Let a hundred flowers
let a hundred radios transmit,
let a hundred pages
’68, with different
—Collettivo A/traverso, Alice è il diavolo
The young soldier Franco “Bifo” Berardi was taken to the psychiatric ward after refusing to leave his sentry post once his shift ended: he wanted to remain on guard for as long as he had strength. During ten days under medical observation, Bifo was generally compliant and claimed to be fine. Still, there was one troubling symptom: his uncontrollable impulse to remember and add up numbers on car license plates whenever he saw them. The doctor, upon releasing him from military duties, complimented him on “his excellent performance if he was faking.” And yes, the soldier’s performance had been top-notch, the fruit of intense study; he was diagnosed with a classic case of obsessive delirium (interview with Bifo, 2008).
Back in 1974, one of Bifo’s friends had given him a book by a French psychoanalyst who had looked at the world from the perspective of a patient. Félix Guattari’s Una tomba per Edipo (A grave for Oedipus, 1974) proved to be a great book for learning how to “play mad” and get out of compulsory military service: “During my experience, I understood something about schizoanalytic thought,” he told me. “Folly—madness—entails a strong element of choice, of desire, of intention, and construction. . . . I started seeing Guattari as my savior.”
Three years went by and Bifo, this time on the run to avoid prison, invoked “Saint Guattari” once again. Like many of his comrades, he was hiding in Paris, and he went searching for Félix.
When I tell the story like this, you see, it says nothing, but if we follow the thread of madness, things take on a different meaning. . . . My encounter with Guattari was like a kind of cry for help. I was like a patient searching for help but not to get out of madness, like Breton says: “It is not the fear of madness which will oblige us to leave the flag of imagination furled.”1 In a sense, it was a reversal of the fear of madness. Madness should not be scary, madness seen as delirium, from de-lire, to exit, to get out from the reading, from the structure, from the text.2 . . . Madness can be a way of finding your way. (Interview with Bifo, 2008)
This use of madness to capture a certain attitude toward experimentation is not meant to irresponsibly romanticize a condition of suffering; the trope has less to do with mental illness and more with a reference to creative delirium and to some of the practices of the antipsychiatry movement of the time, where Guattari was involved.3 Many departures from dominant structures of sense making and from the canonical readings of the time shaped the political and aesthetic practices that developed in the seventies in Italy.
Bifo’s life-changing encounter with Guattari was not unique during that period, when Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus ( 1983), the first volume of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, had arrived immediately after publication. One among many seminal works of unorthodox philosophy to reach the country, the book had made its way to Bifo’s prison cell after he was accused of placing a bomb in the headquarters of the Christian Democrats. Bifo was subsequently acquitted (Berardi 2008, 3), but reading Anti-Oedipus left a mark on him, as it did on many other political activists who were inspired to experiment with alternative practices of cultural production. Their experiments, several of which revolutionized media making, draw out the micropolitical potential of practices that build on the friendship and intimacy of creating together. Some of the roots of Telestreet’s connective activism can be found in these alternative practices of cultural production. They reveal a side of resistance that can only be sustained in experiments with different ways of being (together).
When I spoke with Bifo, he explained that Anti-Oedipus offered a radical departure from the dogma of traditional psychoanalysis and Marxism, introducing a new conceptualization of subjectivity into political militancy (interview with Bifo, 2008). In Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalytic thought, processes of subjectivation unfold alongside and through practices that invest a-signifying elements with meaning and functions. Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a proliferating “unconscious as a factory” rejects the psychoanalytic tendency to discover links with the unconscious in favor of a focus on the constituent elements of social reality that shift the collective flows of signification and communication.4 Deleuze and Guattari were not alone in questioning what had become the pillars of political thought—both France and Italy had strong antipsychiatry movements and new currents of thought questioning Marxist orthodoxy. Starting with the movement of 1968, the political ferment of the time triggered an exodus from spaces engaging with traditional psychoanalysis and party politics toward autonomous sites for political, social, and aesthetic experiments that in many ways still characterize the present. These experiments tackled capitalism as a system of value creation and accumulation, and as an assemblage of libidinal drives and desires expressed in individual and collective subjectivities.
In Italy the momentum of 1968 lasted for nearly a decade and carried with it a critique of the older generation’s values, such as traditional family structures, authoritarianism, individualism, and uncritical consumption. There are various terms that describe the mass movement that grew in that decade. I have chosen to use the more common term autonomia to avoid confusion and because it foregrounds an important aspect of the relationship between politics and subjectivity that cuts across its heterogeneous groups and projects—and can be found in Telestreet as well. In its most generic sense, the word autonomy refers to a disenfranchisement from party politics and orthodox Marxism, and to the prioritization of the agency of the worker over processes of capital accumulation. Autonomia was a large, heterogeneous movement traversed by several currents, from feminism to vanguardism, from spontaneism to armed struggle. As such, no account or label can do it justice. However, what I rather grossly simplify as autonomia (or autonomist activism), in its many incarnations, indissolubly links the constitution of a polymorphous anticapitalist social configuration to a recomposition of the subjectivities of its intellectuals and activists through a process of self-valorization. In other words, autonomia was a movement that brought a variety of people together inside and outside the factory gates to rethink how capitalism oppresses, how one lives, and how one struggles in novel ways.
I follow the thread of delirium to chart some of the lines of flight of autonomia. Autonomism produced a rich body of theory and culture; it inserted the struggle over processes of subjectivation into organizing practices and forged influential concepts like “the social factory,” the “refusal of work,” “self-valorization,” “class composition,” and “antagonistic social reproduction.” Media production, proto-media activism, conricerca, and experimental socialization feature heavily in my account as I too get off the furrow, reading the history of autonomia outside its own prevailing narratives—state narratives that brand the movement as violent and terrorist and those shaped by the few theorists who have become internationally renowned.
