I’m cleaning my apartment a bit, throwing out old papers and keeping others, sorting books into stacks and so on, in preparation for another (goddamn) move to a new apartment. In the process I ran across this paper by Rodrigo Nunes. He doesn’t differentiate the stuff from the 60s and 70s from the stuff in the 90s and 00s as much as I’d like, but the paper is useful for identifying continuity across that divide. He writes that with regard to

Operaismo, three elements stand out. The first is the famous Copernican turn that inverts the dialectical relationship between capital and labour by posing the second as the active element to which the first finds itself obliged to react.

This inversion necessitates the second concept, that of cycle of struggles: instead of a linear accumulation towards an inevitable triad of crisis, fall of the rate of profit and defeat of capitalism, the struggle between labour and capital is always being pushed to a next level by periods of intensification of the former’s counterpower, which force the latter into restructuring measures aimed at dispelling the antagonist’s strength.

Finally, the concept of class composition is both part of this narrative and broader. Its basic idea is that to the objective, material determinants of the capitalist organisation of labour at any given moment (technical composition) there correspond certain openings, behavioural patterns, a certain subjectivity among workers from which the forms of political organisation and action that correspond to this moment can be read, at least in embryonic form. It is hence part of the Operaista narrative, in the sense that a given technical composition implies a certain political composition which leads to a new cycle of struggles, and thence to capital’s reaction – which in turn will lead to a new technical composition of the class, starting the cycle all over again. (180-181.)

I was talking with a friend the other day about some of our comrades’ approaches to direct action (only partly related but see here for an article on that idea). I was saying how I don’t actually buy the slogan “direct action gets the goods” as a universal in all situations, where “the goods” means use values rather than transformative experiences (false dichotomy, strictly speaking, but bear with me). My friend said something “well, I think it’s true if a practice generalized throughout the class.” Fair point.

I mention this because I think that at most this is how the so-called copernican turn of operaismo should be understood. Only in very general terms does the working class determine capital’s progress, if at all. What’s more, the experience of work and of organization is not at or of the class level but at or of much more narrow scope. That is, the level of generality of the claim does not speak to the experiential quality of working and fighting against work and it is not useful for (is not addressed toward) organization except as inspirational rhetoric. And really, I think the claim is false at least some of the time.

The idea of cycles of struggles is useful as is the idea of class composition, though as framed here (I think Nunes represents clearly and accurately what I understand to be points within operaismo) the concepts are problematic in various ways, particularly the relationship between political and technical composition. Again, this work seems to me to fail to speak to the tasks of organization. Ironic, given the important of Lenin to all these cats.