NOTES TOWARD A CRITIQUE OF AUTONOMY

EVELYN ENDUATTA

SYDNEY ANARCHIST BOOKFAIR 2015

Anarquia by Mazatl.

Introduction
As many of you know, the term ‘anarchism,’ derives from the Greek anarkhos
‘rulerless,’ from an- ‘without’ and arkhos ‘leader’, and is thus means something like
‘without rulers/leaders’. Similarly, the term autonomy derives meaning from the Greek
autonomia ‘independence,’ from autonomos ‘independent, living by one's own laws,’
from auto- ‘self’ + nomos ‘custom, law’. So the literal meaning of autonomy is
something like, ‘to be independent and to live by one’s own law.’ This etymological
similarity or parallel unsurprising given the concept and value of autonomy has always
been central to anarchist thought.

This talk was presented at the Sydney Anarchist Bookfair in June 2015. Thanks to the
organisers including Jura Bookshop and Black Rose Anarchist Library and Social Centre
for having me.

What follows are notes towards a critique of autonomy, from an anthropological and
feminist perspective, drawing on some moral philosophy for logic of argument. I’ll
begin with an ethnographic anecdote questioning the cross-cultural applicability of
autonomy, before moving on to a summary of key points in moral and political critiques,
which suggest that the concept of autonomy is not only gendered but logically
problematic in other ways. I’ll then comment speculatively on the nature of autonomy,
before concluding with a few ‘so what’ points for anarchist literature and practice. And
finally, I’ll finish with a very brief ethnographic note on autonomy, estrangement and
emotion.
*
Problems with autonomy from an anthropological perspective
To begin with an ethnographic anecdote. I was emotionally invested in, and politically
attached to the concept of autonomy – from my personal and political experience - until
around 2007. I was also familiar with the concept of autonomy as an analytical tool in
anthropological literature from descriptions of Aboriginal sociality, which – according
to the literature – is characterised by an ‘unresolved tension between autonomy and
relatedness’. So while it wasn’t something at the forefront of my mind, ‘autonomy’ was
clearly a key concept that I drew on – consciously or subconsciously – in my
interpretation, evaluation, and experience of everyday relations, and anthropological
descriptions thereof.
It was when I went to live my adoptive Yolŋu family on the remote Yolŋu Homelands
in north east Arnhem Land in 2007 that I was first given reason to question the
universality or ‘neutrality’ of autonomy, both as a value and an analytical tool. (Yolŋu
people being the Traditional Aboriginal Owners of the region from Milingimbi in the
west to Blue-Mud Bay in the east.) This was the beginning of 18 months of fieldwork.
While I came to love life on the Homelands my adoptive family became like my own, I
found the first three months in camp incredibly difficult. Living in the breast of kin - I
was given a new, Yolŋu name, I had no privacy, very little personal space (living in
room with a number of other people), I was disallowed from speaking English, from
wearing my own clothes, and even cooking on the fire of my own accord.
I wrote in my field note-book at the time that I felt like I had lost all sense of autonomy
and agency. In terms of my person, my body, my personal space, my personal
belongings - my freedom to choose my own course of action, my freedom to express
my own opinion – to do what I want, to live by my own law. I felt like all this was gone,
or completely frustrated. And in terms of hierarchy, while Yolŋu social organisation can

