We Still Want Everything: The Politicisation of Anti-work
Less work, more pay, more leisure, guaranteed income -- We Want Everything sends a stirring reminder that these are not new demands.
If there is such a thing as a ‘revolutionary novel,’ Nanni Balestrini’s We Want Everything is as good an example as any. The novel, first published in Italy in 1971, recounts in dramatic narrative form actual events that occurred in late 1969 in Italy: a massive mobilization and strike against Italian auto-maker Fiat that erupted into civil violence and came close to political revolution.
Balestrini -- a poet, visual artist and writer -- was himself personally involved in these struggles. In 1979, explains Rachel Kushner in an introductory essay, he had to flee the country on skis through the Alps in order to avoid arrest on charges of insurrection and terrorism, later dropped. But more than offering a dramatic recount of the events of 1969, the book offers a potent political analysis of today’s ‘mass worker’ and the struggles they face, couched in everyday language and dramatic action.
The novel offers a fast-paced first-person narrative. The language is blunt, unadorned and honest; the action sticks to key points and races along without detours from the main theme. The narrator comes from southern Italy, and like others from the region, he is lured north by the promise of easy quick cash in the newly modernising factory towns.
The context of this historical moment of capitalist development in Italy is important. For centuries Italians, particularly in the south, had lived an essentially feudal subsistence lifestyle. They eked out a living working the fields and farms of petty landlords, meeting their needs with relative ease but living in a constant state of abject poverty. They could gather food from the forests and fields around them; they could live in fairly basic housing and even sleep comfortably outdoors for much of the year. They wore simple clothing, handed down and patched up.
But then the factories arrived, luring young people off the land with the promise of cash and all that it offered: things their families had never even dreamed of. Stylish clothes, cars, modern homes of their own. At first the lure seemed attractive. But once they left their traditional lifestyles, they discovered they had new needs as well that they had never had before: the need to pay for housing, for food, for clothes for their families. To meet these needs, they had to work, and work hard; they no longer had the right to take a day off whenever they wanted to sit at the beach. To obtain the consumer goods they wanted and needed, they had to surrender to the tyranny of bosses and to the tyranny of work itself.
But they didn’t go without a fight, and that fight is the subject of Balestrini’s classic novel.
Kushner makes an important point in her introduction: the struggle depicted in the novel is predominantly depicted as a masculinist struggle. Women have very little presence in the novel and are objectified when they are. This is an ironic oversight, as Kushner notes, because women more than anyone had call to demand everything. It’s an unfortunate oversight too, she observes, since “it’s accurate to say that feminism had the most lasting and successful impact among the demands made in the revolts of 1970s Italy.”
The narrator -- based loosely on a real figure, Alfonso Natella, to whom the author dedicates his work -- is a happy-go-lucky southerner who comes north looking for easy cash. He gets it, drifting through a series of jobs, filling his wallet and then quitting jobs just as quickly as he gets them in order to enjoy the cash he’s earned. Then he finds new jobs, and becomes quite adept at scamming employers, as well.
The point of his continuous lies and scams is this: work is not something to be respected. He wants to have a good time, a natural human inclination, and so wants money, but sees no reason to respect the principle of work. At first his hatred of work is primal and intuitive; he has no real political analysis, just knows he wants to enjoy life and is happy to take the quickest route to get there. He’s willing to work for money -- and only as long and as hard as it takes to get some -- but understands there is nothing intrinsically worthy or noble about work. His views crystallize after he obtains one of the coveted jobs at Fiat, the Italian automaker. There, he eagerly joins in with students, union organizers and other activists who are vying with each other to gain adherents among the Fiat workers.
So I started stirring things up at the gates. Comrades, today we must stop work. Because we’ve fucking had it up to here with work. You’ve seen how tough work is. You’ve seen how heavy it is. You’ve seen that it’s bad for you. They’d made you believe that Fiat was the promised land, California, that we’re saved.
