Teacherliness and Jadavpur University: Pathos and Invidiousness

Prasanta Chakravarty

The hallowed idea of teacherliness is a singular form of patronising drivel. It is only possible to impart a special nobility to tutelage once an institution of education is separated from our experiences of the world at large — which is textured with greyness. Teacherliness will, therefore, lead to infantilising the group of human beings whom we pigeonhole as students — loyal, genteel and, at the most argumentative, in the best traditions of participation. In a different imaginary, teachers might consider themselves to be helping facilitate alternative community bonds that might seem to act as buffer to our everydayness. This, though sometimes a response to our alienated existence, is finally an ethical form of romanticism that hopes to keep the conflictual outside of this community’s ambit. It is another form of tuning in to higher frequencies. Unfortunately, conflicts are not going to vanish, even within institutions and imaginary communities. Visualising student-teacher relationships in and through such equations only discourages either group of the collective from growing up and facing the big bad world with its full panoply of crassness and craftiness as well as its manifold joys and relational solidarities. Holding mere private discourse or opting out of the struggles and travails of existence are not options.

The very idea that an educational institution is a secluded buffer — that it can and ought to be guarded against outside impurities and influences — is a venerable Kantian invention, one that sharply divides enlightened scholars from the hoi polloi. This move is exactly and predictably what we are witnessing from some votaries of teacherliness in responding to the predicament that Jadavpur University finds itself at this point. That JU is a gated community. Or ought to remain such — although we do, of course, outwardly acknowledge the immense outside support in its time of crisis. It is ironical that the protesters in the movement, in spite of the many hardships that they continue to face, are resisting such a distinction between the insider and the outsider (bohiragoto). The bahir (outside) is imbricated within the bhitor (inside) — whether we wish to see it or not. The outside has now spread all around the globe and Jadavpur cannot claim a naive, sacramental and sanitised inside for its inhabitants. The whole political nature of this debate is about conflating the two and taking it to its logical conclusion. Any attempt to segregate the inside from the outside will be a travesty of the things that are at stake for Bengal. The movement can potentially have a far larger fallout. Any attempt to narrow it down to a matter of JU’s internal collegiality — wonderful as it might seem — is going to unsettle and derail those possibilities.

The very notion of a safe haven is a chimera. To invoke goodness and humane qualities in any institute is risible, an unfortunate form of pathos by which the academe is often bound to justify its existence, a delusional and infantile mode of denial of the rough and tumble of our daily existence. Goodness and greatness foment a vision of normalcy that is simply non-existent. It divests us of the same greyness that I referred to — of the university space — that in actuality universities are places of educational exchange and occasional camaraderie as well as spaces of intense manoeuvre, gaming and subtle hierarchies. Just like in any other walk of life. If activists are manipulative, so also are the detached scholars, often in a much more invidious and nuanced fashion. Here is a chance to be self reflexive about a truly political moment. Let us not demean this moment.

The anti-Left Front and anti- TMCP nature of the protest demonstrates not its apolitical nature but its self-organising potentiality to resist its segmenting and straitjacketing within a politics of delegation, representation and etatisation. Such attempts render the movement the very opposite of the politics it posits in its objectivity, by projecting it as one seeking to restore normalcy and order. And reinstating a culture of moral guardianship in the process. Their best bet in this respect is to begin by segmenting the space-time of the university from the outside. In other words: to divide the intellectual from the manual. This is thoroughly insidious. More so at a time when the BJP-led dispensation at the Centre has been trying to fish in troubled waters by seeking to capitalise on the anti-Left Front, anti-TMCP character of the movement through the good offices of governor Kesri Nath Tripathi, a dyed-in-the-wool RSS fanatic.

Dubious scholarly attempts to read, represent and co-opt the larger movement by invoking teacherly sentimentality must be countered steadfastly. Sharply. For that is how universities return to detached, mature and superficial normalcies. By paying homage to collegiality. By creating a bogey of divisiveness among the protesters. By trying to differentiate students from the protesters — as two divergent species of being! This is the time to step up the offensive on multiple flanks — directed at the mercenary goons, of course, but also at the ideological warfare the system is now beginning to wage via the seemingly freelance agencies of the ‘independent’ and ‘apolitical’ scholar-teacher – which is a patronising, rearguard, fifth columnist action by the university don — a pattern all too well-known.

Meeting on working class politics (August 30-31, 2014), New Delhi

In the last two meetings we focused on the question of labour process and its relation to forms of politics: in that context electronics and change in labour process connected to it have gotten much attention. Continuing with these threads we propose the following sessions for the meeting to be held on August 30-31, 2014.

Session 1: Labour Process Today

Instead of focusing on the change in the labour process we look at specific experiences (case studies) of work in various sectors. We propose that special attention be given to how worker-worker relations are structured in various sectors. Each experience is to be articulated in a fifteen minute segment with comments and discussions following. Instead of discussing sectors in isolation we look at analogies and linkages.

