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Pandemic War Diaries – Time Collapse (Classwar)

Sebastian Lotzer / Sergio Bologna

When truth is too weak to defend itself, it must resort to attack

Bertolt Brecht

Submitted to Enough 14 in German. Introduction by Sebastian Lotzer. Translated by Enough 14.

The state murders and is not an ally in the fight against a pandemic. The people in the French banlieues have known it from the beginning, the poor and black people in the USA are currently expressing it day after day, night after night. The Riots in the USA have risen to the level of a nationwide revolt, in Minneapolis even a curfew and the National Guard could not change that. The revolt and any possible revolution is a social one. I wrote weeks ago that we live in pre-revolutionary times, Covid 19 is just the additional burner that brings this process to the speed of sound. This civilization has long since come to an end, anyone with half a brain has understood this. Even Fridays For Future feeds on this concept, even if the movement has remained stuck in a self-limitation for the time being, which has made it largely incapable of connecting to proletarians and those who are considered “superfluous”.

But climate change and its consequences will also inevitably generate global unrest if developments come to a head. There are only two alternatives. The formation of a fascist apparatus that unconditionally defends the commodity society even in the process of devastating our environmental conditions, and can even integrate “green ideological elements”.

Or the organisation of a process that takes the weapons out of the hands of the mortal enemies of life. There is nothing in between. At the moment there are countless people on the streets in the USA who say they actually do not want violence, but there is no other way. The point is to show that there is no other choice, that everyone has to make a choice. To remain in comfort and apparent security or to engage in this struggle, which involves personal sacrifice and risk.

Those parts of the radical left that have not sided with the state and its narrative in the current pandemic state of emergency have the task of bringing in the knowledge of the historical legacy of class war into the process of this social conflict, which is indispensable for the success of this struggle. No more, but also no less. The following is a translation of an interview with Sergio Bologna (a,b,c), originally published on il manifesto on 21 May 2020. The translation was taken from the French version published on acta zone. Sergio Bologna also reminds us that a fundamentally different perspective on the current pandemic situation is possible:

“Would you like an example that comes to the fore again today? In Milan, in 1973, a doctor and professor of biometrics, Giulio Maccacaro, took over the management of Sapere, the oldest scientific journal in Italy, and brought together academics from various disciplines, scientists and humanists, technicians and factory workers, particularly at trade union level. In just a few years he laid the foundations for a new type of labour medicine, a medicine based on the needs of the patient (his “Charter of the Rights of the Child” is exceptional) and, above all, a health system based on public hygiene practices and territorial medicine. In 1976 he founded the journal Epidemiologia e prevenzione, which clearly set out all the principles that health institutions and authorities should have followed in dealing with the Covid 19 pandemic. The journal was published in 1976.”


Interview with Sergio Bologna, historian of the workers’ movement, fifty years after the proclamation of the “workers’ statute” of May 1970 in Italy.

Question: The best way to understand the significance of the impetuous advance of the working class and its defeat between 1960 and 1985 is to put yourself in the shoes of a young man who is fighting precarity today. He could ask Sergio Bologna, a historian of the workers’ movement and one of the founders of the Primo Maggio magazine, what the accomplishments that have cost so many lives have achieved. Where have all the rights gone?

Sergio Bologna: When you talk about that period so long ago, you are of course curious to know how a young worker perceives his rights today. Do they know that they have rights, do they know what it means to defend a right at work? The workers’ rights statute of May 1970 was an important gesture of civilisation, the recognition and protection of trade union rights, a step forward for the democratic system. However, many trade union leaders and the political tendencies closest to us considered it to be outdated at that time, already obsolete. Let me give you an example: While Article seven of the statute was limited to declaring disciplinary sanctions questionable and nothing more, the workers in the vast majority of factories had effectively abolished or at least limited to the utmost the power of the foremen and women. The Italian Communist Party abstained in the vote on the statute in parliament and did not approve the statute, as article 18 was not applicable to companies with less than 15 employees.