I’ve done all kinds of work, bricklayer, dishwasher, loading and unloading. I’ve done it all, but the most disgusting is Fiat. When I came to Fiat I believed I’d be saved. This myth of Fiat, of work at Fiat. In reality it’s shit, like all work, in fact it’s worse. Every day here they speed up the line. A lot of work and not much money. Here, little by little, you die without noticing. Which means that it is work that is shit, all jobs are shit. There’s no work that is OK, it is work itself that is shit. Here, today, if we want to get ahead, we can’t get ahead by working more. Only by the struggle, not by working more, that’s the only way we can make things better. Kick back, today we’re having a holiday.
The Politicisation of Anti-work
Gradually he comes to develop a political analysis as well. It’s not just that work is bad and pointless: it’s hypocritical as well, with arbitrary determinations of whose work is valued over others, and who gets paid what.
But organizing the workers and inciting them to go on strike is challenging at first. One of the barriers is what the narrator refers to as workers’ ‘neurosis’.
What is this neurosis? Every Fiat worker has a gate number, a corridor number, a locker room number, a locker number, a workshop number, a line number, a number for the tasks they have to do, a number for the parts of the car they have to make. In other words, it’s all numbers, your day at Fiat is divided up, organised by this series of numbers that you see and by others that you don’t see. By a series of numbered and obligatory things. Being inside there means that as you enter the gate you have to go like this with a numbered ID card, then you have to take that numbered staircase turning to the right, then that numbered corridor. And so on.
In the cafeteria for example. The workers automatically choose a place to sit, and those remain their places for ever. It’s not as if the cafeteria is organised so that everyone has to sit in the same place all the time. But in fact you always end up sitting in the same place. It’s like, this is a scientific fact, it’s strange. I always ate in the same seat, at the same table, with the same people, without anyone ever having put us together. Well this signifies neurosis, according to me. I don’t know if you can say neurosis for this, if that is the exact word. But to be inside there you have to do this, because if you don’t you can’t stay.
The narrator’s point is clear: the regimentation and routinization of work tasks generates a tendency to accept the routinization of daily life -- a hesitation to question or challenge norms; an inclination toward accepting the status quo, even when there is no rule saying they have to.
We Challenge Everything
Two aspects of the workers’ struggle are impressively articulated and conveyed in We Want Everything. The first is an abject hatred of work -- a clear indictment of the pointlessness and myth of work. Work is not noble, work does not contribute to the self or society; it is oppression and exploitation, pure and simple.
“Workers don’t like work, workers are forced to work. I’m not here at Fiat because I like Fiat, because there isn’t a single fucking thing about Fiat that I like, I don’t like the cars that we make, I don’t like the foremen, I don’t like you. I’m here at Fiat because I need money.”
The narrator is careful to emphasize that it’s not just manual labour, it’s not just certain kinds of work that are useless and disgusting -- it’s all work. The narrator knows from the beginning, with an instinctive honesty, that he doesn’t like work, but it’s only as the novel progresses that he understands the oppressive and exploitative nature of all work, realizes the political and social nature of the demand -- “Less work!”
The other refreshing dimension of We Want Everything is the perceptive critique of unions. Yes, this is a workers’ struggle, but it's not a union struggle. The unions are portrayed as the enemy of the working class. They’re exposed as serving a mediating role for the company bosses; it’s a critique that is still appropriate to level at many unions today. The unions, in their efforts to retain their control over the workers’ movement, to ensure that they control the workers and members, connive and conspire to undermine autonomous and spontaneous workers’ struggles. They fear loss of control as much as the company bosses do. The bosses want to control the factory, and the union leaders want to control the movement.
What both fear is a spontaneous, grassroots, autonomous and democratic movement self-organized by workers themselves. Example: when the struggle starts, there are various categories of workers, each of which earns different salaries. Because the workers are demanding more money, the union and bosses negotiate the creation of new categories, to provide more pay scales. The workers reject this: they want the elimination of all the different pay scales, so that all the workers earn the same amount, and that it’s an acceptable amount for all. The narrator’s lesson is this: the unions want tangible victories to wave in the air; but the workers want a powerful united movement capable of taking on the bosses.