Stevphen Shukaitis on Thu, 23 Apr 2009 15:21:36 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Workers’ Inquiry, Militant Research, and the Business School

Workers? Inquiry, Militant Research, and the Business School
Stevphen Shukaitis
>From Fifth Estate Volume 44 Number 1

The autonomist political theorist and strategist Mario Tronti in his  
classic book Operai e capitale argued that weapons for working class  
revolt have always been taken from the bosses? arsenal. At first  
glance this easily can come off as a kind of hyperbole or even a  
contradiction. Has not it often been argued, to use feminist writers  
Audre Lorde?s phrasing, that it is not possible to take apart the  
master?s house with the master?s tools? Despite the contradictions and  
tensions contained within his argument, Tronti said this with good  
reason, for he was writing from a social and historical context where  
this is just what was taking place. Autonomous politics in Italy  
emerging at this time greatly benefited from borrowing ideas and  
methods from bourgeois sociology and social sciences, as well as tools  
of management theory and industrial relations. And using these tools  
proceeded to build massive cycles of struggle that vastly changed to  
grounds of politics in the country and from which people have drawn  
much inspiration from since then.

Of these adaptations the best known and most successful is the  
development of practices of workers? inquiry as integral part of class  
composition analysis. Workers? inquiry was developed at a juncture of  
Italian history characterized by rapid industrialization (the so- 
called ?economic miracle?) and massive migration from southern Italy  
to the rapidly industrializing north. At this time the methods of  
industrial sociology and proto-human relations management were being  
introduced to more effectively discipline the recalcitrant and  
rebellious working class. Many migrants from south Italy, moving from  
an agricultural context to industrial conditions that were anything  
but ideal, were both aggravated with the working conditions in the  
factories as well the relatively cold reception they received from the  
recognized trade unions and parties. The Italian Communist Party, for  
various reasons, had become disconnected from the needs and desires of  
working class population, and tended more to act as a disciplinary  
mechanism rather than as a force for liberation.

It is at this point that practices of workers? inquiry emerge. Rather  
than assuming too much about the conditions of the working class, or  
what is politically possible, why not borrow from the tools of the  
social sciences to investigate the existing conditions? That is, to  
turn the tools developed with bourgeois thought and management theory  
to investigate working class conditions, and through that to work and  
build from the realities, experience, and conditions of the wildcat  
strikes and autonomous struggles emerging at the time. To work from  
them and build upon their possibility rather than to make assumptions  
about what they are possible of accomplishing or their nature. Thus  
workers inquiry developed within autonomist movements as a sort of  
parallel sociology, one based on a radical re-reading of Marx (as well  
as Max Weber) against the interpretations and politics of the  
communist party and the official unions. It also borrowed heavily from  
the work and ideas of figures such as Danilo Dolci, a social reformer  
who used questionnaires and life histories among the poor.

What I want to suggest here is that at this juncture it is desirable  
to rethink workers inquiry and class composition in relation to the  
business school. In particular, to what extent is it possible to  
utilize spaces within business school and management departments for  
engaging in forms of workers? inquiry and militant research useful to  
ongoing organizing efforts and movements. This might seem a quite  
strange proposal, for it is more often that the business school is the  
location from which processes of class decomposition are launched,  
where the tools for the more efficient and intensive exploitation  
labor are developed and circulated through future managerial  
populations as they are socialized into these roles. And it is true  
that business schools are deeply ambivalent places. The rise of the  
business school during the 1980s is closely connected to the  
neoliberal assault against the gains of movements during the 1960s and  
1970s. But this is precisely why such a suggestion is all the more  
pressing in relevant: to understand the enemy from within and develop  
tools for the recomposition of cycles of struggle by stealing from the  
master?s workshop.

The business school is an interesting site of inquiry itself,  
precisely because the role it has and continued to play within the  
workings the regeneration of capitalism. Most obviously the business  
school is the space where new managers and typically lower to middle  
level functionaries for capital are trained. But perhaps more  
importantly, business schools also function as important sites for the  
development of responses to existing struggles, finding ways to turn  
demands for flexibility into precarity, autonomy into self-managing  
job teams, and other such operations that render movement demands into  
mechanisms of accumulation.

To the degree that we live in the social factory, where capitalism  
strives to subsume all of life into the workings of one diffuse  
factory, all universities are business schools. What are the art,  
media, and language departments other than training grounds for the  
cognitive, affective, linguistic, and cultural workers? That is they  
are sites of the socialization of productive capacities into forms  
useable by capital. This may seem less obvious in certain departments,  
but while the appearance of not being directly involved in flows of  
capitalist development may facilitate the denial of the reality, it  
does not mean that is true. This is a condition that most students  
within business and management departments are free from. That is,  
they are less likely to have illusions (or at least this particular  
kind of illusion) about the nature of university education. Many are  
there simply to attempt to gain a position with a bit more security in  
their life, or because they didn?t know what to do and their parents  
thought it was a good idea, and so forth. Many do not have any  
particular ideological attachment to capitalism at all. This is a  
point that was presented to me quite starkly when I asked in the  
middle of a recent lecture for all those in the room to raise their  
hand if it is possible to be ethical within capitalism. Out of the  
approximately 150 students in the lecture theatre, only one person  
raised their hand.

To launch a project of workers? inquiry and class composition analysis  
inside the business school means to work from its existing resources  
and conditions. This is a terrain marked by opportunities for  
intervention, even if there is a degree of ambivalence in such a  
proposal. While the resources available for these projects are by no  
means infinite or even necessarily spectacular, they provide or can  
provide a space of possibility that can be utilized. In a minor way  
this is what there are already clusters of people engaged in (of which  
I have been working as a part for the past several years) in  
universities in Leicester, Queen Mary, Essex, and other locations.  
Over the past several years we have coordinated a number of  
gatherings, seminar, and events drawing from autonomous traditions of  
thought and working towards creating spaces for militant research  
within the unexpected space of the business school environment. There  
is also the work and ideas of many people involved in the continued  
development of ?Critical Management Studies,? which is a strain of  
organization theory and research that grew out of labor process  
debates and sociology during the 1980s, expanding from then to also  
include research drawing from feminism, queer theory, and postcolonial  

This is not to say that such is an unproblematic endeavor, or that it  
does not have its own tensions, contradictions, and ambivalences.  
Where there are movements and researchers organizing and addressing  
the horrors of capitalist exploitation, oppression, destruction, and  
related dynamics, the specter of recuperation is never far behind.  
This is readily apparent when manifested in forms like corporate  
social responsibility, business ethics, and research into equality and  
diversity, which often serve to apparently address these concerns but  
more often than not act as little more than safety valves at best.  
Furthermore, they are used to find ways to make social insurgency and  
energies into new levers for accumulation, to foster yet another  
spirit of capitalism and keep the whole bloody mess propped up a  
little longer. The point is not to deny or ignore the risk of  
recuperation, but to the degree that these dynamics confront all  
social movements they achieve any measure of success, it is by working  
through against this ambivalence that recomposing radical politics is  
possible. The business school thus becomes one possible location from  
where it is possible to launch inquiries and investigations to develop  
knowledge and research useful to emerging movements and organizing. Or  
to borrow the phrasing of Italian political theorist Ranierio  
Panzieri, ?the method of inquiry is a permanent point of reference for  
our politics and underlies the illustration of this or that specific  
fact and investigation.? As the grounds of politics are transformed by  
the power growing compositions and cycles of struggle of autonomous  
movements, workers? inquiry and militant research keep open the  
question of how to intervene in the composition of the present to work  
from the liberatory future already existing in the present.

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