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Red & Black Forum on Anti-Capitalist Currents
Sydney July 2001

Red and Black Forum on Anti-Capitalist Currents: Some Critical Thoughts on Autonomism.

Day 2 of the Red and Black Forum - held over the weekend of July 28th and 29th at the University of Technology, Sydney - was when speakers associated with the Love and Rage milieu spoke of the autonomist ideas that underpin their activities. Whilst I don't profess to be expert in autonomist theory, I shall, however, from my own revolutionary syndicalist and libertarian marxist perspectives, endeavour to highlight those aspects of autonomism that I regard as inadequate for purposes of fighting capitalism.

Sergio Fiedler presented the fundamentals of the autonomist perspective (which I hope I represent here with some degree of accuracy): Autonomism stresses that the class struggle between worker and capitalist is central to the history of capitalism, and that workers develop forms of organisation that parallel technical and managerial developments in the forces of production.

For instance, during the decades prior to the First World War when the skilled worker typified the average proletarian, syndicalist strategies were appropriate organisational responses to the existing level of technological development. The bourgeoisie introduced taylorist and fordist methods of reorganising production in order to, not only increase the productivity of labour and the volume of output, but also, to eliminate the material basis of the skilled workers - and hence their industrial and political power - by replacing them with unskilled workers attending mechanised production lines. The working class responded by adopting some variation or another of the vanguardist party model, by which it's assumed that a vanguard of professional revolutionary intellectuals is necessary to keep the class struggle on track to socialism; this became the appropriate political form for the new conditions.

Autonomist analysis thus seeks to emphasise the development of class composition which it sees as taking place through seemingly ever-recurring cycles of composition, decomposition, recomposition, etc., in response to technical change brought about by the bosses.

Classical marxian theory was overly concerned with the study of capital formation to the detriment of class formation, according to the autonomists; and the neo-liberal era, being supposedly post-industrial in character, was crying out for revolutionary strategies that would be qualitatively different from those of yesteryear that addressed themselves solely to mass workforces; so as a corrective to these perceived deficiencies, Harry Cleaver, in 1979, felt compelled to write Reading Capital Politically.

Here, the class struggle between worker and capitalist is still central to revolutionary activity, but the forms that this activity takes under conditions of neo-liberalism necessarily differs from those of the 'old days'. But what are the most appropriate forms for revolutionary activity in the neo-liberal era?

I shall quote Sergio from a recent posting on the Love and Rage discussion site [Re: Brief Intro to Autonomist Marxism by Nick Dyer-Withford ... 7/08/01]: "What autonomists do is basically contributing at creating working class autonomy and self-activity. In the current 'post-industrial' phase of capitalism, this involves creating autonomous spaces for both activism and new forms of social relations. Communism in the here and now sort of thing. This can be social centres, helping to organise the unemployed or workers in the 'new economy' like call centres, help to set up communication networks such as Indymedia, well, creating all sorts of organs of struggle and life which are independent from the bureaucracies of the State and capital." In another posting [(Love and Rage) Brief Intro to Autonomist Marxism by Nick Dyer-Withford ... 6/08/01], Sergio says that the "undermining of capitalism" will be achieved by, not a singular "mole" such as Marx's industrial proletariat, but by a "tribe of moles" which will adopt a "lateral, polycentric concept of anti-capitalist alliance-in-diversity, connecting a plurality of agencies in a circulation of struggles."

The revolution itself will occur after a protracted period during which class conflict moves like a "spiralling 'double helix'" where "[w]orking class composition and capitalist restructuring chase each other over ever widening and more complex expanses of social territory. As long as capital retains the initiative, it can actually harness the momentum of the struggle as a motor of development, using workers' revolt to propel its growth and drive it to successively more sophisticated technical and organizational levels. The revolutionary counterproject, however, is to rupture this recuperative movement, unspring the dialectical spiral, and speed the circulation of struggles until they attain an escape velocity in which labor tears itself away from incorporation within capital - in a process that autonomists refer to as autovalorization or self-valorization.