I still see young people today – both employees and self-employed, especially in intellectual or creative activities – who are not only afraid to question certain conditions of their employment relationship, but who are even afraid to talk about them. In their opinion, the statute was cancelled and replaced by a full “statute of employers rights”. But I also see a growing number of young people organising, coming together, discussing their situation, deciding to react and open a conflict, taking the initiative, asking for the support of the union and, if the union does not move, forming their own union. In the end, something has to change.

What were the convincing ideas of workers struggles in Italy that also led to the workers statute?

Without doubt, the idea that a worker is a human being and that he has the right not only to express his political-religious opinion, but also to work in an environment and at a pace that are not harmful to his health (Articles 5, 6 and 9 of the first chapter). There is hardly any trace of other core ideas, such as egalitarianism, in the statute. Here too, it is evident that the statute falls short of the practice and level of cohesion of the working class, which had already learned in 1970 to defend its health and physical integrity by slowing down the pace when it was too strenuous, i.e. by stopping the production line directly. Direct actions, not the beginning of a tiring negotiations… The defence of health and physical integrity, followed by the major actions that are gradually being carried out, especially in the chemical factories, in close contact with technicians and scientists, to shut down harmful factories and limit risk situations, is the most important legacy of this period. We have forgotten all this.

An example of this kind of determination on the part of workers today?

The crisis caused by the Covid 19 epidemic has brought it back to the forefront. Confindustria (1) wanted to keep all factories running, even those where there was not even soap to wash your hands in the toilets. In many situations, workers had to go on strike to obtain protective equipment (we discussed this at length in the first edition of Officina Primo Maggio after interviewing dozens of delegates). The Italy of the new millennium has thus returned to the 1960s – the Marghera accident speaks volumes today. It seems that the majority of small factories, that is, those in which the “small bosses” themselves work on the workfloors, have taken care to create minimum safety conditions. On the other hand, Confindustria, on behalf of the big employers, demanded that the state reimburse the costs of disinfecting the premises and distributing protective equipment. Pathetic…

Together with Giairo Daghini you wrote a memorable review of May 1968 in France, first published in Quaderni piacentini and then in a book. What was the difference with Italy?

The big difference is that in France the wave ended within one month, in Italy the long wave lasted ten years. I immediately had the feeling that French workers were working in difficult conditions, but not so much that they were undermining human dignity. In Italy, there was indeed behaviour on the part of factory management that seemed to be aimed more at humiliating people than at disciplining them. It is no coincidence that when they asked a FIAT delegate what the difference was between before and after the hot autumn, the answer was: “We can finally go to the toilet!” With a few exceptions, employers considered the hiring of an employee as an act of generosity, of magnanimity, they had no idea that by hiring a person they were signing a contract, that is, making a deal. Instead, Adriano Olivetti, who managed staff relations in a civilized manner, was subjected to a merciless war that even went as far as asking consumers to boycott his products. Olivetti left Confindustria.

At that time, Confindustria was run by businessmen of a certain calibre and not by grotesque puppets like today. Unlike in France, this conflict, defined as “permanent”, lasted so long for two fundamental reasons: first, the desperation accumulated in recent years, the humiliations inflicted on the men and women who had to react in order to return blow after blow, and second, the fact that the successes achieved after the struggles were more fictional than real: Agreements that were signed by the other side and not respected (so that twice as many strikes were needed to enforce them), and a very high rate of inflation that absorbed the newly obtained wage increases.

They have argued that the Cassa Integrazione (2 ) is used as an instrument of mass pacification. What does that mean?

In the newsroom of Primo Maggio there were car and food workers who were in the Cassa Integrazione [CIG], they came from two big factories in Milan and had their own network of comrades in a dozen other factories. With them we tried to understand the role of this institution, which today is the social shock absorber of various kinds. So here we have another example of how the experience of the 1970s can be used as a teaching tool for what is happening today in the midst of a pandemic emergency. The Cassa Integrazione was born with a completely different objective, it was an intelligent system which consisted of giving a small respite to companies in difficulty so that they could reorganise their factories or review their marketing strategies or create a new product line without losing their staff. So that they could resume their stronger and more competitive activities and, in the meantime, the workers could survive with a lower salary, but in any case in such a way that they would not starve. It was therefore a temporary measure for a maximum of six months.

