Introduction of  ‘The Rise of the European Self-employed Workforce’ by Sergio Bologna

There are different ways to read these essays, which were written over the course of the last 20 years with the specific intention of creating a cultural identity of freelancers in the digital era, those that we call “second-generation independent workers”. A simpler and perhaps also the most appropriate way to understand the sense of them is to read these texts as the documentation of a historical process that began in the 1920s and has not yet been completed. The simple fact of calling them second-generation independent workers indicates a particular choice, because we automatically ask ourselves, “Who were the first generation?”. The answer can be found in the writings of sociologists and economists, mostly German and Austrian, who studied the social composition and cultural characteristics of independent workers in Europe in the 1920s and 30s, with an eye to the situation in the United States, the country where many of them emigrated to escape the Nazi dictatorship. The essay, “For an Anthropology of the Self-employed Worker”, confronts this history.

I imagine that today’s Western European or North American independent workers would be unlikely to know that their condition as freelancers had been
studied with so much attention in a period when the assembly line had only recently been introduced into mass production. Today’s independent workers look to the future, not to the past, and are convinced that they are the new work force. To them, it seems to be a waste of time to take a look back. On the contrary, I believe that they have something to learn, in order to understand themselves better, from the way they have been classi ed and analysed as independent workers by some of the greatest minds of European sociology such as Emil Lederer, who was a Socialist, and Theodor Geiger, who was a Catholic.

Lederer would become a much appreciated teacher at the New School of Social Research in New York, while Geiger preferred to emigrate to Denmark where he continued his studies on those we today call “knowledge workers”, a term that was coined by Paul Drucker and came into common usage in the 1950s. Austrian- born Drucker emigrated to the United States in 1939 and, after WWII, became one of the most important management consulting theoreticians, understanding very early on that the technological development inside big corporations — including the most sophisticated marketing techniques, human resource management, and organisations with complex systems — require specific competences. Drucker understood that a major market of knowledge workers, professionals who were a highly dynamic component of the middle class, was opening up, and that they could carry out their activities either as salaried employees of big companies or as freelancers, second-generation independent workers.

In my work life, I have taught the history of the workers’ movement and of the industrial society in various universities in Italy and Germany, but I have also worked for a rather long period as a consultant to governmental institutions, big companies, entrepreneurial associations, and trade unions. I have been a civil servant and an independent professional, a salaried employee and a freelancer. So I have observed that different positions in the labour market, salaried or freelance, have a strong influence on the subjectivity of people and their perception of the world. In the essay, “Ten Parameters for Defining a Self-employed Workers Statute”, I have tried to de ne the difference between those who work for themselves and those who work as employees. A difference in terms of what? In terms of their perception of space and time, regarding management of their competences, regarding their perception of earning and remuneration (wage vs. invoice), but also the difference regarding a citizen’s right to health care and a pension — a particularly strong difference between Europe’s welfare model and that of the United States.

Reasoning in these terms, and especially on the problem of “human capital” that every conscientious worker possesses and that represents his vital heritage, I understood that it was necessary to face the problem of professionalism. What is a profession? Who is a professional? Is management consulting a profession? Or is a profession just a competence acquired with a precise study curriculum? I studied theology, literature, history and philosophy. Management consultants are usually economists, engineers and lawyers. Do I have the right to call myself a professional? The first to confront the problem of “profession” was Max Weber, but he spoke about the profession of teaching, so he was really talking about a mission, a vocation (Beruf), and not about the performance of a service in a business operation. This was handled by sociologists specialising in professions. I took a close look at their analyses in the essay, “From Gentlemen to Mercenaries”, written in 2010, at the same time that we of ACTA were determining our program and writing our manifesto (see below).

However, as I said above, what motivated me to write these essays was not academic interest. It was not my intention to acquire titles in order to apply for some university position. I have dealt with history, not sociology, and in particular the history of workers’ organisations, the history of the cultures and ideologies that have made the formation of trade unions possible, the history of protest movements, of strikes, the story of Arbeiterräte in Germany and of the Wobblies in the United States.

This interest of mine for the history of trade union movements was also driven by my militant and activist activities in the radical movements of the 1960s and 70s, in support of the wildcat strikes of Fiat workers and French students who occupied the Sorbonne in May 1968. So when I began to think about my professional freelance consulting experience, I asked myself: Is there an association, a trade union, that represents independent workers per se, the new professionals who work with the Internet, the creative workers, those who perform services in companies and institutions as freelancers? Taking a good look around me, I could quickly verify that that there were many guilds, many associations for single professions, but there was no association or trade union for independent workers per se, one that covers all professions. There were associations for translators or web designers, lm directors or logistics consultants, but there was no association that represented all of them: a freelance trade union. It seemed to me that a cultural background that could form — or contribute to forming — a social identity, a class identity, was missing. It was the limited consciousness of their own social identity that impeded the birth of an all-inclusive representative organisation of the professions.

I wrote these essays in the hope of contributing to the creation of this consciousness. Fortunately and to my great surprise, when the two essays, “Ten Parameters for Defining a Self-employed Workers Statute” and “For an Anthropology of Self-employed Workers”, were published in 1997 by the Italian publishing house, Feltrinelli, a public debate developed. It was not so much provoked by my supporters, of whom there were relatively few, but by my critics, including some of the most important sociological and economic experts on Italian labour, who contested my definition of second-generation independent workers. On the other hand, labour law professors were very intrigued. Still, while a part of the academic culture continued to be conservative, my proposals were discussed and recognised as valid and pertinent by a group of workers in Milan who were discussing among themselves the opportunity to create an association. They were also encouraged by the experience of the Freelancers Union in the United States, which was established in the same period in which I was writing my essays.

In 2004, ACTA, was founded; originally called “Associazione Consulenti del Terziario Avanzato” (Association of Advanced Tertiary Consultants), the name was later changed to “ACTA, the Freelancers Association”. I became a member and a board member and contributed to drafting its Manifesto, which is partially translated here.

ACTA went on to become one of the first members of the European Forum of Independent Professionals (EFIP), of which it has assumed the Vice-Presidency. For many years, it was ignored by politicians, governments and other associations, but in the end it finally succeeded in “breaking through”, to become a privileged representative to the Ministry of Labour and to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers. Their efforts led to the approval of some important reforms: the reform of obligatory contributions to public pensions; approval of the Statute of Independent Work that offers some fiscal advantages and recognition of some important civil rights for independent workers. In May 2017, on the 20th anniversary of the publication of my essays, at a congress held at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, in which Sara Horowitz, founder of the U.S-based Freelancers Union, also participated, I was given the opportunity to assess the results of this experience. A slightly modified version of my talk is included here with the title, “Organising the Self- Employed: A Battle for Social Justice”.

Sergio Bologna