Aufheben - Autonomia

Aufheben articles on Autonomia.

Articles in this series -

From Operaismo to Autonomist Marxism
The arcane of reproductive production
Keep on Smiling - questions on immaterial labour

Whether we have liked it or not, Aufheben has often been pigeon-holed as an Autonomist Marxist magazine. It is certainly true that Autonomism had been a defining influence and inspiration for those of us who launched Aufheben in 1992. It was not so much the lucidity of the prose, the rigour of the logic or even the empirical robustness of the arguments contained in the autonomist writings which had been translated into English over the previous decade or so that impressed us. There were other more important reasons why we had been inspired by Autonomism.

First of all, autonomist theory could claim to have arisen from the practice of an actual mass movement. From the accounts we had read, it was apparent that the waves of class struggle that had swept across the world during the 1960s and 70s had occurred on a significantly greater scale and intensity in Italy (the home of Autonomism) than those that had occurred elsewhere. But more significantly, the struggles in Italy - with perhaps the brief exception of Paris for a few weeks in 1968 - could be seen to have gone far further than anywhere else. In Italy, the struggles of the 70s had given rise to a political and social movement that could be seen to have been breaking free from the fetters imposed by the organisational forms, practice and ideas of the old workers movement and the left. By reflecting this movement in theory it could be argued that the Italian Autonomism had given one of the most advanced theoretical expressions of the waves of struggles of the 1960s and 1970s.

Secondly, autonomist theory provided us with a starting point from which to understand non-traditional forms of social and political struggle in class terms. In our editorial to the first issue of Aufheben we pointed out that the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s had given rise to a revival of many of the theoretical currents of the classical workers movement which had previously been submerged by decades of Stalinism, such as Trotskyism, class struggle anarchism and council communism. These currents certainly put forward radical class analyses. However, we argued that to a large extent these currents had merely ‘regurgitated as ideology the theories they were [re]discovering’.1 To this extent they had failed, as we rather obscurely put it, to ‘actually develop a theory adequate to modern conditions’.2 Instead, we asserted that it had been the autonomists, along with the Situationists, that had gone furthest in recognizing that these ‘modern conditions’ - which had been established after the defeat of the revolutionary workers movements of the 1920s and 30s - had radically altered the nature of the proletariat.

It was claimed that the emergence of this new proletariat was giving rise to new needs, new demands and new forms of struggle. These new needs, demands and struggles could be discerned both in the growth of rank and file workers militancy, and in the ‘refusal of work’ - evident in individual acts of absenteeism and sabotage and the more general disaffection with labour amongst the working class. But it could also be claimed to be evident outside the workplace both with the spread of counter-culture - with its anti-work, hedonistic and libertarian ethos – as well as in the new social movements, which had largely grown out of this counter-culture, such as the women’s, student, peace and the ecology movements.

But such claims did not appear as particularly obvious, in Britain at least. After all, the counter-culture remained largely confined to life-style politics and various other forms of cultural rebellion. While counter-culture may claim to have created ‘new proletarian needs’, it had also facilitated their commodification. At the same time the new social movements rarely went beyond the limits of an ultimately reformist radical liberalism. What is more, both the counter-culture and the disparate new social movements had (for the most part) remained quite separate to militant workplace struggles of the time – and even at times radically opposed.

By developing and generalising the theories of workers self-creativity, class composition and proletarian subjectivity - as early Operaismo currents of Autonomism in relation to the workplace struggles of the Fiat car workers had - Toni Negri and other Autonomia theorists provided a way of understanding the diverse forms of struggles and social phenomena, which had emerged outside the workplace, as manifestations of the development of underlying class antagonisms driven by the proletariat itself. What is more, such notions as the ‘social factory’ and the emergence of the ‘social worker’ as the ‘new revolutionary subject’, which had been developed by the Italian Autonomia, seemed to have found their confirmation in the ‘Movement of ‘77’, and had appeared as aspects of a single mass political and social movement that had overtly challenged the Italian state.

Thirdly - and no less importantly - autonomist theory (particularly that of Negri and Autonomia) appealed to us because of its unabashed revolutionary rhetoric. In contrast to the scientific objectivism and realism of traditional Marxism, the autonomist theorists seemed to place themselves at the barricades - bolstering the ‘optimism of the will’ with an ‘optimism of the intellect’ in order to urge the movement forward. For them, what seemed most important was not to produce a ‘boring’ analysis of the ‘empirical’ reality of the current situation, but to anticipate and proclaim its revolutionary possibilities.

