Plague in this Town

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Some time in 1997, the Mail on Sunday ran a tragic story. Apparently the Camorra, Naples’equivalent of the Mafia, has made the city too dangerous for English tourists who would like to gaze at its beautiful ruins. Or in other words, the Non Governmental Organization which for a century provided enough security to make heritage backpacking possible has lately adopted methods that tend to destroy passers-by. ‘We defeated the Red Brigades’, wailed the chief of Naples police, ‘but we can’t beat the Camorra because it grows out of the community. The only answer would be to bulldoze all the Camorra areas (i.e. the poorest in the city) and give them somewhere else to live.’
Alert, well informed Mail readers would have noticed a forlorn historical irony in this choice of words. For the legend of the Brigate Rosse has served as the Italian State’s alibi for just such a ‘bulldozing’ campaign (albeit on a social rather than a geographical plane) since 1979. Only in this case the monster bursting ‘out of the community’ wasn’t a security firm with friendly links to local government, but a sort of internal secession, an organized withdrawal from capitalist command by a large minority of the Italian population. Unlike much of today’s direct action it was not a protest movement — the intention wasn’t to ‘send a message’ via mass media to the established powers. (As has often been noted, ‘symbolic politics’ are shared by non-violent moralists and clandestine paramilitary groups.) On the contrary, the aims were shamelessly ‘egoistc’ — focussed on the immediate satisfaction of individuals’ desires.
A recurring theme of these ‘new social movements’ was ‘self-reduction’ (autoriduzione), a practice with origins in the factory conflicts which had intensified continuously since 1968. In August 1974 the private bus companies which delivered employees to the FIAT Rivalta plant increased fares by 25 to 50 %. To the acute embarrassment of the Italian Communist party (P.CI.), workers refused to pay the increases, and drivers allowed them to ride at the old season-ticket rate. In the winter of 1974-5 the boundary between industry and civil society broke down: the refusal was extended to electricity and telephone charges, as it spread across the north of Italy. In Piedmont alone, 180,000households ignored a 50% increase in power prices, while state electricity workers guaranteed an uninterrupted supply.
Eventually these defensive measures were sapped by citizens’ reluctance to raise themselves above the law. But the principle of self-reduction was soon turned to more aggressive ends. Effective control of the Roman power supply by the Comitati Operai Autonomi (Autonomous workers’ collectives) meant that prices came down 75% to the industrial rate. Meanwhile widespread rent strikes were followed by mass occupations of public housing. During 1974 illegal occupations of new estates in Falchera, Turin and San Basilio, Rome were defended by physical force against police aggression for several months, until the city councils guaranteed permanent homes to everyone involved.
An even more direct form of appropriation, especially popular among teenagers calling themselves ‘proletarian youth circles’, was ‘political shopping’, a polite name for collective, systematic looting. (This highly disciplined activity may have lacked the poetry Guy Debord sensed in Watts in 1968, when new domestic appliances were dragged back to tenements without electricity, neatly superseding Vaniegem’s dilemma, ‘love or a waste disposal unit?’ But for the same reasons it could be practiced anywhere at any time, independently of riots, fire and pestilence).
A common feature of these actions was that, unlike the battles of the 1960s, they couldn’t be dominated by ‘representative’ groups of male wage earners. (The Brigate Rosse and the revolutionary groups Potere Operaia and Lotta Continua fit this description as comfortably as the P.C.I. and the trade unions). For obvious reasons, the same is true of the decade’s two best known movements, the organized unemployed who, having no factories to strike in, took over the streets, government buildings and hospitals of Naples and Palermo, and Italian feminism, whose sudden impact encouraged the far left parties’ ethical self-destruction.
The space left behind by these disappearing cells was not filled by any more coherent power. There was no new overall revolutionary strategy from which particular decisions could be derived. Instead an ‘Area of Autonomy’ was inferred from practices already common. In the name Autonomia Organizzata the past tense is crucial: the ‘area’ is nothing but the possibility of co-ordination between moments of insurrection already organized locally. Violence could only be justified by instant gratification: nobody’s promise of a future Communist utopia was worth a moment’s ‘tactical’ suffering.
