“Much More Than You Think: The Spatialities of Italian Autonomy” – Interview with Neil Gray, author of “Beyond the Right to the City: Territorial Autogestion and the Take over the City Movement in 1970s Italy”

Neil Gray and Hamish Kallin, June 2018

Hamish Kallin: What first got you interested in Italian autonomism?

Neil Gray: My personal biography is perhaps not of much interest, but reflecting on this question might help provide a sense of how the relatively obscure theory and praxis associated with Italian autonomy has travelled into my own working class autodidactic milieu in Scotland. First, a step backwards. My initial shift towards the more radical thinking associated with Italian autonomy came through the Situationist International (SI), who helped me grasp a critique of productivism, the refusal of work and an internal critique of the Left. Relatedly, it was through the SI that I encountered Lefebvre, rather than the other way round as with many geographers, and so my perception of him has always been premised on his more insurrectionary side. If anything the reading of Lefebvre I found through SI texts and commentaries was sceptical of his academicism (especially in the latter years). But at the same time it has become clearer to me over time how much the SI borrowed from the insights of Lefebvre, as well Marx, Lukács, and Cornelius Castoriadis (“Paul Cardan”, “Pierre Chaulieu”). In fact, it might be possible to see the SI’s published work as an extended détournement of these thinkers, while simultaneously incorporating the most radical sides of the historical avant-garde (Dadaism, Surrealism, Lettrism).

To return to your initial question, my engagement with the SI had me hovering around the various currents of Left communism, or Anti-Bolshevik Communism as Paul Mattick (1978) named the tendency. This was a communism that fundamentally critiqued the state, exchange and the value-form in what I think is the real spirit of Marx. I probably first came across Italian autonomy (operaismo, or “workerism”[1] in its classic 1960s and early 1970s phase) through the Brighton-based magazine Aufheben, some of whom went on to form Endnotes, which has since developed a theory of communisation along with other groups like Theorie Communiste and Riff-Raff, to name but a few. Autonomia: Post-Political Politics (Lotringer and Marazzi 2007) and Harry Cleaver’s Reading Capital Politically (1979), which has a strong section on Italian autonomy, were my first extended encounters with Italian autonomy. This was followed by Steve Wright’s Storming Heaven (2002), which remains the best English-language overview of Italian autonomy in my view. Of course, there was also Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2001) and Multitude (2005), which created many new converts to Italian autonomy (or rather post-autonomy–the distinction is important), but I found these texts problematic for reasons I will discuss shortly. Indeed, one of the major obstacles in talking about the legacy and import of Italian autonomy is overcoming the often clichéd and lop-sided characterisations of this milieu following the publication of Empire and Multitude. I agree with Wright that this work really represents post-workerism (or post-autonomy) rather than operaismo (workerism) itself. Wright’s Storming Heaven provides essential insights into the differences between workerism and post-workerism, as does the remarkable factually derived fictional work on “Laboratory Italy” by Nanni Balestrini, both a protagonist and an interpreter of Italian autonomy.

Following these introductions, I began to chase up whatever was available in English by lesser-heralded, but very influential autonomous theorists and activists such as Mario Tronti, Romano Alquati, Ranziero Panzieri, Sergio Bologna, Alisa Del Re. I have been especially interested in exploring the shift from the factories into the wider “social factory” and the sphere of social reproduction, through Lotta Continua, and their feminist wing, Lotta Feminista, which included Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Leopaldina Fortunati. These translations–many of which I imagine were done free gratis for like-minded comrades–were only available through relatively obscure magazines, journals, websites and political groups such as Red Notes, Radical America, Telos, Common Sense, Big Flame, Zerowork, Midnight Notes and Wildcat. Latterly, Viewpoint magazine in the US has done an amazing job of translating and circulating key texts, especially around the question of workers’ inquiry or conricerca (co-research). In particular, their translations of Romano Alquati are especially important for English-speaking autonomous Marxist and militant inquiry enthusiasts. Digging around the archives of these magazines has been a huge education for me, yet there is so much more to do. For instance, it is astonishing that Tronti’s (2013a) seminal book Operai e Capitale (“Workers and Capital”) has not yet been translated, though this work is currently being undertaken for Verso.[2]

