The Future At Our Backs: Autonomia and Autonomous Social Movements in 1970s Italy

Author: Patrick Cuninghame
Date: Tuesday, 23/02/1999 20:36 GMT
Subject: "Autonomia" and Autonomous Social Movements in Italy in the 1970s
Contribution type: AFPP IV

The Future At Our Backs: Autonomia and Autonomous Social Movements in 1970s Italy

by Patrick Cuninghame
(School of Social Science, Middlesex University)


The Italian new social movement of the mid to late 1970s, Autonomia (Autonomy), also known as Autonomia Operaia (Workers? Autonomy), represents a key collective actor in the history of late 20th century European protest and social conflict. Firstly, there is its role in the highly conflictual and relatively rapid transformation of Italy from a recently industrialised nation to a ?post-fordist?, post-industrial society from the mid 1970s onwards; a process which is still very much ongoing with the gradual emergence of a Second Republic, within the broader context of European integration, from the political instability, regional imbalances and corruption scandals of the First Republic. Secondly, there is the light the experience of Autonomia has thrown on the question of the changing nature of collective identity, political organisation and social contestation in urbanised, advanced capitalist societies.

Since the 1960s collective action has moved decisively away from being the expression of social conflict between supposedly homogenous social blocks based on clearly delineated and ideologised social class identities (the proletariat and bourgeoisie of classical Marxism) with the political party as the privileged site of socio-political organisation. Instead it has moved towards the heterogeneous sector of the new social movements, comprised of the new social or ?decentred? subjects of women, students, non-unionised and often casualised workers, unemployed youth, homosexuals, environmentalists and other so-called socially and politically ?marginal? elements, whose identities and ideologies appear to be constantly shifting and whose principal form of contestation has been the single issue campaign, usually organised as a decentralised network. I will argue that Autonomia, while sharing many of these characteristics, was unique as a European new social movement in that it combined several ?single issue campai
gns? (anti-nuclear, students and workers rights, access to cultural spaces, anti-fascism) under the umbrella of one heterogeneous and localist movement that was united only in its identification with the theory and practice of autonomy from the State, institutional political parties and trade unions or any form of political, social and cultural mediation between the interests of capital and those of the social actors of which it was composed. Or rather, that the most radical sectors of these social movements identified with each other and against the State through the theory and practice of political autonomy.

2. New social movement theories and Italian social movements
In testing these hypotheses, I intend to critique the prevalent approach of social movement theorists towards Italian new social movements in general and Autonomia in particular. Sydney Tarrow (1989) adopted a primarily quantitative approach based on the interpretation of data from a single ?newspaper of record? through which he identified a cycle of protest and social conflict from 1968 to 1973, which ended with the disintegration of the main social movement organisations - Potere Operaio (PO/Workers? Power), Lotta Continua (LC/Fight On) and Avanguardia Operaia (AO/Workers? Vanguard) into institutionalisation or clandestine organised political violence as a result of demobilisation brought on by various state strategies of repression and political co-option. Such a reliance on a single source of data (the liberal national daily newspaper Il Corriere della Sera), which itself was an actor in the social conflicts and not simply a neutral observer of events, leads him to ignore or minimise the emergence of a n
ew cycle of social conflict in the mid 1970s which peaked with the ?1977 Movement?, a rupture if anything more radical and certainly more violent than that of 1968.

Alberto Melucci (1977, 1989) views the new social movements essentially as defensive social phenomena, seeking to preserve ways of life and sets of values placed under threat by the exigencies of a revitalised capitalism, with culture, the body and communication as the principal arenas of contestation. Melucci seems to concur with the Italian Communist Party (PCI) intellectual Alberto Asor Rosa, whose thesis in his work on the 1977 Movement, ?Le Due Societá? (The Two Societies), states that the new social movements of the ?area of Autonomia? represented an ?irreducible marginalisation? of certain new social groupings, particularly the unemployed youth of the urban periphery. However, such a viewpoint on new social movements is in danger of depoliticising and decontextualising what was historically a profound moment of rupture within modern Italian society and of presenting these movements as substantially empty of creativity and innovation with nothing more than violence, criminality and deviance to
on before a systematic state response. The ?Two Societies? approach, also ties in with certain strands of Post-Marxism, such as Andre Gorz (1989), in recognising the division of the working class in the advanced capitalist nations between a precarious ?underclass? with few rights and no guarantees, and a guaranteed but shrinking sector still tied to the trade unions and the social democratic parties (a division which became evident in the mid 1970s). It fails to address both the nature of marginality and the use of this notion to delegitimise and generally minimise the significance of the most radical of the new social movements.

