What the Dance Music Industry Can Learn From Italian Operaismo?

by Jean-Hugues Kabuiku

A plague rave in Paris this summer raised a question for me, how can you be a participant in a scene that pretends to be the heirs of the 90s rave era only to dilute the craft of DJing into a rat-race? Trying to individually propel your career in a pandemic, when 99.9% of your colleagues are out of a job and potentially spreading a virus in a suburb of Paris where the population is a Black and people of color majority. The recent backlash about Lieuron’s rave really laid bare the divide in class here. As 2000 party goers in the countryside of France– in an area barely populated —  made international news, the same number of attendees in one of the most densely populated of europe didn’t even ignite a tweet by the international press. 

A leftist critique needs to be applied to understand what we are witnessing in terms of irresponsible behaviour from DJs, booking agents and promoters, who are still touring even at the time of me writing this. Some could, and often do, shrug this issue away by simply believing some people don’t know any better. For example, if you weren’t taught about the long history of mutual aid in our scene, you could arrive at the conclusion that trying to make a quick buck is the only way to soothe your economic hardship. But taking a look back into the past shows just how presently fraught and fragile this scene is and how European authoritarianism, both public and private, seeks to wipe out our culture. If you knew that in 1989 British chief superintendent Ken Tappenden, (who had been involved in cracking down the miners’ strike in 1984-85), created the Pay Party Unit to shackle the rave scene in Thatcher’s Great Britain, then you’d understand just how much police repression and violence this scene has faced. All this to then now have irresponsible promoters romantically LARPing on the 90s era aesthetic as if they were perfect, golden days. 

In my piece What is the future for music after COVID-19? VOL II”, journalist Zab Mustefa said One of the most unbearable things for me was the fuckwits attending these recent raves and likening their ‘anti-establishment’ and ‘underground’ covid raving to that of illegal raves in the 80s and 90s, that somehow it’s making a statement. It’s not comparable and it’s not remotely underground, darling. During Thatcherite times in the UK, of course there was a collective and justifiable creative community fighting the Tories and organising raves as a form of release. But when they did it, it didn’t risk killing anyone.”

This pandemic highlights how the benefits of these technologies: streaming, social network, and datafication, have been differentially distributed and have contributed to new patterns of quantification, surveillance, deskilling and precarity. These are the issues that any radical positioning within the dance music industry needs to address in its theorizing. Operaismo has a rich heritage on which to feed from and to use as an analytic lens.

It sounds obvious but has to be said: crowdfunding to put money in the pocket of landlords while forgetting the club workers or resident DJ’s and/or forming a union to beg Spotify to pay 1ct per stream when the demand is for artists to receive a fair cut and not a menial percentage per stream is not improving the material condition of cultural workers and artists.

Comparatively if we look at more left leaning ways of thought, like the autonomous left Italian tradition as a body of theory and direct action, it shows the historical precedent towards contributing to actual anti-establishment discourse. A dominant ideology in this vein is known as Operaism, or workerism — a youth movement of mass rejection with a focus on social reproduction issues. Refusal of the state & capitalism as much as of the unions and the parliamentary left.

The Turin car factories during the Autunno caldo or ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969, has often been cited as the catalyst for a wave of worker mobilisation that profoundly changed Italian industrial relations and politics. Factory workers, notably assisted and supported by university students, demanded wage increases across the board, access to the same conditions as those of the white-collar workers within the company. This action marked improvements to the appalling working conditions in the Fordist-style factories. These issues emerged in the spring of 1969, matured in the summer, and exploded during the autumn of that year.

On July 3, 1969, the workers took to the streets, burning the factory-made cars transported by trucks, sabotaging the machine. These acts were soon countered by Carabinieri (Italian military force with law enforcement duties) charges. Two nights and three days of insurrection followed.

Outside of the factories, Italian militant youth were practicing “self-reduction”. “Self-reduction” is a practice that involves paying only part of housing utilities or straight up shoplifting. Some reasons for this practice is laid out clearly In Radical America by Lotta Continua:

”Since it is ruling-class policy to make workers move to the industrial jobs in the North, hardly any low-rent municipal housing is built in Rome. There are 100,000 families living in the outlying slums. Construction workers, newly-arrived immigrants, unemployed workers, pensioners; they live either in shanty towns or in apartments shared by several families. Another 62,000 families live in private accommodations, paying rents of between 40,000 and 80,000 lira ($650 to $1300 a month).”