What I’ve found in these archival investigations is an extraordinarily productive and innovative continuum of radical theory and revolutionary praxis, lasting over a decade at least in its Italian phase, compared to the relatively brief events of May 68 in France. In my view, this continuum represents the most important insurrectionary current in the second half of the 20th century in Europe. What I like about these currents is that they refuse to promote a priori understandings of “what is to be done”, for the most part, but instead the very process of research and knowledge production is at the same time the production of subjectivity and of organisation. What I have wondered is how the lessons of “Laboratory Italy” might be invoked in the context of my own situated experience in de-industrialised Glasgow and in the UK more generally? Groups like Notes from Below in London are asking similar questions and setting about inquiry processes into contemporary conditions of precarity in platform capitalism rather than mourning the loss of the “traditional working class”. “No politics without inquiry”, as Ed Emery (1995) once proclaimed. My own particular interest is in thinking autonomy, inquiry and class composition spatially, a project that has only been hesitantly undertaken previously (see Bologna 2007; Toscano 2004) and one that deserves more concentrated focus. To this end, I have been trying with others to develop collectively the theory and praxis of class composition and workers’ inquiry, which are central to Italian autonomous thinking and methodology, through the concepts of spatial composition and territorial inquiry.

HK: Why do you think the work of Henri Lefebvre has become so popular (within critical geography in particular) whilst the experiments in Italy during the 1970s are, as you point out, rarely discussed? Is it simply that Lefebvre’s tendency towards abstraction means his ideas are safer within the (institutional, hierarchical) setting of the academy?

NG: That’s a very good question. Firstly, I should say that I’m glad Lefebvre remains popular as for me he remains highly productive as a source. Frederic Jameson says somewhere that most major intellectuals would be happy to produce one paradigm-shifting conceptual framework, but Lefebvre managed several: the critique of everyday life, the urbanisation of capital, capital switching, the production of space, and the right to the city immediately come to mind. At the same time, he fits into a canon of highly productive and recognisable 20th century Western Marxist intellectuals and critical theorists such as Rosa Luxemburg, György Lukács, Antonio Gramsci, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse and Louis Althusser. Many of these individuals had either prominent links to academia or strong connections to the various national Communist Parties, and Lefebvre availed of both at different times in his life. In other words, in contrast to many scholars whose radical thought has been more antagonistic and less “academic” in tone (e.g. Amadeo Bordiga, Jacques Camatte, Gilles Dauvé), his intellectual standing has been widely affirmed and there is no serious barrier to his further validation.

With regard to Lefebvre’s tendency towards abstraction, for me his abstraction was concrete, or at least always aimed to be. That is to say, he deployed abstraction in a historical, contingent, determinate manner in much the same way that Marx did. Incidentally, Marx’s method of abstraction was much more nuanced, non-determinist and non-teleological than many have given him credit for, especially in his later years, as shown by numerous scholars including Alfred Sohn-Rothel, Stuart Hall, Derek Sayer, Alberto Toscano, Teodor Shanin, Kevin Anderson, Alex Loftus, Kristen Ross and Massimiliano Tomba. Lukasz Stanek (2008, 2011) is probably the most important interlocutor of Lefebvre’s method of abstraction from a spatial perspective. At the same time, Lefebvre famously has a tendency to wander (the butt of many wry jokes from even his most fervent admirers), which can be infuriating on the one hand, but also holds out rich possibilities of discovery and reclamation on the other, much like the rich filmography of Jean-Luc Godard. As a source of new ideas, I mean to say, Lefebvre is practically bottomless and, moreover, much of his work still remains to be translated into English so we can expect many further new interpretations of his oeuvre.

