Investigating urban class struggle


October 9, 2019

The development of housing as a major site of class conflict cannot be separated from wider processes of urbanisation and land enclosure. If housing has been reduced and fragmented into myriad specialised sub-disciplines in the worlds of policy, journalism, academia, and economics, the task of housing movements is to conceptualise housing within wider processes of capital accumulation, contradiction and struggle. In the first workers’ inquiries conducted by Italian Operaismo in the 1960s, members of the Quaderni Rossi journal, alongside workers from the Olivetti factory in Turin, interviewed over one hundred workers in every sector of the factory allowing a deeper understanding of each worker’s ‘part within the whole’ and opening up new perspectives on class composition.1 Corresponding to a new spatial composition of capital—founded on the centrality of housing to contemporary political economy, tendential urbanisation, exacerbated land commodification and struggles in and over the built environment—it is necessary to undertake similar investigative processes at the urban level through practices of neighbourhood or territorial inquiry. Such practices would, belatedly, acknowledge the economic importance of the so-called ‘secondary circuit’ of capital in the built environment, while giving due weight to the spheres of consumption and social reproduction as arenas of political-economic contestation. Drawing on my own experience engaging in territorial inquiries, I speculate here on what a territorial inquiry might look like in practice and how it might provide an effective framework/methodology for the instigation, maintenance, and development, and recomposition of urban class struggle.

Operaismo and Inquiry

The inaugural workers’ inquiries by Italian autonomists were conducted in the 1960s at the Olivetti and Fiat factories in Turin, led by Romano Alquati and comrades from the Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia journals alongside unionized factory workers.2 As is now well-documented, the studies were influenced by Marx’s ‘A Workers Enquiry’ (1880), which posed 101 survey questions as a means to collect statements of workers’ grievances, working conditions, and social struggles. Post-war Italian sociology, and heterodox Marxist tendencies in the US and France, which had broken from Leninism and Trotskyism, applied a similar approach to their own contexts. Major influences on the Italian autonomists were the Johnson-Forest Tendency and Correspondence in the US and Socialisme ou Barbarie in France.3 Key texts were The American Worker, which graphically described factory life through the subjective perceptions of Paul Romano (under the pseudonym of Phil Singer), a US autoworker,4 Proletarian Experience by Claude Lefort, and the diaries of Renault militant Daniel Mothe, both of Socialisme ou Barbarie.5 Inquiry methods from this period included the testimony, the diary, the interview, the census, the survey, the questionnaire, the workers’ paper, the pamphlet, the bulletin, workshop discussion, and reading and study groups. All these activities were undertaken from the point of view of the workers’ experience and subjectivity.

Inquiry, as the above suggests, is a process undertaken within the relations of capital from the viewpoint of proletarian needs and values rather than from the perspective of capitalist control or academic social science. It is also a form of research around class composition, with Romano Alquati’s ‘Organic Composition of Capital and Labour-Power at Olivetti’ (1961) considered to be the first Operaist study where this relation between inquiry and composition is made explicit. In a context marked by the specialised division of labour and the separation of workers in the production process, Alquati stressed the need to surpass ‘blind empiricism’,6 or what Raniero Panzieri would later term ‘micro-sociology’, whereby partial and atomised themes are isolated from the wider totality of capitalist relations.7 If inquiry is not to become just another vehicle for passive community education, jaded historicism or bourgeois forms of participatory action research, the movement between the particular and insurgent universality must be central to any application of inquiry. Another point that Alquati emphasised was that an initial survey of problems through interviews is necessary to both foment a critical circulation of experiences and to initiate modes of direct encounter between workers (as both interviewers and subjects of study), especially when existing levels of organisation are low. These themes came together when militants from Quaderni Rossi and organised workers interviewed over one hundred workers in every sector of the Olivetti factory, allowing a deeper relational understanding of each worker’s ‘part within the whole’ and establishing ongoing relationships and ‘political training’ through counter-research for political action, including research projects, group discussions, and interviews.8

