The Ego of autonomy is not the absolute self, the monad cleaning and polishing its external-internal surface in order to eliminate the impurities resulting from contact with others. It is the active and lucid agency that constantly reorganzes its contents, through the help of the same contents, that produces by means of a material and in relation to needs and ideas, all of which are themselves mixtures of what it has already found there before it and what it has produced itself. … And this is why there can never exist any truth that would be the 'suject's own' in any absolute sense.
Cornelius Castoridis, The Imaginary Institution of Society
If autonomy is, and has been, the central concern of all anti-capitalist movements, how autonomy has been conceived of and the ways in which it is proposed to be attained, have varied enormously. And the idea itself has been seriously challenged for assuming the possibility of a fully transparent and self-controlled subjectivity, understood individually or socially. If taken however in this latter sense, then of the idea is impossible. We are far more than what we are conscious of and we always will be. What we take ourselves to be inheres in realities that far transcend any self-consciousness. Autonomy is not only therefore invariably relative, but also, and more importantly, a process, a becoming, and not a state.
It can also not be simply conceived as a psychological or sociological reality, for its complexity defies such reductive analyses. To argue, for example, that all of the protest movements since 2011 share a common aspiration for real democracy, in opposition to powerless nation state politics, nation states emasculated by global and financial capital, has the virtue of trying to link together what are otherwise seemingly disparate movements, but also the vice of relating them through a simplified notion of political autonomy, a political autonomy understood exclusively as a challenge to uncontrolled global economic power. That such power is real is not here denied; but such a power works through a multiplicity of forms, relations, institutions which still include apparatuses of the nation state, as well as other instruments of control. The specificity of these apparatuses then conditions politics and other social relations locally, playing thereby an essential role in creating the subjectivities that sustain capitalism. The contemporary nation state may no longer be the predominant centre of political power (if it never was), but this by no means implies that it has been subordinated to the role of thug, even if it is also that.
The recent movements in Turkey and Brazil may be democracy movements, as were before them the “Arab spring”, the spanish and greek indignados, occupy wall street and the like, but they may also testify to other desires, desires for autonomy or not. (Roarmag) Autonomy as a human possibility extends well beyond the traditional spheres of politics and economics, into all of the many dimensions of human existence, which also in turn reach into the political and the economic. The key then to grasp the aspiration for autonomy is not only to oppose it to capitalism, in the abstract, but to oppose it all forms of alienating heteronomy, whether they be in politics or the economy, but also in affective relations, the family, education, in relations with nature, and so on. (The list is long and the categories by which we catalogue these relations are often dubious).
Autonomy should therefore be conceived of as plural and a politics of autonomy one of liberating spaces and times for autonomous collective creation. Such spaces and times we have witnessed recently, in mass protests and the temporarily occupied squares of cities, but perhaps more importantly, and perhaps above all in spain and greece, in the okupations of spaces for social centres and housing, of factories and fields, in the creation of alternative modes of production and exchange, in neighbourhood assemblies creating and administering new commons. Autonomies in these instances become the making of ways of life.
Echoing an earlier post dedicated to a presentation by Stavros Stavrides in Madrid on the autonomous movements in greece, the following text is a translation of a reflection on autonomy by the Spanish writer and activist, Carlos Taibo. (Periodico Diagonal – 20/06/13; Carlos Taibo blog)
I have defended for some time now the idea that the construction of spaces of autonomy in which the rules of the game applied are different from those that are imposed upon us should be the primary task of any movement that wishes to contest capitalism from the perspectives of both self-management and de-commodification.
I believe that this goal is as much necessary, as it is just and feasible. Ultimately, it rests upon the conviction that it is necessary to begin to construct today the society of tomorrow, with the double objectives of urgently departing from capitalism and of outlining self-management structures from below, far from salaried work and commodities. It appears to me, furthermore, that these spaces, which by their own logic have the capacity to attract and expand, configure a project that is far more realistic than that which has been put forward seemingly since time immemorial, but today with far less enthusiasm, namely, current forms of social democracy.
When somebody speaks to me of the necessity of creating a public bank, a nationalised banking sector, I feel the need to ask myself how long can we wait before such a thing becomes real, especially given the fact that such a proposal must by necessity pass through the channel of political parties, parliaments and institutions.