2

definitely be considered highly egalitarian in many ways - the reciprocal kinship
relations that structure everyday life are certainly very prescriptive. And I was adopted
as the youngest little sister in a sibling set of thirty-two people, so you can imagine
where my place was in the pecking order. I was a neophyte in every sense of the term.
While this was how I felt, however, I knew - even during those early days – that my
adoptive family had no intention of ‘constraining, breaching or limiting’ my autonomy
or agency. They were, in fact, going out of their way to make me feel as much a part of
the family and the community as they could, to teach me what they thought that I
needed to know, and do, to fit in, to be gurrutu (kin or have the quality of kinship), and
to become a valued member of the community.
Beyond personal issues - in terms of my ethnography, while the forms and patterns of
sociality that I was observing, partaking in, and taking extensive notes on each evening,
felt really intensive to me - lacking in privacy, lacking in personal space, lacking respect
for personal property or belongings – I knew at the same time that they were not
considered or experienced this way by my family and the wider Yolŋu community.
The existence of some kind of evaluative or moral mismatch or disjuncture was
reinforced for me once I became more familiar with everyday sociality - which
incidentally, I consider a contemporary form of stateless sociality - and for certain, once
I’d learned the local language and understood something of the local theory of morality
and value.
This is just as well because if I had retained and continued with autonomy as an
analytical tool in my ethnographic writing and analyses, my description of Yolŋu
sociality would have very quickly taken on a tone of ‘too much relatedness’, ‘not
enough independence’, ‘lacking a sense of personal autonomy’, ‘lacking respect for
personal property’ etcetera, etcetera – characterisations which, unfortunately, do
saturate much of the anthropological literature, as well as the media and the public
mind.1
But as I came to learn, there is no equivalent concept or value of autonomy in Yolŋumatha. The closest equivalent would be gäna (separate, distinct, alone, lonely), or even
wakiŋu (wild, belonging to no-one). And people who behave in this way are generally
considered buthuru-dhumuk (lit. ‘blunt ears’ which kind of implies being
insensate/unfeeling/ignorant). As may be obvious, these ‘closest equivalents’ are not
values – they are negative concepts; negative, undesirable characteristics or traits of
persons and social behaviour. I’ll return to this Yolŋu stuff at the end of the paper,
1

Most all the literature and commentary on ‘demand-sharing’ could be accused of this kind of
moral-misrecognition in my opinion.

3

because these negative characteristics are actually those most often attributed to white
people by Yolŋu mala, as part of a pointed critique of white people’s behaviour.
This experience with my family on the Homelands encouraged me to seek out critiques
of autonomy in the literature, because I clearly couldn’t retain it as an analytical tool in
my ethnographic writing - even if the literature suggested it was a key concept in
‘Aboriginal sociality’ writ large. This led me to feminist and other, critiques of
autonomy by moral philosophers. And while I don’t have time to address them all in
depth here, I’ll endeavour to summarise the key relevant points of critique.
*
Two conceptions of autonomy
What is most apparent in the developing body of literature on autonomy is that the term
is used in many, various ways. It would be unwise, as Gerald Dworkin puts it, to
assume that different authors are all referring to the same thing when they use the term
‘autonomy’ (1989:5):
‘It is apparent that, although not used just as a synonym for qualities that are
usually approved of, “autonomy” is used in an exceedingly broad fashion. It is
used sometimes as an equivalent of liberty, sometimes as equivalent to selfrule or sovereignty, sometimes as identical with freedom of will. It is equated
with dignity, integrity, individuality, independence, responsibility, and selfknowledge. It is identified with qualities of self-assertion, with critical
reflection, with freedom from obligation, with absence of external causation,
with knowledge of one’s own interests. It is even equated by some economists
with the impossibility of interpersonal comparisons. It is related to actions, to
beliefs, to reasons for acting, to rules, to the will of other persons, to thoughts,
and to principles. About the only features held consistent from one author to
another are that autonomy is a feature of persons and that it is a desirable
quality to have’ (1989:6).
From this confusion theorists identify two consistent ways that people conceptualise
autonomy: autonomy as substantive independence, and autonomy as procedural
independence.

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Autonomy as Substantive Independence



Person has not renounced their independence of thought and action.
Parallels ‘negative liberty’: the absence of obstacles, barriers and constraints.
Valued condition or quality of persons.
‘I am autonomous. I am an autonomous individual.’

