Class Acts

Autonomia and the future of creative work

Cover of Images of Class: Operaismo, Autonomia and the Visual Arts, 1962–1988 (Verso, 2022).

AFTER THE FALL of Benito Mussolini’s government following World War II, a national referendum voted in favor of a republic. The ostensible rupture with Fascism, however, masked a continuity while cold warriors were largely content to let former Fascist Party functionaries hold governmental and corporate positions of power. Meanwhile, though left-wing parties gained national legitimacy after the Resistance, they increasingly favored the development of productive forces while stamping out revolutionary aspirations. In the early ’60s, during Italy’s so-called “economic miracle,” dissident Marxist and socialist thinkers sought to develop a novel revolutionary theory centering a critique of bourgeois party and trade union politics. Operaismo (workerism) developed out of this proletarian research. In the ’70s, radicals comprising an expansive field of action—from armed revolutionary struggle to countercultural lifestyles—came together under the umbrella autonomia, a movement that would prove incredibly influential. Jacopo Galimberti’s new book, Images of Class: Operaismo, Autonomia and the Visual Arts (1962–1988) (Verso), historicizes these currents alongside the visual and literary culture that was in dialogue and debate with key thinkers like Mario Tronti, Alberto Asor Rosa, Silvia Federici, and many others.

AP: To start, could you briefly introduce the differences between operaismo (workerism) and autonomia?

Jacopo Galimberti: Since the early 1970s, operaismo has referred to a set of Marxist militants and publications that emerged in Italy in the early 1960s. It is generally agreed that the magazine classe operaia (1964–67) was the main organ of this tendency, which represented a relatively niche phenomenon until 1968–69. An important precursor that I discuss in the book and that included some of the same members is the magazine Quaderni Rossi, which carried out workers’ inquiries at factories. Autonomia, by contrast, was a mass movement active between 1973 and the early ’80s. Only some of its components claimed the legacy of operaismo. By the mid-’70s, the word Autonomia (capitalized) often served to identify the most organized groups of autonomia, which was much broader and included feminists, LGBT activists, precarious workers, the unemployed, and myriad local collectives that were in some instances little more than a group of young proletarians occupying a space to set up a social center.

Recently there has been more writing on operaismo and autonomia in English beyond the previous tunnel-vision focus on Negri and Hardt. My favorite book surveying the period, Nanni Balestrini and Primo Moroni’s The Golden Horde, was recently released by Seagull Books in an excellent translation by Richard Braude. They also published Matteo Mandarini’s translation of Alberto Asor Rosa’s The Writer and the People, which is central for your research. However, your book is doing something quite novel. Can you describe your goals in this research?

Over the past ten years, theorists, art critics, and art historians have drawn upon the struggles and ideas of operaismo to explore the work of artists whose production had no direct link to this movement, such as Marcel Duchamp or Lucio Fontana. This is a legitimate and stimulating approach, but I wanted to do something different. Around 2010, I discovered that some artists, designers, and architects read Quaderni Rossi, classe operaia, Potere Operaio, Rosso—in fact, some were even militants in these groups. Did they appropriate operaismo to rethink their artistic practices, or to help shape a radical political imagery?

Pablo Echaurren, La vecchia Mother Jones e le sue selvage (The old Mother Jones and her wild girls), 1974, watercolor and ink on paper, dimensions unknown. Photo: Echaurren Salaris Foundation.

Your book is very timely. As you mention in the conclusion, there is a similarity between the state of cultural workers in 1970s Italy and workers in general under the regimes of “creative capitalism” today.

My interest in artists, designers, and architects, some famous, others little-known, had a contemporary purpose, as you say. Following the European debt crisis that began in 2009, many people working in “creative” industries were going through a phase of politicization and proletarianization. This resonated with the historical situation following the 1973–74 oil crisis in Italy. In my book, I have tried to suggest possible affinities between contemporary protest movements and autonomia, which was among the first after World War II to foreground the issue of precarious life and working conditions.

That connection is particularly fruitful today because one of the most enduring of operaismo’s “discoveries” is that nonmanual labor can still be a form of “industry.” Can you speak to how this understanding of intellectual or creative labor, as made explicit in Mario Tronti’s landmark 1962 essay “Factory and Society,” inflected operaist and autonomist theory and adjacent cultural production?

Take the example of feminist artists, like Milli Gandini and Mariuccia Secol, who were involved with the Wages for Housework Campaign in Italy. They argued that, in addition to housework, sex and love are also forms of uncompensated labor (today we would probably talk in terms of “care”). This prompted them to redefine their conditions as housewives and to produce artworks that relied, for instance, on the dust of windowpanes or the sabotage of needlework and kitchen utensils. But the idea that artists and intellectuals should be understood as a segment of the workforce (as “technical-scientific intelligence” to use operaismo’s rather contrived terminology) also informed the readings of 1910s–’20s avant-gardes by Manfredo Tafuri, Massimo Cacciari, and Alberto Asor Rosa in the magazine Contropiano, a prominent outlet for the encounter between operaismo, aesthetics, and the history of art and architecture that has received very little attention in the English-speaking world.

