Last year Ba Jin and I, in Recomposing the Ultra-Left in New York City, wrote,
“Autonomy Has Become A Ghetto
The notion of “autonomy”–that movements can develop their own forms of self-directed organization, distinct from political parties and other dominant forces–has been twisted into its opposite in the contemporary U.S. In the 1970s, European autonomia emerged as a new generation of revolutionaries broke away from the existing communist parties. At the same time in the U.S, the black, Puerto Rican, chicano and asian movements refused to subjugate their interests and demands to those of the Old Left, which claimed to speak for everyone. From its beginnings in this time period, the term “autonomy” is now used in a variety of contexts.
The left communist milieu, for example, pursues a strategy of autonomy to avoid cooptation by unions, the state and nonprofit organizations. POC groups such as the New Black Panther Party, inspired by the example of the actual BPP, establish “survival programs” to maintain black proletarian survival in the face of poverty and state repression. Feminist collectives draw inspiration from the European feminist currents of the late 1970s, advocating autonomy from male-dominated organizations. Finally, a wide range of anarchist groupings pursue the development of autonomous projects such as community gardens, free stores, and infoshops, in order to build “the new world in the shell of the old” separate from existing state institutions.
One common thread among all these uses of “autonomy” politics is that small groups of militants substitute themselves for the movement of masses of people, pursuing “autonomous” projects that have little relation to broader proletarian communities. For example, instead of organizing with health care workers to take over hospitals and run them autonomously from profit demands, militants today might organize a small autonomous health care collective with few resources, and no relation to the masses of workers with medical expertise, while hoping their project will inspire others and spread spontaneously.
Such attempts often miss the autonomous activities of proletarian communities who continue to survive under capitalism. In so doing, they also overlook the shortcomings of such proletarian self-organization, which revolutionaries could help to address. The “autonomy” pursued by the ultra-left ultimately becomes the autonomy of revolutionaries from the proletariat, whose autonomous activity they are supposed to encourage and defend.
In contrast, we are for a strategic and fighting autonomy, modeled upon Italian Operaismo andautonomia, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and the Industrial Workers of the World. Such currents pursue autonomous movements on a mass scale, develop and execute their own self-directed strategies, and seize resources from the state and capital in order to better attack both. We believe autonomous organizing requires engaging with working class communities and the autonomous activities they’re already developing, rather than simply pursuing “autonomy” from a left subculture, or establishing self-help projects that substitute leftist activity for mass activity. These are the sorts of mass movements that autonomism must help develop in the coming years.”
Below is a theoretical expansion of what we merely described in the most partial sense. Thanks to Theorie Communiste, a deeper exploration of the category of autonomy can be understood. I have taken the liberty of extracting what I thought were helpful passages from the piece. To get the full piece visit libcom.
Self-organisation is the first act of the revolution; it then becomes an obstacle which the revolution has to overcome by Theorie Communiste
Historicizing autonomous struggles: “The “struggle”is not a historical invariant constantly expressing the same class relation. The decline of autonomy is not the decline of the “struggle”, it is the decline of a historical stage of class struggles.
In France, when self-organisation becomes the dominant form of all struggles, starting with co-ordination between the railway-workers in 1986, it no longer represents a rupture with all the mediations by which the class is a class of the mode of production (a rupture liberating the class’ revolutionary nature); self-organisation loses its “revolutionary meaning”: the overgrowth  between the self- organisation of the struggle and workers’ control of production and society. Self-organisation is nothing other than a radical form of syndicalism. Any struggle over immediate demands of any amplitude or intensity is now self-organised and autonomous; self-organisation and autonomy have become a simple moment of syndicalism (here we mean syndicalism as opposed to the formal existence of trade unions). If the organisms of struggle which the Spanish dockers adopted in the 1980s attempt to guarantee their survival and change form, it is because they were nothing other than organisms for the defence of the proletarian condition. Therein lies the continuity which explains the transition of the one into the other. The theoreticians of autonomy would have it that as such the “autonomous organs” invent communism by remaining what they are: organs of the struggle over immediate demands. As such their natural inclination is permanence and thus their “transformation”.”
“Autonomy and self-organisation represented a historical moment of the history of the class struggle and not formal modalities of action.”
“In all the current discourses on autonomy, it is remarkable to observe that it is the revolution which has disappeared.”
