AUTONOMISM AS A GLOBAL
SOCIAL MOVEMENTwusa_305 451..464
Despite the consensus opinion that alterglobalism is in crisis and apparently without a clear objective or
vehicle for promoting global change through the ineffective World Social Forum “model,” a signiﬁcant
anticapitalist tendency continues to remain active. However, questions remain over autonomism’s ability to
avoid ghettoizing itself and provide more than intense internal criticism of other more institutionalized and
“vertical” currents. Autonomism originated in Europe in the seventies and eighties, speciﬁcally around the
Autonomia and Autonomen radical social movements in Italy and Germany. Based on Italian workerist
theories of worker self-management and autonomy from the mediating institutions of both capital and labor,
the movement has since absorbed strong inﬂuences from radical feminism, the North American counter-
culture, French poststructuralism, neoanarchism, Mexican neo-Zapatism, and the Argentinean worker-
recuperated factory and self-management movements.
In Empire (2000), Multitude (2004), and Commonwealth (2009), Michael
Hardt and Toni Negri, intellectuals close to the movement who would none-
theless probably reject the Gramscian notion of “organic intellectual,” have
produced a polemical theory of globalization that frames a new global collective
actor, “the multitude,” as a critique of the dominant historical privileged subjects
of “the people” and “the proletariat.” They also claim that the multitude is the
counterhegemonic antagonist of “Empire,” the emerging form of global, net-
worked, deterritorialized sovereignty, with the military biopolitics of the U.S.
and the economic biopower of the transnational corporations at its heart.
Today autonomism can be seen as a global network of alliances between
occupied social centers and media activists in Europe, Zapatistas and Piqueteros
in Latin America, Black Blockers in North America, cyber hacktivists in Japan,
and autonomous workers, unemployed youth, students, dispossessed peasants,
and urban squatter movements in South Korea, South Africa, and India who
have preferred to coordinate their anticapitalist global days of actions through
the structure of People’s Global Action (PGA) rather than the World Social
Forum (WSF), united in their disparity and diversity by the overriding principle
and practice of autonomy from all forms of capitalist institution, authority, or
power, but also along the lines of the autonomy of one section of the multitude
from the rest in order to prevent their absorption by traditional socialist
“workers’ centrality”, for example, women, immigrants, and youth.
The Journal of Labor and Society
WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society · 1089-7011 · Volume 13 · December 2010 · pp. 451–464
© The Authors
WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society © 2010 Immanuel Ness and Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Through a critical examination of contemporary global social movement
(GSM) theories and autonomist movement texts and discourses, the article will
ascertain if autonomism can in fact be considered a GSM in itself or must it in
reality be seen as a loose transnational network of shifting alliances too dispersed
to be named as such and which in any case would itself reject such generalizing
“catchall” criteria. Second, the article will brieﬂy outline autonomism’s histori-
cal trajectory. Third, the questions of rivals, competitors, and the criticisms of
autonomism within alterglobalism and global anticapitalism are dealt with. The
possible options and future directions of autonomism before the present crisis of
GSMs form the article’s ﬁnal section.
GSM Theories and Autonomism
Autonomism has made connections with similar movements around the
world since the mid-1990s when the GSM sector began to accelerate its mobi-
lizations against neoliberal globalism. However, the question remains as to
whether it can in fact be considered a GSM—that is, an international network of
movements globally coordinated around a common theme—or is it in reality a
much looser and more conjunctural transnational network, too disparate and
dispersed to be named as such, many of whom would reject both the term
“autonomism” and the use of such generalizing “catchall” labels as “global social
In order to answer this question we need to review brieﬂy the main theories
about GSMs. According to Ghimire (2005, 5), there are ﬁve types of GSMs,
organized around (1) debt relief; (2) trade; (3) Tobin tax; (4) anticorruption; and
(5) fair trade:
Of particular interest regarding these movements is their attempt to combine
advocacy campaigns with concrete alternatives by way of action and practical
application [. . .] Likewise, these movements have numerous overlapping
agendas, thereby providing a collective identity. Yet, it is unclear if this conver-
gence has actually led to a stable alliance and if essential claims are put forward
in a coordinated manner [. . .] (G)iven that transnational activism associated
with these movements as well as ‘alternative’ globalization as a whole seeks to
move beyond conventional opposition strategies to proposing alternatives and
to work with the existing system [. . .] bilateral bodies and international devel-
opment institutions have gradually begun to pay attention to the reformist
transnational movements, [but] this has not resulted in any signiﬁcant policy
impulse. There are major ideological limitations of the system to readily accom-
modate such demands.
