Autonomy is the body without organs of politics, anti-hierarchical, anti-dialectical, anti-representative. It is not only a political project, it is a project for existence.
Individuals are never autonomous: they depend on external recognition. The autonomous body is not exclusive or identifiable. It is beyond recognition. A body of workers, it breaks away from labour discipline; a body of militants, it ignores party organisation; a body of doctrine, it refuses ready-made classifications.
Autonomy has no frontiers. It is a way of eluding the imperatives of production, the verticality of institutions, the traps of political representation, the virus of power. …
The body without organs of autonomy has no frontiers, but it does have a history, and this history is Italian.
Sylvere Lotringer and Christian Marazzi, The Return of Politics
It would be impossible to summarise the long italian “May” of autonomism in a short text. And it will not be our aim to do so. It is enough to say that for those unfamiliar with the movement, that the literature dedicated to it is both extensive and rich, and that its practical and theoretical contribution to anti-capitalist struggles remains fundamental.
Modestly, we share below four short essays that provide both a partial history of the movement (which in this instance, more than in many others, must be read in the plural), as well as theoretical reflections arising from and inspired by autonomism.
We close with a documentary film dedicated to the life and work of Antonio Negri. And though Negri in no way represents the whole of the autonomist tradition and though we have serious theoretical differences with his work, the latter should not be simply dismissed.
Worker and student struggles in Italy, 1962-1973
Sam Lowry (libcom.org)
A history of the wave of strikes and occupations that gripped Italian factories and universities during the 1960s. Coming to a head with the Hot Autumn of 1969, independent forms of struggle used by workers represented a significant attempt to break from restrictive trade unions.
Rising from a period of centre-left coalition that had been marked by a constant failure to bring promised reforms to Italian society, the struggles of the 1960s acted as a pressure gauge for many sections of the Italian working class, one which was to reach its climax during the mass strikes of 1968-1970. Workers had voted en masse in the 1958 elections to bring the moderate left parties to power, and, feeling the failure to achieve reform and often left abandoned by the trade unions, workers were compelled to launch their own struggles to alleviate their situation, independent of parties and unions. Aided by the radicalising effect of an interlapping of the university and factory, a level of militancy unparalleled in Italy for decades emerged.
At the forefront of the need for upheaval was the university, representing for many one of the most archaic institutions in Italy. Compulsory secondary education up to the age of fourteen had been introduced in 1962, and with it many students decided to continue their education up to university level. Thousands flocked into universities, and the student population increased by over 180,000 between 1960 and 1968. Having not been reformed since 1923 and already strained before 1962, the antiquated Italian university was left absolutely ill-prepared to deal with such a massive sudden influx of new students.
The role of teachers was, on the whole, taken by local professionals who still worked full-time. Required only to provide 52 hours of teaching a year, levels of absenteeism were extremely high, and more often than not students were left to teach themselves. Exams were mostly oral, which provided for an extremely subjective and uncontrollable evaluation system. While students who failed exams were not required to leave the university, drop-out rates soared and by 1968 had reached over 50%. Hardest hit by the nature of the universities were students from working class backgrounds whose families could not afford to pay fees. Often having to work two jobs to keep themselves in education, many ‘worker-students’ found it impossible to attend regular lectures, and made up the great majority of those dropping out.
The winter of 1967-68 saw a series of rebellions break out in northern universities. Sparked by protests against fee increases and plans put forward by the Minister of Education to reintroduce restricted entry to university education, universities in Milan, Turin and Trento were occupied by students. By early February the occupations had spread out into the provinces and involved dozens of universities, as well as some secondary schools. Similar to events that were to seize French universities several months later, mass assemblies run along directly democratic lines were set up to coordinate the takeovers.
The occupations were short lived, and by late February the great majority had drawn to a close as police forcefully evicted students from universities across the country. The last occupation was of the faculty of architecture at the Sapienza University of Rome, which was eventually evicted on the 29th. A mass meeting was held by students in the Piazza di Spagna on March 1 and it was resolved that the university should be recaptured. As 4,000 students descended on police, an outright battle ensued. Hundreds of injuries were sustained on both sides, and after repeated baton charges by police the students were forced to pull back. The ‘Battle of Valle Giulia’, as it came to be known, marked a watershed in the student movement and was the last major event of the winter occupations.
Many prominent politicians and trade union leaders in the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and its union, the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL), were quick to condemn the student movement. Attacking it through their press and attempting to sideline it as ‘extremist’, this attitude more than likely stemmed from the lack of control the party had been able to exercise over events. PCI members in the universities had been ignored during the occupations, and any attempt to channel the struggle along party lines was met with outright hostility. Accustomed to being firmly in the driving seat of any social movement that had sprung up since the war, the PCI viewed the students movement as a direct threat to its social role.
The early 60s had seen massive agitation in northern factories, reaching a climax in 1962 with two important strikes in Turin. At the beginning of the year workers at the Lancia factory had walked out, demanding an extra third weeks paid holiday and an end to short-term working contracts. The strike was eventually won after a struggle of several weeks and the support of the local population, some of whom had managed to bring their workplaces out in sympathy. A strike at the Michelin factory around the same time had less success, ending after 90 days of often violent scenes at the factory gates.
The success of a large strike in Turin was very much dependent on the 93,000-strong FIAT workforce, and the recent record of strikes in the factory was not a good one. Eleven strikes had occurred in different shops in the FIAT factory in 1959, none of which had been successful. So when a national walkout was called in June 1962 in support of striking metalworkers, the first port of call for many strikers was the gates of FIAT. Thousands of strikers gathered on the morning of the 13th and watched as every worker clocked in. This continued for nine days, until 7,000 workers at FIAT decided to walk out, and were soon followed by 60,000 more.
Following two weeks of struggle, it was announced that a deal had been struck between management and the FIAT company union ensuring a return to work. Angered by the lack of consultation and unfavorable terms of the deal, thousands of workers immediately descended on the union headquarters in the Piazza Statuto. Met by thick lines of police, the Piazza was soon turned into a virtual battleground as workers fought running battles with police. The fighting lasted for nearly three days, during which time workers armed themselves with sticks and slings to defend against repeated police attacks.
The large influx of southern migrants that the north had seen during the 50s and early 60s can partly be attributed to this upsurge in struggle, and can explain the pre-1962 reluctance of FIAT workers to join strikes. Hundreds of thousands of southerners were flowing into the north every year, and the presence of newly-arrived migrants on the shop-floor, many of whom had been involved in the great peasant movements of the south since the war, could do nothing but have a destabilising effect on the factories. FIAT management remained cautious of this effect and in 1962, unlike the majority of factories in the north, FIAT employed only a small number of southerners.
Owing to technological advances and a major boom in the Italian economy, mechanisation increased dramatically during the mid-60s. These changes affected mostly the younger, unskilled workers, and went hand in hand with a general increase of piece-work in the factories, leading to increased powers for foremen in charge of job allocations.
Union representatives were generally uninterested in the complaints of unskilled workers regarding these changes, and far from enthusiastic about the prospect of creating conflict in the factory because of them. Union internal commissions, mostly in the hands of older, skilled workers unaffected by the changes, remained aloof to the needs of younger workers. In doing this, shop-floor union representatives were unwittingly creating a consciousness amongst younger workers that the only way their problems could be solved was through activity independent of the unions.
With the increase in the availability of further education, thousands of young workers were experiencing the radicalising effect of the universities, and many brought this fresh perspective on their situation back to the factories once their education had finished. This new awareness, coupled with the changing needs of workers in the factories was soon to find expression in the many revolutionary groups that would penetrate the factories and take class struggle in the northern industrial belt to its height. These conditions in the factories perpetuated throughout the mid-60s, until, in 1968, unrest in the northern factories exploded into mass struggle.
