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Autonomism in Theory and Practice



Autonomism is a growing force on the global left and an important influence on the "movements of the squares." Often misidentified by anarchists as a Marxist deviation, and by Marxists as a form of anarchism, autonomism is something in between: a form of Marxism with a strong bent toward localism, horizontal decision-making, and anti-authoritarianism. Surveying its history, four aspects of its theoretical distinctiveness may be identified: its understanding of autonomy, its approach to the question of the social versus the individual, its effort to broaden ideas about who counts as workers and what counts as resistance, and its focus on making decentralization a question of principle. Three lines of critique focus on the relation of class and race, the refusal to work with organized labor, and the fetishism of autonomy itself. Despite these problems, autonomism is an important trend for all leftists to understand.
Science & Society, Vol. 79, No. 2, April 2015, 221–242
Autonomism in Theory and Practice
ABSTRACT: Autonomism is a growing force on the global left and
an important inuence on the “movements of the squares.” Often
misidentied by anarchists as a Marxist deviation, and by Marxists
as a form of anarchism, autonomism is something in between: a
form of Marxism with a strong bent toward localism, horizontal
decision-making, and anti-authoritarianism. Surveying its history,
four aspects of its theoretical distinctiveness may be identied:
its understanding of autonomy, its approach to the question of
the social versus the individual, its effort to broaden ideas about
who counts as workers and what counts as resistance, and its focus
on making decentralization a question of principle. Three lines
of critique focus on the relation of class and race, the refusal to
work with organized labor, and the fetishism of autonomy itself.
Despite these problems, autonomism is an important trend for
all leftists to understand.
“For the autonomists, alienation was the flipside of
autonomy and both were fundamentally social rather
than individual experiences.”
— Michael Staudenmeier (2012, 281)
1. Introduction
States and Europe (especially Western Europe and Scandina-
via), as well as in Mexico, the Southern Cone and Brazil, and
find an Autonomous Social Center. In Europe and Latin America,
social centers are usually squats, though in the United States they
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generally have to pay rent. These centers are like DIY (do it your-
self) organizing spaces, providing hubs for a combination of activities
involving various subcultures, counter-publics, anti-capitalist move-
ments, and local issue campaigns.
In one we recently visited in Madrid, young people had reclaimed
a bookstore that had gone out of business, which gave them a large
multi-functional space. There were alternative agricultural and recy-
cling projects, political study groups, meetings to organize against
the steep tuition increases recently imposed by the Spanish govern-
ment, and a radical gender and sexuality poster campaign in evi-
dence. Drop-in visitors were invited in to join whatever meeting was
in progress. Another social center we visited in Barcelona provided a
space to exchange books and other media as well as hold impromptu
meetings and discussion groups in its cooperatively managed bar.
Though thriving for several years, the Barcelona squat was closed
down in 2012 when a right-wing government won the city elections.
Soon thereafter, the door was boarded up, the colorful political graffiti
on the building were painted over in gray, and the police developed
an aggressive stance toward late night political meetings that had
moved to nearby public squares. In 2014, the Can Vies autonomous
social center was briefly shut down, but after days of clashes between
police and anti-capitalists the city was forced to allow it to reopen the
very next week. Social Centers are often raided by police as well as by
neo-fascist groups, and the evictions of some of the larger ones, such
as Ungdomshuset in Copenhagen, have set off moments of insur-
rectionary resistance, where police armored transports and tear gas
meet the fires and barricades of the militants.
Autonomism is a growing force in the global left. Less a theory
than a practice with an organizational bent toward localism, self-
management and horizontal methods of decision making, autono-
mism is an important influence in the “movements of the squares”:
from Puerto del Sol in Madrid to Tahrir Square in Cairo to Gezi Parki
in Istanbul to Occupy encampments in New York, Lagos, Oakland, and
Hong Kong. Like “Occupy” itself, autonomism has become a meme,
without textual or organizational centers, absent any foundational
origin, yet spreading globally. There are, and have always been, mul-
tiple lefts: autonomism has been steadily expanding its share of left
uprisings throughout the world.
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Yet outsiders rarely identify it correctly: Marxists assume autono-
mists are anarchists and anarchists write off autonomism as a Marxist
deviation. It is neither. This essay offers an overview of autonomism’s
history and politics and an analysis of its potential as well as its short-
comings. We are fully aware there is no “it” there; yet there is today
a substantial track record of practice and a growing if loose compen-
dium of theoretical writings from which to discern some common
elements. Neither of the authors of this essay would self-describe as an
autonomist, though we have both participated in numerous autono-
mist projects.
2. A Short History
What we are here calling autonomism goes by several terms in
different countries, from “operaismo” to “workerism” to “autonomia” to
“autonomous Marxism.” Though some trace its origins to Italy, others,
such as Selma James, challenge this claim as Eurocentric (see James,
2012, 44). But there is no question that it has deep roots in those sec-
tors of the left that had serious apprehensions about the centralized
revolutionary politics of the dominant anti-capitalist political tradi-
tions. The First International was in fact broken up in no small part
by conflicts over authoritarianism, and some of the critics began to
develop what later became autonomism.
The Left Opposition in Russia and Europe, made up of left-wing
critics of Leninism in the period during and after World War I, began
to develop what is sometimes called “council communism” or, sim-
ply, “left communism.” The hallmark of this trend was a principled
opposition to engaging either in the trade unions or parliamentary
organizing. Many Communist Parties around the world began dur-
ing this period to adopt the view that labor unions and electoral
campaigns should be a focal point of organizing, since they allowed
a much broader reach and leftists could mount constructive ideologi-
cal battles against capitalism in these popular arenas that were well
covered by the press. However, left communists opposed this view, and
even opposed short-term, tactical participation in such arenas, arguing
these could not play a useful role in radical social movements because
they were too intrinsically reformist and the institutions were always
organized in a top-down fashion. Left communists also preferred mass
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parties to revolutionary vanguard parties, and argued for a focus on
supporting the local and “self-directed” activities of the working class.
In this context, “self-directed” meant that an activity was organized
autonomously from existing labor, electoral, or party organizations.
