The American Worker and the Forze Nuove: Turin and Detroit at the Twilight of Fordism

In a 1982 paper pre­sented at MIT, Ital­ian urban­ist Paolo Cec­ca­relli char­ac­ter­ized Detroit and Turin as “città frag­ili” – frag­ile cities. His assess­ment con­trasted starkly with the way the two “motor cities” had been rep­re­sented for most of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, but it res­onated with his con­tem­po­rary audi­ence. While they were once seen, at the pin­na­cle of their indus­trial devel­op­ment, as the bench­mark for the mod­ern city, Cec­ca­relli argued that Detroit and Turin, were actu­ally exam­ples of how such cities should not be built. In both places, Fordism had sparked rapid and tumul­tous demo­graphic change, first through mass immi­gra­tion, then through emi­gra­tion. This upheaval had not been matched by ade­quate urban plan­ning and gov­er­nance. The ini­tial inor­di­nate growth had gen­er­ated soci­eties divided along fault lines of race, eth­nic­ity, and class. Indus­trial expan­sion had brought a num­ber of social ills, but decen­tral­iza­tion, a har­bin­ger of dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, made things worse, leav­ing in its wake a des­o­lated urban land­scape of aban­doned plant com­plexes and dilap­i­dated neigh­bor­hoods (in Detroit), or pau­per­ized and mar­ginal periph­eries and slums (in Turin).1

FIAT Lin­gotto fac­tory, Turin.

In depict­ing the his­tory of Detroit and Turin as a cau­tion­ary tale of mod­ern­iza­tion gone awry, Cec­ca­relli neglected to note that Fordism had brought not only an urban cat­a­clysm, but also the oppor­tu­nity for a far-reach­ing work­ing-class recom­po­si­tion within the indus­trial plants, the rise and fall of social move­ments, and the cre­ation of a cor­pus of social the­ory and mil­i­tant prac­tice related to both. All these top­ics would ben­e­fit from the kind of com­par­a­tive per­spec­tive that Cec­ca­relli applied to urban plan­ning. After all, it had been Merid­ion­ali, south­ern Ital­ians, in Turin, and African-Amer­i­cans in Detroit (two groups heav­ily rep­re­sented in the auto­mo­bile fac­to­ries of these cities in the 1960s), who had exposed how ‘frag­ile’ the motor cities were.

