Social Amnesia in the Movement?
An Interview with Giovanni Mazzetti

Also: Read Mazzetti's "Where Do Anti-Global Movements Come From?"

Gloves Off editors Claudio Puty and Sara Burke emailed Giovanni Mazzetti after learning of a history of polemics between Mazzetti and members of the anarchist movement in Italy. We wanted to learn more about his views on the political constellations on the Left in Italy today.

Gloves Off
In your article [in il Manifesto] you mention that the Left suffers from a kind of amnesia. What are the consequences of this? We know that historical experiences can’t be repeated, and choices the Left makes at any particular historical moment were taken under particular conditions and most of the time can’t be repeated. So what is the meaning of your appeal to “learn from experience?”

Giovanni Mazzetti
When I speak of severe social amnesia I have in mind the phenomenon which was very well described by Russel Jacoby in his book published in the 1970s, Social Amnesia: A critique of conformist psychology from Adler to Laing, which was mentioned in the interview with Barbara Epstein that I bring up at the beginning of my article for il manifesto.

People in general think of themselves as if they are out of history—as Marx said they consider history as a sequence of “dead facts”. Not knowing how they were “made,” they normally feel free to start their lives the way they decide. So the forces that make their lives, and condition them, are completely ignored.

Any movement that thinks of itself as a movement that aims to change the lives of human beings should not make this mistake. “Learning from experience” means therefore to think of themselves always on an historical basis. You say that “historical experiences can’t be repeated.” But in my opinion this is not completely true.

Isn’t the drive to cut wages a repetition of the strategy prevailing in the 1920s and 1930s of the past century? Isn’t the development of a liberal ideology following the same paths as the conservative way of thinking of that period? However, since circumstances have changed, these repetitions appear anachronistic, and they present some peculiarities. But they do occur.

To put the whole problem in synthesis, I agree with Freud, who said that generally human beings are driven by a “compulsion to repeat”, and only in exceptional circumstances elaborate a creative behavior. In prosaic terms, they usually live they way they were brought up, since it is the only one they know. If we deny this “compulsion” we invent a “freedom” that does not exist.

Gloves Off
One of the possible consequences of this amnesia of the Left is to ignore the victories and defeats of previous generations of the Left. Don’t you think that this underestimates the fact that some of these previous generations also didn’t have it “all figured out”?

Giovanni Mazzetti
In my opinion it isn’t really a matter of knowing the victories and defeats of the Left, but rather knowing the process and the results of previous development—including the animal part of it. In other words it is not a matter of knowing how those sympathetic with us made life, but how life has been made by all human beings that existed before us.

If I may try to explain myself with an instance: In Europe we developed something which we call “a right to health.” If the citizens do not know the economic basis on which that conquest became possible, then they know nothing.

As soon as economy finds itself in trouble, that right will dissolve, becoming a pure spirit. But if you know the process through which it became effective, and especially if you put that process in prospective, you must start by understanding what changes appear to menace that right. Then you won’t fight only for an abstract maintenance of that right, but to demonstrate that it is historically coherent, if it is coherent, with the new situation.

Of course previous generations didn’t have it all figured out. But no historical answer figures “it all” out. Let me recall Marx's thinking once again. He said that every satisfaction of need creates new needs, that is: new problems. So no generation can “figure out” a definitive solution, but only historically valid strategies.

Gloves Off
You identify the appeal of the networked structure in the antiglobal movement, created by a certain rejection of the hierarchical Left, as a manifestation of the low-degree of development of the Left. Could you elaborate on that?

Giovanni Mazzetti
I believe that, in order to understand the problem, we should refer to an old article of Friedrich Engels, entitled On Authority. In that article Engels criticizes the anarchist movements of his time because they just pretend to get rid of a hierarchical structure. All forms of human institution are based on hierarchical structures.

Have you ever seen a small child produce his own food? Have you ever seen a pupil teach to his teachers? Have you ever seen a boy or a girl explain to their grandparents what life is? “Rules” are met by everyone of us in the very moment we enter in life. This for the very simple reason that we “enter” into a culture. The problem is not the existence of a hierarchy, but the eventual rigidity of this structure.

If one thinks that hierarchy is a problem in itself, one does not recognize the essential conditions of human life and feels free in a way that is not rational, because it denies differences—which include a different power. If one wants to go beyond the previous forms of socialization, one should not expect to be able to do it just by getting rid of them, but rather by elaborating new forms.

These forms do not spring from good will, but from the capacity of a part of human kind to anticipate a new culture. In other words, development necessarily implies more subordination to the conditions which make the goals attainable. And these include a form of organization which is not spontaneous. The moment in which people subtract themselves from the previous form of hierarchy can be a necessary step in creating the need for a new organization. But it cannot be considered an end in itself. Of course unless you think as an anarchist.

Giovanni Mazzetti teaches economics at the University of Calabria, Italy.

He is one of the most influential thinkers of the Italian Left and has written extensively on many issues, ranging from the assessment of the really-existing socialist experiences in East Europe, the demise of the "golden age" of capitalism, as well as the perspectives of the left in the XIX century.

A great part of his research has focused on the importance and feasibility of the struggle for the reduction of working time as the core element in a workers' strategy for a new society.

Main Publications:

[In Italian]

Scarsità e redistribuizione del lavoro, Dedalo 1986

La dinamica e i mutamenti sociali del lavoro, Rubbettino, 1993

Economia e orario, Datanews, 1995

Quel pane da spartire, Bollati Boringhieri 1997.