There is debate about whether Rosa Luxemburg can be counted as
an autonomist, but there is no doubt that her own critiques of Lenin-
ism were a central influence. Other leaders coming from the European
branches of the Third International included Sylvia Pankhurst of
England, Anton Pannekoek of Holland, Otto Rühle and Paul Mat-
tick of Germany, and Amadeo Bordiga of Italy (Pankhurst, 1921–22;
Mattick, 1938; Pannekoek, 1938, 1954; Bordiga, 1926). Each became
marginalized in their domestic party, and their followers remained
a fringe of the anti-capitalist left. Yet the existence (and persistence)
of this anti-authoritarian tendency within communism presented an
alternative at critical historical moments, such as at the fall of Stalinism
in the 1950s and also in the 1960s when the Soviet client states began
to agitate for independence. Leninism remained a dominating force
among organized communists, but for those who were both strongly
anti-capitalist and strongly anti-authoritarian, the left communists
provided another option.
The death of Stalin in 1953 initiated a widespread reevaluation
of socialist methods, and in 1956 Khrushchev himself introduced a
“destalinization campaign” with an internal Party document, “On
the Personality Cult and its Consequences,” that was leaked to Marx-
ists around the world. However, soon afterward the Soviets forcibly
repressed dissident factions in Budapest and Warsaw, making it clear
that Soviet centralism was not going to wither away of its own accord.
Yet Soviet dominance over global communist movements was not to
last long. The successful Chinese revolution of 1949 offered a differ-
ent model, and there were increasing numbers of successful revolu-
tions in formerly colonized countries around the world, leading to
the creation in 1961 of an alternative international bloc known as the
Non-Aligned Movement.
Communist movements in the West during this period were in
disarray for a variety of reasons. The Cold War ensured that left-
ists who had played a central role in anti-fascist resistance through
underground left-wing organizations were shut out of the general
praise given to resistance fighters after World War II. In fact, many
were denied jobs and even imprisoned. The Truman Doctrine helped
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expel Marxists from government. Many communists from Greece,
Italy, France, and elsewhere responded to this repression by moderat-
ing their politics into what became Eurocommunism. And of course,
in the United States during this same period, the Communist Party
USA, which had become so strong before the war, was decimated by
McCarthyism. These setbacks, however, opened up a space for leftists
of the northern Atlantic to reorganize and rethink their approach
against the backdrop of the widespread disillusionment with the Soviet
Union, the collapse of old party structures, and the new reality of
A hundred flowers truly began to bloom, with influences from
Maoism, the Cuban revolution, Pan-Africanism, Trotskyism, anarchism,
and the Situationist International, among others. And autonomism
emerged under this self-named rubric in the Caribbean, England,
Italy, and the United States in the early 1960s, Germany and France in
the late 1960s, Britain in the 1970s, Spain and Portugal in the 1980s,
and Mexico and Argentina from the 1990s, though its influence as
a trend can be dated earlier (James, 2012; Geronimo, 2000; Sitrin,
2006; Cuninghame, 1995; Puig, 2012).
There is unquestionably an extensive theoretical development of
autonomous Marxism that began early on in Italy. But Existentialist
versions of Marxism and the development of Marxist humanism had
also shifted the focus to questions of subjectivity and egalitarian social
relations rather than the laws of political economy. The Socialisme ou
Barbarie trend, the Johnson–Forest Tendency (associated with C. L. R.
James, Selma James, and Raya Dunayevskaya), and the Frankfurt
School (especially Marcuse) began reanalyzing the class composition
of the young militants, wrestling theoretically with what this changed
composition might mean. This new thinking about class and revolu-
tion began to provide new ways to link the actions of workers with
the social struggles of other social groups and classes. Silvia Federici
and other feminists began to agitate around unwaged reproductive
work and to strategize ways for housewives to take militant stands,
further developing ideas about how to rethink class composition in
a broader and more complicated way (Federici, 2012). The pseud-
onymously written narrative history of Autonomen’s ascent in the
FRG, Fire and Flames, claims that German students were more removed
from the working class than their counterparts in Italy, resulting in
less involvement in wildcat strikes and other working-class actions but
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more involvement in other forms of social struggle (Geronimo, 2000).
Other groups began to explore the class decomposition in the West
brought on by deindustrialization and the emerging prevalence of
unskilled labor over the more heavily unionized skilled labor sectors.
Their conclusion was not to deflate the importance of the struggles of
the traditional proletarian site but that the left needed to broaden its
ideas about what could count as class resistance beyond manufactur-
ing sites. Arguably, these new and broader ideas about class helped
students and workers in Europe solidify their fragile alliance during
the upsurge of the 1960s.
Just as they did during the Biennio Rosso in 1919, in 1962 the work-
ers of Turin played a crucial role when they rebelled against what they
viewed as a tepid agreement between the union leadership and FIAT
management. This action was used to vindicate the autonomist idea
that the trade unions were a block rather than an aid to militancy.
Autonomists believed that the struggle at FIAT showed that the typical
methods of organization used by the unions lead to class collabora-
tion, pitting the interests of workers against their unions (see, e.g.,
James, et al., 1958; Romano and Stone, 1958; Lotringer and Marazzi,
2007). In response to this struggle, a new term emerged, operaismo,
to refer to the self-organization of the working class. Periodicals and
pirate radio stations began to appear in Italy also at this time, often
with the involvement of influential theorist–militants such as Antonio
Negri and Mario Tronti, helping to promote direct action tactics such
as occupations and non-compliance.