Writing from an institutional perspective, Ghimire (ibid.) also suggests that:
[W]hile public inﬂuence of these movements has increased, taken as a whole;
their actions remain highly spontaneous and informal, with a low level of
institutionalization. At the same time, there are few signs of stable interactions
between formal political bodies and social movements. While critical internal
452 WORKINGUSA: THE JOURNAL OF LABOR AND SOCIETY
divisions persist between reformist and radical forces, these and the ‘anti-
globalization’ movement as a whole have come under increased ﬁnancial pres-
sure, and their social base remains highly unstable.
Such claims stand in opposition to those of Negri and Cocco (2006, 16), who
identify a new form of governance and interdependence between radical social
movements and the weak state form in Latin America, which is at the root of the
continental upsurge in conﬂict against neoliberalism: “[T]he innovation resides
in the fact that the governments of Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela—now with
that of Evo Morales in Bolivia—are not the representation of a ‘national’ project,
but rather they are the expression of a multiple movement.”1
Frundt, cited in Ghimire (2005), applies three strands of movement theory
to actual and potential cross-border movement strategies in the Americas. These
are “the structural relevance of political opportunities, the mobilization of net-
works as a resource, and the emphasis [given] by New Social Movement theory
on framing and reﬂexive identity [. . .] each strand offers important insights, one
clarifying limitations, a second demarcating and cultivating supporters, and a
third motivating participation. Taken together, the strands comprise a dynamic
basis for solidarity that enriches organizing strategies and gains measurable
victories” (Frundt 2005, 19).
Another aspect of GSM theory is posed by Schulz (1998, 601) in relation to
the dynamics of the Zapatista uprising in 1994 in Chiapas, Mexico, a key event
for anticapitalist GSMs in general and autonomism in particular:
the insurgent indigenous peasants of Chiapas rose up in arms under conditions
of relative economic and political deprivation at a particularly opportune
moment after developing a project of insurgency and acquiring signiﬁcant
organizational strength. Militarily, the Zapatistas would not have been able to
hold out long against the overwhelming force of the federal army. But enormous
media attention and massive national and international protest prevented the
regime from military crackdowns. The Zapatistas’ ability to link personal,
organizational, and informational networks has helped to gain crucial support.
Using globalized means of communication, they were able to disseminate their
messages around the world where they touched a chord in the discourse of an
incipient global civil society linked by non-governmental organizations, fax
machines, and the internet.
Thus, one of the core social movement organizations of global autonomism,
the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in Chiapas, Mexico, has been
a catalyst for GSM theory from the outset. Therefore I would argue that
autonomism, despite some internal opposition to such claims and indeed to
Zapatism itself, can be seen as a GSM of a new type, neither structured as a social
category, such as the global women’s movement, nor formally coordinated from
a ﬁxed center, such as the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Internationals, or even, arguably, the
WSF. Avoiding ideological justiﬁcations and based more on practical consider-
ations, a group of autonomist movements began to coalesce globally in the
mid-1990s, particularly around the First and Second Gatherings for Humanity
453CUNINGHAME: GLOBAL AUTONOMISM
and Against Neoliberalism in Chiapas in 1996 and in the Spanish State in 1997,
the latter leading to the formation of PGA, a GSM that predated the WSF by
four years and that refused to have a central coordinating committee precisely to
avoid the pitfalls of such centralization in the past.
Autonomism as a Social Movement
As a starting point, it must be stressed that autonomism’s “autonomy” is not
the separation of the rural–urban working class (conceptualized as the Spinozian
“multitude” rather than the Marxian proletariat by Negri and Hardt) from
capitalism. Rather, it is class self-determination and self-management within
capitalism, thus taking the form of a counterpower and “exodus”2, rather than
entrenched, static, resistance to capitalism. In fact the word “autonomy” is
derived from ancient Greek autonomos, meaning “someone who lives according
to their own law.” So autonomy is not independence, rather it is the interdepen-
dence of the various sectors of the multitude inside, against and beyond capital.