As I interviewed people in Bologna to take a snapshot of the original scene, I sensed the depth and breadth of the social upheaval of the time and the diffused desire to flee a coercive postwar society with its state-sponsored industrial consumerist machine. The cultural production of the period echoes these feelings as it departs from the hegemonic narrative and social script and ventures into a radical politics of exodus. I place the somewhat delirious autonomist media—books, magazines, journals, and radio—at the center of my reading because they take me to places that a historical or political-economic approach to the movement cannot: the sites of friendship, intimacy, and collectivity. Here, signs are not just used for signification but are also affective devices that relay processes of socialization and politicization building on the materiality of this cultural production: the circulating literature, the prints, the fonts of the offset press, telephones connected to radio transmitters, and many others. I recognize many of the ideas and approaches to creating social infrastructure and some of the spirit of this period in Telestreet.
Cutting Up the Norm
Between 1975 and 1976, Bifo cofounded Collettivo A/traverso (Transversal Crossing) with a group of intellectuals from Bologna. The A/traverso collective published a cultural and political agitation pamphlet that advocated for a critical use of media and cultural production to “transform/collectivize the everyday” (A/traverso, no. 1, qtd. in Fiori 2011, 50).5 Their publication elaborated new languages and forms of expression that sabotage traditional communication flows to foster social recomposition outside the structures of capitalist production (Collettivo A/traverso 2007, 10); their tendency to transversality and to undoing norms was already materialized in the forward slash that cuts the title.
A/traverso, and many other transversal sheets, called for “the appropriation and liberation of the body, the collective transformation of interpersonal relationships as the fulcrum from which to reconstruct a project of rejection of factory work and of any order based on performance and exploitation” (A/Traverso, no. 1, qtd. in Fiori 2011, 50). This was a response to a backlash against the movement of ’68. Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of the transversal and desiring-machines from Anti-Oedipus echo throughout A/traverso’s pages together with a denunciation of the sadness, oppression, and irrefutability of traditional (Oedipal) family structures, and a rejection of the laws of the economy and of the sign. As an alternative, A/traverso celebrates the interjection of desire as a productive force that can abolish “the split between sign and life, let loose the signifying subject . . . in the outrageous space of practice” (Collettivo A/traverso 2007, 11–12). Its contributors call for new arrangements based on love, friendship, and the pleasure of being together, since practicing collective happiness is itself a subversive act (53).
Desire, for A/traverso, has very little to do with repression or pleasure and this is in keeping with the critique of psychoanalysis. If pleasure is only a temporary interruption of desire, the latter pertains to the drives that constitute what is commonly perceived as an individual (Deleuze and Guattari  1983, 35). Desire produces subjectivities but it is not simply personal; it has to be understood also as socialized within libidinal and political economies—it produces production (Deleuze 2004, 232).6 Subversion becomes possible if one can redirect desire away from the social reproduction of the producers of surplus value for capital. In these cases, desire produces movements; it becomes part of that energy that often drives cycles of struggles. Desire connects.
A/traverso, as a “desiring-machine”—what I have been calling an assemblage—combines different elements and reinserts them into the social in a new configuration: the newly imported, more sophisticated technology of the offset press is combined with text and fonts rearranged from the mainstream press and, of course, with many words, ideas, and readings from books pushed to their limit of signification. DIY cut-up punk aesthetics meets autonomia, or the other way around. The resulting colorful and chaotic layout is an open invitation to join in a play of language and thought compositions. And join they did. The ideas circulated, as much as the sensory encounter with the magazine affected A/traverso’s readership. They catalyzed new possibilities for social connections through experimentation and collaborative cultural production.
Exodus, Autonomy, and Composition
The movement of 1968 had left more than just a seed of dissent in the fabric of society, and by the mid-1970s struggles peaked again. In 1976 organized groups of young proletarians in Milan protested the opening of the La Scala theater, blocking the entire city, and in 1977 a wave of antiauthoritarian student protests spread across Italian universities (Fiori 2011). More than just works like Anti-Oedipus and the transversal sheets, a wealth of autonomist publications also supported the new anticapitalist and antiauthoritarian discourses. The journals Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks, 1961–65), Classe Operaia (Working Class, 1964–67), Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power, 1969–73) and Rosso (Red, 1973–77), to name a few, brought forward new interpretations of Marx that deviated from the orthodoxy, spurred by sociopolitical transformations that already started after World War II.
At that time, the Marshall Plan for reconstruction, currency protection, austerity measures, and hard working conditions had allowed Italy to complete huge public works projects, gear up for resource extraction, develop the car manufacturing and other heavy industries, and increase the internal demand for goods (Ginsborg 1989, 283–93). In the sixties, large numbers of young people who did not cross the ocean in search of better lives flocked from the poor south to the north of Italy, where the construction boom and the factories now required unskilled labor. During this so-called economic miracle, Fordist-automated production of goods and mass consumerism became the two pivotal mechanisms of growth and Italy became an important player in the economic field. Because the reconstruction effort had involved the exploitation of the workforce with the complicity of the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI, Italian Communist Party), this new workforce was deeply mistrustful of the parliamentary left (Moroni and Balestrini 1988; Borio, Pozzi, and Roggero 2002). In the factories, schools, and universities, a new generation of youth demonstrated a marked antagonism toward the rigid social structures they inherited from the Communist Party and the Catholic Church alike.