During the 1970s the emergence of armed groups such as the
Brigate Rosse in Italy and the Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany pro-
vided an alibi for massive state repression of the left under the veil of
counter-terrorism. Many autonomist squats were raided and activists
were imprisoned. However, as they argued in court recorded state-
ments, the autonomists had fundamental differences over political
tactics with the armed militants. The red brigades believed that violent
actions would lead to a breakdown of the state and a popular upris-
ing, but this looked like another version of vanguardism from the
autonomist’s perspective. Although the autonomists suffered collateral
damage from the intense state repression against the red brigades,
this period eventually effected a further spread of the autonomous
trend: many autonomists were forced into exile, bringing their ideas
and skills to new communities. The repression of the Autonomia in
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Italy pushed autonomist militants to cross into France, influencing the
militant research of groups like Socialisme ou Barbarie. Some also fled
to post-fascist Southern Cone states and to post-Franco Spain. This
forced mobilization, together with the decentralized nature of the
movement, meant that a wide variety of different influences began to
intermingle. And in the 1990s a group of formerly Maoist intellectuals
and rural indigenous radicals in Chiapas proclaimed themselves the
Zapatista Army, or EZLN, articulating their goal as local autonomy and
their methods as direct democracy. Their international web presence
provided more inspiration for autonomism. Further groups began
to emerge, including Ya Basta and, later, the Dissobedienti, which took
themselves to be in solidarity with the Zapatistas.
The Federal Republic of Germany of the 1960s remained a recep-
tive audience for autonomism, especially after the newly independent
Students for a Democratic Society was ousted by the socialist party as
too militant. SDS eventually broke apart into various factions, includ-
ing RAF, the K-Group and the Autonomen, as happened similarly in
the United States when SDS split into the Weathermen, pro-Maoist
factions, and anti-authoritarian factions. The Autonomen in the FRG
aimed to build an anti-authoritarian counter-hegemony that would be
independent of both the bourgeois state and Eurocommunism, and
they spread their activity among the anti-nuclear, anti-fascist, feminist,
immigrants’ rights, and anti-imperialist movements. Although many
of these projects were short-lived, this was interpreted as a natural
element of localism rather than a failure. However, there was not a
lot of theoretical elaboration of these ideas. Autonomist activists were
less motivated to write theoretical tracts explaining and justifying their
trend than to defend their squats against police raids and keep their
work relevant to the local situation.
The developments of autonomism in the English-speaking world
resulted from a combination of the anti-authoritarian tendencies of
the New Left as well as contact between English radicals and German
and French autonomous projects. Harry Cleaver, a U. S. Marxist, and
author of one of the central texts influencing autonomism, Reading
Capital Politically (published originally in 1979), credits the influence
of a variety of autonomists he came across during his travels in Eng-
land, France, and Italy. In fact, he credits them with giving him the
courage to publish, as a Marxist, such an unorthodox book about
Marxism (Cleaver, 2000). Cleaver’s reading of Marxism highlights its
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understanding of working-class power and its analysis of the political
state of the working class. The devolution of Marx’s Capital into a reli-
gious text purportedly containing fundamental laws, Cleaver argued,
disarmed its political potential as a weapon assisting workers in their
struggle against domination.
Political economy itself was also rapidly changing during this
period. The European Economic Community transformed into the
European Union. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank
shifted from a postwar project of reconstructing Western Europe to
become major organs of neo-colonialism and corporate globalization.
The GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) developed
into the World Trade Organization, with greatly expanded powers.
The global reorganization of capital reached beyond western coun-
tries when the fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc opened new
spheres to multinational corporations that quickly moved to privatize
resources and infrastructure.
On the very day that the North American Free Trade Agreement
was signed, the Zapatistia Army announced its existence, signaling
a new form of resistance to this new organization of capital. This
development was soon followed by a wildfire growth of the alter-
globalization movement to oppose corporate globalization. Capital’s
increased mobility led to a correlative increase in the mobility of
labor and the development of communications networks, all of which
increased the connections between social change organizations. Many
began to argue that the movement against global capital needed to
be global itself.
However, the alter-globalization movement actually helped to
spread and deepen the commitment, not to centralism, but to local-
ism, and hence the autonomous trend. Activists agreed that global
connections were needed but argued that centralization was unnec-
essary for a global movement. There was to be no going back to the
Soviet or Chinese model of directing agendas and tactics throughout
the world. Yet even without centralization, global connections and
influences began to accelerate. Thousands of militants traveled to
both urban and rural sites of battle where they were schooled in a
variety of skills and ideas.
Resistance to corporate globalization was hardly new throughout
the Global South, but the World Social Forums and protests against the
IMF and World Bank created opportunities for activists and militants
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to cross multiple borders and engage in multinational mobilizations.
They slept on floors beside each other and, despite many arguments
and differences, successfully built short-term alternative structures.
There was a great deal of learning by all sides. Notably, activists did
not attempt to create single overarching organizations for the grow-
ing movement against capital.
Some of the most important near-revolutions of this century
were influenced by the experiences of the alter-globalization move-
ment, including the unrest in Argentina in 2001 and 2002, in which
insurrections created neighborhood assemblies and workers’ coop-
eratives (Sitrin, 2006). In Brazil, the landless workers movements
began to create autonomous zones: these ranged well beyond the
occupation of buildings or parks to create cooperative forms of
housing, health care, and economic activity. In Greece, the country
hardest hit in the European crisis, many of the activists who led
revolts had already been deeply impacted by autonomous ideas
and methods and had founded autonomous cooperatives of various
sorts to pick up the void left by the eroding state. Such formations in
many countries offered “prefigurations” of future socialist practices,
with decisions made by creatively organized autogestion — that
is, worker self-management. Social relations within the movement
began to take on more holistic elements involving one’s personal
life and self-care as well.
Tony Negri and Michael Hardt’s book Empire was published in
the midst of this epochal turn of the century. The trilogy of which
Empire was the first installment advanced a large worldview especially
influenced by, and influencing, both autonomous Marxists and anar-
chists. Hardt and Negri’s work remains popular, though it has come
under much sustained debate and critique from within autonomist
ranks (see, e.g., Federici, 2012). The connection between the analysis
Hardt and Negri offer and the history of autonomism is particularly
visible in their historicist treatment of changing class compositions
and their insistence on the need to update left politics in light of the
contemporary phase of post–Cold War, decolonized, global capital-
ism. Their theory of the significance of the “multitude” as a political
actor, defined apart from particular classes and oppressed nations, lent
credence to the autonomist’s emphasis on insurrectionary moments
of generalized unrest and the need to formulate new ideas about
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2011 was a watershed year of such unrest in many parts of the
world. Encampments and the occupation of urban squares became a
central feature of uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain, Spain, the United States,
and Turkey. Protest took different forms in many other countries,
but the practice of territorial and confrontational resistance, creat-
ing political spaces both outside the governance bodies of the state
and in struggle against the state, spread globally, influencing related
movements in Nigeria, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Brazil. It would be
unrealistic to judge these insurgencies on the basis of their ability to
bring about the end of global capitalism. It makes more sense to judge
their comparative successes and failures in relation to previous leftist
movements and governments.
