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Autonomism refers to a set of left-wing political and social movements and theories close to the socialist movement. As an identifiable theoretical system it first emerged in Italy in the 1960s from workerist (operaismo) communism. Later, post-Marxist and anarchist tendencies became significant after influence from the Situationists, the failure of Italian far-left movements in the 1970s, and the emergence of a number of important theorists including Antonio Negri, who had contributed to the 1969 founding of Potere Operaio, Mario Tronti, Paolo Virno, etc.
It influenced the German and Dutch Autonomen, the worldwide Social Centre movement, and today is influential in Italy, France, and to a lesser extent the English-speaking countries. Those who describe themselves as autonomists now vary from Marxists to post-structuralists and anarchists.
The term autonomia/Autonome is derived from the Greek "auto–nomos" referring to someone or something which lives by his/her own rule. Autonomy, in this sense, is not independence. While independence refers to an autarcic kind of life, separated from the community, autonomy refers to life in society but by one's own rule. Aristotle thus considered that only beasts or gods could be independent and live apart from the polis ("community"), while Kant defined the Enlightenment by autonomy of thought and the famous "Sapere aude" ("dare to know").
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Unlike other forms of Marxism, autonomist Marxism emphasises the ability of the working class to force changes to the organization of the capitalist system independent of the state, trade unions or political parties. Autonomists are less concerned with party political organization than other Marxists, focusing instead on self-organized action outside of traditional organizational structures. Autonomist Marxism is thus a "bottom up" theory: it draws attention to activities that autonomists see as everyday working class resistance to capitalism, for example absenteeism, slow working, and socialization in the workplace.
Like other Marxists, autonomists see class struggle as being of central importance. However, autonomists have a broader definition of the working class than other Marxists: as well as wage-earning workers (both white collar and blue collar), autonomists also include the unwaged (students, the unemployed, homemakers etc.), who are traditionally deprived of any form of union representation.
Early theorists (such as Mario Tronti, Antonio Negri, Sergio Bologna and Paolo Virno) developed notions of "immaterial" and "social labour" that extended the Marxist concept of labour to all society. They suggested that modern society's wealth was produced by unaccountable collective work, and that only a little of this was redistributed to the workers in the form of wages. Other Italian autonomists - particularly feminists, such as Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Silvia Federici - emphasised the importance of feminism and the value of unpaid female labour to capitalist society.
Autonomist Marxism - referred to in Italy as operaismo, which translates literally as "workerism" - first appeared in Italy in the early 1960s. Arguably, the emergence of early autonomism can be traced to the dissatisfaction of automotive workers in Turin with their union, which reached an agreement with FIAT. The disillusionment of these workers with their organised representation, along with the resultant riots (in particular the 1962 riots by FIAT workers in Turin - "fatti di Piazza Statuto") were critical factors in the development of a theory of self-organised labour representation outside the scope of traditional representatives such as trade unions.
In 1969, the operaismo approach was active mainly in two different groups: Lotta Continua, led by Adriano Sofri (which had a very significant Roman Catholic cultural matrix) and Potere Operaio, led by Antonio Negri, Franco Piperno, Oreste Scalzone, and Valerio Morucci. Mario Capanna was the charismatic leader of the Milan student movement, which had a more classical Marxist-Leninist approach.
Through translations made available by Danilo Montaldi and others, the Italian autonomists drew upon previous activist research in the United States by the Johnson-Forest Tendency and in France by the group Socialisme ou Barbarie. The Johnson-Forest Tendency had studied working class life and struggles within the US auto industry, publishing pamphlets such as "The American Worker" (1947), "Punching Out" (1952) and "Union Committeemen and Wildcat Strikes" (1955). That work was translated into French by Socialisme ou Barbarie and published, serially, in their journal. They too began investigating and writing about what was going on inside workplaces, in their case inside both auto factories and insurance offices.
The journal Quaderni Rossi ("Red Notebooks"), produced between 1961 and 1965, and its successor Classe Operaia ("Working Class"), produced between 1963 and 1966, were also influential in the development of early autonomism. Both were founded by Antonio Negri and Mario Tronti.
The Italian student movement, including the Indiani Metropolitani, starting from 1966 with the murder by neo-fascists of student Paolo Rossi at Rome University, engaged in various direct action operations, including riots and occupations, along with more peaceful activities such as self reduction, in which individuals refused to pay for such services and goods as public transport, electricity, gas, rent, and food. Several clashes occurred between the students and the police, during the occupations of Universities in the winter 1967-1968, during the Fiat occupations, in March 1968 in Rome during the Battle of Valle Giulia.