Session 2: Self activity and Politics

In the light of a new labour process and new labour relations what forms of self-activity emerge? Once again focus should be on specific cases and experiences and positions on questions of organization are to be grounded on these specific, current experiences. What is the meaning of self-activity and what are the specific forms that it takes in different work-spaces.

Session 3: Positions

This session calls on participants to present their position on questions discussed in the previous sessions in a more conceptual and, if needed, a less experiential register. Related issues may also be included on these presentations: eg. Questions of organization, spontaneity etc.

Session 4:

For this specific session we suggest that we discuss the relation between education and work. We ask participants to talk about their school/college/ITI/training experiences in relation to how these experiences prepared them for work: disciplining, segmentation, skills. How have they participated in making us into workers? What parallels, continuities can be seen between education work they did and the work they did later?

Proposed by: The University  Worker

The University Worker Issue 3

The University Worker Issue 2

On the threshold: Class Struggle in Delhi (A Film)

Meeting on Working Class Politics (April 19-20, 2014), New Delhi

Communism is the position as the negation of the negation, and is hence the actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation and rehabilitation. Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society. Karl Marx, Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts (1844)

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence. Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (1845)

The doctrinaire and necessarily fantastic anticipations of the programme of action for a revolution of the future only divert us from the struggle of the present. Karl Marx, To Domela Nieuwenhuis (1881)

The question of working class strategy has generally been reduced to issues of consciousness raising and particular organisational manoeuvrings to homogenise and hegemonise the self-activities of the working class. In fact, in programmatic terms, it is nothing more than competitive sets of reactive tactics that always claim to respond to the onslaught of capital. So even the question of class as a subjective force becomes irrelevant, leave aside its revolutionary character, rather it is just an arena for competition among various ‘working class’ organisations to present themselves as the most and even sole authentic class representatives negotiating with capital. Ultimately, the most astute negotiator should win. But then successful negotiators must be those who are most comfortable in dealing with capital.

But history confirms that every time such expert leadership has proclaimed their mastery over the working class, the class itself in class struggle has moved ahead and the question of lag between the ‘spontaneous’ consciousness of the working class and repositories of “revolutionary wisdom” is time and again raised. In fact, both leaders and capital tend to compete and collaborate in competition to harness and ‘productively’ channelise the energy and creativity of the working class, to teach it to behave coherently – for capital this means a process of successful subsumption and for self-proclaimed leaders a successful organising under their leadership.

However, it is in the solidarian relationship that develops among workers during the course of togetherness in their everyday confrontations with capital and its agencies that we find a self-consolidation of class energy and creativity happening. This is what is called a political recomposition of the working class. It happens through a refusal to submit itself to the mechanics of the technical composition – how capital (re)organises and imposes work to keep on appropriating surplus value, to subsume evermore labour by technological innovations. But it is important to remember, “[i]t would be possible to write quite a history of the inventions, made since 1830, for the sole purpose of supplying capital with weapons against the revolts of the working-class.” (Marx) Hence, it is the assertion of the autonomy of labour (political composition) and capital’s evermore intensified campaign to subsume it that constitute class struggle. It is the working class that acts to which capital reacts.

When in our January meeting we discussed the introduction of electronics and micro-electronics in the production process, it was mainly to understand how today the terrain of class struggle itself has been transformed. If we do not take these changes into account, any talk of workers’ politics and its revolutionary transformative character will be a useless doctrinaire discussion on class strategy. We recognise that technological change is not a linear process, to which other social variables and components must adjust. Technology itself is contradictory – it is a class struggle. Marx noted a long time back that capital innovates evermore “automatic system”. It is exactly this automatic system that has continued being central to the struggle between capital and labour. Today this system has acquired a global dimension – not constituted by individual “self-acting mules” aided by separated individuals or groups of individual workers but via networked machines and workers toiling in diverse spacetimes.

The technical recomposition of the working class around new inventions/technologies poses a crisis for existing political forms in the working class movement. These forms either become outmoded or co-opted, or have to transform themselves to contribute in the emergence of a new political composition to reassert the autonomy of labour.

We met thrice in Sevagram to discuss the evolving character of class conflicts and workers’ self-activisms, how they reflect upon various congealed organisational forms and their claims to class radicalism and politics. Our next meeting is in Delhi, April 19-20 (2014). We propose the following broadly defined agenda to continue our discussion:

1. Changes that have occurred with the incomparable leap in productive forces associated with electronics. What is a radical transformation today?