Early 1968 saw a series of strikes erupt in northern factories. Initially confined to plants in periphery areas where union influence was minimal, the strikes soon broke out into the cities and came to involve hundreds of thousands of workers. It was during this period that many workers also began to experiment with new forms of struggle, a sign of the influence that newly formed revolutionary groups had begun to exercise in the factories. These methods came to find expression in strikes right through to the autumn of 1969 and well into the 1970s.
The events in France in May 1968 exercised a profound influence on many Italian workers, especially amongst the volatile younger generation. Finding particular resonance in their own experiences with the struggle of the French workers against their trade union bureaucracy, the May events had a radicalising effect on the workforce of many northern factories. Whilst the strikes and occupations in France confirmed to many Italian workers that struggle was most effective when directly controlled by those involved, large sections of the student movement drew conclusions from France that formed a complete antithesis to this logic.
Blaming a lack of effective political leadership, the focus for much of the student movement shifted from the directly democratic structures of the earlier occupation movement to an emphasis on the importance of centralised revolutionary groups. While still chastising the French Communist Party, and hence, its sister organisation the PCI, because of its ‘failures’ during the May events, a great deal of the newly formed student groups were to emulate many of the party’s internal trappings whilst maintaining to be more authentically revolutionary.
Revolutionary groups sprang up across the country throughout the summer of 1968, and many began to join striking workers on picket lines. This presence, aided by the interlapping of factory and university provided by the “worker-students” led to many groups being able to exert considerable influence in the factories, in some cases even completely supplanting existing shop-floor union organisations. Amongst the most successful were Potere Operaio (Workers Power) and Avanguardia Operaia (Workers Vanguard). While many of these groups operated in a hierarchical manner, the radicalising influence they exercised on the factories influenced many workers to completely reject the unions during disputes and rely on their own capacity for organisation. A typical example of this occurred at the Pirelli Bicocca factory in Milan.
In early 1968 management had decided on a review of contracts in the factory, which saw unions call three days of strikes for higher wages. The strikes, however, never came off, as the unions had accepted a weak pay increase from management soon after entering negotiations. Not prepared to accept a deal, workers at Pirelli Bicocca organised the Comitato Unitario di Base (CUB, United Base Committee), to continue the fight for higher wages independently of the unions. Formed on the initiative of unskilled and office workers, the CUB held regular mass meetings in the plant during which the unions were denounced for their collaboration with employers. After several strikes and partial stoppages organised by the CUB, workers eventually won their desired increase.
The success of the CUB resonated throughout Milan and through the summer of 1968 base committees were formed at factories across the city. Soon spreading out to the other cities that make up the industrial triangle of northern Italy, Turin and Genoa, they also struck lasting roots in outlying industrial areas. The formation of a base committee in a factory was often followed by a strike; and following the massive popularity of the committees, these struggles became linked together by common demands in a massive wave of industrial action that swept the north in late 1968.
Beginning as a series of strikes aimed at increasing wages, many participating factories soon began to link their demands to include calls for reduced wage differentials on the shop-floor, improvements to conditions, and, giving the strikes a national character, increases in pay for workers in the south, many of whom often received up to a third less pay for doing the same job as a northern worker. Several strikes supporting these demands took place in the south, and, sensing the widespread enthusiasm for achieving them, the usually stoic trade unions adopted them as their own.
It was during this period that unrest at FIAT again flared up. Following a series of wildcat strikes for higher wages initiated by plant base committees, a one-day general strike of all FIAT workers in Turin was called by the unions in early July. With many regarding the strike as a token gesture from the unions, workers and base committees organised a march in support of their demands on July 3. The march began in early morning as thousands of workers set off from the Mirafiori plant shouting; “What do we want? Everything!”. Joined by trade union officials carrying banners asking the government for reductions to the cost of living, the contrast between militant FIAT workers and the cautious trade officials could not have been more stark. Closely followed by police, the march soon turned violent. Echoing events of 1962, workers built barricades along the Corso Traiano and fought well into the next day. Mass assemblies were held during the next week, and strikes continued to be a common feature at FIAT plants throughout the year.
Most of the strikes of 1968 began as wildcats, even if unions were eventually forced to recognise them to save face, and a great proportion, especially those with base committees present, were run along directly democratic lines. In line with this logic, the idea of delegating responsibility to union officials was thoroughly rejected. As well as the formation of base committees in many factories, the strikes saw use of several other new forms of struggle. ‘Hiccup’ strikes, the idea of alternating intermittently between stoppages and work were used for the first time, as were ‘chessboard’ strikes, where different sections of the factory stop work at different times.
Strikes continued throughout 1969 and eventually came to a head during the autumn of that year. Kick-started by a massive strike of metalworkers throughout the country to back up their demands for a new contract, the “Hot Autumn” saw over one and a half million workers on strike at one time or another. However, the autumn strikes not only saw the culmination of the struggles of previous years, but a new sense of awareness within union ranks of how to reclaim their influence in the workplace. Coupled with political maneuvering by union leaders, this eventually led to the large-scale recuperation of the factory struggle by the unions, and the beginning of the eclipse of the autonomous workers movement in Italy.
Realising the effectiveness of co-opting strikes back into traditional union channels instead of pursuing a course of outright hostility to worker demands in the factories, the idea of “riding the tiger” of worker militancy was used by unions to bring workers back to the union fold. The “extremist” demands of yesteryear were now presented as the official union line.
Unions began to distance themselves from the political parties they adhered to, which, after twenty years of governmental wrangling and failed coalitions, had proven themselves utterly ineffective at reinforcing working class demands. In contrast to which, the trade unions, although discredited, still held a semblance of loyalty from many workers. This was fully recognised, and claiming some degree of autonomy, real or not, from the parties was integral to increasing confidence in the unions in the eyes of workers. Significantly, the CGIL, although still deeply interconnected with the PCI at every level, announced that it no longer needed party consultation on factory matters. Similar steps were taken by other unions. By presenting themselves as committed to militant struggle and tactics, the unions succeeded in bringing hundreds of thousands of workers out on union-called strikes during the autumn, and eventually, in pressuring employers enough to win a new “national contract” in December 1969.
The national contract included the forty hour week, equal wage increases for all, the right of trade unions to organise assemblies during the workday, and increased pay for apprentices. Their influence greatly reduced, the revolutionary groups which had exercised such power in the factories over the previous years could do nothing but hark of a “sell-out” from the sidelines.
Strikes continued throughout the early 70s, and following successful action by chemical and building workers the struggle for improved conditions and trade union representation flowed out of the manufacturing sector and into areas less famed for their workplace militancy. Civil servants, hospital workers, postmen, bar workers, hotel workers and shop workers all launched into successful strikes of their own. Greater emphasis on shop-floor agreements as opposed to national agreements found particular resonance with workers, who saw themselves as having greater control over their workplaces than before. This was topped off by the introduction of “workplace councils”, to which delegates were elected by workers. Greatly resisted by employers, the councils functioned, in trade union terms, to “increase workplace democracy”, and, “elaborate the trade union strategy”. The revolutionary groups also opposed the workplace councils, on the basis that they would act as a stopper on militant struggle.
1973 saw the greatest amount of workers on strike since 1969, over six million, and trade union membership increased rapidly throughout the early 70s. By 1975, membership of the two main unions had increased by over two and a half million in seven years. The year also saw a successful occupation of the FIAT Mirafiori plant in protest at the hardline approach employers had taken to the renewal of a metalworkers contract.
The militant struggles of the 60s and early 70s saw great material gains for the Italian working class. New forms of struggle employed and attempts at collective decision making in the factories had reaped great benefits, and made many Italian workers conscious of the power that can be wielded in the workplace. Still more significant for the Italian worker were the early attempts to break away from the confines of the shop-floor union. The formation of workplace groups, such as the base committees, which launched strikes independent of the unions, represented a real revolutionary alternative to reformism, one which could have gone far beyond the restrictive traditional demands of the unions. The recuperation of this movement in the factories represented a victory for the trade unions over workers. By playing the part of the militant, union officials had succeeded in bringing workers back to the “traditional representatives of the working class”, and in doing so, leading them back down the path of failed political reformism which has characterised Italian politics since the end of World War II.
