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A novel of autonomous workers' revolt in Italy


At the Verso blog, Benjamin Noys writes about the novel We Want Everything by Nanni Balestrini, originally published in 1971 and newly translated from Italian by Verso. Balestrini is a poet, fiction writer, and a founding member, in the early 1970s, of Potere Operaio (“Workers’ Power”), a radical labor organization that was instrumental to the unprecedented worker insurrections of the time. We Want Everything is set during Italy’s “hot autumn” of 1969–70, when a wave of strikes crippled factories in northern Italy, most notably Fiat. This historical moment witnessed a fundamental shift in twentieth-century labor unrest, with “autonomous” workers defying sclerotic union bureaucracies, and workers refusing work altogether rather than demanding more work or higher wages. Here’s Noys describing the plot and historical significance of the book:

We Want Everything has its own peculiar rhythm, which ebbs and flows with the experiences of work and struggle. The timeline below offers multiple contexts for these experiences, but it is also worth sketching out the structure of this strange ‘novel’. In the first three chapters we have a discussion of the experience of the worker in the south and the narrator’s trips north to find work, then returning home to summer to quickly spend his hard-earned cash. This is a repetitive time, of jobs started and rapidly lost, of dreams of a new scooter, smart clothes, and escaping from farm work and the peasant culture of the south. Things change in Chapter Four, ‘Fiat’, with the narrator’s arrival at the great Fiat factory in Turin. Here thousands of workers undergo a surreal ‘selection’ interview, knowing they’ll be taken no matter what. The narrator learns of the bodily rhythm of assembly line work, of getting used to the demands of the line. Chapter Five, ‘The struggle’, begins the moment of political education. Now the urge to fight the bosses and escape drudgery starts to gain a political meaning. The second half of the book concerns these collective struggles at Fiat. Understanding the wage as a political weapon, with the slogan ‘more money, less work’, these workers say a higher wage as a refusal of the extraction of surplus value, of profit, from the labour of the worker. In chapter eight the book becomes a series of reports on the wildcat and official strikes, a rolling wave which consumed Fiat over the summer months of 1969. Chapter Nine offers a series of speeches by workers and the new political militants, which refuse mediation by the unions, refuse the derisory offers of the bosses, and celebrate open revolt.

The book ends with the insurrection that occurred on 3 July 1969, as workers battled with police across the city of Turin. Now the time is the rapid time of violent struggle, of clash and retreat as workers confront the riot cops. The book breaks off at this point, with the return home after a night of street fighting. It would be published two years later. In retrospect, We Want Everything is a book of a moment. This was the moment of synchronicity between these new workers who refused the supposed dignity of labour and the radical analysis of the refusal of work. The 1970s would be a time of both the intensification and the dispersion of struggles; the later 1970s would become known as the ‘years of lead’ as the struggle became militarised and the Italian state engaged in a ‘strategy of tension’, staging bombings and other incidents to incriminate left-wing groups. We Want Everything is the book of a lost moment, but also a moment of revolutionary memory. It remains for us to work through that moment.

Image: Potere Operaio demonstration in Milan. Via Verso blog.