The introduction into Italy of foreign literature and philosophy, the attention to social movement struggles outside the country (pacifism, feminism, anticolonialism, Black Power, and the LGBTQ movements), and the contact with countercultures like the beatniks, hippies, and later punk and dropout cultures fueled these feelings like gasoline. Not unlike their counterparts in other parts of Europe and North America, Italian students and workers celebrated new forms of music and art, free movement and travel, and countercultural fashion styles.7 The seventies were the time of the first “centers of the young proletarians,” what will later become Italy’s social centers. The Centri Sociali Occupati e Autogestiti (Occupied and Self-Run Social Centers, CSOAs) are squatted houses run as communes, laboratories for countercultures and counterinformation, and spaces of aggregation against the isolation of young people and the valorization of free time. The seventies were also a time when intellectuals and artists otherwise relegated to the margins by a conservative cultural system could reach for available media production tools and started experimenting with radio transmission, video (Betamax and VHS), and audio recording. In particular, video was used for the first time to document the protests and political events of the day and to experiment with the fusion of art and politics as in the early works of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alberto Grifi (Berardi, Jaquemet, and Vitali 2009, 77). This experimentation led to the emergence of Italian experimental film and to the free radio movement (Goddard 2018).
Many activist groups, like Lotta Continua (Ongoing Struggle), Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power), and Autonomia Operaia (Workers’ Autonomy), were founded during this period. The cultural work of their journals revolved around researching and understanding the composition of the new class of workers and their relationship to the local capitalist system, often through the activity of conricerca (co-research) (Alquati 2002, 6). Co-researchers were seen as “barefoot researchers” who fused theory and practice and were close to the groups they researched (Virno and Hardt 1996). As such, conricerca was a truly radical method. In the past, the labor movement, parties, and trade unions had relied on politically neutral knowledge that could be subsequently used for politics (Conti et al. 2007). Because in co-research, the studies were already designed with political objectives in mind, attention was immediately directed at the microconflictual, daily dimension within and outside the work environment. Co-researchers questioned the dominant sociological categories and tested them through different hypotheses that looked at day-to-day struggles constantly recomposing and stratifying the social tissue (Palano 2007).
The barefoot researchers aimed to set the material (rather than just theoretical) basis for future movements in the path of “silent and subterranean” struggles, which were tied to each other in myriad bundled threads (Alquati, qtd. in Palano 2007). Inquiries in the factories brought to light elements of struggles in which workers already partook (e.g., sabotage, committees, and assemblies outside the unions, etc.). Since the seventies, conricerca has functioned as a mode of organizing (Conti et al. 2007, 80). This is because, while attending to the complexity of social struggles, research stimulates movement within fields of struggle through participation and interaction among all actors involved. The new notions of subjectivity (and desire) influenced this research method with co-researchers investigating the shifts in the subjective structure of the needs, behaviors, and practices of resistance of the working class but also the sedimentation of apparently spontaneous and unorganized antagonist cooperation (Armano, Sacchetto, and Wright 2013). The latter was thought to leave a sort of “political residue” in the subject positions of the groups and could become the basis for subsequent struggles.
A deviant reading of Karl Marx’s work accompanied this research: autonomists thought anew the figure of the worker as well as the relationship between resistance, labor, and production.8 The readings of Das Kapital, and especially the Grundrisse—the fragments on the machine—sought to represent the point of view of the worker, who ought to reflect on the historical stages of capitalism and understand their intrinsic forms of bourgeois antagonism to devise suitable strategies of emancipation (Moroni and Balestrini 1988, 38). Marx’s analysis of the introduction of technology in the production process had rendered manifest a separation of labor into mental and menial that spoke to the economic context of the period. The economic development of postwar Italy had deeply affected the social fabric, giving birth, among other things, to (equally exploited) specialized workers and the so-called unskilled operaio massa (mass worker). Marx’s concept of the Gesamtarbeiter (total worker)—that is, the combination of the workforce for production—paved the way to rethink exploitation as inherent to the production process instead of specific modes of labor (1961, 531–32). As this rebellion against Marxist orthodoxy unfolded, attention moved from labor to the worker and radically changed how people understood struggle. Against the traditional Communist Party line, Mario Tronti was one of the first thinkers to invert the idea that class struggle can only take place once a certain level of economic development has been reached. Tronti ( 2006) advocated for ongoing class struggle that reoriented the production process and forced capital to adapt to the workers’ needs. He recognized that there is reciprocal presupposition of workforce and capital and that the working class has agency to enable or prevent production—to become capital or to divert its cumulative force toward the production of other forms of value.
More importantly, since at this stage of capitalist development social relations are entirely subsumed by capital, society itself is seen as an extension of the factory and an articulation of production. This theoretical breakthrough led to the conceptualization of the “social factory,” a concept that still plays a fundamental role in the discussion of struggle against capitalist exploitation—and that has been popularized in books like Empire (Hardt and Negri 2000). Within this framework, antagonism is displaced from the factory to the social through a refusal to participate in the process of capitalist social production. The cooperative articulation of time spent outside the capitalist production process becomes an explicit practice of resistance. In the words of Antonio Negri, resistance against capital becomes a “movement of productive co-operation that . . . presents itself as the refusal of capitalist command over production and as the attempt, always frustrated but not less real, of constituting an autonomous time” ( 2003, 73). This refusal to partake (as much as possible) in capitalist social production surfaces often not only in Telestreet but, increasingly, in the post–financial crisis movements, for instance at the encampments of the Occupy movement and in the economic platform of the Movement for Black Lives.