What happened instead?

Agnelli and Lama (3) have agreed to turn the CIG into a kind of military hospital where companies are hospitalised for years, decades, at the expense of general taxation! Without the factory management lifting a finger to change production, they could instead rest for years. But that is not all. The main problem was that the CIG was to be handled like a stopcock: all at home – “closed”, all at work – “open”. But that was not it! “Open” meant that only those who the management decided to call back could go back to work, and if union representatives or activists were disruptive, they could stay home. Thus, little by little, many “factory vanguards”, as they used to be called, were thrown out and billions and billions of lire were thrown away without being used for the first objective of the law: the conversion of the factories, their modernisation and the improvement of their competitiveness. This is why I used the term “means of mass pacification”.

Are there any analogies to our current situation?

Over the years, the CIG has undergone many adjustments, in the factories active union members have been decimated, tens of thousands have been dismissed (despite Article 18 of the statute), the union has taken other routes, has concentrated on individual services (recruitment agencies, bilateral agencies, etc.). The Conte government extended the beneficiaries to companies with only one employee and then got rid of the INPS (4), which had already been tested by paying 600 euros to more than 4 million people who wanted it – a mass of applications that was impossible to handle, both from a bureaucratic and resource point of view. He therefore turned to the banks to anticipate the payments of the Cassa, but the banks have slower procedures. The funds for exemptions, on the other hand, were channelled through the regions, and regional bureaucracy is not more efficient than that of the state, on the contrary. In short, it is a major problem. However, what I think raises most of the questions is the use of the CIG as a non-profit service, which is aimed indiscriminately at companies in difficulty and at successful companies. These are the same people who, in their newspapers, through their Members of Parliament and their associations, have launched insults against basic income.

Another result of the wave of workers struggles was the “150 hours”. What was that?

The hot autumn was 1969, the status 1970, “the 150 hours” were conquered in 1973. It was a breakthrough in the collective agreements signed during this cycle, which gave workers the right to a certain number of paid teaching hours in schools and universities of their choice. The majority of workers took advantage of this opportunity to complete compulsory schooling or obtain a university degree. It was a great opportunity to leave illiteracy behind while continuing to work, and it gives you a measurement of the level of education of workers at that time. But many people also used it to take part in training courses and a diverse cultural landscape. Think of the person who was elected as a delegate, who had to understand what was written on his pay sheet and on the pay sheets of his colleagues, who had to understand what was written in the employment contract, in the company agreements, who had to know how to negotiate, how to write a leaflet, an article, a letter to the management; he had to understand how the organisation of work functions in order to possibly defy the timekeeper.

But beyond that, there was a more general thirst for knowledge, to understand the state, the party system, the constitution, the economy, the multi-national corporations, the market for various consumer goods, the technology. At the University of Padua, where I was teaching, I organised a course on the history and practice of the labour movement, which was attended by about twenty workers from different companies, including from the Pol Marghera. And this demand for learning from a new kind of public also triggered a dynamic of innovation in teaching. It was necessary to produce clear, simple and accessible instructions and manuals without losing stringency. It was a great experience, a small leap of civilization. What does the company give you today? A voucher to buy a pair of “intimissimi” underwear and calling it “corporate well-being”. And the managers give us slides for presentations: “Our company puts people first! Our people are our pride”.

The Italian “creeping May” was a general mobilization of society. What is left of it today?

Yes, this aspect of 1968 has been neglected, and yet it seems to me to be the most interesting and time-resistant. When students began to question both the methods of learning and the curricula of universities, they laid the foundations for a revolution in the professions they would pursue after graduating and entering the world of work. A new kind of journalism was born: Il Manifesto (5) by Rossanda, Pintor and Parlato is one example. And then a new way of being a doctor, architect, town planner, engineer, lawyer, judge and even teacher, university professor. All the professions raised the question of the methods and principles according to which they were practised, and therefore the institutions – from school to hospital, from court to psychiatric hospital – in which they were practised.

