. Autonomism: The future of activism? | Ceasefire Magazine

Autonomism: The future of activism? In Theory

One of the major influences on contemporary activism has been European Autonomism, whose mark was present in the 2008 uprising in Greece, the Ungdomshuset revolt in Denmark, as well as the wave of summit protests around the world. Political theorist Andrew Robinson traces its origins and development, and explains why it could be 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.

Further reading:
Aufheben journal
The Wombles – anarchist group influenced by autonomism
Aut-op-sy discussion forum on autonomism
Harry Cleaver’s autonomism archive
Autonomism library
The Commoner journal
Ephemera journal
Midnight Notes Collective


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Johnny Blaze
Oct 8, 2010 16:57

Great Article. However while you state that “current integration [of people] is an artificial effect of the very mechanisms of command which autonomism would do away with.” surely this integration would be maintained through common ownership of the means of production, I also see no reason to doubt that people are united by a common-essence or species being as previous anarchist societies have demonstrated. I find such criticism worryingly individualist.

Also would you not include Free Derry (’69-72) as an example of an autonomous district that existed within the UK? And while Free Derry was democratically run by the community what do you think about the potential of paramilitary-run “no-go areas” such as South Armagh in the late ’80’s and ’90’s or, on a much smaller scale, the Kilwilkie Estate today to integrate themselves into a wider network of autonomous zones?

Oct 8, 2010 22:40

Johnny, re autonomous zones: good question, and not one there’s an easy answer to. Free Derry was certainly largely autonomous, but (I’m guessing from limited knowledge) largely inspired by nationalist attachments, and (again guessing) with considerable influence of hierarchical components of the Republican movement over day-to-day power, which creates a kind of hierarchical structure within the zone – the parallel (if my guesses are right) is with decolonisation movements which similarly created liberated zones, but ended up recomposing state power. I had an exchange with a friend in Belfast after one of the insurrections in Lurgan, my first instinct was, WOW – revolt of the excluded, autonomous zone – but my friend suggested there were all kinds of political forces at work behind the scenes. Though, this hasn’t stopped the WOW effect being pretty strong for me 🙂 (I have heard Toxteth was a no-go zone for a few years after the big insurrection as well. One might also think of travellers’ movements, both new and old, as aspiring to autonomy).

As I argued in the article, autonomism is rather weak on theorising issues such as nationalism – it seems to be stuck with the two options of, either it’s fully autonomous and the same as an anarchist/autonomist insurrection, or it’s not autonomous at all and is just another kind of capital/state – whereas actually it’s somewhere between the two, or something else entirely. Bonanno has some reflections on ethnonationalism and political Islam in the mediterranean though (see http://theanarchistlibrary.org/HTML/Alfredo_M._Bonanno__For_An_Anti-authoritarian_Insurrectionalist_International.html#toc6) while Hakim Bey tends to treat these movements/spaces (e.g. the Naga insurgency and D’Annunzio’s movement) as unproblematically autonomous.

I’ve been developing thoughts on these questions in the book at the link, though I haven’t looked into Ireland specifically. Around the world, there are a *lot* of areas which are autonomous from states, and under the control of one or another of what I’ve termed in my book ‘reactive networks’ – ethno-nationalist armed opposition groups, localised patronage networks, gangs, and so on (think of western Pakistan, Somalia, the ‘gangs’ of Port-au-Prince, Mungiki in Kenya and so on). In my view, reactive networks have many of the characteristics of autonomous networks, but with a strong boundary against those outside a particular in-group, and corresponding limits to the expansiveness of the network. In practice, this limits their networking capabilities: it would be practically impossible for instance for a political Islamist group and a Hindu communalist group to work together, even if their internal modes of organising, their objections to state power and so on were broadly similar. Most autonomous movements in the global South are instinctively against these kinds of movements because of their hierarchical aspects (see http://www.metamute.org/en/Thinking-Resistance-in-the-Shanty-Town for instance). Personally, I suspect these zones will become part of the global network of autonomous zones as and when it emerges, but as part of an interplay between active and reactive forces (I suspect – for reasons laid out in the book – that reactive and active/autonomous networks exist on a continuum and constantly turn into one another).

On your first point – this could turn into a big theoretical debate, because it comes down to philosophical questions about the nature of humanity. I do think that people are at a basic level very, very different from one another, mainly for psychological reasons (we can think of it through frames such as mad liberation and neurodiversity, or through Lacan’s four personality types, or the Myers-Briggs scale based on Jung, or indigenous knowledges such as ayurvedic medicine… they draw the boundaries between types in different places, but the recognition of differences of type is crucial here). And I daresay all of these schemes are too simplistic – there is more difference even at this level than any existing theory captures. This is even *before* we compound difference with cultural and subcultural variance, or physical capabilities, or effects of subjectification into classes, genders and so on… And while overthrowing capitalism would eliminate repressive differences, I’d expect the diffusion of ways of life to be even greater once the barriers of moral-panics, moral-regulation and state disciplinary power were taken away. If there’s a common essence (which I doubt), it’s insufficiently substantial to provide a basis to elaborate solutions to all the other problems associated with diversity.

