322 Autonomism

Autonomism
Christian Garland
The term “autonomism” or “autonomist” may
broadly refer to a number of different theories and
movements that, while in some ways disparate,
can be said to share several underlying aims and
principles. Autonomism assumes a perspective of
critical and reflexive Marxism, emphasizing both
its essentially negative and open-ended nature –
as with any critical theory – and identifying its
own theory and practice as anti-hierarchical, anti-
capitalist, and anti-authoritarian. Similarly, while
retaining the centrality of class struggle, autonom-
ist currents maintain the need for revolt and
self-emancipation by the exploited and oppressed
themselves, as a self-valorizing agency, and not
by a “vanguard party” or other self-declared
liberator. The theory of autonomy can thus be
defined as one of self-determination over the
form and substance of life, both collectively
and individually. Unlike orthodox Marxism,
autonomous movements can also be defined as
“anti-political” and indeed “anti-state,” in that
they reject the traditional means of political action
and the traditional goal of assuming “political
power” embodied in the state-form.
International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, ed. Immanuel Ness, Blackwell Publishing, 2009, pp. 322–325
Autonomism 323
Autonomy, then, is not rigidly fixed in ideo-
logical terms, but rather can be defined as the
power to freely determine the conditions of one’s
existence. Against hierarchical power, and its
embodiment in the forces of market and state,
autonomist practice stresses the possibility of
alternative modes of being in the here and now,
without losing sight of the need for this to
become total, both in the sense of encompass-
ing a majority of society and acting against the
existing system in its entirety. However, in so
far as we can speak of “autonomism” it should
be stated that this very broad term is basically
anti-systemic and non-ideological, and the vari-
ous theories and movements associated with it
deliberately resist any easily assimilation into a
standard definition.
Autonomist theory has much in common with
class struggle anarchism, and many autonomists
and anarchists recognize the affinity. However, the
Marxist character of autonomist theory makes
for an important distinction with anarchism.
Being a heterodox tradition, autonomism has
more than one historical forerunner; as such,
many within the broad movement identify a line
of continuity with the critical and libertarian
aspects of Marx’s original theory, as much as
the anti-Leninist Left Communist currents which
followed in the early twentieth century.
The term “autonomism” has its origins in the
Italian Autonomia and Operaismo movements of
the late 1960s, which reached their high point in
the Hot Autumn of unofficial strikes, sabotage,
occupations, and street protests of 1969, before
reemerging in the tumult of 1977. Italian autonom-
ist Marxism found its best theoretical expres-
sion in the likes of Antonio Negri, Mario Tronti,
and Sergio Bologna, but the movement, which
their theories fed into, was not defined solely by
such theories. In terms of late twentieth-century
revolutionary ruptures, it can be argued that
the two Italian movements of the late 1960s
and late 1970s are second only to the French May
Events of 1968 for significance and impact. In
both cases, currents usually confined to the mar-
gins swept across the entirety of social relations
in an advanced industrial society, to radically and
permanently alter it.
The Italian movement of 1969 offers a number
of notable examples of “autonomous practice,”
in which effective collective action undermined
and subverted capitalist social relations. Besides
mass squatting as a solution to housing need,
equally wide-scale rent strikes offered a further
refusal of the market imperative of having to pay
for the privilege of a roof over one’s head. This
mass movement spread to include the infam-
ous use of autoriduzione, or “self-reduction,” in
which thousands refused to pay full price,
or indeed anything at all, for essential services
such as electricity, gas, water, and transport. In
the workplace, too, when not sabotaging pro-
duction, workers engaged in an endless wave
of unofficial strikes and stoppages outside of the
control of trade unions and political parties.
In the converging struggles of the first move-
ment of 1968–9 there can be discerned some-
thing of the more fluid and dynamic definition
of “the proletariat” that autonomists continue
to theorize, encompassing a non-unionized white
collar sector and also recognizing the unpaid
domestic labor performed by women. Instead of
“the party,” either Leninist or Social Democratic,
pressing for official recognition from the powers
that be through legal and electoral channels,
autonomous movements can be seen to assume a
dynamic, negative “anti-power” aimed at sub-
verting and challenging hierarchical power in all
its forms. Such examples of direct action taken
by social subjects themselves remain anathema
to the Leninist belief in the need for a single,
disciplined party, which will lead and oversee
social revolt. However, as John Holloway and
other autonomist theorists have argued, such
movements do not merely propose passive with-
drawal, because they are opposed to engaging
with the existing structures of political power.
