We often ask ourselves why nobody acts in a situation like the present. Why do so many unemployed not rebel? How does the economic and State system manage to appear to deal with everything so effortlessly? We will try to answer some of these questions. In doing so it will become clear how we need to ‘go beyond’ economy in the narrow sense of the word if we want to understand how exploitation works today.
Unemployment in Italy today
The data available refers to 1987 and can be summed up in terms of two tendencies: more jobs in the tertiary (services) sector and a considerable fall in the industrial one, especially in the large enterprises.
We will look at changes that have been taking place in production over the past few years and the resultant modifications not only in revolutionary expectations but also concerning practices to be implemented.
It has been calculated that there are over 3,000,000 unemployed in Italy today. In the industrial sector between 1977 and 1987, workers decreased by 9,000, making it possible for industry to recuperate lost profits. In fact, following the initial fall between 1977-1980 there have been profit increases in the large firms from 674 billion lira in 1980 to 8,000 billion in 1987.
In the Italian industrial sector, where the greatest decline took place, productivity has increased by about 21 per cent since 1980, while job reduction stands at about 16 per cent.
This demonstrates beyond any doubt that unemployment in Italy is caused mainly by the productive sector’s growing incapacity to provide work. Big industry has undergone restructuring, resulting in a drastic reduction of the work force. The turning point came around the beginning of the Eighties. It was realised then that short-term adjustments were not enough and that massive restructuring was necessary, far from the old and onerous contributions of fixed capital. Class conflict was at a low ebb at the time. The State, in response to solicitations by capital, had used all the means at its disposal, from the now collaborationist trade unions (at best limited to retrograde struggles), to the parading of the phenomenon of ‘terrorism’.
The production crisis in the Eighties led to an under-use of plants, followed by a revision of labour costs: mass sackings, early pensions, recourse to layoffs and collateral contracts. The phenomenon was the reverse of the wage increases and reduction in productivity of the Seventies. The capitalists made it plain that one could only be employed after passing through an initial phase of unemployment.
Till then capitalists, being unable to touch the extremely rigid cost of labour, had only been able to modify prices in the sphere of what is known as the ‘technical problem’. Now, with the collaboration of the unions and the CP, labour costs have gone down. Inflation is decreasing, productivity is rising, worker combativeness is at an all-time low. The working class is disintegrating.
Ways of putting a brake on things
In a State that claims to have ‘social’ connotations, the forces which in theory should be defending the workers’ interests are looking after those of capital. It has become common to seek alternative solutions for those excluded from work. The unions have taken on this, let us say, institutional task. The State wants to avoid disorder, capital wants to avoid a drop in demand. But this time State investment is not moving towards the huge fixed plants that served as poles of attraction for collateral activities. That period has gone for good. Now they are moving into the tertiary sector, the emerging sector which has more possibility of absorbing the work force. Here too interests coincide: capital needs services in order to restructure the primary sector, the State serves as regulator, and the unions see the solution as closer to their institutional task. The result is a reinforcing of the large industries, with lower set costs and greater flexibility, a weakening of the working class which is reaching a point of disintegration that was absolutely unthinkable a few years ago, and a transformation of the role of the State—now moving towards becoming the direct contractor, no longer limiting itself to the role of simply regulating tension.
The solution as a whole is that of supporting demand, at least in the medium term (layoffs), containing inflation by reducing the level of real wages, and a reinforcing of the political role of the State (stronger and more durable government). This very complex mechanism has been set in motion in Italy and various other States. The US example—model and external variable of our economic system—has served as an important point of reference.
In the US there was a considerable recession in 1981 which lasted for more than two years. The State managed to come through it by setting up a model of economic and political intervention. It stopped fearing inflation with the result that there were considerable credit facilitation: investors all over the world poured funds into Wall Street. Investment nearly all went into the tertiary sector, a characteristic that is specific to the American market, even in the production of durable consumer goods. As always, the third world has paid the price by getting more and more into debt in order to buy these goods, paying for them in poor exports but also serving as the main investment for the great flow of money that has swollen the American economy. Here the American economy has set up a harder politic with a ‘go and return’ effect, to the benefit of both the international stability of the Atlantic military colossus, and the robbery economy towards the subjects of imperialism. For the same reasons that country will probably now be the first to pay the consequences of this ‘brilliant’ manoeuvre.