With regard to Lefebvre’s safety within academia, it is sometimes easy to feel that Lefebvre’s analyses have been somewhat domesticated in current academic debates rather than the work being safe in itself. Few people, for instance, describe Lefebvre as a revolutionary communist; a self-designation which he was quite explicit about. Moreover, few reference his use of Marx’s term, “the dictatorship of the proletariat” (though see Brenner and Elden 2009; Purcell 2013), which he thought essential to retain as late as the 1970s, despite the well-known abominations of the Bolshevik Party (and not merely Stalin). When Marx used the term of course, the violent and authoritarian vanguardist regression of the Soviet experiment was far away in the future. But Stalinism obviously has nothing to do with communism as Marx envisaged it, and for Lefebvre the term meant that the working class, the producers of value in society, took over the ownership and management of social relations in a deepening project of radical democratisation involving the abolition of classes and the value-form.

This tender issue of realpolitik partially illustrates the way that Marxist thought has been increasingly caricatured and side-lined in academic contexts. In this respect it is interesting to note that a book by Antonio Negri and Felix Guattari, initially entitled Communists Like Us (1990), which aimed to “rescue ‘communism’ from its own disrepute”, was republished in 2010 as New Spaces of Liberty, New Lines of Alliance, with the term “communism” excised from the title. The widespread lack of understanding about what communism actually is, or might be, is exacerbated by such exclusions and I think this makes it more difficult to discuss communism without encountering major misunderstandings. An excavation of Italian autonomy is one way that this problem could be addressed. The work of the “Open Marxism” group, the SI, and the communisation current also opens up the possibility of a proper reckoning with communism as theory and as praxis beyond the rigid notions of authoritarian state communism that have come to dominate many peoples’ imaginary of communism. Lefebvre’s philosophical praxis also stands out as a correction to such reductive thinking.

I think there are several reasons that Italian autonomy has been buried for so long in the UK. In parallel with the SI’s critique of the French Communist Party (PCF), they provided a fierce critique of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and Italian Socialist Party (PSI) at a time when Althusser was a dominant influence in the British New Left and when Eurocommunism was at its zenith. As such, their “autonomy” was not some fantasy of exodus from existing structures and institutions but a fierce, immanent and antagonistic relation to not only capital and the state, but those Left organisations that find accommodation with both. They sought autonomy not as flight but as collective militant contestation: the “refusal of work” was not a question of dropping out but a critique of the wage and the value-form that necessitated mass collective insurgence on the part of the workers within and against capitalism. It was an attack on capitalist machinery and ideology from within the relations of production. It was also in the 1970s that Gramsci, the former leader of the PCI, became a powerful influence on the British New Left. I would need to explore more how this framed a perception of the Italian Left in the UK, but the national-popular sentiment favoured by the PCI in the 1960s and 1970s, a pale shadow of Gramsci’s it must be said, was premised on forms of state productivism that put the workers’ alienated bodies in the service of the national GDP and the Fordist state mode of production. Such national-popular sentiment was anathema to Italian autonomy, and considered as an expression of militant lack. As Tronti (2013b) later argued, “we have populism because we have no people”, by which he means the collective presence, voice and politics of insurgent proletarian subjects.

In my view, critical Marxist geography has also been unduly influenced by the structuralism of Althusser and, later, by the tropes of the Regulation School. Both tendencies are inclined to focus more on how capitalism reproduces itself, and less on how it can be superseded in militant praxis. There is also the tendency in these frames of analyses to separate political and economic spheres–something autonomous theorists and activists refused to do. Mario Tronti proposed the “autonomy of the political” in the late 1960s, but this marked his return to the PCI and his separation from the project of autonomy, which valorised the strategic autonomy of the class as the centre of revolutionary rupture (Roggero 2010). Greig Charnock’s (2010) excellent critique, in Antipode, of tendencies within critical geography to apply structuralist and regulationist positions to Lefebvre via his characterisation of Lefebvre as an “Open Marxist” is a valuable contribution to this discussion. Harry Cleaver’s Reading Capital Politically (1979) also usefully anatomises the problematic nature of both structuralist and regulationist positions and the unnecessary scission between “political” and “economic” spheres.