Instead, autonomist theory favors an anti-political
practice: the material contestation of the totality
of social relations.
Although “autonomism” – or at least the
theoretical shorthand this term has come to
assume – may have its origins in Italy, its hetero-
geneous and fluid dynamic means it cannot
be temporally or spatially confined to a par-
ticular historical context. As the Italian movement
of 1977 was consumed by an escalating cycle of
armed provocation and repression, its force as
a social movement acting in and against the
existing society ebbed away until it evaporated
altogether. The great strength of the movements
of 1969 and 1977 was that they could not be iso-
lated or contained and at their peak threatened
to actually overwhelm the existing social order.
The other, later focus for “autonomism” found
a somewhat different expression in the West
International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, ed. Immanuel Ness, Blackwell Publishing, 2009, pp. 322–325
324 Autonomism
in a society where no rupture on the scale of those
in Italy in 1969 or 1977 was experienced.
In analyzing the autonomous movement in
Germany, and other countries, notably Switzer-
land, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia, and its
relative isolation from the rest of the population,
it is important not to attribute this to the absence
of sufficient organization and failure to build
the party. As Katsiaficas has argued, “The
autonomen do not subscribe to the belief that
there is one overriding truth or one true form
of autonomy.” In this sense there is a clear dis-
tinction between autonomous anti-political action
and indeed cultural subversion in everyday life,
and the standard orthodox Marxist view of the
necessity for following the usual political paths
to arrive at the usual political end of govern-
mental or state power. Autonomist practice does
not ignore “politics” as such, but rather refuses
to accept the terms this dictates, instead waging
irregular battles on a terrain as far as possible
of its own choosing. One such example in which
the movement successfully spread its influence
was at the height of the Cold War, when in
Germany at least, autonomists fueled the fires
of discontent with American nuclear bases being
stationed in the country and helped catalyze a
wider opposition that had noticeable political
repercussions.
Autonomist currents as they exist today con-
tinue to draw inspiration from a wide range of
theoretical influences and unsurprisingly diverge
as much as they agree, one obvious example
being the substantial differences between those
for whom Antonio Negri’s recent work, especially
with Michael Hardt, is a major inspiration, and
those for whom this offers at best limited crit-
ical insights. Without attempting a division of
the clearly very broad autonomist tradition into
opposing camps, the differences between the
poststructuralist and Deleuzian Negri, and
those working more in the dialectical tradition
of Hegelian Marxism and the Critical Theory of
the Frankfurt School, should not be ignored.
Another major criticism of the later Negri is what
many have argued is his somewhat timid insist-
ence on focusing rebellious energies on reform-
based demands for a minimum or “social” income.
Autonomism has a number of important
antecedents. In the Left Communist currents
of the early twentieth century lie a number
of notable precedents, specifically opposition to
German Federal Republic of the 1980s. Here,
the autonomie movement consisting mostly of
radicalized youth strove to develop distinctive
alternative modes of being, which by their very
nature were antagonistic to that of mainstream
German society. Here, again, squatting offered
an immediate answer to the problem of housing
while challenging and undermining the market
relations responsible for it. The usually com-
munal nature of the squats of Hamburg and
Berlin facilitated free experimentation with
new egalitarian, non-hierarchical ways of living
as distinct from the atomization experienced in
advanced urban societies. Likewise, the networks
of “social centers” and “info shops” offering
non-commercial non-institutional space for
meeting, socializing, and exchanging ideas,
originating in northwest and central Europe,
now exist in most parts of the world, albeit with
varying degrees of success.
