Converging Struggles: Working-Class Composition, Technological Development, and Ecological Politics

Looking back at the history of labor struggles since the advent of capitalism, one pattern is striking: struggles against the devaluation and for the decommodification of labor have tended to trigger ‘fixes’ and ‘innovations’ of capital, including technological ones. Thus, if the technologies of production are now more at the heart of catastrophic climate production than ever, the question is how current labor struggles can contribute to eco-social and decolonial ends, rather than fueling the next phase of capitalist accumulation and thereby ultimately accelerating the climate crisis. In their contribution to the BG text series “Allied Grounds,” researchers Lorenzo Feltrin and Emanuele Leonardi explore the politics at play.


In this intervention, we deploy the operaista method of class composition analysis to the question of organizational forms in working-class environmentalism. Operaismo – translatable as workerism – is full of ambiguities, internal diversity, and blind spots (as its own feminist strand correctly and polemically pointed out early on).

To us, who grew up with it, this approach is just a situated starting point to reach out to other traditions, coming from different people and places than the Italian factories, communities, and universities where it first originated in the 1960s. In this sense, we maintain that one of the operaista contributions still valuable today is the principle that organizational forms should be constantly updated to keep up with the transformations of the working-class composition in different places and times. Consequently, operaismo is not inherently anti-union or anti-party as the superficial clichés so popular today would have it, but it rather has a flexible approach in which many different formulas have been tried out in the history of political interventions inspired by it.

Thus, the method is one of conducting workers’ inquiries on the class composition existing in any given context, formulating political and organizational proposals, and testing their effectiveness through trial and error. It is therefore a process of continuous exchange between the production of knowledge and political intervention.

The composition of the working class

In operaismo, the ways in which workers are deployed, segmented, and stratified in the workplace through different economic sectors, labor processes, wage hierarchies, commodity chains, etc. constitute the technical composition of the working class, its ‘objective’ side. The political composition of the working class, on the other hand, indicates the extent to which workers as a class do or do not overcome their divisions to assert their common interests vis-à-vis capital. This is the ‘subjective’ side, made up of workers’ forms of consciousness, struggle, and organization.

Following feminist theorists such as Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Silvia Federici, and Selma James, the scholar-activists Seth Wheeler and Jessica Thorne have usefully proposed to update this framework by adding the social composition of the working class, that is, the ways in which workers are reproduced in the community, for example through family, housing, welfare, and health regimes. The objective side of class composition is then bifurcated between technical composition (related to the workplace) and social composition (related to the community). From this perspective, it is possible to analyze how the working class is segmented also in relation to environmental degradation.

Opposing the “monetization of health”

Tensions between workplaces and communities over noxious production are not a historical constant. For example, during Italy’s Long 1968, innovative struggles such as those at FIAT’s paint shops or Montedison’s chemical plants turned the issue of a healthy environment – first in the factory and then in the surrounding areas – from a technicality into a political stake in the struggles of trade unions and social movements.

These workplaces thus became a peculiar kind of ecosystem, as the working class made them its “natural” habitat and ended up knowing them better than anyone else. It is no coincidence that the struggles against industrial noxiousness – led by key figures such as Ivar Oddone in Turin and Augusto Finzi in Porto Marghera – were seminal in sharply criticizing the so-called “monetization of health.” Their critiques challenged the notion that wage increases and benefits could compensate for exposure to toxic substances-sometimes deadly-and other forms of occupational hazards. In doing so, they self-consciously constituted an antagonistic pressure for cleaner production beyond the profit imperative.

The dialectic between class struggle and technological innovation

To understand what has changed since then, we need to remember that class composition inquiry originated as an “inversion” of Karl Marx’s analysis of capital composition: the relationship between means of production and living labor. According to Marx’s “general law of capitalist accumulation,” capitalism tends to raise the productivity of labor via technological development, and this in turn increases employment precarity. As summarized by Marx, “the higher the productiveness of labor, the greater is the pressure of the laborers on the means of employment, the more precarious, therefore, becomes their condition of existence.”