In contrast to the venerable academic or Party intellectual, the thinkers and workers of Italian autonomous Marxism largely rejected the PCI and PSI and immersed themselves in militant class struggle in the factory and across the social factory, while simultaneously producing innovative concepts collectively through debate and praxis rather than isolated reflection. Workers’ journals in the 1960s and 1970s, like Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks), Classe Operia (Working Class), La Classe (The Class), Linea di Massa (Mass’s Line) and Primo Maggio (May Day), and workers’ groups like Potero Operaio (Workers’ Power), Lotta Continua (Continuous Struggle) and Lotta Feminista (Feminist Struggle) produced key theorists such as Mario Tronti, Raniero Panzieri, Romana Alquati, Vittoria Reiser, Antonio Negri, Alisa Del Re, Sergio Bologna, Maria Rosa Dalla Costa and Leopaldini Fortunati, alongside other important figures such as Alberto Asor Rosa, Massimo Cacciari, Caspare de Caro, Franco Piperno, Oresto Scalzone and Silvia Federici and Selma James, based in the US and UK respectively.[3] Much of their writing remains untranslated and what has been translated has been done so belatedly, often in excellent but relatively obscure magazines and journals, with relatively little fanfare. In part, the intention of my Antipode article (Gray 2018a) was to articulate Lefebvre’s project alongside that of these lesser-heralded aspects of Italian autonomy, in particular through a comparison of the “right to the city” concept and the “take over the city” movements.

HK: You introduce us to Mario Tronti’s idea of the “social factory”, which “designates the real subsumption of society under capitalist relations; the erosion of distinctions between the workplace and society; and the transformation of the entirety of social relations, potentially, into direct relations of production” (Gray 2018a: 327). You go on to note in passing (quoting Steve Wright) that this idea never fulfilled its potential for political recomposition. Do you see this as an open question–do you think it still could? And why, in context, do you think it failed?

NG: The term “social factory” is generally regarded to have originated in Mario Tronti’s “Factory and Society” (1962), where he observed the extension of real subsumption across the entirety of social relations. It can be related to Tronti’s excavations of Marx’s Capital Vol. II, and his attempt to integrate circulation and reproduction onto the map of production outlined in Capital Vol. I. This understanding somewhat parallels Lefebvre’s and Harvey’s conceptions of spatial production as an “active moment” in accumulation strategies and Panzieri’s understanding of the reproduction of the relations of production as the planned integration of the entirety of social relations into production. The heuristic strength of the social factory concept is that thinking the diffusion of productivity throughout the entirety of social relations traversing the productive and reproductive spheres, offers the potential of comprehending generalised class struggle beyond the factory and across the realm of everyday life. The weakness has tended to be the minimal level of empirical investigation hitherto involved in verifying this conceptual proposal. As Wright (2002) observes, although operaismo opened up this potential, in practice they typically remained focused on the immediate process of production.

This links to a problem, I think, with certain versions of post-autonomy, of which Hardt and Negri’s work forms a continuum, That is, the tendency to see production everywhere, risking the collapse of essential modalities of degree and differentiation. To say that struggle is everywhere risks declaring that struggle is nowhere in particular. Wright follows Bologna by stating that what can be lost in the dissemination of concepts like the social factory, or the socialised worker–which preceded the concepts of cognitive and immaterial labour–is the necessary labour of composition analysis. That is, the empirical work of examining labour and social processes rigorously in order to assess the potential for political recomposition on the basis of developing tendencies in material reality. It could also be said that the universalisation of the concept of production to all facets of everyday life perhaps unnecessarily transmutes a workerist perspective (in the worst sense of workerism[4]) to the spheres of social reproduction and consumption. In short, the social factory is highly suggestive of radical political potentialities across the entire spectrum of social relations, but the term itself, like that of “the multitude”, seems too abstract and general to account for important scissions and differences within the totality of social and economic relations.

That said, like Lefebvre’s concept of the “right to the city”, the heuristic potential in the phrase remains for expediting theory and practice beyond narrow conceptions of insurgency linked only to the workplace. From the perspective of a relational spatial analysis, we can perhaps say that the potential of the term remains unfulfilled. But it should also be said that women in the Italian autonomous movement in particular understood the resonance of the social factory thesis for expanded struggles around social reproduction and consumption, and the political implications of this understanding for contingent struggles in the workplace and the relation between productive and reproductive spheres. This line of inquiry and practice, aligned with a deeper understanding of the urbanization of capital as a general political concern, offers the most potential for further development of the social factory thesis in my view. The labour of composition analysis is ongoing.