Milli Gandini, Pentola inagibile) (Condemned Pot), 1975, mixed materials, dimensions unknown.

Notwithstanding the differences between many of the thinkers you survey, in general terms how did operaismo conceptualize the relation of culture and the “culture industry” to revolutionary struggles and the composition of class? Their understanding of culture differs greatly from those developed by the Situationists or the Frankfurt School, for example.

Yes, operaismo developed a wholly original “class critique” of culture. Unlike the Frankfurt School, they did not denounce the ways in which the so-called culture industry turned emancipatory impulses into commodities. Rather, operaismo tended to lay bare how culture acted as a locus where class conflicts were sublimated and framed as edifying “battles of ideas” among people who ultimately looked to a common horizon. The idea that culture can act as a sort of secularized guarantor of the sacred cohesion of the body politic is still very strong, and it buttresses the valorization processes based on historical narratives that sociologists Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre have defined as the logic of “enrichment.” I think that we need to reintroduce the notion of class into the conceptual armature of the history of art and cultural studies, not least because class is even more pervasive in the making of culture today than it was in the ’60s and ’70s, if much more difficult to recognize as such.

Totally! On the topic of the representation of workers, we first met in 2018 at a talk you gave at e-flux about operaist militants and monsters. An expanded version of that presentation now features as an essay in the book. I love how the operaist critique of the institutional left’s veneration of the working class—typical of, say, Marxist-Leninism or statist socialism generally—is made clear through your analysis of visual culture. Can you briefly introduce your research on this?

One of the key ideas of operaismo is that the working class should be abolished and not lionized. This was no minor problem for artists; after all, if you posit, as Tronti did, that the working class is an “enemy even of itself,” then how can you depict workers? One of the visual strategies some artists came up with was the figure of the monster, which they presented as a nondialectical, if ironic, negation of the humanist, conciliatory images typical of the institutional left. The monster was, among other things, a response to the virile and righteous worker represented by the Communist Party in the postwar years. If in the 1960s the monsters of classe operaia were still largely anthropomorphic, by the late 1970s the monsters portrayed by autonomia lost their residual human traits, suggesting that the gap with the institutional left was by then so big as to be almost ontological. Going back to how this period relates to the present, the contemporary imaginary of protests is still populated by “human monsters.” Take the example of how protesters from Chile to Hong Kong donned Joker masks in 2019.

Spread from A/traverso, September 1975. “Radio Alice”.

You write that one of operaismo’s central theses, about the proletarianization of intellectual labor, is still very relevant, since this impoverishment “could generate new forms of class recomposition, with an increasing number of artists who challenge the status quo from the ‘workers’ viewpoint.” Can you briefly expand on how operaismo and autonomia’s understandings of cultural or intellectual labor resonate today?

To start, we might talk about the role of artificial intelligence in unsettling the perception of what defines intellectual work. At first glance, driving a truck might not seem to require specific intellectual competence, yet Big Tech’s attempts to capture the knowledge implicit in a truck driver’s skills (with the aim of replacing them via automation) have failed precisely because driving in a city requires a great deal of intellectual labor. Operaismo would have liked this. Designers espousing the struggles of operaismo debunked the myth of the “free creator,” or the “independent intellectual,” and they confronted their colleagues with their objective lack of disciplinary autonomy. Today, the condition of dependence and the casualization of the workforce in the creative sector are such that it is difficult to even entertain the illusion of autonomy. It is increasingly apparent that the expanding number of people active in the creative and artistic spheres (including young academics) may enjoy a privileged status in society but are subject to forms of (self-)exploitation that bring them close to other categories of low-wage workers, especially in those regions of the world where the cultural sector is structurally underfunded. This could foster new alliances between different occupations, skills, and so on, not to mention a redefinition of what constitutes an “artist.” 

One of operaismo's most crucial theoretical formulations was that of “class composition.” In brief, it shows class to be a dynamic construction produced by workers through popular culture and insubordination. On the cover of your book, there’s a seemingly innocuous photograph of people waiting for a bus by the sea. You mention that this 1972 photograph, by Tano D’Amico, echoes the formal composition of Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s painting The Fourth Estate, ca. 1901—that most famous icon of the unification of Italy. Instead of marching toward the viewer and a totalizing, Republican future, as in the older work, the group of operaist militants in this photograph is seen “congregating and composing itself through dialogue,” as you put it. I thought this was a beautiful example of how you use images to describe the hope operaismo placed in these “mass workers.”

That’s what I was getting at. The term “mass worker” describes a type of worker that does not identify with his or her work, one who has no emotional investment in a repetitive and tedious job, typically in the Taylorist factory, which was still a novelty in 1950s Italy. These disenchanted, depersonalized (hence “mass”), and often deracinated workers were frowned upon by the institutional left, as they seemingly lacked class consciousness, and were thought to fall prey to the lures of consumerism. Operaismo held an antithetical view and cast mass workers—whom Tronti provocatively characterized as “without ideals, without faith, without morals”—as the least prone to subscribe to the reformist rhetoric of the Communist Party and the industrial trade unions. Furthermore, they were the ones most likely to participate in another autonomist mainstay: the refusal of work, precisely because they had a less mystified attachment to it. As to their willingness to consume, this was never criticized by operaismo from a moralistic perspective. In fact, the working-class taste for expensive commodities and gaudy images was generally construed not as seduction by “the society of the spectacle” or some such, but rather as a healthy form of resistance in an environment typified by deprivation and boredom. When some sectors of autonomia asserted the proletarian “right” to leisure activities (for example by storming cinemas and concert halls), they also consciously located themselves within a tradition that ridiculed the frugality praised by the official workers’ movement, which was often couched in a realist or modernist visual language.

Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, Il quarto stato (The Fourth Estate), ca. 1901, oil on canvas, 9' 7'' x 17' 11''.

That’s really well put. On the notion of “gaudy” consumerism, another chapter from your book comes to mind, the one on the radical architecture collective Archizoom. As you note, it would seem at first difficult to imagine their famous projects that lampooned and embodied commodity forms to be commensurable with operaist thinking. But as you write, some of the works by Archizoom “utilize built forms to address the life of ‘mass workers’ outside the factory.” Can you expand on this here?

Archizoom is a good example of a group of architects and designers who personally knew Tronti and read both classe operaia and Contropiano. They appropriated ideas from operaismo in a way that enraged the great historian of architecture Manfredo Tafuri, who accused them of an “irresponsible” use of its concepts. For my part, I think their reading was both imaginative and partisan; their early Pop idiom was premised on an understanding of Pop as an insolent, anti-intellectual, and materialist form of art that resonated with the proletarian desire for garish colors and flashy textiles. For example, Archizoom admired the mod subculture—they saw it as an expression by rebellious working-class youth who no longer accepted their subalternity to a bourgeois (and occasionally working-class) idea of decorum and respectability.

Paolo Deganello, La casa in comune (The house in common), 1983,  sofa for feminist meetings, dimensions unknown.

I loved your chapter on Lotta Feminista (Feminist Struggle), a Marxist feminist group active in the ’70s. There, you also touch on Gruppo Immagine, one of the collectives in the Wages for Housework Campaign, about whom very little has been written, in English or Italian. Can you briefly talk about them?

Back in 2016, when I started working on Gruppo Immagine, there was literally no secondary literature. My research was entirely based on interviews and, crucially, the materials I sourced in the artists’ archives. With hindsight, this chapter strikes me as one of the most interesting parts of the book. Interestingly, the Wages for Housework Campaign occasionally articulated an aesthetic theory. For example, in the 1970s, Silvia Federici, one of its prominent activists, wrote a PhD thesis (still unpublished) on the aesthetics of Georg Lukacs, stressing his Marxism’s function to clarify the social relations immanent to visual production. I tried to reconstruct this discourse, showing its contemporary relevance for feminist debates and its ultimate convergence with some core tenets of operaismo.

Mariagrazia Sironi, Mileto (Miletus), 1978, linen, 76 3/8 x 66 1/2''. Photo: Mariagrazia Sironi.

Maybe we can end by returning to the introduction, where you discuss Rossella Biscotti’s installation piece The Trial, 2011, a work based on the transcripts from the infamous “7 April” trial of 1977, so named after the date when many autonomist theorists, militants, professors, and other prominent figures were arrested for crimes as minor as owning a copy of radical literature. (In 2021, Emmanuel Macron allowed for the arrest and potential extradition of seven octogenarian militants, still in limbo in France decades later.) You remind readers that, in this case, a “trial” could also be interpreted as a “test,” that perhaps the trial itself “was also a way of testing public opinion, anticipating future political repressions against putative terrorists.” In today’s context, when carceral and neoliberal apparatuses the world over are devising ever more draconian forms of discipline to deal with politicizing surplus populations, when critical theory and action are recuperated almost as quickly as they are produced, it seems that your suspicion is correct. As Claire Fontaine eulogized, 1977 is the revolution that will never be commemorated. Can you speak to this in the Italian context, particularly following the recent elections, in which fascists have reentered government, with the largest share of the vote, for the first time since World War II?

The neoliberal economist Mario Draghi, who served as prime minister from February 2021 to this past October, had the total support of the media and the establishment, who described him as a “valiant technician” who would drive the heavily indebted country out of the pandemic. However, in recent months, Italians realized that this former president of the European Central Bank—who, as a reminder, was not elected (he was invited by the President of the Republic to form a government)—was in fact quite unpopular. What a surprise! Indeed, the only party in the opposition, the neofascist Brothers of Italy, saw its share of vote rise from 4 percent in 2018 to 26 percent in 2022. That said, consensus is very volatile, and should the European Union disapprove of the new government’s policies, they will plot something to reinstate a government led by Draghi or a similar technocrat implementing a neoliberal agenda. Indeed, fewer and fewer people go to vote—a low turnout exacerbated by the fact that many young Italians leave for Northern Europe in search of work. The country has very limited economic sovereignty. After all, things have not changed much since the 1970s, when Italy was firmly within the American sphere of influence, when NATO could prevent the Communist Party (a progressive political force that obtained 34 percent of national votes in 1976) from ruling the country, even if they had won a parliamentary majority in a democratic election!