Class War (1975)
In Italy there is a civil war in course. Just as in every other part of the world, the mortal clash has well defined characteristics in relation to the conditions of exploitation imposed by the dominant class. That is why we are speaking of class (civil) war.
State violence and defensive class violence are opposing each other in a clash that only the politically short-sighted insist on not seeing. The terrorism of the various organisations in the service of the bosses is a constantly detectable element, just as in the other field, an organisation of defence is beginning to take shape against the State assassins, organisations that should be examined and evaluated in their limits and perspectives. The other discourse, the so-called legalitarian one, the discourse that finds its own phonetic expression in parliament, can also be evaluated precisely once it is inserted into the logic of a conflict in course. This is what we shall see.
The violence of the bosses and their servants
In a declaration made to the daily “Il Giorno” April 19 1968, the managing director of the INAIL declared that the phenomenon of accidents at work (white deaths) had taken on the dimension of a war: “one death every hour, someone wounded every 6 seconds”. It is the workers who are falling on the front of exploitation, while the “men of the left” continue their parliamentary antics. Impossible work pace, piece work, increase in nervous tension, monotony, impossibility to adapt reflexes to the machine. The most dangerous period for the life of the worker are the last working hours of the day. It is a true slaughterhouse. Amputations of hands and lower limbs, the loss of eyes, burns, crippling, to rheumatisms, bronchitis, deafness, digestive disturbances, to nervous breakdowns and heart attacks. 80 per cent of the solderers in the shipyards are deaf. A very high percentage of workers in the mining and quarry sector suffer from silicosis. Those employed on the assembly line in the Fiat, with moving belts, discovered after a few years that they had considerable diminution in their sexual capacity. 50 per cent of the workers in the textile sector suffer from dermatitis and respiratory disturbances.
To that we should add the mortal accidents, those usually considered accidental but which are dependent on the very logic of production. In 1960 statistics spoke of a death every hour, today we do not know the exact figures but they have certainly not decreased. It is enough to read the newspapers to realise how many workers die every day because of work conditions, killed at the place of exploitation by the bosses and their servants. It is necessary to recognise though, that the job of the industrialist is not always that of the butcher. The boss gets very upset when there are accidents at work, because it upsets him both at the psychological level (much less) and at the economic one (much more). But the logic of exploitation has its necessary steps which it cannot extrapolate itself from. Its patience runs out though when the exploited, in spite of all the care one has for him and all the pre-occupations one has, insists in not docilely submitting to exploitation. Then it is quite a different matter. To the ineluctable logic of the capitalist process is added homicidal will and determination. The boss turns to the State to have his sacrosanct right to kill, cut to pieces, deteriorate the human material he has bought and is therefore at his disposition, protected.
In this case the police intervene. Let us look at the cases where the police in Italy have deliberately shot into the crowd, killing workers who were demanding their own right to life. The answer was given in bullets which have caused 133 deaths between 1946 and 1970 among labourers, unemployed, workers, rice labourers, students. Looking at the lists of workers killed by the police during demonstrations, in just 1969 one finds the death of a school teacher (Teresa Ricciardi), then all the rest are very poor people, “rabble” who have always been shot at for centuries with impunity. In an article in “L’Unità” in 1950 was written: “La Celere (fast response units) are organising preventively” listing police charges of demonstrations and shootings in detail; other “preventive” versions related to weapons in the possession of workers are drawn up for the use of the government and independent press, designed to justify the use of arms by the police. In Catania, in piazza Stesicora, during a demonstration against the Tambroni government, communist building labourer Salvatore Novembre, aged 19, was killed after being repeatedly struck by truncheons, and as he fell, losing consciousness, a policeman deliberately shot him repeatedly. One, two, three shots until he is slain, rendered unrecognisable. Then the policeman lost himself in the crowd and carried on with his action. Not yet dead, Salvatore was dragged to the centre of the square to serve as an example to the citizens of Catania. Come carabinieri used machine guns to prevent anyone from getting near to the poor youth who died from loss of blood. In Reggio Emilia on the 7th of the same month of July, carabinieri and police shot into the crowd for forty minutes uninterrupted, killing five people. Piergiuseppe Murgia tells of the event: “…amidst the blinding smoke one could hear the shots. The police are shooting. They shoot into the crowd. The people stop for a moment, stupified. They cannot believe it. They are shooting from every corner of the square. They are shooting at close range. At people. Shooting without a break. The first to fall is Lauro Ferioli, aged 22, father of a little boy. At the first shots he threw himself incredulously towards the police as though to stop them: the agents are a hundred yards from him: they shoot him full in the chest, they shoot him in the face. A boy who witnessed this was to say, “He took one or two steps, no more, and the machine gun fire set off right away. I found myself right at his side and saw him turn round, fall over on himself with blood pouring out of his mouth. He fell on top of me with all the blood (…).” Meanwhile, the worker Marino Serri who was crying with rage appeared at the corner of the street to protest crying “Murderers, murderers”. Another volley struck him and he fell as well (…) Ovidio Franchi, a boy worker aged 19, died shortly afterwards. A bullet had struck him in the abdomen. Wounded, he tried to hold himself up, clinging on to a shutter. Another, slightly wounded, wanted to help him, then one in uniform turned up and shot both of them. Emilio Beverberi, 30 years, worker, ex-partisan: split in two by machine gun fire. Worker Afro Tondelli, 35 years, is coldly murdered by a policeman who gets down on his knees to take accurate aim and shoots a sitting target.”
Afterwards, on the orders of the police chiefs themselves and on the mandate of the exploiters, the homicidal tactic of the police is modified in the sense of a more subtle refinement. It is no coincidence, in fact, that even in the most acute moments of tension there have been no more mass massacres in the streets. From the dozens and dozens of deaths in the years 46 — 50, it went to the eleven deaths of 1960 (peak year of worker struggles), right to 1972 with a few deaths a year. In recompence the strategy of tension was developed, aimed at involving the left and at carrying out a coup d’etat with the proved complicity of certain institutional organisms. From the death of Paolo Rossi in April 1966, to the death of the four communist comrades in April 1975, another technique of killing was introduced. The assassins in the service of the bosses have struck poor undefended people during various bombings in banks and in trains with the aim of pushing the great mass towards that order which, at institutional level, the fascists and bosses had made themselves the paladins of. If on the one hand the electoral response has been such as to render all thse attempts and all these massacres useless, it cannot be denied that, at least from 1969 to 1973, this new way of killing people managed to keep the government ship afloat. But it had another effect. There is an abyss between the reaction of the communist party at the time, for example, to the attack on Togliatti and their reaction on the occasion of the killing of the four comrades in April two years ago. In the more recent edition, Berlinguer turned up in a double breased suit, to visit Moro to expose his lamentations, and to this farse was added the strike of a few hours here and there and a very distinctive formal debate in the house. What matters is the electoral result, once that is safe who cares if comrades are dying, killed by the violence of the bosses and their servants. So long as nothing disturbs the idyll, of power every human sacrifice to this sanguinary god is consented and exalted.