On March 11, 1977, riots took place in Bologna following the killing of student Francesco Lorusso by police.
Starting from 1979, the state effectively prosecuted the autonomist movement, arbitrarily claiming it protected the Red Brigades, which had kidnapped and assassinated Aldo Moro. 12,000 far-left activists were detained; 600 fled the country, including 300 to France and 200 others to South America.. This was during the period known as the Years of lead.
In France, the marxist group Socialisme ou Barbarie, led by philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis, could be said to be one of the first autonomist groups, as well as having importance in the council communist tradition. Socialisme ou Barbarie drew upon the American Johnson-Forest Tendency's activist research inside US auto plants and carried out their own investigations into rank and file workers struggles - struggles autonomous of union or party leadership.
Also parallel to the work of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, Socialisme ou Barbarie harshly criticised the Communist regime in the USSR, which it considered a form of "bureaucratic capitalism" and not at all the socialism it claimed to be. Philosopher Jean-Franois Lyotard was also part of this movement.
However, the Italian influence of the operaismo movement was more directly felt in the creation of the review Matriaux pour l'intervention (1972–1973) by Yann Moulier-Boutang, a French economist close to Toni Negri. This led in turn to the creation of the Camarades group (1974–78). Along with others, Moulier-Boutang joined the Centre International pour des Nouveaux Espaces de Libert (CINEL), founded three years before by Flix Guattari, and assisted Italian activists accused of terrorism, of whom at least 300 fled to France.
The French autonome mouvement organised itself in the AGPA (Assemble Parisienne des Groupes Autonomes, "Parisian Assembly of Autonome Groups"; 1977–78). Many tendencies were present in it, including the Camarades group led by Moulier-Boutang, members of the Organisation communiste libertaire, some people referring themselves to the "Desiring Autonomy" of Bob Nadoulek, but also squatters and street-wise people (including the groupe Marge). French autonomes supported captured Red Army Faction former members. Jean-Paul Sartre also intervened on the conditions for the detention of RAF detainees.
The militant group Action Directe appeared in 1979 and carried out several violent direct actions. Action Directe claimed responsibility for the murders of Renault's CEO Georges Besse and General Audran. George Besse had been CEO of nuclear company Eurodif. Action Directe was dissolved in 1987.
In the 1980s, the autonomist movement underwent a deep crisis in Italy because of effective prosecution by the State, and was stronger in Germany than in France. It remained present in Parisian squats and in some riots (for example in 1980 near the Jussieu campus in Paris, or in 1982 in the Ardennes department during anti-nuclear demonstrations). In the 1980s, the French autonomists published the periodicals CAT Pages (1981–1982), Rebelles (1981–1993), Tout ! (1982–1985), Molotov et Confetti (1984), Les Fossoyeurs du Vieux Monde, La Chme (1984–1985) and Contre (1987–1989).
In the 1990s, the French autonomist movement was present in struggles led by unemployed people, with Travailleurs, Chmeurs, et Prcaires en colre (TCP, "Angry Workers, Unemployed, and Precarious people") and l'Assemble gnrale des chmeurs de Jussieu ("General Assembly of Jussieu's unemployed people"). It was also involved in the alter-globalisation movement and above all in the solidarity with illegal foreigners (Collective Des Papiers pour tous ("Permits for all", 1996) and Collectif Anti-Expulsion (1998–2005)). Several autonomist journals date from this time: Quilombo (1988–1993), Apache (1990–1998), Tic-Tac (1995–1997), Karoshi (1998–1999), and Tiqqun (1999–2001).
In 2003, autonomists came into conflict with the French Socialist Party (PS) during a demonstration that took place in the frame of the European Social Forum in Saint-Denis (Paris). At the end of December, hundreds of unemployed people helped themselves in the Bon March supermarket to be able to celebrate Christmas (an action called "autorduction" (of prices) in French). French riot police (CRS) physically opposed the unemployed people inside the shop. Autonomes rioted during the spring 2006 protests against the CPE, and again after the 2007 presidential election when Nicolas Sarkozy was elected.
In 2008, on the 11th of November, the french police arrested ten people, including five living in a farmhouse on a hill overlooking Tarnac, and accused them of associating with "a terrorist enterprise" by sabotaging TGV's overhead lines. Nine out of ten were let go and only Julien Coupat the alleged leader remain in custody, charged with "directing a terrorist group" by the Paris Prosecutor's office.