For Sergio Bologna, inquiry and composition analysis are only useful if they contribute to partisan forms of political recomposition, advancing and generalising movements against capital. The point of such analysis, he argues, is to understand political activity as an expression of a growing tendency of antagonism against capital.9 Likewise for Alquati, the purpose of inquiry is to generalise the process of class composition, with co-research an accomplice and aide for what is already at work in composition, not a revelation ex-nihilo.10 Inquiry in this mode aims to reveal and highlight existing contradictions and struggle before they necessarily break out into the open; it is the slow work of exposing and de-normalising exploitation and uneven social relations as ‘second nature’ under capitalism. But existing contradictions and struggles are premised on the composition of capital relations at any given point of time. In_Outline of a Pamphlet on FIAT_ (1967), Alquati conveys the profound tumult within the production process in mid-1960s Italy, while simultaneously stressing the potential for political recomposition:

… aggressive waves of worker struggle, capitalist response, ‘abrupt’ leaps of socialization, mechanization, planning, and productivity; concentration and decentering, centralizations and shattering, with sectoral and territorial redistribution of the working class, and processes of proletarianization, or tertiarization, qualification and dequalification, simplification, abstraction of labor … attack on the levels of political organization through restructurings and subjective recomposition of class movements, and the reproposal of new terrain and a new level of capital production for new, aggressive, and potentially revolutionary battles.11

For Panzieri, such a context of ‘great transformation and conflict’ provides the background to successful inquiry processes, carried out ‘in the heat of the moment and on the spot’.12 This is what distinguishes ‘hot’ modes of inquiry from ‘cold’ and detached sociological investigations. But such ‘ideal’ conditions are not always evident and contemporary inquiry must figure out whether such moments of transformation and rupture are the necessary grounds for effective organisation or whether slow forms of inquiry can productively unsettle everyday relations behind the second nature of capitalist realism. Differing contexts require different modes of activity and levels of expectation.

On a related note, if Alquati stresses the violence of technical and political decomposition, the actuality of this decomposition was often neglected in practice for the sake of an invariant eulogy to the revolutionary capacity of the factory working class.13 There were frequent allusions to the ‘social factory’ and capitalist subsumption across the entire social terrain within Operaismo, but typically factory struggles dominated the attention of Italian workerists.14 Alquati’s receptivity to moments of rupture did allow him, very early on, to acknowledge a general tendential shift from the factory to the social sphere, and, as Calder Williams observes, a spatial logic was evident in Alquati’s thought, especially related to the figure of the piazza as site of riot or demonstration.15 But Alquati and others within Operaismo never extended this spatial logic systematically, even if industrial decline, tertiarisation and urbanisation would become increasingly central to the political economy of Italy in the 1970s.16 Bologna’s ‘Tribe of Moles’ (1977) best captures the technical and political recomposition inherent to this restructuring process, arguing that the category of the ‘mass worker’ could no longer unify the struggles of the proletariat and that political recomposition must now start from a ‘base of dishomogeneity’ which must nevertheless seek ‘mass objectives’ if it is not be splintered into a thousand private issues. What those mass objectives or general concerns might be, as ever, is immanently related to the changing composition of capital.

Recomposing the Inquiry: Spatial Composition and New Grounds of Struggle

New tendencies in workers’ inquiry, perhaps better understood under the umbrella term ‘militant inquiry’ (including struggles outside the wage relation), have re-configured inquiry processes in the workplace and the spheres of consumption and social reproduction. Examples include the nuclear industry, call centre work, feminist work on precarity and care, platform capitalism, gig work, the unemployed sector and popular uprisings, with many recent manifestations of inquiry documented in this journal. At the same time, groups associated with Wildcat in Germany, including Gurgaon Workers News, Gongchao and Angry Workers of the World, have increasingly focused on circulation, logistics, distribution hubs, and supply chains in addition to manufacturing.