Robert Lumley (1990), adopts a hybrid cultural studies-semiotics approach, based on the works of Raymond Williams and Umberto Eco, with strong references to the French postmodernists and Italian ?weak thought? exponents, such as Gianni Vattimo. Using Raymond Williams? systemisation for cultural phenomena, he divides the social movements into two main categories: ?emergent?, such as the students and women's movements; and ?residual?, for example the factory workers movements and the Marxist ?groups?. Ultimately, his thesis concurs with that of Melucci in that the new social movements are cultural rather than political phenomena and herein essentially lies their ?newness? and their significance.

Other researchers of Italian social movements such as Donatella della Porta (1996) and David Moss (1989) have focused, like Tarrow, on Autonomia as fundamentally a terrorist phenomenon comparable with both Italian and German clandestine structures such as the Red Brigades and the Rote Arme Fraktion, and have chosen to ignore or minimise those cultural, social and historical aspects not directly related to the issues of political violence, deviance or subversion.

3. Working Hypotheses
One of the central characteristics and practices of the new social movements that separate them from the spheres of institutionalised or ?revolutionary vanguard? party politics is that of ?autonomy?. This essentially Enlightenment notion originally applied to the sovereignty of the individual within the collectivity in modern European thought, but has come to refer to a series of both collective and individual practices, needs and desires characteristic of the social actors within the new social movements. In the collective sense it signifies the need of different groups of actors to protect and advance their own agendas without being subsumed by the demands of a wider collectivity, whether it be civil society, the working class, or indeed by other social movements. One of the foremost practitioners of autonomy has been the women?s movement, the meeting of whose needs had historically been postponed by ?the revolutionary party? until after the conquest of state power and the establishment of socialism, the i
ssue of gender firmly subordinated to that of class.

In the political sense and particularly in the Italian context, autonomy meant the need of an emergent social composition of the deskilled, massified, Southern migrant factory workers of the 1960s to form self-managed, horizontal, organisations that would be independent from the social democratic parties and trade unions tied to the Fordist-Keynsian post-1945 social pact which principally benefited the established, ?historic? industrial working class of the North. Starting from this point of rupture, the desire of this ?mass worker? (as the operaista [workerist] intellectuals associated with Autonomia defined the ?class composition? of the Italian industrial working class of the late 1960s) for autonomy, also from the perceived drudgery and danger of factory work (hence the widely diffused practice of the ?refusal of work?), quickly spread outside the factory walls to their immediate communities, and then through the intervention of student activists to the broader social terrain, becoming the core practice
of the new social movements of the 1970s. The mainly Marxist-Leninist groups of the New Left that emerged from the revolts of 1968-69 were unable to confront the growing political and economic crisis following the Oil Crisis of 1973. Undermined more by the succesful co-optive transformation of the factory workers assemblies into shop-steward's committees where the unions were able to gradually re-establish their hegemony, than by the 'Strategy of Tension', the State's allegedly terroristic response to the 'Hot Autumn' of 1969, the groups dissolved themselves. Some of their individual members returned to the fold of the historic left, others took the path of radical reformism and helped to found 'Democrazia Proletaria' (DP/Proletarian Democracy). Most found themselves in autonomous localised collectives, deprived of a national co-ordinating structure and a 'party line' but conversely more involved in the immediate struggles of the 'social territory'. What the investigative journalist Giorgio Bocca, described
as the 'archipelago of Autonomia' had begun to emerge by 1975. As factory-based conflict diminished under the impact of technological restructuring but neighbourhood, student and 'marginalised youth' contestations intensified in the mid-1970s, this 'autonomia operaia' (workers? autonomy), evolved into the broader phenomenon of 'autonomia'. It signified a desire for and an attempted practice of independence from both the capitalist political economy and from the Nation State as the ultimate site of political power, mainly through often illegal forms of expropriation, self-management and ?counter-power?.

Although the emphasis was always on the collective, autonomy was also seen as an individual demand and practice: the diversity of the needs of the individual could not be subordinated to the voluntarism of party discipline nor to the romantic leftist myth of heroic self-sacrifice. This autonomy of the individual within the immediate collectivity of a social movement and the broader collectivity of civil society appeared to find its apposite political expression in the direct, participative democracy of the assembly and the refusal of delegation or any form of representative, institutionalised democracy

4. Main themes of research
The five main themes or conceptual frameworks identified as being key to an understanding of the political, social, cultural, theoretical and historical significance of Autonomia and the Italian autonomous social movements of the 1970s are: work and its >refusal=, models of political organisation, counter-cultures and the >refusal of politics=, the uses of illegality and political violence, and alternative visions of future societies.