If these events’ remove from the present horizon of bewilderment demands subtler metaphors, the Northern myth of Napoli (to be distinguished sharply from the real place) might be invoked again. In the Frankfurter Zeitung of 1925, Walter Benjamin and the Lithuanian Asja Lacis described a city where in private life as in architecture ‘porosity is the inexhaustible law of life’. ‘Building and action interpenetrate in the courtyards, arcades and stairways…each private attitude or act is permeated by streams of communal life…for nothing is concluded. Porosity results not only from the indolence of the southern artisan, but also, above all, from the passion for improvisation, which demands that space and opportunity be preserved at any price.’
The ‘territorially dispersed, ideologically heterogeneous’ organizational flux of Autonomia has often been recalled in similar terms. Yet everybody knows that post-modern management therapists also love to speak of porosity, non-hierarchical structures, perpetual revolution. Their feverish effusions all refer more or less obliquely to the same process, namely the total saturation of ‘existential’ being in the commodity relation. (See also, ‘real subsumption’, ‘integrated spectacle’). Some time ago, this phenomenon reached such a high degree of perfection that it began to appear in reverse, so that, for example, a person’s economic situation is perceived as an effect of their personality, or employment contracts as a from of ‘human relationship’. Thus the autonomous movement’s brief success and final suppression pose questions which the last twenty years have failed to answer. How can ‘the passion for improvisation’, the ‘inexhaustible law of porosity’, be used effectively against a form of power that claims them as its organizational norms? What ‘flexibility’ can be conceived apart from that which management requires of its ‘human resources’?

The events which have barely been alluded to here are too complex, and are contested too fiercely, to be done justice by any unified history. So naturally, the Italian state’s hirelings have worked hard at composing an authoritative account. This interpretation is yet to be written down in full; rather it’s still being played out in courtrooms and prisons, inscribed on bodies like the judgements spelled out by the machine in Kafka’s Penal Colony .
When the Red Brigades killed Prime Minister Aldo Moro in May 1978, the state had the pretext it had been waiting for to take revenge on the autonomists. A single woeful syllogism was all it took to make several thousand new criminals out of an informal social movement. As follows: (1) Despite its wild heterogeneity, the Area dell’ Autonomia had a highly centralized command structure, presided over by Professor Toni Negri and a few of his colleagues at Padua University. (2) The contents of these scholars’ writings is enough to prove that they were high-ranking officers in the Red Brigades. (3) Therefore, at a time of national emergency, anyone who took part in the movement is a terrorist by virtue of association with these ruthless conspirators.
As Negri himself explained, ‘The judges have constructed central committees where only spontaneous committees existed…the great social phenomena of the workers’ pickets,the blockading of transport, the “self-reduction” of prices, the occupations of housing and so on, have been lined artificially to an operational strategic centre which is supposed to have commanded and assumed responsibility for all these actions…figures were creates (such as my own) who were supposedly capable of directing these impressive social phenomena through orders, communications from secret committees, special agents etc etc…In this hypothetical accusation, this gentleman, while lecturing in Paris, sent off orders which on the one hand set off hundreds of thousands of young people throughout Italy, in the factories, in the schools, and in the streets. On the other hand, this gentleman was organizing all the underground struggles that were going on in Italy in the same period: in other words, he was head of the Red Brigades, of Prima Linea, and of all the other underground groups.
There’s no doubt that if I had really been all this, I would have been an excellent manager…’
On April 7the, 1979, police acting on the orders of Communist magistrate Pietro Calogero arrested the presumed leaders of Autonomia. Within a few months, 3,000 ‘terrorists’ were in prison with no foreseeable prospect of a trial. Judges took advantage of a penal code inherited from fascism, of which every detail except the death penalty survived or had been made harsher. Prisoners could be held for 5 years and 4 months preventive detention, for 10 years and 8 months before the trial. A Zero Tolerance policy was in force 15 years before Mayor Giuliani wished on on the English-speaking world: a young man was jailed for 26 years for driving a stolen car. The proceedings were a lesson in precisely what is meant by the rule of law: a prosecuting judge appeared in court with a headline from an Autonomia newspaper pinned to his shoulders. which read, Avete pagato caro, non avete pagato tutto: ‘you’ve paid dearly, but you’ve not yet paid in full’.
