Alex Foti interview

On my recent trip to Milan for Mayday I got to meet Alex Foti over lunch. We decided to conduct an interview by email and here it is. Foti is the author of a manifesto I quoted at length in an early blog post, regardind the politics of Precarity and the so-called ‘cognitariat’ in Italy and Europe. We continue the discussion here…

1. Describe your involvement in Chainworkers. When did it start, what was the instigation? How many people have been involved with it?

Zoe and I made a trip to California and the Northwest in 1998: we were struck by the wal-martization of America and how service labor was being pitilessly exploited in offices and malls. We thought this was a trend already present in metropolitan Italy and that America in a way was showing us the bleak future in store for European precarious workers if they didn’t fight back. On the plane back, we read of a Vancouver McD’s that had just been unionized by two teen-age girls. I proposed we create a webzine,, in order to help young temps and part-timers organize and defend themselves from greedy and manipulative employers in Milano and beyond. Zoe designed the beta version of the webzine in early 1999. Then we read NO LOGO and became Kleinian converts immediately. We presented the project of merging media+labor activism to the squat we were members of in the spring of 2000. Then the CreW was born. At its peak in 2004-2005 it involved some 50 activists who could mobilize 500 people with short notice for actions and pickets.

2. In Greenpepper you described a further entity called PRECOG, which was described as the precarious retail and service workers PLUS the cognitariat of media and education industries. Can you describe how these two disparate sectors actually connect? Are there active alliances between say, sales clerks at a department store on one hand and web workers at a media company on the other? How does that look? What do they do? Can you describe the relationship between organizing efforts among chainstore workers and cultural/media workers?

Precog was founded in late 2003 and basically lasted one year as a national online and offline network linking antiprecarity movements in main Italian cities. It created San Precario and did the most politically relevant mayday of all, that of 2004, when non-communist radical movements, pink collective and militant sections of unionism did a splash by shutting down all chainstores and supermarkets still opened on May 1st (legal holiday in Italy according to the labor code). It was a high time of interlinking ideas and struggles and everything seemed possibile. It did not last. I think precog wanted to bridge the gap between student movements and incipient struggles of service workers. Up to that moment, students had not really taken an interest in the sorry condition of the Italian labor market, with millions of their peers flexploited and discriminated. In a way the synthesis was already in the CreW, where cashiers, runners, social workers, media operatives, people with union experience were all coming together to discuss very creative ways of approaching the unorganized young people in the city. But I don’t deny there’s a problem trying to reach programmers and cleaners with the same spell. It’s the same problem that cross-class progressive alliances in the 20th century had to face. But I don’t see how we can alter the balance of power on the labor market if we don’t merge sections of the service class, with sections of the creative class, and of the knowledge class in a wider radical alliance aiming at raising conflict and provide cross-sector solidarity.

3. In Processed World magazine we began describing the rise of the “6-month worker” in our second issue in 1981. Over the years it became clear that while this was an accurate objective characterization of a growing number of people, the subjective experience of being in this category was anything but uniform. Some people want full-time work and can’t get it. Others were happy to have precarious work because it was relatively well-paid, allowing them to take time off to do their “real work.” Can you talk about the problems of the category of the “precariat” in Italy as a unifying identity?