It is unquestionable that the new insurgencies of the 21st century
are more leaderless and decentralized than leftist actions of the 20th
century, pushing participants to invent and engage in their own self-
initiated activity and organizational forms. Autonomism has unques-
tionably influenced the anti-authoritarian movements which helped
to lay the groundwork for recent uprisings. While it is important not
to overstate the role of autonomism in the new insurgencies, we would
nonetheless argue that these events should motivate more leftists to
seek an understanding of the autonomous trends.1 In the next sec-
tion, then, we turn to a brief overview of the theoretical content of
3. Theoretical Overview
Why is autonomism not simply the new face of anarchism?2 With-
out a doubt, there are significant commonalities between autonomism
and anarchism: both emphasize self-organizing and direct action and
both critique the energy spent on left party formations and organized
labor. Autonomism’s commitment to localism, autogestion, and pre-
figuration should not be confused, however, with anarchism’s belief in
the possibility of doing away with government altogether. Autonomists
generally consider themselves Marxists aiming for a revolution cen-
tered on the transformation of class relations, albeit with a significantly
more expansive understanding of what counts as resistance and who
1 For an argument that occupy movements are more anarchist than autonomist, see Graeber,
2 A sympathetic overview of anarchism can be found in Marshall, 1992.
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counts among the exploited classes. Their major difference with the
dominant Marxist traditions of the 20th century have not concerned
the ultimate end of communism and the abolition of capital, but
whether democratic centralism and parties that advance prescriptive
directives with an international reach can transform the social grounds
upon which the subjectivity of class obedience is based. Traditional
left parties are often critical when worker resistance occurs indepen-
dently of party-based initiatives, refusing to recognize such activism
as resistance, or as resistance to capital (see Cleaver, 2000, “Preface”).
Sometimes they attempt to subsume or commandeer such struggles,
claiming that party leadership can make them more effective. Autono-
mists view these efforts as both unnecessary and politically disadvanta-
geous in demobilizing and demoralizing local initiative and creativity.
Autonomists differ perhaps most fundamentally with anarchists
over the meaning of the idea of autonomy itself. For autonomists,
autonomy is understood to be a social relation, not an individual
self-generated capacity or intrinsic moral or political value. Autono-
mism’s focus is on the autonomy of the exploited classes, rather than
on the autonomy of individuals (while it is the focus on the latter that
sometimes brings left-wing anarchism and right-wing libertarianism
into an alliance). Autonomists are not aiming for the liberation of
the ego from a repressive state; as Sylvere Lotringer remarks, “there
is nothing less autonomous than an ego” (Lotringer and Marazzi, 12).
Aristotle might have said the same, if he’d had access to the concept
of an ego. Giving free reign to spontaneous impulses only subjugates
us to whatever produces those impulses, whether these consist of our
hormones or our susceptibility to marketing ploys.
The ideas of liberation often associated with anarchists assume a
negative concept of freedom, or the idea that freedom is maximized by
the removal of constraints. Thus, the idea is that if we remove indirect
governance forms, the interference of capitalist power and its militarist
enforcement, freedom can be maximized. In contrast, autonomism
is clear that freedom requires the positive reorganization of social
relations and structures, even the conscious cultivation and develop-
ment of certain political and social virtues and dispositions. Hence
their interest in the emergence of self-valorizing activities of workers
through creative expression, performance, and artistic production,
activities that more dour Marxists tend to dismiss. The autonomist’s
goal is not simply to “free individuals” but to refashion the existing
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forms of social labor and social relations. The locus of the struggle
over freedom remains class, but for autonomists, that locus must be
local, that is, defined in specific ways by local conditions.
As should be clear from the previous section, autonomism as
theory cannot be separated from its specific developmental history.
It was born of a critique of authoritarian revolutionary parties, espe-
cially those organized as nodes of an international network with even
more authoritarian administrative centers. Michel Foucault claimed
that in 1953 he left the PCF, the Soviet-friendly Communist Party of
France, not so much because of their official policy of homopho-
bia but because, as a “Nietzschean communist,” he didn’t quite fit
(Eribon, 1992). The concept of Nietzschean communism may sound
like an oxymoron, but it signaled for Foucault an image of a more
open-ended, creative revolution without the scientistic trappings that
justified psychological re-education camps (then routine in coun-
tries under the sway of the USSR), or that approved only of socialist
realist aesthetics, or that took an ahistorical approach to “correct”
formations of the family. Foucault’s own principled commitment to
localism was based on ideas similar to what autonomism has come to
signify today (see Foucault, 1980). Prescriptions based on totalizing
theories, Foucault argued, will always have a tendency to slide over
thick descriptions or details of local events and to simplify particular
and specific histories in the service of explanations seeking a global
reach. Localism enhances the likelihood that resistance will take more
effective forms by allowing it to take more particular forms created by
deep understandings of local conditions.
Most of the accounts of the rise of autonomism since the last quar-
ter of the 20th century, or the period after 1968 and after the demise
of many of the military dictatorships, offer explanations that tie it to
a “post-political” era. The idea of the “post-political” signals that the
sphere of the political has become problematized, more inclusive of
the heterogeneous elements of everyday life including the personal
and the domestic, less concentrated on the state and electoral arenas,
and less united around either a path, a direction, or an endgame.
Neoliberal policies have themselves helped to show that the space of
private life is as political as any factory floor when austerity measures
hit us in the benefits package, caring work is increasingly needed yet
increasingly privatized, and more of our vital social goods, from hos-
pitals to water to garbage collection, are subject to monetary policy.
