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One of the multitude of jobs I had in the 1970s was at a Maryland brick factory. My job involved standing next to a conveyor belt for eight hours every day watching freshly baked bricks come down the line. If I saw a brick that was malformed, broken or chipped I was supposed to use a stick and knock it off the belt into a bin that ran along the side of the belt. At the end of the day I was supposed to take the rejected bricks, load them in a wheelbarrow and bring them to a dumping ground. Eventually, they would be ground up and turned into bricks again. I lasted about three weeks before I walked away one afternoon after lunch.
A couple friends of mine who had started the same day as I did got a raise after I quit, but that wasn’t enough to keep them there much longer. Indeed, most people I knew who worked at the brick factory rarely lasted more than a couple months. The machinations of the boss men—offering pay raises and promotions, playing workers against each other—were not enough to keep many of the workers working there. The job was incredibly unrewarding and boring. There was no union in the shop and none seemed forthcoming. The only reason most young people worked there was to get a paycheck. Some of the older men on the line, who were mostly African-American, had worked there for a couple decades. It wasn’t that they were loyal to the company, just resigned.
This is the situation similar to that described by the protagonist in Nanni Ballestrini’s novel We Want Everything. Located primarily in a Fiat factory in Milan, Italy, the novel is a tale of a young worker from Italy’s rural south who is enticed into moving to Italy’s rapidly industrializing north in 1969. Tantalized by advertising and a desire to be “modern,” the narrator of the novel wishes to break free of the rural, dead-end life of his parents and the generations before them. Like many of his fellows, he implicitly understands that not only is that way of life dying; there is also much better money to be made in the industrial cities of the north.
After working a bit here and there, with periods of hanging out in between, the novel’s main character lands a job at the mammoth Fiat factory in Milan. This compound employed around twenty thousand workers and paid the unskilled laborer better than most other postings in the region. It was a coveted job. Most of the labor was repetitive, intense, and demanding. In addition, speedups of the assembly line were regular occurrences. Consequently, workers were often stressed and rarely happy, although most were compliant if for no other reason than that they needed the money. Ballestrini’s protagonist begins to attend meetings called by New Left student groups. These meetings awaken a political understanding that speaks directly to this character’s frustration, anger and overall feeling that there has to be something more to life than working forty or more hours a week at a job that sucks the life out of one. Ultimately, the factory goes on strike, demanding not only better working conditions, but challenging the entire concept of working to make a few men extremely wealthy.
With their demands going beyond asking for a mere pay raise, the plant workers are not only challenging the plant management and ownership, they are also challenging the complacent unions and the “Communist” party that dominates that union. In other words, these workers are not just interested in getting a bigger piece of the pie; they want to get rid of the pie itself. Getting rid of the profit motive, making goods that people need and paying everyone the same decent wage tops their agenda.
Ultimately, the strike fails, but before it does, much of the city is in rebellion and the forces of law and order have imposed martial law. The loyalty of the workers to their cause and each other is challenged and mostly strengthened. Many of the townspeople align themselves with the workers, knowing that their lot is not with the factory owners and the police they have ordered to protect them. In Ballestrini’s rapid fire telling of this tale—a tale based on actual historical events which are known as the “hot summer of 1969”—the spirit of the time comes through. There is the anger at a bill of goods whose primary beneficiaries are those who already seem to have everything; the jail-like restrictions of factory work where every move is defined by the boss and any actions taken outside those restrictions is punished; the generally stultifying nature of work that dulls the mind and the rejuvenating power of resistance and rebellion.
We Want Everything dramatically and ecstatically captures a historical moment. It is an exciting tale resplendent in emotion about a movement that engulfed the factories of Italy in the late 1960s and was part of a greater political and cultural challenge to the überlords of the world’s capitalist class. Ballestrini makes the experience of his protagonist the experience of a generation and, by doing so, provides the reader with a script for revolutionary organizing. Ultimately, the workers movement fictionalized in this novel would be the inspiration for subsequent worker/student movements in Italy and throughout Europe that came about in the 1970s and 1980s. Beyond Stalinism, beyond bureaucracy and extremely hostile to capitalism, this movement would be known by different names: among them are operaismo, autonomia, autonomen. Virtually all of these can be translated as autonomism, a concept loosely defined as a radical type of Marxism where class struggle rather than structure is placed at the center of one’s analysis and the proletariat is considered to be the driving force in history. Autonomists insist on the importance of class autonomy and utilize strategies of resistance which undermine the incorporation of the working class and hope to create new configurations of forces.