In Theory | Autonomism: The future of activism?
In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, October 8, 2010 6:05 - 10 Comments
By Andrew Robinson
Activism today often seems to exist as a separate layer, resisting incorporation in the wider society, and creating a counterculture with its own spaces, social relations and rituals distinct from other social groups. This is largely because activists seek autonomy as a prerequisite for other kinds of social relations. Autonomy has replaced orientation to the masses as the central orientation of activism, and in doing so, has enabled horizontal forms of relations to replace (at least tendentially) the vertical party-model.
Activists are oriented to living differently and to changing the world, not to acting as the leaders of a particular class, and have moved away from interest-based concerns to questions of ethical commitment, non-conformism, anti-authoritarianism and the rejection of a wide array of repressive and stultifying aspects of the present system, from the work-system and the police to the abuse of animals and the devastation of the biosphere.
How did this transformation come about? Contemporary activism comes from a range of sources: anarchism, deep ecology, Situationism, Feminism, Pacifism – but one of the major influences has been European Autonomism, and I suspect this is one of the major reasons for the changing orientation towards horizontalism and autonomy.
Autonomism emerged in Europe in the 1970s, primarily in Italy and Germany (and, theoretically, mainly in Italy), and has since loosely defined the kinds of movements involved in the 2008 uprising in Greece, the ungdomshuset revolt in Denmark, as well as the wave of summit protests, etc.
To be sure, many of the people involved in these movements do not identify themselves as autonomist, but the strategic perspectives involved in the theory have quietly spread through resonance and indirect influence. In any case, the matter may not be so much about influence as the effect of a particular zeitgeist, which autonomism, Situationism and other 1960s/70s-era movements expressed, a zeitgeist which marked the special characteristics of the rebellion of this period and the kind of things it rejected. The zeitgeist is an effect, I think, of a particular phenomenon: the seduction of consumer society ceases to operate as a utopian horizon once it is realised past a certain point, and ceases to seem as utopian as it did in its absence.
Autonomism provides, however, a useful theoretical looking-glass through which to examine the perspectives arising from this historical moment. While different national movements had different influences – the ecological aspect was very strong in Britain, the Greek movement was heavily inflected by resistance to the military dictatorship of the 1970s and subsequent betrayals of the resistance – the clearest theoretical articulation arose in the Italian context, with Italy serving, in autonomist terms, as the ‘laboratory’ for new forms of struggle which later spread across Europe.
Well-known figures in autonomism include Antonio Negri, Mario Tronti, Paolo Virno, Sergio Bologna, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Romano Alquati, Mariarosa dalla Costa, and a number of others. These authors articulated a new variety of Marxist theory which expresses the vitality and power of a historical moment which is not yet over.
Today, autonomism and anarchism have become almost interchangeable, but their historical origins are rather different. Autonomists in Italy emerged as a left splinter from the Communist Party, initially coming together as micro-parties before adopting more horizontal approaches. This happened via the mediation of operaismo or ‘workerism’, an approach focused on workplace struggles. The language of autonomism and post-autonomism to this day has remained inflected with a rhetoric of communism and class struggle which strongly indicates its origins in Marxism. It was rooted in close analyses and empirically-based accounts of the changing situation of workplace and social struggles, and was formulated by a group of activist-intellectuals who were direct participants in the events they described.
For autonomists, the driving-force of historical change is not capital or the state, but rather, the self-activity (or ‘autovalorisation’ – creation of one’s own values) of the working-class, defined broadly to include all of the people who are exploited directly or indirectly by capitalism (such as housewives, who perform ‘reproductive labour’, refugees and migrants, whose subordination is part of the creation of low-wage economies, and unemployed people, who despite not being in a ‘job’ as such, are still active in ‘social production’ or the creation of social relations).
This struggle is the starting-point for understanding capitalism, and it creates a different perspective, similar to the ‘reversal of perspective’ in Situationism, which sees issues from an autonomous standpoint rather than the system’s standpoint. For autonomists, the transitions between phases of capitalism – for instance, between welfare-state Fordism and neoliberalism – are not primarily capitalist strategies, but rather, responses to (or even after-effects of) working-class revolts which make earlier forms of capitalism unsustainable.