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One response to neoliberal capitalism is to expand the sphere
of the political into everyday life, rendering the diminution of care
a political issue, for example; another is to argue that the idea of the
“political” as a discrete arena of social life just gets in the way. But one
thing many autonomists agree upon is that the fact that the sphere
of the political does not coincide with state activity should counsel
leftists to reconsider their emphasis on representationalism. Thus,
instead of aiming for better representation in key decision-making
bodies, autonomists prize the development of spheres of self-governed
activity, such as direct action protests against the occupations of fore-
closed homes and austerity measures and autogestionist approaches
to disaster relief. These provide real transformations of the politics
of everyday life, bringing new constituencies into direct contact and
effectively transforming how they work together and toward what. In
this way they concretize in the here-and-now abstract slogans such as
“another world is possible.” Related to this, many autonomists view
the work of building media and communication networks that can
report on and promote such activities as much more central to social
activism than electoral work.
The problematizing of what counts as political can also problema-
tize what counts as political resistance. Post-68 counter-movements, as
we discussed in the previous section, often take forms outside of the
usual approved list. The Zapatistas did not contest for state power, nor
did the Occupy movements put forward electoral slates. Sometimes
the emergence of DIY and consumer cooperatives are also taken as
aspects of an autonomous political resistance, stretching the intelli-
gibility of this new understanding of the political beyond what some
of us can stomach. It is difficult to see how expensive food coopera-
tives that demand long shifts from overworked families are changing
social relations. But it is without doubt that, for example, the punk
movement’s DIY culture became a medium for autonomous practice
and for a re-emergence and re-articulation of self-guided activity in
relation to consumer culture. The inculcation of habits toward such
self-guided practices may well be insufficient for revolution, but they
are absolutely necessary.
Still, the broad re-understanding of who workers are and of what
counts as resistant self-activity can veer toward what looks to be an
idealistic and romanticized rendering of an immense global defiance
of capital when, in fact, capital has been merrily diminishing incomes
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and standards of living, dismantling unions and public spaces, and
forcibly depopulating the “squares.” Autonomism may be theoretically
distinct from anarchism, but is it similarly blinkered in its incapacity
to develop an effective anti-capitalist strategy that can work against
powerful global formations?
It seems from our observation that autonomists have three sorts
of rejoinders to this question. The first rejoinder emphasizes their
awareness of the limits of autonomism in the current order. As Cleaver
puts it, it should be
obvious that just as working class “autonomy” is inevitably limited by the
mere fact that it develops within the context of capitalist society (and thus
must, to some degree, be dened by it and not totally “autonomous”), so
too the activities of self- or autonomous-valorization, being a subset of such
struggles, are inevitably marked and scarred by the society within which they
emerge. (Cleaver, 2000, 18.)
The scare quotes placed around the word “autonomous” are undoubt-
edly meant to reassure those who worry that this is an infantile disorder
or a worship of, and unjustified belief in, pure spontaneity. Autono-
mous self-activity is not the single spark that will light a prairie fire,
but it remains a critically important form of action that feeds civil
society and will help shape the next social formation.
The second rejoinder is related but more hopeful. Just as autono-
mism develops in the context of its material, social conditions, so too
does capital. That is, rather than there being an inevitable logic of
capital occurring outside of history and culture, capital also develops
and morphs in light of historical, and local conditions, including
worker resistance. Cleaver and others argue that Keynesianism was
replaced by neoliberal monetarism, not only because the logic of capi-
tal led necessarily to increasing importance of the financial sectors,
but because of the intensity with which social and political resistance
began to emerge in the 1930s to contest existing distributive shares in
public or publicly funded sectors of the economy, including schools
and city services. Monetizing and austerity policies that delinked work
and state had the effect of cutting these avenues of resistance off
at the knees. We are no longer local employees facing a delimited
employer, but sub-contracted individuals facing the Fed. The forms
of collective activity to which Keynesianism was a pacifying response
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— the demand for full employment, social security, medicare — are
less and less operable. When the power is in the hands of finance
capital, workers are pawns twice removed. Despite this bleak outcome,
autonomists point out that we should also notice how capital has had
to respond to the efforts of social change activists. Neoliberalism was
itself a reorganization of capital intended to avert the continuing
demands that both anti-capitalists and Keynesians made for stronger
government leadership over the economy.
This brings us to the third rejoinder autonomism might make to
its critics. Neoliberalism requires new modes of resistance. Vanguard
parties and global communist directives have failed to deliver, and
have lost their plausibility among younger radicals. As unrealistic
as autonomism may sound, it is legitimate to wonder whether non-
autonomist forms of Marxism can realistically continue to claim that
the experiment is not yet over, that we are learning from our mistakes,
that we will do better. Just as capital has metamorphosed into new
forms, so should the left.
Autonomous social centers are clearly one of these new forms.
Delinked from national or international parties, creativity is unleashed
and attention to the local arena is unhindered, and yet social centers
can have any of a variety of different relationships to wider social move-
ments. While many remain below ground to maintain the security of
their squat, others play public roles when social ferment increases,
for example, in the case of the 15M movement in Spain or alter-
globalization protests against NATO or Transatlantic Business Dialogue
(TABD) protests in several cities. In these movements, social centers
provided critical convergence spaces, operating as logistical hubs for
visiting participants. In some countries one can find wiki’s with exten-
sive databases of social centers. In other countries, especially in Eastern
Europe, nearly all of the online presence of the social centers will be
in their native language, with no attempt to publicize themselves to
radicals in other parts of the world; this can be motivated either by
their illegal use of land, or their fervent commitment to the local, or
their tenuous commitment to wider political movements. Nonethe-
less, autonomism has spawned a variety of diverse forms of resistance.
There is no question that autonomism represents a powerful and
interesting new global trend. The excessive centralism and hierarchi-
cal organizations of much of the 20th-century left have been rejected
as detrimental to democracy, to initiative, and to the left’s ability to
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succeed against capital. Whether this new trend will have better luck
remains to be seen, of course. In our conclusion, we develop three
points of constructive critique, concerning race/ethnicity, labor move-
ments, and the fetishism of autonomy itself.