A conceptualisation of autonomy as substantive independence insists on the
independence of the individual. This quote from Robert Wolff’s In defense of
Anarchism gives a good sense of this conceptualisation of autonomy:
‘The autonomous man . . . may do what another tells him, but not because he has
been told to do it . . . By accepting as final the commands of the others, he forfeits
his autonomy . . . a promise to abide by the will of the majority creates an
obligation, but it does so precisely by giving up one’s autonomy. An autonomous
agent must be independent-minded. He must not have to depend on others for being
told what he is to think or do . . . a person is ‘autonomous’ to the degree that what
he thinks and does cannot be explained without reference to his own activity of
mind. To be a moral agent is to be an autonomous or self-directed agent . . . On
this view, to deliver one’s over to a moral authority for directions about what to do
is simply incompatible with being a moral agent . . .’
Autonomy as ‘substantive independence’ can be understood to mean that a person has
not renounced their independence of thought and action. It is a valued condition and
quality of persons - as in ‘I am autonomous. I am an autonomous individual’, and it
parallels the idea of negative liberty in many ways – ‘being free from obstacles, barriers
and constraints.’

5

Autonomy as Procedural Independence


A capacity to act on one’s own preferences, whims, desires and values, whatever
they might be.
Parallels the idea of ‘positive liberty’ as the possibility of acting in such a way as
to take control of one’s own life.
Compatible with any ‘type’ of person (and therefore substantively neutral).

Autonomy as procedural independence, rather than being a characteristic or trait of
persons, is a capacity, the capacity to act on one’s own preferences, whims, desires and
values – whatever they might be.
‘[A]utonomy is conceived of as a second-order capacity of persons to reflect
critically upon their first-order preferences, desires, wishes, and so forth and
the capacity to accept or attempt to change these in light of higher-order
preferences and values. By exercising such a capacity, persons define their
nature, give meaning and coherence to their lives, and take responsibility for
the kind of person they are’ (Dworkin 1989: 20).
This idea of autonomy as procedural independence parallels the idea of positive liberty,
as ‘the capacity or possibility of acting in such a way as to take control of one’s own
life.’ The autonomous person, in this sense, could be ‘a tyrant, a slave, a saint or a
sinner’. Any ‘type’ of person can be considered to act autonomously. This is why
autonomy as procedural independence is also described as ‘substantively neutral’,
because it has no traction or force as a moral or political analytical tool. (This is why
most feminist theorists reject this conceptualization as apolitical.)
*
Key points of critique
In logical terms, if we consider the two conceptualisations of autonomy side by side, it
quickly becomes clear that they are logically inconsistent or incompatible with one
other.

6

Keeping in mind that one is a condition and quality of persons and the other a capacity
and process . . . IF, what is morally correct is what one has decided for oneself is
correct, then for another to interfere with one’s freedom of action based on that decision
is to ‘encourage hypocrisy.’ So unless everyone independently decides and voluntarily
agrees upon what is morally correct, then there is no moral justification for insisting
upon, and thus reproducing, what one has decided is morally correct without restricting
the liberty of others. We either stick to one or the other or we encourage hypocrisy. We
can’t have both.
The feminist critique
To the feminist critique of autonomy as substantive independence - and I’ll just cover
this in general terms because this critique is repeated in many ways, in the key points of
critique from moral philosophy.
There is a long-standing feminist critique of autonomy that parallels the feminist
critique of the liberal individual. Autonomy, this critique argues,2 presupposes a
conception of the person as atomistic, ideally self-sufficient and as operating in a
vacuum unaffected by social relationships, ‘or as an abstract reasoner stripped of
distorting influences such as emotions.’
To the extent to which it entails the value of independence, the ‘independent individual,’
it does violence to the relationships upon which we all depend, and denies the reality of
the fundamentally relational nature of human social life.‘Independent and living by
one’s own law’, it reproduces the myth or vision of human beings as self-made and selfmaking men, even though, as we know, people are not self-made. Humans, as social
beings are dependent on others from the moment that we are conceived. We come into
being in a social context that is literally constitutive of us. Some of our most essential
characteristics, ‘such as our capacity for language and the conceptual framework
through which we see the world, are not made by us, but given to us (or develop in us)
through our interactions with others and the social and material world.’ We are, at any
age or life stage, dependent on others in many and various ways. And yet, the image of
humans as self-determining creatures nevertheless remains one of the most powerful
dimensions of liberal – and I would add, anarchist thought.
Further, to the extent to which it is a part of the language of liberalism - freedom, liberty,
and self-determination – autonomy as a value gives rise to and reproduces a number of
problematic, gendered dichotomies: autonomy/relatedness, public/private,
individual/collective. This traditional identifies freedom and liberty with the first in
each set, and attributes value accordingly; Autonomy, public life, and the individual are
2