The proletarian youth circles defied the logic of the Italian Communist Party austerity politics by demanding access to luxury goods, services, cultural products, and not just the basic means of survival. After over a year of pandemic, it’s clear that many people have internalised austerity politics as the only feasible answer when pushing for a $2000 stimulus check is seen as the paramount of radical politics.  

Fast forward to October 30, 2020 a Gucci vitrine in Turin got shattered by young people who attempted to loot the store, an example of just how cyclical working class history is. 

The lack of concrete measures and responsibility of white institutions to not feed into landlordism and support BPOC artists is really telling. One of the key lessons in Operaismo is that the workers are always the ones pushing the union further left to really improve their material conditions — in a climate where artists are not working on the fundamental questions of music valuation but how to commodify themself better in a short term vision, we can only be critical of unionizing effort. 

Another point we have to think about is that mutual aid can only have so much of an impact in the context of a vicious poverty cycle circle alongside a deficient welfare state. Thanks to years of reaganomics-thatcherism in the West, our government totally atrophied social benefit via straight up suppression or unnecessary bureaucratic frictions. 

So what could be learned from the Italian Operaismo theory and applied to artists’ current struggles? What can be implemented and how? There is talk for artists to join unions in order to improve their conditions, but joining a union if there is no autonomous radical movement within the scene and thinking it will be efficient is way too optimistic.

In the context of Autunno caldo, the decrease in the flow of labour migration from southern Italy was reflected by the nearly full employment levels in the north which definitely helped in terms of bargaining power. 440 hours of strikes in the region forced the Italian government to write the Statuto dei Lavoratori (Status of the Worker) which considerably changed the material conditions of the worker in the northern industrial regions (mainly Piedmont/Lombardy).

In the context of the current dance music scene, the French government ignored that electronic music exists and allocated 80 million Euro to the Opera of Paris, while ignoring the demand of 20M € that the scene proposed to parliament. In the UK, the Arts Council directed funding to venture capital backed institutions. In the US there’s almost no art funding, but brace yourself, Congress is debating $600 stimulus checks. So what are we doing to advocate for artists in this financial crisis?

There have been no practical discussions around how to combat artists’ foreboding poverty. We cannot rely on a platform that oversaturates music listeners on a predetermined friday. Can the Berlin Club Commission say that they aren’t just filling landlords pockets/clubs furnishings with their United We Stream initiative? What about the cleaners? The bar staff? The Coat Check? The Resident DJ’s? Are they receiving support? Having an initiative who is paying 80% of salary for people put on the german part-time scheme, in an industry that historically doesn’t declare all hours worked is perplexing. 

Furthermore, what are the direct actions taken for employees facing racial discrimination in their work place and attendees facing discriminatory door policies that’s basically a berlin tradition (ref :https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/14/arts/music/berlin-club-bouncers) — like wouldn’t it be great, for once, to have an official statement on this matter? When asked a question in a panel with Horst Festival about what concrete measures the Berlin Club Comission would take regarding employees and clubgoers facing discrimination, Lutz Leichsenring from the Berlin Club Comission said they were working on a program where they will be going abroad to Africa to improve relationship with the global south. There is black people in Berlin, no need to try to improve relationships with the global south – what good would an institution do with this thinking ? Here are some actual potential pathways we can apply to find ourselves in a better space of material leverage towards bettering our conditions:

  1. Refusal of work / strategy of refusal:

One of the strategies by the autonomous movement in the Anni di Piombo (a term used to describe a period of social and political turmoil in Italy that lasted from the 1960s-1980s), was the refusal of work –  the refusal of participating in capitalist institutions such as  factories or schools, implied a refusal of the capitalist organisation of labour and its associated work ethic.

“This originated in the ideas that Tronti had outlined when claiming the significance of the ‘strategy of refusal’ for Marxist theory. In his view, productive labour constituted the basis of capitalist political power. Any struggle to change the conditions of labour would end up playing into capitalists’ hands as it only led to a change in the way their power was articulated politically, resulting, simply put, in an ‘improvement of exploitation’. The only act that would challenge the political power of the capital at its core, was to organise the withdrawal of labour altogether.