Thus, independence is intended primarily for autarchic forms of life, completely
separated from the community, while the autonomous deals with life within
society but under self-government.
Autonomism has developed from neo-Marxist sources, but here I will
conﬁne myself to its trajectory during the twentieth century. The Wobblies (the
anarcho-syndicalist International Workers of the World revolutionary trade
union) organized immigrants, highly mobile and newly arrived in the U.S., to
ﬁght robber-baron capitalism, state repression, and racist trade unionism which
only organized white, Anglo-American qualiﬁed “craft workers.” Following the
First World War, the German, Italian, and Hungarian council communisms
criticized the authoritarian and antiworker nature of the Bolshevik “revolution
as putsch” and organized revolutions based on workers’ councils, or Soviets,
denouncing the state capitalist and despotic nature of the Soviet Union from its
beginning and not just under Stalin. In the ﬁfties, the French and U.S. dissident
libertarian/post-Trotskyite journals Socialisme ou Barbarie of Claude Lefort, Cor-
nelius Castoriadis, Guy Debord, and Jean-Francois Lyotard and Correspondence
of the Johnson–Forrest Tendency of CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya
(Trotsky’s former secretary) ﬁercely criticized the limits both of the vanguardist,
democratic-centralist communist parties and of the Trotskyite 4th International,
with their trend toward bureaucratic elitism as revolution.
But above all, it was the politico-social laboratory that was the Italy of the
sixties and seventies that most deeply marked autonomism as an ideology and
ﬁnally as a GSM. The late 1950s witnessed the emergence of a new type of
worker: internal migrants from southern Italy, of peasant origin, outside the
socialist tradition of the skilled industrial workers of the north, who arrived as
anti-communist strikebreakers but quickly became protagonists of revolt against
neofascist and corporative trade unions. Above all, they had a cultural, almost
ontological, rejection of the repetitive, serial, disciplined, and toxic labor
imposed by the assembly line of the Fordist factory.
454 WORKINGUSA: THE JOURNAL OF LABOR AND SOCIETY
Quaderni Rossi (QR/Red Notebooks), a neo-Marxist sociological journal, was
founded in 1959 by trade unionists and intellectuals from the Communist and
Socialist parties, concerned by the inability of their organizations to understand,
much less organize these new outbreaks of worker rebellion. They based their
research on a rereading of Marx and a reinterpretation of his “workers’ enquiry”
methodology (1880), combined with the methodology of co-research from the
sociology of action, received from the U.S. and France where important
co-researched studies of car factory workers were published in the forties and
ﬁfties. So was born operaismo or Italian workerism.
Following the three-day long Revolt of Piazza Statuto in 1962 in Turin,
when FIAT car workers attempted to burn down the ofﬁces of the most pro-
management trade union confederation, QR divided on the question of con-
verting their originally purely investigative interventions into political action.
Thus were initiated political developments that led to the founding of the
neo-Leninist extra-parliamentary group Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power) in
1969, which after 1973 was to dissolve itself into the broader experience of the
new social movements of the seventies.
However, the most important theoretical contribution was that of Mario
Tronti in his 1964 essay “Lenin in England” (1979/1964), which called for a
“Copernican inversion of perspective” within Marxism: instead of ﬁrst studying
capital and then labor, as had always been its practice hitherto, Marxists had to
depart from the exclusive capacity of “living labor” to produce surplus value,
before researching the “dead labor” of capital. The latter depended, vampire-
like, on living labor, while living labor historically sought to free itself from
capital’s dependence, forcing it to continuously innovate new forms of exploi-
tation and social command, leading to separate but related cycles of political and
technical class composition–decomposition–recomposition within the overall
The theory of technical and political class composition is developing dra-
matically: each new form of refusal and rebellion against work that the working
class invented forced capital to repress it both politically and technically through
the alteration of the relationship between machinery and living labor within the
factory, even at the risk that this alteration could result in an economic crisis.
Thus, the main problem for revolutionaries, according to Tronti, was not the
apparent passivity, conformism, apathy, and subordination of workers to capital,
as posed both by orthodox Marxism–Leninism and the Critical Theory of the
Rather, it was the question of organizing the underlying antagonism of labor
in an explicitly political form. Even so, for Tronti the political organizations
most suited to this task remained the Communist Party and the historic labor
movement, though renovated and cleansed of their reformist–social democrat
tendencies. For other “operaists,” the historic labor movement had been insti-
tutionalized and incorporated by capital through the Fordist–Keynesian pact
of producers, and thus new antagonistic organizational forms were required.