HK: One of the aspects that makes your paper so refreshing to read is its use of radical feminist scholarship at the heart of the argument, not as an afterthought. Can you give us a little more detail on the role of women–and radical feminists in particular–in the struggles around Take over the City?

NG: For me this issue is very central. As I just argued, the Marxist materialist-feminists who emerged from groups like Potero Operaio, Lotta Feminista, the feminist wing of Lotta Continua, and other groups, opened up the question of social reproduction in Italian autonomy and in doing so they helped spatialise the movements in new ways, extending the praxis of struggles beyond the factory or the traditional workplace. I think there is something inherently geographical or socio-spatial about this at a general political level, but this tends to get lost when the autonomous Marxist feminist movement is viewed exclusively through identity and gender analysis in a continuum of feminist theory but not of communist praxis. What is distinctive about Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Giovanna Franca Dalla Costa, Selma James, Leopardina Fortunati, Silvia Federici and other key theorists associated with Italian autonomy, is that their recalcitrant feminist analyses is informed by heterodox and eminently materialist Marxist analysis. In other words, they are intransigent when it comes to the specificities of women’s experience, but they do not forsake an analysis of how such experience is internally related to the relations of capital and the social relations that reproduce actually existing capitalism.

In “Putting Feminism Back On Its Feet” (1984), Federici makes a strong distinction between a liberal feminism based on identity claims, recognition and “equality in the workplace”, and a radical anti-capitalist feminism that sees emancipation through the workplace as an illusion, while not losing losing one iota of its specific gendered recalcitrance. As Selma James (2005 [1973]) contended, “nothing unified and revolutionary will be formed until each section of the exploited will have made its own autonomous power felt”. The Wages for Housework (WfH) movement is seen as one of the key legacies of Italian autonomist feminism, but what is crucial to grasp is Federici’s (1975) take on Wages Against Housework. In this formulation, the argument proceeds explosively: not merely wishing for equal wages within capitalism but seeking to detonate the very idea of a waged economy by means of a demand that cannot be met within the parameters of capitalism-as-usual. Many liberal feminists at the time accused the WfH movement of consigning women to the domestic role, but Federici made it clear that most women have little choice in the matter and thus collective organisation at this level is necessary not optional. As Federici (2012) has shown more recently, at a global level this problem has only been exacerbated. Emancipation through the workplace has meant double if not triple work for women (who still do most of the care work) and where women have avoided this fate, caring labour has mainly been assigned to proletarian and immigrant women in addition to their own family caring duties.

Like Asad Haider, in his recent book Mistaken Identity (2018), Federici and others in the milieu avoid a narrow and vulgar critique of identity politics while pointing to the limitations of a politics that is too focused on liberal rights and recognition and not focused enough on a critique of capitalism, which provides the malformed base for such recognition claims within the limits of liberal private property rights–which, as Harvey and others’ contend, trumps all other rights. I think getting to grips with Italian autonomous feminism and moving it forward requires two things: firstly, grasping feminist theory within a wider critique of capitalism; secondly, beginning to draw out the real materialist socio-spatial implications of their praxis in the wider arenas of social reproduction and consumption.

HK: In the transition from theory to practice, how is class recomposition realised?

