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[ecrea] Politics of Workers’ Inquiry Conference Call
Mon Feb 18 12:42:23 GMT 2013
*Politics of Workers’ Inquiry Conference Call*
May 2-3, 2013 @ University of Essex
Workers’ inquiry is an approach to and practice of knowledge production
that seeks to understand the changing composition of labor and its
potential for revolutionary social transformation. It is the practice of
turning the tools of the social sciences into weapons of class struggle.
Workers’ inquiry seeks to map the continuing imposition of the class
relation, not as a disinterested investigation, but rather to deepen and
intensify social and political antagonisms.
Mario Tronti argues that weapons for working class revolt have always
been taken from the bosses’ arsenal. But, has not it often been
suggested, to use Audre Lorde’s phrasing, that it is not possible to
take apart the master’s house with the master’s tools? While not
forgetting Lorde’s question, it is clear that Tronti said this with good
reason, for he was writing from a context where this is precisely what
was taking place. Italian autonomous politics greatly benefited from
borrowing from sociology and industrial relations – and by using these
tools proceeded to build massive cycles of struggle transforming the
grounds of politics.
Of these adaptations the most important for autonomist politics and
class composition analysis is workers’ inquiry. Workers’ inquiry
developed in a context marked by rapid industrialization, mass
migration, and the use of industrial sociology to discipline the working
class. Workers’ inquiry was formulated within autonomist movements as a
sort of parallel sociology, one based on a radical re-reading of Marx
and Weber against the politics of the communist party and the unions.
While the practitioners of workers’ inquiry were often
professionally-trained academics – especially sociologists – its
proponents argued their research differs in important ways from
‘engaged’ social science, and all varieties of industrial sociology,
even if there are similarities. If bourgeois sociology sought to smooth
over conflicts, and ‘critical’ sociology to expose these same conflicts,
workers’ inquiry takes the contradictions of the labor process as a
starting point and seeks to draw out these antagonisms into the
formation of new radical subjectivities.
This is not to say that workers’ inquiry is an unproblematic endeavor.
We remain skeptical that the weapons of managerial control can be
cleanly re-appropriated without reproducing the very social world they
were designed to take apart. For as Steve Wright argues, “the uncritical
use of such tools has frequently produced a register of subjective
perceptions which do no more than mirror the surface of capitalist
social relations.” As the legacy of analytical Marxism reveals,
imitation is never far removed from flattery, and at its worst moments,
workers’ inquiry risks becoming its object of critique. To be fair there
are disagreements among the proponents of workers’ inquiry over the
limitations of drawing from the social sciences. But to continue the
metaphor, like any potentially dangerous ‘weapon’, sociological
techniques must be carefully examined, and when necessary, disabled.
Today we find ourselves at a moment when co-research, participatory
action research, and other heterodox methods have been adopted by the
academic mainstream, while managerial styles like TQM carry a faint echo
of workers’ inquiry. In the contemporary firm workers are already
engaged in self-monitoring, peer interviews, and the creation of
quasi-autonomous ‘research’ units, all sanctioned by management.
Workers’ inquiry is now part of the accepted social science repertoire:
its techniques no longer seem dangerous, but familiar, at least at the
methodological level. The bosses’ arsenal now includes weapons mimicking
the style, if not the substance, of workers’ inquiry. And as George
Steinmetz has suggested, while blatantly positivistic research styles
have fallen out of favor, this obscures the ‘positivist unconscious’
that continues to interpellate even apparently anti-positivist
The pioneers of workers’ inquiry argued researchers must work
through/against the ambivalent relations of (social) science; now, there
may be no other option. Wherever there are movements organizing and
addressing the horrors of capitalist exploitation and oppression, the
specter of recuperation is never far behind. The point is not to deny
these risks, but to the degree such dynamics confront all social
movements achieving any measure of success. It is by working against and
through them that recomposing radical politics becomes possible. Today
workers’ inquiry remains, as Raniero Panzieri argues, a permanent
reference point for autonomist politics, one that informs continuing
inquiries into class composition. With this issue we seek to rethink
workers’ inquiry as a practice and perspective, and through that to
understand and catalyze emergent moments of political composition.
Anna Curcio, University of Messina
Matteo Mandarini, Queen Mary, University of London
Gigi Roggero, University of Bologna
We invite presentations and interventions that update the practices of
workers’ inquiry for the present moment of class de-/recomposition. Can
we develop, taking up Matteo Pasquinelli’s suggestion, a form of
workers’ inquiry applied to cognitive and biopolitical production? The
very possibility of a workers’ inquiry begs reconsideration when
official unemployment figures drift toward 50% among sectors of the
industrial working class.
We are particularly interested in research that expands and/or
deconstructs the project of workers’ inquiry, or that transposes
workers’ inquiry onto unconventional terrain such as archival research
and cultural studies. Additionally, we encourage contributors to include
a substantial reflection on method, possibly addressing some of the
tensions outlined above and engaging with recent debates about method
Please send proposals of no more then 500 words
(conference /at/ ephemeraweb.org) by February 28th, 2013.
Attempts will be made to keep registration costs low, particularly for
those without funding, and will be run on a sliding scale basis.
The conference will be preceded by PhD workshop on workers’ inquiry that
will take place on May 1st (and will be free for PhD students to
attend). For more information on this e-mail (sshuka /at/ essex.ac.uk).
Sponsored by ephemera and the Essex Centre for Work, Organization, and
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