Gloves Off
How do you see the idea that the movement is able to forge alliances in practice and does not need a single vertical structure? Could you comment on Toni Negri’s ideas about the autonomy of working class organization?

Giovanni Mazzetti
I don't like to refer to “the” movement as an abstract entity. Some movements could be able to forge alliances in practice without a vertical structure if the need for a change is already socially shared. But in this case the movement is expressing a form of passive drive.

Nobody can deny that during the 1960s, the student movement in Europe met the workers’ movement without the need of hierarchical structure. But this happened only because the needs which were expressed were already ripe: that is, they had emerged in the previous decades.

But it seems to me that this situation cannot be generalized. The movement today is anticipating needs, and it does not come to life with an existing social urge. I would say it is a “resisting” movement, not a “proposing” one. It fights for what it should not be done, but knows very little of what to do. I’m aware that very few accept this limit, but I’m convinced that it exists.

The expression “autonomy” is something that I abhor. I can tolerate it when it refers to the need to subtract oneself from a form of dependence which makes one impotent. But all forms of nonpathological relationships are based on the negations of autonomy.

In truth I believe that all expressions in support of autonomy today—as a positive horizon—should be called with the old name of “anarchism.” And in fact they refer to no other power than one's own, whereas all sound forms of independence refer necessarily to an acceptance of powers others than one's own.

Gloves Off
You seem to suggest that we’ve seen two forms of globalization, one that opposes state and capital, as if they were an identity, and that rejects any form of participation in instances of the state, and the other that sees in state regulation the only way out of neoliberalism. What do you think an effective Left alternative would have to say about these two forms, or responses to globalization.

Giovanni Mazzetti
I’m afraid I don’t understand well your question. Capital and globalization, to me, are the same thing. Since the existing state, when the capitalistic order becomes prevailing, was still a residual of the feudalist organization of life, the dominating classes said “laissez faire”, that is “away with the state”, let the stage to the (bourgeois) individual. Each one in relationship with the whole world.

The state was once again called on the scene in a period of dramatic crisis, during the Twenties and the Thirties of the past century. But it really received its role only after the second world war (see the history of economics, of John Kenneth Galbraith, with whom on other aspects I disagree). Then it was the only way out of the crisis. And when it took place, after the war, there was an extraordinary development.
But now the alternative is not the same as in the Fifties. So I disagree either with those who think that it would be sufficient to get rid of bureaucracy to gain freedom for the individual, and with those who think that the state could still guarantee a phase of development. The “alternative” is an alternative to both views or is not.

There are obviously so many problems connected with this point of view that I find it difficult to explain myself clearly. Just to mention some of these: is the individual who acts on the basis of his personal experience really capable of relating himself coherently to the “whole”? On the other hand, if he appeals to the whole is he really capable not to transfer immediately his particular into the general? Does he know the whole, or does he simply deduct from his particular situation, through a false process of generalization?

Each individual is immediately a member of society, but society is not necessarily expressed immediately in each individual. And the mediator is history, that is the knowledge of lives and thoughts of other individuals in their relationships. That’s why I appealed to history as a measure of the antiglobal movements.

Gloves Off
How do you see the development of the antiglobal Left in Italy? Is there any noticeable evolution in the past few years?

Giovanni Mazzetti
I think that we have had a change, compared to a few years ago. I would say that we have now more attention to the problems, and that work can be started. But I would doubt that we could already register it as a positive change. We have not yet started to work with the preliminary conditions of change. Our adversaries may have more troubles – and this is very good – but we should not still be happy with ourselves. To quote Marx once again: the emerging needs are good, but we are still lacking the necessary capacities to go beyond “good will”.

And without self criticism we will probably never acquire them.

Perspectives on the Global Justice Movement: Part One

Emir Sader: "A Brazilian Perspective" published for the first time in English. We interview Sader on the World Social Forum, neoliberalism, imperialism, NGOs and the Lula government. [Or read in Portuguese]

Giovanni Mazzetti: "Where Do Anti-Global Movements Come From?" published for the first time in English provides a snapshot in the polemics taking place in Italy between Marxists and anarchists. Mazzetti also talks to Gloves Off about his ongoing polemic with Italian anarchists.

Barbara Epstein: "The Global Justice Movement: A New Left?"
In late August 2003, we discussed the potential for meaningful convergence between the global justice movement, the antiwar movement, and traditional labor organizations in the US.

In two weeks we publish Perspectives on the Global Justice Movement: Part Two

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Autonomism and spontaneism are traditional ways to refer to a tendency in the revolutionary Left that—starting in the late 50s in France and Italy—observed the outburst of new workers' and students' struggles in Europe and formalized a critique of the concept of a centralized Communist Party as the only legitimate representative of working class historical interests.

Autonomists supported the general idea that workers' struggle is able to autonomously create new forms of organization according to the needs of each specific historical moment.

>Emir Sader on autonomism


For a great introduction to the insights and contributions of autonomism, see:

Harry Cleaver "Reading Capital Politically," especially the section "The Italian New Left."

For two critical reviews of this tendency, see:

Chris Harman "Autonomism for the People?" in the 12/2003 issue of Socialist Review, and

Jack Fuller's 1980 article, "The new workerism: the politics of the Italian autonomists," in the International Socialism Journal.