Fiat Has Branded Me: A Hot Autumn Timeline for Nanni Balestrini’s We Want Everything
Nanni Balestrini’s We Want Everything (Vogliamo tutto), published in 1971, captures an explosive moment of worker militancy in Italy during 1969. It is the story of one man, told by a narrator whose experiences are based on those of the worker and militant Alfonso Natella. It is also, however, the collective story of workers from the Italian south who arrived at the Fiat Mirafiori factory in Turin during the 1960s. These workers were described, in approving terms, by the Italian radical political theorist Mario Tronti as a ‘crude, pagan race’. Balestrini’s narrator says of these new workers: ‘The monsters were coming, the horrible workers’ (WWE 65).
The novel is primarily set during Italy’s ‘hot autumn’ (autunno caldo), a massive wave of strikes between 1969 and 1970 that affected the northern industrial centres of Italy. In particular it is focused on Fiat’s Mirafiori plant in Turin, which by the late 1960s was a powder keg ready to explode. The plant employed 50,000 workers, with an annual staff turnover of 10% and 60% of these workers, like the worker in We Want Everything, came from the Italian south. Introduced to the new discipline of factory labour, these workers soon came into violent conflict with the bosses. Unlike skilled workers, traditional union members, and the representatives of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), they saw no value in work. As Balestrini’s narrator says, ‘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’ (WWE 82). These workers practiced the ‘refusal of work’: carrying out wildcat strikes and making ‘impossible’ demands, like ‘we want everything’.
This refusal of work would excite the theorists and militants of Italian Operaismo (‘workerism’) and what would later, in 1973, become Autonomia Operaia (‘Workers’ Autonomy’). The demand for autonomy, the refusal of mediation by the unions, and the material nature of these demands were all echoed and amplified by the new wave of radical groups. These groups included Potere Operaio (‘Workers’ Power’) (PO), of which Nanni Balestrini was a founding member and which would later be joined by Natella, and Lotta Continua (‘Continuous Struggle’). The stress of these groups on material demands, on wage increases and reductions in prices for goods and services, felt real to workers used to the posturing of left-wing ideologues. As We Want Everything describes, the workers were living an experience of continuous struggle: a rolling wave of strikes and protests that became a daily experience of violent conflict. One militant of Potere Operaio would later reflect, from prison in 1980, that the group was ‘caught in the eye of the hurricane’.
We Want Everything has its own peculiar rhythm, which ebbs and flows with the experiences of work and struggle. The timeline below offers multiple contexts for these experiences, but it is also worth sketching out the structure of this strange ‘novel’. In the first three chapters we have a discussion of the experience of the worker in the south and the narrator’s trips north to find work, then returning home to summer to quickly spend his hard-earned cash. This is a repetitive time, of jobs started and rapidly lost, of dreams of a new scooter, smart clothes, and escaping from farm work and the peasant culture of the south. Things change in Chapter Four, ‘Fiat’, with the narrator’s arrival at the great Fiat factory in Turin. Here thousands of workers undergo a surreal ‘selection’ interview, knowing they’ll be taken no matter what. The narrator learns of the bodily rhythm of assembly line work, of getting used to the demands of the line. Chapter Five, ‘The struggle’, begins the moment of political education. Now the urge to fight the bosses and escape drudgery starts to gain a political meaning. The second half of the book concerns these collective struggles at Fiat. Understanding the wage as a political weapon, with the slogan ‘more money, less work’, these workers say a higher wage as a refusal of the extraction of surplus value, of profit, from the labour of the worker. In chapter eight the book becomes a series of reports on the wildcat and official strikes, a rolling wave which consumed Fiat over the summer months of 1969. Chapter Nine offers a series of speeches by workers and the new political militants, which refuse mediation by the unions, refuse the derisory offers of the bosses, and celebrate open revolt.
The book ends with the insurrection that occurred on 3 July 1969, as workers battled with police across the city of Turin. Now the time is the rapid time of violent struggle, of clash and retreat as workers confront the riot cops. The book breaks off at this point, with the return home after a night of street fighting. It would be published two years later. In retrospect, We Want Everything is a book of a moment. This was the moment of synchronicity between these new workers who refused the supposed dignity of labour and the radical analysis of the refusal of work. The 1970s would be a time of both the intensification and the dispersion of struggles; the later 1970s would become known as the ‘years of lead’ as the struggle became militarised and the Italian state engaged in a ‘strategy of tension’, staging bombings and other incidents to incriminate left-wing groups. We Want Everything is the book of a lost moment, but also a moment of revolutionary memory. It remains for us to work through that moment.
We Want Everything begins 10 to 15 years after the Cassa, a government program begun in 1950 to spur economic development in the Italian south. As the novel notes, instead it spurs immigration to the factories of northern Italy.
Chairman Mao launches the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which mobilises students and workers into ‘red guards’ against the entrenched Communist Party bureaucracy. Some Italian militants will adopt the slogan ‘China is Near’ (La Cina è vicina). In We Want Everything the narrator notes that the insurgent workers are referred to as ‘cinesi’ (Chinese) by the newspapers (WWE 166).
The Shanghai municipal government is overthrown and the Shanghai commune is founded by Maoist red guards.