It has been proved that in this strategy of tension the fascists have been used by the bosses in collaboration with the three “state organisms”: the army, the judiciary, the government. The army has used its special corps. Like the secret services and the police (in this sense improperly, we are including the whole of the police and not only the carabinieri and the army), to extend the web of the various plots, to strike at the level of raids, intimidation and the execution of a number of elements of the left, in particular anarchists; to maintain contacts with other States at the level of the secret services. The judiciary has employed its most trusted judges to “advocate” the most thorny proceedings, thwarting the investigations of the fascists concerning the Milan bombings, revoking superintendent Juliano who had tried to denounce the fascists, shelving [fascist] Freda’s telephone registrations, blowing up the unexpected bomb at the Commercial Bank in Milan, thus getting rid of the handle of the receipt machine saved from the explosion, and so on. The government gave the necessary authorisation (in the case of the Commissario Julian, Fais himself declared he had received orders from the home ministry), organising the complex operation of balancing opposed extremisms, throwing into the boiler of violence and a long string of killings, every possible means and expedient to continue to manage a power that was threatening to leak on all sides. As we shall see further on, the government complicity is not only at a political level but reaches greater efficiency at the economic one, contributing to the systematic theft carried out at the cost of all the exploited.
The charges against the workers suddenly increased when the struggles for the squatting in Celio in Rome and MacMahon in Milan took place and once again the aforementioned assassins were seen going to the attack of women and children with their usual nonchalance.
Another “democratic” characteristic of the pigs of any uniform is the use of torture against arrested proletarians. Lelio Basso (who certainly cannot be accused of extremism) writes: “…when someone from the privileged social categories is arrested for a common crime, and I am using the word in a very wide sense, he can be sure of going free from coercive measures, even if he insists on denying. Imagine a diplomat G. or a countess B., or a sir L., or industrial X., or civil servant Y., undergoing such treatment!” In fact, torture is the order of the day. In the barracks, the prisons, the criminal asylums, orphanages. The virtuous bourgeois pretend that they do not know about the institutional importance of torture. They are horrified at the misdeeds of the Old Inquisition, claiming that they do not know that that “praiseworthy” institution has never ceased operating. They are afraid in the face of the Nazi crematorium ovens, pretending they do not know that the prison camps for the final solution always exist, even in our country, and they are particularly efficient. But let us speak of torture for a moment.
In an old text of 1777 (V. Malerba “Ragionamento sopra la tortura”), we read on page 36, “Torture is carried out not in punishment of a crime the author of which is not known, but to get out of the mouth of the accused the truth, which for the weakness of reason and inconstance, cunning and falseness of witnesses often lies hidden in the darkness of uncertainty”.
And further on, pages 108–109, “But one concedes to the adversary that a tortured innocent gives in to pain and declares himself guilty, in the case under examination, in which torture was ordered by the judge with all the conditions that implies. What’s for them? To the rarity of this example I oppose the public utility resulting from the law of torture. I would say more, that the inconvenience of subjecting an innocent man, who in the torment confesses to a crime, should not be attributed to the injustice and barbarity of torture, but to a guilty weakness, and the lack of a virtuous strength. Patience is a duty, an indispensable duty. The innocent condemned to torment must accept with resignation and suffer with tolerance all the sufferings, like a slave, which bend his shoulder under the lash, which strikes him, making of his ills a means for aquiring good”.
What we said is no more than a tenuous claim concerning the violence of the bosses and their servants. Wecan find other aspects in what I call indirect violence. The thefts of the politicians, the mafia organized at State level, economic speculation carried out to the detriment of the proletariat, constitute hidden but just as effective and dangerous violence than the uncovered kind that strikes the individual.
The indirect violence of the bosses and their servants
The “mafia” is not a Sicilian phenomenon. It is a way of seeing things, a way of building relationships and solving problems from a perspective that could be called “feudal.” The Mafia organization par excellence today is the large State managerial company, but more about that later. For now, we care how the old mafia forms are used at the level of political power. The antimafia stories are truly and deeply humorous. A notorious mobster like Gioia is a minister of our government. In the clash between police superintendent Mangano and the mafioso Coppola, people are not sure whether to almost give preference to. the latter in terms of honesty. Very obscure aspects lurk in the Commissario’s past. Connections between drug trafficking and the old Mafia have been established, as well as links between the latter and certain political circles, from which could be inferred a specific interest in drug trafficking of many of our men of power. But we are only just beginning. The Sindona scandal has shown us how certain political circles work, certain banks, certain State industrial societies, certain international holdings. Let’s start with a “clean” job . Italy is the eighth exporter of weapons, after the USA, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, Canada, China, and West Germany. (Report of Stockholm International Peace Research Institute). Since the first four countries are grabbing nearly 90% of the world market, the rest must be divided between the remaining producers, hence a deadly combat. The solution is to sell to the “difficult” countries, so Italy is supplier of arms to South Africa (airplanes and naval fire control), Brazil (airplanes), Argentina (airplanes) the former Portugal (airplanes and firearms), Israel (helicopters and anti-tank missiles), “Congo-Kinshasa (planes) the old Greece (helicopters), Spain (helicopters), and so on. As you can see we give a considerable a contribution to the massacre of the people that are under fascist oppression. The loss of the Portuguese and Greek markets will be a big blow. Some of our industrialists are well known sponsors of national and international fascism. Apart from the 18,500,000 lire that Monti gave to Rauti, which there is evidence of, there is a continuous flow of funding that has produced such phenomena as (funded by Piaggio).
The scandal of the sugar tells us how the societies (led by Piaggio and Monti, the same who funded the fascists) paid several billion lire to Christian Democrats and Socialists. But from last year till now, everything has proceeded as before. A few months after the scandal of the sugar it was the turn of the Montedison to escape the price block by implementing up to 50% increases. It is truly the kingdom of thieves. The financial management of large organizations such as ENEL or EGAM is a mystery that could be investigated. The deficit in 1973 was 268 billion, that of 1974, 750, that of 1975 is forecast as 1600 billion, that of 1978 is forecast as 16:800 billion. This is one of the most obvious cases, but there are less showy ones such as that of the ESP or such as the ghost banks that originate then disappear with all the savings of the depositors. But what can we expect in a political reality that moves a notorious pimp like Bernabei from the Television to the chair of the Italstat, instead of at least leaving him to fall into a void?
But all of these operations have one clear meaning: they identify not so much a disease of the Italian institutions in the current year 1975, a disease that should be treated in one way or another, as a chronic failure of the bourgeois democratic institutions. Falsely democratic institutions that have the sole aim of exploiting the proletariat through violence and reducing it to consensus through any means of convincing.
The indirect violence of the bosses and their servants produces an increase in exploitation, the incredible accumulation of wealth on one side of the fence and the formation of pockets of appalling poverty on the other. It also produces the need to protect these riches from the attack of the exploited, hence a new thrust of physical violence against c1ass of producers. Physical violence and economic violence cannot be separated but walk together, the one affecting the other and completing the framework of the reactionary front of the class war.
The workers organize class defence. The unions should be the essential structure of this defence, coordinated at representative level with the political parties of the workers. In essence, this form of defence has very great limitations. Even excluding the decidedly reactionary groups of trade unions there are also elements of collaboration in the central unions that appear to be more progressive. The defence of the workplace implied in the reformist demands for improvement, lead, in moments of crisis, to safeguarding not only the worker but also the organization of exploitation. Political parties, which came into the government, have altogether discarded their proletarian covering, hovering in the control room trying to position themselves better to get a share of the pie. Finally, the Communist Party renounced all the features of the old revolutionary party, even the less compromising purely theoretical ones.
But exploitation is paid directly on the backs of the workers and not those of their privileged trade union representatives and politicians, so it often occurs that the latter are overtaken by initiatives of the exploited and are forced to scramble for recovery operations. In essence, proletarian defence consists of a legalistic area (trade unions and leftist parties), which maintain a relationship with power that can be defined collaboration. This is not the place to examine the problem of the true counter-revolutionary essence of this law-abiding area, however, it is an obstacle if only on an official level for power. In addition, proletarian defence begins to organize itself around autonomous groups that reject the logic of trade union associations and political parties.