4. Our Critique
Left movements have long struggled with issues of gender, race/
ethnicity, nationality, and (though this is more recent), sexuality. One
of the special problems for local, decentralized activity is that, without
direction, it can simply reflect the discursive and political conditions
of the locale, however lacking these may be. This means that decisions
made at open general assemblies can reflect the limited experience
and understanding of the local activist population, or those who are
most vocal. Even Occupy Wall Street in New York found this to be a
problem when the generic humanism voiced in its first statement of
purpose had to be organized against and amended in a concerted
effort by people of color. Some of the amendments went through
successfully, but the fact that there had to be a concerted action to
waylay a statement that still ignored ongoing realities of racism and
colonialism led to some bad publicity, contributing to the reputation
of OWS as a white-dominated space.
Autonomism in the global north has in general had a significant
feminist presence. The work of Pankhurst, Dunayevskaya, Federici,
Boggs, Selma James, and others developed deep analyses of the oppres-
sion of women under capitalism, the ways in which women’s unwaged
reproductive labor is critical to the production of surplus value, and
the need to see such issues as central rather than peripheral to any
workers’ struggle. This work is widely cited and influential. Today
feminists are also often at the center of organizational and movement
spaces in which they provide critical tactical and strategic leadership in
alter-globalization struggles. Few militants at global actions can avoid
feminist instruction or, when necessary, feminist critique.
But an understanding of social relations and class also require,
in every country, an analysis of how race and/or ethnic identities are
differentially placed in the labor market and adversely affected by
finance capital. United for a Fair Economy, for example, has shown
a huge disparity between foreclosure rates for whites versus African
Americans and Latinos in the United States. The burden of the recent
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economic crisis is not being distributed evenly across racial and ethnic
groups, and we need analyses that will both acknowledge and explain
these facts within a larger historical understanding of how capitalism
developed within and alongside colonialism. Colonialism put into
place a racialized and racially segmented labor force before capitalism
emerged, and there are a number of theorists today working on the
co-imbrication of the two modes of production (see, e.g., Grosfoguel
and Cervantes-Rodriguez, 2002). The colonial context within which
Marxism itself developed also requires careful consideration.
As a trend, autonomism has been undoubtedly influenced by the
movements of decolonization in the global south, the war in Viet-
nam, and the struggle of the Zapatistas, but this international lens
has tended to outweigh the influence from ethnic and racial minor-
ity movements within the countries in which autonomism develops.
One will not find much if any discussion of these movements within
the central texts we have researched for this article. This is a critical
mistake. Racial and ethnic identities (less distinct than many imagine
them to be) are, without a doubt, products of history: long and deeply
sedimented histories. As historically produced identities, they are
not biological kinds or natural divisions, but they involve more than
false ideologies. They structure our material environment, neighbor-
hoods, job sites, and schools, and because of this they are aspects of
our subjectivity, affecting how we understand ourselves in relation
to the world, the past, and the future, how we interact, and how we
judge each other. The attempt to set aside such realities or to create
a post-racial prefiguration in present-day political groupings is bound
to fail, and its failure will disable solidarity and hamper the success of
any activity aiming for social change.
Autonomists must engage with these realities, become knowledge-
able in the relevant, local history, explore the specific challenges these
divisions pose to a successful horizontality, and provide schooling
in their local contexts to improve the level of understanding of the
general activist population.
Our second critique concerns the uniform, principled rejection
of organized labor. In terms of practice, this can come in the form of
refusing to partner with specific unions in specific campaigns as well
as attempting to disrupt and even destroy unions from within. In terms
of theory, autonomists make a generic critique that targets organized
labor as class collaboration. This argument generally takes the form
G4358Text.indd 237 12/4/2014 11:35:25 AM
of a generalization from specific cases of collaboration to conclude
that collaboration is inevitable, and that officially recognized labor
organizations engaged in collective bargaining or shared power will
always devolve under capitalist societies until they no longer engage
in opposition.
Yet, as should be obvious, labor unions, and labor movements,
come in varied forms with varied amounts of internal democracy
and willingness to engage in struggle. Some have pretty good ideas
about how to fight for significant social change in politically effica-
cious ways. It is true that some unions seem primarily concerned to
maintain their own existence but there are others willing to engage
in significant risk toward the goal of more significant social trans-
formations. Furthermore, it is implausible to characterize all efforts
to renegotiate the terms of capital and labor as class collaboration:
some efforts of reform have revolutionary effects. In sum, a knee-
jerk rejection of all unions and union leaders is an immature and
uninformed position.
There was a moment in the now famous dock shutdown in Oak-
land, California during the height of the Occupy events of Fall 2011
that provides a small, but unfortunately clear, negative example. The
President of the Dockworkers Local (ILWU Local 10) reported to
a young white woman at the microphone that the workers had just
democratically decided to walk out and the docks were indeed about
to shut down. “Who are you?” she demanded. After he gave his cre-
dentials she shouted through the microphone: “I want rank-and-file
corroboration of this! Let me talk to the rank-and-file!” The union
president, an older African American man who had been supporting
Occupy and helping to lead his members in the struggle, looked a
little perplexed and not a little annoyed at the distrust and disrespect
he received. Others in the vicinity shouted to her to convey over the
sound system the good news he had reported, and she eventually did.
But her refusal to give the man credence was an instance of operating
by a playbook hardly based on localism.
Autonomism’s strong history in Europe and Soviet-bloc countries
may explain this trend in part. Some European unions enjoy a level
of state recognition quite unfamiliar on the other side of the Atlantic,
holding a seat on company governance boards and sharing state power
within electoral coalitions. Their political recognition and power has
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generally helped to secure the social safety net but has done little else
to challenge capital’s hegemony, and the spread of neoliberalism
throughout Europe today might well be blamed on their capitulation.
In the Eastern bloc countries, with some important exceptions, unions
were generally notorious for maintaining weak labor organizations
incapable of challenging the state until Solidarinosc, a history that
produced understandable distrust.