This “law” can be counteracted by a number of more or less contingent countertendencies, but it is a constant force in capitalism, whose effects become apparent in the absence of sufficiently powerful countertendencies. In any case, it can be seen as having two dialectically interrelated faces, as it refers to the co-evolution of capital composition (production becoming on average more capital intensive) and class composition (the rising share of the surplus working class).

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

The codification and incorporation of workers’ previously “clandestine” knowledge into machines determines not only a quantitative increase in the ratio of “constant capital” (investment in fixed assets plus raw materials and supplies) to “variable capital” (the wage bill), but also a qualitative tightening of capitalist domination over the labor process and the workers involved in it, via a trajectory of technological development that is by no means neutral.

As Raniero Panzieri observed back in 1961: “Capitalist technological development involves, through the different phases or rationalization and evermore refined forms of integration, a growing rise of capitalist control. […] The working-class overthrow of the system is a negation of the entire organization in which capitalist development is expressed, first and foremost of technology insofar as it is linked to productivity.” In this sense, one can speak of the increasing political composition of capital to refer to capital’s drive, always resisted to some extent, to secure its power over the labor process.

Energy and technological innovation

The examples of the dialectic between class struggle and technological innovation are manifold, from the Taylorist-Fordist assembly line to numerical control, containerization, or – more recently – algorithmic management. Yet – in relation to the ecological crisis – energy is probably the most significant area. Indeed, according to Andreas Malm, coal replaced water streams as the default industrial source of energy because of capital’s need for mobility in its quest for cheap labor, in a context marked by rising labor unrest: “The struggle against labor called for machinery, which called for steam power, which called for coal, thereby coupled to the growth of manufacturing.”

(However, it is worth noting that, as helpful as this analysis is, its blind spot is colonialism as a condition of large-scale industrial production in Britain).

Similarly, Timothy Mitchell deciphers the (partial) substitution of coal for the more fluid oil and gas as a technological development aimed at neutralizing workers’ “power of inhibition” by minimizing choke points in the flow of energy, with the pipeline as a device for circumventing the rigidity of the working class.

The politics of fenceline communities

The technological and organizational restructurings that have taken place in large-scale industry in the decades between the working-class environmentalism of Italy’s Long 1968 and today have led to multiple transformations. We highlight the following three, which are by no means universal but valid for many cases. First, continuing automation reduced the share of jobs in large-scale industry (relative to output and to the total size of the global working class). Second, of the jobs that remain, the most skilled ones are kept in-house, but tend to require formalized qualifications, which provides an incentive for long-range recruitment. Third, the ‘least’ skilled jobs are outsourced to a partially floating workforce of contractors and agency workers.

The combined effect is a relative “deterritorialization” of the workforce in large-scale industry, which tends to be more detached from local fenceline communities than before neoliberal restructuring. Similar tendencies are widespread in large-scale mining in extractive economies. But how does this affect the politics of fenceline communities? To answer this question, we need to clarify what makes these neighborhoods political in the first place.

The combination of class and environmental struggles potentially comes to a head in neighborhoods that are immediately adjacent to a noxious productive site and are directly affected by its noise, odors, chemical emissions, traffic, etc., and thus exposed to hazardous chemicals, high levels of pollution, and environmental degradation, along with the threat of chemical explosions. Above all, these are often located in so-called ‘sacrifice zones’ that are disproportionately inhabited by racialized people, indigenous communities, and the working poor.

Thus, if fenceline communities near noxious industries are often disproportionately composed of the most disadvantaged ranks of the working class (in a broad sense, which includes the unemployed, and reproductive, informal, and unwaged workers in all sectors), because higher-income households can more easily relocate to healthier areas, then the employment trends just mentioned mean that such communities remain exposed to significant levels of industrial noxiousness (despite improvements due to the diffusion of green techno-fixes), but reap meager benefits in terms of industrial employment. This increases the chances of intra-working-class tensions between those employed in polluting industries but living far from them and those living nearby but working in other sectors. The overall result is a widening of the bifurcation between workplaces and communities, between technical composition and social composition.

