Autonomist Marxism

Autonomism or Autonomist Marxism is a set of anti-authoritarian left-wing political and social movements and theories.  As a theoretical system, it first emerged in Italy in the 1960s from workerist (operaismocommunism. Later, post-Marxist and anarchisttendencies became significant after influence from the Situationists, the failure of Italian far-left movements in the 1970s, and the emergence of a number of important theorists including Antonio Negri, who had contributed to the 1969 founding of Potere Operaio, as well as Mario TrontiPaolo Virno and Franco "Bifo" Berardi.

Georgy Katsiaficas summarizes the forms of autonomous movements saying that "In contrast to the centralized decisions and hierarchicalauthority structures of modern institutions, autonomous social movements involve people directly in decisions affecting their everyday lives. They seek to expand democracy and to help individuals break free of political structures and behavior patterns imposed from the outside." As such this has involved a call for the independence of social movements from political parties in a revolutionary perspective which seeks to create a practical political alternative to both authoritarian socialism and contemporary parliamentary democracy.

Autonomism influenced the German and Dutch Autonomen, the worldwide social centre movement, and today is influential in Italy, France, and to a lesser extent the English-speaking countries. Those who describe themselves as autonomists now vary from Marxists to post-structuralists and anarchists.

Unlike other forms of Marxism, autonomist Marxism emphasises the ability of the working class to force changes to the organization of thecapitalist system independent of the statetrade unions or political parties. Autonomists are less concerned with party political organization than are other Marxists, focusing instead on self-organized action outside of traditional organizational structures. Autonomist Marxism is thus a "bottom-up" theory: it draws attention to activities that autonomists see as everyday working-class resistance to capitalism, for exampleabsenteeism, slow working, and socialization in the workplace.

Like other Marxists, autonomists see class struggle as being of central importance. However, autonomists have a broader definition of the working class than do other Marxists: as well as wage-earning workers (both white collar and blue collar), autonomists also include in this category the unwaged (students, the unemployed, homemakers, etc.), who are traditionally deprived of any form of union representation.

Early theorists (such as Mario TrontiAntonio NegriSergio Bologna, and Paolo Virno) developed notions of "immaterial" and "social labour" that extended the Marxist concept of labour to all society. They suggested that modern society's wealth was produced by unaccountablecollective work, and that only a little of this was redistributed to the workers in the form of wages. Other Italian autonomists—particularly feminists, such as Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Silvia Federici—emphasised the importance of feminism and the value of unpaid female labour to capitalist society.

A scholar of the movement, Michael Ryan, writes that

Autonomy, as a movement and as a theory, opposes the notion that capitalism is an irrational system which can be made rational through planning. Instead, it assumes the workers' viewpoint, privileging their activity as the lever of revolutionary passage as that which alone can construct a communist society. Economics is seen as being entirely political; economic relations are direct political relations of force between class subjects. And it is in the economic category of the social worker, not in an alienated political form like the party, that the initiative for political change resides.

© Georgina Rowlands, all rights reserved