Yet organized labor requires a local analysis, by country, by union,
by region, and by local unit. It is also crucial to remember that unions
are very different kinds of entities than autonomous political group-
ings, given their responsibilities to advocate for specific member con-
stituencies who are otherwise nearly powerless at the worksite. There
is no reason not to join in local and specific alliances around specific
actions or causes, such as the fast food workers campaign, the efforts
to protect undocumented workers from wage theft, or the fight to
increase the minimum wage. There can be a tactical alliance in such
cases. Autonomists ought to avoid the dogmatism they condemn in
the authoritarian left. Sometimes old failures of coalitions, from the
Spanish Civil War to May ’68 and so on, are rehashed to justify refus-
ing any new coalition efforts, but the very localism that autonomists
value should counsel them against making universalized extrapola-
tions from specific events.
Some autonomists reject any and all struggles around reform,
of course, perhaps on the grounds that global economic conditions
should be allowed to worsen in order to instigate more global insur-
rection. Such arguments truly take autonomists beyond the range of
Marxism, we would argue. Marxists have always taken reform efforts
as providing resources for struggle as well as valuable lessons. Just as
importantly, organized labor has a constituency that should not be
ignored by anyone claiming to be left (nor should its leadership be
dismissed a priori).
The overly general refusal to make alliances with labor may itself
be linked to the third problem we see: a tendency to fetishize auton-
omy itself. If the overarching goals are kept uppermost, then one
should be open to considering the value of occasional collaborations
even in the electoral arena in a particular case. Staudemeier recounts
a white-majority group in Chicago organizing door-to-door against the
progressives who were rallying a neighborhood around a progressive
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Puerto Rican candidate, that is, until they rethought the likely effects
of their strategy (Staudenmeier, 2012, 270–272).
The fetishism of autonomy can also keep local groups from look-
ing toward other parts of the world, assessing with an open mind varied
kinds of activism, and being able to see at least some of it as worthy of
support and mobilization. No one should be dogmatic about forms of
resistance, or mistake an abstraction for principle. The drive toward
autonomism and localism should counsel an openness to the kinds
of struggle people around the world choose to pursue in their own
self-activity, such as the interesting electoral campaigns in Venezuela,
Bolivia, and elsewhere. Dogmatism about autonomy, by contrast, can
produce useless critiques of forms of activism that may be effective in
different parts of the world.
Thus, we worry about the principled commitment to autonomism
itself. In truth, principles always require an interpretive judgment to
determine how and when and even whether they are to be applied
in a given case. This in fact is part of the justification given for a prin-
cipled localism — to resist rote formations of the “correct” actions.
It needs to be remembered that the values of self-activity, localism,
and autonomy requires some activity of analysis and interpretation in
light of local conditions. In some situations, local conditions may be
such that there is tactical value in collaborating with a parliamentar-
ian or electoral campaign of some sort, or an action organized by a
trade union.
To take autonomism as a fetish, then, is to assume its meaningful-
ness within a local situation in an abstract and a priori way. To pursue
autonomism as an actual goal and value, on the other hand, requires
more work: to eschew prescriptions and assess anew each struggle
and challenge.
Autonomism may well provide a galvanizing element of 21st-
century Marxist movements around the world. Academic onlook-
ers seeking to understand social movement trends need to become
more than onlookers and engage in direct participation. All of the
writings we have drawn from for this essay were written by people
who have engaged in direct action themselves, who have attended
sometimes endless meetings and endeavored to create and sustain
groups and autonomous centers. Thus they have seen autonomism
in action over many years. The analysis and judgment offered by
the authors of this essay were informed in the same way. Based on
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these real-world experiences, we hold out hope for solidarity across
our diverse lefts.
Linda Martín Alcoff:
Department of Philosophy
Hunter College, CUNY
695 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10021
José Alcoff:
Independent writer, organizer
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... In Spain and Italy, he became acquainted with the experiences of cooperatives of architects, many of which had anarchist inclinations. Those cooperatives were influenced by autonomist ideas of workers' selfmanagement, which were an important part of the constellation of the left in Europe at the time, after "autonomism" became a philosophy and practice of activism (Alcoff and Alcoff 2015;Eley 2002). Villà had the chance to get to know the work of architects in low-income communities in those countries. ...
... This repertoire of organization and constructive practices allowed for housing movements to convert construction projects into local experiments of autonomism-although a form of autonomism that still relied on the state for funding and legal matters, such as land regularization. 151 Like many other social movements during the previous thirty years in different Latin American contexts (Alcoff and Alcoff 2015;Aparicio and Blaser 2008), those construction sites became spaces for the "performance of community" by means of the manipulation of signs (drawings, regulations, plans, spreadsheets) and materials (blocks, concrete, tools). 152 ...
How does the built environment become political? In this dissertation, I address this question by investigating the politics of low-income housing in São Paulo from the mid-twentieth century until the mid-1990s. A growing sociological literature on materiality and power has contributed to a better understanding of the cultural dynamics of different material and spatial phenomena, but it has not led to a broader theoretical clarification of how the built environment influences meaning-making practices and how it is further shaped by the variety of meanings that circulate in society, as well as how it becomes associated with available (but constantly changing) political discourses and practices. I develop a theoretical framework on how materiality becomes incorporated in circuits of social practice based on a theoretical integration of Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory and Charles Peirce's semiotics. The process of articulating semio-material practices (materials, forms, methods of construction, and forms of using space) and political repertoires (discourses and practices pertaining to the exercise of power) is always situated, limited, and pragmatic. In light of these concepts, I show that progressive architects and several other actors involved in the production of the built environment came up with two main programs for low-income housing in São Paulo from the 1950s up to the 1990s: a first program centered on the quest for the industrialization of construction and a program formulated after the late 1970s that centered on the participation of future residents in the practices of design and construction. Each of these programs is a typical articulation of a certain political repertoire and a repertoire of practices of design, construction, and habitation. In addition, each of these programs relies on and helps to reinforce certain images of the people for whom those residences should be produced and that they would help to constitute as a collectivity. The theoretical framework elaborated in this dissertation sheds light on a diversity of processes of material and political articulation of the built environment in different historical and geographic contexts.
