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Scene from Below:
Cinema as Workers’ Inquiry

Image Credit:: frame capture from Out on the Street (Philip Rizk, 2015) provided by author

Sam Thompson

In Workers Leaving the Factory, Harun Farocki’s archival essay film marking the centenary of the Lumière brothers’ totemic work of the same name, a voiceover notes that “Whenever possible, film has moved hastily away from factories. Factories have not attracted film; rather, they have repelled it” (Farocki 1995).[1] We are not granted access to workstations in the Lumière film, and throughout screen history, forces have mobilized to keep the zone of production out of sight. Despite this occluding tendency, there is a subterranean cinematic tradition that has long contributed to an understanding of capitalism’s exploitative drive by investigating the moment of production from the perspective of the exploited. To parse this tradition as a mode of cinematic workers’ inquiry (cinematic inquiry, hereafter) is, first and foremost, to connect these films to a radical research practice that reached its apex in a hot period of political struggle in post-war Italy. Following Karl Marx’s orientation towards the “immediate point of production,” Italian activists sought to understand and transcend capitalism through collective investigation into the experience of contemporary labor (see Marx 1990, 948–951). Cinematic inquiry pursues the same project, and, as such, these films have political and epistemic value: they are one mechanism for understanding capitalism from the point of view of the worker. The epistemic ambitions of understanding are at once humbler and deeper than fully fledged knowledge (Briesen 2014, 16–18). Understanding does not require that the mechanism reliably produces justified true beliefs—this is the humility of understanding. However, understanding demands an awareness of a coherent web of mutually supportive explanatory facts—this is the depth of understanding. The political and epistemic weight of cinematic inquiry lies in its commitment to three methodological principles: partiality towards those who create the world’s value, proximity to the point of production, and adherence to a transformative process of conricerca (co-research)—a tripartite methodology wholly commensurate with the praxis of classical workers’ inquiry. Crucially, cinematic inquiry intervenes in the long-standing problematics of workers’ inquiry—organization and spontaneity, class composition, and worker subjectivity—via the unique formal qualities of moving images.


This essay explores these insights through readings of Elio Petri’s The Working Class Goes to Heaven (1971) and Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk’s Out on the Street (2015)—factory films that in their commitments, subjects of investigation, and modes of creation exemplify the tradition of cinematic inquiry. Since the “spatial turn” in film studies and the humanities more broadly, scholars have recognized that film is “more a spatial system than a textual system” (Shiel 2011, 6). Section two of this essay explores how film’s privileged access to the spatial provides tentative answers to the question of worker spontaneity, one of the long-standing aporias of revolutionary theory, offering space itself as a living organization within the workplace. Both films also emphasize the multiplicity of spaces beyond the factory floor that contributes towards creating class society. Section three attends to the relationship between cinema and subjectivity in the context of inquiry. For Siegfried Kracauer, film identifies “psychological dispositions—those deep layers of collective consciousness which extend more or less below the dimension of consciousness” (2004, 6). When this proclivity is turned towards the worker through form and performance, cinematic inquiry posits deskilling as a key factor in the creation of an alienated worker subjectivity; The Working Class and Out on the Street integrate deskilling and alienation into a consciousness-raising mode of inquiry. This essay turns to the history and theory of workers’ inquiry in order to identify the capacities of cinematic inquiry.

Inquiry, Workerism, and the Possibilities of Cinema

The pursuit of “a description, conducted from the subjective point of view of labor” is a constant throughout the history of anti-capitalist struggle, but the modern tradition of inquiry begins with Marx (Lassere and Monferrand 2019, 444). In 1880, La revue socialiste asked an aging Marx to draft a questionnaire to be circulated among the French working class. He responded with “A Workers’ Inquiry,” a list of 101 questions asking workers about everything from mealtimes to wages to lodging. In their youth, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong included inquiry in their revolutionary strategies, but due to the perceived practical shortcomings and revisionist deviations of these investigations, their place in the lineage of workers’ inquiry has been marginalized (see Hoffman 2019, 38–48). The possibilities of inquiry lay mostly dormant until the 1940s, when the project was taken up by Trotskyist and post-Trotskyist groups in the United States and France. In 1941, CLR James, Trinidadian author of The Black Jacobins, and Raya Dunayevskaya, philosopher and Leon Trotsky’s erstwhile assistant, created the Johnson-Forest Tendency, a heterodox split from the Trotskyist Workers’ Party. Six years later, they released The American Worker, a short pamphlet that placed a worker’s testimony about conditions at the General Motors factory alongside a theoretical Marxist commentary. In France, the group Socialisme ou Barbarie grew out of a similar dissatisfaction with mainstream Trotskyism. There was considerable cross-pollination between these two dissident groups, as articles were translated from English to French and vice versa. In 1949, Socialisme ou Barbarie began publishing its self-titled journal, soliciting worker narratives about life at the Renault factory outside of Paris (Hoffman 2019, 55–68).

Inspired by these examples, oppositional members of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), notably Raniero Panzieri and Roman Alquati writing in the journal Quaderni Rossi, advocated and pursued workers’ inquiries into the factories of northern Italy. These activists formed the bedrock of a new communist movement—operaismo (workerism). The PCI, committed to Stalinist apologism, was incapable of responding to a period of intense industrial action springing from the growth of industry in the north and increased migration from the south (Lumley 1990, 33). Within this context, workerism represented an institutional rejection of the PCI and the traditional unions, as well as an intellectual rejection of a defanged Marxism attenuated by Hegelian idealism (Lumley 1990, 34). Workerism transformed the common sense of Italy’s far left by recentering the working-class struggle as the wellspring of theory and action (Wright 2002, 60). The factory demanded analysis as the hottest site of this conflict and as an integral node in capitalist production. For Mario Tronti, workerism’s most rigorous theoretician, both the production process and capitalist domination are “made, composed, [and] organized” by a succession of proletarian struggles (2019, 288). If workers, not capital, ultimately determine history and value creation, then in order to understand capital you must investigate the worker—hence the centrality of inquiry. The co-research conducted into the composition of the FIAT factory in Turin remains the most sustained attempt at workers inquiry and established the methodology as a key vector in workerist praxis (Haider and Mohandesi 2013). Since this period, the methodology has been taken up in various forms all over the world. It’s worth noting the international migrations of inquiry, from Germany to America to Italy and then dissipated across the globe, as this itinerancy is the model for the small corpus of films discussed here.

