This extract focuses on Italy, and how precariousness has become a collective phenomenon.

The intensification and extension of junior faculty and student mobilizations in the last few days has no equal in recent times, not even in the conflict high-points of the last twenty years. Today, for the first time in a long time, a long period of sedimentation of analysis, practices and experiences coalesces into a manifestly and directly political passage that succeeds in communicating with society as a whole and making itself understood, puts pressure on political forces and institutions, affects the social climate, and challenges the commonplaces and ideological taboos that for many years have determined the order of discourse and the horizon of what’s possible all across the political spectrum.

There is definitely something new in the air. Why is the question of the university and education so crucially important in this new phase? Firstly, because it is on this terrain that the ideology and practice of neo-liberalism – and related disciplinary dispositifs – have set up a laboratory for programming the future, have devised techniques and processes for control of the new forms of labour (or labour power), and have theorized and put into practice precariousness as a blackmail tool disguised by the rhetoric of efficiency, meritocracy and international competition.

Precarious work and the forms of dependency that characterize it, and that today threaten labour and force it to go on the defensive, have imposed their model starting precisely with the education system and cognitive labour. To checkmate neo-liberal ideology and its selection mechanisms within the university is nothing less than to checkmate it tout court.

Without imposing ‘unconditional availability’ within the school and the university, it would not be possible to impose it on the workers of Pomigliano d’Arco either: the latter are in fact as sociologically and culturally different from the workers’ vanguards of the 1960s and 1970s as they are close, in terms of aspirations and lifestyles, to both the students who are part of the movement and to precarious youth.

Taking a close look at big and medium-sized factories would in fact show how precariousness doesn’t just affect young people who enter the labour market. Today, it is the pivotal principle guiding the relationship between capital and labour, including where there is a permanent contractual relationship. However, it would be wrong to interpret the ‘unity against the crisis’ – which energized the great metalworkers trade union (FIOM) demonstration of 16 October and now casts its shadow over the next one on 14 December – in the classic terms of an alliance between industrial workers and students, or between permanent and precarious workers, or between different generations – which would then beg the question as to who will hegemonize the movement and which social subject will be endowed with the power of becoming the ‘engine of history’.

Things are not the way they used to be. Neither students, nor industrial workers, nor, more broadly, the exploited masses are what they were forty years ago. Today, static social identities, with their related forms of consciousness and ‘alliance politics’, are at odds both with subjective perceptions and with the nature of production processes. But what is most relevant here is that, much as it manifests itself in individual bargaining as each person’s individual destiny, this labour mobility and precariousness is in fact a collective phenomenon: it has become part of our social fabric.

The labour market is based on rules and power relations that leave no room for individual aspirations, while, at the same time, it uses these aspirations against collective action. But what is happening now is that we are starting to become aware of this collective element, of the connections between our different positions in society. And this means that we are beginning to see through the endless flow of bollocks about ‘human capital’ and ‘self-enterprise’ that for many years has poisoned the social climate and distorted people’s perceptions of their prospects.

The classic theme of ‘class recomposition’, or of the coming class, must be rethought in terms of recognition: not of similarity, but of difference; not of the identity of a social group, but of identity of interests – economic, social and cultural. This recomposition is not going to happen on an ethical or solidaristic basis, but rather on the basis of the recognition of how the negativity of our social position is linked to the negativity of the other’s social position, and therefore of how overturning all these negativities is also interconnected. In all of this, the recognition of migrant labour represents the decisive test.

The minister of education, Maristella Gelmini, is horrified when she sees students and pensioners demonstrating together. But there is no precarious worker who is not aware that the parent’s pension supplements his or her meagre income, much as there is no pensioner who wouldn’t want to be relieved of this burden – not to mention their compromised autonomy. What we are talking about is the recomposition of complex subjectivities, which cannot be reduced to the basic and stereotypical traits of their (temporary) social position. This is a recomposition that immediately assumes the form of political reasoning.

Finally, the Gelmini bill is cursed: it comes at the end of a cycle. Gelmini is less fortunate than her predecessors, the left reformers who paved the way for the bill and its ideological legitimation. Unlike them, she can’t just talk until she is proved wrong: her project has already failed. It’s already buried under the ruins of the failed relationship between the university and the enterprise system, between education and private interests: a relation that is supposed to be its raison d’eÃÇtre. Entrepreneurs are bankrupt, top students have no opportunities; the crisis is triggering a war for resources, which is disguised as measures to relaunch the economy, and which in reality is just a desperate attempt to offload costs and protect profits and positions of privilege.

The neo-liberal, competitive university, in which all that is invested is student and junior faculty debts, finds itself in the midst of the still-worsening economic crisis, in a world indebted up to its eyeballs. All it can do is to fraudulently pass off cuts as necessary and rationalization. This is a miserable argument, to say the least: an argument that does not succeed in mitigating either the crisis’s rough reality or the failure of the measures with which its makers pretend to overcome it. It’s time to ask the university ‘reformers’ who have followed one another – each of them with his or her own failed experiment, but all following the same path – to foot the bill.

There is also a brand new, decisive element that is clearly at variance with the context in which past movements emerged – including the powerful movement that experienced the glory days of the clashes in Genoa, the flourishing of social forums and the anti-war mobilizations. This is the complete destabilization of Italy’s political landscape (in the context of political destabilization on a global scale). The troubled passage of the bill on higher education is itself a sign of how political forces that are uncertain about their future – and lack political and cultural tools other than those that have already been worn down by the crisis and by popular impatience – find themselves wrong-footed, confused and frightened by the growing wave of movements.

It is a sign of how a political culture (or lack of culture) is beginning to crumble: of how the art of compromise and the attempt to build political alliances came up against real conflicts; of how trying to find the lowest common denominator among parliamentary forces diverges from the increasingly popular idea of a different kind of common (see, for instance, the extraordinary success of the public water campaign). When the crisis of representation produces disaffection only among sulky, marginalized and disillusioned critics, the political class can pretend that nothing happened.

But when demonstrators exercise their right to veto in the streets, and when popular assemblies assert a right to put forward proposals, that’s when the political class is forced to face its own insubstantiality and begins to fear that its self-reproduction might be compromised. The point then is to stop this type of ‘class recomposition’: that is, to prevent power elites, after the toppling of Berlusoni, from regrouping under the banner of ‘antiberlusconismo’ in order to ensure the continuity of neo-liberal policies and reinstate social control and exploitation mechanisms. This is what is at stakes in the universities, in the factories, in the different territorial realities.

The demonstration that will take place on 14 December isn’t just to get rid of Berlusconi and the most sinister figures in his court. It doesn’t just aim to re-establish the innocuous rules of democratic etiquette. It also aims to prevent a new pact among bosses. It aims to start finding a path through the crisis that will not leave power relations unchanged. As the opposition movement knows very well, stopping this university reform also means putting into question everything behind it.