A mass uprising begins in Detroit, lasting for six days and leading the State Governor, George W. Romney, to call in the National Guard. The uprising results in 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrested, and over 2,000 buildings destroyed. Potere Operaio celebrated the Black Power movement as an ‘autonomous revolutionary organisation’, but largely in terms of factory struggles.
The ‘Tet Offensive’ is launched by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. Although it results in a military defeat for the Vietnamese the offensive decisively shakes the confidence of the US government and public. In We Want Everything one speaker declares: ‘The struggle at Fiat must become the Vietnam of the bosses in Italy’ (WWE 159).
After police force students out of the buildings they have been occupying at the University of Rome the students fight back. 148 police are injured, eight police cars destroyed, and five guns taken from politics officers, in what becomes known as the ‘Battle of Valle Giulia’.
A general strike is called in Italy by the Communist dominated Italian General Workers’ Confederation (CGIL), with an unexpectedly high turn-out.
Angry textile workers in Valdagno, in north-eastern Italy, topple the statue of Gaetano Marzotto, founder of the textile dynasty that controls the town. The fact that workers in a conservative company town could resort to violent struggle is a sign of what is to come.
Student protests in France lead to a mass general strike in the events that become known as ‘May 68’. The events reverberate in Italy and lead to scepticism on the far left about the role of the ‘official’ communist parties, thanks to the role of the French Communist Party (PCF) in damping down the revolt. In Italy, the result is a ‘creeping May’, which unfolds over years rather than the brief months of the French experience.
A survey of workers at Fiat reveals mass discontent: ‘We work too much and enjoy too little’, one worker comments.
The Chicago Democratic Convention erupts in protests against the Vietnam War, as 10,000 demonstrators face 23,000 police and national guardsmen. On August 28 the Chicago riot police savagely attack protestors. The writer William Burroughs, observing with the French writer Jean Genet, says that Genet ‘who has considerable police experience, says he never saw such expressions before on allegedly human faces’.
A successful strike throughout Fiat after the killing of two southern labourers by police.
Fiat Mirafiori experiences the beginning of what one commentator called ‘a continuous guerrilla offensive’. Over the next few months repeated strikes, walkout and protests occur.
A series of rolling strikes at Fiat Mirafiori, as the workers make escalating demands in the face of management intransigence.
Students and radical groups, including Potere Operaio, descend on Fiat. The stress on supporting the material demands (‘more money, less work’) of workers resonates, attracting workers like Alfonso Natella to meet with student radicals: ‘What the fuck, I’ve got nothing to lose, I’ll go and see what these assholes have to say’ (WWE 79).
A trade-union demonstration over housing turns into a city-wide battle with the police that last twelve hours.
‘People kept attacking, the whole population was fighting. Groups reorganised themselves, attacked at one point, scattered, came back to attack somewhere else. But now the thing that moved them more than rage was joy. The joy of finally being strong. Of discovering that your needs, your struggle, were everyone’s needs, everyone’s struggle.’ (WWE 185)
We Want Everything ends with the end of this insurrection, as the comrades return home exhausted after a night of street fighting.
On returning from summer holidays the workers of Fiat demand a 1,000 lire pay rise.
Formation of the Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse), initially organised around violent struggle in the factory the group would later undertake a number of kidnappings and assassinations.
Publication in Italian of We Want Everything (Vogliamo tutto).
The formation of Lotta Femminista (Feminist Struggle), by former militants of Potere Operaio.
Potere Operaio officially ceases to exist, its militants, like Nanni Balestrini, dissolve into the emerging ‘area of autonomy’, a new broadening wave of struggles that intensify throughout the 1970s.
Luciano Lama, a trade union leader close to the Italian Communist Party, is expelled from the campus of the occupied Rome University by autonomist radicals. This is often seen as the birth the ‘movement of ’77’, a new wave of radicals aiming to go beyond the limits of the ‘old left’.
The Red Brigades kidnap Aldo Moro, then Italian Prime Minister and one of the architects of the ‘historic compromise’ between the Italian Communist Party and the Christian Democrats.
Aldo Moro is killed and his body found in the trunk of car in the centre of Rome.
Arrest warrants are issued for militants associated with Worker’s Autonomy, including Toni Negri, Oreste Scalzone, and Nanni Balestrini. Balestrini, like many others, will flee to France to avoid arrest.
Nanni Balestrini will publish The Unseen (Gli invisibili), in Italian, his novel of the repression of the movement of 1977 and of the experience of prison and defeat.
Balestrini, Nanni, The Unseen, trans. Liz Heron (London: Verso, 1987); reissued in 2012, with a new preface by Antonio Negri.
Connery, Christopher, and Hortense J. Spillers (eds.), ‘The Sixties and the World Event’, special issue of boundary 2 36.1 (2009).
Horn, Gerd-Rainer, The Spirit of ’68: Rebellion in Western Europe and North America, 1956-1976 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
Lotringer, Sylvère, and Christian Marazzi, ‘Italy: Autonomia’, Semiotext(e) 3.3 (1980).
Lumley, Robert, States of Emergency: Cultures of Revolt in Italy from 1968 to 1978 (London: Verso, 1990).
Wright, Steve, Storming Heaven: Class Composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (London: Pluto, 2002).
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