The two primary mediums for the collection and presentation of workers’ inquiry have been the questionnaire (à la Marx and Italian workerism) and the worker narrative (favored by Trotskyist and post-Trotskyist groups). Despite the widely stated desire to abolish the contradiction between manual and intellectual labor, the key practitioners of workers’ inquiry have usually centered the capacities for literary comprehension and writerly self-expression. Not only does this narrow conception of inquiry entrench a toxic modernity that subordinates all communication to written discourse, it also fails to grasp the ways that non-discursive expression may access elements of proletarian experience that writing struggles to reach. To argue that moving images possess such special qualities makes a claim about the epistemic value of cinema. Film can be a conduit to understanding. However, the epistemic provenance of cinematic inquiry does not derive from its indexical ties to the world or claims to verisimilitude but instead lies in the methodology that undergirds it—a method that is materially situated at the point of production and struggle, engaged in a process of co-research, and politically committed to a partial intervention. Inquiry does not produce “visible evidence” of the order celebrated by certain documentary film theorists.[2] The emphasis on understanding over knowledge frees cinematic inquiry of the pressure to generate the kind of evidence that could bolster propositional beliefs, banishing the specter of film-truth and this sticky concept’s lineage from the kino-eye through Jean Rouch’s cine-ethnography to calls for an “observational cinema” (Grimshaw and Ravetz 2009). Cinematic inquiry sits adjacent to this history, divested of film theory’s endless debates over the real, just as the classical period of workers’ inquiry remained equivocal about the ontological assumptions underlying the industrial sociology that undoubtedly influenced some of their research approaches. While some early workerists conceded a debt to sociological methods, others worried that a scientistic presentation of the “social facts” would inevitably fall into the trap of merely “mirroring” extant social relations (Hoffman 2019, 72). In other words, such a “descent into pure empiricism” risks sacrificing the defining element of workers’ inquiry—its class partisanship (Wright 2002, 25). The partiality of inquiry cannot be extracted from its epistemic value: inquiry is founded on the two premises that the struggle against oppression is the “condition for oppression’s intelligibility” and that effective struggle must be informed by a thorough understanding of this oppression (Lassere and Monferrand 2019, 454). In the fold between these interlacing research assumptions, cinematic inquiry produces anti-evidence: a form of understanding that outstrips arid scientific data to become an unstable catalyst, an understanding that is only fully realized when it is joined to political action. Or, in more antagonistic terms, cinematic inquiry can move from the neutral observation of class relations to the partial participation in class struggle. In this sense, cinematic inquiry is a “useful cinema,” to borrow Haidee Wasson and Charles Acland’s expression, but its usefulness is wedded not to a school or health clinic but to a more mercurial institution—the class (Wasson and Acland 2012). It is a cinematic genre that, in Solanas and Getino’s vernacular, is “useful for liberation” (Solanas and Getino 2014, 237).

Cinematic inquiry generates understanding as one stage in the ongoing political process of conricerca. Co-research can be borne out via modes of collaborative filmmaking and spectatorial participation. However, inquiry can also stand independent of any direct co-research practice as a discrete moment that precedes the act of co-research, providing a base of “organized knowledge” on which to build properly organized action—not the organization of formulas and charts but of producing a concrete set of problems, themes, and questions to be taken up by those who want to put the cinematic findings to use (Alessandro Pizzorno, quoted in Borio, Pozzi, and Roggero 2007, 165). In this way, inquiry stands in a transcendental relationship to conricerca: it is the mapping of salient information about the social, spatial, and psychic configuration of work that makes the praxis of conricerca—“the concrete activity of transformation”—possible (Borio, Pozzi, and Roggero 2007, 168). As such, works of cinematic inquiry do not possess an inherent political value. Rather, they are resources that offer a provisional account of problems, themes, and questions that are politically latent until they are inserted into a process of co-research committed to concrete struggle at a particular conjuncture. This does not foreclose cinematic inquiry’s partial perspective on certain questions. In fact, it necessarily possesses a singular perspective, borne out of cinema’s privileged access to spatiality and subjectivity. But these are open perspectives—unfinished provocations—until they are tested against the conditions of contemporary class struggle in the workaday dialectics of actual organizing. The fiat issued by the lineage of cinematic inquiry is not “read us” but “use us.”

In recent years, film inquiry has proliferated throughout the global south, exploring the antinomies of capitalism from the standpoint of workers rooted in those regions that have long been the outsourced productive engines of neoliberal globalization. One of the most compelling examples of this living tradition is Out on the Street, an Egyptian film made in collaboration with local precarious workers. The film’s narrative was inspired by worker opposition to the closure of the Torah starch and glucose factory in 2011. After operating as a state enterprise for fifty years, the factory was sold to a Kuwaiti manufacturer who decided it would be more profitable as a commercial property. Galvanized by the Egyptian revolution in 2011, workers occupied the factory to protest its ongoing demolition (Gaber 2011). The film investigates the effects of privatization and deindustrialization via a self-reflexive combination of long-take phone footage of factory ruins, candid worker testimonies, and dramatic stagings of police harassment and industrial conflict. Elements of this modernist form are influenced by the style of Peter Watkins, particularly La commune (Paris, 1871) (2000), his epic treatment of revolutionary collectivity (Cavoulacos 2015). Out on the Street shares La Commune’s political commitment, its fidelity to the process of spectatorial transformation, and its dense layering of different media forms into the narrative. Less acknowledged, however, are the film’s documentary precedents such as S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine (Rithy Panh, 2003) and The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012), works defined by participants’ theatrical re-enactments of past experiences. The filmmakers had originally planned to collaborate with workers directly involved in the Torah factory occupation (Cavoulacos 2015). This never came to pass, but the filmmakers asked the performers—many of them underemployed workers from the same neighborhood as the Torah militants—to integrate their lived experiences into the drama (Dickinson 2021, 44). In this sense, Out on the Street operates in a cinematic tradition invested in the possibility of collective transformation through the act of self-investigation.