A num­ber of transna­tional threads con­nected the two cities dur­ing the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, in par­tic­u­lar in the 1950s and 1960s, two decades cru­cial for the des­tiny of these cities and for the par­a­digm of pro­duc­tion and social orga­ni­za­tion on which they thrived, Fordism. Dur­ing the 1950s and early 1960s, polit­i­cal mil­i­tants out­side the tra­di­tional left devel­oped a cri­tique of the prac­tice and ide­ol­ogy of trade unions and Soviet-inspired com­mu­nist par­ties, and gen­er­ated a new, empir­i­cal way of doc­u­ment­ing and research­ing the work­ing-class that pop­u­lated Turin and Detroit. Ini­tially inde­pen­dent from each other, these mil­i­tants would even­tu­ally sit­u­ate their work within transna­tional con­nec­tions. In the Amer­i­can Motor City, dis­si­dent Marx­ists C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya exposed Soviet com­mu­nism as “state cap­i­tal­ism” – a sys­tem which, like its mar­ket-dri­ven coun­ter­part, rested on the exploita­tion of work­ers – and at the same time issued a scathing attack on Amer­i­can labor unions. By the early 1950s they had gath­ered in Detroit a small but vocal group of activists and intel­lec­tu­als, under the name of Cor­re­spon­dence; this described both a pub­li­ca­tion and its sup­port­ing activist group, focused on polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion in the fac­to­ries. Correspondence’s vision of class strug­gle with the auto­mo­bile fac­to­ries of Detroit was grounded in the idea of work­ers’ self-orga­ni­za­tion out­side the exist­ing labor move­ment. The 1947 pam­phlet The Amer­i­can Worker by Paul Romano (a pseu­do­nym for Phil Singer, a Gen­eral Motors autoworker) and Ria Stone (an alias for Grace Lee, one of the lead­ing mem­bers of Cor­re­spon­dence) was one of the group’s most influ­en­tial early pub­li­ca­tions. Even though the pam­phlet was penned by these two authors, it was born out of the col­lec­tive dis­cus­sion of the group. Writ­ten just after Amer­i­can trade unions had cur­tailed a period of intense strike activ­ity, The Amer­i­can Worker denounced the adverse effect of union bureau­cracy on the every­day life of work­ers, and on the prospect of work­ing-class strug­gle. It decried the union’s fail­ure to address the issues that mat­tered most to work­ers, such as the speed-up. Romano also touched upon two prin­ci­ples that would become fun­da­men­tal to the new transna­tional approach: the exis­tence of a latent and spon­ta­neous work­ers’ resis­tance to the reg­i­mented life of the fac­tory, irre­spec­tive of any actual union orga­ni­za­tion; and their instinc­tive abil­ity to orga­nize their work in a more humane, but equally effec­tive way: “Many work­ers become angry because of the fact that sug­ges­tions which they put in are ignored. These sug­ges­tions would add to effi­ciency and also increase pro­duc­tion as well as save money. There is a gen­eral ten­dency in all strata of the work­ing class to work in as effi­cient a man­ner as pos­si­ble.” How­ever, the pam­phlet argued, the exploita­tion work­ers were sub­jected to forced them to oppose the man­agers’ efforts, resort­ing in their pent-up frus­tra­tion to jus­ti­fied acts of sab­o­tage and van­dal­ism.2The Amer­i­can Worker’s nov­elty con­sisted in pre­sent­ing, in a worker’s own words, a real­is­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of fac­tory work and its reper­cus­sions on the psy­che and polit­i­cal out­look of the worker.  The indus­trial worker’s auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal account became a minor genre dur­ing the 1950s and 1960s, as Cor­re­spon­dence and other groups tried to inquire into the con­di­tion of work­ers on the basis of their actual expe­ri­ence in the fac­tory – rather than on the basis of a dog­matic truth bequeathed by Marx­ist the­ory. The Amer­i­can Worker was seri­al­ized by the homony­mous pub­li­ca­tion of the French group Social­isme ou Bar­barie and found an echo in another influ­en­tial biog­ra­phy, Jour­nal d’un ouvrier by Daniel Mothé, a worker at Renault’s auto­mo­bile plants. Coop­er­a­tion between mem­bers of Cor­re­spon­dence and Social­isme ou Bar­barie in Paris spanned through­out the 1950s, result­ing in the book Fac­ing Real­ity (1958), co-authored by C.L.R. James, Grace Lee Boggs, and Pierre Chaulieu (the cover name for Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, one of the lead­ing mem­bers of Social­isme ou Bar­barie).3  This book built on the com­mon per­spec­tive shared by the groups in Detroit and Paris and char­ac­ter­ized trade unions as the “body­guards of cap­i­tal,’.” Their repres­sive action man­i­fested itself into two ele­ments: the stew­ard sys­tem and the griev­ance pro­ce­dure. Both had orig­i­nally been devised to pro­tect the union and the worker from the whims of man­age­ment, but now they acted as a strait­jacket, restrict­ing work­ers’ capac­ity to orga­nize pro­duc­tion on the shop floor. The stew­ard secured work­ers’ com­pli­ance with the union con­tract, rather than rep­re­sent­ing work­ers in man­age­ment. The griev­ance pro­ce­dure defused con­flict with man­age­ment through an “‘elab­o­rate”’ process that removed con­flict from work­ers’ hands and trans­ferred it to the labor bureau­cracy. Later, observers on the lib­eral Left would uphold the idea that the griev­ance pro­ce­dure was an inef­fec­tive way to solve work­ers’ com­plaints, but the main cri­tique made by James and the other went fur­ther: griev­ance pro­ce­dures gave man­age­ment the power to sched­ule and con­trol the pro­duc­tion flow and the orga­ni­za­tion of work. This crit­i­cism was not totally wholly fair, since the union’s encroach­ment on the shop floor did after all check to some degree the arbi­trary power of man­age­ment, but it also touched a nerve: the UAW had in fact suc­cumbed to the auto man­u­fac­tur­ers’ wish to con­trol and orga­nize the point of pro­duc­tion as they saw fit, even though indi­vid­ual work­ers were now less vul­ner­a­ble to retal­ia­tory lay offs and wage cuts. Fac­ing Real­ity argued that this sys­tem sup­pressed work­ers’ desire for self-orga­ni­za­tion, which, while not a con­scious pro­gram, but sim­ply some­thing “inher­ent in all their actions and in the dis­cus­sions they hold among them­selves.”’4