See, for example, Nedelsky 1989 and the work of Marilyn Friedman.

7

associated with freedom and liberty - over relatedness, private life, and the collective.3
The de-valued term in each case is, not coincidentally, that traditionally associated with
women and women’s labour – relatedness (see nurturance), private life and the domestic
sphere (where child-rearing and caring labour takes place) - and the collective (which
we can just gloss over as ‘sustaining relationships’ for the purpose of this discussion). It
becomes clear, as feminist theorists point out, that activities and relations that cannot be
appropriately thought of from within the autonomy-as-a-value paradigm are those that
have traditionally been identified with women, women’s roles and women’s labour.
Autonomy-as-independence fails to account for and in fact devalues the experiences,
roles, and spheres that have traditionally been associated with women and women’s
labour. It derives meaning and value contra or in opposition to relatedness, and is
slightly pathological in that sense. So while it has pretensions toward universality,
autonomy is actually highly gendered, ‘masculinist,’ and exclusionary in this sense.
Problems with autonomy as substantive independence
Conceptualising autonomy as substantive independence also leads to mistakes about
moral and political authority, as Gerald Dworkin points out. A person who chooses to
have their actions restricted, disciplined, delimited or bound and committed to a
particular course, for example, is seen to be ‘less autonomous’ – even though they
themselves may have chosen to commit to this particular course. The classic example in
this case is that of Odysseus who, not wanting to be lured onto the rocks by the sirens,
commands his men to tie him to the mast and refuse all later orders he will give to be set
free. He has independently, voluntarily, chosen to have his future course of action
limited (i.e. exercised procedural independence) – and yet he is seen to have renounced
his independence of thought and action, and to therefore have ‘renounced his autonomy’
in a substantive sense. This, of course, misses the point, and an important, valued
dimension of decision making and action.
In a similar way, autonomy as substantive independence has irreconcilable difficulties
with values we know it to be consistent with, like obligation and commitment,
discipline, dedication and loyalty – a point which echoes feminist concerns mentioned
earlier. A commitment to care for one’s elderly parents, for example, which is not
necessarily self-imposed or voluntary, would be seen to compromise the value of
autonomy as substantive independence. A commitment to raise children, similarly so.

3

The prevailing conception of autonomy, Nedelsky writes, ‘sets alternatives in the context of a
false choice: when autonomy is identified with individual independence and security from
collective power, the choice is posed between admitting collective control and preserving
autonomy in any given realm of life. And so we have a contradictory tension from the
beginning.’ (1989:14)