Areas of inquiry that remain under-developed, however, are housing and the urban environment. One way to develop this trajectory might be through the lens of spatial composition, a term, to my knowledge, first used by Alberto Toscano17 and more recently by urbanists and geographers, including myself, with reference to Italian autonomous Marxist urban praxis and contemporary capitalist relations in the city.18 The notion of spatial composition can be grasped by way of the ‘capital switching’ thesis outlined by Henri Lefebvre in The Urban Revolution (1970).19 Capital switching refers to tendential shifts of investment from the primary circuit of industry and manufacturing to the secondary circuit of land, real estate, housing, and the built environment. If Lefebvre thought that capital switching was tied to declining industrial profits and manufacturing crisis, we can now see that investments in real estate are both a crucial dumping ground for surplus capital (as David Harvey has exhaustively shown20) and a primary destination for capital, regardless of conditions in industry (as Robert Beauregard argued as early as 199421).

The results of capital switching and surplus dumping since the 1970s are manifestly borne out by escalating housing costs, rapacious land commodification, and a relentless privatisation of public space. The significance of real estate in the contemporary economy cannot be overstated. In 2017, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that land, valued at £5 trillion, accounted for over half of all UK net worth; buildings on land £3.5 trillion; and all other forms of wealth, £1.26 trillion, or only 13% of total UK net worth.22 And, as Lefebvre stresses, with David Harvey later adding more rigour to the argument, capital switching is also crisis switching: capital tends to become ‘fixed’ in real estate, making capital illiquid and potentially subject to drastic devaluation, while the rentier economy begins to supersede productive investment, causing a decline in productive growth that accentuates wealth disparities, social conflict, and problems of effective demand. Credit has been the solution to the latter problem, but this has only exacerbated the issue, as the 2007-2008 ‘subprime’ housing crisis revealed with exceptional clarity. What it also revealed is that ruling class interests are able to not only ride out crisis but profit from it, as long as organised antagonism is muted. The growth of tenants’ unions (London Renters’ Union, Living Rent, and ACORN) and wider struggles against gentrification in the UK are encouraging in this regard, but how might processes of inquiry help intensify these struggles?

Towards Territorial Inquiry: From Theory to Practice

Territorial inquiry can be seen as an immanent methodological response to the urbanisation of capitalism. Central to this notion is an acknowledgment that urban social conditions cannot be understood a priori, and that any urban political project requires continual, iterative processes of investigation. Alongside the methods of interview, testimony, survey, and questionnaire, the central method of territorial inquiry is investigative collective public walking. I draw to some extent here on territorial inquiries I have organised with others in the city of Glasgow, Scotland, but it is important to stress the provisional nature of these efforts; the method remains in its infancy, requiring reflexive development through collective praxis. This is especially the case because territorial inquiry represents a deviation from more typical forms of workplace inquiry and cannot be conceived as a thing-in-itself. Nevertheless, I will attempt to formulate some basic principles for potential practice while pointing to some issues that I think require further development based on my own experience.

As I have undertaken it, territorial inquiry involves the selection of a route of travel and the designation of key sites along the way as stopping points for discussion and exchange. Ideally, territorial inquiry should be enacted as a process of co-research by an existing community of engaged political actors, involving a range of ‘contributors’ giving short presentations from prepared or found material. Topics might cover, for instance, neighbourhood statistics, housing conditions, specific regeneration sites, instances of gentrification and privatisation, analysis of urban development plans, issues of land ownership, sites of political struggle (historical and contemporary), and the location of allies and enemies in the area. There are no limits to the scope of analysis, but it should be understood that the goal of inquiry is to develop new practices that will contribute to political recomposition. The latter is what distinguishes territorial inquiry from more traditional public walking tours and other forms of educational community intervention.

As much as territorial inquiry can benefit from prior research disseminated at pre-arranged points en route, there should be sufficient room to respond in a more ad hoc manner to the urban environment. Territorial inquiry facilitates collaborative, reciprocal exchange between those with an aptitude for research transferring detailed knowledge in an accessible manner, and those who, by dint of their own embedded level of memory and local expertise, can disseminate location-specific urban knowledge from their own experience. Ideally, these attributes are combined. Territorial inquiry should be undertaken with both structured and semi-structured methodological approaches, creating a legible framework for exploration but seeking as much as possible to dissolve boundaries between knowledge ‘experts’ and the knowledge that develops from lived experience.