Hence, I don’t think common ownership of the means of production would guarantee agreement on what’s to be done with them, e.g. what should be produced and how many hours (if any) people should work. Common needs won’t do much good either, because there’s a range of ways needs can be met, and anyway, a large proportion of the things people want are wanted for social/personal not biological reasons. At present, all these questions are ‘solved’ by command: the boss decides the terms on which people work, the ‘market’ run by the bosses decides how much of each thing gets produced, the boss and the state decide how much money people have to spend on the things which are produced, and the state makes sure people have to work on the terms set by the boss. Take away command and we’re back with a multiplicity of desires and perspectives – people would have to negotiate among them, there wouldn’t be a trump-card guaranteeing agreement. The usual Marxist response (*not* Hardt and Negri’s I hasten to add) is that a council/soviet/committee of all the participants will decide, with some kind of direct (or direct + delegative) democracy. But this just displaces the problem: risks of power-inequalities between different groups with different capabilities or needs emerge both from the structure of democracy (majority vs minority) and the risk that ‘common’ spaces will nonetheless be dominated through informal hierarchy or in-group formation. Who decides who is on the council? Just workers, or consumers too? Who decides how much work someone has to do at one site before they get on the council? The answer would usually be that the council makes these decisions, but since they’re constitutive of the council’s ability to decide, this renders them tautological. What’s to stop the consumers on the council from voting to make the workers work more and more hours, or the workers if they’re alone on the council from only making as much as they need themselves? And what about disaffected minorities? People won’t always be able, or willing, to go along with what the majority decides (if as argued above, people are fundamentally different, there will always be permanent minorities – majorities will be coalitions of particular ‘minorities’ – and there will be no relation between what the majority want and what the minority can minimally tolerate – we’re in the same terrain as ethnic politics in Sri Lanka or Kenya). And then we’re back with one group ruling over another. I think the way around this is rather different: decentring + gift-economy + absolute voluntarity + affinity-groups + consensus when necessary. Without command, work would basically have to be done away with, because there’d be no way to make sure people did it (in principle we could also rely on people’s shame/guilt to make sure they did it, but that’s introducing a big role for social conformity again, and there’s effectiveness questions too). Ludic alternatives would then have to be found to induce creative activity voluntarily (from some people, not necessarily everyone). This in turn would require moving towards smaller scale, for two reasons: greater chance of getting everyone to agree, and artisanalising production to make it more ‘ludic’ (play-based, self-motivating). Making production ludic means that distribution can occur as a gift-economy. This handily also disconnects people’s income from their work capabilities, solving the problem that otherwise arises of cases where someone’s needs are greater than they can meet. All of this is only tenable if a climate of abundance can be maintained, so people don’t fight over resources and resent each other. This is primarily a psychological and cultural matter (scarcity is first of all an existential orientation, a view of the other as rival – this is a complicated point, see my book for details), but it also depends on at least minimal sufficiency of the ecological/(post-)work arrangement. So it’s all rather tentative, hedged around with mechanisms to ward-off the emergence of hierarchy – and not at all a matter of simply taking over the present apparatus with the ‘parasitic’ bosses and state lopped off the top. It’d look less like a factory minus a boss than like a squatted social centre expanded across the whole of society. And it would face all the same thorny interpersonal problems and complexities which we face in trying to create social movements today.

Actually this makes the problems in the present even more important than if it was just a question of transition, because the same things which today leave us with three people at a ‘mass’ meeting, or posters at a third of the places they should be, or why some people feel excluded from the movement, are the things which would face us as problems in growing/gathering food or building homes in a world without capitalism, making it all the more important to figure out why these things are happening now!


Johnny Blaze
Oct 10, 2010 18:26

Thanks for addressing the point on no-go zones and the links you provided, I completely agree with your analysis there.
Regarding the problems of co-coordinating work in a non-command economy I would say that it was managed successfully in Anarchist Catalonia without any serious resentment by any “permanent minority”. I would also say that Also the problems of ethnic and cultural conflict would decrease as most such conflicts are the result of artificially created imperialist/capitalist divisions divisions and didn’t exist on anything like the same scale before such groups were colonized (the most recent example being shia-sunni conflict in iraq.) There is also no precedent in history of pre-industrial stateless societies ever dividing along “personality types” or “subcultural divisions.” In the end though I would agree that it comes down to ones own philisophical view of human nature. As ever it has been illuminating talking to you