For behind the perennial renewed conflict of capital and labor lies an asymmetry of enormous consequences. Capital, a relation of general commodification predicated on the wage relation, needs labor. But labor does not need capital. Labor can dispense with the wage, and with capitalism, and find different ways to organize its own creative energies: it is potentially autonomous [ibid.]."

Whatever one thinks of the descriptive validity of such a highly abstracted analysis of the class struggle, one cannot be too impressed with the practical prescriptions that have been drawn from it. While the extravagant use of metaphor allows for pretty much any kind of interpretation as far as practical activity is concerned, there does, however, remain an insistence on the primacy of the labour and capital relationship.

The practical political prescription, in contrast, recommends the formation of alliances amongst social elements that are marginal, or, at best, peripheral to the labour/capital relationship ("activists", the unemployed, call centre workers, etc.): these elements appear to have little in common to provide a basis for alliance . If autonomists are serious about fighting capitalism why not call for an effort to assist the self-activity of workers in sectors that have some real chance of shifting the balance of class forces in favour of workers? Why cite call centre workers as being targets for autonomist self-activity? The struggles of self-organised call centre workers will have a serious chance of developing into a formidable anti-capitalist force only if they link up with self-organised workers elsewhere, along industry-wide lines. The last thing call centre workers should be contemplating is an alliance with squatters, the unemployed, or some other marginalised group - unless they're seeking a quick exit into oblivion (or should that be decomposition?).

The political prescriptions cited above seem to belie an unwillingness to fight the bosses in a real and concrete manner: the purpose seems to be a desire to retreat from engagement with capitalist society into "autonomous spaces" where "new forms of social relations", "communism in the here and now", and no doubt, other forms of dilettantism can be experimented with, while capitalism functions as per usual outside.

Traditional marxists called this utopianism; anarchists call it lifestylism; both regard it as having no ability to abolish capitalism. Social centres certainly have a useful role to play, but they can only be brought into being as a result of struggle. For example, it's possible for workers to win from their boss, as a result of a demonstration of collective strength, a space at their workplace at which to hold meetings, use as a leisure centre, etc.: such a victory would comprise a real extension of the workers' control over their job, and constitute in real terms, a shift in power in the relations of production from the boss to the workers. The autonomist proposal above, however, seems to want to 'ordain' social centres into existence, and then wait for workers to gravitate towards them - a utopian illusion. At best, some moderate success may be had in creating subcultural hangouts here and there, but no more.

The idea that a viable movement for the positive abolition of capitalism can be founded on the basis of an un-centred alliance of the marginalised is literally quite fantastic, and is made possible by the autonomists' blind acceptance of bogus bourgeois concepts such as 'post-industrial society' and 'new economy'. Post-industrialism and post-fordism are ideological devices that bourgeois management experts have harnessed to con workers into participating in their own exploitation via the use of 'associative democracy' in decentralised 'self-managed teams', etc. The concept of mass organisation amongst workers is also scoffed at by proponents of post-industrialism and post-fordism as belonging to a bygone age. These techniques serve no purpose other than to increase the rate of exploitation, and create confusions amongst workers as to what their real interests are.

A feature that proponents of the new economy thesis are trying to peddle is that information will become so abundant and easily accessible that investors will be able to divert capital during periods of expansion and thereby avoid crises. Recent crashes in Mexico, Thailand and Indonesia, however, continue to demonstrate that investors don't divert capital when riding an expansionary wave even if all the available information suggests a crash is imminent. The dead white males, Marx and Keynes noted this fact in their time, and it's still true! I would advise that autonomists proceed with caution if they choose to consort with post-industrialists and new economists.

The question must be asked: whence will the high levels of class consciousness required to bring about a transition to classless society come in the autonomists' schema? The unemployed? Squatters? Punk musicians? High levels of class consciousness only come to workers involved in battles with the bosses in the strategic centres of capitalism, and are then communicated to workers in the more peripheral sectors as the latter become incorporated into these struggles. Why? Because only in industries such as the railways, big construction projects, mining, trucking, stevedoring, etc., do workers get a glimpse of the real power that their economic role wields in relation to the economic whole and in relation to the power of the ruling class. Through successful rounds of democratically self-organised collective bargaining they develop an understanding that centralised and hierarchicalised decision-making is not necessarily a pre-ordained inevitability, nor is it necessarily compatible with the social decision-making potential that the workers themselves possess. Workers' self-management of the process of struggle - in which the mass meeting is sovereign and delegates are strictly mandated to carry out the will of the meeting - contributes to further raising class consciousness beyond economistic wants to socialist demands. It is only the workers' democratic control of the process of battling the bosses within the coherent capitalist whole that produces socialist consciousness.

