We Want Everything

We Want Everything

We Want Everything, by Nanni Balestrini is an energetic work of art, a political analysis, and a historical panorama. The novel was first published in 1971 and has only recently been translated into English. It features the experiences, thoughts, and musings of a nameless narrator who relates his story in intimate detail. He is funny. He is angry. He is insolent.

Our protagonist leaves the Italian countryside in the late 1960s, the period in which Italian workers and students followed the lead of their Parisian counterparts in protests which demanded sweeping changes in the Italian government and economy. He travels to Turin where he stays with his sister. Upon his arrival in Turin, he notes that everything has a price, a large price. Like many of his peers emigrating to the city, he applies for a job at the Fiat Plant along with 20,000 other job seekers. He muses that “The monsters were coming, the horrible workers.” Getting a Fiat ID card protected workers from vicious police crackdowns on “horrible workers” and certain arrests. But the demand for labor was high, made worse by the horrible working conditions at Fiat which resulted in many new workers leaving after a few days.

The narrator begins his job search with an interview at Fiat which is fraudulent in that everyone was hired due to market demand. He then describes a medical examination and a strength test to determine if he can handle the machinery on the production line. He describes a blood test conducted in a room full of odiferous, bloody cotton balls and a urine test in which prospective workers stood in a circle filling dirty containers.

After being hired, our narrator joins the Fiat assembly line. Workers were paid on their level of productivity. There was no base wage. Workers couldn’t earn enough to live on unless their labor demonstrated guaranteed profit for the company. The work was arduous and painful. He is placed at a station on the assembly which requires the use of one arm and shoulder to place rivets with a pneumatic gun. The work twists his back and makes his arms sore.

He describes his fellow workers as people who "could spend years in this shitty prison and do a job that destroys your life."

On the assembly line, he meets emigres from rural towns in Northern Italy, whom he describes as “really hard people” who will spend their entire short lives working. He describes his fellow workers as people who “could spend years in this shitty prison and do a job that destroys your life.”

He does get sick leave. At one point he fakes a finger injury for a few days off. But he has no idea what to do or how to relax. The Fiat factory not only degrades work, but it sullies and destroys life itself. This is how workers live their exploitation. It is the living experiences of Marx’s concept of alienation.

So, our hero makes the only rational decision open to him. He will make trouble. He tells his supervisors, “I didn’t want Fiat. I didn’t make it, I’m inside here just to make money and that’s it. But if you piss me off and break my balls, I’ll smash your heads in, all of you.” And so, our narrator and some of his fellow workers who are members of the Communist Party decide to change history.

As we proceed to the latter part of the novel our narrator-hero changes. He becomes a rebel with a cause. He becomes a political economist. He realizes that when workers’ wages are tied to their productivity they are working with bosses against their interests. His narration changes from being a first-person marked the use of “I” to a third-person narration of “we.” He metamorphizes from an individual to a part of a larger collective that no longer struggles for higher wages, but now demands the abolition of capitalism.

Suddenly, all around him, he finds that students are organizing in secret. His fellow workers bring the factory to a halt through a series of strikes. Suddenly the streets are full of protests. The roads are barricaded. Tear gas fills the air of Turin. The slogan “we want everything” is heard everywhere in what would become a decade of revolt.

Suddenly, all around him, he finds that students are organizing in secret. His fellow workers bring the factory to a halt through a series of strikes. Suddenly the streets are full of protests. The roads are barricaded. Tear gas fills the air of Turin. The slogan “we want everything” is heard everywhere in what would become a decade of revolt.

The author, Nanni Balestrini, was indeed part of that revolt. In 1979, an arrest warrant was issued for Balestrini for insurrection against the state. He escaped arrest by skiing across the Italian Alps into France

Balestrini had been a member of Potere Operaio, a group that organized factory workers. This group relied on learning the actual direct experiences of works and amplifying their voices. It is an organizing tactic called “inchiesta,” or workers’ inquiry, popularized by the French members of Socialism or Barbarism.

So, the idea of worker subjectivity embraced a shift from building a labor movement toward resisting the disciplines of work. It was Karl Marx himself who introduced the idea in his 1880’s worker questionnaire. As Marx said, “it is the workers in town and country who alone can describe with full knowledge the misfortunes from which they suffer.”

In the end, We Want Everything, and Marx himself tells us there can be no theory without struggle, no correct ideas without organizing. The struggle is the precondition of theory. And struggle emanates from workers themselves. This novel is both literature and theory. This novel is a map for revolution and the end of capitalism itself.