NG: To talk about this, we need to talk about class composition and related processes of workers’ inquiry, militant inquiry, or co-research. I am currently working on a journal article that addresses this question more rigorously, but at this stage I can say that I agree with Wright that the most important conceptual innovation in Italian autonomy is that of class composition. Class composition is normally understood as the relation between “technical composition” (the plans of capital) and “political composition” (a project of collective political subjectivisation, homogenisation and unity by the proletariat). It is an immanent conception that is not premised on a dichotomy between theory or practice, but on how these aspects are internally related to changes in the technical composition of capital–investment plans, restructuring, planning, and the discipline and supervision of workers. Taking a step backwards, capital is both “fixed capital” (buildings, machines, infrastructure) and “variable capital” (expenditure on the labouring bodies hired to produce surplus value). These forms of capital are internally related within what Marx called the “organic composition of capital”, with capitalist valorisation dependent on wage labour and wage labour dependent on specifically determinate capitalist relations. This means that organised wage labour within capital has the potential strategic power to both determine and disrupt the relations of capital development. Thus Tronti’s famous “Copernican revolution”, which contends that organised labour is the real driving force of capitalist development, not the other way round. At the same time, as Wright cogently argues, there are many variables to this formulation and we should not reifiy the affirmative power of the working class ahistorically. Capital seeks to constantly decompose class unity and homogemisation through changes in the technical composition of capital, while efforts at political recomposition are always formed in relation to such processes of decomposition. Yet the affirmative insistence on the power of the proletariat to shape capitalist development has often obscured processes of political decomposition and how such processes create the need for new inquiries, understandings and organisation that require perpetual reformulation and mobilisation from a base of dis-homogeneity. This, to me, is the real question today and it cannot be shirked.

Class is not an a priori, sociological matter of categorisation but a process of struggle and recomposition. In this sense, class, and class recomposition, are present at their own making as E.P. Thompson (1963) famously argued. But class recomposition generally requires research, inquiry and investigation of both immanent material conditions and the subjective base of those struggling against the imposition of capitalist command. Without this, the problems of ossification and reification rear their ugly heads and we are unable to discern the limitations of old understandings and the potential recomposition of new social subjects in new material conditions. In this sense, inquiry processes are not just about gaining knowledge but involve a constituent process that combines learning, subjectivisation, political education and collective organisation simultaneously. It is an active mode of solidarity-making from below: no politics without inquiry, to repeat Ed Emery’s formula. On the relation between spontaneity and organisation, Giggi Roggero provides a nice anecdote about Alquati, the most significant exponent of militant inquiry within the autonomous milieu. In 1962, 40 years after the beginnings of the Italian autonomous revolutionary experience, an interviewer asks Alquati if he expected the militant workers’ revolt to come in the “Hot Autumn” of 1969. He replied: “We didn’t expect the revolt, but we’ve organized it” (Roggero 2010: 210). Some sense of the patience, curiosity and rigour required for militant organisation, beyond the shopworn verities of much revolutionary theory, is expressed here.

HK: Antonio Negri remains, for various reasons, the best known and most widely read proponent of the autonomist movement in Italy, whose work is easily available in English. Whilst you cite him, you do not pay any specific attention to his ideas. Is this intentional?

NG: Yes! As noted before, there is a lack of translation in English of many key texts by the authors and protaganists of Italian autonomy even today and I think people like Tronti, Bologna, Panziero and Alquati, not to mention many more from the milieu, deserve more attention. Moreover, while the work of Italian feminists like Dalla Costa and Federici is now receiving more attention, too often the more radical, communist and anti-capitalist aspect of their praxis is disavowed or obscured, eliding the important differences between their position and those of liberal feminism more generally. When many people think of Italian autonomy they tend to think of Negri and this obscures the full diverity of thought and practice in the milieu. It is important to stress at this point that I have a very high regard for Negri and want to reject any facile dismissals of him based on his later writing, which I find more problematic, even where there are flashes of brilliant insight. He was there at the founding of the journals Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks) in 1962 and Classe Operia (Working Class) in 1964, was heavily involved at the factory gates in the 1960s, played a key role in Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power) in the early 1970s, and was subject for several years to the inequities of the Italian prison system as a punishment for his commitment. His work on Keynes and the role of the state in the late 1960s has been very important for me (Negri 2003 [1967]), and his agitational pamphlets for the movement of autonomy from 1971 to 1977, collected in Books for Burning (2005), give an insight into the remarkably high level of collective militant discussion in the milieu at the time. Marx Beyond Marx (1984) is also very significant, as are his theories of changing class composition and “the tendency”[5] though I don’t always agree with his conclusions (see Gray 2013).