In Germany, Autonome was used during the late 1970s to depict the most radical part of the political left. These individuals participated in practically all actions of the social movements at the time, especially in demonstrations against nuclear energy plants (Brokdorf 1981, Wackersdorf 1986) and in actions against the construction of airport runways (Frankfurt 1976-1986). The defense of squats against the police such as in Hamburg's Hafenstrae was also a major "task" for the "autonome" movement. The Dutch anarchist Autonomen movement from the 1960s also concentrated on squatting.
Tactics of the "Autonome" were usually militant, including the construction of barricades or throwing stones or molotov cocktails at the police. During their most powerful times in the early 1980s, on at least one occasion the police had to take flight.
Because of their outfit (heavy black clothing, ski masks, helmets), the "Autonome" were dubbed der schwarze Block by the German media, and in these tactics were similar to modern black blocs. In 1989, laws regarding demonstrations in Germany were changed, prohibiting the use of so-called "passive weaponry" such as helmets or padding and covering your face.
Today, the "autonome" scene in Germany is greatly reduced and concentrates mainly on anti-fascist actions, ecology, solidarity with refugees, and feminism. There are larger and more militant groups still in operation, such as in Switzerland or Italy.
In Greece, the anarcho-autonomoi ("anarchist-autonomists") emerged as an important trend in the youth and student's movement, first during the 1973 Athens Polytechnic uprising against the military dictatorship which at that time ruled the country. After the collapse of the dictatorship in 1974, the "anarcho-autonomoi" became considerably influential, firstly as a social trend within the youth and then as a (very loose and diverse) political trend. The definition "anarcho-autonomoi", itself, is much debated. One reason for this is that it was originally coined by opponents. However, it was also quite quickly adopted by many adherents, used as a generic term.
Before 1973, in Greece, there was very little tradition in Anarchism or Libertarian Socialism in general. An exception to this was Agis Stinas, an early comrade of Cornelius Castoriadis. Castoriadis belonged to Stinas's small Council Communist group (before he emigrated to France) and was influenced by it (later these roles were turned around). Such small groups which existed, were almost (physically) eliminated by the Nazis, the local establishment and the stalinist communist party during the Nazi occupation and the Greek Civil War that followed, with Castoriadis and Stinas, themselves, being two of the few survivors.
Thus, the radical Greek youth in the 70s, having very little relative background to refer to, resided to an extensive "syncretism" of multiple trends originating in the respective movements in other European countries. Anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist trends did converge with situationist, workerist or other autonomist trends and even with radical (non-autonomist) marxist trends. - The "anarcho-autonomoi" made a very strong stand during the 1978-80 student movement, coming also into violent confrontation with the police and the (also, of considerable influence) stalinist communist youth (K.N.E). Such stands were repeated again and again whenever the student's, the worker's and the youth movement were at a rise (in 1987, in 1990-91, in 1998-99, in 2006-07). However, their intensity has been falling since after 1990-91.
Parallel to such participation in social movements a large number of social-centers (many of them squatted) exist, to the day, around Greece and many of them participate in social struggles on a more local level. These social centers, whether they identify, now, as "Autonomist" or not (most use more generic terms as "anti-authoritarian", some identify as "anarchist" ), function in the ways that historically emerged through "Autonomia". - There is also a multitude of small political groups which identify as "Autonomist" (ranging from workerist to post-modernist). Most of them are still connected to the respective groups that identify as "Anarchist".
The Autonomist Marxist and Autonomen movements provided inspiration to some on the revolutionary left in English speaking countries, particularly among anarchists, many of whom have adopted autonomist tactics. Some English-speaking anarchists even describe themselves as Autonomists. The Italian operaismo movement also influenced Marxist academics such as Harry Cleaver, John Holloway, Steve Wright, and Nick Dyer-Witheford. In Denmark, the word is used as a catch-all phrase for anarchists and the extraparliamentary extreme left in general, as was seen in the media coverage of the eviction of the Ungdomshuset squat in Copenhagen in March 2007.
Related topics in the Connexions Subject Index
Anarchism Critiques –
Class Analysis –
Class Conflict/Class Struggle –
First International –
Left, The –
Left History –
Libertarian Politics –
Libertarian Socialism –
Mark, Karl –
Marxism Overviews –
Radical Political Theory –
Revolutionary Politics –
Social Change –
State, The –
Strategies for Social Change
Alternatives – Anarchism – Anarchism Critiques – Anti-Marxism – Class Analysis – Class Conflict/Class Struggle – Emancipation – First International – Freedom – Left, The – Left History – Libertarian Politics – Libertarian Socialism – Libertarianism – Mark, Karl – Marxism – Marxism Overviews – Radical Political Theory – Revolution – Revolutionary Politics – Social Change – Socialism – State, The – Strategies for Social Change
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