Mario Tronti, “Workerism and Politics”
Tronti, Mario. “Workerism and Politics,” Historical Materialism 18 (2010) 186–189.
Review by Hayyim Rothman
In 2006, Italian philosopher Mario Tronti gave a lecture on the theory of workerism, or operaismo, an approach to labor, capital, and politics that he helped develop in the 1960s. Workerism arose from Marx’s claim that the working class is the operative force in society and that capital reacts to workers. “Workerism and Politics” is the published version of the lecture that Mario Tronti gave at the 2006 Historical Materialism conference. In the piece, Tronti shares his understanding of the theory of workerism and its relevance today. The brief piece is valuable because Tronti both explores the theory’s place in the history of capitalism as well as the historical context for its development. He also raises provocative questions about the power of the working class today.
Tronti begins by explaining the concept of workerism. For Tronti, workerism emphasizes the link between production and politics forged by capitalism. The central figure is the assembly-line worker. While Marx focused on the active role of capitalists in response to market forces that generate the progress of technological development and the development of capital, workerism shifted the focus to the ways in which workers decisively influence those forces by altering relations of production. Workers’ struggles, and not just competition, “have always pushed forward capitalist development, forcing capital to innovation, technological leaps, social transformation.” (187) Thus, if earlier Marxist movements emphasized the role of the avant garde in realizing communism, workerism returns to the proletariat as the true revolutionary class.
After laying down the fundamentals of workerism, Tronti discusses the relationship between politics and capital. In his view, modern capitalism, defined by Smith and Ricardo, is the child of modern politics, as encapsulated by Hobbes and Locke. Why? Because modern capitalism, as Marx indicates in Das Kapital, begins with the stage of primitive accumulation, which could not have been accomplished without the centralization of the state. In this sense, workerism comes as close to anarchism as a Marxist movement can.
Tronti concludes by addressing a fundamental problem confronting a movement defined by its emphasis on the centrality and power of the working class: does the working class still exist as a political subject? Since the 1960s, when Tronti developed workerism, the world itself has evolved. As Tronti notes, the historical context for workerism was the rise of advanced capitalism in Italy, which transformed the country economically and demographically. But as work itself has changed––industry becomes service, employment becomes self-employment, security gives way to precarity––so too do the workers themselves change.
The most interesting aspect of Tronti’s speech is his final comment. Indeed, does the working class still exist? I would say both yes and no. The traditional working class, at least in the United States, is dwindling as manufacturing jobs are transferred overseas where inexpensive labor and weaker labor and environmental protections make production cheaper. In this sense, the traditional working class no longer exists, at least not in the United States and potentially not in the West.
That being said, the precariousness of life in general is rising among all sectors of the population, and the consequences of under- and unemployment are worse now than they have been in decades. In this sense, if radicals abandon the historical emphasis on certain types of labor and increase their focus on organizing workers of all sorts, then a politically powerful working class can exist today. In some ways, this newly conceived working class would be even more comprehensive than it was when Marx wrote.
A key contribution of workerism was conceiving of the ways that capitalist reactions are shaped by workers’ struggles. However, this concept should not be restricted to the factory. It should, rather, be extended to labor in general and used as a mechanism of study and critique: how, for example, will resistance on the part of part-time service workers affect the development of the industry? Tronti’s provocative piece shows the continued relevance of workerism in labor theory today.
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Hayyim Rothman has a PhD in Philosophy from Boston College and recently received a Fulbright postdoctoral research fellowship to work at Bar Ilan University in Israel.