8

‘When I bind myself or find myself in a situation in which my options are
limited by the existence of the needs of others, I do feel (or, at least it is
possible that I might feel) a sense of restraint. After all, one does give up
something when one has children or enters certain personal relationships. The
freedom that is lost is being able to do whatever is one’s immediate selfinterest, or what is most pleasurable or convenient. I might prefer to read a
novel than visit an aged relative, and the demands of the situation constrain
my will. But this sense of freedom is not considered to be one that ought
always to be honored’ (Dworkin 1989:25).
Religious devotion is also problematic in terms of substantive independence for similar
reasons.
Problems with autonomy as Procedural Independence
Autonomy as procedural independence is not without its problems either. Take, for
example, Dworkin’s description of the conditions of procedural independence.
Procedural independence,
‘involves distinguishing those ways of influencing people’s reflective and
critical faculties which subvert them from those which promote them. It
involves distinguishing those influences such as hypnotic suggestion,
manipulation, coercive persuasion, subliminal influence, and so forth, and
doing so in a non ad hoc fashion’ (1989:18).
‘We believe, prior to philosophical reflection, that there is a difference
between a person who is influenced by hypnotic suggestion or various modes
of deception and those who are influenced by true forms of information and
rational inquiry. In the former case, but not the latter case, we think of
someone else as responsible for his reasoning and his conclusions’ (1989:161).
What he is describing here is an evaluative scale or spectrum of interpersonal influence,
and the question, - which apparently the value of procedural independence pivots on - is
the point at which the morality of the many and various possible forms of interpersonal
influence, shifts from ‘legitimate’ to ‘illegitimate’ - from desirable to undesirable. At
what point do nurturing forms of interpersonal influence become negative forms of
paternalism or control? When does education become a form of manipulation, and
manipulation a form of indoctrination? When does discipline become a form of
coercion or authoritarian control?

9

I think it’s safe to say that the answer to these questions is not – and will never be –
universally shared or consistent. Not only do evaluative ideas about interpersonal
influence differ significantly cross-culturally, but they differ within cultural groups,
within communities, and even families. And to the degree to which they differ – we
return to that same dilemma – one person’s idea of procedural independence is going to
constrain, interfere with, or limit another’s.
It’s worth noting here that the most basic form of interpersonal influence is that of child
socialisation, through which children learn and are taught fundamental shared
understandings about language and the social world around them, which make sociality
and social life possible. It is not surprising to me that autonomy struggles to account for
this process as a value, given its gendered, exclusionary nature.4
In my mind this contingency of ‘legitimate and illegitimate’ influences simply restates
the central problem, namely that autonomy derives meaning and value in opposition to
relatedness and therefore cannot be logically reconciled with valued aspects thereof –
valued aspects of relationships as interdependencies, dependencies and all that they
entail.
So that’s all the key points of critique over. People use it in many and various ways, and
when we do isolate two common conceptions we see that they are not only inconsistent
with each other, but each is problematic in its own way.

*
What the hell is autonomy, then?
From an anthropological perspective, I think the question to ask is what ‘autonomy’
actually is and, most importantly, what it does in social relations. My experience with
my Yolŋu family (and my cognitive-anthropology bias) encourage me to think of
autonomy is a key, cultural, emotion concept – and one which is diagnostic of the
Western self, the Western individual. The concept, experience and feeling of autonomy

4

Some feminist theorists are committed to retaining and re-conceptualising the concept of
autonomy as a value. The task, in this case, is to render it compatible with the ‘interdependence
that collective power, when properly used, expresses’ (Nedelsky 1989:13). However, and this is
just my opinion - given it is a concept that derives meaning and value in opposition to
relatedness, I think this is kind of a futile exercise, and if you read the literature it becomes clear
that it leads to all kinds of inconsistencies and logical confusions.

