Steffanie Ling reviews Nanni Balestrini’s new Verso novel of Italy’s revolutionary 1969, discussing Marxism and worker solidarity then and now.
Nanni Balestrini, We Want Everything: A Novel (Verso, 2016) 224pp.
A young worker tells his mother, “Listen, I don’t want to go to school anymore, because I want jeans; I want to go to the movies, I want to go out for pizza. I want to go out and to do that you need money. If not, what am I going to do…It’s no good living and wanting everything.” We Want Everything is a novel written entirely in such short and certain utterances.
With such direct and un-convoluted prose, Nanni Balestrini channels the force of a young man’s “single obsession is the search for a source of income to be able to consume and survive”. From a basic anger towards “wanting-and-not-having” to charging himself, and others, with impassioned revolt, Ballestrini’s novel is a testimony representing a single perspective among a wave of protests and labor activism that took place during the ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969.
Early in the text, Ballestrini’s protagonist attends trade school, works briefly in a toilet factory before he is fired after a fight with the director, and when he can’t (or doesn’t want to) get hired somewhere, he finds casual labor. If he isn’t able to find anything, he buys a cappuccino to raise his blood pressure high enough to try to sell his blood. Before working at the Fiat factory in Turin, the 25-year old laborer had considered himself a qualunquista—someone indifferent to politics and motivated by their self-interest. A passive disposition is a dangerous thing, a counter productive thing, and productivity is the enemy.
One morning, the young man has simply forgotten about his shift. He knows he’s going to be late, and so stops to grab a drink. He knows that he will be docked half an hour from his pay whether he arrives 2 minutes late, or thirty. When he arrives, he’s greeted with a suspension, but he refuses to be sent home without pay. He knows he can’t get suspended for being late. In actuality, the grounds for his suspension are even less legitimate—it’s actually because the director misheard him, “But that’s impossible, I didn’t call him a jerk…All I said was I was going to work, and that I wasn’t leaving” (my italics). This misunderstanding of work for jerk is a conflation none-the-less. Despite the mishearing, there is a kind of poetics in that instance where the act of working and the person who represents it are unified in a vocal misunderstanding.
Though he considers himself a self-interested man, he recognizes systemic injustice in the workplace and responds tactfully or analytically, but perhaps not in the same terms we understand oppression through the rhetoric of social justice. While working on the line at Fiat, one of his co-workers injures himself on the job: “The guy had really hurt himself and they tell him: No, you have to work. What, are you crazy, is it war, are we in Vietnam here? With all these bloodied, injured people who absolutely have to work?” He later fakes an injury in order to receive time off work, not unlike how soldiers would inflict injuries critical enough to be pulled off the battlefield. Adding further to the militant temper of the novel, one section details a chronology of events transpiring inside and outside of the factory, the outcomes of negotiations with bosses, and reports of morale as if it were a transcription of curt telegrams delivered as it was all happening.
Our access to his internal logic shifts form in the writing. The protagonist indicates of a penchant for strategy beneath the façade, or assumption of unsophistication, and this also becomes more refined deeper into the novel. In Rachel Kushner’s introduction to the edition she draws comparisons between Balestrini’s novel and the act of inchiesta, or worker’s inquiry, which is a method of Marxist social research that builds worker subjectivity. The subjectivity in Everything is based on that of Alfonso Natella. Though he has a penchant for defiance, he was not a singular proletariatian anti-hero. Those who best defied factory discipline on individual accounts showed interest in organized class struggle. Natella would later become associated with Potere Operaio (Worker’s Power), the extra-parliamentary group Balestrini was a founding member of. Comprised of blue-collar workers and neo-Marxist intellectuals, in the mid-70’s the group would split along these respective class lines to form the Red Brigade and those involved in the Autonomist movement.
The novel presents a gradual inversion of the concept of ‘everything’, while the concept itself maintains its exterior as a universalizing and potent word. From the material ‘everything’ of record players and jeans to demanding the ideological ‘everything’ of workers autonomy—“All the stuff, all the wealth that we make is ours. Enough. We can’t stand it anymore, we can’t just be stuff too, goods to be sold. Vogliamo tutto—We want everything.” He proceeds from not knowing how his wage is calculated (work rates, they are tied to worker’s production), to later explaining the wage as a tool of suppression (“The worker’s weapon for fighting this tool is the refusal of the wage as a compensation for the quantity and quality of work”). The word ‘everything’ permeates the book and wherever it is seen, there is a moment of seriousness, of consciousness and the power of knowing what you want, and furthermore, having a plan.
The German artist Thomas Hirschhorn espoused that the plan Wo steh ich? Was will ich? (Where do I stand? What do I want?)” yields form—a simple enough concept. For him, the plan culminates in installations that construct worlds from his assertive imagination, what he calls “plans executed in the third dimension.” Similarly, Kushner considers literature as lived experience: “this novel was already literature when it was in the form of passing thoughts a worker was having on the assembly line”, which confirms that this third dimension is not just this abstract place where ideas for sculptures or novels go to exist, it is the dimension our labour manifests in. It is articulation: “For me, it is about whether I have the strength, the will, the passion, and the capacity to create a work—to assert a form that has bite and that demands as much of the observer as I demand of myself, namely, everything.” It is where the plan goes to become a novel, but first, unforgettably, was a class struggle, wave of protests and a moment when ‘work’ was misheard for ‘jerk’ on its way there.
 Paolo Virno as quoted by Steve Wright in Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism. 2002 (London: Pluto Press) p. 121
 Sylvere Lotringer, “In the Shadow of the Red Brigades” Autonomia: Post-Political Politics. New York: Semiotext(e). p. vi
Steffanie Ling is a producer of criticism, pamphlets, short stories, essays, exhibitions, reviews, bluntness, anecdotes, shout outs, wrestling storylines, proposals, applications, jokes, readings, minimal poems, poems, dinner, compliments, and diatribes. She lives in Vancouver (Canada), frequenting grocery stores, the Cinematheque, and other air conditioned spaces. Her books are Cuts of Thin Meat (Spare Room, 2015) and Nascar (Blank Cheque, 2016).