Multiplication of organizational forms

This division also affects forms of organization. For workers in big industry and, more generally, for workers in capital-intensive sectors, large unions are, in normal times and despite all their ambiguities, an effective means of defending their interests and negotiating relatively good wages and conditions through enforceable collective agreements. Large unions also tend to have considerable influence in the public sector. However, the further one moves toward the precarious pole of the working class, the harder it becomes for the big unions to organize a highly fragmented and dispersed workforce, with little chance of stopping the bottlenecks of production from within the workplace.

A multiplicity of organizational forms is thus adopted by different segments of the surplus population: smaller and more radical unions, social movement organizations, community associations, informal committees in charge of enforcing roadblocks to create choke points from outside the workplace, etc. The party form – itself a very broad category with multiple possibilities – is present in all segments of the working class, although it does not have the same prominence as in other eras.

Combining workplace and community struggles

The challenge of working-class environmentalism today is that of generating a political re-composition, a convergence, of workplace and community struggles through common platforms geared towards breaking the job blackmail (‘wage or health’).

On the one hand, the spaces in which workers reproduce themselves are the sphere in which they most directly experience an interest in fighting the ecological crisis. On the other hand, capital-intensive workplaces are the place where there is more leverage to transform the production that generates this crisis. So this challenge is also one of convergence between different forms of organization, where convergence does not mean merging or becoming similar. Rather, convergence means cooperation between different organizations from their base, while maintaining the specificities that allow them to function for their respective segments of the working class.

However, this cannot happen by the fiat of theoretical preaching. In fact, the objective fragmentation of the technical and social composition of the working class means that opportunities for convergence tend to arise in situations of crisis, when and where the structures separating different segments of the working class are shaken. And these opportunities must be seized quickly. Indeed, the convergence of labor struggles with climate justice struggles successfully led by the GKN Florence Factory Collective (whose workers are mostly rebellious members of CGIL, Italy’s largest union) only became possible when management announced the closure of the factory.

The Ex GKN dispute is not about defending European industry per se and its colonial history and nature. And if this is so, then we need to face the fact, that if we truly wish a more egalitarian international division of labour, industrial production in the Global North needs to degrow. In this sense the Ex GKN struggle is about the transformation of both production and the social relations that shape it. Specifically, in this case, it is about the transformation and decommodification of transport (with an emphasis on its public nature) that would require fewer raw materials in the first place. Ultimately, this means pushing against the scramble for ‘critical minerals’ in the Global South currently being waged by the forces of the ecological transition ‘from above,’ and strengthening international ties between the forces of the ecological transition ‘from below,’ as has happened to some extent between the GKN Factory Collective and the movement of Argentina’s self-managed factories.

The fuel in the engine of the ecological crisis

Finally, let us return to the aforementioned dialectical relationship between class struggle and the development of fossil-fuel technologies. Paraphrasing Aristotle, Mario Tronti cast “the working class as the moving mover of capital.” In this sense, class struggle is the prime mover of capitalist development at a much deeper level than the fossil-fuel power that has been called into existence to keep working-class power within the parameters of capital accumulation. No doubt Tronti, writing in 1965, did not have the ecological crisis in mind. Today, however, we can see how the power of the working class – driving the development of technologies capable of controlling it – has become the fuel in the engine of the ecological crisis.

And yet it is in the convergence of different forms of class struggle that there are multiple possibilities for reclaiming, reappropriating, and ultimately reforming capitalist technology, as well as the hope of hitting the “off” switch to lay the groundwork for the production of wealth through alternative social relations and thus alternative technologies.

Note from the editors: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Have a look here:

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