Oct 11, 2010 1:43

I’d question whether “no precedent in history of pre-industrial stateless societies ever dividing along “personality types” or “subcultural divisions””, ethnogenesis (the study of the emergence or formation of what are later termed ethnic groups) is an emerging area, but the current dominant view is that many groups which today appear to be distinct ethnicities actually emerged from the political refusal of some particular regime and its demands (Graeber’s ‘Fragments of an Anarhcist Anthropology’ discusses this). Other things to remember about these groups is that 1) they use consensus decision-making, not democracy (at least among whichever subgroups are deemed relevant), 2) they rely mainly on diffuse informal sanctions, 3) most of them have large amounts of wiggle-room (e.g. around 10% of people marry outside officially-permitted types of pairings), and 4) they are usually very small. As for the other cases, there are reasons why such issues wouldn’t come up particularly harshly in anarchist Catalonia, mainly because it was short-lived and in a constant situation of war, so people would put aside such matters in the face of a bigger conflict. Also, I think such problems did arise nascently, around issues of alcohol consumption and the twin models of collectivisation of farms vs egalitarian smallholdings for example.

You’re quite right that capitalism/colonialism plays up intergroup conflicts. Colonial powers also tend to rigidify intergroup boundaries, and even invent new groups, but the major factor in conflict is turning a difference (which was otherwise handled non-conflictually) into an antagonism. The attempt to establish a single mass society is a major part of how such conflicts are created/exacerbated – divisions between in- and out-groups in terms of the division of labour, political power (whether democratic or dictatorial), and the favouring of groups deemed more ‘modernist’ are all crucial in various contexts. These differences wouldn’t simply vanish with the disappearance of colonial command, if the economy continued to be organised in a way which enabled winner-takes-all strategies. They were ‘managed’ so to speak in pre-colonial settings mainly through a balance of power among groups and processes of centrifugal force (Clastres’ account is crucial here, and very much borne out by what I’ve read about war and peace in Somalia).

Perhaps they could be ‘managed’ in a situation of workers’ control as well, but this would have to be a specific political process with its own dimensions (e.g. development of critical literacy and openness to difference, ensuring inclusiveness of the process of ‘decision-making’ or emergence of outcomes), rather than being assumed to automatically arise simply because capitalism and the state are removed.

Ceasefire Magazine – This week in Ceasefire
Oct 11, 2010 6:52

[…] In Theory […]

Oct 16, 2010 18:43

The point at which autonomy is a political theory or a social practice in this essay is more than blurred in this essay and confuses the conclusion which seems both nostalgic and futuristic.

as far as I can make out the glib reduction of vaguely national autonomist movements at the beginning of the essay too simply reduces events which were not contained by any theoretical underpinning but, at the best moments, came intuitively from common sentiments which can be read in only the most ambiguous moments of autonomist theory; it is Negri who states that Philosophy comes from social movements and not social movements from Philosophy.

and I would argue that this must be repeated in terms of philosophy’s, or theory’s, role in the decomposition spoken of towards the end of this essay. What ecological protest’s and autonomist squat’s continue? under what conditions and with what history? and what innovations are growing within the mud of this disolution? innovation is always a fermentation of some sort. the ambivalence of one of the final statements calls this present situation to hand ‘The current weakness of autonomy is strategic’. indeed, and it could be our greatest strategy yet.

Oct 19, 2010 2:06

I view it as more of a co-constitutive relation myself, i.e. theories and movements learn from each other. I don’t think autonomism (the theory) started in philosophy though, it started with theorists who were themselves part of the struggles they wrote about, and who, in familiar UK terms, were as much sociological researchers or ethnographers as philosophers. People in movements produce theory (not only practice). It’s not so simple as “intuitively” or “common sentiments”, people think about what they do, not only pragmatically but in terms of their goals and processes. Look at the statements which came out of the occupied universities in Greece for instance, or a text like The Coming Insurrection, or the work of groups like CrimethInc, Trapeze, Do or Die and so on. They aren’t exactly intuitive or sentiment-driven, but they aren’t philosophy in the usual sense either. It’s also not difficult to trace theoretical influences in these social movement texts, through continuities in concepts and the like, and many of them have clear autonomist elements – they aren’t just stumbling spontaneously on similar practices.