A large part of the middle class sided with the workers, but not opportunistically, and just clapped their hands: “Good, good, fight, fight, fight! “but they met with resistance from their own milieu, which pushed many to the sidelines or outlawed them. This contributed to the birth of a “new science”. Do you want an example that comes to the fore again today? In 1973 in Milan, a doctor and professor of biometrics, Giulio Maccacaro, took over the management of Sapere, the oldest scientific journal in Italy, and gathered academics from various disciplines around him, scientists and humanists, as well as technicians and factory workers who were particularly active at trade union level. In just a few years he laid the foundations for a new occupational medicine, a medicine that is oriented towards the needs of the patient (his “Charter of the Rights of the Child” is extraordinary) and, above all, for a health system based on public hygiene practices and territorial medicine. In 1976 he founded the journal Epidemiologia e prevenzione, which clearly set out all the principles that health institutions and authorities should have followed in dealing with the Covid 19 pandemic. The journal was published in 1976. What more do you want?

Do you believe that this alliance can be resumed today, between whom and on what basis?

It already exists in part, not only for the working class, but also for the self-employed, precarious workers, the entertainment industry, migrants. The cycles of solidarity, the production of intelligence and innovation all have their roots in those years which some villains continue to call “leaden”. Sooner or later, they must find a political outlet, otherwise we will be swept away by the infamy of sovereign populism (which could only act like a jackal during the epidemic), by grotesque patriotic neo-fascism (“reserve jackals” when others are too loud) and by this third component, which I cannot define, overwhelms me, for which I perhaps feel even more contempt, which reminds me of the monkeys in Berlin – I don’t speak, I don’t see, I don’t hear – who gather under their flags and centre-left formations.

In the first issue of the Primo Maggio magazine, which was created in connection with the workers struggles of 1973, militant investigation and joint (co)research was given an important role. Today, you have returned to practice in the new journal Officina Primo Maggio. What role does intellectual work play today?

We have not invented anything about “conricerca” (co-research) or the militant investigation of workers. These are working methods that have been widely disseminated by the “operaistic” current of Italian Marxism since the 1960s. When we founded this journal, we made a different consideration. We said to ourselves: in the companies, in the trade union, in all the cases that have developed since 1968, there is a need for culture and training that must be satisfied by opening up new areas of research. The first example that comes to mind is that of money. In the circles of the radical left there was not yet the awareness, the intuition, that the capitalist economy was heading towards progressive financialisation. When we think about where we stand today, about the mass of liquid assets, which is thirty times greater than the world’s GDP, and above all about the gap between the super-rich and the world population, which was unimaginable at the time, we have to admit that we were not blind.

A second example concerns militant history. At a time when there are such great upheavals and such sudden changes in people’s consciousness, it is absolutely necessary to pause for a moment and look back, because it is a matter of reconstructing a genealogy of what is happening before your eyes. You have to reorder, readjust the line of history. Maybe you forget very important things, maybe you think you have established new things, and instead you worked better 60/70 years ago. When we rediscovered the history of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the United States, where many Italians played an important role, they gave us a better understanding of how to deal with industrial action. A third example, and here I come back to the problem of militant investigation or, if you prefer, ‘co-research’ , is that of exchange relations, solidarity with the Genoese dockworkers. Some people have seen our work with the “camalli” [Genoese dockworkers] as a kind of aesthetic love of painterly situations. In reality, they opened our eyes to maritime trade, to the global flows, and from there we quickly moved on to logistics. Now think about it, who would dare to make fun of these things today?

What is the “militant investigation” of a worker about? And a “co-investigation”?

The essential point is that we have not conducted sociological studies, but have collected elements that are useful for those who practice organizational, assertive, conflictual processes. We have not carried out a review, but have carried out a political-cultural operation. The relationship with the “Camalli” still continues today, 45 years later! We are always at their side when they defend the value of their work, and they help us to come to our senses, to understand when we try to support migrants in the logistics sector. Have you ever thought that the current struggles in the logistics sector in Italy in 2020, together with those of the delivery staff, could be the only ones that are not only defensive?

How can we examine the state of intellectual work today?