Initially in the sixties this was based on “Workers centrality” and the Fordist
455CUNINGHAME: GLOBAL AUTONOMISM
“mass worker.” Successively in the 1970s, a decentralized and horizontal move-
ment emerged—Autonomia—whose social composition was based on what
Negri (1979) called the post-Fordist “socialized worker.”
According to Hardt and Negri’s (2000) highly controversial theory of
“Empire,” the real opponent of “Empire” is the “Multitude,” a collective subject
that does not substitute the “proletariat” or the “people” but rather has absorbed
them within its deterritorialized plurality that is disconnected politically from
national territories. An example of this phenomenon would be the massive waves
of migration from the global South to the North that coincide with and were
catalyzed by the post-Fordist global division of labor after about 1980 and
represent the most signiﬁcant change in global class composition since 1945. But
the new class composition that Empire exists to control and exploit is the
so-called “immaterial worker.” It is immaterial because it produces intangible
products in the form of symbols, knowledge, information, and affects.
Within the ﬁeld of immaterial labor, affective labor is the most valuable
form, though usually low paid and often unpaid. Affective labor is a form of
“biopower”; a concept innovated by Foucault (1998). However, many autono-
mist thinkers disagree with the concepts of Empire, Multitude, bio power, and
bio politics, considered much closer to the French poststructuralism of Deleuze,
Guattari, and Foucault than to Italian workerism. The Italian philosopher Paolo
Virno (2004), a former activist in Autonomia in the seventies and political
prisoner in the eighties, has criticized the limits of the concept of Empire, which
other autonomist thinkers have seen as premature and too tied to the “new
economy” and sustainable capitalism of Clintonism, swept aside by the return of
the “neocons” and the old, territorialized “petrolarchy.”
Nor is the multitude necessarily a phenomenon antagonistic to capitalism,
according to the same author. He has a more ambiguous view of the currently
prevailing values and attitudes of hyperindividualism, cynicism, opportunism,
and fear (Virno 1996). Another autonomist theorist, Franco Berardi, a former
free radio activist in the 1970s and cyber activist since the 1990s, is much more
pessimistic than Negri about the prospects for revolutionary change. In his book
on the New Economy and the “cognitariat,” Berardi (2001) identiﬁes a para-
doxical transition from the refusal of Fordist work in the 1970s to the love of
post-Fordist telematic work in the twenty-ﬁrst century, where work has become
the most stimulating part of many people’s lives, as long as they are not neoslave,
criminalized immigrants. He has also recently described the last thirty years of
media activism as a complete failure.3State monopolies over information and the
use of censorship have been overturned thanks to autonomist media activism,
but only to allow the corporate media conglomerates of Berlusconi and
Murdoch to take advantage of the liberated media space.
However, what uniﬁes autonomist thought, beyond its criticism of orthodox
Marxism and of course of neoliberal capitalism, is the perception that Marxist
historical concepts and categories are undergoing radical transition. Faced with
this situation of extreme uncertainty and unpredictability, the best strategy
seems to be the Zapatista one of “walking by asking”, avoiding dogmatism and
456 WORKINGUSA: THE JOURNAL OF LABOR AND SOCIETY
rigid thinking though a process of continual reﬂexivity in order to discover
possible paths of exodus from capitalism (Cuninghame 2007).
Rivals, Competitors, and Criticisms within Alterglobalism
The re-emergence of autonomism—a movement which had suffered severe
criminalization and repression in Italy after 1978—since the late 1980s and
particularly through the birth of the global anticapitalist movement following
the Battle of Seattle in 1999 has led to a series of critiques from its political rivals
within alterglobalism. The main targets have been Hardt and Negri’s books on
Empire and Multitude, but there has also been political and not just theoretical
criticism of autonomist strategy. The attacks have come from four directions:
from intellectuals connected to Trotskyite groups such as the British Socialist
Workers Party (SWP) and the French League Communiste Révolutionnaire;
from Latin American left-nationalism, outraged by Hardt and Negri’s assertion
that the nation-state and therefore populist nationalism have been rendered
obsolete by the postnational capitalism of Empire; from within autonomism and
from forms of neo-Marxism closely related to it such as “Open Marxism,” in
particular from John Holloway; and ﬁnally from the more radical–liberal stream
of alterglobalism, as represented by the environmental journalist George
Monbiot of The Guardian, who accuse autonomism of playing politics with
climate change and of anarchist utopianism.