For me, Negri takes the Copernican revolution inaugurated by Tronti, that is, the notion that it is class struggle which drives capitalism forward, in a direction that lacks real empirical grounding. In this sense, his work can be characterised as problematically “affirmationist” in the sense that Benjamin Noys (2010) has argued in his critique of affirmationist tendencies in Deleuze, Latour, Derrida, Badiou, and Negri, and his related defence of dialectical, antagonist thinking. In particular, Negri’s faith in the revolutionary possibilities arising from the diffuse and highly differentiated “socialised worker” (social worker) across the terrain of the entire social factory risks producing, in my view, a totalising category that tends to impute revolt from outside while flattening the specificity of contradictory and highly differentiated forms of class relations on the ground (Battaglia 2018 [1981]). While I sympathise with the task of finding new categories to reflect on, and alter, changed material circumstances, Negri’s post-autonomist analyses of the “socialised worker” thesis and its derivations (the immaterial, cognitive or affective labourer) have tended to proceed on a rigorously non-empirical basis (Caffentzis 2005; Wright 2002). Such theory neglects, as Bologna and other authors in the journal Linea di Massa (Mass’s Line) contended in the 1970s, the necessary labour of composition analysis required for developing new categories of class composition or testing exisiting ones. On this note, it is rarely observed that Maurizio Lazzaratto, who produced one of the seminal texts on “immaterial labour”, recognised this issue and dropped the term due to its lack of clarity (Iles and Vishmidt 2011). Moreover, a focus on the affective labour of advanced technological sectors in post-operaismo has tended to overlook the typically gendered affective labour of care and social reproduction that underpins the workplace (Federici 2004, 2012). Overall, then, I want to pay dues to Negri’s work, as I do in my article for Antipode, but I also want to express some caution while simultaneously making sure that other equally important voices in the milieu are heard, notwithstanding the many militants and activists who never put pen to paper but who helped detonate one of the most important periods of revolt in the twentieth century. Again, Nanni Balestrini’s fictional work is important here.

HK: Strikes against “the tyranny of rent” were a key part of what made autoreduction so threatening and effective. In the decades since, rent has become, if anything, more “tyrannical” in terms of the speed with which it syphons wealth upwards whilst instituting relations of desperate (even if “aspirational”) precarity at the bottom end–and not just in the realm of housing. In Rent and its Discontents: A Century of Housing Struggle (Gray 2018b), you begin to link these struggles in Italy with earlier struggles in Glasgow, but your interest is never purely that of the historian: you are specifically looking to mine the past for paths into the future. What direct lessons might “Laboratory Italy” offer for “Generation Rent”?

NG: The autonomous movement is often bifurcated between the “mass worker” period in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the “socialised worker” period, beginning around 1973. This is the point where we see key epistemological and theoretical differences developing between workerism in its classic phase (operaismo) and post-workerism (post-operaismo). This problematic periodisation has the additional problem of obscuring the hugely significant urban struggles that were taking place across Italy in the early 1970s, based on the shift of capitalist investment from the factories to the built environment as profits waned due to factory struggle and the impact of the global economic crisis. There’s a fantastic sequence in Francesco Rosi’s 1963 film, Hands over the City, where Rod Steiger, a land developer and elected official in Naples, urges a gathering of cronies to forget investing in industry–where, he says, profits will only be undermined by strikes, unions, insurance, medical benefits, etc.–and start investing in land and property (“today’s new gold”) as well as lobbying the government to provide infrastructure and alter their development plans to support land and property speculation. The south of Italy, like Ireland under colonial Britain, suffered from notorious industrial under-development, but the emphasis on urban investment over industrial investment also spread to the northern regions in the early 1970s, conforming to the “capital switching” thesis first mooted by Lefebvre in 1970, then developed by Harvey and others in urban geography from the 1980s. What is important, I think, is how quickly the political meaning of this general shift in the technical composition of capital was grasped by the autonomous movements and how new forms of political recomposition emerged from the fragmentation and decompisition of industry and a base of dis-homogeneity in the urban sphere.