According to the autonomists' own theory the primary battle is between labour and capital, yet they choose to avoid this battle. Annette Maguire, in her talk on situationism, criticised, quite rightly, the situationists' theoretical emphasis on the process of commodity circulation and associated social appearances to the exclusion of the material basis of production. While the situationists comprehended that workers' councils played a necessary part in the transition to a society beyond the spectacle, a classless society, they had no idea how to concretely go about catalysing workers' self-activity toward this end. The autonomists, I fear, are in the same boat. Conscious revolutionaries need to be directing their efforts towards assisting workers engaged in self-organised attacks and encroachments upon the bosses' legal bourgeois rights to manage.

Capitalism can be abolished only when the working class assumes control over the means of production.

Peter Siegl.
Date Sun, 19 Aug 2001 12:57:57 -0400 (EDT)
A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E
From Rebel Worker paper of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Network,
Vol.20 No.3(172) Aug-Sept. 2001,
PO Box 92 Broadway 2007 NSW Australia

Australia, Anti-Capitalist Currents Conference agenda

12:02am Sat Jun 16 '01
sydney anarchist / autonomist event

Sat. Sun. 28th-29th July at the UTS (University of Technology Sydney), Broadway, Building 2, level 4, Room 410. Entry Free, Donations Welcome, 2nd Draft Agenda

Saturday 28th July:

  • 11am-11.15am intro.
  • 11.15am-12noon Ultra Left, Anarchist or Communist Left? with Paul White, with discussion 12 noon - 12.45.
  • Lunch 12.45-1.45pm
  • 1.45pm-2.45pm: Pabloist Trotskyism's transition to a self management position in the 1960's & May 1968. Speaker: to be advised, with discussion 2.45pm - 3.30pm
  • 4.00pm - 4.45pm: The debate between Leon Trotsky & Victor Serge on Revolutionary Strategy - Speaker- Bob Gould, with discussion 4.45pm - 5.30pm
  • 5.30pm - 7pm Launch of We, The Anarchists! A Study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation F.A.I. (1927-37) by Stuart Christie, Recently published by The Meltzer Press & Jura Media, with an introduction by Michael Matteson, focusing on a critique of the vanguardist politics of the F.A.I.

Sunday 29th July

  • 11am to 11.45am: THe Situationists & Workers Self Activity - Speaker Paul McCartan, Discussion 11.45 to 12.30pm,
  • LUNCH 12.30 TO 1PM
  • 1pm TO 1.45pm Situationist insights for today with Annette, with discussion 1.45pm TO 2.15pm
  • 2.15pm-3pm Autonomist Marxism with Sergio with discussion, 3pm TO 3.45pm
  • 4pm TO 7pm: Neo-Liberalism & the crisis of Mobilisation:
  • 4pm TO 4.45pm: Anarcho-syndicalist insights into problems of the contemporary class struggle with Mark McGuire, with discussion, 4.45pm TO 5.30pm
  • 5.30pm TO 6.15pm The autonomist viewpoint with Nick, with discussion 6.15pm TO 7pm.

Organised by Red & Black Forum Committee, Contact: Jura Books Ph.(02) 95509931,

Some comments on 'autonomism and anarcho-syndicalism'

by James Hutchings

As far as I can see, this isn't quite as cut and dried as either Peter would make out, or the people who'd just write off what he says. It isn't true that things like community centres are automatically 'marginal' or subcultural. The Black Panthers and Young Lords ran centres in the 60s which were based on very class-conscious politics (though it was very bad in other ways), and which had an audience of 'mainstream' working class people in their communities.