At this point, it is important to distinguish between two forms of workers’ inquiry: firstly, inquiry ‘from above’, which involves the use of traditional research methods from outside to gain access to the workplace or community; secondly, inquiry ‘from below’ or ‘co-research’, whereby those within the workplace or community are involved in co-leading the production of knowledge and organisation.23 It is important not to make a fetish of co-research (inquiry from above has its place, especially when the local level of political activity and consciousness is low), but if the conditions exist—for instance an already constituted group working towards the generalisation of a common political project—then inquiry ‘from below’ is clearly favourable.24 Whatever the context, distinguishing territorial inquiry from more traditional organised public walks means establishing a collective political project, albeit an open and fluid one, that co-researchers are willing to engage with. In this sense, it may be better to start small and local, developing inquiry as a collective self-learning process for an already constituted group, involving, for instance, an anti-gentrification group, members of a social centre or a local tenants’ or residents’ organisation. This might then be expanded as an iterative process of local engagement develops. What is important is that the inquiry contributes to collective ongoing material social practices in the form of organised political activity.

If territorial inquiry is to be more than just a process of knowledge creation, then those undertaking the inquiry must understand collective walking as only one part of a critical political process. An iterative three-stage cyclical process might involve:
(1) pre-stage: educational work on inquiry as a method/process, collective route planning (geographical scope of the inquiry), decision on the composition/size of the group, assessing accessibility issues, delegation of research issues/topics to be covered, and delegation of speakers.
(2) the stage-itself: undertaking of the territorial inquiry as a collective research-based public walk; and
(3) post-stage: space for critical reflections on the walk, decisions on further research plans, potential planning of further walks, public dissemination of findings, consideration of direct action practices, and pressuring of institutions of power.25

This should provide a basic framework for territorial inquiry, but different contexts and purposes require different forms of organisation and different combinations with other practices. The themes of investigation will likewise be conjunctural, but some general tendencies of urban inquiry are likely to emerge.

The instrumental use of planning for the purposes of urban development means that the moments of ‘great transformation and conflict’ that Panzieri identified as a primary source for ‘hot’ inquiry processes have an increasingly urban dimension.26 A critical investigation of land, property markets, and capitalist planning initiatives must be central to territorial inquiry, and this calls for structured educational work and learning as well as base-building, organisational methods. Transgressing locational boundaries and their artificial divisions should also be a priority for urban inquiry, allowing for a wider relational understanding of urban political economy and the urban environment and the potential widening and generalisation of knowledge and solidarity between different communities of struggle in other areas.

Collective walking as critical inquiry has enormous potential for grasping how the geographical and discursive specificity of bounded regeneration projects might belie their instrumental role as catalysts for wider urban accumulation projects. How do the pieces of the urban jigsaw fit together? How does one urban realm relate to another? What claims are being made and what is the reality? Where is the money coming from? What logic is at work? Who benefits? How can such processes be understood and challenged? In a public walk I led in Glasgow, for instance, we walked relationally between a canal-side ‘cultural quarter’ and vast nearby areas of brownfield land in some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the UK (which only around five of the 50 or so people on the walk had visited previously). This opened up not only the potential urban frontier that was the ultimate objective of policies behind the pump-priming cultural quarter, but the scale of public housing demolition, displacement, planning intent, and land remediation subsidy that made this new frontier a tangible development opportunity for investors.27

Territorial inquiry, through the practices of walking, discussion, and mapping allows for rich embodied and situated experience and forms of collective encounter emerging from the immediate environment. Reference points here are the practices of the dérive and psychogeography developed by the Situationist International (SI). As Francis Stracey observes, these singular interventions, often seen in isolation, are better seen as part of a wider strategy involving the construction of situations as ‘a practical critique of urban planning’.28 There is a rich tradition here, but such practices are now increasingly undertaken as de-politicised and individualised artistic projects of sensory exploration rather than mobilisations for political recomposition and the reconquest of city centres. In this sense, territorial inquiry might help re-politicise the recuperated traditions of the dérive and psychogeography by emphasising the production of collective material political practice. For Lefebvre, the dérive and psychogeography at their best could help overcome the fragmentation of the city, intimating the possibility of an immediate relational diachronic and synchronic history of the city, opening up the urban environment as historical palimpsest and relational present.29 Territorial inquiry can likewise form a practice that challenges socio-spatial fragmentation, separation and atomisation.