Capitalism seeks to capture and exploit the creative force of labour, but cannot exist without it; on the other hand, labour can be ‘autonomous’, existing without capital (and without the state, which in autonomism, is viewed as a part of capitalism). Historical changes occur as new forms of resistance force capitalism to adapt in response. There is thus a constant tension between ‘class composition’ or ‘recomposition’, the process of recreating spaces of autonomy and non-capitalist social relations, and ‘decomposition’, the process through which capital closes down such spaces and breaks down such relations.
Autonomist analysis suggests that resistance is everywhere. Ordinary people – and especially, people seeking to reclaim bits of their time from capitalism, or refusing to be disciplined into the role of obedient subjects – are already engaged in forms of agency which escape the system’s logic. Practices such as slacking-off, calling in sickies, sabotaging equipment to get time off work, using wildcat strikes to maintain power against bosses, and so on, were deemed to involve a challenge to the subordination of creative activity to capital.
Autonomism also pioneered wider social strategies, such as ‘autoreduction’, the political appropriation of goods and services through mass refusal to pay, for instance, political shoplifting and faredodging. These everyday acts of revolt are viewed in autonomism as the ‘real movement of communism’ as utopia – communism is not a goal to be achieved in the future, but is already present in everyday refusals. This produces an almost Manichean dichotomy between the forces producing autonomy and the forces seeking to suppress it.
A second force, an ‘outside’, is always present, immanent in everyday resistance, and periodically becoming visible as autonomous spaces and zones, and as alternative kinds of social relations. (It is sometimes linked to the Marxist point that use-value, the motive for consumption, is tendentially outside of exchange-value; in neoliberalism, this division is undermined, exchange-value comes to define use-value by defining high-status commodities, and the result is a crisis of representation, as the system refers tautologically to itself, without a recognised outside).
The force of the outside begins to create a new society when it acts autonomously from the commands it receives from capital and the state. It emerges as a new society in forms such as new social networks, occupied factories, social centres (see below), and everyday forces of resistance. At any point, it is at a certain level of composition, but it contains the potential to form an entire other society outside the terms of the present global system, and repressive forces are constantly working to prevent it from further composing beyond its current composition, and to decompose it.
Informing the autonomist analysis of such struggles is the idea of the ‘refusal of work’. To ‘refuse’ work is not necessarily to be unemployed; it is to refuse to be disciplined into the set of traits and characteristic ‘behaviours’ deemed to make a person ‘employable’. A person may ‘refuse work’ to one degree or another by for instance, being unable to keep to a rigid timetable, being resistant to obeying orders, or refusing to conform to dominant speech or dress-codes. It’s not so much a moral rejection of work as an insistence on the primacy of one’s own desires and particularities over whatever arbitrary standards the powers-that-be happen to impose.
Autonomism is thus similar to the dissident scenes which emerged in the old authoritarian-socialist eastern bloc. It insists on the right to be different, the right to insist autonomously on one’s own perspective and way of life, against the homogenising pressures of neoliberal conformity. To ‘refuse work’ is also not to refuse to engage in any kind of activity, but rather, involves reclaiming one’s creative power from its entrapment in the dominant system. By refusing work, one becomes capable of value-creating, autonomous creative activity.
What, then, is the role of activists, who are seeking to overcome capitalism? The creation and defence of spaces of autonomy is taken as crucial, with activists acting as a defensive line between spaces of autonomy and state strategies which seek to destroy them. This involves the formation of forms of counter-power which can be mobilised against state repression. This idea of counter-power is perhaps best developed in the squatters’ movement: if police attack a squat, activists will blockade the squat to make it expensive to evict, hold disruptive protests elsewhere in the city, and break open new squats, making the attempt at repression both costly and self-defeating.