Alex Callinicos (2001), the guru of the SWP, has been particularly active in
his denunciations of autonomism and of the theories of Empire and Multitude:
One of the main currents in the anti-capitalist movement is autonomism. This
has two main political characteristics: (1) the rejection of the Leninist concep-
tion of organisation; and (2) the adoption of substitutionist forms of action in
which a politically enlightened elite acts on behalf of the masses. Autonomism
is in fact a diverse political formation. The most notorious version is repre-
sented by the anarchist Black Bloc, whose pursuit of violent confrontation with
the state played into the police’s hands at Genoa. [. . .] More attractive is the
Italian autonomist coalition Ya Basta!, which combines an uncompromising
rejection of the political establishment—including the parties of the reformist
left—with, on the one hand, the adoption of imaginative forms of non-violent
direct action and, on the other, contesting municipal elections, sometimes
Ya Basta!, which itself acts as an umbrella for different views and emphases,
overlaps with the Tute Bianche, known after the white overalls they used to wear
on demonstrations, most famously at the Prague S26 protests in September
2000. [. . .] Autonomism, [. . .] is a living political force. [. . .] But the idea of
exemplary action on behalf of the masses remains inﬂuential, whether in the
Black Block’s cult of street violence or the Tute Bianche’s more peaceful tactics.
These actions function as a substitute for mass mobilisation. In analyses such as
Hardt and Negri’s the working class—reshaped in the transformations of the
past few years but still very much a real force—is either dissolved into the
457CUNINGHAME: GLOBAL AUTONOMISM
amorphous multitude or denounced as a privileged labour aristocracy. The
activists act in the name of one and try to bypass or confront the other. [. . .]
Toni Negri is still the key theorist of autonomism [. . .] the inﬂuence of his ideas
is an obstacle to the development of a successful movement against the global
capitalism whose structures he seeks to plot in Empire.
Callinicos (2002) also blames the hostility of the anticapitalist movement toward
all political parties, including his own, on autonomism:
A signiﬁcant section of the anti-capitalist movement has a more or less hostile
attitude towards political parties. This reﬂects a variety of factors: for example,
the appalling record of the ‘ofﬁcial left’ (social democrats, Communists, and
Greens) in ofﬁce, negative experiences with far left organizations, and the
inﬂuence of autonomism. The result is a movementism that, for example, has
led to the formal exclusion of political parties from the World Social Forum and
attempts to extend this ban to the European Social Forum.
However, the criticisms by Callinicos and the SWP, particularly the accusations
of elitism, have since rebounded against that party following the ﬁasco of the
2004 European Social Forum (ESF), when the SWP colluded with the Labour
Party to exclude not just autonomists but all civil society and social movement
organizations from participating in the planning and administration of the event,
so leading to the organization of an alternative London ESF and the subsequent
decline of the ESF due to the damage inﬂicted on its credibility as an open,
inclusive, plural, transparent, and directly democratic forum. Admittedly, this
has been part of a general, global decline in the alterglobalist movement since its
highpoint of the February 15, 2003 mass mobilizations against the imminent
U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Latin American orthodox Marxist apologists for left nationalism, such as
Almeyra and Thibaut (2006) and Boron (2005), have accused Hardt and Negri
of being unwitting “postmodernist” supporters of neoliberalism and even of
U.S. neoimperialism. Certainly, left nationalism has enjoyed a resurgence in
Latin America with the election of the radical Chavez and Evo Morales gov-
ernments in Venezuela and Bolivia, as well as several other center-left and
“progressive neoliberal” governments in South America. However, as Raul
Dangl (2006) emphasizes, these governments owe their popularity—and in the
case of both Chavez and Morales, their political survival—to basically autono-
mous (not autonomist) social movements, who could potentially withdraw
such support if Chavez and Morales fail to deliver on their promises to roll
Furthermore, Zibechi (2008) questions the ability of particularly Morales,
given the state of virtual civil war in Bolivia, or of the increasingly embattled
Chavez to implement such change by means of state power:
Those like us who distrust the state as a tool with which to build a new world,
can learn from these ongoing crises. [. . .] Experience tells us that movements
can take two paths to change the world: to become state bureaucracies or remain
458 WORKINGUSA: THE JOURNAL OF LABOR AND SOCIETY
as movements. The ﬁrst is a path trodden for over a century, the other offers no
