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International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, ed. Immanuel Ness, Blackwell Publishing, 2009, pp.

322–325

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- equally wide-scale rent strikes offered a further
logical terms, but rather can be defined as the refusal of the market imperative of having to pay
power to freely determine the conditions of one’s for the privilege of a roof over one’s head. This
existence. Against hierarchical power, and its mass movement spread to include the infam-
embodiment in the forces of market and state, ous use of autoriduzione, or “self-reduction,” in
autonomist practice stresses the possibility of which thousands refused to pay full price,
alternative modes of being in the here and now, or indeed anything at all, for essential services
without losing sight of the need for this to such as electricity, gas, water, and transport. In
become total, both in the sense of encompass- the workplace, too, when not sabotaging pro-
ing a majority of society and acting against the duction, workers engaged in an endless wave
existing system in its entirety. However, in so of unofficial strikes and stoppages outside of the
far as we can speak of “autonomism” it should control of trade unions and political parties.
be stated that this very broad term is basically In the converging struggles of the first move-
anti-systemic and non-ideological, and the vari- ment of 1968–9 there can be discerned some-
ous theories and movements associated with it thing of the more fluid and dynamic definition
deliberately resist any easily assimilation into a of “the proletariat” that autonomists continue
standard definition. to theorize, encompassing a non-unionized white
Autonomist theory has much in common with collar sector and also recognizing the unpaid
class struggle anarchism, and many autonomists domestic labor performed by women. Instead of
and anarchists recognize the affinity. However, the “the party,” either Leninist or Social Democratic,
Marxist character of autonomist theory makes pressing for official recognition from the powers
for an important distinction with anarchism. that be through legal and electoral channels,
Being a heterodox tradition, autonomism has autonomous movements can be seen to assume a
more than one historical forerunner; as such, dynamic, negative “anti-power” aimed at sub-
many within the broad movement identify a line verting and challenging hierarchical power in all
of continuity with the critical and libertarian its forms. Such examples of direct action taken
aspects of Marx’s original theory, as much as by social subjects themselves remain anathema
the anti-Leninist Left Communist currents which to the Leninist belief in the need for a single,
followed in the early twentieth century. disciplined party, which will lead and oversee
The term “autonomism” has its origins in the social revolt. However, as John Holloway and
Italian Autonomia and Operaismo movements of other autonomist theorists have argued, such
the late 1960s, which reached their high point in movements do not merely propose passive with-
the Hot Autumn of unofficial strikes, sabotage, drawal, because they are opposed to engaging
occupations, and street protests of 1969, before with the existing structures of political power.
reemerging in the tumult of 1977. Italian autonom- Instead, autonomist theory favors an anti-political
ist Marxism found its best theoretical expres- practice: the material contestation of the totality
sion in the likes of Antonio Negri, Mario Tronti, of social relations.
and Sergio Bologna, but the movement, which Although “autonomism” – or at least the
their theories fed into, was not defined solely by theoretical shorthand this term has come to
such theories. In terms of late twentieth-century assume – may have its origins in Italy, its hetero-
revolutionary ruptures, it can be argued that geneous and fluid dynamic means it cannot
the two Italian movements of the late 1960s be temporally or spatially confined to a par-
and late 1970s are second only to the French May ticular historical context. As the Italian movement
Events of 1968 for significance and impact. In of 1977 was consumed by an escalating cycle of
both cases, currents usually confined to the mar- armed provocation and repression, its force as
gins swept across the entirety of social relations a social movement acting in and against the
in an advanced industrial society, to radically and existing society ebbed away until it evaporated
permanently alter it. altogether. The great strength of the movements
The Italian movement of 1969 offers a number of 1969 and 1977 was that they could not be iso-
of notable examples of “autonomous practice,” lated or contained and at their peak threatened
in which effective collective action undermined to actually overwhelm the existing social order.
and subverted capitalist social relations. Besides The other, later focus for “autonomism” found
mass squatting as a solution to housing need, a somewhat different expression in the West
International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, ed. Immanuel Ness, Blackwell Publishing, 2009, pp. 322–325