The creation and defence of autonomous spaces is also taken as crucial. The radical squatters’ movement has drawn heavily on autonomism, partly because squatting is a clear case of autoreduction (in this case, of rents), and partly because squatting is a means to carve out autonomous spaces. One innovation which can be traced to autonomism is the ‘social centre’, a site, usually squatted, which acts as a node for radical social networks, providing a meeting space and a range of services.
In Nottingham, Sumac and JB Spray are arguably social centres; Sumac in particular acts as a focal point for a wide range of ecological and other activist meetings and events, providing services such as a library, bar, catering service, computer access, meeting space and specific events such as a childrens’ evening and music and film events.
In Britain, spaces of autonomy have been negatively affected by decades of neoliberal decomposition, but quite recently, Britain had a thousands-strong eco-activist scene and an even larger free party scene with an annual circuit of temporary autonomous spaces. At further degrees of development, one can expect autonomy to be expanded to entire areas. In some cases, such as the Christiania commune, the Exarcheia district of Athens, and formerly Kreuzberg in Berlin, entire districts become largely autonomous, with police able to enter only through a military-style invasion under a hail of bricks, and a vibrant counter-society flourishing in the margins of the old.
The next stage from this might be to link up all the autonomous areas, creating a secondary map which surrounds and besieges the gridded map of capitalist flows, pushing the latter back into increasingly small areas of the globe. To do this, of course, the question must be addressed of building links between autonomous spaces in different areas, including with indigenous groups and autonomous movements in the global South.
For a number of reasons, ‘classical’ autonomism is difficult to find today. One reason is that it was a special product of ‘laboratory Italy’, a site of intense social struggles which were eventually repressed as a neoliberal, and highly authoritarian, regime took shape.
The autonomist movement in Italy was weakened by a wave of repression, in which activists were accused of guilt-by-association with the Red Brigades, and leading figures such as were jailed (though descendants of autonomia, such as Ya Basta!/Disobedientes, remain active in Italy to this day).
Another reason is that autonomism is a process-oriented, change-oriented theory which reacts quickly to what are perceived to be changes in class composition, reformulating itself in new terms. From the mid-1980s, autonomist authors such as Negri and Virno have moved away from the militantly antagonistic politics of classical autonomism into various strands of ‘post-autonomist’ theory.
In these more recent approaches, neoliberalism is viewed as paradoxically creating the conditions for liberation, with the working-class recomposing as a ‘multitude’ directly involved in production across the whole of society.
This rather reformist move left the field of militant autonomy to authors from anarchist backgrounds, such as Alfredo Bonanno and the Invisible Committee. These authors have made extensive borrowings from autonomist theory. Hakim Bey’s theory of temporary autonomous zones also extends the idea of autonomy, focusing on the reclamation of spaces neglected by the dominant gaze. Hence, the focal point of autonomy has moved sideways from autonomism into anarchism. This has led to the emergence of current groupings which are sometimes referred to as ‘neo-anarchist’ or ‘anarcho-autonome’, drawing strongly on both traditions.
Autonomism is vital in thinking through questions of autonomous agency, and especially in terms of the importance of creating an ‘outside’ counterposed to the dominant way of life. Some limits should, however, be noted. There is something of a contradiction over the issue of creative or productive power and the relationship to work in autonomism, which can be summarised as a contradiction between ‘power to the workers’ and the ‘refusal of work’. On the one hand, people are taken to have creative potential because their labour is the underpinning of capital; on the other, their creative activity today is exhibited primarily as refusal to take part in such labour.
The tension between the refusal and the valorisation of work remains unresolved in autonomist theory. The latter aspect can lead to a worrying progressivism or developmentalism, which is disempowering in relation to forms of resistance which defend unincorporated spaces rather than ‘passing through’ capitalism, and which creates the danger that problematic aspects of the present organisation of work will be reproduced in a future ‘liberated’ society, albeit without the parasitic layer of bosses on the top.
On a related point, I often find this style of theorising worryingly collectivist. There is a certain tendency in autonomism to suggest that the class, rather than particular people or groups, are becoming autonomous. This raises the question of what it is that integrates people as a class, or a single community.
