“We want everything: all the wealth, all the power, and no work.” In Italy, in the summer (or ‘hot autumn’) of 1969, Fiat workers are going on strike. Theirs is “a brutally spontaneous struggle” lasting for months, which spreads across the industrial centres of northern Italy and results in widespread social upheaval. In Vogliamo tutto (which translates in English to We Want Everything), his novel detailing the struggle, Nanni Balestrini draws on interviews with Fiat workers, who make up a collective central narrator. “I think unlike what happens in the bourgeois novel, which is based on the individual and his personal struggle within a society,” said Balestrini in an interview, “the collective character struggles politically, together with others like him, in order to transform society. Thus his own story becomes an epic story.”
This epic story is narrated - in a delightfully candid and profane prose style - by an unnamed young man from Italy’s rural (but rapidly industrialising) south, who moves north to find work in factories. He is a qualunquista, an individualist, politically apathetic but driven by the pursuit of personal gain and pleasure. For this reason he hates work almost from the very beginning. His father, a peasant’s son who’d done “a thousand different jobs”, is candid: “I’m only telling you one thing: work is bad, so try to avoid it.”
It’s a lesson the narrator soon learns himself, subjected to a series of exhausting and degrading manual labour jobs. Vogliamo tutto is a book of the factory floor, not only in content but in form as well. The structure mirrors the rhythm of factory production: small fragments, short and sharp, strung together to form something larger than themselves. So, too, with the structure of the workers’ movements inside the factory. “It’s all numbers,” the narrator tells us at one point. “Your day at Fiat is divided up, organised by this series of numbers that you see and by others that you don’t see.” The worker is, to use a familiar but fitting cliche, a cog in this vast machine, governed by flows of information abstracted from his material reality. He never even reads his pay packet, “because I didn’t give a shit about it … I’m only interested in the money.”
To fulfil his objective of getting as much money as possible while working as little as possible, he runs a series of bold and sophisticated scams (faking an injury to get on sick leave, blackmailing an employer into sacking him so as to get severance pay) which make for highly enjoyable reading. But the book’s turning point comes when the narrator turns up for work at the massive Fiat Mirafiori factory in Turin, and sees students handing out leaflets outside the front gates: “Why is this? They’re free to sleep around and enjoy themselves. They come to the gates of a factory … which is really the most absurd and disgusting thing there is. They come out the front here, what are they doing?”
At Fiat, his hatred of work and bosses finds expression in the rapidly accelerating struggles within the factory. In doing so, it develops from a personal hatred into a political-economic understanding of the conditions structuring his life, and the lives of his comrades. He develops an understanding of power, both in the workplace and out. While strikes are the ace up the sleeve of the workers, outside the factory they are still governed by capitalist imperatives - they have to eat, they have to pay rent. “They discovered that they didn’t have any power, the State fucked them over at every level… In this system of continuous exploitation they were workers outside as well.” But by the same token, the experience inside the factory can be put to use in other settings - for instance, the struggles at Fiat inspired rent strikes in nearby working-class neighbourhoods.
It is at the point of political awakening - around the middle of the book - that the narrative voice changes from first-person into third. The ‘I’ of the narrator is subsumed into the general term ‘the workers’. Left-wing struggles are often accused of an authoritarian repression of individuality, but the narrator finds freedom and relief in becoming part of a whole: “I finally had the satisfaction of discovering that the things I had thought for years, the whole time I’d worked, the things that I believed only I thought, everyone thought, and that we were really all the same. What difference was there between me and another worker? What difference could there be?” Of course, work is what really dissolves one’s sense of self and makes one a hostile stranger to one’s comrades; struggle, and solidarity, is the antidote.
But why the struggle, in the first place? The conventional wisdom surrounding industrial action is that it is spurred by some particular injustice; some wrong that needs to be righted. In Vogliamo tutto, there is strikingly little in the way of concrete demands. The struggle begins with a leaflet, but the narrator can’t remember what it was about. Shortly afterward, he confronts the boss with a sign: “I don’t remember which sign it was, something was written on it, I didn’t care what. The only thing I cared about was for him to go get fucked.” The workers’ specific claims grow more coherent as the book develops, but their central grievance remains the same: the exploitation contained in work itself. This is the problem with no name, which cannot be resolved with technocratic tinkering around the edges, as the union continually attempts to do. The workers mock the union: “The work rates are too high, let’s lower the rates. Work is harmful, let’s try to remove the harm, all this bullshit.” They know that their struggle takes place on a different plane. They have no demands; they demand everything.