But why doesn’t everything explode?
This is a question that many are asking themselves. The recuperation of unemployment by the tertiary sector is not a sufficient explanation. Nor is the growth in productivity, control of inflation levels or the development of work flexibility and precarious work (black labour). Taken individually, these answers are probably all valid, but no single one of them can explain the problem, nor do they when they are taken together as a whole.
The early Eighties was undoubtedly a time of material difficulty for the whole economic system. The industrial sector was overloaded, inflation was on the increase, fear of the social consequences of reducing labour costs in the short term was strong, and the unions were insisting on the defence of jobs and real wage value. During these years something was demonstrated which had become clear to us at the end of 1977: a passage from material difficulty to an awakening of the workers’ consciousness as a class, had not taken place. Was that a ‘crisis’? It is impossible to answer that, if for no other reason than that we do not effectively know what a crisis is. The workers should have gone beyond the economic struggle—at least according to the Marxist analysis —and passed to the social one. This was initially to have come through the party and only through the unions in the second place. In other words, revolutionary subjectivity was to emerge from the crisis.
Nothing of the sort happened. Not only has there been no will to struggle arising from the determinism of the economic setup but, more importantly, there has been no real obstacle to the development and pick-up of capitalist recovery. Anything but the disappearance of the illusion of equal exchange announced by Marx. They simply changed the cards in their hands, just at the moment when the situation was threatening to become far more serious. In fact this did not happen, thanks also to the epochal intervention of information technology.
Today the conditions of the labour market could be summed up as capital’s increased capacity to recuperate and manoeuvre the army of the unemployed. The capacity for invention in this field is illuminating, mainly consisting of initiatives of an ‘alternative’ nature which once set the usual three or four fools dreaming. The intelligence of capital is extraordinary: Marx would have said, exciting. It takes struggles over, using them against those who promoted them and against the main body of the working class. It singles out the most isolated instigators and interpreters, transforming them into ‘criminals’ and using them to scare others back into line. Then the new concept of quality is used to do up the facade. Politics are consolidated, as immoral behaviour readjusts into a more stable form, turning over a new leaf in some of its marginal aspects. It is not possible to speak of the ‘failure’ of the party or union as a function. In our opinion it is a question of a historical function reaching its natural conclusion. The end of an era. The end of a great illusion. Capital’s work is immense, it permeates school, the family, the church and everything else. It leaves no space unfilled, as it pushes back all initiatives in terms of struggle. Its repressive system welcomes disgusting practices such as grassing and repentance to get to the bottom of some of its contradictions which, although marginal, could still create a certain imbalance. Instead, in order to reduce the dissent of the most radical and least instrumentalisable to silence, it employs pure and simple repression, that of special prisons and police bullets. It has demonstrated once and for all that it is not true that revolt is more difficult in moments of material difficulty for the whole economic and social setup. And this was one of the canons of Marxism.
The fact is that the State and capital are far more efficient than one thinks and are far more interconnected than Marx could have imagined in his time. We must not underestimate the role of the State in this recuperation. Left to itself, the economic mechanism would almost certainly have tried to undermine plants, but the State-economy collaboration has made possible an incredible programme of restructuring instead.
Today we are faced with a situation we could practically define as corporative. No real political opposition exists, except as a formality, so the government can impose tough decisions that turn out to be to the benefit of the economy. That is why the system does not explode, that is why we can tolerate such a high rate of unemployment almost with resignation, and consider normal a fluctuating percentage of temporary or unstable work.
Class disintegration becomes the integration of the individual, a transformation of personal relations, a violent transformation of life for everyone. There is no longer one particular point of reference in the struggle. The collapse of the old myths is leading to an acceptance of life as continual collapse. And, against a situation we have learned to consider normal, we cannot rebel.
[Original title: La disoccupazione in Italia. Perché non salta tutto, in “Anarchismo”, no. 63, 1989. English translation by Jean Weir published in "Let's destroy work, let's destroy economy", Elephant Editions, London.]