guarantees, but you can be assured, at least, that it is the surest path so that the
future does not slip away from our hands.”4
The two main autonomist movements in Latin America, the Zapatistas in
Mexico and a section of the piqueteros and self-managed recuperated factories in
Argentina, have remained aloof from the Chavez and Morales governments,
rejecting anticapitalist strategies based on the taking of power and change from
Yet another type of criticism of Negri and Hardt’s theories of Empire and
Multitude has come from an unexpected quarter, from within autonomism itself,
in the shape of the “open Marxist,” John Holloway, who accuses them of
promoting divisive and self-defeating identity politics, of “being” rather than
“doing,” through the idea of Multitude in particular, based on Deleuze’s theory of
deterritorialization and the plurality of singularities. Holloway (2002b) attacks
Hardt and Negri by arguing that both “empire” and “imperialism” are invalid
concepts when seeking to analyze contemporary global capitalism: “What is
objectionable in Hardt and Negri’s argument that imperialism has been replaced
by empire is the assumption that the concept of imperialism used to be valid—but
then this reﬂects the ambiguous relation to Lenin that has always been present in
Negri’s writings and indeed in much autonomist writing [. . .].”
In reply and as part of an often acerbic debate between Negri and Holloway
and within autonomism itself over the validity of the theories of Empire and
Multitude and their place within global anticapitalist struggle, Negri (2006)
outlines the limits of Holloway’s (2002a) “scream” of negative dialectics in his
book Change the World Without Taking Power:
Holloway’s line represents the best of the opposition to attempts by a certain
institutional Latin American left to ﬂatten within the categories of nation and
development the relation between biopower and biopolitical potential. Yet, it
remains limited by its negative dialectical framework. Negativity is not just a
mere “scream;” it is rather, desire, a multitudinary necessity to continuously
afﬁrm joy, peace, and communism.
Hardt and Negri have defended their core concepts in Multitude (2004) and
other writings and interviews from these and other critiques, notably by Call-
inicos, whose views dovetails with those of Latin American left nationalists and
orthodox Marxists. However, they have adapted their original stance, which was
almost exultant at the prospect of the death of the nation-state and its despotic
sovereignty in Empire (2000), particularly in the light of the process of reterri-
torialization of Empire under the U.S. unilateralist policy of “global war against
terrorism” since 9/11. They now see Empire as a continuum of imperialism, its
ultimate stage, rather than a complete rupture.
The nation-state is certainly not dead, and in the case of the advanced
capitalist countries, has reinforced its Hobbesian repressive role as the global
“society of control,” replacing Foucault’s “society of discipline,” while extracting
itself from its social and redistributive functions by transferring them to the
459CUNINGHAME: GLOBAL AUTONOMISM
market-led nongovernmental organization sector. However, for the great major-
ity of nation-states, real independence and self-determination are now a mirage,
and they are visibly losing control over their national economies—the very
essence of state power—to the supranational organisms and transnational cor-
porations that form the backbone of Empire. Any attempt to break with the
global economic status quo can be punished with capital ﬂight, a fall in stock
exchange values, currency devaluation, and the extraction of foreign investment
in a matter of hours thanks to the Information & Communication Technologies
(ICT) revolution. Thus, their thesis stands that those political actors who wish
to radically alter society and economy will need to struggle simultaneously at
both local and global levels, seeking to build new nodes in the network of the
multitude, while struggling for state power through insurrectionism or elector-
alism seems doomed to failure.
The neo-Zapatistas of the EZLN and its base communities in Chiapas, also
nominally left nationalists, would seem to agree. They sent no delegates to Evo
Morales’ presidential inauguration in Bolivia in 2005 on the grounds that they
are opposed to all top-down, state-controlled change, including by the left.
Instead, they have promoted change from “below and to the left” through the
Other Campaign at the Mexican national level and the Zezta International
globally, both organized following the Sixth Declaration in 2005. In Chiapas,
they have continued to consolidate the Juntas de Buen Gobierno ( JBG, Good
Government Councils) and Caracoles (core Zapatista communities that actively
interface with the outside world) since their establishment in 2003, replacing the
Aguascalientes meeting places and Autonomous Municipalities established fol-
lowing the revolt in 1994.