Unprefigured, ongoing, autonomous struggle immanent to capital’s dynamic: this is where the meaning of autonomy goes beyond a disengagement from institutional politics to refer to the autonomy of the worker from capitalist development (through the self-valorization of needs and desire). Autonomy refers to the main characteristic of the subject in a communist society wherein she has control over her own multilateral productive potential (Negri  1999, xxx). Autonomy stays open to directions that can only form during the struggle rather than before it. Autonomist journals were the vectors that transmitted these ideas and proposed the refusal of work as a strategy of flight out of capital and to subordinate labor to the needs of the working class. This idea of the refusal of work dovetails with a belief in the possibility of more equal distribution of work to increase the development of a general social knowledge, or general intellect, often in connection with technological innovation (Marx [1857–58] 1973, 706).9 Ultimately, for autonomists, the social liberation of the subject can only take place once an awareness of her own agency “within the contradictory structure of the relations of production” is reached and time can be devoted to alternative practices of self-valorization, and hence of subjectivation (Negri  1999, 160–63).
For nearly two decades, Italy became a laboratory for new social experiments and individuals entered a process of resubjectivation (Borio, Pozzi, and Roggero 2002, 72–73) through a long period of production sabotage, factory and university occupations, permanent assemblies, wildcat strikes, and autoreduction of prices of transportation. Self-valorization involved the theoretical analysis and collective development of alternative forms of socialization. A/traverso and Radio Alice are attempts at this kind of autonomous social production and resubjectivation in radical and irreconcilable opposition to the majority.
Radio Alice’s Technosocial Wonderland
The deviations and contradictions of the seventies in Italy lead me into the cultural and political climate of an important moment for the emergence of social movements, when the writings, media, and delirious creations were indispensable elements. Like the viruses described in William Burroughs’s stories that inspired activists like Bifo, the deviant readings traveled. They were translated and read collectively and in connection with other ones, with the realities in which they appeared. They were cut and pasted into zines and pamphlets. They produced new political and aesthetic options. Like a virus, the first issue of A/traverso was presented as a project in multiplication, not only making words proliferate on paper but also announcing events that would “reinstate life in place of the economy” (Collettivo A/traverso 2007, 10). A/traverso made the words spill out of the pages and shaped other kinds of situations for encounters and proliferation. Radio Alice, one of the first free radios in Italy, was born when one of these situations brought together Lewis Carroll’s heroine, a cheap military transmitter, a telephone, some texts and records, and a desire to experiment, shared with many.
Radio and television in Italy had been under state control until 1974, when the Supreme Court declared this monopoly unconstitutional, enabling the birth of the “free” radios. Within a year of this ruling, the Italian airwaves were already teeming with more than 150 radio stations, and by the end of 1976 there were 1,500 (Orrico 2006, 5), run mostly by youth eager to infiltrate a mediascape that left very little if no space for their needs and tastes. There were many who seized the opportunity to finally air the newest international trends in music and countercultures, but others reached for the airwaves to support autonomist political organizing. Here, again, the prehistory of Telestreet finds its anchor. The institutional Italian left, especially the Italian Communist Party, traditionally had opposed the privatization of the mass media for fear of a capitalist takeover of the communicational superstructure. Quite the reverse, many in the free radio movement recognized the potential of the medium to bypass the control of a clerical and conformist Italian culture and create a space where political groups could come together on the airwaves—a place for delirious creation and collective becoming. Many free radios became the voice of the students’ and of the young workers’ movement: Radio OndaRossa in Rome, Radio Sherwood in Padoa, and Controradio in Florence were born then. These free radios, and a few more, will play a crucial role all the way to the present, importing new musical genres like hip-hop to Italy, hosting a bulletin board system (BBS), and training media activists. Radio Alice came on the scene in Bologna as an extension of A/Traverso and suitably retained a heterogeneous character that refused any internal political positioning and organization, even though it still reflected many autonomist ideas.
If there is a buzzword that characterizes its approach to mediatized aesthetics and politics, it is Radio Alice’s subversive Mao-Dadaism. The old Dada utopia to abolish art and life is enacted through new forms of communication that subvert the medium of radio and blur the distinction between art and daily life. The following is from Radio Alice’s first broadcast, on February 8, 1976:
An invitation to not get up this morning, to stay in bed with someone, to fabricate musical instruments or war machines. This is Radio Alice. Finally, Radio Alice. You are hearing us on 100.6 megahertz and you will hear us for a long time, unless the krauts kill us. Alice built herself a radio but in order to speak she continues her daily struggle against zombies and jabberwockies. Radio Alice transmits music, news, flower gardens, rants, inventions, discoveries, recipes, horoscopes, magic filters, loves, or war bulletins, photographs, messages, massages, lies. Radio Alice gives a voice to those who love mimosas and believe in paradise, those who hate violence and beat up the bad guys, those who think they are Napoleon but know full well that they could be an aftershave, those who laugh like flowers and cannot be bought up with love gifts, those who want to fly and not sail, the smokers, the drinkers, the jugglers and musketeers, the jesters and the absentees, the mad ones and the tarot magicians. (Collettivo A/traverso 2007, emphasis added)
Mao-Dadaists proliferate pervasive and polycentric communication technologies that recompose the relation between sociality and production outside the capitalist system (Moroni and Balestrini 1988, 604–5). Mao-Dadaism starts from the lesson of Dadaism with an understanding that the avant-gardes of the early twentieth century failed to abolish the separation between art and life, trapped as they were in the “illusory kingdom of art” (Chiurchiù 2017, 101). Mao-Dadaism has its starting point in Dada but the separation between art and life is abolished with transversalism: “on the practical terrain of existence, of the refusal of work, of [capitalist] appropriation,” Mao-Dadaism calls for “the transformation of time, of the body, of language” (“Countermanifesto mao-dada,” qtd. in Chiurchiù 2017, 101). The open-door studios of Radio Alice became a space for Mao-Dadaism, autonomist self-valorization, and the subversion of dominant circuits of libidinal and economic production—that is, for deviant, delirious media production.