2. Changes in the composition of the working class in these forty years.

3. Appropriate forms of organisations and modes of activities from local to global levels.

For details, contact radicalnotes@radicalnotes.com

Meeting on Working Class Politics (January 18-19, 2014), Sevagram

Sevagram Gandhi Ashram,
Wardha (Maharashtra)

We are meeting again in Sevagram on 18-19 January 2014. Last time when we converged there in October 2013 we discussed the need to ground the organisational question and the notion of workers’ politics in the everydayness of class struggle – a struggle between workers’ self-activities (the assertion of the autonomy of labour) and their subsumption by capital. We discussed the practice of workers’ inquiry as a double edged revolutionary weapon that allows us, on the one hand, to “recognise and record” the politics in everyday class struggle and, on the other, to rescue the militancy of past experiences from forms that have become redundant or limited or have been subsumed/ co-opted by capital, while reconnecting it to the contemporary forms of self-activities of the working class.

The discussion went on to critique the vanguardist and statist tendencies within the working class movement that tend to essentialise and overgeneralise particular forms of experiences and reify the notions of state and state power, neglecting the problem of its reproduction in the conflictual realm of daily class struggle, the ground where workers directly challenge and subvert state and class power.

Our critique of organisational forms is not just a formal critique, but an attempt to deconstruct them within class struggle against capital and capitalism – recognising the fact that the working class adopts and discards forms according to the exigencies of class struggle, “the struggle of the present.” These forms, as far as they remain forms of working class organisation, must be (re)founded in the (re)composition of the working class itself. In 1881 reacting to a comrade’s suggestion to replicate the First International, Marx rebuked the idea saying, so far as such internationals or socialist congresses “are not related to the immediate given conditions” they “are not merely useless but harmful. They will always fade away in innumerable stale generalised banalities.” Therefore our task is always to understand militant possibilities – including organisational – with which “immediate given conditions” are impregnated.

In our forthcoming January meeting we propose to discuss the changing conditions of the “real movement” of the working class and “premises now in existence,” in order to comprehend programmatic possibilities that are being posed, in which we find the ground for our collective intervention. In order to pursue our task we propose following sessions for the meeting:

1. Regional/Group Reports
2. Introduction of electronics/micro-electronics and the recomposition of class
3. The continuation of our discussion on the organisational question and the role of communists
4. Networking among ourselves and beyond.

Workshop on Working Class Politics (Oct 20-21, 2013)

Sevagram Gandhi Ashram,
Wardha (Maharashtra)
20-21 October, 2013

In January 2013, a three-day workshop on the organisational question was held, in which various groups and individuals hailing from diverse radical tendencies had participated. In continuation, we are facilitating another interaction on 20-21 October with a more concrete task of grounding class politics and the organisational question in the specificities of working class composition and self-activities. It will deliberate among many other aspects of this task, upon how industrial and larger social changes are the effects of the dynamics of labour-capital conflict, how older forms of working class organizations as modes of workers self-activities are outmoded in this conflict and new forms emerge.

The recent industrial and social conflicts in India make these deliberations imperative for any radical realignment and networking among communist tendencies within the working class. Militants of these tendencies must engage themselves in, as CLR James and his comrades defined it in the 1950s-60s, the most important revolutionary task of our times – “Recognise and Record”. The recognition of politics and organisational forms in the everyday class struggle is what constitutes the agenda of “workers’ inquiry” and proletarian journalism. Militant investigations into the dynamic creativity of labour (which is subversive and constitutes crisis from the perspective of capital) and capital’s endeavour to channelise and subsume this creativity through technological changes and socio-industrial restructuring are major exercises before us. Only these hot inquiries provide the possibility of avoiding sectarian fossilisation – over-generalisation of local and past experiences, and reorganise ourselves as credible tendencies within the working class.

We propose to continue our discussions (1) on the organisational question and politics of the working class, with an additional focus (1a) on the import and politics of workers’ inquiry. There will be a discussion (2) on the recent upsurge in the Middle East and a working class perspective on it. Also, there will be a session (3) to discuss the possibility and importance of an all India-level (or world-level) workers’ journal/newspaper as a forum to network among the participants.

Participants:
Parivartan Ki Disha, Nagpur (09921336289, 09096089231)
Radical Notes, Delhi (09990327014)
Faridabad Majdoor Samachar, Faridabad (01296567014)
Gurgaon Workers News, Gurgaon
Mazdoor Mukti, Kolkata (09433882799)
Mouvement Comuniste , France
KPK, Collectively Against Capital, Czech & Slovakia
&
Some individuals without organisational affiliations.

Video: Saroj Giri interviews Harry E Vanden

Saroj Giri, a political scientist teaching at Delhi University, interviews Harry Vanden, an expert on Latin American Marxism and Movements, who recently edited and translated writings of Peruvian Communist leader and theoretician Jose Carlos Mariategui (originally published by Monthly Review Press and reissued by Cornerstone Publications in India). Harry was in India on a lecture tour – including to deliver the 5th Anuradha Ghandy Memorial Lecture.