324 Autonomism

German Federal Republic of the 1980s. Here, in a society where no rupture on the scale of those
the autonomie movement consisting mostly of in Italy in 1969 or 1977 was experienced.
radicalized youth strove to develop distinctive In analyzing the autonomous movement in
alternative modes of being, which by their very Germany, and other countries, notably Switzer-
nature were antagonistic to that of mainstream land, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia, and its
German society. Here, again, squatting offered relative isolation from the rest of the population,
an immediate answer to the problem of housing it is important not to attribute this to the absence
while challenging and undermining the market of sufficient organization and failure to build
relations responsible for it. The usually com- the party. As Katsiaficas has argued, “The
munal nature of the squats of Hamburg and autonomen do not subscribe to the belief that
Berlin facilitated free experimentation with there is one overriding truth or one true form
new egalitarian, non-hierarchical ways of living of autonomy.” In this sense there is a clear dis-
as distinct from the atomization experienced in tinction between autonomous anti-political action
advanced urban societies. Likewise, the networks and indeed cultural subversion in everyday life,
of “social centers” and “info shops” offering and the standard orthodox Marxist view of the
non-commercial non-institutional space for necessity for following the usual political paths
meeting, socializing, and exchanging ideas, to arrive at the usual political end of govern-
originating in northwest and central Europe, mental or state power. Autonomist practice does
now exist in most parts of the world, albeit with not ignore “politics” as such, but rather refuses
varying degrees of success. to accept the terms this dictates, instead waging
The German and central European move- irregular battles on a terrain as far as possible
ment has also been notable for its willingness of its own choosing. One such example in which
to take offensive action against the forces of the the movement successfully spread its influence
state and in the destruction of symbolic targets was at the height of the Cold War, when in
of consumer capitalism: prestige cars, retail Germany at least, autonomists fueled the fires
outlets, fast food chains – what Georgy Katsia- of discontent with American nuclear bases being
ficas calls “civil luddism.” This willingness to stationed in the country and helped catalyze a
engage in militant offensive action continues to wider opposition that had noticeable political
be a source of heated debate among the varying repercussions.
tendencies in the broad autonomist tradition, Autonomist currents as they exist today con-
but it is noticeably more one of tactics than of tinue to draw inspiration from a wide range of
outright hostility to such strategies. theoretical influences and unsurprisingly diverge
In the “anti-capitalist” or “alter-globalization” as much as they agree, one obvious example
movement of the last decade we find similar issues being the substantial differences between those
at stake, with the appearance of “black blocs” for whom Antonio Negri’s recent work, especially
of militant affinity groups openly advocating with Michael Hardt, is a major inspiration, and
revolution and indeed prepared to take offensive those for whom this offers at best limited crit-
action as well as create alternatives in the present. ical insights. Without attempting a division of
The anti-capitalist or alter-globalization move- the clearly very broad autonomist tradition into
ment has arguably been most visible in the mass opposing camps, the differences between the
mobilizations at the various global summits of poststructuralist and Deleuzian Negri, and
the G8, WTO, IMF, and World Bank, where those working more in the dialectical tradition
black blocs of militants have also been present. of Hegelian Marxism and the Critical Theory of
However, this is not to overemphasize the the Frankfurt School, should not be ignored.
role such groups play, or to ignore the short- Another major criticism of the later Negri is what
comings of some of their actions, which on at least many have argued is his somewhat timid insist-
two occasions have resulted in protesters being ence on focusing rebellious energies on reform-
wounded or shot dead by police. Despite its based demands for a minimum or “social” income.
undoubted successes, the German autonomist Autonomism has a number of important
movement of the Cold War Federal Republic, no antecedents. In the Left Communist currents
less than in the reunified Germany of today, found of the early twentieth century lie a number
itself comparatively isolated from the proletariat of notable precedents, specifically opposition to
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 References and Suggested Readings


and electoral strategies, and the need for anti- Bonefeld, W. (Ed.) (2004) Revolutionary Writing:
hierarchical or at least radically democratic and Common Sense Essays in Post-Political Politics. New
diffuse forms of organization. Rosa Luxemburg’s York: Autnomedia.
insistence on the creative spontaneity of class De Angelis, M. (2007) The Beginning of History: Value
Struggles and Global Capital. London: Pluto Press.
struggle is echoed in the autonomist belief that
Dyer-Witheford, N. (1999) Cyber-Marx: Cycles and
it is only from a radical collective subjectivity Circuits of Struggle in High Technology Capitalism.
that real opposition stems. Similarly, other Left Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Communist principles such as the refusal to adopt Holloway, J. (2002) Change the World without Taking
the methods of party politics with an eye to state Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today. London:
power can be observed in the autonomists’ Pluto Press.
belief that revolutionary means should prefigure Katsiaficas, G. (2006) The Subversion of Politics:
revolutionary ends and strive to avoid replicating European Autonomous Social Movements and the Deco-
those of the existing system. lonizaion of Everyday Life. Edinburgh: AK Press.
A later continuity in the lines of autonomist Wright, S. (2002) Storming Heaven: Class Composition
and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism. London:
thought can be found in Cornelius Castoriadis
Verso.
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