Radio Alice’s assemblage emerges outside the conventional logic of individualized identity (Collettivo A/traverso 2007, 14), folding in a variety of disparate groups (not always in agreement with each other) and fostering a process of collective subjectification that is inclusive while retaining all elements of heterogeneity.10 Radio Alice had minimal editorial input that was made possible by an open mic; it broadcast without a program schedule. As Ambrogio, one of the founders, explains, the project brought together different ideas and people, turning the channel randomly into a performance stage, a soapbox, a confession booth, a roundtable, and so on. Radio Alice represented “the movement of differences” at a time when identity politics was otherwise strong (interview with Ambrogio, 2008).
Not unlike A/traverso’s chaotic layouts and playful texts, the experimentation with alternative uses of language and communication structures was one of the main tools of Alice’s Mao-Dadaism. At the same time, the ability to hack the functions of the available technology added some important elements to this emerging assemblage. Humor, satire, fake news, music, rants, readings from the avant-garde, live telephone pranks, literature, and whatever else that was brought to the programming were interspersed with direct phone-in interventions from the audience. From a technical perspective, the simple telephone-radio hack turned Alice in a pliable and multidirectional medium with a potential unseen before. For Ambrogio, this groundbreaking feature, one that will soon be adopted by the mainstream, opened up the microphone to multiple subjects—from policemen to sex workers, from nurses on night shifts to street cleaners. It made the radio station into a reference point for many Bolognesi (interview with Ambrogio, 2008). This recomposition of collective subjectivity from homogenous to a multiplicity in constant flux is an important aspect of Telestreet and is key to my understanding of connective activism.
The Delirium of Domestic Labor
Heterogeneity notwithstanding, there was no space in the autonomist organizations to discuss gender. Even when they were on the front lines in groups like Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio, women who contributed a gendered perspective to the conversation were accused of distracting the groups from class struggle. And yet so much organizing work that changed Italian society in the seventies is tied to a feminist reconceptualization of the function of women in capitalist systems.11 Above all, autonomist feminism has to be credited for locating social reproductive labor (elderly and infirm care, child bearing and rearing, education, affective labor) and domestic labor, as well as physical and sexual violence against women within a Marxist analysis of capitalism—an important derailing of the conversation, a going off topic that led to new radical directions in feminism internationally.
The feminist analysis of the “capitalist function of the uterus” (Dalla Costa and James 1975, 13) revealed the “arcane of reproduction” (Fortunati  1995) as the unseen basis of capitalist accumulation. Here the family functions as the site of production of the labor force whereas up to that point the family had been considered a place for consumption, for the production of use value or to provide reserve labor force (Dalla Costa 2002). Instead, women writing for the magazine Le operaie della casa (The house workers) were very clear about how to view this onerous yet unpaid labor that is so fundamental in the process of social reproduction: “life as work, always. Affection as work, sexuality as work, smiles as work, caresses as work, voice intonation as work, even dreams are hard work” (Comitato per il Salario al Lavoro Domestico di Padova 1976). Only the recognition of this invisible exploitation could propel class struggle forward, they claimed.
The research and rereadings of Marx by thinkers like Mariarosa and Giovanna Franca Dalla Costa, Silvia Federici, and Leopoldina Fortunati led many autonomist women, though not all, to demand remuneration for the work of social reproduction in the home and that the state cover its costs outside the home.12 This economic recognition could level the playing field with their male comrades in the struggle against exploitation. The investigations into the work of social reproduction expanded and harnessed the theorization of the social factory but they also politicized the struggle against patriarchy as anticapitalist. Feminist readings of Marx revealed domestic labor exploitation and male physical and sexual violence as tools to discipline the subjectivity of the house worker. In other words, they mediated the violent relationship between women and capital (Cuninghame 2008). Patriarchy became no longer a matter of oppression but one of exploitation (Dalla Costa and James 1975, 10) and “if you don’t know how women are exploited, you can never really know how men are” (18).
Nationwide groups like Lotta Femminsta (Feminist Struggle) led the movement Wages for Housework and were connected to similar campaigns in the United States and Canada as well as in European countries like Great Britain and Germany.13 Salaries for housework were strategic to acknowledge the importance of housework for the reproduction and care of the workforce in the capitalist economy, which happened for free: “All this work that the woman does, an average of 99.6 hours weekly, without the possibility of strikes, nor absenteeism, nor to make any demands, is done for free” (Lotta Femminista, qtd. in Cuninghame 2008). The recognition that class exploitation was “built upon the specific mediation of women’s exploitation” (Dalla Costa and James 1975, 23) led to a series of considerations that have framed political and social struggles in the so-called social factory all the way to the present.
The unacknowledged exploitation and isolation of women entwined with discussions of alternative processes of subjectivation outside domestic labor—what was called a process of self-identification (Dalla Costa 2002). Finding “a place as protagonist in the struggle” was crucial because “in the sociality of struggle women discover and exercise a power that effectively gives them a new identity. The new identity is and can only be a new degree of social power” (Dalla Costa and James 1975, 20). This engagement in struggles outside the home offered a place outside the circuit of capitalist social reproduction, refusing domestic work, its attendant subjectivity subservient to male expectations, and confronting men on different terrains that presuppose the home. Women were reframed as the central figure of social subversion: “Woman . . . had in her hands a fundamental lever of social power: she could refuse to produce . . . a struggle that could lead to a radical transformation of society” (Dalla Costa 2002).
This analysis of social reproduction also intersected with a discussion of a new relationship to sexuality that not only escaped an intrinsically violent reproductive function but allowed for a different connection to the body and its subjectivity: “most of housework and discipline which is required to perform the same work over every day, every week, every year, double on holidays, destroys the possibilities of uninhibited sexuality,” declared Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James in The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (1975, 26).14 It is in this context that the first self-managed centers for the health of women were created to focus on general women’s health and in particular on gynecology and family planning (Dalla Costa 2002).