In early 1950s Italy, this analy­sis appealed to those left­wing activists who ques­tioned whether the dog­matic Marx­ist nar­ra­tive pro­pounded by the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party really applied to the actual con­di­tions of the Ital­ian work­ing class. By the mid­dle of the decade, the ideas of the John­son-Forest Ten­dency began to fil­ter through to dis­si­dent Marx­ist cir­cles through the trans­la­tion of Romano’s and Mothé’s work by Danilo Mon­taldi. Mon­taldi was an essay­ist and soci­ol­o­gist who had left the PCI after the war, remain­ing crit­i­cal of the Old Left through­out his life. In his pref­ace to the trans­la­tion of The Amer­i­can Worker, Mon­taldi cel­e­brated the text as a sign that, con­trary to pre­vail­ing assump­tions, the Amer­i­can work­ing-class remained class con­scious and had not fal­len for the ide­o­log­i­cal blan­d­ish­ments of cap­i­tal­ism. Mon­taldi described Cor­re­spon­dence as the Amer­i­can “rev­o­lu­tion­ary van­guard”, a group that under­stood that “the worker is first of all some­one who lives at the point of pro­duc­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist fac­tory before being the mem­ber of a party, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant, or the sub­ject of com­ing social­ist power. It is the pro­duc­tive process that shapes his rejec­tion of exploita­tion and his capac­ity to build a supe­rior type of soci­ety, […] and his class sol­i­dar­ity.” The devel­op­ment of this fun­da­men­tal idea, wrote Mon­taldi, was Correspondence’s cru­cial con­tri­bu­tion to the con­tem­po­rary rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment.5

One of Montaldi’s col­lab­o­ra­tors, Romano Alquati, was greatly inspired by both The Amer­i­can Worker and Mothè’s Jour­nal. They both trav­elled to Paris to meet the mem­bers of Social­isme ou Bar­barie, and Alquati orga­nized round­table pre­sen­ta­tions of the Jour­nal in Turin.6 Alquati was in the process of devel­op­ing his own brand of work­ers’ inquiry, close in many ways to that of Cor­re­spon­dence, in which the expe­ri­ence of work­ers con­sti­tuted the basis for the­ory, rather than vice versa.

In 1961, Alquati pio­neered this new kind of work­ers’ research at FIAT.7 Two themes ran through Alquati’s report, later pub­lished in Quaderni Rossi: first, the pre-emi­nence of a new work­ing class at FIAT, dis­il­lu­sioned with the com­pany, but also indif­fer­ent to left-wing unions and par­ties. Alquati con­tro­ver­sially argued that even a large com­pany such as FIAT failed to “inte­grate” work­ers into cap­i­tal­ism and to neu­tralise their rebel­lious­ness: what­ever faith these youth had before enter­ing the fac­tory in the desir­abil­ity of indus­trial work, this was quickly shed after only a few months’ work at the point of pro­duc­tion. Rel­a­tively high wages (for some) and the con­sumerism they enabled did not lessen the effects of alien­ation. Any resur­gence of class strug­gle within the firm would be based upon these forze nuove, as Alquati called them, which included south­ern Ital­ian migrants. Even though the “new forces” lacked class con­scious­ness in a tra­di­tional sense, they spon­ta­neously under­stood the need for “self-deter­mi­na­tion,” that is, self-orga­ni­za­tion within the fac­tory.8