Nanni Balestrini’s “FIAT” (1977)

I never bothered with politics before Fiat. Now I was seeing students handing out leaflets in front of the Fiat gate. And they wanted to talk with the workers. Which seemed kind of strange. I said to myself: What the hell, these guys with all the free time they have for balling and fooling around, they come and stand in front of the factory, which has got to be the most disgusting thing there is. I mean really the most absurd and disgusting thing there is. They come here in front of the factory, for what? I was kind of curious about this, but I finally just figured they were crazies, missionaries, thickheads. So I wasn’t interested in what they were saying.

This was in Spring. In April. I’d never been to any of the meetings the students used to have. Though I did go to the May Day celebration once. A workers’ holiday was something I couldn’t even conceive of. This has got to be some kind of joke, a holiday that celebrates work. The workers’ feast-day, the workers celebrating work. I couldn’t figure out what either meant – a workers’ holiday, or a holiday celebrating work. I could never figure why work had to be celebrated. Anyway, when I wasn’t at work I didn’t know what the fuck to do. Because I was a worker, I mean a man who spends most of the day inside a factory, and so the rest of the time all’s I could do was rest up for the next day. That holiday, though, just for the hell of it, I went to the May Day celebration to hear some assembly, some group or other I wasn’t familiar with.

And I saw all these people wearing red ties. Red flags. They were saying things I already knew about, more or less. It’s not that I’m a Martian or something. What I mean is, I knew what they were talking about even if I didn’t understand them. The boojwa was standing in front of all the spiffy bars around the piazza. The petty boojwa was there too – farmers, small businessmen, priests, people with their little bank-books, students, intellectuals, jobbers, clerks, and other kinds of kissasses. Listening to the union speeches. And there, in between the unions standing in the middle of the piazza and the boojwa in front of the bars all around the piazza, was that mob of workers, a different race. And there between the boojwa and the workers was that big fat display, the car, FIAT.

A holiday, in other words, a fair. I listened to the union leaders. Brothers! We mustn’t just say these things outside here today, we must say them – and do them – tomorrow inside the factories. And I thought, okay, this guy’s right. What good’s a holiday? You make a lot of noise only when they let you stand around holding your red flag in the piazza. We have to do this in the factory, too.

I went about my own business then, and saw another demonstration. People yelling MAO TSE TUNG HO CHI MINH. Who are these guys, I asked myself. More red flags, more protest signs. But all this was still new to me. I was still in the dark. A few weeks later I dropped in on a student meeting in a bar just outside Mirafiori. But by that time I’d already spent a few days stirring up trouble in the factory. I was in Fiat shop number 54, Body Division, on the Model 500 line. I’d been there a month, counting from the day after I passed my physical to get into Fiat.

There were two thousand of us at the physical exam, everybody got a number, and they asked us shit ass questions. Prepared questions, the same questions for everybody. But there were so many of us that those poor bastards asking the questions went pretty fast. They looked you in the face and shot a couple of questions at you. You answered something and they told you to move to the next room. So you went to the next room. In the next room was a guard holding a list, calling us twenty at a time then taking us to another room where they were giving the physicals.

The first exam was an eye check-up. Look here, close your eye, look up, read that – this kind of stuff. Then hearing, to find out if your ears worked. Raise your right leg, raise your left leg. They checked our teeth, nose, eyes, ears, throat. What with all these tests it got to be two o’clock. At two they told us we could go to eat. We had to go to this morning session on an empty stomach. Couldn’t eat anything, couldn’t drink anything. Because they wanted to do a blood analysis. Some managed to get the blood test over with by two o’clock. Others didn’t. The ones who had to come back in the afternoon for the blood test weren’t allowed to eat at two. They starved from the night before.

Outside you could smell the stench coming from where they were doing the blood tests. Inside were thousands of test tubes filled with blood, all over the place. Blood-soaked cotton swabs everywhere. On one side a pile of blood-red cotton three and a half feet high. It hurt when they took your blood because they weren’t watching where they stuck the needle. They just stuck it anywhere, pulled it out, then put the test tube to one side and threw the blood-soaked cotton to the other side on top of the pile.

From there we went to another room where the nurse handed us a glass. There were just two bathrooms where you could go inside and piss. We all formed a circle and started pissing in our glasses. We laughed, said we were making beer. We put the glass up on top and the nurse asked us our name, then wrote it down on a sheet of paper under the number of each person’s glass.

Next day, the general physical. You had to lift a weight. They had some machine with weights attached. To check how strong we were. They spent two hours on this test because there were two thousand of us, and they had to put all two thousand of us through it. Not everybody got to take it that day, so they had to come back the next day. Six, maybe seven hours, just for this test. After you passed it you had to wait your turn for the general hysical. You stripped naked.