In the edited collection Rent and its Discontents (Gray 2018b), my contributions stress the persistence and relevance of housing struggles and movements over time, even when treated as marginal phenomena outside the allegedly more important business of struggle in the workplace. I mobilise class composition analysis to trace in particular the way that the thesis in Engels’ The Housing Question (1942 [1872])–namely, that housing struggles in the arenas of consumption and social reproduction are subsidiary to workplace struggles in the direct production process–has been mobilised ahistorically, thus undermining Marxist analyses and engagement with vital housing struggles and movements. A properly determinate historical and material analysis, I argue, shows how the privileging of industry and manufacturing over consumption and social reproduction issues has obscured many very important urban struggles, often led by women, focusing analyses on a privileged proletarian actor (the male industrial or manufacturing worker) whose centrality to generalised political transformation has lost much of its material basis, in Europe at least.

On the other hand, the Take over the City movement in 1970s Italy suggests how close attention to the changing technical composition of capital (or the longer-term shift from the industrialisation of capital to the urbanisation of capital outlined by Lefebvre in The Urban Revolution (2003 [1970]) can help inaugurate new social subject formation and political recomposition beyond the workplace. As industry and manufacturing continue their decline in most Western societies dominated by capitalist relations, I think we’re seeing a moment where the necessity of an organised, collective urban political project seems more necessary than ever. In other words, the tendential changes in class composition observed in 1970s Italy, and elsewhere in Europe, have not been mitigated in any way but instead have been accelerated and deepened. In Bologna’s (2007 [1977]) seminal “The Tribe of Moles”, he asked, apropos composition analysis, “where are the new Mirafiori’s?” (Mirafiori was a Fiat factory in Turin where some of the most heated workers’ struggles were fought in the 1970s). Most political economists in the 19th century, from Mill to Smith to Marx, thought that the “euthanasia of the rentier” (the term that Keynes would later coin) was sure to unfold with the becoming-hegemony of the industrial and manufacturing era. However, as Hudson, Harvey and others have shown, the problem of rent never disappeared and latterly has exploded as one of the primary questions facing those opposed to contemporary capitalism. The lesson from “Laboratory Italy” is that struggles in this field need to be grasped within a wider tendential shift in class composition, or spatial composition as I prefer. Only then can resistance and organisation be as general and well organised as capital’s attack and dominance in the sectors of land and property.

Once again, the Italian feminist struggles in the arenas of social reproduction and consumption during the 1970s offer vital clues as to the possibilities of political recomposition in this area. On that note, in a recent interview for the book Joyful Militancy (Montgomery and Bergman 2017), Federici argues that thinking in terms of territorial politics (the territory being a place where you have some form of collective control and even self-government), enables us to see how the neighbourhoods in which we live are not neutral spaces (as Lefebvre more than anyone has shown): they are not just conglomerates of houses and people; they are deeply politically structured. Here, Federici broaches a project which I think needs more development: linking the questions of social reproduction and consumption to a material politics of urban space in the manner that Lefebvre and the Take over the City movement in 1970s Italy have both theorised and practised in different ways. At the moment, this form of praxis remains latent and fragmented but there are signs, I think, that understanding and praxis is developing more widely in this area in the UK and across Europe.

Neil’s latest Antipode paper, “Beyond the Right to the City: Territorial Autogestion and the Take over the City Movement in 1970s Italy”, can be read online here


[1] It is important to stress that “workerism” here is not a derogatory term and does not mean a narrow focus on industrial and manufacturing workers at the expense of workers in other sectors, waged or not. Rather it means a focus on workers’ autonomy against the state, bosses, and unions if necessary.

[2] You can contribute to translation costs through the Toledo Translation Fund here: https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2435-the-toledo-translation-fund-call-for-donations

[3] It is clear that most people on this list are male, a reflection of industrial labour conditions, the baleful influence of the Catholic Church in Italy, and gender relations across Europe at this time. These gender distinctions in autonomy have been criticised by many in the Italian feminist movement (see e.g. Dalla Costa 2002) but it is notable that Del Re and Fortunati, two influential women in the milieu, have been reluctant in hindsight to be too critical, especially in the context of social and material relations at the time (see Del Re 2002; Fortunati 2013).

[4] See note 1.

[5] Thinking the tendency is thinking speculatively about future developments on the technical and political composition of capitalist development (and under development) in order to assess and collectively organise the processes of political recomposition.


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