By the early 1990s the waves of struggles that had swept Italy and elsewhere in decade or so before had receded, but they were very far from being ancient history. With the fall of Thatcher, the return of economic crisis with the recession of the early 1990s and the uncertainties created by the end of the cold war, it was still possible to believe that the tide had not altogether turned. In such circumstances Autonomism still remained fresh and relevant. Even if Toni Negri, along with many others of the Italian Autonomia, had ‘sold out’ and joined the ranks of the post-modernists, the Autonomist theory was still being developed, particularly by the largely American Autonomist Marxist current mostly ably represented by Harry Clever and those surrounding the Midnight Notes collective.

However, even then the problems of Autonomist theory were becoming evident to us. Their revolutionary rhetoric, which so impressed us, was almost invariably based on heroic extrapolations of abstract social phenomena and trends that were then asserted as being all but realised.3 But as the struggles of the 1970s receded, and the anticipations of autonomist theory were disappointed, the gap between such assertions and actual reality became evermore wider. In the case of Negri the ‘difficulty’ and obscurantism of much his writing – which it must be admitted we often all too easily mistook for profundity –served to cover up this gap. For our more plain speaking American friends, however, this was not the case.

In Aufheben#3 we presented a review of Midnight Oil, an anthology of works by American Autonomist collectives Zerowork and Midnight Notes that had been published shortly after the Gulf War, that we republish in this volume. What immediately struck us about Midnight Oil was its crass attempt to explain the complex geo-politics of the Gulf War simply in terms of an unmediated and barely disguised class confrontation between ‘capital’ and the ‘oil proletariat’. The assertion that the war between the US and Iraq was really little more than a ruse by capital to defeat the ‘oil proletariat’, along with the argument that ‘capital’ had been able to arbitrarily raise or lower oil prices in order to impose its strategy on the working class, was for us far from convincing. Indeed, it exposed serious problems of Autonomist Marxist’s central notion of the ‘two strategies’; in which the development of capitalism could be simply explained in terms of an unmediated struggle between capital and the working class as if they were two already constituted, conscious and antagonistic subjects.

For us capital was essentially the self-expansion of alienated labour that necessary took the objectified social form of value. Furthermore, capital, like the proletariat, was not an already constituted totality but a process of totalisation that resulted from the conflicting interests of individual capitals. As such it was not the case, as George Caffentzis sought to claim in his reply to our review of Midnight Oil, that the issue was merely a matter of emphasis in that the Midnight Notes collective sought to emphasise the ‘subjective’ while Aufheben sought to bring back the ‘objective’. As we made clear in our response to his reply,4 by attempting to escape the law of value Midnight Notes had abandoned any hope of understanding the complex mediations between capital and labour, subject and object and the individual and totality necessary to develop an adequate understanding of the concrete development and history of capitalism.

The review of Midnight Notes, and the subsequent engagement with Caffentzis, laid the basis of our critique and break with Autonomism that has been developed more recently. However, at the time we did not feel the need to go much further. After all interest in the Italian Autonomia, Negri or even American Autonomous Marxism remained largely confined to a small and diminishing circle of anarchists and ultra-leftists and seemed to have little more to say. However, the emergence of the anti-globalisation movement in the late 1990s brought a dramatic revival in interest in Autonomism in the English speaking world which was greatly boosted by the publication of Empire by Negri and Hardt in 2000.

For us it was clear that the attempt by Negri and Hardt to foist what were barely disguised post-modernist ideas on the anti-globalisation movement was merely an attempt to refurbish their threadbare appearance as radical intellectuals by attempting to make a tenuous connection with a real political movement. Their rejection of class and their uncritical and complacent celebration of the diversity of the movement only confirmed for that for all their apparent radicalism they were little more than radical liberal academics. Nevertheless, Empire and subsequent the writings of Negri and Hardt, along with Autonomism more generally, did have a significant resonance in the anti-globalisation movement. It must be admitted that we were at first perhaps a little tardy and haphazard in our responding to this.

In Aufheben #11 we took the opportunity of the publication of a new edition of Harry Cleaver’s Reading Capital Politically and the publication of Steve Wright’s Storming Heaven to carry a joint review comparing these two accounts of Autonomism. This review proved to something of a missed opportunity in re-evaluating Autonomism. Due to its haphazard conception, the review ended up with a rather confused brief.5 Firstly, it was meant to promote that Steve Wright’s more historically based account and definition of Autonomism as having superseded that of Harry Cleaver. Secondly, it was meant to criticise the political conclusion usually drawn by autonomists in general, particularly the well worn gripe of ultra-leftists that autonomists were ‘soft’ on left nationalists. Thirdly, the review was to criticise Cleaver in particular, both for his reading of Marx and his development of autonomous theory. As a result the review was unfocused. This allowed Cleaver to make a rather patronising and schoolmasterly reply in which he annotated a copy of our review with his ‘corrections’.