At the level of spatial composition, finding a bridge between subjective experience and material conditions entails first of all starting from the experience of those who struggle against the capitalist city. The struggles themselves, their content and how they circulate, are central to both compositionist and inquiry approaches. If the relationship between the urban initiatives of capital and the dynamic of class struggle is where political recomposition emerges, then territorial inquiry must emphasise how capitalist relations are challenged, through which forms, and whether these forms reach a significant level of political recomposition. There is no place here for neutral objectivity: inquiry is an immanent, partisan, and collective process that seeks to undermine the relations of capital through forces of political recomposition. In this sense it is far from the niceties of participatory action research, which tends to reproduce an ‘expert-subject’ binary between ‘inside’ (academia, third sector agency, community education) and ‘outside’ (wider society) in the name of ‘inclusion’ and ‘equality.’ Inquiry is not about helping others but about helping ourselves. It is not concerned with widening ‘participation’ but with building powerful base organisations that have the power to effectively challenge the real abstractions of capital and the state.

An investigation of the power relations behind land ownership, housing tenure, regeneration, and planning means critically examining not only the state and capital, but also the third-sector organisations that claim to represent urban communities. Regeneration, displacement, and rent-racking are typically framed in a pseudo-consensual post-political manner, masking the real class content of gentrification and urban development. In this context, beyond the traditional scepticism towards local city councillors, political party representatives and associated unions characteristic of autonomous organisations, a healthy distrust of governmental community councils, housing associations, charities, and other forms of the poverty industry is essential. Autonomous forms of inquiry do not necessarily mitigate against engagement with the state, but it is vital not to identify class struggle with official organisations but rather with the autonomous power of the base, without which political representation is toothless.

Territorial inquiry is one means of building that base: developing collective research capacity and speaker confidence; collectively deciding research-based strategy; understanding who can be identified as allies or enemies; and sharing experiences, tactics and strategies. As a method, it has the capacity to be extremely effective as an organising tool for several reasons. Firstly, the problems of housing and the urban environment have become generalised with the tendential urbanisation of capital. Secondly, the decomposition of the working class and the waning of the industrial union as a vehicle for collective struggle may mean that a collective political identity is more readily found in the neighbourhood, in the form of ‘resident’ or ‘tenant’ for instance (notwithstanding the fragmentation of the housing market through the decomposition of public housing and tenure division). Thirdly, territorial inquiry directly targets the arena of social reproduction, opening up the potential to broaden and unify the composition of those in political struggle by challenging an area characterised by the domestic labour of women. In contrast to many workplace struggles, women have often been at the forefront of housing and community struggles. Fourthly, the experience of urban poverty in the capitalist city is tangible for increasingly large sectors of the population, the need for a genuinely affordable roof over one’s head is universal, and thus potentially productive of organisation in common. Finally, inquiry can be effectively mobilised in tandem with other modes of organisation in a way that enhances their utility. These factors, taken together, mean that territorial inquiry might provide the requisite bridge between subjectivity and material conditions to provide an appropriate and immanent response to the new spatial composition of capital.


  1. Class composition has two main aspects: ‘technical composition,’ the technological and supervisory means by which capital controls and divides workers in the workplace and in the community; and ‘political composition’, which refers to how workers seek to overcome these divisions through processes of unification, massification, and recombination. 

  2. Alquati Romano. 1961. Organic Composition of Capital and Labour-Power at Olivetti; Alquati Romano. 1964. Struggle at Fiat; Romano Alquati. 1967. Outline of a Pamphlet on Fiat. All available in Issue 3 of Viewpoint Magazine. https://www.viewpointmag.com/2013/09/30/issue-3-workers-inquiry/ 

  3. See Steve Wright. 2002. Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism. London: Pluto Press: London; Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi. 2013. Workers’ Inquiry: A Genealogy. Issue 4, Viewpoint Magazine, September 27. https://www.viewpointmag.com/2013/09/27/workers-inquiry-a-genealogy/ 