It’s not yet an identity but it’s in the process of becoming at least a social subject aware of its potential, if an organization finally emerges addressing precarity from a generational angle (the European precariat is mostly a conflation of generation and class). Let’s talk about part-time workers. Usually these workers have no control on their work time (they’re supposed to do say 20 hours per week, but have to work 40 with no notice if managers require them to do so), and are paid per hour less than correspondent full-time workers. So clearly there are structural elements of precarity in part-time work. Also, since you work part-time you earn a partial income, and so the likelihood of moonlighting increases sharply. But there’s no doubt that while involuntary part-time is the norm, there’s a number of people that find flexible work schedules a plus for their individual freedom. In fact, we don’t want to abolish flexibility even if we could. We want to impose social regulation on it through labor conflict, social agitation, media hacktivism. Most especially (and this is were we disagree with commie parties and unions) we want to fight for a new European welfare system (call it “commonfare”) that provides the young, women, immigrants with basic income and universal access to health care, paid maternity leave and paid vacations, cheap housing and education, free, ubiquitous broadband and peer-managed culture. If such a new welfare system were to be built, then people could actually choose the level of flexibility they’re comfortable with. We are also trying to raise support for a common minimum wage in the eurozone (at a sufficiently high level, and it would be sustainable, if it is set in conjunction with a basic income). But there’s no secret about one thing. However you put it, we have to achieve a sizable redistribution of income and wealth from the upper to the lower classes. If we don’t do that, any new social measure would be perfunctory.

4. One of my great interests in examining the experience of temporary and contingent work and workers is that so many people have more important things to do than what they do for money. For example, temp office workers are almost always “really” something else, like dancers, photographers, historians, writers, etc. Can you describe a similar dynamic among the PRECOG sector you’ve identified in Italy? What kinds of alternate identities are common among them? How does the (usually unpaid) work that such people do relate (or not) to the work they get paid to do?

I think there’s a bit less here in Italy that way of working a day job and doing the (lesser paid or unpaid) job you like at night. What happens here is rather that you end up working in journalism, publishing, tv and that’s what you wanted to do. But they pay you peanuts for long hours, you have no union or legal protection as a contingent worker, and you end up at 40 that you’re still earning a poverty wage, meaning prolonged social insecurity, no kids and no living on your own (there are no significant unemployment benefits in Italy). The creative class is the segment of the precarious labor force that has swallowed most eagerly all the lies and false promises made by employers since the 80s. They’re now realizing that they haven’t made neither their individual nor collective interest and are really angry as a result. The establishment fears rebellious creative workers: they give a bad image (nobody seems to care about the service class, with the partial exception of call center operators, a recurrent figure in today’s Italian fiction and drama). Knowledge workers (students, researchers, teachers, education employees) are probably the most organized and conflictual section of the precariat in Italy and elsewhere (France or Denmark for instance).

5. What do you think about the concept of immaterial labor? Is it harder to organize people whose work is characterized as immaterial than those who produce something tangible? If so, why? Does traditionally female work related to the reproduction of everyday life and human labor fit in to the notion of immaterial labor? Elaborate if possible.

In Multitude, Hardt & Negri say that immaterial labor has the potential of being politically hegemonic on other forms of labor and they describe it as “flexible, precarious, nomadic, affective, creative, linguistic work”. Yes, the notion of “pink work” is central in the category of immaterial labor, as its socially precarious nature. Of course, there is the risk of bundling apples with pears when we talk about immaterial labor. Let me explain. Immaterial workers tend to have an individual view of the employment relation and mobilize less easily insofar as they partake the ideological mindset of financial and corporate elites. They tend not to have a union tradition either as a category or as a family background (middle classes don’t easily unionize). But they have power in their hands, they are networkers that can directly affect the operations of a given business. They are not the networked service workers that can easily be replaced with similarly low-skilled workers, who have no choice but organize collectively if they want to press for better work and pay conditions. So management tries to keep them loyal… until they are fired.

6. You said that the EuroMayDay demos since 2001 had a very large attendance, but you felt they were ineffective because they were “only cultural.” Can you talk about that at more length?

Attendance grew from 5000 in 2001 to 50000 in 2003. Since 2004 we have reached the 100,000 mark. MayDay in Milano has become huge. I don’t remember the remark you refer to, but I think that I meant that at first the mayday parade were mostly symbolic representations of a negative social condition and a willingness to act upon it, rather than ways of connecting demands and conflicts. Starting from 2002, collectives of workers spontaneously started contributing their struggles and asking for assistance to the burgeoning mayday network. On mayday in Milano, alll the major labor struggles of the previous year are represented as workers’ collectives bring to the parade their allegorical wagons and soundtrucks alongside squats, activists, sindacati di base (militant independent unions) and Milano’s dissenting precarious youth.