This prompted us to make a more focused and sustained critique of autonomist theory that recognised and carefully distinguished its distinct strands that had grown up since the 1970s. Three of the more substantial articles and reviews of this critique are re-published in this volume: ‘The arcane of productive reproduction’, ‘Carry on smiling’ and ‘Value struggles or class struggle?’.

We began, perhaps more by accident than by design with a review in Aufheben #13 (2005) of Leopoldina Fortunati’s ‘The arcane of reproduction’, in which we analysed the Autonomist understanding of value production and its role in capitalism. In particular, we tackled the Autonomist rejection of the distinction between workers as ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ of value, and their view of capitalism as a ‘social factory’ in which everybody contributes to the overall process of value production.

Fortunati’s book cannot be considered a principal Autonomist work; it was a short, semi-obscure pamphlet. Yet it offered us the occasion to consider why it was so crucial for Autonomia to argue that everybody in the ‘social factory’ was ‘productive’. The answer to this question allowed us to put pieces of the Autonomist puzzle together: with the ‘law of command’ replacing the ‘law of value’, value becomes the immediate expression of subjective antagonism. This creates the Autonomists’ obsession with value: since production of value is taken as an immediate measure of antagonism, non-productive workers, students, housewives, etc. must produce value – or their struggle can’t be accounted by their theory. Thus Autonomia’s stress on value was not necessitated by the praxis of struggle, but by a problematic theory: either the unproductive was declared ‘productive’ (either by modifying the concept of value or just by butchering logic), or the Autonomist theory had problems in explaining reality.

Also, the stress on productivity did not impress us very much. Since most of us in the Aufheben editorial board were on the dole, we didn’t feel that our alleged production of value was essential to explain our antagonism with capital. Rather, with their obsession with value, Autonomia appeared to uncritically reproduce the Leninist worship of productivity, although in an inverted form.6 Like the old Leninist, the young Autonomist assumes that the subject of struggle must be productive – only, the ‘factory’ includes the street, the classroom and the bedroom.

Fortunati took this doctrine to unexplored heights, as she laughably attempted to derive a formula for the value produced by housework. But in our review article we did not simply tease her embarrassing pseudo-mathematics – we also explored the role of value in all the Autonomist theory, and considered Cleaver, Negri and De Angelis, their common positions as well as their differences.7

We also realised that the claim that all society is a ‘factory’ undermined the understanding of an important distinction, that between the spheres of production and circulation in capitalism. If for Autonomia a subjective experience of ‘capitalist command’ only counts, capital can be seen as a personalised enemy of each individual subjectivity. Command, and so antagonism, can be experienced by the poorest migrant, but also by the stressed NHS manager, by the university professor, or by the shop keeper. They are all, equally, ‘commanded’ by capital either in the workplace or in the sphere of circulation.

While some Autonomists like Cleaver and De Angelis continued using a Marxist language although stretching its original meanings, others, perhaps more coherently, took these positions to their logical consequences. Since the 80s Negri and other Autonomist theorists were already moving along a trajectory that would lead them to repudiate the ‘working class’. Negri enthusiastically adhered to a postmodernist view of society as made by a ‘swarm’ of ‘free’ individuals, and which disposes of the need for a class analysis. With Empire and Multitude, Negri criticised the category of ‘working class’ and adopted the postmodernist concept of ‘multitude’, elaborated by Autonomist Paolo Virno.8

Having missed the boat somewhat in reviewing Empire in 2000 in Aufheben # 14, we decided to review Negri’s and Hardt’s second book, Multitude. In this review article we critiqued Negri’s optimistic view that capital has created its own grave-digger in its new process of production – the ‘immaterial production’. We showed that this view was rooted in Negri’s inability to consider the tragedy of production in capitalism – i.e. that (either material or immaterial) production in a wage-work relation unavoidably creates alienation. We also noticed that Negri’s new production, like his old one, was unable to go beyond Leninism. Negri’s celebration of immaterial production simply inverted the old Leninist productivism, while uncritically accept its basic assumptions.

The reviews of Massimo De Angelis’s ‘The Beginning of History’ and Paolo Virno’s ‘Multitude’ in Aufheben #16 concluded a long period of systematic analysis of Autonomia. In ‘The beginning of history’ De Angelis adopted a recent and popular reading of the class struggle as a struggle to defend ‘commons’ against capital’s ‘enclosure’; and built up a grand theory around these concepts. While we praised De Angelis’s strong critique of Negri’s immaterial labour, we were also critical of De Angelis’s interest in ‘commons’ and ‘enclosures’. We saw these concepts as the logical conclusion of a trajectory which has started from the idea that the class struggle in capitalism could be immediately see as a confrontation of autonomous subjects, capital versus the class. While in the 70s such a subjectivist reading made sense, the retreat of the class struggle left the Autonomist theorists bereft – the autonomous subject had vanished. In the review we showed how this problem led Negri to define immaterial production as the locus for an autonomous and antagonistic subjectivity. Rejecting Negri, De Angelis looked outside production for an unspoilt autonomous bubble of subjectivity, and found it in the ‘communities’ struggling to defend their ‘commons’.