  4. Paul Romano and Ria Stone. 1947. The American Worker. https://libcom.org/history/american-worker-paul-romano-ria-stone 

  5. These inquiry studies, and many more, are collected in Issue 4 of Viewpoint Magazine. https://www.viewpointmag.com/2013/09/27/workers-inquiry-a-genealogy/ 

  6. Alquati, op.cit., 1961. 

  7. Raniero Panzieri. 1965. Socialist Uses of Workers’ Inquiry. http://www.generation-online.org/t/tpanzieri.htm 

  8. Alquati, op.cit., 1961. 

  9. Bologna Sergio. 1977. The Tribe of Moles. https://libcom.org/library/tribe-of-moles-sergio-bologna 

  10. Evan Calder Williams. 2013. Invisible Organization: Reading Romano Alquati. Viewpoint Magazine, September 26. http://viewpointmag.com/2013/09/26/invisible-organization-reading-romano-alquati/ 

  11. Alquati, op.cit., 1967. 

  12. Panzieri, op.cit. 

  13. Raffaele Sbardella. 1980. The NEP of Classe Operaia, 1980. Viewpoint Magazine, January 28. https://www.viewpointmag.com/2016/01/28/the-nep-of-classe-operaia/ 

  14. Neil Gray. Forthcoming. Differentiated Spatialities of Subsumption and The Social Factory as Phantom Thesis. In Anthony Iles and Mattin (Eds) What is to be Done under Real Subsumption? Mute Books: London. 

  15. Calder Williams, op.cit. 

  16. Neil Gray. 2018. Beyond the Right to the City: Territorial Autogestion and the Take over the City movement in 1970s Italy. Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, 50(2), 319–339. https://doi.org/10.1111/anti.12360 

  17. Alberto Toscano. 2004. Factory, Territory, Metropolis, Empire. Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 9(2), 197–216. https://doi.org/10.1080/0969725042000272834 

  18. Gray, op.cit; Nick Clare. 2019. Composing the Social Factory: An Autonomist Urban Geography of Buenos Aires. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 37(2), 255–275. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0263775818805096 

  19. Henri Lefebvre. 2003. The Urban Revolution. Trans. Robert Bononno. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis. 

  20. David Harvey D. 2010. The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism. Profile Books: London. 

  21. Robert Beauregard. 1994. Capital Switching and the Built Environment: United States, 1970-89. Environment and Planning A, 26(5), 715-732. https://doi.org/10.1068/a260715 

  22. Brett Christophers. 2018. The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain. Verso Books: London, p. 33. 

  23. See, Interview with Vittorio Rieser, first published in Guido Borio, Francesca Pozzi and Gigi Roggero (Eds). 2002. Futuro Anteriore, Rome: Deriveapprodi, 2002. http://www.generation-online.org/t/vittorio.htm 

  24. Notably, in Steve Wright’s forthcoming book, the evidence would suggest that the initial Operaismo inquiries were more vanguard than collective. Yet, this has not mitigated their influence. See, Steve Wright. Forthcoming 2020. The Weight of the Printed Word: Text, Context and Militancy in Operaismo. Brill: Leiden/Boston. 

  25. Thanks to Nicky Patterson for this notion of an iterative, three-stage conception of inquiry. Nicky is currently organising territorial inquiry processes in the Pollokshaws neighbourhood of Glasgow. 

  26. Panzieri, op.cit. 

  27. Neil Gray. 2013. ‘Neighbourhood Inquiry’: For a Post-Political Politics. Planning Theory and Practice, 14(4), 551–555. https://doi.org/10.1080/14649357.2013.853470 

  28. Frances Stracey. 2014. Constructed Situations: A New History of the Situationist International. Pluto Press: London, p.8. 

  29. Kirsten Ross. 1997. Henri Lefebvre on the Situationist International. Interview conducted and translated by Kristin Ross. Winter, October. http://www.notbored.org/lefebvre-interview.html 


author

Neil Gray

Neil Gray is a writer, researcher and Living Rent tenant union member based in Glasgow. He is the editor of Rent and its Discontents: A Century of Housing Struggle (2018). Rowman and Littlefield: London.