In Turin, Milan, Rome, Marghera, Pordenone, Florence, Naples, etc.. an alternative within the same working-class movement has developed in recent years , which involved active minorities and vanguards of different kinds. Vanguardist structures of a Marxist-Leninist character as well as active minorities of a libertarian character. It is in this perspective that the actions of the revolutionary groups who went into clandestinity to fight the bosses and their servants arms in hand should be considered. It makes no sense to say that these “manifestations of violence” are against the interests of the workers’ movement, unrealistic and adventurous, and objectively provocatory. The armed struggle in capitalist societies such as Italy, Germany, Britain, France, is possible and has been demonstrated by groups like the Red Brigades, the NAP, RAF., the Angry Brigade, the GARI. It is not a question of adventurist positions but positions that follow logically from the same struggles of the exploited.
Let’s examine this difficult point: The labour movement creates struggles under the pressure of a growing class consciousness, often these struggles are beyond the control of managers, for both local and accidental reasons, and because workers are losing their confidence in the trade unions cadres and political parties: These experiences of autonomous struggle, wild, destructive, grasping the essence of capitalist exploitation: murder and robbery; become the patrimony of the politically aware minority who seek, each in their own political perspective to develop it further. And here lies the critical moment. In fact, in the clash between the classes, the holder of the power indicates the possible limits of the conflict, the so-called limits of legality, which when exceeded the repressive mechanism sets off. In this way, the active minority, taking the wealth of experience that comes from the autonomous struggles of the exploited, try to go forward, to be a point of reference, an indication, but in doing so and forced to radicalize their own position against the repressive mechanisms of the State. This is pushed to the extreme limits, to armed defense against the machine gun of the police, up the attack to survive, until death. To say that the experiences of armed struggle in Italy and Europe today are experiences orchestrated by the right, fascist provocative and criminal experiences, is criminal and worthy only of the clowns and the sold out of the Communist Party, not only because it offends the sacrifice of so many comrades that offer their lives for their communist ideal, but, and I would say mainly, because they deny any further revolutionary outlet to the experiences of the base of the proletariate in struggle.
Taking into consideration. The closer esperience of the Red Brigades we must, first of all, say that we cannot agree with the general political line (Marxist-Leninist) held by them, although we must admit that it is the most subsequent Marxist revolutionary group acting in Italy today. Apart from this, we must recognize the validity of their actions, a judgement that cannot be contradicted once it is placed in the right revolutionary perspective. The terrorist violence of the bosses and their servants is constantly in act, every day workers are systematically killed at the workplace, every day in the prisons, criminal asylums, in befotrofi, proletarians and children of proletarians experience that violence that well fed reformists know only by hearsay. Against this system that makes torture and terror the two essential foundations of production, one cannot remain at the stage of peaceful protest, we cannot continue to attend the visits of Mr. Berlinguer in double-breast to protest to the murderers that from behind Parliamentary immunity authorize and call for the massacre of the workers. Although many comrades belong to the extra-parliamentary movements and not a few anarchists faced with the problem of armed struggle pronounce against them. When, in a single issue, in 1972, we spoke of it as an inescapable need that was needed to be studied and considered, as an indispensable final showdown with the fascist and clerical forces, we received a barrage of criticism and accusations, even reaching the point of accusing us of being provocateurs. But the truth is that even within the extra-parliamentary forces and the anarchist movement there is a predominant pacifist current that continues to delude itself to save in this way, a space of political freedom that power can annul at any time.
We are not concerned here to defend the work of the Red Brigades, just as we are not interested in theorising in absolute the utility or negativity of armed struggle in Italy. We just want todraw attention to the fact that in our current situation, in the face of torture, abuse, exploitation, murder, there is something moving, a will to organize and struggle. Another group, much more problematic than the Red Brigades, is made up of the NAP. Not much is known of this organization, apart from a few flyers distri buted, one of which is published among the documents at the bottom of this file. The specific field of action are the prisons. Why? On this subject a rhetoric of the occasion would be easy: The reality is much more shocking. Torture, physical and moral 1’annihilation, killings, the use of bed restraints, sudden transfers, threats, isolation. Prison can be a place of rest and quiet, almost a resort for the mafia friends of the politicians or for spies who collaborate: it becomes hell for rebels and representatives of the active minority of the proletariat. In this reality revolutionary propaganda has always flourished. Today, it finds still easier ground both due to the large number of comrades who have entered prison in recent years, and for the reforms, quite impracticable, thathave been voted by parliament, alike the last ones that led to the events of Rebibbia. The N.A.P. have tried to work in the rebellious perspective of prisons and a number of their members have fallen in the course of gun battles with the police or killed in mysterious circumstances. But beyond the Red Brigades and the NAP., that costitute two glaring examples of how the forces of some of the active minorities organise, in the field of armed struggle there are a myriad of small actions on their own, of struggles against the bosses and their servants, which under the sign of autonomy encompasse reportable direct action. In this perspective, the discourse is still completely open.
In 1969 Baader wrote: The substance of the position of German revolutionaries, is therefore that of the armed defence of proletarian struggles. Instead, the critique of the reformist organizations wanted to see the claim. To impose only one tactic: armed struggle. Instead the indication that reached us from the organizations that work underground is that next to the struggles of the exploited, even manipulated by the unions and parties, in addition to action for clarification of the substantive counterrevolutionary role that these bodies carry out, in addition to the task of clarification about the new forms of repression, should be developed defense organizations of the proletariat, organizations capable of addressing future work and to serve as a control in respect of the reactionary attempts to seize power with the help of the fascists.. What is emerging from the tactics of the urban guerrilla groups in Italy today is a pluralistic message. They do not deny the need — in the current state of capitalist development — of the worker struggles, but at the same time, denounced as murder, any attempt to cut off the means of defense of the proletariat. In the event of a physical confrontation with the reaction and with the fascists thousands of comrades would be unnecessarily sacrificed to the current deliberate obtuseness of the Communist Party leaders and hangers on.
As we saw in this same article, the claims of a possible military and fascist solution, with the protective intervention of the CIA, become much stronger as the electoral threat of the PCI gets greater and their assurance not to show their teeth gets more ineredibili. The bosses even if they can also have faith in those sold out like Berlinguer and partners, cannot delude themselves that the base is as malleable, not all having donned the double-breasted. From the game of the balance of opposites (just as valid as the scheme of opposed extremists) a lot more efficient attempts for a solution in the coup sense could emerge. In that case a few dozen heroes would not solve anything and thousands of comrades would end up massacred. The tactics of the guerrilla army in Italy today spoints to the dangers of a ‘Chile’ situation suitable for our country.But, suppose, for the sake of argument, the opposite eventuality: the end of every coup aspiration; elimination (ie cutting funding) of the fascists, Communist administration. The exploited fallen into a different abyss always with no way out.
Ideological cover to make one shudder. Red flags and patriotic songs at full blast. But even more refined and cruel exploitation and genocide in the workplace because (apparently managed by the same workers forces). In this perspective, the revolutionary discourse would be equally valid: no longer against fascist dictatorship, but against another no less terrible dictatorship even though of a different colour. The attempt to disarm — not only physically but also psychologically — the masses can be functional to prospective authors of a military coup, but in fact comes in handy (and is defended to the bitter end) to the Communist Party that it intends to take over the management of power with all the calm that this requires, without disturbing anybody, to form the cadres of the exploiting class of the future.
The new armed resistance must therefore imagine a possible future fight against the attempt of coup by the right, as well as a Communist dictatorship implemented by the bureaucracy of the party and the unions. Today, however, it is forced to fight with the present fascism represented by an elusive, state of affairs; difficult to define, and the darkness which are all concerned about, the right, the left, the centres and even the “extreme> left. And precisely this present struggle, struggle to the death to survive, that is forcing the guerrilla army in Italy to solve tactical and strategic problems that are not easy, but are a heritage of great interest to all those that are giving themselves, as we anarchists, a double possible future fight.