Sec­ond, Alquati empha­sized the inabil­ity of the tra­di­tional left to iden­tify and make use of these new trends. The report accused the union and PCI lead­er­ship of focus­ing on loftier polit­i­cal goals, such as legal reform, which did not directly affect fac­tory con­di­tions. The pol­i­tics of the tra­di­tional Left did not mea­sure up to the pol­i­tics of the new work­ing class. Or, con­versely, the new work­ers did not per­ceive their action to be “polit­i­cal” because they asso­ci­ated pol­i­tics with par­ti­san pol­i­tics in Rome. The solu­tion lay in a new “orga­ni­za­tional praxis” through which the new work­ers would be led to ana­lyze their sit­u­a­tion.9 The wave of work­ers’ strug­gles in the Turi­nese fac­to­ries in 1962, lead­ing to the so called “riot of Piazza Statuto” and the events from 1969 onwards, vin­di­cated Alquati’s insight that the work­ing class orga­nized itself in ways that tran­scended the trade union lead­er­ship.10

By the early 1960s, in both Turin and Detroit, polit­i­cal mil­i­tants and rad­i­cal social the­o­rists ana­lyzed a dras­ti­cally recom­posed work­ing-class, whose sig­nif­i­cance escaped the dom­i­nant orga­ni­za­tions of the labor move­ment. This recom­po­si­tion accounts for the strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties, as well as impor­tant dif­fer­ences, in the way indus­trial rela­tions broke down in the auto­mo­bile fac­to­ries, and social protest flared up in Detroit and Turin after 1968. In both cases, a mas­sive wave of migra­tion had fun­da­men­tally changed the demo­graph­ics of the two cities. Ten­sions over com­pe­ti­tion for hous­ing and resources between new­com­ers and natives were com­pounded by eth­nic (and in Detroit, racial) prej­u­dices. Racial dis­crim­i­na­tion took a heav­ier toll on African-Amer­i­cans, since they were vic­tims of a racially seg­mented labor and hous­ing mar­ket, police bru­tal­ity, and none-too-sub­tle forms of social seg­re­ga­tion. In Turin, Ital­ian south­ern migrants like­wise encoun­tered hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion and were con­cen­trated in run-down sec­tions of the city cen­ter, or in build­ing projects in degraded sub­urbs poorly con­nected to the rest of the met­ro­pol­i­tan area. Even though their prob­lems were not exac­er­bated by “race,” south­ern migrants were at the mercy of a dual labor mar­ket, typ­i­cal of Fordism, that allot­ted high-paid steady jobs to natives, and pre­car­i­ous low-wage occu­pa­tions to new­com­ers. Because Turin and Detroit were indus­trial cities, the expe­ri­ence and the stand­ing of south­ern migrants and blacks within the fac­to­ries played a con­sid­er­able role in their over­all posi­tions in the com­mu­nity, in terms of income, polit­i­cal influ­ence, and sym­bolic sta­tus.  The par­al­lel tra­jec­to­ries of the two cities were deter­mined by the struc­tural con­fig­u­ra­tion and urban con­cen­tra­tion of the Fordist indus­try par excel­lence: the auto­mo­bile indus­try.

League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Black Work­ers.

Work­ing-class unrest in Turin and Detroit shared an impor­tant fea­ture: the activism of social groups occu­py­ing a mar­ginal posi­tion in the polit­i­cal econ­omy of the city. In both cases, the dis­tinct cul­tural back­ground of the “new work­ers” shaped the tac­tics, polit­i­cal lan­guage, and goals of the move­ment. They sub­verted the tra­di­tional class nar­ra­tive of insub­or­di­na­tion against cap­i­tal by ele­vat­ing cul­tural, regional, or racial “dif­fer­ence” to polit­i­cal impor­tance. Amer­i­cans had long asso­ci­ated Euro­pean immi­gra­tion with rad­i­cal­ism, but this argu­ment was not usu­ally applied to inter­nal migra­tion, the kind that brought tens of thou­sands of south­ern blacks to Detroit in the 1940s, 1950s, and also, to a lesser extent, in the 1960s.11 Sim­i­larly, in Italy, after the war few would have imag­ined that south­ern­ers were des­tined to become a major force of polit­i­cal change. On the con­trary, indus­tri­al­ists and union­ists, con­ser­v­a­tives and Com­mu­nists, all expected south­ern migrants to sap work­ing-class con­scious­ness.