You stood there naked in front of the witch doctor. He asked you questions, sitting there in his white smock. What your name was, how old you were, if you’d done military service, if you were engaged. Then he made you march. Go forward, come back, raise your arm, lower your arm, squat down, show me your hands, show me your feet, now the bottoms. Then he checked your balls, to make sure you had them. Say thirty-three, cough, breathe, and all this kind of crap. A whole day to take this exam, because it took a quarter-hour for each person, and there were two thousand of us.

Then the witch doctor said to me: Have you ever had an operation? It was damn obvious I’d never had an operation, since I didn’t have any scars, thank God. Yeah, I say, on my left ball. How did it happen? The guy was scared because he hadn’t noticed it before. I said to myself, now I’ll give this doctor a chance to show his stuff. It’s from playing soccer, I answered. I got kicked in the balls and they had to operate.

Really? Alright then, you’ll have to come for a check-up tomorrow. Another guy said he had broken his arm, so he had to come back the next day, too. What this did, I think, was screw it into the worker’s head that he had to be healthy, whole, etc. etc., whatever fucking good this does. Because the fact is they took all of us, even the ones who couldn’t hear, or who wore glasses, or were lame or had an arm in a cast. Everybody, I mean everybody, down to the last man. A paralytic’s maybe the only one they wouldn’t have taken.

We went for the check-up the next day. They sent me to a room with another witch doctor, though this one wasn’t even wearing a white smock. All he had was a nice blond secretary who waggled her ass back and forth across the room. She brought him my chart and he sat down on a stool. He had me pull down my pants and underwear, then he felt my balls. Where did you have the operation? On this one, here. Pull your pants up. I pulled them back up, he didn’t say anything to me. The nice nurse gave me a card saying I had to report to Fiat two days later.

Two days later all the guys who had passed the physical were there at Fiat. I mean all of them. Some guy from Personnel came over right away. Or maybe he was in public relations, or a psychologist, or a social assistant. Nobody knew who the fuck he was. So he comes over and says: Friends! Welcome to Fiat, both from me and from the management who’s hiring you. Wonderful, terrific. Everybody claps. The Personnel Office, he says, is available to Fiat employees who have children, social problems that need solving, and other such things. If you need money ask us. So a few guys from Naples say: Yeah, I could use about ten thousand lire. No, not like this, not now, you have to ask for the loan when you’re working. If you have real needs. For now you’ll have to take care of such things on your own. Then when you’re working you can ask for a loan.

Then they bumped us downstairs from the offices into Fiat, into the factory itself. Some other whosit, some clerk, took our numbers away and gave us new ones. A dressing-room number, corridor number, locker number, shop number, and line number. They kept us there practically half the day doing all this. Then we went into the big boss’s office, the Body Division engineer. We went in three at a time, he was obviously asking everybody the same questions, the same spiel, using the same words every time for everybody.

I welcome you to Fiat. You already know what Fiat is, in Italy Fiat is everything. Maybe you’ve read some bad things in the Communist press, complaining about our assembly line, but they’re all lies. Because the only workers here who don’t get along are the lazy ones. The ones who don’t want to work. Everybody else works, they’re happy to work, and they feel good working. They all have cars, and Fiat also has nurseries for the children of its employees. Then too, if you’re a Fiat employee, you get discounts at certain stores. All he did was apologize to us.

This guy too, like the others, didn’t ask any specific questions. He didn’t say anything that would apply to us individually, or personally. It’s obvious that they treat their office-workers personally because there are fewer of them. But we were a mob, a flood. Not just two thousand of us, but twenty thousand newly hired workers all told. The monsters were arriving, the dreadful workers. And so for two months they were asking everybody the same questions, doing the same job.

So that even the guys doing this job were being pushed around by Fiat. I mean, this mob of workers entering Fiat had reduced even the clerks, even the doctors, to the level of the working class. What was happening really had nothing to do with selection, it was just a way of passing on a concept of organization, of discipline, a pecking order. Otherwise they wouldn’t have taken on even those who weren’t there, I mean the ones who were really sick, who were really in bad shape. But they took everybody, because they could use everybody. Everybody was okay for that kind of work.

And this guy, the engineer, says: I’m your colonel, and you’re my men; so we have to respect one another. I’ve always stood up for my workers. Fiat workers are the best, they produce more than anyone else . . . and all this kind of bullshit. So I start getting a little pissed at this, and I start thinking: Things are going to get pretty messy with this here colonel. Then he explained to us how it’s stupid to sabotage production because aside from being canned on the spot we’d also be reported to the police. He pulled out an article of the penal code that said we’d be reported to the police. He was starting his terror tactics. I thought to myself: This here colonel needs to be taught a good lesson.