Metwaly and Rizk had already explored questions of privatization, deindustrialization, and worker action through the short-form actuality films they made as members of the activist media collective Mosireen (Dickinson 2021, 44). These films often aspired to the informational content of “observational” cinema, and, as Terri Ginsberg argues, this use of moving images as a technology for the storage and transmission of knowledge continues in Out on the Street. For Ginsberg, the film’s “epistemological core” lies in its status as “pedagogical art,” which stems from its deep connection to the theatre and pedagogy of the oppressed (2020, 374, 358). The workers’ inquiry lens compliments Ginsberg’s analysis of the film’s dual process of consciousness raising, co-constituted between the “spect-actors” and the audience (2020, 376–77). However, embracing the film as workers’ inquiry also reveals its vital interventions on questions of organization and class composition, clarifies the underlying conditions of its consciousness-raising capacity, and crystallizes the epistemic status of the film as a conduit to understanding that can catalyze further conricerca and political action.

There is a storied lineage of inquiry within Italian cinema that often parallels and overlaps developments in classical workerist inquiry. Casare Zavattini, one of the progenitors of neorealism, advocated for film inchiesta (film inquiry) as a creative method rooted in journalistic practice. Early drafts of his script for The Bicycle Thieves (1948) show an empirically grounded, investigative approach to the material that mutated into something more overtly symbolic in the final treatment (Gordon 2009, 294). After laying the roots of this form within neorealism, Zavattini planned to disseminate inquiry via the new directors of the 1950s, including Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini (Bondanella 2002, 24). These filmmakers took different paths, but film inquiry flourished through Francesco Rosi. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Rosi detailed the web of political interest, ideology, and greed undergirding the Italian state. The apex of this granular approach, The Mattei Affair (1972), finds Rosi as “part-artist, part-investigative journalist” (Lawton 1996, 61). Rosi’s continual self-inscription suggests the production process of a nonfiction narrative, and the repeated insertion of press conferences, newsreels, and headlines impresses the language of reportage. But handheld sequences are rarer than more classical transitions involving long shots, close-ups, and tracking shots, and there is still room for moments of metaphor and melodrama. In other words, there is no unitary style to Rosi’s inquiry mode. The distinctive features are more general: use of extensive empirical research; a commitment to interpretative ambiguity; and a narrative approach that critiques, in Rosi’s own words, the “relationships between causes and effects” (Crowdus 1994, 26).

This cinematic history is shaped by many of the same material forces that contributed to the development of workers’ inquiry as a practice within Italy’s far left, from the introduction of worker narratives in Danilo Montaldi’s translation of The American Worker to the apogee of workerist influence within student and worker movements in the mid to late 1960s (see Montaldi 2013). Petri’s The Working Class Goes to Heaven was released amongst a glut of factory films during an historic peak in the deployment of the militant investigation (Hoffman 2019, 12). Petri had his own relationship with film inquiesta. His first work in the industry was conducting an inquiry into the Via Savoia disaster to supplement extant research for Rome, 11:00 (1952), directed by fellow Communist Party (PCI) member Giuseppe De Santis. Petri later published this inquiry as a book (Gili 2013, vii). Before The Working Class, Petri directed seven features, flitting between collaborators and styles, culminating in An Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), the closest Petri came to a forensic political exposé à la Rosi. The Working Class shares some of the general characteristics of Rosi’s inquiry films. It is meticulously researched, and its meanings are pointedly open-ended. The film also conforms to some of neorealism’s more documentarian conventions: it was shot on location (in a factory that saw huge walkouts the previous year), and the cast includes non-professional locals. What Petri eschews is any interest in the grand machinations of state politics or civil society. The meticulous unearthing of Rosi’s “causes and effects” is replaced by Petri’s extravagant sensibility: painterly shadow plays and rhapsodic performances; satiric psychosexual subplots, and an uncanny, oneiric atmosphere. Amidst all this, the foundational objects of workers’ inquiry—the shop floor and the labor process—remain intact.

The Working Class is the story of Lulu (Gian Marie Volonté), a biddable factory worker radicalized through a workplace injury. Much of the drama unfolds at work, in intimate footage that, to quote from question 99 of Marx’s inquiry, captures the “physical, intellectual and moral conditions of life” (1997). Some of these conditions are created outside the factory—in the home where Lulu’s sniveling machismo struggles to find connection and in the psychiatric hospital where he visits his ex-colleague Militina. On its release, the film was reviled by many on the Italian far left. One critic argued that its narrative “negates everything that happened in the factory and denies the potential of the working class” (member of revolutionary group Lotta Continua, quoted in Gili 2013, xv). Another decried Petri’s film as “fascist and reactionary” (Baldelli 2008). While defending the film against these reductive detractions, Evan Calder Williams denies its militancy: its subject is the “negation of militancy,” the accumulated fetters to effective political organization (2013, 55). These critiques have some currency: the film’s narrative—from Lulu’s initial quiescence to his eventual assimilation back into the factory—indicts the Italian left (bellicose student militants and kowtowing trade unionists) and political hope more generally. However, the criticisms also fail to meet the film on its most meaningful terms—as part of a process of workers’ inquiry.

Space, Spontaneity, and Social Composition 

Ten minutes into The Working Class, we see a workplace sabotage. After Lulu sets a quicker pace for piecework, the boss demands greater productivity. The enervated workers confront the boss. Lulu is castigated for being a “lick-ass,” and everyone returns to their stations. Lulu is instructing two new employees, and he begins a muttered rant. He survives the monotony of production by thinking about a woman’s body and keeping rhythm to that thought. Over the sound of Lulu’s soliloquizing—and Ennio Morricone’s marching soundtrack—Petri pans from the face of one of Lulu’s tutees to a close-up of a tool at Lulu’s desk. The tutee takes this piece of metal (Fig 1). The camera pans right as he throws the object skywards, breaking a light (Fig. 2). The camera pans left, revealing the back of the shop floor (Fig. 3), where another worker runs across the factory floor, dislodging another light (Fig. 4).