Feminist groups close to the autonomist “area,” like the Lotta Continua’s Women’s Collective, developed around the refusal of work, around the autoreduction of bills and other essential domestic resources, but also against discrimination in the workplace, deregulated labor, and prisons (Cuninghame 2008). In general, women mobilized en masse to advocate for better social services, the creation of nurseries, and a less masculinist health care system where they had more control over their own bodies. This mass movement earned a series of hard-fought victories, including the diffusion of information about birth control, legislation supporting abortion, divorce, and the criminalization of domestic violence. Women also mobilized to improve public education, picketing and occupying schools and blockading roads. Although some parties, unions, and autonomist groups joined on the streets, the feminist movement emphasized its autonomy from institutional and male-dominated group politics (Cuninghame 2008).
Mao-Dadaism had its transversal sheets, zines, and radio; operaismo’s theories spread through its journals. It is no surprise that the archives and footprint of autonomist feminism are considerably smaller than those of autonomist work focusing on class struggle. This is partly due to the fact that much of the struggle consisted of direct action and partly because, with care and domestic work still a reality to abolish, there were simply less time and resources that could be devoted to cultural production: “What was striking was the level of extreme poverty of the means with which all this activity was carried out. The means of communication were mainly the leaflet and the paper, called Le operaie della casa” (Dalla Costa, qtd. in Cuninghame 2008). Nevertheless, even though journals like Malafemmina, Noi Testarde, and Le operaie della casa had a much smaller circulation, autonomist feminism left an important, albeit buried, legacy in Italy and abroad. This legacy led to new understandings of work in contemporary neoliberal capitalism with its precarious labor conditions; it has provided the scaffolding to study unpaid and affective labor in information economies; it has bolstered the conceptualization of the universal basic income; and it has fostered discussions of the issue of social reproduction and the need for commons in social movements. Theories of social reproduction have also broadened critical intersectional theories of race as well as analyses of access to basic resources and services (Thorburn 2016).
The feminist movement decomposed at the end of the seventies, during the large wave of repression of autonomia. In part, the decomposition was the result of exhaustion and burnout; in many cases, women still had to make life choices that distanced them from feminist militancy. What followed was “an adverse political will and a profusion of studies on the feminine condition from a different perspective. . . . On the study of the feminine condition, institutions used all their power, funding was redirected, networks and research were carefully channeled. The problem of reproductive work was not addressed. The discourse about the retribution of domestic work was also indicted” (Dalla Costa 2002). Many of the figureheads of the movement redirected their attention to the global condition of women, often in the context of colonization.
The openness and euphoria characterizing A/traverso and Radio Alice’s brief existence arose from a series of positive political events that included an electoral victory of the Italian left against the Christian Democrats (with their oppressive religious ties to the Vatican), the end of the Vietnam War, and a series of successful openings of autonomous “young proletarian centers” throughout the country (Berardi 2007, 158). However, behind the radio’s carefree façade, there lay the drama of a generation of youth torn by internal political friction and external government repression that already followed the political turmoil of 1968.
By 1968/69, the Christian Democratic government was attempting to put an end to a decade of successful workers’ and student struggles. The so-called strategia della tensione (strategy of tension) set out the secret services and collaborating fascist groups to undermine the movement’s credibility through a series of violent terror attacks.15 By the early seventies, police repression, the weight of the oil crisis, unaddressed inflation and unemployment, and an attempted fascist coup d’état moved discourses about the relationship between subjects and the state from one of exploitation to one of domination.16 For some in the autonomist movement, this condition could only be overcome by force. As the Communist Party came even closer to moderate politics through the “Historical Compromise” with the Christian Democrats, armed cells like the Red Brigades mushroomed across the country. During this period, some political groups dissolved, and many of the people involved in political organizing went through a phase of disillusionment, inactivity, depression, and solitude. Alice’s founders belonged to the dissolved political organization Potere Operaio and spilled from the latter into new politico-aesthetic experiments that influenced Italian media activism.
Sitting in a house in Bologna’s old historical center that saw so much of the political upheaval of the time, Ambrogio told me about the birth of Radio Alice and political militancy at the time: “There were a few years of silence, years made of many discussions, many doubts, many deaths.” He paused. “Many deaths, mainly by heroin, by police bullets. My very first girlfriend was shot dead in a Turin bar, basically executed by the Carabinieri [Italian military police] because she had become a Prima Linea militant [Front Line, an armed militant cell, similar to the Red Brigades], well, she had gone underground.” Ambrogio is referring to the armed struggle against the Italian state that brands the history of that time as the anni di piombo (years of lead).