Then the bosses introduced themselves to each of us. They had already split us up. Up till then we had been a mob, now they divided us, four or five on each line. I was going on the 500 line, so they introduced me to my boss. The foreman. Then my foreman introduced me to the floater. These are the workers who know how to do all the jobs on the line. If you have to go take a crap or piss – when they let you go, I mean, because you have to have permission – the floater steps in and takes your place. Or if you’re feeling sick, or make a mistake or something. The floater steps in, the joker, the one who can do everything.

They introduced these guys to me and had me stand near the line. There were still two hours left to go before quitting, so the boss had me do small operations, meaningless stuff. The assembly line looked like easy work to me. The way the line moved, the way all these guys worked. It didn’t look like too much trouble. The next day, they grab me and take me to my position, another place, another line. They introduce another boss to me, the next day, when I’m supposed to start working. This guy calls a floater and tells him: Take him over there. Anyway, I ended up where I was putting large ring-plates on the 500 model. I had to center them on the engine, put two bolts in, then tighten them with some gizmo.

I took the ring-plate, while the body of the 500 was moving down overhead and the engine coming from another direction, and I set the ring-plate in place. It weighed about 22 pounds. I got the plate from some other place where a guy was setting them up, then I put it on top of the engine and put two bolts in it. I drilled in the two bolts with this automatic air-wrench, fast, brrrr brrrr, then the whole thing moved off while another one arrived. I had twenty seconds to do it in, I had to catch the rhythm of it. The first few days I couldn’t get the knack of it, so the floater helped me. For three days, he helped me.

On a Fiat line it’s not a matter of learning anything, but just getting your muscles used to it. Getting your muscles used to the strain, using those movements, that rhythm. Having to put one of those jobbies in every twenty seconds meant you had to develop movements faster than your heartbeat. I mean, like a finger, the eye, anything, you had to move it in tenths of a second. Mandatory operations in a fraction of a second. The operation of selecting the two washers, the operation of selecting the two bolts, then all those movements, were all operations the muscles and eye had to perform on their own, automatically, without my having to decide anything. All I had to do was keep up the rhythm of those movements, repeating them in order, the same ones over and over. Until you’ve spent three or four days getting that rhythm, you just can’t hack it.

Once I started getting used to doing it myself, the guy that was helping me left me alone. I realized that here inside it was in their interest to increase the operations we did. A lot of the new people, some were working half a day, some one day, some three, some worked a week, then they left. Especially the young guys, a lot of them left right away, after seeing the kind of shit slave work that was involved. Who the fuck wants to stay on here? And so they left. Then there was a bunch of others taking sick leave every day. Since there were less workers than were supposed to work on the line, they had to make each of us do a lot more operations. If they didn’t they’d have to keep on a lot of those guys, who weren’t doing them any good because they were never there. So they stuck me with an extra operation. I started getting pissed off at this, and ended up hurting my finger a little.

My fingernail got a little crushed, but not so it hurt all that much. I put some grease on it, though, black grease, on my finger, so that it looked like black, clotted blood. The nail was a little black, and the finger was black. I called the floater over and told him I had to go to the infirmary. The foreman came over and said: You want to go to the infirmary? Yeah, I hurt my finger. But you can’t go to the infirmary for something like this. Well, I’m going anyway. No you’re not. Then another boss came over, the 500 boss. What I mean is, there’s a boss for the Body Division, then a boss for the 500 model, a boss for the 850 and one for the 124. And each of these, the 124, the 500, and the 850, has its own lines. The 850’s got four or five lines, the 500 has six or seven lines, the 124 has two or three.

The 500 boss came over and said to me: Listen, I’ll make you a proposition. You decide whether you want to go see the doctor, go to the infirmary with that finger, or if you want to stay here. If you want to stay here, I’ll put you on an easy job. If you decide to go see the doctor and the doctor refuses to treat you, I’ll put you on the heaviest job around, in fact I’ll get you suspended from work. So I take him up on this and say: I want to go see the doctor. So he writes me a note, because you have to have a note to go up to the infirmary. We’ll see, he threatens me. I went to the infirmary and as I was walking in I saw a worker leaving, with his arm all bandaged where he had cut himself. You going home? I ask him. No, they wouldn’t let me. What, with that cut on your arm, they wouldn’t let you? No.

That really pissed me off, and I said to myself: Okay, even if there’s nothing wrong with this finger, I’m going to get myself ten days. What’s going on, anyway? That guy had really hurt himself and they tell him: No, you have to work. Are we all crazy, or what? We at war? What’s this, Vietnam? All these people bloodied-up and wounded, do they still have to work? I walked into the infirmary, and there were more wounded men arriving then, too.