... In the traditional liberal understanding, autonomy is rooted in the idea of an independent, individual self that is not determined by external norms and therefore free. Yet in the radical tradition of autonomism, it is intended as a social relation and a collective process of self-determination via local, horizontal, anti-authoritarian practices (Alcoff and Alcoff 2015). What is common to both is the idea that freedom implies giving oneself rules of conduct and therefore limits, instead of following arbitrarily or externally imposed ones. ...
... It constitutes the very foundation of democracy as self-rule. Rather than ending where someone else's freedom begins, freedom as autonomy begins with the self-imposition of limits to make space for others to simply be (Alcoff and Alcoff 2015). When considered in its societal dimension, autonomy resists its opposite, heteronomy, or the functional regulation of conduct according to given principles, such as the so-called law of the market or the mantra of austerity and growth. ...
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... In Spain and Italy, he became acquainted with the experiences of cooperatives of architects, many of which had anarchist inclinations. Those cooperatives were influenced by autonomist ideas of workers' self-management, which were an important part of the constellation of the left in Europe at the time, after "autonomism" became a philosophy and practice of activism (Alcoff and Alcoff, 2015;Eley, 2002). Villà had the chance to get to know the work of architects in low-income communities in those countries. ...
... T he combination of participatory design, self-management, and cooperative construction became widespread in São Paulo's peripheries from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s. Like many other social movements during the previous thirty years in different Latin American contexts (Alcoff and Alcoff, 2015;Aparicio and Blaser, 2008), those construction si-tes became spaces for the "performance of community" by means of the manipulation of signs (drawings, regulations, plans, spreadsheets) and materials (blocks, concrete, tools). ...
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... Despite significant differences between the two approaches, I will argue that Marxist autonomists share a similar aversion to trade unions. Autonomism is distinguished from some other Marxist approaches by its critique of centralised political strategies and organisations including unions, political parties, and statist versions of socialism (Alcoff and Alcoff 2015;Cleaver 2000, 36). Its proponents are sensitive to diverse experiences of oppression and exploitation, decentring Marxism's emphasis on wage labour. ...
... Linda Martín Alcoff and José Alcoff (2015) complain that, in theory, autonomists advance a "generic critique" of organised labour as a form of class collaboration. In practice, "this can come in the form of refusing to partner with specific unions in specific campaigns as well as attempting to disrupt and even destroy unions from within" (Alcoff and Alcoff 2015, 238). ...
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... Georgy Katsiaficas, supra note 2, 552.11 Joanna Kostka and Katarzyna Czarnotta, supra note 2: 372.12 ...
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This article examines the capacity of college-educated young people who pursue in several careers – “slash workers” – to act independently and to make their own choices about their work and life in capitalist Hong Kong. Numerous studies have assumed an unproblematic link between precarious employment and the exploitation of young people’s labour. This article offers an alternative understanding of this link from the autonomist Marxist perspective of “refusal of work” and the “getting a life” project. While the literature on freelancing has illuminated workers’ potential to maintain a work/life balance, the novel phenomenon of slash work in Hong Kong adds to our understanding of freedom from labour. By having more than one career, slash workers: (i) blur the boundaries of paid work, volunteer work, and personal interests; (ii) anchor work around self, instead of self around work; and (iii) embrace breadth, instead of vertical mobility in their career trajectory. This post-work approach to work and life allows workers to be rule-setters, which inadvertently results in creativity in work.
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Este artigo teórico-bibliográfico dá continuidade à discussão de dados e resultados encontrados ao longo de cinco anos de pesquisa sobre as transformações nas gramáticas de protesto e contestação social na cena pública brasileira desde junho de 2013. Argumenta-se que, no Brasil, o termo ativismo nomeia uma estratégia de ação coletiva para interferir nas normas sociais vigentes cujas características são: a) valorização da autonomia dos sujeitos; b) uso de estruturas organizativas em rede; c) emprego das Tecnologias da Informação e Comunicação para sustentar arranjos organizacionais. Tais características são analisadas, compreendidas, e criticadas usando: a teoria da Posição Ativista Transformadora, proposta por Anna Stetsenko para o desenvolvimento humano, e a compreensão de autonomia como arte de organizar esperança, desenvolvida por Ana Cecília Dinerstein. Ao usar uma ontologia colectividual, a análise sublinha a complementaridade do desenvolvimento individual e social; explicita as condições sob as quais a autonomia pode ser uma hipótese de ação que aposta no caráter processual e inacabado da realidade; define agência tanto como uma condição para, como um produto do processo ativo e intencional através do qual os jovens ativistas usam suas atividades no Presente, para construção do Futuro que estão comprometidos em produzir. Na conclusão ressalta-se a necessidade do uso de abordagens multidisciplinares para abordar o fenômeno e convida-se os pesquisadores do campo da Psicologia Sócio-Histórico-Cultural a se ocuparem mais das práticas daqueles sujeitos que trabalham ativamente na invenção do Futuro.
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Sergio Boloña, one of the leading intellectuals of Italian "operaism" (workerism, a Marxist current), has maintained a sympathetic but critical stance towards the social movements of autonomous workers, self-organised students, radical feminists and counter-cultural youth that made up Autonomia (Autonomy) in the 1970s. His essay on the 1977 Movement (in which Autonomia was one of the main protagonists), "The Tribe of Moles," provides one of the most complete analyses of the social, political and economic origins and class composition of one of Italy's most important mass political and social movements, the roots of the present widespread network of centri sociali (squatted social centres) and free radio stations.
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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 counterculture, French poststructuralism, neoanarchism, Mexican neo-Zapatism, and the Argentinean worker-recuperated factory and self-management movements.
The Communist Left in the Third International
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Notes for a New Social Protagonism
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For an Analysis of Autonomia — An Interview with Sergio Bologna ——— Autonomism as a Global Social Movement
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Cuninghame, Patrick. 1995. " For an Analysis of Autonomia — An Interview with Sergio Bologna. " ———. 2010. " Autonomism as a Global Social Movement. " Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society, 13 (December), 451–464.
Michel Foucault. Translated by Betsy Wing
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