“Reading it was a political and philosophical shock”: Bifo on Tronti's Workers and Capital


I first read Operai e Capitale, which is now (better later than never) being published in English, in 1967. I was seventeen years old. I was a student and a Communist: reading it was a political and philosophical shock.

For the first time, Tronti invited me to reverse the relation between capital and work, between economy and the social movement; for the first time I was invited to consider the social and cultural composition of the workers movement as the source of transformation of the capitalist machine itself.

This book, whose shock-waves have long been perceived in Italian leftist culture, marks an essential methodological change, one that overturns the relation between capitalist development and social subjectivity. While the theoretical tradition of the left considered the political expression of the working class as an effect of the development of capital, Tronti asserted the precession of subjectivity, the primacy (both logical and chronological) of social organisation and rebellion.

It is the struggle of the workers that pushes capitalists to transform the economic and technological organisation of production; the pressure of workers behaviour (struggle, sabotage, laziness, refusal of work) acts as an accelerator and as a transformer on the technical composition of capital.

According to Tronti, indeed, we can understand the economic and technological transformation of capitalism only if we start from the forms of social conflict, and from the political organisation of the workers.

The factory is not only the engine that propels social development, but also the political laboratory of social transformations.

This is the copernican revolution Tronti talks about in Workers and Capital. The evolution of the capitalist machine has to be seen as a reaction to the forms of life and to the actions of the workers.

Furthermore, Tronti reframes the relation between politics and work-force, between tactics and strategy: politics, in his view, is not a strategical project, but instead happens through tactical decisions. The strategical vision is all objectivated in the daily spontaneous movements of the work-force that rejects its own identification with the subjection of labour.

This is the original brand of Leninism that Tronti proposes: the party is not the leading subject in the revolutionary process: it is rather the tactical instrument, a tool in the hands of the organised workers. The meaning of the word “organisation” is reviewed in this fresh conceptual prospect: organisation is no more the enlightened minority of leaders, but the self-organisation of people who meet every day in the same factory and who share the same interests, the same sentiment, the same culture. The task of the revolutionary professionals is to find the weak point in the capitalist machine, and to focus on the possibility of breaking this point, so as to open the door to the expression of the strategical workers autonomy.

We should not underestimate the importance of this methodological move: the very concept of workers autonomy (autonomia operaia) is a consequence of this reversal.

As far as I know Tronti did not know Michel Foucault in the ‘60s, and conversely I do not think that Foucault has read Tronti’s writings. They have nothing to share, in biographical terms, and their philosophical styles are entirely different.

Nevertheless, I think there is an important point of connection between the genealogical research of Michel Foucault and the copernican revolution that Tronti conveys in social methodology: this point is the primacy of subjectivity (or better, of subjectivation) in the historical process.

Foucault has especially devoted his attention to the assujettissement: the effect of the subjugation of the social body. Tronti, instead, has devoted his attention to the autonomous subjectivation of workers, as a force for political transformation. But the two philosophical pathways have much in common: both focus on social dynamics and both aim to discover the autonomy of the cultural processes that deploy inside the social body and the social mind.

Although I believe Tronti provided the best framework for conceptualizing industrial society at its height, in my opinion he failed to grasp the meaning of the student movement of ‘68, and the emergence of a new composition of labour, based on the cognitive transformation of the production process and advancements in digital technology.

This book, however, should not be read only as an interpretation of the special conjuncture of the ‘60s and of the ‘70s, but also (and mainly) as a philosophical meditation on the primacy of subjectivity and the precession of social movements.

Franco “Bifo” Berardi was the founder of the pirate radio station Radio Alice in 1976. One of the most prominent members of the Italian movement Autonomia, Berardi worked closely with the French psychoanalyst Félix Guattari throughout the 1980s. Since the early 1990s, much of his theoretical work has focused on the relationship between psychopathology, information technology and capitalism. His latest books in English are Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility, and Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide.

Over five decades since it was first published, Mario Tronti's Workers and Capital is a key text in the history of the international workers’ movement, now finally available in English translation for the first time. It is 50% off until August 25. See all our books on Marxist thought here.

Workers and Capital is universally recognised as the most important work produced by operaismo, a current of political thought emerging in the 1960s that revolutionised the institutional and extra-parliamentary Left in Italy and beyond. In the decade after its first publication in 1966, the debates over Workers and Capital produced new methods of analysis and a new vocabulary for thousands of militants, helping to inform the new forms of workplace, youth and community struggles. Concepts like “neocapitalism,” “class composition,” “mass-worker,” “the plan of capital,” “workers’ inquiry” and “co-research” became an established part of the Italian Left’s political lexicon. 

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