This whole thing Peter talks about 'strategic centres' of capitalism vs peripheral ones sounds like gumph. Very similar to the way some autonomists talk, but using a different set of criteria (some autonomists say call centres are more important than other workplaces, I think because they're new innovations).

Anyway there aren't one group of people who work in 'strategic' industries and another group who work in 'peripheral' ones - most people will have more than one job in their lives. Most people in call centres won't be there in five years, say. And for that matter, most people on the dole will eventually have a job, many people who have jobs will at least be in danger of being on the dole.

On the other hand...Love and Rage does seem to like to blur their theory to suit their practice. There was a debate on the loveandrage list about using plain English - where the person who was in favour of this was soundly abused! 'The people I work with couldn't understand any of this, we ought to make it easier to understand' he said. 'Why can't they go to a dictionary'? someone asked, seemingly in all seriousness. Not bad for a group that supposedly wants to relate to regular working class people.

So on the whole I think this article suffers from similar problems to what it's trying to criticise ie making up new theories to suit themselves, rather than because there was anything inadequate about the existing tradition.

Date: Mon, 20 Aug 2001 15:19:27 +1000 slightly amended 3 Sep 2001
From: James Hutchings
Feedback to:

Reply on 'autonomism and anarcho-syndicalism'

by Sergio Fiedler

Firstly, a comment on Peter Siegl's critique:

It is very difficult for me to respond to him because we are starting from complete different definition of what constitutes the working class. Peter reduced the capital/labour relation, as all orthodox anarchosyndicalists and leninists do, to the workplace. The domestic sphere or even the dispersion of the factory process like in the case of sweat shop workers is simply ignored. He remaind stuck in the old arguments used against autonomists: that they focus revolutinary politics on those sections of society that occupy a marginal position within society and, therefore, have very little social power for effecting social change.

I am surprised that he included call centre workers as marginal strata of workers when this industry has had an explosive development over the last decade or so. In fact, I would argue that the general trend is for workers producing immaterial commodities -such as communication and services - to develop faster than traditional industries based on manufacturing. This does not mean that manufacturing has disappeared, more exactly that workers that used to occupy a marginal postion within capitalism have moved to centre of it. If there is any proper critique of some autonomist authors - such Negri for instance - it is that immaterial labour seem be so central that other sections of the class become subordinated.

The political problem with saying one sector of the class is more powerful and therefore more important than the others is that you create the social basis for hierarchies and for a centralised type of political organisation. This problem was present within both historical leninism and anarcho-syndicalism, both professed an insane celebration for the skilled workers over any other section of the working class. Peter Siegl is just repeating the same politics. In the present context where the working class is so diverse that it can hardly have an hegemonic section leading the others, that Peter's approach is even more reactionary.

Second, a reply to James.

There are 136 people in the Love & Rage list. Most of the people that debate and post messages to it are paradoxically enough not members of Love & Rage but comrades from Melbourne, Queensland, Canberra and New Zeland. What people said in the list is not representative of Love & Rage 's position on the issue. Before passing general and nasty remarks about Love & Rage, James should be able to check the facts.

Having said that, I believe it was Angela (from No one is illegal/awol in Melbourne) that replied to Paul (from IWW, Melbourne as well) with the argument that it was problematic for him to call on people to use "plain English" as a way to deal with theory. I completely agree with her. Coming from a non-English speaking background, I found this assertion and James' implicit defence of it disturbing. Most workers from a background like mine would actually find it very difficult to speak the "plain English" that Paul requested from the "theoreticos". And actually workers coming from countries where people speak Latin languages would be more familiar with abstract concepts such as "hegemony", "periphery", "conjuncture" or "self-valorisation" than with monosylabic sounds of the English language. It is fair enough to demand an easy language to talk about theory, but what worries me that all the complaints about abstract language are precisely contaminated by the Anglo-saxon philosophical empiricism and utilitarianism that people and politics from England, Australia and the US have been socialised within for hundreds of years. In other words, the anti-intellectuals are already contaminated by their own intellectualism: British empiricism, which disregards theory and is hostile to it.


Date Wednesday, September 5, 2001 5:27 pm
From: Sergio Fiedler


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