You’re also pointing to the difference between autonomism as a theory and the everyday practices it refers to. Of course, for autonomists, the everyday practices (such as calling in sickies) are themselves autonomy, are already the struggle for communism, and autonomist theory is simply an expression of this struggle. I’m sceptical about this claim, because to me, for something to be autonomist or communist, it has to aspire to certain goals or at least have certain desires behind it, and I suspect many of the people phoning in sickies might also be doing quite politically reactionary things at other points in their lives. At best, therefore, they’re expressing the social logic of autonomy only at this particular point. I also feel that social phenomena are always open to multiple interpretations. Negri et al provided an interesting interpretation of acts of everyday resistance, but I’m not sure these acts can be reduced to this interpretation. It takes a certain perspective, projected onto the everyday acts, to read them as acts of autonomy. And therefore, autonomist theory is an invention of autonomist theorists, even if they *think* they’re simply explaining everyday acts of resistance (or discerning the essence of the in-itself behind the appearance so it can become what it really is, or however they’d put it). Many Marxists love to think of themselves as pawns of history, eliding the social construction involved in the production of their own theories – I’ve never quite understood why. In any case, even if autonomy is simply a practice which is already there, it is still possible to discuss its theoretical discovery, not simply its preexistence, much as it is possible to discuss the emergence and parameters of the theory of gravity, without questioning that gravity as a force existed long before the theory.

Yes, I’m nostalgic for autonomy, and also futuristic, because I don’t believe in linear histories of homogeneous empty time, I don’t think movements are ever simply dead, they form connections between times and places where similar energies converge, and for this reason, I’m sceptical of the view that history is irreversible, even if reversal takes unexpected forms.

Oct 24, 2010 4:02

cheers for the reply,
I guess my point is that various groups or tendencies that could and should come under the term autonomist were, and are, critically against intellectualism (punk in general is a good indication of this tendency) because the problems were obvious and the solution was obvious: reject, resist, create, … any analysis after this would be construed as bollocks or an infringement upon autonomy; echoes of school teachers and the patronising environment of education, or, with ethnography rather than theory, the informant. that is, it is not that the understanding or depth of their analysis was lacking but that it came from outside of the legitimate historical materialist modes of analysis; these modes being radically suspect.

This contrasts with the more analytical aspects of autonomy that took root in Italy, where the idea of the organic intellectual valorised philosophical thought. I’m not trying to nationalise autonomist trends, nor pick out a point of antagonism to put my bets on one side or the other, but this problematic is structural to resistance in general i think at the present, where the gap between the awareness of being shafted and the capacity to think threw an overcoming of this situation seems immense.

I guess out of the examples you gave, crimethink and the coming insurrection are intellectual works and the Greek texts were also caught up in the same rhetoric. do or die is a different matter, but is clearly trying to cut out the intellectual stuff for more raw data on events and strategic and tactical discusions. But by using terms like intuition and common sentiment I wasn’t trying to suggest some cogitio natural universalis or anyhting like that. But more, to leave space for the idea of insurrection, or even the idea of inequity being one which comes to us not mediated by a theory, but infused with analysis. In this sense It would be the experience of this understanding which would come across as intuitive, like the phrase ‘I knew it was intuitively wrong’ and I would even link up bergson’s understanding of intuition as something that concerns duration, thus being a non analytical impression, which could lead to a greater sense of fortitude and determination; as it is more corporeal.

Oct 28, 2010 1:24

Ah… you’re meaning something a bit different from what I thought. I think the corporeal basis of the impulse to rebel would be recognised in a lot of the theoretical texts as well, though it might be given other names (affective, biopolitical, etc). So the differences wouldn’t so much be in that initial basis, as in whether it is elaborated in theoretical language or something more expressive.

In terms of scepticism about theory, what you’re talking about here does have resonances with what I’ve come across in the activist movement in Britain, i.e. there is a certain degree of anti-intellectualism among a proportion (not all) of the groups and networks, some of which may well come from the kind of thing you’re talking about (anti-schooling + impulsive basis for action) but I think a lot of it is also about people avoiding being reflexive, especially if they have a degree of informal authority based on action rather than understanding, which they don’t want to see undermined. I also get the feeling that the level of intellectuality of popular discourse is a lot higher in France, Italy and Greece than in Britain, America and Germany, and this has to do with the content and structure of formal schooling (e.g. the fact that they study philosophy at school in France, and a lot of university students do psychology) and the proportion of ex-students among the freeter stratum, but also the level of media discussion and the theoretical content of run-of-the-mill academia seem higher some places than others. I’m not sure some of these texts would seem especially intellectual in their countries of origin.

Personally I think there’s a role for theory in building on the corporeal rejection of the dominant system by constructing other ways of seeing. Ultimately if we’re creating different kinds of social relations from those which already exist, we’re going to need new ways of speaking and new concepts, and while these can come through theory (if made relevant through bricolage), they can also come through a completely different process of formation of local knowledges, slang and so on.

In Theory – Precaritarians of all countries, Unite! – Ceasefire Magazine
Mar 18, 2011 15:28

[…] concept of precarity has been developed by theorists emerging from the autonomist tradition as a way to think about changes in capitalism since the 1970s (when the tradition first […]

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