As we have seen the radicalization of the proletarian struggle is leading some active minorities to reach levels of action that are considered “outlaw” from power. From this moment one is, “going underground.”. The conditions of survival are then very precise. First you must find the money necessary for the very lives of militants and the implementation of some actions: This money is generally made by the revolutionary expropriations that the minority does a carico of the exploiting class, in anticipation of expropriation and the final total that will be the social revolution. These are actions that have been carried out by revolutionaries of every era (from Garibaldi to Stalin to give a not too relevant example), which is facing today, as in the past, the angry criticism of the reformists, fearful that the mass might confuse their candid program with that of cornmon robbers. The rest of the actions, the abduction of individuals responsible for proletarian exploitation, spies, fascists; acts of sabotage against state property, against the political centres, offices of reactionary political parties etc. And countless other discoveries from time to time of revolutionary proletarian fantasy, constitute the field of what is called “armed propaganda>. Of course, many criticisms can be made from time to time about the political opportunityof this or that action, the time lens, the reason for a choice, etc., and we are not saying here that we absolutely agree with the tactics of shooting first because in this way we always end up being right, on the contrary, we just want to say that this wealth of experience should not be thrown overboard, but studied, analyzed and criticized.
In essence, the criticisms that have been made to the experiences of armed struggle today in Europe and Italy are all equally of a net rejection. The problem is not even considered. The comrades that accept armed struggle as a possible instrument of opposition to state terrorism are considered provocative, agents of the reaction, fascists. A criticism of this kind indicates only one thing: the fear that leftist political parties, the extra-parliamentary movements of hangers on as well as some anarchists have of losing their “agibility”. The PCI is talking about provocators and bandits. The extremists are more clear. Avanguardia operaia says, “with regard to the revival of the so-called red terrorism by fanfanian propaganda, we reiterate our severe condemnation of those who put themselves out of the labour movement. The Pdup-Manifesto are more sophisticated: . And Lotta Continua, “… political conception of despair that pushes some militant groups and to lose the bond and trust in the class organizations of the workers, to engage in a private and suicidal war to adapt instruments such as bombs that proletarian and anti-fascist consciousness rejects in the hardest possible way.”
The communique of the Federazioni anarchiche (FAI, GAF, GIA) on armed struggle is of the same kind: … We do not agree with these criticisms because we consider them incomplete. In fact, especially the communique of the anarchist Federazioni coglie nel segno when they speak of state provocation and the possible use in the provocatory sense of the groups that theorise and bring about armed struggle; coglie nel segno when they state that anarchism has nothing to do with the armed vanguards of the proletariat; but they do not convince us when they reduce anarchist action to simply the stimulous of social contradictions, in support of the selfmanaged struggle and direct action of the exploited mass, if alongside all that one doesn’t consider opportune — before the spreading of state terrorism — to organise a defence against the violence of the bosses and their servants.
In that way the critique is unilateral. The validity of certain struggles is affirmed and that of the armed struggle of a popular matrice is denied, while, in contrast one cannot deny that the state carries out a terrorism that is not only psychological but is also physical. One should conclude that the state oppresses us with econoic, cultural, etc exploitation, and kills us with military repression, while our defence must stop at the first level, leaving them the initiative to kill us as and how they like, with all commodity, like al tiro a segno. Not just that, things do not stop there, in the case of the extraparl.amentarians and the communist party they go as far as to see any attempt at defence as fascist and provocatory.
Frankly this reasonig does not seem right to me. But there is more. Pinsisting on these positions one is objectively playing the game of the repression that is applying the rule of « divide and rule », experimented everywhere and which the mass murderer Stalin was a master of. Through instruments of this kind anarchists such as Berneri were slain in Spain, the collectives remained defenceless and more than a few comrades were forced into clandestinity « anarchy reigning>. Let us stop our fear for a moment, let’s stop and think. When our judgment coincides perfectly with that of power, when our declarations seem to come out from the multimillionaire printing presses of the communist party, when fascists and communists si pallegaiano the terrorist respectively to harmonically equilibrate the game of opposed extremisms, when the policeman speaks the same language as we do, there must be something wrong with us, not in the instruments of power that do not usually make such kinds of mistakes. In pratice the condemnatios that we often pronounce against the experiences of armed struggle are based on news supplied by the press in the pay of the bosses; of actions compiute; of real motivations, of the frame ups constructed a priori and a posteriori by the police, we know nothing. Yet our first instinct is to condemn immediately whatever disturbs the programmatic framework of our political activity.
Acting in this way the struggle against repression crystalises in a monovalente form, following the desires of those who have an interest in not disturbing the waters too much. The groups that recognise the need for armed struggle are isolated, leaving them in balia of eventual provocations.It is logical that an emarginated group can defend itself up to a point, working in certain conditions of clandestinity and with the obstacle of having all the left against it, unleashed in an abnormal and criminal critique,does not have instruments di verifica, cannot control its position nor even its own analyses.
The convictions stem from the official left originate from the same matrix that gives approval when it comes to “strugglet against fascism in Spain and other uncivilized countries”.
And precisely these days the mass massacre of five anti-fascist comrades who were shot by the Spanish executioner, comrades belonging to clandestine organizations of armed struggle in Spain (ETA and FRAP). On this occasion, the anger was unanimous.
It has a certain effect reading bastards like the Christian Democrats in this way: “We all feel deeply humbled and aware of the duty to ensure the system of freedom that can be the bearer of many flaws, but as long as it remains such, constitutes an element of certainty for citizens and equilibrium and peace for the international community.”
And the worthy comrades of the Italian Communist Party: “the executions must encourage all democrats, all anti-fascists, to extend their mobilization to increase initiatives, to draw into the struggle millions and millions of fighters for freedom in Spain. “ And the freedom of Italy, France, Germany, Russia, the United States, of the rest of the world?
Even the Pope spoke. Concealing less well than the other political criminals the true reactionary matrix of Catholicism: “We reiterate the strong disapproval of the series of terrorist attacks that have marred that noble and always dear to us dear nation, and the courage of those who, directly or indirectly, are responsible, for such an activity, considered, wrongly, and taken as a legitimate tool of political struggle. But to this condemnation we must also make follow a condemnation of a repression so hard that he also ignored calls from many quarters that have been raised against those executions.”
But this “holy crusade”, led by Paul VI, worthy successor of the holy fathers of the Inquisition, characterized well by the ‘august’ presence of the words of the Where there is boss exploitation, either under the idiotic sign of fascism idiot, or under the intelligent sign of bourgeois democracy, which conceals a no less odious fascism, armed struggle is legitimate in that it provides for the defence of the proletariat. And if the comrades of the Italian Communist Party who have found so many eloquent words these days to defend the Spanish revolutionaries victims of th executioner Franco, were consequent with themselves, they should use the same words with the revolutionaries of our own house, or at least open a clear critical debate on the proposals that are coming from this side, preventing everything from disappearing in the mist of an alleged provocation ultimately useful only to the boss reaction.
Among our tasks, in addition to those engaged in the masses, political clarification, the push toward self-managed initiatives and direct action, must also be that of the organisation of proletarian defence. This can not be — rightly — the work of a vanguard that proposes the conquest of something or the guidance of the proletriat, but must be the work of groups that seek to strike the enemy in the property and people, developing the first elements of the popular resistance that developing the first elements of the class war in course, overcoming the contradictions of capitalism in a revolutionary sense, may, in a not too distant future, at the economic, ideological and even military level start the road to revolution social.
Autonomism: The future of activism?
Andrew Robinson (Ceasefire 08/10/10)
One of the major influences on contemporary activism has been European Autonomism, whose mark was present in the 2008 uprising in Greece, the Ungdomshuset revolt in Denmark, as well as the wave of summit protests around the world. Political theorist Andrew Robinson traces its origins and development, and explains why it could be the future of activism.