I can add, though this should be obvious, that these spaces of autonomy of which I speak cannot be, in any way, isolated examples which take in a merely individualistic project with restricted, particular concerns: their aim must be, by necessity, generalized self-management. In addition, its activity cannot ignore active, frontal contestation of the system. It should not be forgotten that those who commit themselves to such spaces have more often than not preserved forms of struggle of a rich tradition, very far from the compromised labour unionism present everywhere today; they work in organizations that have always been in this fight.
It is of course the case that the project that I am defending has been the object of criticisms that merit both attention and a response. It has been said of it, often and without reason, that it rests upon a veiled acceptance of the capitalist order.
Surprisingly, this is said by those who have taken up the path of the two alternative strategies observable in the world of the left: legal parliamentarianism and putschist revolution. If in the first case the surprise is for obvious reasons, with the second the reasons should also be obvious, given the emphatic acceptance of all that is implied by the imaginary of power, of hierarchy, of a vanguard and of substitution/representation.
It is without wishing to offend anyone when I judge that these two supposed alternatives share in common far too many characteristics. In both, any serious reflection about power and alienation is absent. In each, a consideration of power in all of its ambits is avoided: the family, the school, work, science, technology, labour unions and political parties. In both, the consequences of complex, industrialised, urbanized and de-ruralised societies are evaded. In both, what is almost always the silent acceptance of the myths of growth, consumption and competition is noticeable. And in both, ultimately, the risk of an imminent absorption by a system which in deeds is never abandoned is suspected. Castoriadis spoke decades ago, in respect to this, of the “constant rebirth of the reality of capitalism in the heart of the proletariat”.
I am also obliged to add that if the discussion that I return to today is very old, it today perhaps acquires a greater significance than in any similar period in the past. It has at least for those in whose eyes it is believed that capitalism has reached a phase of terminal corrosion, which because of climate change, the exhaustion of primary energetic resources, the ongoing exploitation of the countries of the South, the disintegration of precarious social safety nets, and the desperate unfolding of a new and obscene social Darwinism, makes the system’s collapse as something easily imaginable, something that is perhaps just around the corner. Before this scenario, the responses of the two alternative ways mentioned earlier seem unfortunately weak: if in some cases little more is asked for than a defense of the welfare state and a “social solution to the crisis” – or, what amounts to the same, an unrealistic and sordid return to 2007 – with the others, there is a dependence on the illusion of a self-proclaimed vanguard, invested with an authority justified by a supposed social science, which must decide under the cover of its ambitions to reproduce fiascos like the many recorded in the 20th century. In their failure, both promote radically anti-capitalist claims that have no concern to explain how their respective projects will be made real. In the end, and in most cases, these translate into an active and respectable daily struggle, but a struggle of limited consequences.
I am of course fully aware that the horizon of autonomy, self-management and de-commodification does not magically resolve all of these problems. But they do bring us closer to their resolution. Nor do I believe that they animate the apparent alternative options raised a thousand times over in discussion; that discussion which is born of the question if we are so naïve as to believe that our autonomous spaces will not be the object of the repressive wrath of capital and the State. We are not: we simply limit ourselves to asking our friends, who opt for the legal parliamentary or the putschist revolutionary paths, what defenses they desire and are in a position to provide for their projects, above all given how things are going, as far as can be seen, that they will have nothing to defend. Are their goals more solid and credible than ours? Or is it perhaps, and here permit me an unpleasantness, that those who give themselves over to the task of suppressing autonomous spaces are in the end friends of those with whom we today debate?
I leave for the end a dispute which is not without interest: that is if the project of autonomy and the other two that I have glossed over critically here are incompatible, or on the contrary, can find an accommodation. I will answer both quickly and without neutrality: if the consequence of this accommodation is that it allows many to become interested in the liberated spaces, then it is welcome. But I fear that we are speaking of projects with diametrically opposed conceptions of what social organisation is and what is required for emancipation. And I see it as my obligation to underline the enormous defect that marks the ambitions of the traditional left, namely, the absence of any sense of self-management and the noticeable odor, by contrast, of hierarchies, delegations and accomplished reproductions of the world that we apparently say we contest. Although no one has the magic solution to our problems, I am ever more convinced that there are those who have set out on a quicker and more evident path.
Video of interventions by Carlos Taibo (in spanish) …