Figures 1-4 (L to R)

Image Credit:: frame captures from The Working Class provided by author

The tool speaks to the worker, motivating the action. The close-up anthropomorphizes an inanimate object. Employing Béla Balázs’s physiognomic framework, every object in close-up possesses a face (2010, 46). Cinema can capture the “spirit” of a non-instrumentalized object: the penumbral utopia hidden within the everyday is exposed through the close-up’s destruction of instrumentalized time (Carter 2010, xxix). The claim of the above scene is less metaphysical but equally political: there is, within ordinary commodities, the latent possibility of their transformation via revolutionary agency. Anchored to Morricone’s marching soundtrack, the tool offers an injunction: “employ my use-value for disruptive ends!” As such, the shot provides a causal chain of disruption. The crane upwards and pans across create an exclusive relationality between workers. The foreman and director remain an offscreen presence, inserted by the workers’ gaze occasionally darting to their glassy panopticon. The pan follows the action, but in cinematic vernacular, the pan presages as much as it attends. Similarly, the preceding close-up can be read as an expression of authorial intent: this is where the director will take the action. Both conventions have a built-in narrativity that undoes the autonomy of the characters. The pan works in conjunction with a deep-focus lens, bringing the foreground image (the action of disruption) into relation with the background image (watching and coordinating the disruption). Petri creates a “dramatic checkerboard” of relations and interests (Bazin 2005, 34).[3] André Bazin identifies deep focus as a formal strategy that allows the spectator to choose what they see, conferring an irresistible ambiguity (2005, 36). In the parlance of free will, there is the voluntarism of the deep focus and the determinism of the close-up and pan. Workers use the physical structure of the factory to pass on information and strategies of resistance in an arch example of what Bill Watson termed “counterplanning from the shop floor”; the necessary condition for this spontaneous counterplanning is spatial (1971).

Spontaneity is a vexed issue, both within the workerist tradition and the longer history of revolutionary theory. In his canonical critique, Lenin condemns those who lionize spontaneous worker action for effacing the essential “conscious element” of political activity—the analysis, planning, and leadership necessary for revolutionary, rather than reformist, change (1966, 99). Rosa Luxemburg’s proto-workerist position on spontaneity—that praxis should and does emerge from the uncontrolled militancy of the working class—is the most famous rebuttal to this view (2008, 157). Following Lenin, the PCI viewed spontaneous action as a gift to capital: change was impossible without clear demands, organizational structure, and discipline. Behind these criticisms lay PCI anxiety over their growing inability to shape the actions of the Italian proletariat (Mansoor 2017, 131). Party suspicion was also piqued by the preponderance of the new worker: young, unskilled, possibly a southern immigrant. Workerists engaged in more theoretical discussion. After witnessing first-hand the supposed limitations of worker spontaneity, early proponents of inquiry such as Panzieri decried it as the “permanent expression of political defeat” (Raniero Panzieri, quoted in Wright 2002, 61). On the other side were figures like Tronti who, in a Luxemburgian vein, celebrated spontaneous action as the lodestar of any revolutionary movement (2007, 31).

The Working Class disavows a mythical workerist voluntarism. In its place, we have material relations: worker/tools and worker/station. Crucially, we see an emergence of action through the cinematic interplay between an authorial prescriptivism (close-up, pan) and a sphere of autonomy (deep focus). Petri’s spontaneity, as for Antonio Negri, consists of communication between workers determined by the “labor process as such, as a machine foreign to me” (Wright 2002, 57). But here, the “labor process as such” is not reducible to abstract relations between capital, worker, and machine; the process is a spatialized one. Spontaneity is dictated by the shape of the factory. François Penz argues that the film archive can be read as an ongoing blueprint for the everyday use of buildings. This scene’s complex choreography of disruption provides a blueprint for the (ab)use of the factory, promoting a militancy of “cinematic intelligence” (2016, 220). Spontaneous struggle flows not only from “invisible organizations” like unofficial workmate groups but from invisible spatial relationships between workers, their stations, and the tools of resistance (Alquati 2013). In other words, space becomes the surrogate party leader, providing direction and shared identity. There is an echo of these findings in social movement theory. During the 2011 “movements of the squares,” spaces such as Syntagma Square in Athens, Gezi Park in Istanbul, and Tahrir Square in Egypt replaced formal institutions (Gerbaudo 2012).

The first strike in Out on the Street is spearheaded by a worker who, after 20 years working in the factory, is moved from their office position to a warehouse job. We see the boss questioning them and telling a supervisor that he wants to fire the whole accounts team. A few scenes later, the accountant, along with two colleagues, occupies a small section of the factory. The causality here seems to be simple and spontaneous: worker grievance generates political action. There is no indication that the worker is a member of a trade union or connected to any existing struggles. We don’t see them attend a rally or political meeting. The only discernible organizing moment is the worker sharing his worries with colleagues as they stand outside a cafe before starting work. Before this scene, the workers paint a line, marking the periphery of the cafe (Fig. 5).

Figure 5

Image Credit:: frame capture from Out on the Street provided by author

Through this process of spatial delineation, space is shown to be the organizing force that conditions spontaneity. In another spatializing episode early in the film, the worker-actors lean over amateur architectural plans, images that refer back to the film’s title card—a hand-drawn plan-view map (Figs. 6 and 7).

Figures 6 and 7 (L to R)

Image Credit:: frame capture from Out on the Street provided by author

They discuss the arrangement of the factory floor, exchanging thoughts on where the manager’s office, supervisor’s office, cleaning quarters, and secretary’s office should be placed in relation to each other. After this, the worker-actors paint out the different sections of the shop floor. By reflexively announcing the layout of the factory building, the film follows The Working Class in positing space as the organizing factor that undergirds the possibility of spontaneous action. The film eschews both Tronti and Panzieri’s positions, finding a middle ground between the mystical voluntarism of Luxemburg and the structural determinism of Lenin. Spatial relations are the invisible organization within the factory that allows for acts of spontaneity.