There is immense truth to what TC writes. The multitude are already ‘autonomous’ from unions in the U.S. The multitude are autonomous from waged labor in many U.S. cities. Autonomy was part of a cycle of struggle. Capital absorbed it. No Collar by Andrew Ross is another example.
Perhaps this is why autonomy in the current period for the revolutionary left turns into ghetto subcultures divorced from the rest of the multitude. When in the past autonomy meant escape from social democratic parties, union forms, and communist parties, today these institutions are on the verge of collapse and play a smaller and smaller role in the lives of the multitude…
TC writes, “Everywhere, as soon as self-organisation is established (and currently you can hardly escape it), people are fed up with it; it weighs heavily on the movement. As soon as it is initiated, it “winds us up”, because it reminds us bluntly what we are and what we no longer want to be. It is here, within self-organisation, against it, that the struggle of the proletariat as a class produces its own existence as a class as a limit to be surpassed. Autonomy is only ever the liberation of the worker as worker.”
TC writes, “Self-organisation and autonomy were only possible on the basis of the constitutionof a workers’ identity, a constitution which has been swept away by the restructuring. What is left now for these proletarians to self-organise?”
Autonomy as battering ram for the unions: “In our times, in the post office in Britain or the ports of the West coast of the US, the autonomous struggle of workers becomes indistinguishable in its content to the defence of the large union institutions, not for reasons of the temporary utilisation of unions by workers, but for what they are : large institutions regulating the autonomy of labour-power.
On the evening of Friday July 18th, a wildcat strike breaks out at the Heathrow airport against flexibility and the annualisation of work-time. After three days’ strike by ticket staff and baggage- handlers, they return to work with the announcement of the opening of talks between the unions and management.
Similarly, in Spain, during the shipbuilders’ strike in Jan-Feb 200, it is the renewal of the collective bargain and increased flexilbility which is at stake. On the 0th of January, the union demonstration ends up with barricades, cars set on fire, the police use rubber bullets. On the th February, in Puerto Real, “a base organisation attempts to co-ordinate the struggle if necessary” (Échanges, no.109, p2); on the 12th, after renewed battles, a general assembly of the workers decides to hold another demonstration in town which causes further trouble; on the 1th talks between unions and management resume. As usual, the wildcat strike, even when accompanied by the formation of autonomous organisations, is merely a substitute for or an accompaniment to union action. ”
This is worrying: “It is as if defensive struggles no longer functioned as the school of communism, as if they no longer engendered their own political supersession.”
Autonomy and the apparatus of capture:
“This conclusion reports the declaration of Roberto Maroni, Italian Minister of Social Affairs, in an interview published in Corriere della Sera. The minister states: “When the unions agree in talks with the government to get the blockades lifted (he is referring to Melfi, but also to the strikes at Alitalia and in public transport, as noted by Échanges) and don’t manage to do this, a problem of representation is posed. The current system is in danger of not being capable of managing disputes.” Échanges comment: “he added that the moment had arrived to involve the autonomous organisations in the accords as well, because they are more present and active among the workers. Maroni’s speech is interesting not because of what he proposes, but because he demonstrates that radical and autonomous forms of struggle are constantly being thrown up and are beginning to pose a problem in certain strata of the government and the state.””
“If self-organisation, as a revolutionary process, has become obsolete, it is because the relation between struggles over immediate demands and revolution has become problematic.”
What is communization according to TC: “if they fight against market relations, seize goods and the means of production while integrating into communal production those that wage-labour can’t integrate, make everything free, get rid of the factory framework as the origin of products, go beyond the division of labour, abolish all autonomous spheres (and in the first place the economy), dissolve their autonomy to integrate in non- market relations all the impoverished and even a large part of the middle class, reduced to poverty by their movement; in this case, it is precisely their own previous existence and association as a class that they go beyond as well as (this is then a detail) their economic demands.” And “The proletariat abolishes value, exchange and all market relations in the war that sets it against capital, and this is its decisive weapon.”
The conservatism of autonomy: “The ever untarnished “autonomy of struggles“ as a faculty for transition from a struggle over immediate demands to a revolutionary struggle is a construction that is not interested in the context of this transition. It remains a formal approach to class struggles. If the content of this transition is put aside, it is because autonomy prevents us from understanding this transition as a rupture, a qualitative leap. ”
Bernsteinification of autonomy: “Under the cover of ideas of self-organisation and autonomy we can say whatever we like, that strikes ‘are revolutionary’, that they are so ‘potentially’, that they have ‘something revolutionary’, that they carry the ‘seeds’ of revolution, etc. All this has only one function, to fail to recognise the leap, the negation, the rupture and to avoid critiquing wage struggles. This leads to a gradualist and mechanistic conception of the passage of struggles over immediate demands to revolutionary struggles; and to abandoning the understanding that the class is the subject of its communist activity in coming into conflict with its previous situation.”