Activism today often seems to exist as a separate layer, resisting incorporation in the wider society, and creating a counterculture with its own spaces, social relations and rituals distinct from other social groups. This is largely because activists seek autonomy as a prerequisite for other kinds of social relations. Autonomy has replaced orientation to the masses as the central orientation of activism, and in doing so, has enabled horizontal forms of relations to replace (at least tendentially) the vertical party-model.
Activists are oriented to living differently and to changing the world, not to acting as the leaders of a particular class, and have moved away from interest-based concerns to questions of ethical commitment, non-conformism, anti-authoritarianism and the rejection of a wide array of repressive and stultifying aspects of the present system, from the work-system and the police to the abuse of animals and the devastation of the biosphere.
How did this transformation come about? Contemporary activism comes from a range of sources: anarchism, deep ecology, Situationism, Feminism, Pacifism – but one of the major influences has been European Autonomism, and I suspect this is one of the major reasons for the changing orientation towards horizontalism and autonomy.
Autonomism emerged in Europe in the 1970s, primarily in Italy and Germany (and, theoretically, mainly in Italy), and has since loosely defined the kinds of movements involved in the 2008 uprising in Greece, the ungdomshuset revolt in Denmark, as well as the wave of summit protests, etc.
To be sure, many of the people involved in these movements do not identify themselves as autonomist, but the strategic perspectives involved in the theory have quietly spread through resonance and indirect influence. In any case, the matter may not be so much about influence as the effect of a particular zeitgeist, which autonomism, Situationism and other 1960s/70s-era movements expressed, a zeitgeist which marked the special characteristics of the rebellion of this period and the kind of things it rejected. The zeitgeist is an effect, I think, of a particular phenomenon: the seduction of consumer society ceases to operate as a utopian horizon once it is realised past a certain point, and ceases to seem as utopian as it did in its absence.
Autonomism provides, however, a useful theoretical looking-glass through which to examine the perspectives arising from this historical moment. While different national movements had different influences – the ecological aspect was very strong in Britain, the Greek movement was heavily inflected by resistance to the military dictatorship of the 1970s and subsequent betrayals of the resistance – the clearest theoretical articulation arose in the Italian context, with Italy serving, in autonomist terms, as the ‘laboratory’ for new forms of struggle which later spread across Europe.
Well-known figures in autonomism include Antonio Negri, Mario Tronti, Paolo Virno, Sergio Bologna, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Romano Alquati, Mariarosa dalla Costa, and a number of others. These authors articulated a new variety of Marxist theory which expresses the vitality and power of a historical moment which is not yet over.
Today, autonomism and anarchism have become almost interchangeable, but their historical origins are rather different. Autonomists in Italy emerged as a left splinter from the Communist Party, initially coming together as micro-parties before adopting more horizontal approaches. This happened via the mediation of operaismo or ‘workerism’, an approach focused on workplace struggles. The language of autonomism and post-autonomism to this day has remained inflected with a rhetoric of communism and class struggle which strongly indicates its origins in Marxism. It was rooted in close analyses and empirically-based accounts of the changing situation of workplace and social struggles, and was formulated by a group of activist-intellectuals who were direct participants in the events they described.
For autonomists, the driving-force of historical change is not capital or the state, but rather, the self-activity (or ‘autovalorisation’ – creation of one’s own values) of the working-class, defined broadly to include all of the people who are exploited directly or indirectly by capitalism (such as housewives, who perform ‘reproductive labour’, refugees and migrants, whose subordination is part of the creation of low-wage economies, and unemployed people, who despite not being in a ‘job’ as such, are still active in ‘social production’ or the creation of social relations).
This struggle is the starting-point for understanding capitalism, and it creates a different perspective, similar to the ‘reversal of perspective’ in Situationism, which sees issues from an autonomous standpoint rather than the system’s standpoint. For autonomists, the transitions between phases of capitalism – for instance, between welfare-state Fordism and neoliberalism – are not primarily capitalist strategies, but rather, responses to (or even after-effects of) working-class revolts which make earlier forms of capitalism unsustainable.
Capitalism seeks to capture and exploit the creative force of labour, but cannot exist without it; on the other hand, labour can be ‘autonomous’, existing without capital (and without the state, which in autonomism, is viewed as a part of capitalism). Historical changes occur as new forms of resistance force capitalism to adapt in response. There is thus a constant tension between ‘class composition’ or ‘recomposition’, the process of recreating spaces of autonomy and non-capitalist social relations, and ‘decomposition’, the process through which capital closes down such spaces and breaks down such relations.
Autonomist analysis suggests that resistance is everywhere. Ordinary people – and especially, people seeking to reclaim bits of their time from capitalism, or refusing to be disciplined into the role of obedient subjects – are already engaged in forms of agency which escape the system’s logic. Practices such as slacking-off, calling in sickies, sabotaging equipment to get time off work, using wildcat strikes to maintain power against bosses, and so on, were deemed to involve a challenge to the subordination of creative activity to capital.
Autonomism also pioneered wider social strategies, such as ‘autoreduction’, the political appropriation of goods and services through mass refusal to pay, for instance, political shoplifting and faredodging. These everyday acts of revolt are viewed in autonomism as the ‘real movement of communism’ as utopia – communism is not a goal to be achieved in the future, but is already present in everyday refusals. This produces an almost Manichean dichotomy between the forces producing autonomy and the forces seeking to suppress it.
A second force, an ‘outside’, is always present, immanent in everyday resistance, and periodically becoming visible as autonomous spaces and zones, and as alternative kinds of social relations. (It is sometimes linked to the Marxist point that use-value, the motive for consumption, is tendentially outside of exchange-value; in neoliberalism, this division is undermined, exchange-value comes to define use-value by defining high-status commodities, and the result is a crisis of representation, as the system refers tautologically to itself, without a recognised outside).
The force of the outside begins to create a new society when it acts autonomously from the commands it receives from capital and the state. It emerges as a new society in forms such as new social networks, occupied factories, social centres (see below), and everyday forces of resistance. At any point, it is at a certain level of composition, but it contains the potential to form an entire other society outside the terms of the present global system, and repressive forces are constantly working to prevent it from further composing beyond its current composition, and to decompose it.
Informing the autonomist analysis of such struggles is the idea of the ‘refusal of work’. To ‘refuse’ work is not necessarily to be unemployed; it is to refuse to be disciplined into the set of traits and characteristic ‘behaviours’ deemed to make a person ’employable’. A person may ‘refuse work’ to one degree or another by for instance, being unable to keep to a rigid timetable, being resistant to obeying orders, or refusing to conform to dominant speech or dress-codes. It’s not so much a moral rejection of work as an insistence on the primacy of one’s own desires and particularities over whatever arbitrary standards the powers-that-be happen to impose.
Autonomism is thus similar to the dissident scenes which emerged in the old authoritarian-socialist eastern bloc. It insists on the right to be different, the right to insist autonomously on one’s own perspective and way of life, against the homogenising pressures of neoliberal conformity. To ‘refuse work’ is also not to refuse to engage in any kind of activity, but rather, involves reclaiming one’s creative power from its entrapment in the dominant system. By refusing work, one becomes capable of value-creating, autonomous creative activity.
What, then, is the role of activists, who are seeking to overcome capitalism? The creation and defence of spaces of autonomy is taken as crucial, with activists acting as a defensive line between spaces of autonomy and state strategies which seek to destroy them. This involves the formation of forms of counter-power which can be mobilised against state repression. This idea of counter-power is perhaps best developed in the squatters’ movement: if police attack a squat, activists will blockade the squat to make it expensive to evict, hold disruptive protests elsewhere in the city, and break open new squats, making the attempt at repression both costly and self-defeating.