This early scene of spatial mapping illuminates the relationship between the built environment and surveillance. Describing the proximity of management’s office to the workspace in their plan, one worker explains that “this is the super’s room so he can watch over everything.” Another worker comments on his colleague’s drawings, saying with bitter irony that “the security takes up half the factory.” Egyptian workers are acutely aware of surveillance as a method of control used by bosses, the state, and international enemies. In the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, the police force ballooned to over one million, twice the size of the military. There was widespread corruption. Many of these officers acted with impunity—surveilling, brutalizing, extorting, and torturing the population, much of which we see or hear about in the film (Amin 2012, 20). Egypt is also the fourth-most-surveilled country by the US in the world (Alexander and Aouragh 2014, 895). Given the primacy of surveillance in this context, it is appropriate to think of workers’ inquiry as a form of “sousveillance”—counter-surveillance, or surveillance in the interest of the exploited and oppressed. In Steve Mann’s conceptualization, sousveillance inverts the power dynamics of surveillance through “observing and recording by an entity not in a position of power or authority over the subject of the veillance” (2012, 3). The key here, in terms of cinema’s unique capacities for sousveillance, is not necessarily that the cinematic artifact contains the referents of real-time acts of state repression—although it may well do so—but rather that it is in a privileged position to capture the spatial properties of otherwise clandestine spaces of capitalist production or state power. The power of this kind of film, according to director Metwaly, is that it dares to enter the “closed spaces of the factory or the home or the neighborhood” (Lebow 2018). The grainy ruins of Out on the Street’s phone footage are easily discarded as part of an anti-inquisitive slow cinematic appeal to the festival circuit, but, in the context of surveillance, the footage underlines both a mode of oppression and possible resistance. When the workers go on strike, the boss instructs the security guard to film them with his phone before calling the police. But the footage of the crumbling factory—taken covertly by a worker—raises the possibility of visual media as a technology of sousveillance and counter-mapping.

In the long but unacknowledged history of cinematic inquiry, surveillance is perhaps the fundamental subject of analysis. Both Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1924) and Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother (1926) focus on failed industrial action: attempts at workplace organizing are undermined by counterintelligence, which ultimately leads to the bloody massacre of workers. Despite their stylistic differences, both films pursue a persistent, almost paranoiac mode of inquiry into modes of surveillance during periods of intensified class struggle, uncovering the collaborations between capitalist spies and state authorities. Again, the depiction of agent provocateurs and informers is a form of space-orientated sousveillance. Workers watching Mother are alerted to the ways that the spatial organization of fields and taverns, as well as the production process, facilitate counter-revolutionary eavesdroppers. In Strike, we see a group of workers from the perspective of the floor manager attempting to gather information about their action; the men are spied on through a spinning wheel, huddled together, whispering. In this case, conspiracy is aided by the organization of workplace visibility and audibility via the spatial relations between workers and machinery.

One of the central theoretical contributions of workers’ inquiry is the analysis of class composition. In classical workerism, there are two vectors of class composition: technical composition (the ways that capital organizes workers into a system of machines and industrial co-operation) and political composition (the ways that workers reorganize themselves in relation to trade unions, political parties and informal political groupings) (Wright 2002, 25). There are two competing contemporary formulations of class composition that place different weight on the temporal versus the spatial. Both of these inflections understand the different moments of composition as necessarily occurring in relation to each other, and, following Marx’s understanding of the social totality, only intelligible as a “unity of the diverse” (1999, 101). However, the temporal view emphasizes sequence, an unfolding chronology shaped by the machinations of competing social powers—what Harry Cleaver calls the “dialectics of capital” (2017). Heavily influenced by Cleaver, Robert Ovetz identifies three distinct stages in this process: technical composition (capital’s organization of labor power in relation to material and social systems of production), recomposition (working-class self-organization into relations of resistance), and decomposition (capital’s fragmentation of this self-organized working-class power). This view emphasizes “cycles” of struggle, with the peaks and troughs determined by their moment in the sequence of composition, recomposition, and decomposition (2021, 13). The key disjuncture between the moments is temporal: composition necessarily precedes recomposition, and decomposition necessarily proceeds from recomposition. Recent uses of workers’ inquiry move away from this sequentially bound understanding of composition towards a more spatial conception. The Notes from Below collective accepts the two original workerist moments of composition—technical and political—while adding an additional category: social composition. If technical composition describes how labor power is transformed into a productive workforce, social composition describes the creation of a class society “as it manifests beyond production” (Cant et al. 2021, 188–9). As well as a productive workforce, class society requires the reproductive labor embedded in the heteronormative domestic sphere; the exercise of racist state power through policing, war, and borders; and the biopolitical organization of society via the provision and withdrawal of state services and benefits. In other words, it requires the matrix of interconnected social conditions that force most of the world into relations of exploitation. This version of class composition is alive to the processes of subjugation that happen in reproductive spaces, as well as the spaces of absolute state violence such as prisons and detention centers. Although currently undertheorized, it can also highlight the possibilities of resistance in these spaces. Here, the key disjuncture between technical and social composition is spatial: they take place in the zones of production and non-production, respectively. One advantage of a spatially extended model of composition is that it lays the foundation for an interpretation of global class relations.

Cinematic inquiry offers ballast to this spatial conception of class composition by showing the diversity of discrete zones that contribute towards the construction of a class society. This spatially variegated composition is expressed by a passage from the Mosireen collective’s film manifesto, “Revolution Triptych”:

A constant battle between street vendors – kicked out of the system – and a police force serving the ruling elite.
Students fight to keep their campus against their thieving Nobel Prize winning university founder.
Everyday people run their own neighborhoods.
Workers take over the factories their bosses abandon. (Mosireen 2018, 119)

Out on the Street enacts these potent lines through an inquiry into social composition, investigating the interplay between a “police force serving the elite,” the “everyday people” of the neighborhood, and the possible worker takeover of the factories. In the cafe scene, the workers stand behind the white line and share concerns about redundancies and increased security at the firm (Fig. 8). This tableau is intercut with a shot of two police officers discussing the need to cleanse the neighborhood of “hoodlums” (Fig. 9). 