i) Work and its >refusal=:
The >refusal of work= was a central practice and belief of the activists and intellectuals of Autonomia. Starting from its origins among the autonomous workers organisations in the large industrial plants of northern Italy in the late 1960s, this shifted during the course of the 1970s into a generalised refusal by youth to enter the factory or workplace as part of the search for an alternative society based on pleasure and the expropriation of >secondary= cultural needs more than >primary= physical ones. (The influence of Agnes Heller=s >Theory of Needs= on the Italian autonomists theory and political praxis was evident.) However, this refusal of work was recuperated within the factory through post-Fordist restructuring which led to the re-emergence of the problem of mass unemployment and intensified divisions within the working classes. At the same time the social movements which adopted this practice found themselves increasingly marginalised from one of the central loci of political interaction, the large-
scale factory, many being forced into precarious, deregulated labour at the apparent margins of the productive process. However, some Autonomist intellectuals claimed that in fact a new type of intellectual operaio sociale (socialised worker), had substituted the manual >mass worker= of the factories as both more central to the needs of post-Fordist capitalism and potentially far more antagonistic to its project of technological restructuring and economic austerity. With the defeat and demobilisation of the new social movements by the end of the 1970s, a critique began to emerge within Autonomia of this absolute refusal of work, and of its potential to be recuperated within a process of mechanisation and flexibilisation in the workplace, wherein the workers= knowledge of labour-saving >tricks= was expropriated as part of Toyotism=s >just in time/total quality= model of factory production.

ii) Models of political organisation:
The concept of >autonomy= was key to the various models of political organisation within Autonomia. These included the more tightly organised workplace and university collectives associated with the Autonomia Operaia Organizata (organised workers= autonomy) tendency which attempted to form a national network with eventual aspirations to becoming a revolutionary political party on the Marxist-Leninist vanguard model, able to directly challenge the political and cultural hegemony of the PCI and the trade unions within the Italian working class. However, this tendency=s attempt to impose its apparently outmoded organisational model on the rest of the heterogeneous spectrum of the >1977 Movement= was fiercely resisted by the more fluid and localised structures of what was known as >the diffused autonomy of the social=, namely those movements, such as women, homosexuals and alternative media activists, who effectively refused the concept of political organisation itself and were often characterised by an emphasis
on cultural interventions. A further political form came at the end of the cycle with the emergence of the myriad of small semi-clandestine groups of >armed autonomy= who attempted to differentiate themselves from the clandestine paramilitary cellular structures of the Red Brigades by combining open political agitational activities with clandestine >armed actions=, more often against >things= (i.e.industrial sabotage) than people. Most of these ?armed groups?, however, collapsed under the weight of their own internal contradictions, seeking to be part of the >autonomy of the social= while engaging in an >armed struggle= whose politico-military logic of frontal opposition against the State was alien to the experiences and needs of the new social subjects themselves. In the midst of the concomitant crisis of Autonomia they were quickly disbanded by the State or had dissolved themselves into the larger terrorist groups by the early 1980s.

iii) Counter-Cultures and the >Refusal of Politics=:
Perhaps the most original and lasting contribution from Autonomia to Italian collective action came in this field. A large part of the movement, known as autonomia creativa (creative autonomy) centred around the >free radio stations= such as Bologna=s Radio Alice, the >Metropolitan Indians= and a galaxy of artistic collectives and small independent publishers, placed experimentation in linguistic codes ( What Umberto Eco called ?italo-indiano?) and the immediate satisfaction of cultural needs at the centre of their actions. They not only sought autonomy from the stifling conformity of traditional >bourgeois= culture, but also rejected the work-oriented and organisation-obsessed culture of the New Left and of >organised autonomy=, while seeking to create a >post-political= politics based on perpetual experimentation in political language and art and the direct expropriation of cultural needs. This apparently most >marginalised= part of the movement, in some ways comparable to the British punk movement, was the
first to melt away with the recrudescence of violence and repression in the late 1970s. However, their ?counter culture? resembles most closely that of the ?new social subjects? who compose the Italian and European new social movements of the 1980s and 1990s.

