We Want Everything

Torched police van. Rome, October 2011.

Torched police van. Rome, October 2011.

Nanni Balestrini’s 1971 novel Vogliamo tuttoWe Want Everything – has waited four and a half decades for an English-language translation from the Italian.  The novel, the most successful of Balestrini’s novels, recounts the radicalization of an anonymous young worker from southern Italy and the Fiat strike of the 1969, ‘hot autumn.’ 

Vogliamo tutto was well-recognized in Italy but never made a wider impact.  There were translation editions in Spanish (1971), German (1972), and Danish (1974).   There matters rested for forty years until in 2014 a hole-in the-wall Australian independent press, Telephone Publishing, issued an English translation by Matt Holden.  Verso picked up rights and published the first US-UK edition last year, and Holden’s work recently won him the major Italian translation award in the United States. 

Balestrini, one of the best-known Italian experimental poets and novelists from the mid-twentieth century to present, responsible for organizing the influential Gruppo 63 during the 1960s, continues to enjoy public attention in Italy.  That is little surprise.  What is of interest is that after being largely ignored in the English-speaking world for what approaches a half-century, a major English-language publisher has paid attention to Balestrini.      

At least part of the explanation lies in Balestrini’s association with the history of Italian left anarchism and autonomism, together with figures such as Umberto Eco and Antonio Negri.  Probably the larger degree of explanation, however, lies in autonomism’s ultimate influence on the women’s, Occupy, and ANTIFA movements and their use of horizontal, egalitarian organization.  Vogliamo tutto is as much a call to action as a novel.  It advocates for mass action organized only by unmediated popular voice.  The novel embodies demands for the overthrow of all but voluntary social structures, an end to capitalism and the state, and an end to work itself.     

The protagonist is an unnamed narrator from Salerno, one who Balestrini identifies as a real worker named Alfredo and who represents a collective voice.  He is the sort who gives nightmares to personnel departments, who hates work, who is looking for a pay-out and the nearest exit.  He takes one industrial job after the next, quitting or getting fired from each.  Unions are no friends or defenders, just accomplices of capital and the state. He has no skills, no trade, and no plans on acquiring any.  He far prefers loafing with friends at a café or spending time on the beach. 

Work is the novel’s demonic anti-hero.  It consumes lives and gives no reward beyond a few material goods from which capitalism profits, not the worker.  A factory floor is no more than a prison yard.  Work is an anathema to a well-lived life.  It interferes with human creativity and relies on the suppression of workers’ intelligence.  The narrator’s one attempt at higher education, an application to art school, meets rejection: he may have drawing talent, but he’s from the wrong social class. 

In its denunciation of work as antagonistic to life itself, as a beast devouring human bodies and souls, the novel is an expression of the autonomist tradition that began by challenging the social value of work itself.  Operaismo of the 1960s did not simply seek an overthrow of capitalist means of production, but equally rejected the Stalinist left’s heroic valuation of labor as another form of alienation.  This is a tradition that remains easily visible among contemporary advocates of the autonomist tradition, such as can be found in Franco Berardi’s The Soul at Work (2009).        

In the work-obsessed United States, leftism generally focuses on worker pay and labor conditions, with little emphasis on worker control of the means of production.  There is another US stream of autonomist-influenced anti-capitalist thought that argues alienation of labor cannot be resolved if we fail to challenge the supposed need to work, that the conditions of production must become the conditions of human happiness.  As one example, the Bad Subjects manifesto, published in 1993, argued that freedom entailed freedom from the degradations of work and capitalist hierarchies. 

A few years later in Bad Subjects, Steven Rubio wrote an explication: “No work will be freely chosen, because no work will be done. You will fuck off forever, you will make no sacrifices to the work ethic, you will fuck off in as many different ways as there are molecules in the universe. Fuck work. Fuck off!”  US society has travelled in the opposite direction, though, with the proliferation of temporary, contingent, low-paid service jobs and growth in exploitative employment devoid of social protections.  Why have we marching towards worse, not better labor conditions?   

Balestrini tries to answer that question with an afterword that updates the novel’s politics.  The mass of under-educated peasants who flooded from the south to northern Italy during the postwar period, searching for industrial jobs, have their present-day analogue in global labor migrations.  Migrants who hate hard, dirty, or boring work done for the profit of others now populate labor forces worldwide. 

Dislocation, alienation, impoverishment, and absent labor protections characterize this new labor regime.  Balestrini argues that a voracious, ever-accelerating cycle of production and consumption support intensified exploitation in the service of capital accumulation, but – far too hopefully, in my opinion – suggests that over-production and an impending collapse in consumption due to widening impoverishment will drive the cycle into self-extinction.       

It is in keeping with the novel’s character that it ends with political discussion.  One reason this book did not travel well is that after nearly 100 pages, at the beginning of its second section, it stops being a story-telling novel and becomes a political tract, journal, documentary, and rhetorical monologue.  The latter parts of the book indulge in lengthy recitations of daily plant strike reports, enough to glaze eyes.  As political education this resembles didactic set-pieces of some nineteenth-century American polemical novels that have not aged well either.

Yet Balestrini’s narrative technique differs importantly in that he employs a collective persona, one that relates events during the strikes that broke out across the Fiat plants of Turin and elsewhere.  The off-to-revolt final chapter is far better than Upton Sinclair’s abrupt, inept closure in The Jungle and reminiscent to a degree of Malraux’s scenes of revolutionary Shanghai in La condition humaine.  Balestrini does not endow his narrator with an awakened consciousness and moral heroism.  Rather, the closing lines of the story are in the plural ‘we.’  The narrator began as an atomized, alienated individual.  Now he is part of a fighting, resisting mass and the story can end because it will begin again. 

Photograph courtesy of Eleonora Marino. Published under a Creative Commons license.