Limits of self-organization: ” As long as the proletariat self-organises, it can only do it on the basis of what it is within the categories of capital. The point isn’t to make a normative condemnation of self-organisation, but to state what it is and to say that the revolution is not a dynamic that it contains and which simply needs to blossom.”
Abolishing autonomy: “Those who speak unceasingly of the ‘dynamic’ of struggles miss completely what is the essential moment: the proletariat as revolutionary subject abolishes itself as subject of autonomy.”
Maybe summaries of TC’s perspective: “Two essential points describe the essence of the current cycle of struggles: • The disappearance of a proletarian identity reaffirmed within the reproduction of capital. It is the end of the workers movement and the concomitant failure of self-organisation and of autonomy as a revolutionary perspective.
• With the restructuring of the capitalist mode of production, the 2 contradiction between the classes is found at the level of theirrespective reproduction. In its contradiction with capital, the proletariat puts itself into question.”
The outlines of a strategy!: “The proliferations of collectives and the recurrence of intermittent strikes (like Spring ‘0 in France, or the English postworkers) make palpable in defining themselves against it, that class unity is an objectification within capital. We shouldn’t judge these phenomena with a normative measure, which sees in them only an unaccomplished project of class unification which is the antecedent to its affirmation. In these struggles, it is the exteriorisation of class belonging which is revealed as the present nature of struggle as a class. In all these movements, seeing the segmentation of the class as a weakness to be overcome in a unity, is to ask a formal question and to answer it with a formal question. The spread of these movements, their diversity, their discontinuity is their very dynamic and what is interesting in them. ‘Going further’ is not to overcome segmentation in unity – that is a formal answer to a problem which is probably obsolete. The point isn’t to loose that segmentation, the differences. ‘Going further’, is, in other circumstances, the contradiction between these struggles in their diversity and the unity of the class objectified within capital. The point isn’t to say the more the class is divided the better, but that a generalisation of a strike movement is not synonymous with its unity, i.e. with an overcoming of differences which are seen as purely accidental and formal. The point is to understand what is at play in these segmented, diffuse and discontinuous movements: the growth of a discrepancy within this ‘substantial’ unity objectified within capital. This extreme diversity which is conserved and maybe even deepened in a more widespread movement (in contradiction with capital and this objective unity which it represents), is perhaps a condition of the articulation of these immediate struggles and communisation. These facts are now an unavoidable determination of the class struggle. The unity of the class can no longer base itself on the basis of the wage and the struggle over immediate demands as a prelude to its revolutionary activity. The unity of the proletariat can only be the activity in which it abolishes itself in abolishing everything that divides it. It is a fraction of the proletariat which in overcoming the demand based nature of its struggle will take communising measures and which will begin the process of the unification of the proletariat which will not be different from the unification of humanity, i.e. its creation as the totality of social relations that individuals establish between themselves in their singularity.”
Abolishing the class: “The essence of what has happened in Argentina, is that all the forms of self-organisation, autonomy, workers’ control and assembly immediately encountered their limit in the form of opposition and an internal contradiction treating them like a perpetuation of capitalist society. Abolishing capital is at the same time denying oneself as a worker and not self-organising as such, it’s a movement of the abolition of businesses, of factories, of the ‘product’, of exchange (whatever its form). The proletariat as class and revolutionary subject abolishes itself as such in the abolition of capital. The process of revolution is that of the abolition of what is self-organisable. Self-organisation is the first act of the revolution, what follows is carried out against it.”
On self-organization and class belonging: “We self-organise like the unemployed of Mosconi, the workers of Brukman, the inhabitants of the shanty towns…, but when we self- 2 organise, we immediately come up against what it is that we areand which, in struggle, becomes what must be superseded. Self- organisation as a general limit to supersession appears in conflicts between the self-organised sectors. What appears in these conflicts is that workers defend their present situation, remaining in the categories of the capitalist mode of production which define them. Unification is impossible without being precisely the abolition of self-organisation, without the unemployed person, the Zanon worker, the squatter no longer being able to be unemployed, a Zanon worker or a squatter.”