7. Do you think class politics is passé?

I think the Migrant Mayday in America and the Precarious Mayday in Europe are proving otherwise. Certainly other forms of allegiance, like nation ethnicity religion compete with class and have been on the rise since 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. The fact is that class domination has never been starker since 1945. In recent months, rebellion against precarity in Paris and Copenhagen , and massive migrant agitation in Los Angeles, Chicago and other US cities have unearthed the mole of class struggle. Since I was 20 (now I’m 40) and studied in college the interwar period, the Great Depression and its disastrous aftermath, I was convinced that another generalized class rebellion aimed at reversing similar laissez-faire policies was bound to happen because neoliberalism was not economically and socially sustainable. It is happening, but it now has to defeat a nastier, more authoritarian and militaristic version of Reagan-type capitalism. The Washington Consensus of the 80s and 90s managed to squash all discourses of class politics. Class was seen as a remnant of defeated international communism. It was loser’s ideology. But since 1999, class politics has re-emerged with a vengeance, Think about Latin (now Indian-Bolivarian) America. And the French presidential elections will be decided by the issue of precarity and social inequality. It doesn’t get any “classier” than this;)

8. What does the word ‘class’ mean to you?

A stratum of people sharing similar economic attributes, working environments and living conditions who develop a common cultural and ideological discourse, and intend to advance their social demands through collective social pressure and political action. Do I get to pass onto the next stage? >

9. Do you identify with “middle-class” or “working class”?

I come from progressive middle-class backgrounds and I’m proud of it. I’ve seen too many industrial workers veer to the right and extreme right to harbor a romantic image of the working class. Also, my grandfather on my mother’s side died in a factory accident in 1946 so I don’t feel like I have to prove anything to self-declared communist proletarians. But I don’t think the middle class as we traditionally intend it any longer exists. The class and political polarization we have experienced especially since 2001 have precipitated most of the stable middle-class of yore in a fragmented precarious class, while a privileged minority has moved up to the upper middle class thanks to the rewards of financial and real estate speculation. Anyway, here is what I have called l the “mayday equation of social stratification”:
fordism: postfordism = industrialism: informationalism =
= blue/white/pink collars: service/creative/knowledge workers =
= (working class + middle class) : (precarious + propertied classes)

10. Do you think there is a “ruling class”?

Most definitely! While the world proletariat never really was, the ruling global élite is a fact before our eyes (just read Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal for a daily confirmation). Wealth is more concentrated than it’s ever been and the personal, family, social connections between the European, American, Asian bourgeoisies have never been deeper. Look at the triumph of private equity, or individuals or families sitting on piles of gold higher that central bank reserves of many countries. Much of this private (i.e. not publicly traded) equity is in the hands of politicians who sit on company boards and banking foundations. Incest between the investing class and national politicians has never been more widespread. You have to go back to Victorian capitalism and the Robber Barons to find such a shameless dominance of private wealth. The investing class has no nation but a huge, common transnational class interest. What we refer to as “financial markets” is actually the collective capitalist mirroring the irrational and totalizing spirits of the ruling class (itself not a fixed concept; for instance European technocrats, Russian oligopolists are on the decline, while Chinese chipmakers or Indian steelmakers are on the rise in its composition).

11. Can you describe how people fall into one class or another?

A vast number of people is no longer upwardly mobile as during the 1945-75 period, but rather downwardly mobile. This was not the case during Fordism, when both blue and white collars saw their living standards and social status improve. But now both wage-earners and salary-earners tend to be downwardly mobile. Much as in 19th century capitalism, you gotta own some form of property to be considered a citizen. Even formal equality has become a joke. Elections are decided by investors, rentiers and home owners, not by fixed-income employees.

