Serge Mallet

Serge Mallet (1927–73)

When the last concentrated burst of class struggle in Europe’s industry receded in the early to mid seventies, two broad visions of industrial politics had come to coexist on the Left. In many ways, these two positions were diametrically opposed political readings of the massive changes that had swept through industry in post-war capitalism in the fifties & sixties. The first was an attempt to restate the case for workers’ control not in terms of abstract theory but by looking at changes in the working class and, behind the class, in the nature of industry as a whole. This was a French innovation and its defining text was Mallet’s 1963 book La nouvelle classe ouvrière (The New Working Class). The other stream was peculiarly Italian and went back to the splits that resulted when Mario Tronti and Antonio Negri broke with Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks) and formed their own review Classe Operaia in 1964. The overall perspective of this current, more nebulous than ‘workers control’, is best conveyed by the slogan ‘the strategy of the refusal’.

Mallet’s writings are a model of lucidity. The broad framework of Marx’s Capital is presupposed. Mallet’s fascination lies at other levels entirely – first, in the use of intermediate theories (Hilferding’s organized capitalism, Touraine’s theory of job evolution, Naville’s work on automation) and then in a kind of ‘sociological’ fieldwork for which there was already a strong tradition in France but which also had a major advocate in Italy in the shape of Quaderni Rossi’s founder Raniero Panzieri. To turn from Mallet to Negri is like moving out of a London tube station and its brightly-lit platforms into the obscure tunnel ahead. When Panzieri died in 1964 at the tragically young age of 44, he left the field wide open to theorists who couldn’t put a sentence together without sounding impenetrable.

So, what was the ‘strategy of the refusal’? In one of the more comprehensible sentences in a tract from 1978, Negri described it as follows: ‘The refusal of work is first and foremost sabotage, strikes, direct action’. This was stated to be the key revolutionary strategy, yet despite pages of exposition of what it meant Negri couldn’t tell his readers how workers were supposed to go from sabotage & direct action to an overthrow of the capitalist system, beyond the tautology that the refusal of work is ‘the refusal of capitalist work as such, i.e. of exploitation in general’…

Clearly, the class base of the ‘strategy of the refusal’ was what the Italians called the ‘mass worker’, that is, the tens of thousands of semi-skilled workers employed on assembly lines and as machine tenders in mass-production sectors like FIAT’s sprawling complex in Turin. To Mallet these were a declining sector of the working class and no viable revolutionary strategy could start from them, the way Tronti & Negri were suggesting the Left should do in the seventies.

The period from 1955 to 1966 saw 4 or 5 major, substantial pieces of work in what in France came to be called ‘sociologie du travail’ (industrial sociology in the Anglo-Saxon world), and Mallet himself was profoundly influenced by much of this work. Alain Touraine’s study of the Renault car plants, Evolution du travail ouvrier aux usines Renault (1955) developed his famous theory of ‘phases’ of work organization (phases in the evolution of industrial labour) where the productive system characteristic of each phase engendered differences not only in the nature of work and of the types of workers active in industry, but in the very forms of organization of the labour movement itself. Thus phase A involves industrial sectors based on craft skills which are still largely immune to the assaults of Taylorism. Phase B is mass-production industry of the kind that first becomes widespread in the interwar period. And Phase C involves sectors based on high levels of automation (both transfer machines and flow processes).

The interesting feature of this model is that each ‘type’ of working class generates a specific form and culture of trade unionism and/or class militancy, so that (1) craft unions and the labour aristocracies linked to them thrived in, say, Britain’s metal, engineering and shipbuilding industries down to the end of the 19th century when employers launched their first major attacks on the skilled engineers; (2) mass unionism and bureaucratized union structures were the expression par excellence of the ‘semi-skilled’ workforces (O.S. in France) that became typical of the mechanized mass-production sectors that introduced repetition machinery, deskilling, job controls, etc., but also corporate welfare schemes that sought to integrate workers ideologically (‘job security’, company housing, and so on); and (3) the enterprise- or company-based unionism typical of Mallet’s new working class was a feature, mainly, of sectors based on automation where the division between manual and intellectual labour had largely broken down and technicians were now the paradigm of the new worker. Mallet believed that in ‘phase B’ union densities fell sharply, whereas in ‘phase C’ they actually rose because ‘The high level of qualification and the youth of most workers and technicians, fairly high job security, working conditions in teams…militate in favour of unionisation. In the advanced branches of industry (electronics & electro-mechanics, chemicals, oil, etc.) the level of unionisation varies between 50% and 90% of the personnel…’.

In an essay written in 1969 Mallet would argue that ‘May 68 proved that the electronics and oil workers, the automobile workers (at the automated Flins plant more than at the older plant at Billancourt) and the aeronautics and aerospace workers were the cutting edge of the labor movement. They were the ones who gave the movement its dimensions’. An academic study published ten years later confirmed this picture for the Italian upsurge of the same period, arguing that ‘Technicians were prominent in all the white-collar strikes. The most notable of these struggles occurred in companies in the advanced sectors that employed mainly technically trained labor: companies like SNAM Progetti (oil), Italimpianti (design & construction of steel plants), SIT Siemens (telecom), Selenia (electronics)…’.

For Mallet the crucial point was that in the automated sectors, ‘The integration of workers in the firm is not a propaganda initiative on the part of employers…it is the objective reflection of a number of changes in the organisation of work’. The worker’s integration in the firm was not something to be resisted (contrast the workerist view that the interchangeability & massification of workers are a step forward because they ‘liberate workers as a class from an identification of their role as producers’!!), but, he argued, the very basis on which aspirations for workers’ control can re-emerge in updated and contemporary forms, since the kind of asset-specificity characteristic of technicians’ labour-power means they have a vital interest in how the firm is managed and how the sector as a whole performs.

Neither Mallet nor the Italian workerists could foresee that starting in the mid to late seventies capital would drastically change the terms of the debate by doing away with integration and job security and reasserting the expendablity of labour. Mallet never lived to see this massive attack because he died in a car crash in 1973.

Bio by Jairus Banaji