The creation and defence of autonomous spaces is also taken as crucial. The radical squatters’ movement has drawn heavily on autonomism, partly because squatting is a clear case of autoreduction (in this case, of rents), and partly because squatting is a means to carve out autonomous spaces. One innovation which can be traced to autonomism is the ‘social centre’, a site, usually squatted, which acts as a node for radical social networks, providing a meeting space and a range of services.
In Nottingham, Sumac and JB Spray are arguably social centres; Sumac in particular acts as a focal point for a wide range of ecological and other activist meetings and events, providing services such as a library, bar, catering service, computer access, meeting space and specific events such as a childrens’ evening and music and film events.
In Britain, spaces of autonomy have been negatively affected by decades of neoliberal decomposition, but quite recently, Britain had a thousands-strong eco-activist scene and an even larger free party scene with an annual circuit of temporary autonomous spaces. At further degrees of development, one can expect autonomy to be expanded to entire areas. In some cases, such as the Christiania commune, the Exarcheia district of Athens, and formerly Kreuzberg in Berlin, entire districts become largely autonomous, with police able to enter only through a military-style invasion under a hail of bricks, and a vibrant counter-society flourishing in the margins of the old.
The next stage from this might be to link up all the autonomous areas, creating a secondary map which surrounds and besieges the gridded map of capitalist flows, pushing the latter back into increasingly small areas of the globe. To do this, of course, the question must be addressed of building links between autonomous spaces in different areas, including with indigenous groups and autonomous movements in the global South.
For a number of reasons, ‘classical’ autonomism is difficult to find today. One reason is that it was a special product of ‘laboratory Italy’, a site of intense social struggles which were eventually repressed as a neoliberal, and highly authoritarian, regime took shape.
The autonomist movement in Italy was weakened by a wave of repression, in which activists were accused of guilt-by-association with the Red Brigades, and leading figures such as were jailed (though descendants of autonomia, such as Ya Basta!/Disobedientes, remain active in Italy to this day).
Another reason is that autonomism is a process-oriented, change-oriented theory which reacts quickly to what are perceived to be changes in class composition, reformulating itself in new terms. From the mid-1980s, autonomist authors such as Negri and Virno have moved away from the militantly antagonistic politics of classical autonomism into various strands of ‘post-autonomist’ theory.
In these more recent approaches, neoliberalism is viewed as paradoxically creating the conditions for liberation, with the working-class recomposing as a ‘multitude’ directly involved in production across the whole of society.
This rather reformist move left the field of militant autonomy to authors from anarchist backgrounds, such as Alfredo Bonanno and the Invisible Committee. These authors have made extensive borrowings from autonomist theory. Hakim Bey’s theory of temporary autonomous zones also extends the idea of autonomy, focusing on the reclamation of spaces neglected by the dominant gaze. Hence, the focal point of autonomy has moved sideways from autonomism into anarchism. This has led to the emergence of current groupings which are sometimes referred to as ‘neo-anarchist’ or ‘anarcho-autonome’, drawing strongly on both traditions.
Autonomism is vital in thinking through questions of autonomous agency, and especially in terms of the importance of creating an ‘outside’ counterposed to the dominant way of life. Some limits should, however, be noted. There is something of a contradiction over the issue of creative or productive power and the relationship to work in autonomism, which can be summarised as a contradiction between ‘power to the workers’ and the ‘refusal of work’. On the one hand, people are taken to have creative potential because their labour is the underpinning of capital; on the other, their creative activity today is exhibited primarily as refusal to take part in such labour.
The tension between the refusal and the valorisation of work remains unresolved in autonomist theory. The latter aspect can lead to a worrying progressivism or developmentalism, which is disempowering in relation to forms of resistance which defend unincorporated spaces rather than ‘passing through’ capitalism, and which creates the danger that problematic aspects of the present organisation of work will be reproduced in a future ‘liberated’ society, albeit without the parasitic layer of bosses on the top.
On a related point, I often find this style of theorising worryingly collectivist. There is a certain tendency in autonomism to suggest that the class, rather than particular people or groups, are becoming autonomous. This raises the question of what it is that integrates people as a class, or a single community.
Many autonomists would probably maintain that people have a kind of essence, or ‘species-being’, which links us all together and provides a basis for a non-dominatory society to nonetheless show high levels of commonality. I suspect this is wrong, and that current integration is an artificial effect of the very mechanisms of command which autonomism would do away with. In other words, without capitalism, there would not be a ‘class’ as a unitary entity either.
This raises the question of how people who are autonomous, or small groups of similar-minded people which are autonomous from other such small groups, can interrelate constructively. This is a problem which arises concretely in activist settings, and which is partially addressed by horizontal processes which seek to avoid the subordination of any participant to the group or to others.
As David Graeber puts it, the emphasis of anarchist organising is not on convincing everyone to agree, or imposing one group’s views on others, but rather, on finding ways that people who are fundamentally different, who will likely never agree, can nevertheless coexist and work together on particular projects. I think this is more helpful than thinking in terms of a unitary class, community or multitude as the focus or goal of agency.
Autonomism tends not to take seriously enough the extent to which people are drawn into identities and attachments through which they come to support the status quo. By emphasising how people are always in struggle, autonomism downplays the extent to which ordinary people often have reactionary beliefs which can be turned against struggle. Indeed, it doesn’t really deal with psychology at all (it does, however, borrow an Althusserian theory of ideology which engages to some extent with these kinds of issues).
The kind of issues which would be crucial to, say, Reich, Marcuse, Castoriadis, Guattari, or Foucault are noticeable by their absence; their place is often filled by economics or ontology, which do a bad job of engaging with motives and complex defence-formations. This is not the only theoretical gap. In my view, the class structure of contemporary society is more complex than autonomism tends to allow. In particular, strategies of inclusion which create intermediary layers, of reactive network formation (such as patronage networks) which incorporate people through relative advantage or hostility to worse-off others, and conflicts between capital and the state tend to become invisible in this account.
Even the agency of capital can be elided, as capitalist changes are reduced to the effects of workers’ struggle. This approach is useful in defining an adversary, but strategically limiting in failing to see the complexity of forces at work.
On a similar note, I would question whether an emphasis on the totality of people engaged in productive activity is useful in the contemporary context. Segmentations between included and excluded/marginalised groups of workers/producers are sharpening drastically, and it seems to me that the included have on the whole been drawn disastrously into the Third Way recomposition. There is thus a need to theorise the agency of the excluded and marginalised, separately from the category of ‘all of those who produce’. Indeed, I would argue that, in contrast to Fordism, neoliberalism actually reduces the extent to which excluded/marginalised groups are nevertheless ‘productive’.
For instance, the formal economy is shrinking in large parts of the world. Radical theory may have to reorient from the included-but-exploited, or ‘adversely incorporated’ – who are disempowered by the very conditions of their inclusion – to the practice of those who either refuse and de-link from (at least some aspects of) the dominant system, or who are forcibly delinked by the system. This reformulation would also take us beyond the autonomist contradiction regarding work, perhaps by reformulating creative activity against the work-system, in favour of subsistence, gift economies and other forms of non-commodified creative activity.
Autonomy has a future, despite the current wave of decomposition, as it provides the necessary antidote to alienation and commodification in social life, re-empowering subjects beyond the restrictive frame of the dominant system. Autonomy necessarily tends to produce itself as an outside in the present, else it would be reduced to the status of a fantasy supplemental to the dominant system. To seek to empower and maximise autonomy, it is necessary to always look for outsides, however partial, and seek to bring them together into a complete outside, another way of being, another world.
The current weakness of autonomy is strategic. Capitalism innovates in the field of repression, and autonomy must innovate in the field of defeating repression. The next great protest wave will come about when new means are found which render non-viable the current, neoliberal/Third Way composition of global capitalism.
This is a movement from which the last has not yet been heard.
Antonio Negri, The revolt that never ends …