Many autonomists would probably maintain that people have a kind of essence, or ‘species-being’, which links us all together and provides a basis for a non-dominatory society to nonetheless show high levels of commonality. I suspect this is wrong, and that current integration is an artificial effect of the very mechanisms of command which autonomism would do away with. In other words, without capitalism, there would not be a ‘class’ as a unitary entity either.
This raises the question of how people who are autonomous, or small groups of similar-minded people which are autonomous from other such small groups, can interrelate constructively. This is a problem which arises concretely in activist settings, and which is partially addressed by horizontal processes which seek to avoid the subordination of any participant to the group or to others.
As David Graeber puts it, the emphasis of anarchist organising is not on convincing everyone to agree, or imposing one group’s views on others, but rather, on finding ways that people who are fundamentally different, who will likely never agree, can nevertheless coexist and work together on particular projects. I think this is more helpful than thinking in terms of a unitary class, community or multitude as the focus or goal of agency.
Autonomism tends not to take seriously enough the extent to which people are drawn into identities and attachments through which they come to support the status quo. By emphasising how people are always in struggle, autonomism downplays the extent to which ordinary people often have reactionary beliefs which can be turned against struggle. Indeed, it doesn’t really deal with psychology at all (it does, however, borrow an Althusserian theory of ideology which engages to some extent with these kinds of issues).
The kind of issues which would be crucial to, say, Reich, Marcuse, Castoriadis, Guattari, or Foucault are noticeable by their absence; their place is often filled by economics or ontology, which do a bad job of engaging with motives and complex defence-formations. This is not the only theoretical gap. In my view, the class structure of contemporary society is more complex than autonomism tends to allow. In particular, strategies of inclusion which create intermediary layers, of reactive network formation (such as patronage networks) which incorporate people through relative advantage or hostility to worse-off others, and conflicts between capital and the state tend to become invisible in this account.
Even the agency of capital can be elided, as capitalist changes are reduced to the effects of workers’ struggle. This approach is useful in defining an adversary, but strategically limiting in failing to see the complexity of forces at work.
On a similar note, I would question whether an emphasis on the totality of people engaged in productive activity is useful in the contemporary context. Segmentations between included and excluded/marginalised groups of workers/producers are sharpening drastically, and it seems to me that the included have on the whole been drawn disastrously into the Third Way recomposition. There is thus a need to theorise the agency of the excluded and marginalised, separately from the category of ‘all of those who produce’. Indeed, I would argue that, in contrast to Fordism, neoliberalism actually reduces the extent to which excluded/marginalised groups are nevertheless ‘productive’.
For instance, the formal economy is shrinking in large parts of the world. Radical theory may have to reorient from the included-but-exploited, or ‘adversely incorporated’ – who are disempowered by the very conditions of their inclusion – to the practice of those who either refuse and de-link from (at least some aspects of) the dominant system, or who are forcibly delinked by the system. This reformulation would also take us beyond the autonomist contradiction regarding work, perhaps by reformulating creative activity against the work-system, in favour of subsistence, gift economies and other forms of non-commodified creative activity.
Autonomy has a future, despite the current wave of decomposition, as it provides the necessary antidote to alienation and commodification in social life, re-empowering subjects beyond the restrictive frame of the dominant system. Autonomy necessarily tends to produce itself as an outside in the present, else it would be reduced to the status of a fantasy supplemental to the dominant system. To seek to empower and maximise autonomy, it is necessary to always look for outsides, however partial, and seek to bring them together into a complete outside, another way of being, another world.
The current weakness of autonomy is strategic. Capitalism innovates in the field of repression, and autonomy must innovate in the field of defeating repression. The next great protest wave will come about when new means are found which render non-viable the current, neoliberal/Third Way composition of global capitalism.
This is a movement from which the last has not yet been heard.
Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His ‘In Theory’ column appears every other Friday.
The Wombles – anarchist group influenced by autonomism
Aut-op-sy discussion forum on autonomism
Harry Cleaver’s autonomism archive
The Commoner journal
Midnight Notes Collective