The German and central European move-
ment has also been notable for its willingness
to take offensive action against the forces of the
state and in the destruction of symbolic targets
of consumer capitalism: prestige cars, retail
outlets, fast food chains – what Georgy Katsia-
ficas calls “civil luddism.” This willingness to
engage in militant offensive action continues to
be a source of heated debate among the varying
tendencies in the broad autonomist tradition,
but it is noticeably more one of tactics than of
outright hostility to such strategies.
In the “anti-capitalist” or “alter-globalization”
movement of the last decade we find similar issues
at stake, with the appearance of “black blocs”
of militant affinity groups openly advocating
revolution and indeed prepared to take offensive
action as well as create alternatives in the present.
The anti-capitalist or alter-globalization move-
ment has arguably been most visible in the mass
mobilizations at the various global summits of
the G8, WTO, IMF, and World Bank, where
black blocs of militants have also been present.
However, this is not to overemphasize the
role such groups play, or to ignore the short-
comings of some of their actions, which on at least
two occasions have resulted in protesters being
wounded or shot dead by police. Despite its
undoubted successes, the German autonomist
movement of the Cold War Federal Republic, no
less than in the reunified Germany of today, found
itself comparatively isolated from the proletariat
International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, ed. Immanuel Ness, Blackwell Publishing, 2009, pp. 322–325
Ayim, May (1960–1996) 325
traditional “political action” using parliamentary
and electoral strategies, and the need for anti-
hierarchical or at least radically democratic and
diffuse forms of organization. Rosa Luxemburg’s
insistence on the creative spontaneity of class
struggle is echoed in the autonomist belief that
it is only from a radical collective subjectivity
that real opposition stems. Similarly, other Left
Communist principles such as the refusal to adopt
the methods of party politics with an eye to state
power can be observed in the autonomists’
belief that revolutionary means should prefigure
revolutionary ends and strive to avoid replicating
those of the existing system.
A later continuity in the lines of autonomist
thought can be found in Cornelius Castoriadis
and the “council-communist” influenced French
Socialisme ou Barbarie (SoB) group of the 1960s,
which had its British equivalent in Maurice
Brinton’s Solidarity grouping. Castoriadis and
SoB were especially notable for developing the
theory of the USSR as being bureaucratic state
capitalism, a result also of Lenin’s belief in the
necessity for the party to create a bureaucratized,
militarized state in which the Bolshevik concept
of “democratic centralism” came into its own.
Likewise, the Situationist International’s pre-
ference for cultural subversion and its critique
of the totality of consumer society has had a
noticeable influence on autonomist thought and
practice, as has Gilles Dauve, perhaps better known
by his pen name Jean Barrot, who has sought to
develop a theory of communism antagonistic to
ideological categories or containment.
Though autonomism is a broadly defined
concept, the currents within it do indeed share
several definite similarities in terms of theory
and practice. We can recognize the primacy that
“autonomy” is, if nothing else, the freedom to be,
to live, which by its very definition is antagonistic
to the dominant material forces shaping the
world. It is this antagonism towards capitalism
and the state and party politics, and the values
and norms of existing society, which autonomist
theories and movements share, the refusal of the
existent, of “that which is” in Adorno’s phrase,
posing again the question of alternatives, that
remain merely “not yet.”
SEE ALSO: Anarchism; Global Justice Movement and
Resistance; Marxism; Negri, Antonio (b. 1933);
Socialisme ou Barbarie
References and Suggested Readings
Bonefeld, W. (Ed.) (2004) Revolutionary Writing:
Common Sense Essays in Post-Political Politics. New
York: Autnomedia.
De Angelis, M. (2007) The Beginning of History: Value
Struggles and Global Capital. London: Pluto Press.
Dyer-Witheford, N. (1999) Cyber-Marx: Cycles and
Circuits of Struggle in High Technology Capitalism.
Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Holloway, J. (2002) Change the World without Taking
Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today. London:
Pluto Press.
Katsiaficas, G. (2006) The Subversion of Politics:
European Autonomous Social Movements and the Deco-
lonizaion of Everyday Life. Edinburgh: AK Press.
Wright, S. (2002) Storming Heaven: Class Composition
and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism. London:
Verso.
International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, ed. Immanuel Ness, Blackwell Publishing, 2009, pp. 322–325