberty (meaning the liberty of the various social and institutional bodies), which, however, often leads to a constrictive logic impinging on those to whom public policies are addressed, without people being able to identify a specific and stable interlocutor for their requests and initiatives.
    But perhaps language – in particular the language used in fine-grain management of social relations – is what has undergone the most severe and radical transformation. It is not only a matter of the social construction and the media’s construction of gestures, a phenomenon that goes back to the 1950s but is now extending (in what may be the only real novelty) to the most intimate spheres of sexual relationships, of which subtly constrictive public models are being continually built, thereby providing proof of Michel Foucault’s most prophetic theories.
    The very action of building social relationships – from those between friends or within couples to those between employer and employee – has become the target of a capitalist industry I would describe as “how-to”: a tidal wave of different kinds of publications and courses presented on different kinds of “supportive” instructions but all converging monotonously around a few ineluctable words: manager, success, self-respect, self-assertion. Here, “putting life to work” appears as a formalisation of life: steering life in a strictly utilitarian direction. Interpersonal relationships, which in ordinary life fluctuate constantly between unselfishness and instrumentality, operate here in their purely instrumental role. The “group” has worth not in and of itself, but for what it can produce; the “other” is primarily a means, and only occasionally an end.
    According to this theory, life doesn’t transform work; it’s work that transforms life, attempting to reduce life’s freedom and disorder by turning them essentially into its own momentum. And the heterogeneous multiplicity of relationships that shape living experience tends to converge on uniform, neutralised models. 
    Nothing is left to chance any more, everything is (or at least is intended to be) devised according to preestablished codes. The practice of building relationships – the great discovery that in the 1970s enabled people to understand the degree of artificiality contained in familial and social hierarchies, and prompted attempts to change them —, that endless source of rebellion and social invention has become a normal job, and the thought that stems from it is no longer able to understand the real novelties (whether generated on the individual plane or the collective), because these can appear only as unforeseeable events, and as such would be unthinkable in the current managerial-reductionist logic.
    Consumption, the public sphere and the language that innervates everything thus seem to be undergoing a transformation much like the one that labour underwent. They seem subject to forms of subordination that often assume the guise of liberty, of a dialogic construction of relationships. And it seems that in the sphere of reproduction too, it is very hard to detect the conditions necessary for the formation of a collective entity.
    But in this case too, we should not infer the forms of subjectivity linearly from social mechanisms. The logical mechanisms noted above are certainly dominant, but this domination does not operate in a totalitarian way. Production and reproduction are always arenas of conflict. Describing the dominant trends in work and life does not imply predicting an outcome; it implies mapping out the territory in which the inevitable conflict among the various parties is moving and will move. That is why only an investigation (not an apriori inference) can tell us how much oppression and how much freedom is produced in a given situation.
    The fact is that in reproduction – and today primarily in reproduction – there actually exist practices of resistance that are often highly selfaware and effective. An investigation of the forms of subjectivity should start with an empirical survey of these practices.
    Alternative forms of consumption, shopping cooperatives, solidarity networks of various kinds and collective protection initiatives are making their way back, and this is where the formation of a “we” with good (albeit intermittent and sector-specific) capacities for expansion can be tested. Pro-environment struggles against capitalism’s “building craze” (which stems more from the quest for relatively easy profits than from any Faustian spirit) aggregate a “we” that only occasionally identifies itself as an ethnic group; rather, it takes root in a space perceived as one of rights. Groups that demand and control public services are attempting to give new substance and new shape to citizenship. There are more and more experiences of social, political and civic volunteer work against utilitarian relations. By necessity and through choice, people are trying out new relational models and new families capable of moving in today’s
    languages without waiving the creativity of experience.
    A future investigation of workers’ conditions and consciousness should start precisely from the space in which these practices occur. This space is defined by the territory – or, rather, the territories, the changing geographies – in which the different contradictions express themselves: a neighbourhood, an apparently random grouping of urban and suburban areas, a chain of malls, a contested or requested network of virtual or real communication. The territory also contains the factory, which itself is often made up of variously combined pieces of territory. Consciousness of an individuality that can gradually accumulate the resources capable, among other things, of expressly posing the question of labour, and of capital, moves and takes shape within these territories.. 
    A future investigation should not bewail the lack of class consciousness; it should draw up a catalogue of workers’ different “experiences of the ‘we’,” on the understanding that sooner or later these experiences will combine with ongoing experiences on the job. 
    This new investigation closely resembles the one that should become a new politics: the interconnection of a thousand heterogeneous experiences from which an unprecedented collective entity may emerge. This entity will not emerge from abstractions: not from Work, not from Life, not from Politics. Work, Life and Politics are in some way “neutral”: they are battlefields that can have different outcomes, including, respectively, labourism, retreat to the quotidian, or opportunism. Rather, the new entity will be engendered by concrete, hence unpredictable, choices made by millions of men and women who will want to take sides on each of these battlefields, to arrive at a solution that does not reproduce today’s hierarchies: a non-repetitive solution, not devised beforehand, the one that best fits a consciousness of the historical situation capable of renaming the present and the future.


    1 Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences
    of Work in the New Capitalism, Norton & Co. 1998.

    2 Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, Paris: Gallimard 1999.

    3 Mauro Magatti and Mario De Benedittis, I nuovi ceti popolari. Chi ha preso il posto della classe operaia? [The New Popular Classes: Who’s Taken the Place of the Working Class?], Milan: Feltrinelli 2006.

    4 E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Gollancz 1963

    5 Raniero Panzieri, La ripresa del marxismo leninismo in Italia [The Reprise of Marxism-Leninism in Italy], Milan: Sapere Edizioni 1972.

    6 It is worth noting that Thompson’s thoughts here intersect Althusser’s, though Thompson himself says he is a theoretical adversary of Althusser’s, above all of the Althusser who maintains that only a casual encounter among heterogeneous elements can – if the encounter stabilises – produce a new historical form, and that the fundamental contradictions in capitalist society
    exist always and only in an historically specific, hence changeable, form. As a result, the contradiction between capital and labour can express itself in a thousand different ways and can give rise to very different forms of class consciousness.

    7 Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley 1978.

    8 Valerio Romitelli, L’odio per i partigiani. Come e perché contrastarlo [Hatred
    of the Partisans: How to Fight It, and Why], Naples: Cronopio 2007.

    9 Romitelli, ibid., defines it in much the same way: “understanding of the current situation”, “ability to distinguish what is to be done and what is to be
    thought from what has already been done and is now known”.

    10 Magatti and De Benedittis, op. cit.

    11 Cf. Oscar Marchisio and Jadel Andreetto, Bologna operaia. Inchiesta fra i metalmeccanici [Workingclass Bologna: An Investigation Among the Metalworkers], Granarolo dell’Emilia: Socialmente 2007, a book to which this essay is greatly indebted.

    12 I hope it is clear that I do not mean to say that since we have been defeated in production, we can do no more than act in the sphere of consumption. No left politics (much less any socialist politics) can hope to be truly effective without intervening in production relations, industrial strategies and investment choices. The paradox lies in the fact that an accumulation of forces capable of intervening in the production sphere can apparently occur today primarily outside this sphere, unless we beg the question by saying that today “everything is production”. In my opinion, though, this would produce ambiguities that space does not allow me to describe here.

    Mimmo Porcaro (1953) is an independent researcher and a member of the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista and of the cultural associations Punto Rosso and Alternative Europa. His work focuses on problems of the political form of class and emancipatory movements.

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