The possibility of keeping together autonomy and an affective life is a tale that hasn’t been written yet.
– Lea Melandri, Una visceralità indicibile, 2007
In 1974 François Lyotard published the surprising book entitled Libidinal Economy where he attacked Marxist and Freudian simplifications and he opened a new perspective on the connection between desires and struggle. What starts to crumble at that time under the offensive of the two essential weapon-books by Deleuze and Guattari Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus is the fetishisation of consciousness as the organ that will lead the revolution. As the myth of the avant-garde begins to decline, a psychosomatic reorganisation arises and its consequences on the relationship between people are brutal and inevitable. Like in an inverted Menenius Agrippa’s speech, the head, with all its metaphorical connotations, lost its privilege and the low body could find a new voice full of desire and fear. A new materialism was coming to life inside people’s bodies. At this point the failure of the responsible and pyramidal militant structures becomes blatant: thirst for power, need for leaders and the insufficiency of language to resolve conflicts inside the groups reveal the impossibility of living and fighting in such formations. In ’73 the Gramsci Group called for a different way of doing politics:
it’s no longer possible to talk to each other from avant-garde to avant-garde with a sectary language of ‘expert’ politicians […] and then not be able to talk concretely about our experiences. The consciousness and the explanation of things must become clear through the experience of one’s own condition ,one’s own problems and needs, not only through theories that describe mechanisms.1
The language that served the purposes of traditional politics seemed to have lost all its use value in the mouths of these young people; the members of the militant groups felt like they were ‘spoken’, traversed by a speech that didn’t transform them and couldn’t translate their new uncertain situation. A protagonist of the events describes how it follows the position of leader:
the leader is somebody who is convinced that he has always been revolutionary and communist, and he doesn’t ask himself what the concrete transformation of himself and the others is […] The leader is the one that when the assemblies don’t go the way they should either because a silence takes place or because some political positions are expressed which are different from the ones of his own group, he feels that he must intervene in order to fill the verbal space or to affirm his political line against the others.2
In this simple and clinical diagnosis we see the groups as spaces where the attempt is made to funnel subjective transformation into revolutionary efficiency; as a result of this process the positions of the singularities that composed the groups became progressively more and more rigid and the revolutionary space, in order to remain such, imposed the most conservative patterns of behaviour within itself.
The term ‘human strike’ was forged to name a revolt against what is reactionary even – and above all – inside the revolt. It defines a type of strike that involves the whole of life and not only its professional side, that acknowledges exploitation in all the domains and not only at work. Even the notion of work is modified if seen from the ethical prism of human strike: activities that seem to be innocent services and loving obligations to keep the family or the couple together reveal themselves as vulgar exploitation. The human strike is a movement that could potentially contaminate anyone and that attacks the foundations of life in common; its subject isn’t the proletarian or the factory worker but the whatever singularity that everyone is. This movement isn’t there to reveal the exceptionality or the superiority of one group or another but to unmask the whateverness of everybody as the open secret that social classes hide.
One definition of human strike can be found in Tiqqun 2: it’s a strike ‘with no claims, that deterritorialises the agora and reveals the non-political as the place of the implicit redistribution of responsibilities and unremunerated work.’3
Italian feminisms offer a paradigm of this kind of action because they have claimed the abolition of the borders that made politics the territory of men. If the sexual borders of politics weren’t clearly marked in the ’70s in Europe, they still persisted in an obscure region of the life in common, like premonitory nightmares that never stop coming true. In 1938 Virginia Woolf wrote in Three Guineas:
Inevitably we look upon societies as conspiracies that sink the private brother, whom many of us have reason to respect, and inflate in his stead a monstrous male, loud of voice, hard of fist, childishly intent upon scoring the floor of the earth with chalk marks, within whose mystic boundaries human beings are penned, rigidly, separately, artificially; where, daubed red and gold, decorated like a savage with feathers he goes through mystic rites and enjoys the dubious pleasures of power and dominion while we, ‘his’ women, are locked in the private house without share in the many societies of which his society is composed.4
Against the chalk marks, already obsolete in 1938 but that still keep appearing beneath our steps even in the 21st century, Lia Cigarini and Luisa Muraro specified in 1992 in a text called ‘Politics and Political Practice’:
We don’t want to separate politics from culture, love and work and we can’t find any criterion for doing so. A politics of this kind, a separated one, we wouldn’t like it and we wouldn’t know what to do with it.5
At the core of this necessity of a politics that transforms life and that can be transformed by life, there wasn’t a claim against injustice but the desire of finding the right voice for one’s own body, in order to fight the deep feeling of being spoken by somebody else, that can be called political ventriloquism.