Figures 8 and 9(L to R)

Image Credit:: frame capture from Out on the Street provided by author

We continue to hear the dialogue between the workers even as the police officers occupy the screen. Just as the workers decide that, at some point, they must “take a stand,” the camera pans to show the police officers walking into the cafe space. Whether the white line here marks a division between public and private space or just a space independent from the factory, it is not a line that protects the workers from surveillance, harassment, and brutalization at the hands of police. Moments like these might support an interpretation of the film promulgated by the directors: this is a film about Egypt as such, not about working-class struggle in Egypt. In Sarah Rifky’s reading, this is because “Egypt is everywhere”: Egyptian state elites occupy every space, including the factory, and the workplace becomes a barometer for Egypt in toto (2015). First, we might caution against a textual reading that extrapolates a peculiarly Egyptian form of capitalist dysfunctionality, when cronyism and corruption are a constitutive feature of capitalist state power (McMahon 2017, 22). Furthermore, in a significant sense, the opposite of Rifky’s claim is true: this scene demonstrates the logic of the factory proliferating into the non-productive sphere, a manifestation of the workerist understanding of the “real subsumption” of everyday life under the logic of the wage relationship. The workers are picked up because of their apparent non-productivity, their suspicious presence in a space of leisure. They are understood as a threat directly after they have concluded that militant action may indeed be necessary at work. Their experience of repressive policing is an extension of the much-hated factory security guard. In other words, this is a moment of social composition, where the workers are constituted as workers in a class-ridden society via their interaction with state power. This summons the thorny question of the state more broadly; through the characterization and dialogue of the worker-actors, Out on the Street articulates a recomposition of the workforce, not around technical developments (such as new factory machinery) or political developments (such as an uptick in trade union activity or shifting relationships to a revolutionary party) but around a transformed relation to the apparatus of state power. Beyond its role as an agent of unchecked violence, the workers have a reconfigured economic relation to the state in the wake of the factory’s privatization. In one worker-actor’s exaggerated re-enactment of the boss, he speechifies about the dawn of fiscally responsible management: “there’s no more of that state bullshit here.” Playing a militant worker later in the film, the same worker-actor laments the state’s diminishing capacity to provide jobs and services. But this positive sentiment is not universal: one worker characterizes the state as a “bunch of thieves.” The state has a complex and shifting set of valances for these workers: it means deceit and punitive control, but it is also a troubled vector in national liberation struggles and the memory of an imperfect cache of security, rights, and wage increases.

The Working Class also enacts a visual mode of social composition analysis through an attention to the gendered oppression of the domestic sphere and the exercise of repressive state power in the psychiatric hospital.[4] In both cases, cinematic inquiry goes further than offering a picture of spatially delineated zones of production, reproduction, and state power that feed into the process of social composition; it inserts the centrality of the spatial into every moment of composition. As argued above, the technical composition of both Lulu’s workplace and the factory in Out on the Street is formed by the spatial interplay between workers, machines, and stations. Likewise, the very conditions of worker organization and resistance are set by these spatial arrangements.

Subjectivity, Deskilling, and Consciousness Raising

After the shop floor sabotage in The Working Class, the camera returns to Lulu. His rant becomes a chant—“a piece . . . a bum . . . a piece  . . . a bum”—over a rhythmic cutting between his face and the machinery. The camera zooms and the image loses focus (Fig. 10), while Lulu’s voice becomes a distant, fey echo, extending the sci-fi motif that Petri establishes in the opening credits through the sampling of Morricone’s discordant musique concrète.[5] The blurring of the face appears as a technical failure from one artisanal laborer: the focus puller. This is a moment of production, both on the diegetic shop floor and in the making of the film, in which the film’s materiality overwhelms the skillset available. Jaleh Mansoor argues that in post-war Italian painting, Piero Manzoni’s uniform lines are “deskilled” and “disciplinary” artifacts, a prefiguration of the systemic deskilling in the factories during the 1960s, where the workplace was recomposed in order to protect against militancy (Mansoor 2017, 134). The Working Class stresses a cruder point: the subjectivity of this character is constituted by an ongoing process of deskilling. Following Marx, subjectivity is not a natural state undergirding the mode of production; it is the situated selfhood precipitated by the mode of production (Read 2002, 134).


Figure 10

Image Credit:: frame capture from The Working Class provided by author

Deskilling is a material precondition for the experience of alienation, one of the defining elements of working-class subjectivity under capitalism. In Marx’s classic account, alienation refers to a psychologically damaging separation between the worker and the commodities that they produce, the activity of work, their fellow workers, and their “species-being” (2000). Marx’s economic writings serve, in part, as an explanation of how this subjectivity emerges through the exploitation embedded in the wage relation. Following this understanding of Marx’s work, Lassere and Monferrand read his account of alienation as a “philosophical justification” for the project of workers’ inquiry (Lassere and Monferrand 2019, 446). Capitalism produces a complex and contradictory set of experiences for the worker that requires analysis if we are to understand capitalism and how to resist it. Before Marx’s inquiry, Engels takes on this descriptive project with his proletarian narrative from above, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845). The challenge of workers’ inquiry is to engender a new subjectivity through an illumination of extant subjectivity under capitalism. In its ideal form, it is the “dynamic unity between theory and practice capable of producing effects of political subjectivation” (Lassere and Monferrand 2019, 454). Whether we consider inquiry as a moment in the process of organization or the organizational drive per se, the collective act of inquiry is always organizational, cleaving new relations between fellow workers and between workers and their industrial environments (Lassere and Monferrand 2019, 453). For many Marxists, this cleaving of new social relations—inquiry’s organizational tendency—is understood as a form of consciousness raising. Marx’s original inquiry certainly intended to raise the consciousness of workers: difficult questions—like demanding a complete list of the company’s directors—forced respondents to confront capital’s mystification of the labor process and encouraged them to gain a deeper understanding of their own exploitation (Hoffman 2019, 34). Italian workerists continued this commitment to consciousness raising. Dario Lanzardo, writing in Quaderni Rossi, claims that the ultimate purpose of inquiry is to “incite forms of worker self-organization” (Hoffman 2019, 75). For Lanzardo and other workerists, this self-organization is defined by a shift from “conflict” to “antagonism” in workers’ engagement with their labor conditions (Hoffman 2019, 77).