10

seems to play a key role in our cognitive-affective evaluation of balance and
equilibrium in interpersonal relations. That is, an emotion concept, autonomy describes
or denotes the experience of balance and equilibrium in interpersonal relations. This, I
suggest, is why it is rarely invoked unless breached or transgressed. We don’t go around
talking about how ‘balanced’ our respective relationships are, or feel, but we sure know
when there is an imbalance – and that, I believe is what autonomy does - it registers a
moral transgression against the self.
*
Implications for anarchist thought and practice? Three ‘so whats’
Firstly, while autonomy has pretensions toward universality, as we’ve seen, it is
actually quite exclusionary - unless you are a non-religious, Western male with next to
no obligations, commitments, and responsibilities etcetera. So whenever you come
across the concept of autonomy and the ‘autonomous individual’ in anarchist and/or
other literature, you can be almost certain that it is representative (only?) of the Western,
male individual. This is problematic in an intra-cultural and cross-cultural or
colonial[ist] sense.
The logical follow-on point from this, is the question of what – as feminists, and
hopefully, just generally people ‘not wanting to uncritically reproduce’ problematic,
over-determined, hegemonic, Western, male, individualist norms and values – we do
about this. How we go about displacing what appears to be an exclusionary value-asnorm, at the heart of anarchist literature and theory? And in terms of practice and our
respective personal lives, what might a critical re-evaluation of autonomy look like?
What alternative, more inclusive, concepts – concepts compatible with the reality and
value of relatedness and interdependence - might replace it?
Third and finally - and in my mind this is the most important point to take away from
this – is that we need to start taking affect (or emotion) seriously. If autonomy is a key,
cultural emotion concept that registers or describes the experience of balance and
equilibrium in interpersonal relations, then the basic common denominator - if we cast
off all the exclusionary rhetoric or overlay – is a cognitive-affective experience written
into our cultural script (via language). And if this sounds sissy or fluffy then you might
ask yourself why.
Our cultural tradition has long taught us that emotion is opposed to rationality and
rational thinking. However, research on the neurology of emotions now demonstrates
conclusively that this longstanding juxtaposition of emotion and rationality as polar
opposites is simply wrong (Weyher 2012:344). Thought and emotion are both a part of

11

any cognitive process. Indeed, as Frank Weyher has recently pointed out, particular
emotions serve as the grounds for [what we call] reason itself. The conventional view in
which reason and emotion are seen as opposed, is simply one historically specific
‘mode of reasoning’ - but given the central role that it has played in our ideological and
cultural narrative, we need to start asking questions about how it arose, and what
sustains it. Further, to the extent that this specific ‘mode of reasoning’ distorts our
understanding of ourselves [and our relations], ‘it can be seen as a form of estrangement
under capitalism’ – and, I would add, ‘the state.’
We need to ask ourselves - in our uncritical use and reproduction of autonomy as a
value contra, or in opposition to, relatedness, and our valorisation of ‘the autonomous
individual’ contra, or in opposition to, inter-dependence - are we not reproducing the
disposition of estrangement upon which the alienated, liberal individual - and arguments
in favour of the social contract via the state – depend?
*
A final ethnographic note
Very briefly, to finish with an ethnographic note – to return to the Yolŋu stuff. I
mentioned earlier that there is no equivalent value concept in Yolŋu-matha, that the
closest equivalents are actually negative values, and that these are often attributed to
white people by Yolŋu mala as part a broader, pointed critique of white people and
white people’s behaviour. The specific terms I mentioned were gäna (separate, distinct,
alone, lonely), buthuru-dhumuk (lit. ‘blunt ears’), and even wakiŋu (wild, belonging to
no-one).
Other descriptions of ‘tyipical’ Balanda behaviour include comments like, ‘Balanda
rom ŋayi balanya djäl-gänaŋu-mirri’ (white people’s law [or manner of doing things] is
desirous of being separate, distinct, alone and lonely). This is often said in the same
breath as the fact that Balanda are gurrutu-miriw (without or lacking kin and/or the
quality of kinship), gumurr-däl (hard or difficult chested), and importantly - dhäkaymiriw (without or lacking the ability to ‘get a taste or sense [of the state of feeling
among and between people]’)’ And I think all of this is true.
In all the examples of state sociality that I know of, including Yolŋu sociality, the
production and maintenance of a community of ‘feeling’ is considered to be something
very serious, and if we are going to start taking stateless sociality seriously then I think
that this is something that we need to take on board.

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*
'If subjectivity is the emotional experience of a political subject,’ writes Tanya
Luhrrman, ‘then to articulate the psychological structure of the emotion only gives us
more evidence to argue that power is inscribed upon our bodies and that moral
judgment is a visceral act’ (2006:359).

/ThE eND//

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