A quotation by Serena, published in the brochure Sottosopra n°3 in 1976, describes a modest miracle that took place at the women’s convention in Pinarella:
after the first day and a half, something strange happened to me: there were bodies under the heads that spoke, listened, laughed; if I spoke (with what tranquil serenity and unassertiveness did I talk to two hundred women!), somehow in my words there was my body, which had found a strange way of speaking itself.6
What an example of miraculous transubstantiation of the human strike.
1890: Date of Birth of the Human Strike
In her extensive research around strikes in the 19th century, Michelle Perrot talks about the birth of a sort of ‘sentimental strike’ in the year 1890. 4 May of that year, in the newspaper from Lille entitled Le Cri du Travailleur (the Worker’s Cry) we can read that ‘the strikers didn’t give any reason for their interruption of the work […] just that they want to do the same thing as the others.’ In this type of movement, young people and women start to play a very important role, Perrot says. In a small village called Vienne militant women enjoined their female comrades,
Let’s not bear this miserable conditions any longer. Let’s rise up, let’s claim our rights, let’s fight for a more honourable place. Let’s dare to say to our masters: we are just like you, made out of flesh and bones, we should live happy and free through our work.7
In another small village, Besseges, in the same year a young woman of 32, the wife of a miner and mother of five, Amandine Vernet, reveals her vocation of natural born leader,
she never made herself noticeable before May 14th when she started to read a written speech in a meeting of 5,000 people in the Robiac woods. The day after she had started to speak, and the following days, made more self-confident by her success, she pronounced violent and moving speeches. She had the talent of making part of her audience cry.8
In this type of strike, what Perrot calls the emotional strike, the movement is no longer limited to a specific target: what is at stake is a transformation of subjectivity. This transformation – and that is the interesting point – is at the same time the cause and the consequence of the strike. The subjective, the social and the political changes are tightly entangled so that necessarily this type of uprising concerns subjects whose social identity is poorly codified, the people that Rancière calls the ‘placeless’ or the ‘partless’. They are movements where people unite under the slogan ‘we need to change ourselves’ (Foucault), which means that the change of conditions isn’t the ultimate aim but a means to change one’s subjectivity and one’s relationships.
According to some interpretations, there have been some components of this kind inside the movement of ’68. Young people and women rose up then and claimed new rights that weren’t only political in an acquired sense, but that changed the very meaning of the word ‘political’.
The inclusion of sexuality as an officially political territory is actually symptomatic of this transformation. Sexuality isn’t in fact the right term to employ, because it already designates an artificially separated field of reality. We should rather talk about the rehabilitation of the concept of desire, and analyse how new desires enter the political sphere in these specific moments, during the emotional strikes that we call ‘human strikes’.
The feminisms that do not pursue the integration in a world conceived and shaped by male protagonists are part of these strikes. We can read about this crucial point in a collective book from 1987 entitled Don’t Believe You Have Rights in Italian, translated as Sexual Difference, A Theory of Social-Symbolic Practice:
The difference in being a woman has come into free existence not by working through the contradictions pertaining to the social body as a whole, but by working through the ones each woman experienced in herself and which did not have a social form before receiving it from female politics. In other words, it is we who have ourselves invented the social contradictions which make out freedom necessary.9
Here invented doesn’t mean made up, but found and translated revealing their dormant political dimension.