The movement became fragmented: we went from spending most of our time together to clashing in a hard way, some decided to take up arms, some of us decided that that could not be the way. . . . What happens is that a twenty-five-year-old, like me, loses his friends. Some disappear; they go underground, some overdose. At the age of twenty-five you experience what usually happens to someone who is seventy or eighty, because friends die of old age or illness. They were tough years. Now, the discussion divided those who decided to face life with weapons and those who decided to do it with words, because this is what the dilemma was really about. . . . This created a difficult situation where, for instance, some of my friends called me traitor because of my decision to take up words. The same applies to the group that was behind Alice. So that, to start Alice at that time was not only an idea that turned out to be beautiful, and reasonable, but it also represented a choice that did not only have to do with politics but with our daily life in general. . . . You have to imagine groups of people, men and women, who had lived together, had all woken up at six in the morning to distribute fliers outside the factories, boyfriends and girlfriends . . . and then this sudden, violent separation. Our decision to start Alice was a choice that brought together once more long friendships and loves; it was a deeply important choice. Some others, those who had made a different choice, even tried to stop us. . . . I am telling you these things because I am sure that Franco and the others haven’t. These are things that are rarely told. When Guido Chiesa started his interviews to make the movie about Alice [Chiesa 2004], I realized that these things are never told, but they are very important. This is one of the things that are not told, that that situation had created a sort of war: friendship had turned into betrayal, love into hate. (Interview with Ambrogio, 2008)
Telling me about the time when the Communist Party took his membership away from him because it considered Radio Alice a hideout for terrorists, Ambrogio helped me realize the importance of this radio project. Four roommates—Ambrogio, Luciano, Stefano, and Paolo—and some friends and lovers, faced with a choice between weapons and inaction, chose words: a life choice that short-circuits available subject positions. The desire to be on the part of life and creation: this was an opportunity to resist state repression with words for many of those trapped in the dregs of heroin, passivity, or violence.
At the same time, Alice’s unwillingness to align with any specific identity takes on an additional dimension. This was an attempt at survival and refuge as much as one to cut transversally across the fragmented activist field, materializing its alternative in the structure and functioning of the channel. The context of emergence of Telestreet pales in comparison, and yet projects like insu^tv were born out of a somewhat similar existential crisis that started with the fragmentation of the global justice movement in the early twenty-first century. It is important to note the therapeutic value of this kind of creative and joyful media project as reference territories for individual and collective resubjectivation and as spaces for social reproduction. Friendship is a crucial element for social reproduction away from isolation and social conflict.
In a climate of harsh repression that spared no one, Alice’s subversive power for technosocial connection was folded back into the struggle in an unexpected way. Unrest had been building up for years and 1977 started under the aegis of violent clashes between demonstrators and police. In 1975 the government had passed a law that enabled the police to shoot and kill any time they felt a threat to public order. Other laws had already increased preventative jail sentences to eight years and targeted individuals in possession of weapon-like items and garments that may be used for disguise.17 These tactics did little to reduce opposition to the state and kindled more protest fires. In March 1977, the police killing of the student Francesco Lorusso during a protest triggered three days of riots, which only ended when the then minister of interior Francesco Cossiga sent tanks into Bologna.
Because of the combination of radio and telephone, Radio Alice quickly became an important communication medium during the clashes. After an initial call denouncing the shooting—only a few minutes after it took place—the radio was spontaneously turned into a coordination mechanism for the riots. At nighttime, the police raided the studio, confiscated the transmitter, and arrested those who could not flee.18 Thirty years after these events, even then police chief Ciro Lomastro testified to the power of this assemblage: “They were better organized than us. We had our walkie-talkies but it was one-to-one communication. . . . They sent instructions to everyone who had a transistor radio, collected information through the phone calls and broadcast them. Incredibly efficient” (Smargiassi 2007).
Not so much a matter of voluntary organization but one of emergent properties of the assemblage, Alice had expanded the potential of distributed transmission. What had been created as a laboratory for resubjectification that was open enough to connect a variety of ideas and groups also provided a platform that was adaptable to new uses just by interjecting an additional element (in this case students and workers carried radios with them during the riots). Long before group SMS, Twitter, and livestreaming, Alice had brought together psychological, social, and technical components into a DIY assemblage for guerrilla communication. Most importantly, it had produced two defining features of the media activist technical culture this book deals with, its DIY adaptability and generativity, as well as its ability to connect disparate elements. I discuss this further in chapter 5.
Repression, Decomposition, and Refusal
Eventually, the steady escalation of conflict among autonomia, state, and fascist movements culminated in 1979 with the kidnapping and killing of Christian Democrat president Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades. The event triggered a witch hunt that put entire groups of intellectuals and activists behind bars. As is often the case, the violent actions permanently etched a homology in the collective imaginary of Italians between terrorism and autonomist political practices. The condemnation of the entire movement took place despite the fact that the makeup of groups like the Red Brigades was shaped by a rigid adherence to Marxist-Leninist dogmatism, distinctly Stalinist in theoretical-political grounding. Similarly, their actions were cut off and independent from collective class struggle, increasingly setting them apart from the development of autonomia (Berardi 2007, 160).19
The use of the label “years of lead” to describe the life of a large and heterogeneous movement denotes more than a simple value judgment on armed conflict. In fact, while the police and the legal system fulfilled their function of “establishing order,” it was the sensational coverage by the media that steered public opinion about the events. The rampantly pro-government media disseminated contradictory, unfounded accusations against thousands before the judiciary legitimated them. It hid proof of secret services’ infiltrations, stool pigeons, and unjustified life sentences in prison, swaying public debate and distorting the memory of a dynamic and powerful social phenomenon. These discourses against autonomia and its brutal and almost total repression played a key role in a process of counterrevolution (Virno 1996) that ushered in an individualistic mentality in the eighties, breaking up the fabric of society and supporting social isolation. The defeat of the autonomist movements came with the liquidation of their socialized values and their reference points for subjectivation, marking an epochal shift (Torti 2002).