My book Chal­leng­ing Global Cap­i­tal­ism puts for­ward the argu­ment that in the case of both Detroit and Turin, the expe­ri­ence of mar­gin­al­iza­tion was a key stim­u­lus to action, even when pro­test­ers inter­preted their resis­tance in terms of inter­est cat­e­gories such as race, class, or eth­nic­ity.12 This char­ac­ter­is­tic had been cap­tured by the dis­sent activists that oper­ated in both cities dur­ing the 1950s and 1960s, but caught the tra­di­tional labor move­ment by sur­prise.

The analy­sis of this period of intense social mobi­liza­tion, which takes into account par­al­lel devel­op­ments in dif­fer­ent local set­tings – an analy­sis, that is, which pur­sues sim­i­lar­i­ties and con­nec­tions beyond national bor­ders – high­lights three sig­nif­i­cant themes that enhance our under­stand­ing of this phe­nom­e­non. The first is the direct con­se­quence of the mar­gin­al­iza­tion processes described above. In Detroit and Turin, “mar­ginal” work­ers; that is African-Amer­i­cans and Merid­ion­ali, who, for a num­ber of rea­sons, had ben­e­fited least from the exist­ing sys­tem of indus­trial rela­tions, and whose path to social inte­gra­tion had been steep and strewn with obsta­cles, were promi­nent in the work­ers’ unrest. In a sense, this is hardly unex­pected for the his­to­rian, yet it did take many rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Left by sur­prise. These work­ers were bring­ing into the strug­gle motives, tac­tics, and polit­i­cal iden­ti­ties that clashed with the tra­di­tional approach of orga­nized labor – their emer­gence as a class sub­ject changed the work­ing class forever.

The sec­ond theme that res­onates on both sides of the Atlantic was the chal­lenge that work­ers’ mil­i­tancy posed to exist­ing indus­trial rela­tions, in par­tic­u­lar to the link between wages and pro­duc­tiv­ity – a cen­tral pil­lar of Fordism. This had been the result of hard bar­gain­ing and col­lec­tive action, in the Amer­i­can case, and the out­come of FIAT’s attempt to defuse mass union­iza­tion by means of heavy-handed pater­nal­ism, in the Ital­ian case. Work­ers dis­rupted this nexus by turn­ing the shop floor into the key site of indus­trial con­flict. In the auto­mo­bile plants of the late 1960s, work­ers not only took time off work by strik­ing, but blocked pro­duc­tion in a vari­ety of ways with­out renounc­ing their wages. Because Fordist indus­try relied on a highly inte­grated process, these actions dis­rupted not only the depart­ment directly impli­cated, but also all the other depart­ments and plants con­nected to it. The demands that accom­pa­nied these tac­tics were equally dis­rup­tive of the old order, as they rarely focused solely on wage increases, but also tended to involve changes in the orga­ni­za­tion of work, or the bal­ance of author­ity at the point of pro­duc­tion, and safety issues raised by the pro­duc­tion process. In both Detroit and Turin, when the work­force mobi­lized, deci­sion-mak­ing shifted away from union and cor­po­rate board­rooms onto the shop floor.

Finally, the third theme implicit in both cases stud­ied here, and no doubt in many oth­ers, is the link between work­ers’ strug­gles and a wider process of social mobi­liza­tion which had “anti­sys­temic” objec­tives (a term used by Arrighi, Waller­stein, and Hop­kins in the con­text of 1968).13 Work­ers hardly needed to be con­vinced by stu­dents of the desir­abil­ity of resist­ing the exhaust­ing demands of the assem­bly line, but the coali­tion with New Left activists mag­ni­fied the effect of the revolt on the shop floor. This period saw the estab­lish­ment of var­i­ous forms of col­lab­o­ra­tion between stu­dents and indus­trial work­ers. Some­times it was spon­ta­neous or unstruc­tured, but more often it occurred within the rad­i­cal groups that agi­tated against cap­i­tal­ism, dis­crim­i­na­tion, and oppres­sion, both inside and out­side the fac­tory. Men­tion might here be made of groups such as the League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Black Work­ers, Lotta Con­tinua, and Potere Operaio. Work­ers and stu­dents (at any rate those on the Left), shared a youth cul­ture that extolled anti-author­i­tar­i­an­ism, forms of par­tic­i­pa­tory democ­racy – such as gen­eral assem­blies where any­one could take the stage and speak – and dis­rup­tive tac­tics such as unan­nounced sit-ins or occu­pa­tions. These actions often riled labor activists from the Old Left.