That infirmary was always packed, really, it looked like an army hospital. What with all these workers constantly coming in with a crushed hand, or a cut somewhere, or with something broken. One guy there had a dropped hernia; he was screaming. They called an ambulance and took him to emergency.

I started bluffing as soon as I got there. I checked and felt my finger, making sure when I was supposed to scream. When they touched my finger I started cursing in dialect, in Neapolitan. The guy who checked me was from Turin, and it had a certain effect on him. Because if I cursed in regular Italian it might look like I was acting, but when I cursed in Neapolitan the guy didn’t know whether I was acting or not. Mannaggia ‘a maronna, me stai cacando ‘o cazzo, statte fermo porco dio! – this is the kind of stuff I said. But I have to examine you, he said, so keep still. What still? I hurt my finger, it’s broken, right here. And he says: I want to see if it’s broken; I don’t know that it’s broken. I do, though, it feels broken; I can’t even move it.

A doctor comes over, the one who had looked at the guy with the hernia. He says: Alright, give him a slip, six days. Six days, he says, then if it’s still hurting you we’ll put you in the hospital. He gives me a slip, and I walk out. I go to the boss and say: He gave me six days. And the guy starts turning black with anger, thinking: This prick fooled me; he’ll have six days sick leave, at Fiat’s expense. Because MALF had to pay me for them. It’s not like the sick-pay they have now, INAM, the Istituto Nazionale. INAM doesn’t pay for the first three sick days; but with MALF you used to get paid from the first day on. Getting that sick-pay was a great way of gypping Fiat, and in fact they later got rid of it.

So I go home. At home I made sure I didn’t wash the finger that was all black and greasy. Never washed it, didn’t move it, either, and I was careful not to lean it against anything. After six days it had swelled up a little. Which is exactly why I never moved it, to make it swell. If you move your fingers, the fingers get limber. But if you smash your finger and then never move it, the finger gets really swollen, it gets bigger than the others. Not all that swollen, but enough so’s you can see it’s a little bigger. And it looks smoother, too, because you haven’t let anything touch it.

After my six days I go back. I say: Look how the finger’s got all swollen; and it feels like it hurts more than before. But can’t you work with it? No, we work with our hands. If I have to pick up a bolt, or have to get my gun – I mean the thing that secures the bolts, we call it a gun – I have to use my hands. Now either I watch what I’m doing, watch the bolts I have to grab, or else I watch that my finger doesn’t touch anything. But the way it is now I’d have to watch what I’m doing and watch my finger. But this is impossible, because if I do, then after three hours of fast banging against one thing and another I’ll end up a nervous wreck, I’ll go crazy, I’ll throw something at somebody’s head … I just can’t do it.

The doctor guesses that I’m bluffing, and makes me a proposition: Which do you prefer? To go back to work, or to be sent to the hospital to recover? I say to myself: I’ll have to tough this out, because I know sending me to the hospital just costs them more money. And he can’t justify putting a worker in the hospital just for a finger, he can’t do it. He was trying to bluff me, thinking: This guy wants another three or four days off, so I’ll threaten him; he’ll rather go back to the factory than into the hospital. Once you’re in the hospital you’re obviously screwed, I mean you can’t have any fun, you just stay inside, that’s all. I say: No, then, I’ll go to the hospital; because as far as I’m concerned my finger still hurts, it’s not healed. So he says to another guy: Give this one here a hospital pass. I turned green, thinking: The prick fooled me. But I kept my mouth shut, though I almost said I’d go back to work. I stretch my neck trying to see the pass, and I saw he was writing me up for another six days. I don’t say anything. I get the pass and leave. Neither of us says anything. I didn’t even have to say, Okay I won’t go to the hospital. We both knew we had each other by the balls.

And so I got myself twelve days paid sick-leave. I felt happy. Because I had managed to beat out the job, beat the system, making it work to my advantage. Except that those days I wasn’t working I didn’t know what the fuck to do with myself all day. I sort of hung out around the Valentino, where all the whores and faggots were. I just walked around, you know, screwed up really, I was bored, I didn’t know what to do with myself even if I’d had money. Fiat was paying me almost 120,000 lire a month. They paid you an advance every fifteen days, and out of my first advance I gave 40,000 lire to my sister, who I was staying with.

So I had 10,000 lire left, 10,000 lire that I just pissed away in a couple of days. Partly because I didn’t know what the fuck to do. Going from one bar to another, buying newspapers, Playmen, comic books….I went to the movies, I didn’t know what else to fucking do. I ate up that money without knowing what the fuck I was doing. Like I was resting up, because I felt so tired out by a shit job. Which is pretty absurd, I mean really absurd. Because during those twelve days of paid sick-leave I realized that I didn’t even know how to rest up from work, and that I didn’t know what to fucking do in Turin.