12. What does the word ‘community’ mean to you? How does a sense of ‘community’ influence for better or worse the growth of the movements around precarity?

I hate that goddamn word: I associate it with ideological conservatism, social inwardness, constraining personal link, inability to think proactively. Nevertheless, I think the need for community is huge because today’s world is so volatile and fluid it makes you wanna stick to others for meaning and solidarity. But I’d rather join a network proposing a project identity, than a community proposing a defensive identity. That said, the ChainWorkers’ CreW has developed into a tightly-knit community. It is one of the reasons I haven’t been part of it since the summer of 2004, although I have kept working to expand the mayday network across Europe. I dislike in-crowds and private jokes, as well as the insiders/outsiders divide communities inevitably generate. A community is comforting for those in, but it’s a palliative if you want to develop effective collective action. Initially, it helps a movement grow, but past a certain stage, you have to drop the community and build something more open and more public.

13. What do you do for money? What did you do when you were part of Chainworkers?

I temp as an offline and online editor. I was temporarily unemployed when the ChainWorkers was started: I had just been fired for indiscipline by the publishing house I used to work for.

14. You are now running for local government office in Milan as a Green Party candidate. What influenced you to get involved with electoral politics and representative democracy as opposed to continuing to experiment with new forms of direct action and workplace-based politics?

The elections took place and Berlusconi’s candidate narrowly won and was elected mayor. The center-left candidate could have made it, but neither the respectable left nor the heretic left believed we could pull it off on mr B’s home turf. Unlike in San Francisco with Matt Gonzalez, nobody in the movement thought important helping fellow candidates running in municipal elections. I wasn’t elected in municipal council but did better than many established candidates. You can take a look at my campaign on I really think the Seattle-Prague-Genoa movement must be able to shape a brand-new political tendency (inasmuch as hippies and 68ers created the greens) and a new wobbly-like version of unionism. I also thought that the power of the mayday needed to be asserted at least at the municipal level. I had grown tired of mass mobilizations that yielded no political results. I love subvertising and media activism, but as a tool to empower the disenfranchised, not as a creative endeavor as such. And so I ran as candidate to municipal council for “the precarious generation”. I didn’t break into the mainstream media and so it was kinda hard to reach my natural constituency. Also, the fact that ChainWorkers did not help campaigning was a factor. Anyway, I’ll be too old in 2011 to run again as no-precarity activist 😉 Younger activists, your time has come!

15. Can you describe the emergence of grassroots initiatives in Italy addressing ecological concerns (e.g. Critical Mass, community gardening, permaculture)? How do such efforts connect (or not) to the growing awareness of precariousness, the breakdown of the old social contract with state guarantees? Is there an emergent agenda of ecological reconstruction for urban life? How do unions and parties respond to this?

Thanks Chris and San Francisco for having given Critical Mass to Milano and its activists. Its impact has been huge in our completely flat metropolis, from which biking activism has spread to other Italian major cities (now it’s very strong in Rome). The public discussion on traffic policy has completely changed after CM started convening nearby Piazza Duomo in 2002. Cyclists were perceived as remnants of the past, before CM hit Milano. Now it’s way cooler than any internal combustion engine on show and SUVs have their days counted. Critical Mass has participated to the mayday since 2003. Since 2004, I’ve gone ecohacktive as much as I can. I’ve had a green awareness since Chernobyl and either the truly unbreathable air of Milano or melting polar caps makes one angry and ready for action. In 2005, I founded neurogreen (you can read its manifesto), a cross-national mailing list devoted to the discussion of ecological crisis, precarious europe, true-cost economics, non-fossil and non-fissile energy, digital libertarianism, queer thinking, geopolitical shifts. Also we have banded with Milano guerrilla gardeners, photovoltaic-powered sound systems and environmental associations in poorer neighborhoods to start doing urban ecological activism along the lines of Critical Mass and the “ciclofficine” (bicycle repair clubs) it has spawned across Milano.

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