Transformations of Labour Cultures in Italy Since the 1970s: Tendencies of a Critical Rethinking of “Normal Work

Cinque tipi di alienazione in Marx - Cinque cose belle
Modern Times

Since the beginning of the new century, lively research on the macro-structural upheavals of the world of work “after the boom” has developed in Italian as well as in German historiography. Generally, it is described with terms such as de-industrialisation, digitalisation, mechanisation and tertiarisation (Zanini/Fadini 2001; Raphael 2019). Such post-industrial processes of change are scrutinised both in terms of their effects on the establishment of new ambivalent conditions and new forms of regulation of gainful employment (Kratzer/Sauer 2003) and in terms of their repercussions on societies and their structures. For at least 40 years, an ideal-typically assumed normal work, which still exists to a limited extent under collective bargaining law, has been contrasted with forms of subjectivised, flexibilised and precarised employment relationships, not least in the growing low-wage sector (Moldaschl/Voß 2003). At the same time, sectors have also developed in which rapidly growing labour incomes are possible (Boltanski/Chiapello 1999). Both directly and indirectly, this also affects educational pathways, domestic and transnational migration routes, as well as urban-rural relations. Such visible reasons for ever greater social inequality in the European (and global) world of work are thus defined primarily as a consequence of profound structural change or as an effect of the end of Fordism and the expansion of new information technologies (Andresen et al. 2011; Doering-Manteuffel et al. 2016).


Despite all transformations, labour certainly still remains “one of the most important instances of socialisation” and “a structurally shaping factor of enormous penetrating power” (Süß/Süß 2011). In 2011 Dietmar Süß noted that from a historiographical perspective there is still a lack of knowledge about how workers have experienced the “revolutionary change” of the last 30 years. In 2012, in the run-up to the founding of the Società italiana di Storia del Lavoro (SISLAV), Luca Baldissara expanded on this remark by saying that (at least in Italy) a cultural history of “labour” has yet to be implemented (Baldissara 2012). For certainly a radical cultural change in the world of work in the sense of a thinking and rethinking of work cultures and work models (Bellofiore/Altieri 1998) can be seen in the last 40 years in Italy as well, which can be understood as the result of a conceptual change in the relationship between the individual and work (Leonhard/Steinmetz 2016). Historical trend research can help to understand not only how individuals and society have reacted to change, but above all which trends they have set in motion and have already influenced and shaped in advance.

This project examines the original tendencies of a critical functional rethinking of “normal work” as a regulatory element of society at the end of the 1970s.

At probably no other time like the late 1970s, young people in Italy in particular were seeking an exit from society and its norms. During this period, a new generation (even compared to the 1968 generation!) appeared on the social and political stage, formulating a new demand for autonomy, self-management and self-realisation vis-à-vis society as a whole and especially beyond the classical structures of Fordist society. The practical rejection of work, but also the theorisation of its liberation through precarisation and flexibilisation, was one of the most interesting and characteristic features of this formulation. Especially in Milan, Turin and Bologna, new conceptualisations of work were formulated among young workers and in student circles, closely linked to the emergence of new consumerist individualised forms of identity construction.

If today precarity, flexibility, insecurity are seen as (mostly negative) intrinsic features of the current capitalist world of work, there was, however, a time (at least in Italy) when the “fluid” state as well as the escape from the rigid rules of the world of work were idealised as an emancipation moment vis-à-vis the “assembly line society”. This was done under the motto: “Freeing work to free life from work”. In this way, both a critique of the capitalist organisation of society was made, but above all, a hedonistic political claim to the satisfaction of subjective needs and desires was also expressed. In this project, such positions and reflections are therefore not considered as possible countercultural overall social exit models, but rather are to be perceived as an example of a widening social trend, which in the course of the following decades (especially the 1990s and 2000s) also brought about significant political and economic mainstream variations. For the original search for alternative career paths brought, from the 1980s onwards, a variety of new, “creative”, immaterial, cognitive and generally subjectivised professions as well as profiles and models of work that, from the late 1990s onwards, paradoxically fed the neoliberal myth of the free market.

P.I: Dr. Massimiliano Livi (Forschungszentrum Europa)
Founded through Hans-Böckler-Stiftung and the COST Action “Worlds of Related Coercions in Work” (WORCK)