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Labor Disorders in Neoliberal Italy

0 Comments 🕔01.Feb 2013

What does neoliberalism feel like? If it is a structure of feeling, what is the social life of the neoliberal sensorium? How does this sensorium seep outward from the everyday workplace deep into human existence itself, throughout the sinews of the social body and under the skin of its members? Anyone interested in the social life of the precariat – how precarity is sensed, how it is articulated as an affective orientation and materialized as an embodied sensation, codified as a medical disorder and legally recognized as an ‘existential damage’ – should read Noelle Molé’s Labor Disorders. This superb ethnography astonishes on many fronts and is a unique contribution to our understanding of what it means to live and breathe under a hyper-flexibilized labor regime.

Labor Disorders is set in Padua, a city located in Italy’s Northeastern region of Veneto, and based on extensive fieldwork in mobbing clinics, mobbing prevention programs, corporate sites, among mobbing experts, union workers, doctors, psychologists, lawyers and judges, and, finally, on detailed media and legal analysis. The ethnographic object of Molé’s narrative is mobbing, the ‘disorder’ around which the sensorium of precarity has congealed in Italy. Mobbing is a phenomenon very familiar to most Italians and many Europeans. An Italian court defined it as an “aggression or violence or persecution in the workplace perpetuated with a certain systematic and repetitious manner by one’s manager or … colleagues, using behaviors able to harm, discriminate, or progressively marginalize a determined worker in order to estrange him, marginalize him, and eventually induce him to resign … in extreme cases, [this could result in a] propensity for suicide from the absence of self-realization in work and the lack of normal gratification in social relationships at work.” The cultural biography of the phenomenon begins at a historical moment in the 1990s, just as Italy was stripping its labor market of its famous protections. Italians, when asked, also immediately associate the rise of mobbing with precariatization (precarizzazione), that is to say, with the kinds of social, economic, and existential risk and uncertainty that contingent labor regimes have come with.

The public discursive and institutional landscape surrounding mobbing has exploded within a brief time-span of a little more than 15 years. Mobbing is today a deeply resonant cultural concept through which Italians identify themselves and others: there are mobbers (mobbizzatori) and victims of mobbing (mobbizzati). It is also, importantly, a deeply gendered phenomenon in that the average mobbing victims are women in their 40s working in the private sector. In 2000, the Italian Minister of Health declared mobbing to be one of Italy’s top national health problems. In 2005, Italy’s Corriere della Sera estimated that up to 18 percent of Italy’s workers were mobbed. Italy today boasts hundreds of mobbing hotlines, mobbing clinics, mobbing research groups, and mobbing counseling centers. Universities offer master’s degrees on mobbing. An Italian Movement of Associated Mobbees struggles for the rights of its members. Perhaps most astonishingly, Italian state law today recognizes not simply the “psycho-physical integrity” of workers the way other states recognize workers’ prejudice physiologique (France) or “pain and suffering” (United States). Since 2002, Italian law recognizes “existential damages” that workers can suffer and be compensated for; a “compensation for the wounds of late capitalism” that is also, necessarily, an exclusionary process because only certain worker-citizens and only certain kinds of distress are recognized and not every claim or claimant count equally (2011, 81).

Mobbing in Italy is imagined and treated as a health problem. Molé describes in vivid detail how mobbed Italian workers are tasked with proving – quite literally on the skin (for mobbing can cause rashes, hair loss, weight loss, loss of teeth, etc.) – that they have been mobbed. The task of the victim of mobbing has become that of making herself legible to the state through a range of evidentiary practices made manifest in concrete signs on the body. The legal and medical discourses that have congealed around mobbing have thus allowed Italian citizens to name the injustices and human costs of the neoliberal order. This is, on the surface, a striking achievement. The Italian state, which looks back on a long history of protecting worker’s bodily integrity, now protects workers of both physical and psychological-existential illness and offers assistance and support. OCP (Organizational Coercion Pathology) is considered a work-related illness triggered by the precarious workplace and is insurable by the Italian state public health institution (INAIL). At the same time, Molé shows how it is precisely the medicalization of mobbing that de-politicizes what is an economic and political problem and shifts it out of the realm of collective mobilization and into that if there is individual suffering and redress. Medicalization has further produced a whole new structure of state surveillance and a new body of experts responsible for the monitoring of damaged bodies. Welfare claims can now be assessed and monitored through new forms of biological governance. These new sites of expertise control and also split workers into victims of mobbing who are able to utilize bodily suffering for their own material benefits and those who cannot document their bodily traumas (2911, 125). The medicalization of the problems arising out of the precarious workplace thus has profound, unintended consequences, creating a highly contested field where anxiety-filled anomie co-exists with the capacity on the part of citizens to maneuver within and between the remnants of old rights (to health, to an undamaged body) and the diminished rights of the new labor market.