Lulu’s mental life folds into the machine, his body is subsumed into the multitude, and the division between labor time and leisure time is blurred. Lulu follows the foreman’s instruction to “treat the machine with love,” attending to it more assiduously than his girlfriend. This is, in Herbert Marcuse’s terms, an act of “repressive desublimation,” whereby Lulu projects his libidinal energy onto his machine, supplanting desire for his partner (2002, 75–77). Here, the negative separation of alienation takes the form of fusing with an inanimate entity, vitiating Lulu’s capacity for human emotion and compromising his agency. The film’s only sex scene takes place in a car, and the vehicle’s parts are a fetter to gratification. At one point, Lulu seems to be in ecstasy, but once the rhythm of sex replicates the repetition of work his eyes become glassy and vacant. The factory emanates gradually into every space in the film. In the domestic sphere, Lulu rearranges the cutlery, standardizing his commodities. His only leisure activity is visiting Militina, an ex-colleague, in the psychiatric hospital. Lulu presents his friend with piecework data from the factory but soon forgets his own identity as Militina walks away. Lulu sits, confused, and then intervenes: “actually, it’s me who has to leave.” As the workers enter the factory—and during the pickets—Lulu is lost in the crowd. There is an echo of Kracauer’s claim that cinema necessitates a fragmented self, because there can never be unity between the long shot and the close-up. The scalar extremes of Lulu’s face blurring into the camera and his body atomized in a sea of demonstrators both exceed human phenomenology, cracking the individuated subject (Hansen 2012, 274).

The subjectivity of the worker-actors in Out on the Street also collapses into the machine. In one of the film’s more overtly symbolic stagings, the actors line up one by one, each emulating the sound and movement of a machine part (Fig. 11). 

Figure 11

Image Credit:: frame capture from Out on the Street provided by author

They speed up, slow down, and eventually stop. This is a representation par excellence of the deskilling process, mirroring the increasingly “detailed operations” in the division of labor that characterize the trajectory of the labor process under capitalism (Marx 1990, 457).[6] The scene also makes visible the deskilling that is constitutive of non-professional acting. The performances vary wildly in their commitment to the action: some are immersed in the bodily manifestation of the machine, others are openly smirking at the ridiculousness of the task, and one performer gives up towards the end of the sequence (Figs. 12 and 13). 

Figures 12 and 13 (L to R)

Image Credit:: frame capture from Out on the Street provided by author

Deskilling here alienates the worker-actors from their performances, precluding a sense of complete identification with this creative activity. This amounts to another level of psychic inquiry: the worker-actor’s failure to embrace the performance shows the stultifying effects of a capitalist sociality that bars workers from the act of play, but the knowing grins between participants also presents the process of world-making and imaginative co-research as a potential site for forming meaningful relationships between the exploited. The use of worker-actors in the context of cinematic inquiry forms part of conricerca; Metwaly describes Out on the Street as a film “about workers, with workers” (Lebow 2018). Peter Watkins values this process of co-research with non-professional actors because it produces a more “intense communal experience” onset—a consciousness raising during production that can continue into the sphere of consumption (Cook 2010, 230). There is a parallel here with the deskilling embedded within the history of proletarianization, which manufactures bonds of class solidarity capable of transforming society. The non-professional acting also serves as a tool of distanciation: a means of precluding complete spectatorial immersion in the narrative. James Naremore identifies three uses of amateur actors: as part of the hyper-naturalism of neorealism, as a shortcut to “authenticating the setting” in Hollywood cinema, and as a Brechtian technique within modernist political cinema (1988, 273). Out on the Street falls within the third category. This distanciation is another plank in the film’s consciousness-raising strategy. The alienation rooted in the labor process, mirrored in the alienation of the actors who display an uneasy separation from their characters, alerts the spectator to their own feelings of alienation, both watching the film (the point of consumption) and in the zones of production and reproduction. 

While the production of The Working Class never aspired to Out on the Street’s standards of non-hierarchical cooperation, Volonté praised Petri for developing the “best dialectical relationship” between the workers on set, and the actorly contributions to the film’s mode of inquiry are substantial (Volonté 1975, 13). Piecework affects Lulu physiologically: his sleep is disturbed by fits of phantom labor, he has ulcers and backaches, and he loses a finger on the shop floor. The insidious biopolitics of the factory extend into Lulu’s emotional life. Outside the factory, he conceives of himself as a victim: Volonté modulates his voice to a false, high-pitched plea. After his radicalization, Lulu’s emotional range expands. Affects are not only the way the world creates dispositions in the subject but are the corollary process by which the world engenders new capacities (Hardt 2007, xi). The affective blocks of The Working Class map the transformations from insurrectionary zeal to despair. Each stage is color-coded. His initial boredom is a steely dark blue tint (Fig. 14). Revolutionary fervor is induced through red (Fig. 15). The final scenes are in washed-out gray (Fig. 16).

Figures 14-16 (L to R)

Image Credit:: frame capture from The Working Class provided by author

This is not merely a defeatist conception of revolutionary motivation. The narrative illustrates the importance of forging new social relations in the wake of political activity. Activists warn Lulu of isolating himself. When the student-workers visit his flat, they peer in through the peephole, their faces shrunken and distorted. Lulu’s perception is warped because he has failed to redirect affect into autonomous social relations. Volonté manifests Lulu’s transformation as an inversion of the biopolitical regime, but his praxis fails to move beyond pure negation. In workerist strategy, the “refusal of work” also requires the construction of autonomous social ties (Righi 2012, 117). In other words, Lulu finds anger but not love. When Lulu orates at a union meeting, his face reddens as his heavy breathing shoots blood into his cheeks. During a picket, he attacks the director’s car, spittle dripping on the windscreen. When the union doesn’t go on strike, he weeps. Lulu’s radicalization is a diagnosis of the limitations of a purely negative redirection of affect against capital. 