This kind of boldness is conspicuously absent in a labour movement increasingly concerned with respectability; that is, with presenting itself as the bearer of common-sense ‘solutions’ rather than ideologically-driven demands. In Sally McManus’ press club speech at the end of March, announcing the launch of the Change the Rules campaign, she positioned wage growth as desirable partially because it would help fix low consumption and grow the economy. This rather puzzling positioning of unions as handmaidens to the needs of capitalism ignores, among other things, the other aspect of the problem, the one that Vogliamo tutto portrays so elegantly: the nature of wage labour itself, however “well-paid”.
Contemporary labour movements have an odd relationship with the concept of work. Too often, union campaigns portray workers who ‘love’ their jobs, who derive intense satisfaction from the work they do, and who ask only for a modest pay rise to reflect their deep commitment. This is, I am confident in saying, an almost total fiction. What is work for most of us? Something that sucks up our time; something that requires the putting-on of a false persona (‘the professional’) at the expense of our real selves; something that demands endless inputs of energy and effort into a process that is, in many cases, laughably pointless if not actively harmful. Balestrini’s narrator puts it eloquently: “Work is the only enemy, the only sickness … that prison where they took away our freedom and our strength, day after day.”
This is, in a sense, the most obvious thing in the world. Almost everyone is alienated. Entire currents of pop culture - humour, advertising, popular television shows and movies - are based on the widely shared experience of doing soulless, boring, hated work. Complaining about one’s job is one of those sure-fire conversational topics that people fall back on at parties. In the light of this near-universal grievance - as well as the looming potential of automation to replace much of human labour - you’d think that critiques of work would be at an all-time high within the mainstream labour movement. Instead, the opposite seems to be happening; a bizarre valorisation of work (and of the ideal of the ‘hard worker’, who deserves a so-called ‘fair wage’) that cuts directly against most people’s feelings and experiences.
“He became like a brother, I don’t know how to say it,” Balestrini’s narrator tells us of discovering a comrade at Fiat. The only way to become comrades to one another, “to understand that we all think in the same way, is to do the same things.” Mass politics, in other words, can only grow from mass experiences. That’s one reason why, to me, an explicitly anti-work position is one of the most exciting new potential directions for the labour movement and left-wing politics more generally. There are stirrings of this: David Graeber’s new book Bullshit Jobs, based on the popular 2013 essay he wrote for STRIKE! Magazine, is refreshingly honest about the grindingly useless, arbitrary nature of many jobs, especially 21st century ‘knowledge work’. Other books, from Srnicek and Williams’ Inventing the Future to Aaron Bastani’s forthcoming Fully Automated Luxury Communism, explore the possibilities of a post-work future. In a recent viral video, the Swedish Communist Party put forward a moving call for dismantling structures of work as we know them, claiming that, “their talk of employability mutilates us as humans.” Talk of a shorter work week is cropping up almost everywhere. For many young people, in particular, the Fordist vision of a secure, full-time job for life now appears as little more than a dystopian nightmare.
In other words, we already know that we can do better. As in Vogliamo tutto, ordinary people are far ahead of the union movement in our understanding of the situation, and in our dreams for the future. (As a rather unsurprising aside, by posing as militants in a strategy known as ‘riding the tiger’, the Italian union movement eventually succeeded in greatly reducing the influence of revolutionary groups in Italian factories, including Fiat, and redirecting workers to political reformism.) Our task is to build, as the Fiat workers tried to, structures of organising and solidarity that subvert the unions; that take it as given that our collective power is greater than any compromise they, or the bosses, could offer.
At the very start of the book, Balestrini’s narrator promises: “In the end we’ll change everything. We’ll tell them all to get fucked, them and their shitty jobs.” The first draft of this essay finished with that quote. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that it was an unsatisfying note to end on; that the spirit of the book contained rage, yes, but also something else. I turned to the final chapter, where a huge workers’ demonstration turns into a battle with police. “They were really feeling this unity, this force,” the narrator writes. “So every rock that was hurled at the police was hurled with joy, not rage. Because in a word we were all strong.”
Joanna is a writer and radio producer living in Brisbane. Her work has appeared in Overland, the Millions, the Toast, and other publications.