Inside the movements, the call for radical change had cultivated processes of militant subjectivation that could be totalizing and left little space for the care and support that are needed during intense periods of political, social, and personal upheaval. With hindsight, feminists like Mariarosa Dalla Costa have talked about the exhaustion that came from that kind of militancy. In an interview shortly before her premature death in 2001, Maria Teresa Torti reflected on the shortcomings of the movement. She mentioned a lack of attention to the trajectory of growth of young people whose radical and sudden rejection of the dominant reference points for social subjectivation came with a fragility that easily led them to crisis, to destructive or self-destructive behavior. For many who escaped the pitfalls of terrorism and drug abuse, the choice was often a categorical closure with that experience: “I am simply disappointed with a political practice which made the prophecy of political autonomy too real in its totality, with no respect for the subjectivity of people . . . who could have grown, who had a path and was tearing through the codified social fabric. . . . This has been a serious shortcoming that may have accelerated untimely exits, closures, if not traumatic situations” (Torti 2002). Even though many other political, social, and economic factors (discussed in the next chapter) ushered in the counterrevolution that purged autonomist currents from society, it was not rare in the seventies and early eighties to see delirious creativity turn into mental affliction. Torti’s pertinent remarks bring up the value of contemporary feminist thinking that has risen from the ashes of the seventies. This work stresses the importance of care for the processes of subjectivation that unfold as part of the work of social reproduction during struggle. Such work is still at the fringe of movements because it is often marginalized minorities who propose it. In the United States and Canada, the Movement for Black Lives and a variety of racial justice groups have created programs for education, support, and regenerative and emotional care (Books and Breakfast in Ferguson, Social Emergency Resource Centers in Boston, etc.).
In The Delirium of Praise, Eleanor Kaufman elegantly explains that madness has often been equated with the absence of work (l’absence d’oeuvre), insofar as it is a language that merely folds onto itself while producing either nothing or too much (2001, 63, 82). For autonomia, madness, as delirious cultural production, was a choice to undermine the authority of sense as established by capital’s axiomatics, and thus a refusal of the communicative aspects of capitalist social production altogether. This was the case, for instance, with Radio Alice, and it sowed the seed for some of Telestreet’s nodes. Madness was also imputed to the countless women who were burned as witches at the dawn of capitalism and whose power is historicized in Silvia Federici’s analysis of primitive accumulation. Feminists have often self-identified as witches (Federici 2014). In both lines, the de-lire, the exiting from the structure, takes place in the conversations ensuing in the contested sphere of social reproduction and subjectivation, where thought and creation meet in deviant readings, in folding others’ works onto themselves. The encounter can take place in the thought of the “mad person,” fairy-tale characters, the avant-garde, or the proletarian seen through the work of a political economist long gone, the thought of the housewife, the workingwoman, or the witch.20
Wrestling the functioning of knowledge from control and exchange value, and turning it into a productive force that consciously looks at the modes, the procedures, and the instruments of its development, has the effect of modifying the epistemological and operative structure of knowledge itself (Berardi 2007, 168). The rejection of work for capitalist social reproduction includes a refusal of thought and sense making according to prescribed logics even when it is still caught in a field of capitalist forces. Social reproduction can be for or against capital but not outside it. In the autonomist feminist rereadings of Marx, in the tales of Ambrogio and in the words of Maria Teresa Torti, I find an important thread to understand contemporary struggle and conceptualize connective activism as a practice for antagonistic social reproduction that harnesses communication and its structures. The latter is now a fully formed category of social reproduction.
Unpaid, feminized, and often racialized (Thorburn 2016) labor sustains movement struggles in many contexts; this unequal and unacknowledged labor distribution reproduces itself across generations in organizations as much as in the broader system of capitalism. Who, if, and when one performs the labor of care and social reproduction in social movements was a question for autonomia as much as it should be one for contemporary movements. Recognizing the work of people who attend to emotional safety in encampments, tech collectives, those who address violence within groups, and the artists, healers, and certain kinds of media producers is crucial to grasping what is required in the economies of resistance and in making movements more sustainable and scalable in the face of oppression. What kinds of encounters, materialities, practices, and languages are conducive of new forms of social reproduction? How does one unfold and proliferate processes of subjectivation in practice and thought, in the singular and the collective, transforming oneself while caring for each other?
From the eighties onward, subjectivities have been built around what Bifo calls “the dogmas of growth, competition and rent,” and the only possibility of escaping exploitation and isolation is tied to an ability to reactivate the social body and resuture the social fabric of society to rebuild social solidarity (Berardi, qtd. in Hugill and Thorburn 2012, 213). The year 2011 was important for new cycles of struggle, with the rise of the European student movements, the Arab Spring, and the movements of the square, among others. In these movements, social reproduction has been a theme and a practice that developed with the creation of spaces for care, food provision, shelter, safety, and other daily needs (Feigenbaum, Frenzel, and McCurdy 2013; Thorburn 2016). These protests point to the potential of sharing spaces, of bodies coming together into collectivities, and yet the question of more sustainable strategies to retain the energy and encounters generated in these situations is still open, especially in the context of phenomena that are still marginal to a largely indifferent population. What I discussed in this chapter provides some concepts and histories of care and friendship to develop new experiments. The tales of Bifo and Ambrogio reestablish the dynamism to an account of emergence of media within a movement and clarify the role of a movement in the emergence of a medium. If it is true that participatory communication technologies are sites for the reproduction of the social (Thorburn 2016), then the history of certain strains of feminism opens up the space for more movement. In particular, the intimacy of media making for social reproduction provides a starting point to expand on forms of connective activism that I take up in the following chapters.
My own encounter with the delirium of Anti-Oedipus took place in 2004 at Eterea II, the network’s national convention, during a conversation with a Telestreettaro. Carlo, a Roman media activist, excitedly dove into a long account of the power of desiring-machines, whipping the book out of his large corduroy pocket before I could even ask him why he had joined the Telestreet network. It was not until I too read Anti-Oedipus that I could take that bizarre conversation as a clear answer to my unasked question. Like Radio Alice’s members thirty years earlier, Carlo saw in Telestreet a powerful laboratory for resubjectivation—one that had much to do with countering the effects of the rise of Berlusconi’s entertainment industry.