These local initiatives are based on the neo-Zapatista principles of “govern-
ing by obeying” (mandando obedeciendo) and “everything for everyone, nothing
for us” (todo para todos, para nosostros nada), in stark contrast to the corruption,
impunity, and authoritarianism that continues to dominate ofﬁcial Mexican
political culture, despite the only formal “transition to democracy” in 2000. As
a result, the JBG, based on annual elections and revocable delegation, have
managed, with the support of the alterglobal movement, to set up schools,
hospitals, and even a university without any government support and despite
continuing harassment by paramilitary and state forces, now under the control
of the center-left PRD (Partido de la Revolucion Democratica/Party of the Demo-
cratic Revolution) governor of Chiapas.
The heart of this social revolution from below has been the self-
transformation of indigenous women in the Zapatista communities, who have
passed from a passive obedience to men still evident in the 1990s to active,
militant, autonomy, self-determination, and participation in every aspect of
economic, social, cultural, and political life. However, the paradox remains that
while neo-Zapatism advances at the local and global level, it has been unable to
break through the state’s military, political, and economic cordon sanitaire and
consolidate in other parts of Mexico, despite the best efforts of the Other
Campaign and the growing presence of autonomous social movements,
460 WORKINGUSA: THE JOURNAL OF LABOR AND SOCIETY
particularly the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (Popular Assembly of
the Peoples of Oaxaca) (Cuninghame 2007). This is due mainly to the capturing
of the social movement sector by the populist, nationalist, anti-neoliberal cam-
paigning of Lopez Obrador, the defeated PRD presidential candidate in 2006,
who has convincingly claimed that the 2006 elections were fraudulent and who
has conducted a so far successful campaign to block the privatization of PEMEX,
the state-owned oil company and jewel of the Mexican economy, through his
directly controlled proxy-social movement, the Convencion Nacional Democratica
(National Democratic Convention).
He has been actively supported by most of the verticalist, left nationalist,
extra-parliamentary left, despite the fact that neither he nor the deeply divided
PRD are in fact anti-neoliberal since they continue to support the North Ameri-
can Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Now, in the de facto state of emergency
existing in Mexico due to the failed “war against drugs” of President Calderon,
which has already claimed over 28,000 lives since 2006 (Reuters 2010), and is
causing political destabilization. With increased military activity in Chiapas, the
neo-Zapatista movement faces the imminent prospect of war and repression,
unless the alterglobalist movement can mobilize global public opinion to prevent
it, as stated by the organizations that participated in the July 2008 International
Caravan in Solidarity with the Zapatista Communities in Chiapas:
The Mexican Army’s decision to invade La Garrucha, Rancho Alegre (known as
Chapuyil), Hermenegildo Galeana and San Alejandro [in June 2008] represents
more than the violation of the Dialogue, Conciliation and Peace in Chiapas Law
(1995), the Mexican Constitution (Article 29), the American Human Rights
Declaration (Articles 21 and 29b) and the International Civil and Political
Rights Convention (Articles 14 and 27). It also represents a change in the
strategy against the Zapatistas. In view of this, we are extremely concerned for
the physical and physiological integrity of our indigenous Zapatista brothers
and sisters. The Mexican Government is attacking the right of indigenous
peoples to freely organize by attempting to use the outrageous accusation that
the Zapatistas cultivate marijuana. As the Mexican State looks for mechanisms
to legitimise open warfare, it is clear that its real objective is the destruction of
the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN).
While the multitude is a collective actor in formation, the product of the end
of the certainties of the clearly deﬁned social classes, and antagonists of the
modern era, working class and peasant organizations have been instrumental in
the center-left gaining power in various Latin American countries since 2000.