While the concept of common and enclosure appear new and exciting, we thought that it was a form of fetishism. Any conscious and collective antagonism against capital cannot be defined ‘outside’ it. We showed that outside and inside, are both necessary aspects for a conscious development of antagonism and for a struggle of the class of the dispossessed against capital.

Although Autonomism was a defining influence and inspiration on those us who launched Aufheben seventeen years ago we would certainly not call ourselves autonomists now. Times have changed, and it has become apparent to us that many of the things that had inspired us about the various strands of Autonomism have also proved to be serious weaknesses. However, although we have increasingly distanced ourselves from Autonomia, on our part there is no regret for our ongoing interest in it, as a theory that stressed the importance of subjectivity, antagonism, the experience of class struggle and that opened up to struggles outside the workplace. By looking at it retroactively for this anthology, we can say that in moving away from Autonomia, Aufheben has precisely done what it promised in it first Editorial:

‘To recognise and seize the opportunity the changing situation offers we need to arm ourselves theoretically and practically. The theoretical side of this requires a preservation and superseding of the revolutionary theory that has preceded us’ (#1, p.1).

In our dealing with Autonomia we have undergone a process of Aufhebung that goes beyond given ideas but preserves their moment of truth. The urge for a theory of subjectivity stimulated in us a process of understanding, which, unlike Autonomia, seeks to preserve a class view. We have never abandoned the importance to start from a materialistic (not moralistic or purely subjectivist) understanding of reality. This effort has not only led us to distance ourselves from Autonomia, but also from theories that appeared to be at its polar opposite, for example the Marxist Hegelianism of Postone and his likes, which collapse the subjective into the objective.9

It is worth stressing that this Aufhebung was not the result of pure theoretical thinking. Our practical experience of struggle in our last 15 years was central in this development: it faced us with questions about the relation between theory and reality, subject and object, ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, it forced us to adopt a class view. And so it forced us to continually reassess our fascinations and ideas critically.10

Articles in this series -

From Operaismo to Autonomist Marxism
The arcane of reproductive production
Keep on Smiling - questions on immaterial labour

  • 1. Aufheben #1, (Summer 1992), p1.
  • 2. Aufheben #1, (Summer 1992), p1.
  • 3. Thus for example, the introduction of robotics into the FIAT car plants, in response to the car workers struggles of the early 1970s, was taken as evidence that capitalist production in its entirety was all but fully automated. Hence, Marx’s prediction in the Grundrisse (p. 705) that labour in the direct form would cease to be well great spring of wealth’ and that as such labour-time ceases and must cease to be its measure’, was now proclaimed as being almost fully realised. The law of value was therefore dead. Labour was now merely a means of command and control.

    Similarly, the growth in the autonomists movements, and the ‘new proletarian needs’ it expressed, was extrapolated to the point where it was implicitly assumed that it was about to encompass the entire proletariat. Of course, the reality is that even in Italy at its height, the autonomist movement never came close to encompassing the entire proletariat. The vast majority of the Italian working class during the 1970s had little or no direct involvement in the autonomist movements.

  • 4. The Escape from the ‘Law of Value’?, Aufheben #5 (1996).
  • 5. Originally the Harry Cleaver’s Reading Capital Politically was to have been part of a joint review with Moshie Postone’s Time Labour and Social Domination. The Postone half of the review failed to materialise, so the Cleaver half had to be rewritten to be counter posed to Steve Wright’s Storming Heaven. Unfortunately the Steve Wright half of the review ended up not amounting to much either.
  • 6. This worship substantiates Negri’s rather dubious and rather apologetic conception of ‘self-valorisation’.
  • 7. In this anthology, the parts related to Fortunati’s mathematics have been abridged.
  • 8. ‘The language of retreat: Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the multitude’, Aufheben #16 (2008).
  • 9. Review of Moishe Postone’s Time Labour and Social Domination, Aufheben #15 (2007).
  • 10. ‘Theoretical criticism and practical overflow fifteen years on'’, Aufheben #15 (2007).


May 15 2011 18:27

Well, I found that an interesting read.
I remember a few class struggle anarchists becoming enamoured with autonomous Marxism around 2000.
'After all interest in the Italian Autonomia, Negri or even American Autonomous Marxism remained largely confined to a small and diminishing circle of anarchists and ultra-leftists and seemed to have little more to say.'