“The Birth of the Work Underground” by Philip Mattera. Emergency #2 (1984).

Was the growth of flexible labor and the proliferation of ‘off-the-books’ work an outcome of capitalist counter-attack in response to the mass struggles of the late-Keynesian years, or was it a victory of those same struggles? Was it neither of these entirely, and rather somewhere in-between? These questions, very simplistically put here, took up many column inches in autonomist writing in the 1980s, particularly as militants looked at the mass “refusal of work” in light of the Reagan and Thatcher counter-revolutions.

They were also raised in court in the Italian state’s effort to crush autonomia. Antonio Negri, who had been arrested along with many others on April 7th, 1979, found himself explaining to the state the content of his files that they had confiscated, and the meaning of writings – his and others – contained within. In an interrogation about these writings, a judge asked Negri about so-called “proletarian patrols” (see “Negri’s Interrogation” in Autonomia: Post-Political Politics, here), which led to the following interaction:

This transcript (of which this is only a small clip) was co-translated from Italian to English by Phil Mattera, who had been a participant in New York Struggle Against Work, and was part of the editorial collective that produced the second issue of Zerowork.

The second issue of Emergency was published in 1984 (we were unable to figure out that exact month, but the deadline for submissions for the 3rd issue is noted as July, so likely early in the year). This issue featured cover artwork by the famous visual artist Barbara Kruger. For the second issue the editorial collective had changed and John Merrington was no longer a member (see our notes on the first issue of Emergency here). The journal was still distributed by Pluto Press.

In addition to his work with Zerowork, Mattera had by this point also published pieces in Library Journal, Radical America, and The Nation.

Mattera’s translation of Negri’s interrogation above is relevant here because he would go on to dedicate years of research and writing to the question of what some Italian autonomists would call the “diffused” work, including “off the books” labor and the “underground economy.” Many would emphasize the liberatory aspects they believed it presented. Take, for example, these paragraphs in Lotringer’s interview with Christian Marazzi in the 1980 book Autonomia: Post-Political Politics:

Mattera’s article in this issue of Emergency is ambivalent:

Mattera sees the growth of the underground economy as a development in class struggle, as an outcome of the previous cycle of struggle (including repression), but the ambivalence in this piece is illustrative of the larger crisis that overcame the Marxist left during the early years of neoliberalism – as movements waned (and were repressed), poverty deepened and class composition shifted. In many ways, it appears that Mattera is taking the issues raised by Negri and Marazzi (and many others) and trying to come up with some evidence and grounded answers. This is easier to see in the following year, 1985, when Mattera published his book Off the Books: The Rise of the Underground Economy (Pluto Press).

This issue of Emergency, like the first issue of Emergency, is oddly difficult to come by in the trade and has few institutional holdings, with only two in North America (at Labadie and Harvard, respectively). We have scanned Mattera’s article and posted it to Libcom for interested readers, here.

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