Human Strike’s Plane of Consistency
They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work. They call it frigidity. We call it absenteeism. Every miscarriage is a work accident. Homosexuality and heterosexuality are both working conditions… but homosexuality is workers’ control of production, not the end of work. More smiles? More money. Nothing will be so powerful in destroying the healing virtues of a smile. Neuroses, suicides, desexualisation: occupational diseases of the housewife.
– Silvia Federici, ‘Wages Against Housework’, 1974
1. The house where we make the most part of our work (the domestic work), is atomized in thousands of places, but it’s present everywhere, in town, in the countryside, on the mountains, etc.
2. We are controlled and we depend on thousands of little bosses and controllers: they are our husbands, fathers, brothers etc., but we only have one master: the State.
3. Our comrades of work and struggle, that are our neighbours, aren’t physically in touch with us during the work as it happens in the factory: but we can meet in places that we know, where we all go when we can steal some free time during the day. And each one of us isn’t separated from the other by qualifications and professional categories. We all make the same work.
[…] If we went on a strike we would not leave unfinished products or raw materials untransformed etc.: by interrupting our work we wouldn’t paralyse the production but the daily reproduction of the working class. This would hit the heart of the Capitalist system, because it would become an actual strike even for those that normally go on strike without us; but since the moment we stop to guarantee the survival of those which we are affectively bound to, we will also have a difficulty in continuing the resistance.
– Emilia Romagna’s coordination for wages for domestic work, Bologna, 1976
The worker has the possibility of joining a union, going on strike, the mothers are isolated, locked in their houses, tightened to their children by charitable bonds. Our wildcat strikes manifest themselves as a physical and mental breakdown.
– Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born, 1980
The situation of not being able to draw the line between life and work, that used only to concern housewives, is now becoming generalised. A strike isn’t possible to envisage for most of us, but the reasons we keep living the way we do and can’t rebel against anyone but ourselves are to be searched for in our libidinal metabolism and in the libidinal economy we participate in.
Each struggle has become a struggle against a part of ourselves because we are always partly complicit with the things that oppress us. The biopower under which we live is the power that owns our bodies but allows us the right to speak.
According to what Giorgio Agamben writes in The Coming Community, the colonisation of physiology by industry started in the ’20s and reached its peak when photography allowed a massive circulation of pornography. The anonymous bodies portrayed were absolutely whatever and because of this very reason generically desirable. Images of real human beings had become for the first time in history objects of desire on a massive scale, and therefore objects.
Stuart Ewen explains very well how advertising starts to heavily target women and young people in the ’50s, right after the war; women and children were the majority of the bodies portrayed in a promiscuous proximity with consumer goods. The intimacy between things and human beings has created all sorts of symbolic disorders from the very beginning. Since then, consumption has come to shape the actual life form of human beings – not only so-called life style. In the case of women the confusion and enforced cohabitation with objects within the sphere of desire – both male and female desire – is clear for everybody. Advertisements talk to the affects, and tell tales of a human life reconciled with things, where the inexpressiveness and the hostility of objects are constantly obliterated by the joy and beauty that they are supposed to bring to their owners.
In advertising work is never really present and life has no gravity: objects have no weight, the link between the cause and the effect of gestures is governed by pure fantasy.
The dreams engendered by capitalism are the most disquieting of its products, their specific visual language is also the source of the misunderstanding between the inhabitants of the poorly developed countries and the westerners. These dreams are conceived as devices of subjectivisation, scenes from the life of the toxic community of human beings and things; where the commodity is absent, bodies are tragically different.
If taken to its conclusion this implicit philosophy leads to the complete redundancy of art – and in this sense the message that we all know so well and that we all receive every day in the streets of the cities or from the television screen must be taken seriously. The artwork is no longer the humanised object – this change started to take place in the 19th century with the industrialisation of life in general. Duchamp himself explains the birth of the readymade in 1955 in an interview with James Johnson Sweeny by declaring that he came to conceive of it as a consequence of the dehumanisation of the artwork.10 The task of making objects expressive and responsive to human feelings, which for thousands of years had been performed by artists, is now performed by capitalism essentially through television. Because what is at stake in the capitalistic vision of the world is a continuous production of a libidinal economy in which behaviours, expressions and gestures contribute to the creation of this new human body.