I’m just telling you what I see a little bit among the knowledge workers gathered around ACTA (6 ), the Association of the Self-Employed, and among those who are part of our international network, workers in entertainment, fashion, cultural events in the broadest sense, but also professionals in logistics, IT, shipping, finance and related fields. All professional associations have conducted surveys among their members to find out how they have responded to the emergency. Many are on the spot. In all these activities, which are connected with a relationship with the public, which are closed and who knows when they will reopen, you can find people queuing up for a free plate of soup. Others have continued to work undisturbed, they have always worked “at a distance”. All over the world it has been understood that self-employed people have no social security. So Covid-19 has at least served to make it clear that there is a certain segment of “working people”. Those who continue to claim that the self-employed are just entrepreneurs must finally stop talking nonsense. Many have worked, but are not at all sure if they are getting paid.

What are the results of this new research?

Thanks to research and the activism of representative associations or self-help groups, we have made great progress in the last two years in the knowledge of self-employment and freelance work. And, unfortunately, we have seen a sharp drop in fees, which have fallen by no less than two thirds in ten years. Experience, seniority and competence count less and less. Lifelong learning does not keep you afloat; it is one of the usual slogans of European Union charlatanism. Therefore, it is not a question of the role of intellectual work, but of how its devaluation can be stopped. Those who work in these fields as freelancers/technicians/artists have always seen themselves as different from the precarious. Occasional work, lack of security are taken for granted, they are a calculated risk. In the end, a large part of this world today slides into the big pot of the platform economy.

Is it possible under these conditions to draw inspiration from the labour conflicts of the 1970s?

It can be useful as long as we do not repeat the lesson of choreography like parrots. In order to protect itself, today’s intellectual work must find other ways than those of mass workers. The problem must be inscribed in the general crisis of the middle class, the reference to the binomial assembly line/ refusal to work is useless. The games have changed, the industrial working class, be it the American Rust Belt or the Bergamo-Brescian industrial class, is one of the hotbeds of trumpism (Trump) or leghistic (Lega Nord) populism. Some people believe that they evangelize them by preaching Christian love for migrants, but you really have to have a Salvation Army mentality to be that stupid. This is about the resumption of the workers’ struggle, the issue of health, again proposed by the coronavirus, can be the linchpin on which to build. On the contrary, at the level of intellectual work, which is now subject to brutal devaluation, liberation can only be achieved by combining the devices of mutualism of the origins with the most modern digital communication technologies.

Many say it is time to work out a workers statute. What do you think about that?

For God’s sake! That’s the last thing we need! Laws always reflect what is called the “material constitution” of a country, i.e. the balance of power between classes. Any law written today, with “this” parliament, with “this” climate in civil society, would bear the mark of the imbalance that exists between capital and labour today. The Italian Constitution already exists and it would be enough to protect the workers. If it would be implemented. No, new laws are not necessary, a capillary mobilisation is necessary to change the material constitution of the country, to change the balance of power. If we have succeeded in reversing the situation, we can consolidate it with new laws. It is time to invoke the right of resistance, the right to resist. This also means, to put it clearly, to criticize a certain non-violence “at any price”.

Interview by Roberto Ciccarelli, published in Il Manifesto on May 21, 2020.

Notes from the German translation

  1. “The long autumn” by S. Bologna on the labor struggles of the 70s in Italy at sozialgeschichte online
  2. Workers, Machines, Migration, Culture – Eight Theses on a militant historiography, S. Bologna in jungle world
  3. Indians in war-1977 becomes 30th S. Bologna also in jungle world

Notes from the translated text

  1. The equivalent of Medef in Italy (employers’ association)
  2. The Cassa integrazione guadagni (CIG) is the compensation fund for short-time work, which replaces the income of employees in the event of a reduction or temporary cessation of activity
  3. Gianni Agnelli, the notorious head of the FIAT Group; Luciano Lama, head of CGIL, the Italian equivalent of the CGT
  4. Italian National Institute for Social Security
  5. Italian political newspaper founded in 1969 by a group of dissidents from the Italian Communist Party
  6. Associazione Consulenti del Terziario Avanzato, sees itself as an interest group of the so-called New Professions.

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