Rad­i­cals on both sides of the Atlantic found solace in the idea that a trans­for­ma­tion of the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion else­where could abet change in their own region. They engaged in dia­logue – some­times in writ­ing, at other times in per­son – in order to share tac­tics of rebel­lion, to elicit sup­port for their par­tic­u­lar groups, or to refine their analy­sis of the work­ings of cap­i­tal­ism. They saw in the autonomously orga­nized work­ing class the engine of rad­i­cal social trans­for­ma­tion. Simul­ta­ne­ous upheaval in Detroit and Turin, and else­where, seemed to sug­gest that at the turn of the 1970s the world was on the point of being fun­da­men­tally trans­formed by social move­ments. Fordism was at the twi­light of its exis­tence, crum­bling under the pres­sure of self-orga­nized protest and with­drawal from work. It was a fun­da­men­tal insight of the social the­ory devel­oped in this period that the protest devel­oped in the fac­to­ries by this new work­ing class ush­ered in an utterly new era of cap­i­tal­ism in the West which could no longer be called Fordist.

  1. Paolo Cec­ca­relli, “Due città frag­ili: Detroit e Torino. Ovvero, come non si dovrebbe costru­ire la città mod­erna” in Il Mulino, 1 (1983). 

  2. Ibid, 15. 

  3. Marcel van der Lin­den, “Social­ism ou Bar­barie: A French Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Group (1949-1965),” Left His­tory, 5:1 (1997). 

  4. CLR James, Grace Lee, and Pierre Chaulieu, Fac­ing Real­ity (1958; Detroit: Bewick Edi­tions, 1974), 21, 27. 

  5. Pref­ace to L’operaio amer­i­cano in Danilo Mon­taldi, Bisogna sognare. Scritti 1952-1975 (Milano: Col­i­brì, 1994), 501. 

  6. Romano Alquati, inter­view in Guido Borio, Francesca Pozzi, Gigi Rog­gero, Futuro Ante­ri­ore. Dai ‘Quaderni Rossi’ ai movi­mento glob­ali: ric­chezze e lim­iti dell’operaiosmo ital­iano (Roma: DeriveAp­prodi, 2002), attached CD-ROM. 

  7. “Relazione sulle ‘forze nuove. Con­vegno del PSI sulla FIAT, gen­naio 1961” and “Doc­u­menti sulla lotta di classe alla FIAT” in Romano Alquati, Sulla Fiat e altri scritti, (Milano, 1975), 314-341. 

  8. Alquati, “Relazione sulle “Forze nuove,” 35. 

  9. “Doc­u­menti sulla lotta di classe alla FIAT,” 63. 

  10. See Dario Lan­zardo, La riv­olta di Piazza Statuto (Milano: Fel­trinelli, 1980); Sante Notar­ni­cola, L’evasione impos­si­bile (Milano: Fel­trinelli, 1978), 79-82. 

  11. For the immi­grants-rad­i­cals asso­ci­a­tion see John Higham, Strangers in the Land (New Brunswick, N. J., Rut­gers Uni­ver­sity Press, 1955); see also C. Guerin-Gon­za­les and C. Strik­w­erda eds., The Pol­i­tics of Immi­grant Work­ers. Labor Activism and Migra­tion in the World Econ­omy Since 1830 (New York, Lon­don: Holmes & Meier, 1993). 

  12. Nicola Piz­zo­lato, Chal­leng­ing Global Cap­i­tal­ism: Labor Migra­tion, Rad­i­cal Strug­gle and Urban Change in Detroit and Turin (New York: Pal­grave, 2013). 

  13. Gio­vanni Arrighi, Ter­ence Hop­kins, Immanuel Waller­stein, Anti­sys­temic Move­ments, (Lon­don: Verso, 1989).