This would open a systemic crisis that would lead to the ‘destruction of the present society’ (Tronti, 1966). In the 1970s, refusal of work encompassed more than just strikes and production stoppages, the hallmarks of the ‘Hot Autumn’, including also practices that were being ‘autonomously’ deployed by the working class, such as absenteeism and withdrawing from the labour market, or shunning industrial employment altogether to live in the counterculture.” operaisti and the ‘refusal of work’ in 1970’s Italy. (Estud. hist. (Rio J.) [online]., 2017)

If we compare this to the current dance music scene, most artists have been forced to withdraw from the labor market, however some artists didn’t experience it this way, so a minority of promoters and artists literally kept touring. A small minority were able to pay their rent with the income generated via Bandcamp Friday, when the Government should be mandating expropriation of big landlords and enforce a rent freeze in the first place. We have now an overflow of releases determined by Bandcamp’s “Bandcamp Fridays”. There are thousands of new tracks in a world where clubs don’t exist anymore, which raises questions about quality, as our capitalist death cult leaves us with so few options. Producers are massively forced into participating in music devaluation. 

  1. Self-Reduction:

Self-reduction consisted of paying reduced fares to bus companies and energy providers at the time that were state-owned. After trying the legal route and failing, the momentum for self-reduction was built by a protest in Pinerolo, an immigrant working-class area on the outskirts of Turin, not far from a new factory constructed in 1967, Fiat Rivalta. 

How are we supposed to pay these mostly privately-owned companies who control our amenities and transport? How are people expected to pay for it in one of the biggest economic crises of our time? The local government in charge of maintaining the transport network of Paris and the Ile-De-France region literally begged for the state to increase the transport budget to recoup the loss of income from its lack of use during the first lockdown. If one of the richest regions in the world has to beg for funding, how are people who lost their main source of income supposed to keep up? To apply Self-reduction to people in the dance music industry – it would have to be tailored depending on each person’s context, their country/city and so on.

  1. Guaranteed wages:

“Salario garantito, ‘guaranteed wages’– a secure salary for workers which would be immune to the restructuring of operations within the factory (such as cassa integrazione or relocation of departments), but more broadly a secure social wage for all adults, whether workers or not.” – (PIZZOLATO, Nicola. A new revolutionary practice: operaisti and the ‘refusal of work’ in 1970’s Italy. Estud. hist. (Rio J.) [online] 2017). 

Guaranteed wages for people who work in nightlife is a demand that a unified front including security, bar staff, cloakroom staff, cleaning staff, managers and sound engineers could propose. People should demand this within our scene from the government and it should be expanded to everyone of course.

Prior to the pandemic it was already a relevant idea but 9 months into this societal collapse, it should be a demand that everybody should get behind while pushing for a radical vision, close to the Universal Basic Income idea. In Germany, the part-time work scheme offers furloughed staff members up to 80% of their salaries. For an industry that famously pays people at least half under the table, it can result in an insufficient sum, as one’s full income is rarely declared to tax authority. I believe we can pressure an institution and government to do better than that. 

  1. Appropriation

The term appropriation meant reclaiming labour time as free time through self-reduction of bills and fees or capped prices on supermarket shopping, from some of the wage loss engineered by the capitalist state through inflation. Pizzolato continues to describe and contextualize appropriation as such:

“Following the onset of the oil crisis and the related policy of austerity, Italy became home to an extensive movement of ‘self-reduction’, a form of appropriation of social housing rents, utility bills, and transport fares, which had spiralled upwards following inflation – a struggle initiated by the radicals in the late 1960s but which escalated in those years and in some cases was also supported by the unions (Alemanni et al, 1974).” – (PIZZOLATO, Nicola. A new revolutionary practice: operaisti and the ‘refusal of work’ in 1970’s Italy. Estud. hist. (Rio J.) [online]. 2017)

I’m not saying that all of these can be implemented within the dance music industry. In a world where the youth often adopt a capitalist work ethic because they haven’t been taught another way, booking agents can take advantage of said young artist. To not say just how difficult it would be to think about alternatives would be naive. Especially if you take the craft as a rat-race and only use the word community for virtue-signaling, to soothe your economic hardship through touring during a global pandemic or trying to scrape together money via bandcamp. Although the Operaist experience ended badly, its collapse provides important lessons for people who are still searching for a world without exploitation. 

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