After those twelve days of sick leave – which anyhow I got at Fiat’s expense, because I didn’t give a shit about them – I got back inside the factory. They started me out tightening mufflers, and I decided to fuck up my new floater. See, when you have to learn a new operation, the floater’s right there to teach it to you. And I wanted to fuck this guy up because all floaters are scabs, people who’ve been working there for three, maybe ten, years. He was showing me what to do: Got that? brrrr brrrr brrrr. Now you do the next one. So I went brrrrrrr and slowed down. I pretended the gun ran down on me, that it was jammed near the bolt. I called the floater: Come here, quick. I can’t do it, see?

Christ Almighty! Christ Almighty! the guy started saying. He was Turinese, the kind they call barott, they come from farmer stock around the outskirts of Turin. They’re still farmers; they own land, which their wives work. They’re commuters, very tough people, thick-headed, with no imagination, dangerous. Not fascists, just thick-headed. Communists is what they are – Bread and Work. I, at least, was a hopeless case, because I didn’t care much about politics. But these guys thought work was the ultimate thing, work was everything to them, I mean everything, and they showed it the way they acted. They stayed and worked for years, for three, maybe ten, years. So that they got old fast and died young. Just for those few lire that never go far enough anyway – only a thickhead, a lackey, could do it. You spend years in this prison of shit, doing a job that totally destroys you.

Anyway, this guy suspects that I’m just fucking him up, so he leaves his place and stops the line. The bosses come over. Whenever a line stops, a red light goes on where the line stopped and all the bosses come over. What’s the trouble? This guy here doesn’t feel like working. No, that’s a lie! I am working, it’s just that I can’t handle this yet because I’m still learning. I’m not half as smart as you; you’ve been here ten years, obviously a guy like you can learn everything right away. I wanted to make him squirm. Look, I said, you’re a smart guy, it’s ten years you’re working here, so you understand everything, but for me it’s a little hard. I just got back from being sick, too, so how can I work with this finger?

Then the boss says to me: Listen, it looks to me like you’re just trying to goof off. You better remember that here at Fiat you have to work. No goofing off. If you want to goof off go see your friends on via Roma. I tell him: Look, I can’t say as I have any friends on via Roma. Anyway, I come here because I need money. I’m working, but I still haven’t learned.When I learn, I’ll work. You want to give me six days to work into the job or not? What do you mean six days? the boss says, You’ve already been here a month. A month, right, but I was working at that other position, not here. So now I need another six trial days, and the floater there is supposed to stay with me all six days. If he doesn’t, I won’t do a fucking thing.

I was supposed to tighten bolts, nine of them, on the mufflers. I had to stand there for eight hours holding the gun; the engine passed in front of me, I tightened the bolts, then it went on its way. Another worker put the muffler in and set up the bolts, all I had to do was tighten them. It was easy enough, but I had to stand there for eight hours holding that gun up over my arm or on my shoulder, an air-gun weighing twenty-eight pounds. See, I don’t like jobs where I have to use just one hand, or one arm, where I can’t use both at once. Because they make one shoulder get thicker than the other. You get deformed, one shoulder one way, the other shoulder another way, one muscle bigger than the other. It deforms you, it really does. But if you do those kinds of gymnastic movements where you’re moving everything at the same time, now that doesn’t bother me. But the acrobatics I had to go through on this job really pissed me off. Putting that motor on my shoulder, the noises ratatatataratatara tat tat tat – I couldn’t stand it any more.

I had already decided to break with Fiat anyway, to make trouble for them. At this last confrontation with my floater the bosses from all the other lines all came over at the same time. The workers had stopped because my floater had already stopped the line. So they were all standing there looking at me, while I was looking at the bosses. So I threaten the boss, the floater, even the big boss, that other guy, the colonel, because he came over too. Look, I say, Fiat doesn’t belong to me, get that in your heads. I didn’t want it, I’m not the one who made it, I’m here to make money, that’s all. But if you get me all pissed off, if you start breaking my balls, I’ll bust your face in, every one of you. I’m saying this to them in front of all the workers. I had threatened them openly, but they couldn’t take any risks, because they didn’t know what I was up to, whether I was serious or not. So the big boss tried the old paternalism.

You’re right, he tells me in front of the workers, but work is something important, it’s something you have to do. Obviously you’re a little nervous today, but there’s nothing we can do about that. This isn’t a hospital. Go take a rest, he says, moving closer to me. Go on sick leave, he says, standing next to me in front of all the workers, and don’t break balls for people who want to work. He was getting back at me, in other words. He gets back at me then cuts the conversation short: If you want to break balls go on sick leave, go fuck yourself for all I care, just don’t break balls for people who work and want to work. There’s no room here for fuckups, or crazies, or weaklings who don’t want to work. Meanwhile the line was starting up again, and the workers weren’t watching me any more. 

Courtesy: Libcom