Volonté builds this alienation and affective redirection through actorly inquiry, approaching preparations “more on a journalistic level than dramatic” (Volonté 1975, 13). The physicality of his performance, sagging under injuries and sickness, was inspired by extensive interviews with factory workers. Volonté’s hysteria is anathema to any concept of respectable performance. He follows Kracauer’s indictment of film d’art as presenting a false unity of rational consciousness and social totality (Hansen 2012, 264). Instead, his style is closer to slapstick: an embodied performance that objectifies humans and anthropomorphizes things, reflecting capitalist social relations.[7] A contemporary audience would be aware, when watching Volonté in a politically charged film, that there is a crossing of the usually well-guarded borders between the star “image,” the production of this image, and the real person behind it (Dyer 2000, 609). Volonté disintegrates the same margins between individual subject and social subject that compromise Lulu’s individuation. During Lulu’s wild oration, the excess of Volonté’s performance is felt as the actor reaches through and beyond the character to communicate with the spectator directly. We might read these scenes like Volonté’s street performances, in which he engaged the public in baroque, confrontational monologues, “to force people to look, to listen” (Volonté 1975, 13). Volonté—stalwart PCI activist and radical artist—supervenes momentarily on the ulcer-ridden, confused, self-pitying Lulu.

Volonté’s performance is a key coordinate in the co-mingling of onscreen and spectatorial subjectivity that sensitizes the audience to their function as both consumer and producer and in the interplay of these dynamics at the fulcrum of capitalist subjectivity. The factory disperses capital’s logic into every space, and this spillage extends into the spectatorial space. The audience is directed to the context of their consumption—within a cinema that ordinarily exhibits the products of the cinematic industrial complex. We’re also directed towards The Working Class’s status qua commodity, an object created within the ambit of capitalist production, like the tool used to break the light, with the ability to challenge this very mode of production. The film imbricates production and consumption by representing both Lulu and spectator as commodities. After sleeping on the sofa, Lulu is discovered by his partner’s child wrapped in polythene, packaged for consumption (Fig. 17). In the film’s final scene, the dissidents have been demoted to the assembly line. After a nightmarish sequence, the camera ends on the production-line conveyor belt. We travel down the line and are picked up by a pallet trolley, affecting the perspective of the commodity (Fig. 18).

Figures 17 and 18 (L to R)

Image Credit:: frame capture from The Working Class provided by author

More than the emanation of factory logic into social spaces, these shots show the mutually constitutive relation between production and consumption. The Working Class anticipates Antonio Negri’s insights regarding the transition from the “mass worker” to the “social worker” (1988, 217). Negri writes that “the mass worker is the first moment of an extraordinary acceleration towards a complete abstraction of labor-power” (1988, 217). This means the total deskilling of labor to the point where mere engagement in daily life is an integral part of the production process. Thus, an image of consumption, Lulu watching television or eating, is simultaneously an image of production. Likewise, spectatorship is production as well as consumption. The spectator becomes the “social worker.” Again, there is a prefigurative relation to the present. Social media represents the apotheosis of the “social worker”: our friendships and leisure are financialized for advertising revenue, and play and labor become “indistinguishable” (Fuchs 2014, 268). In this way, The Working Class presages capitalism’s increasing reliance on the zones of “reproduction and circulation” for value extraction (Marazzi 2010, 37). The film’s interpellation of the spectator as a key coordinate in this extractive process is its distinctly cinematic mode of raising consciousness through inquiry.

Conclusions: Towards Further Inquiry!

The concept of cinematic inquiry enriches the findings of the classic factory inquiries, highlights the epistemic and political value of certain workplace films, and gestures towards a rejuvenated path for this vital methodology. A focus on space and the choreography of sabotage contributes to the theoretical discussion around spontaneity. Attention to deskilling as the key material condition underlying subjectivity formation provides a phenomenology of the relationship between worker and machine, a model for affective redirection, a picture of the subject formed at the intersection between production and consumption, and a peculiarly filmic form of consciousness raising. Workers’ inquiry is a living branch of contemporary organizing that seeks to understand capitalism from the perspective of those who produce its value. This political practice would be enriched by attention to cinematic inquiry. Likewise, visual anthropology—a discipline that understands the importance of qualitative iterations of social reality—would benefit from engaging with concepts like class composition and alienation. Today, the workplace is more diffuse, fragmented, and totalized within everyday life. Films like Your Whole Life Ahead of You (Paolo Virzi, 2008), although not committed in a traditional Sartrean sense, participate in an inquisitive tradition that appreciates this shift. The film not only reflects an industrial fragmentation, but, through a representation of precarious modern workplaces, provides a shared understanding of subjectivity formation, affective conditioning, and spatial organization. Borio, Pozi, and Roggero note that inquiry has become urgent in the context of “despatialization” and “respatialization” (Borio, Pozi, and Roggero 2007, 176). It is important to linger on this second moment. While a vast amount of labor now falls under the despatialized, networked activity of the “general intellect,” most of the world’s value is still generated in Marx’s “hidden abode,” in the physically bounded spaces of factory floors and warehouses (1990, 279). The preponderance of these places in the global south goes some way to explaining the relative effacement of this fact. Works of cinematic inquiry like The Working Class and Out on the Street offer a germinal set of themes for research and action, a starting point in the long process of conricerca. They are an important heuristic for navigating work alone and refusing it together.


[1] For a discussion of Farocki’s films that complements this essay, see Fletcher (2018).

[2] “Visible Evidence” is the name of the long-standing documentary conference and Minnesota books series. See also Renov and Gaines (1999).

[3] Bazin’s “checkerboard” evokes “checkerboard strikes,” popular among the far left in Italy at the time, which required a complex mapping of the spatial dynamics of the shop floor.

[4] The year The Working Class was released, French Maoists conducted militant investigations into life in psychiatric hospitals, attempting to “give patients a voice” in the form of social composition analysis avant la lettre (Hoffman 2019, 89–90).

[5] Petri experimented with science fiction in The 10th Victim (1965).

[6] For a thorough account of this, see Braverman (1974).

[7] Capital creates “material relations between persons and social relations between things” (Marx 1990, 166). 

Thanks to the following people for their feedback in the development of this essay: Robert Gordon, Kay Dickinson, Jules O’Dwyer, Colin Crawford, Matthias Mushinski, and Claire Begbie. 


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