Even given these conditions, and the new emergency powers at judges’ disposal, most of the material charges — attempts to prove that Autonomia had been in contact with the B.R. — collapsed because of a total lack of any evidence. However, many of those whose names were attached to Autonomia publications were jailed for ‘incitement’, or ‘membership of an armed band’ on the basis if their writings alone. The irreducible conflict (not only of means but of ends) between Autonomia’s ‘collective satisfaction of needs’ and the B.R’s planned seizure of state power — and also the two groups’ history of mutual disparagement –ultimately counted for nothing next to the judge’s skill in philology, his suspicion of shared authorial intent. Meanwhile hundreds of convictions were obtained with the help of pentiti — repentants — freshly ‘disillusioned’ former B.R. drones happy to talk about whoever it was suggested to them were former colleagues in exchange for grotesquely shrunken sentences. Prosecutors found plenty of co-operation in a force already deeply infiltrated (or, Debord and Sanguinetti insist, controlled) by security forces.
Journalists might like to pretend that these were freak phenomena, symptoms of an ‘old’ corruption now exiled from Italy like the wretched former prime minister Bettino Craxi, who carries his cancer all over the mediterranean on a luxury yacht. But only a deeply ingenuous (or disingenuous) observer could fail to see in the criminalizing of a mass movement by libellous association with ‘terrorists’ a pattern which recurs across the ‘democratic’ world. (British policy in Ireland since 1969 is an obvious comparison.) And Italian courts have not ceased to rely on pentiti, or to infer deeds improbably from written words, in the last 25 years. When Negri returned from exile in France last autumn to try to negotiate the release of the 224 militants still in prison, another 13 years were added to the few months remaining of his 30 year sentence for incitement.
In fact it’s only worth correcting the official slurs on the Italian autonomous groups because the ‘new enclosures’ they fought against have come to be experienced everywhere as natural. Debord regarded as a commonplace the notion that France and Italy are ‘laboratories’ of class antagonism; in his prison writings of 1979-82, Negri describes the beginning of the experiment now famous as ‘post-Fordism’.
To paraphrase brutally, the wildcat strikes, mass sabotage, and ‘irrationally’ escalating wage demands of the 1960s constituted a revolt against work within the workplace, a move to take back the labour-time sold to employers, and as such, an attack on the ‘capitalist time -measure’ itself. Global capital’s well known response to this threat recalls Schopenhauer’s warning that we can have what we desire, as long as it doesn’t bring us the happiness we expect from it. The integral working day was allowed to break down under pressure, but only so that its essence infects every moment of ‘lived time’. ‘Freedom over the temporal span of life’ becomes indistinguishable from the capitalist utopia of a potentially unlimited working day. Moreover the means of achieving this miracle are varied enough to stratify what had been a dangerously unified class. At one end of the new hierarchy, production is automated and moved away from urban centres, so that workers fall prey to casual contracts requiring constant readiness to work, or to the legal blackmail of the welfare system. At the other, the time-measure becomes qualitative. Through empty categories like ‘performance’, ‘excellence’, ‘communication’, managers assign value exactly as they please. An equation of ‘creative’, ‘sociable’, ‘playful’ work with individual self-realization subjects the depths of personality to market rule.
At both extremes, capitalist command that had been concentrated in the working day saturates what was once called private life. Resistance confined to the scene of industrial production is therefore impotent: ‘the conflict is social because more and more it is situated on the general linguistic terrain, or rather the terrain of the production of subjectivity.’
Negri’s account of these phenomena, and his insistence that they are inseparable elements of the same new capitalist order, were derided at the time as bourgeois anarchism, or as empirically unjustified, idle theorizing. Since then, its descriptive component has become self-evident. Yet, as his left-wing critics lament, the aggressive new class subject uniting marginalized and ‘creative’ elements, supposed to accompany these developments, is nowhere to be seen.
This fact would only cripple Negri’s argument in a fairy tale / nightmare world of linear, unbroken history. The post-Fordist style of capitalist command was immediately understood, and attacked viciously in its infancy, by the groups which would congeal as Autonomia. Self-reduction, political shopping, illegal occupations of public space, and violent self-defence against police and fascist attacks extended the science of mass sabotage, the struggle against time-measure in any form, beyond the factory, across the virtually limitless field of ‘soft’ social control. Nearly 20 years after these ‘plague carriers’ (casual flattery from P.C.I. leader Enrico Berlinguer) were quarantined (or, if Il Commendantore of Napoli would prefer, ‘bulldozed’), the sorry disproportion between a vindicated theory and a betrayed, slandered pratice bears mute witness to unfinished business.

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