iv) Illegality and political violence:
Autonomia has been characterised in the Italian popular imagination as a violent, if not terroristic movement. Extreme forms of violence were regularly used in demonstrations and >militant antifascism=, including the use of firearms, although this was heavily criticised within the movement, particularly by women and those who wished to clearly demarcate their political philosophy and practice from the terrorist organisations. However, the violence used on demonstrations was more symbolic than paramilitary, and the movement generally maintained a distance from the clandestine terrorist organisations such as the Red Brigades whose violence it considered >elitist=, politically counter-productive and entirely within the logic of the >autonomy of the political= as expounded by the PCI intellectuals in its obsession with >state power= and its dismissal of the social movements. Illegality, however, was widespread throughout all sections of the movement, involving such collective acts as mass >proletarian (or free)
shopping=, the autoriduzione (self-reduction) of every social charge possible from bus fares to restaurant bills, and the first squatting of >social centres=. This was due partially to a traditional far Left rejection of >bourgeois capitalist law and order= and the State=s >monopoly on violence=, partially as a challenge to the >legalism= and neo-parliamentarianism of much of the New Left, and much to a diffuse belief in the right to satisfy human physical and cultural needs autonomously from waged labour and the capitalist economy.

v) Alternative Visions of Future Societies:
Autonomia was accused by both the New Left and the Historic Left of being both >anti-communist= and >nihilist=, facing the PCI as its >absolute enemy= without a political programme or a vision of a future post-capitalist society towards which it was prepared to campaign politically in the long-term as well as revolt in the short. The historical Marxist-Leninist notion of revolution as putsch or >seizure of power= was rejected for the same reason as the PCI=s parliamentary road to socialism, in that >power= itself and its physical eminence, the centralised democratic Nation-State were seen as undesirable and unnecessary for the revolutionary transcendence of capitalism and the construction of a post-capitalist or >communist= society. For the same reason, none of the revolutionary socialist models such as Che and Fidel=s Cuba, Mao=s China and Ho Chi Minh=s Vietnam which had inspired the student-worker revolts of 1968, let alone the grim functionalism of Eastern European real socialism were aspired to. Nor inde
ed was an ideological, anarchistic rejection of the state tout court considered adequate. Instead, a highly eclectic ideology, based as much on French situationism and post-structuralism as well as Italian operaismo (workerism) and Autonomist Marxism, envisaged the gradual emergence from the bottom upwards of a network of autonomous spaces, liberated from the capitalist laws of value, including factories, schools, university faculties, hospitals, squatted social centres, neighbourhoods and eventually whole communities, in which differences of identity within the working class would be valorised over any false notion of unity imposed from above. This would have led to the organic creation of a pluralistic and directly democratic post-capitalist society. Although Autonomia=s political project never got beyond its earliest phase, it remained sufficiently attractive and apparently relevant to the perceived needs of much of Western Europe=s radicalised youth , compared to other political alternatives, such as soci
al democracy, Trotskyism or traditional anarchism, to influence the various squatter and radical ecologist social movements of the 1980s and the 1990s upsurge of the centri sociali (squatted social centre) movement in Italy.

5. Conclusion
While similar urban social movements have existed throughout urban advanced capitalist societies, Autonomia, in its various spatial and discursive articulations, can be said to represent one of the most massified and radical ruptures both between the Historic Left of hierarchical political parties (both reformist and revolutionary) and trade unions, and the New 'New Left' of extra-parliamentary, horizontally organised, new social movements and social movement organisations. It encapsulated the conflict between the libertarian practices and needs of a new generation of social actors and the gathering drive by the State and political parties of Right, Left and Centre towards austerity and the reimposition of labour discipline and social peace in an attempt to resolve deeply embedded economic and political crises from which the ?new generations? felt themselves totally detached. Thus, my principal working hypothesis is that the loosely interconnected groups and collectives known as Autonomia in Italy in the 19
70s represented, at that time, a new form of ?post-political? politics which problematicised a series of social relations involving the State, political parties, the new social movements and the needs, desires, discourses and practices of the new social subjects. Caught in a rapidly diminishing no-man's land between the terrorism of the Red Brigades and draconian repressive measures which effectively branded those to the left of the PCI as 'fianchegiatori' (terrorist fellow travellers), the project of autonomy attempted by significant sectors of the post-industrial working class was squeezed out of existence from the end of 1970s. Most of the ?new social subjects? had already turned to the new forms of individualism and consumerism that became embedded in the 1980s, not to mention Western Europe's worst heroin epidemic. However, autonomy as both individual and collective praxis has remained the prevailing characteristic of the new social movements of the radical Left of the 1980s and 1990s, from the 'ecowarri
ors' of Europe to the Zapatista indigenous peoples of Chiapas in Mexico. Autonomist Marxism may be one of the few Leftist ideologies not only to have survived the Fall of the Berlin Wall, but to have been strengthened and vindicated by the collapse of 'real socialism' and the downfall of orthodox Marxism.

5. Selected bibliography

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Comments to:
Patrick Cuninghame
School of Social Science,
Middlesex University,
Middlesex EN3 4SF.