However, they have achieved this almost always in alliance with the social
movement sector, and by acting as social movements themselves in the cases of
the Brazilian Workers Party (PT) in Brazil, the Movimiento al Socialismo in
Bolivia, and of Chavez’ popular support base in Venezuela (Negri and Cocco
Negri’s opinion of Chavez has changed too: once considered suspect for
his statism and militarist origins, he is now reconsidered in the light of his
461CUNINGHAME: GLOBAL AUTONOMISM
dependence on the popular movements of the barrios (the product of the
Caracazo, the 1989 social revolt in Caracas), after the abortive coup attempt in
2002 by the oligarchy and sections of the army, under the probable orchestration
of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Thus, a multitude, a monster with
many heads where no one social movement, party, or political force seems to
dominate, does seem to be the basis of both the more radical and the progressive
governments in Latin America coming to and staying in power, despite their
ambiguous relationship with anti-capitalist social movements.
A fourth type of criticism has come from the more pragmatic and less
ideological sections of alterglobalism, as represented by George Monbiot
(2008), The Guardian reporter, who accused the autonomist organizers of the
2008 Climate Change Camp in Kent, southern England of playing utopian
politics with the climate change issue:
Ewa [Jasiewicz] rightly celebrates the leaderless, autonomous model of organ-
ising that has made this movement so effective. The two climate camps I have
attended—this year and last—were among the most inspiring events I’ve ever
witnessed. I am awed by the people who organised them, who managed to
create, under extraordinary pressure, safe, functioning, delightful spaces in
which we could debate the issues and plan the actions which thrust Heathrow
and Kingsnorth into the public eye. [. . .] But in seeking to extrapolate from this
experience to a wider social plan, she makes two grave errors. The ﬁrst is to
confuse ends and means. She claims to want to stop global warming, but she
makes that task 100 times harder by rejecting all state and corporate solutions.
It seems to me that what she really wants to do is to create an anarchist utopia,
and use climate change as an excuse to engineer it.
Monbiot returns to the old dividing line of whether or not radical social
movements should at some point agree to work with the state to resolve a
problem of impending urgency.
The real dividing line is the issue of instrumental politics: do “the ends
justify the means”? However, as Adamovsky (2007) points out, one of the most
important differences between the new anticapitalism—of which autonomism is
an integral part—and the old anticapitalism of traditional socialism has been the
rejection of instrumentality and the insistence that the means and ends must
both be justiﬁable.
Options and Future Directions
It is clear that the global anticapitalist justice movement is in difﬁculties after
seven years of relative decline, following the upsurge between Seattle 1999,
Genoa 2001, and ending with the February 15th 2003 Global Day of Action
against the War in Iraq. The growing dissatisfaction over the organization of the
2008 polyvalent WSF is a case in point, as is the fact that global autonomism has
462 WORKINGUSA: THE JOURNAL OF LABOR AND SOCIETY
virtually withdrawn from the WSF, given the insistence of a controlling clique
(Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens
[ATTAC] [defunct in 2007], Le Monde Internacional [the French Socialist Party],
and the PT) to centralize decision making. Autonomism has been affected by
this present phase of demobilization and return to private life, although it still
retains a considerable ability to mobilize and organize, as shown by this year’s
Climate Change Camps.
A further problem has been the increase in the repression of autonomist
movements around the world, particularly of the Zapatistas in Mexico, who
expect to be attacked by the Mexican Army as part of its “war against drugs” at
any moment. This has obviously led to some disarticulation of autonomism as a
GSM, although it responded by organizing an International Caravan to Chiapas
in July (2008). Furthermore, the criticisms of Berardi about the failure of media
activism imply a rethinking of media activism and its effectiveness under its
present form, essentially that of Indymedia. The most important question is to
avoid a return to the ghetto of the 1980s and early 1990s.
Patrick Cuninghame is a sociologist at the Universidad Autonoma Metro-
politan in Mexico City. He is presently on the editorial committee of
“Argumentos” and “Societies without Borders.” He has published articles on
Autonomist Marxism, the Sociology of Work, and social movements. His next
publication in 2011 will be in the Ours to Master and Own: Workers Councils: from
the Commune to the Present collection. Address Correspondence to Patrick Cun-
inghame, Area of Work Studies, Department of Social Relations, Universidad
Autónoma Metropolitana-Xochimilco, Mexico City. Telephone: +52-55-
54837000 ext. 3110. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Author’s translation.
2. “By Exodus we want to indicate the form of struggle that is based not in direct opposition but in a kind of
struggle by subtraction-a refusal of power, a refusal of obedience. Not only a refusal of work and a refusal
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3. Interview with the author, Mexico City, May 23, 2008.
4. Author’s translation.
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