Irreversable Anthropological Transformation in Italy (And Elsewhere)
I think that this generation […] of people that were 15 or 20 years old when they made this [revolutionary] choice between 1971 and 1972, which in the following years becomes a generalised process in the factories and the schools, in the parishes, in the neighbourhoods, have gone through an anthropological transformation. I can’t find a better definition, an irreversible cultural modification of themselves that you can’t come back from and that’s why these subjects later, after ’79, when everything is over, become crazy, commit suicide, become drug addicts because of the impossibility and the intolerability of being included and tamed by the system. 11
That’s how Nanni Balestrini describes a form of tragic human strike that took place during the ’80s, when the movement of ’77 fell under the weight of a disproportionate repression.
The bleed of revolutionary lives from the country makes Italy a nation of the disappeared. Without needing a genocide or a real dictatorship, the strategy of tension and a modest amount of State terrorism achieved this result within a few years.
One should consider that what doesn’t happen isn’t a disgrace or the legitimate source of resentment against an anonymous and submissive population, but a consequence of what has happened before.
The space of politics in which Berlusconi rose to power without encountering any resistance was a territory in which any opposition had already been deported after the repression had started to function directly on life forms, and people could no longer desire in the same way because the libidinal economy they were part of had gone bankrupt.
One question that still hasn’t been considered with sufficient attention in the militant context is the one of struggle-force. Struggle-force, like love-force, must be protected and regenerated. It’s a resource that doesn’t renovate itself automatically and needs collective conditions for its creation.
Human strike can be read as an extreme attempt to reappropriate the means of production of struggle- force, of love-force, of life-force. These means are ends in themselves; they already bring with them a new potentiality that makes subjects stronger. The political space where this operation is possible isn’t of course the same one that was colonised by televisual biopower. It’s the one that we can foresee in Lia’s words from 1976:
The return of the repressed threatens all my projects of work, research, politics. Does it threaten them or is it the truly political thing in myself, to which I should give relief and room? (…) The silence failed this part of myself that desired to make politics, but it affirmed something new. There has been a change, I have started to speak out, but during these days I have felt that the affirmative part of myself was occupying all the space again. I convinced myself of the fact that the mute woman is the most fertile objection to our politics. The non- political digs tunnels that we mustn’t fill with earth. 12
Columbus, 28 October 2009
1 Nanni Balestrini & Primo Moroni, L’orda d’oro 1966-1977: La grande ondata rivoluzionaria e creativa, politica ed esistenziale, Feltrinelli Editore, 1997, p.508.
2 Ibid., p.506.
3 Tiqqun, Tiqqun 2, Paris, 2001, p.221.
4 Virginia Wolf, A Room of One’s Own & Three Guineas, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008, p.308.
5 Lia Cigarini & Luisa Muraro, ‘Politics and Political Practice’, 1992, http://www.url.it/donnestoria/testi/percorso_900/ politicaepratica.htm
6 Sexual Difference, A Theory of Social-Symbolic Practice, Patricia Cicogna & Teresa de Lauretis (trans.), Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Sexual Difference is the English translation of Don’t Believe in Rights, Milan: La Libreria delle donne di Milano, 1987.
7 Michelle Perrot, Les ouvriers en grève, France 1871-1890, Paris, La Haye: Mouton, 1974, p.99.
8 Ibid., pp.99-100.
9 Sexual Difference, op. cit.
10 See, ‘Marcel Duchamp. An interview with James Johnson Sweeny, in Wisdom: Conversations with Elder Wise Men of Our Day, James Nelson (ed.), New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1958, pp.89-99.
11 N. Balestrini, L’Editore in La Grande Rivolta, Milan: Bompiani, 1999, p.318-319.
12 Sexual Difference, op. cit.