This stellar book offers rich food for thought and makes several profound contributions to our understanding of labor, the state, gender, citizenship, health, law, and rights in neoliberal Europe. I here highlight three: First, Molé’s stresses that mobbing is not symptomatic of a full-scale neoliberalization of Italy’s labor market. Instead, mobbing emerged at the interstices of what, on the one hand, are the remains of a still strongly protectionist system and, on the other, is its flexible, nightmarish counterpart. Italy has of course had one of the most highly protectionist labor regimes in Europe – in 2005, 45.8 percent of Italians had held the same jobs for more than 10 years, compared with the 8.2 percent European average. Since then, however, the stripping of protections has produced a two-tier workforce that is sharply split economically and socially between long-term and short-term workers. Italian workplaces are today therefore characterized by two opposing forms of employment: the precariat often works in proximity (that is to say, in the very same workplace) with those still in possession of stable work. Such jarring proximities of the new precariat to the holders of the remaining safeguards of the Fordist-Keynesian regime not only bring the precariat’s insecurities into particularly sharp relief (a reason, perhaps, why precarity has been a centerpiece of Italian leftist politics and political movements since the early 2000s) but allows for a better understanding of how Italy’s workplaces have become inhabited in new, often antagonistic ways, with effects on the consciousness of all. The focus on mobbing, in short, allows for an analysis of the partial neoliberalization of workplaces and of the ways in which neoliberalism is simultaneously advanced and undermined. This focus further offers insights into post-Fordist worker subjectivity, which is as fragmented and incompletely neoliberalized as the workplace itself. Worker’s refuse, fear and battle precarity, while constantly anticipating and appropriating it at the same time. Second, Molé’s book allows for a highly engaging and often also surprising reading of the contemporary Italian state as well. Other ethnographies of neoliberalization have investigated the medicalization and pharmaceuticalization of social problems in the current era; an era that often moves social problems outside of the realm of politics and into the realm of individualized pathology, suffering and healing. The Italian case is so remarkable because it not only allows for an empirical tracing of this state’s long commitment to workers’ bodily integrity and this body of law’s afterlife under neoliberal conditions, but it also allows us to track how the problem of mobbing offers worker-citizens new pathways for protection even as their rights are simultaneously undermined. The state, in short, is shown to combine its support for labor market flexibilization with an enduring commitment, both structural and ideological, to national labor protection and welfare. It is thus not only workers who are ambivalently and paradoxically situated vis-à-vis mobbing, but the Italian state itself. A final important contribution made in this book regards the nature of precarity itself. Precarity has, of course, always already existed, but people feel precarious in historically specific ways. Why has mobbing become such a baroquely elaborated discourse and institutionalized practice in Italy at this particular historical moment, and why is there such a generalized sensitivity and wide-spread angst? Molé carefully moves away from economistic arguments that might hold that the phenomenon of mobbing is nothing more than a form of coersive downsizing – a cunning corporate strategy aimed at dismissing lifelong workers. Such “logics of economic sequence” do not, according to Molé, hold if one considers that mobbing is carried out by everyone against everyone else – it has been documented among short-term workers and between those with short-term and long-term contracts; among same-level workers and between those who are positioned differently within company hierarchies; and by bosses, workers, superiors, and inferiors alike. Mobbing must therefore be interpreted as more than a cynical tool wielded by a heartless elite, and as more than a form of violence exerted by capital onto the remaining protected labor force. Rather, what she documents is the rise of an anxiety-filled, paranoid disposition or structure of feeling that has seeped outward from Italian workplaces and into collective life more generally. Mobbing, Molé insists, is a symptom of the damages wrought onto human existence by the flexible work regime, a sickness of the collective and individual body.

Reviewed by Andrea Muehlebach of the University of Toronto


Labor Disorders in Neoliberal Italy: Mobbing, Well-Being, and the Workplace
By Noelle J. Mole
Indiana University Press
Paperback / 228 pages / 2011
ISBN: 978-0-253-22319-7


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