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Home arrow Sociology arrow Bourdieu and Social Movements: Ideological Struggles in the British Anti-Capitalist Movement

Autonomism and anarchism

There is a strong interrelationship and overlap between the political ideas of Zapatismo, autonomism and anarchism. Autonomism is a form of anarchist Marxism, whose subscribers wish to resist capitalism without having to be subject to central committee control mechanisms such as those that operate within political parties or trade unions. Its roots can be traced to some of the main ideas of classical theorists such as Marx, Bakunin and Kropotkin. For example, Kropotkin's (1902) notion of mutual aid, which advocates community cooperation, or Marx and Engels' (1985 [1848]) definitive call to the working class to unite are testament to the enduring appeal of class struggle, consciousness raising and calls to political action for human betterment. Bakunin's (2005 [1873]) influence definitely sits within the anarchist side of autonomism and this is where we can trace some of the tensions between autonomists and anarchists on the one hand and socialists on the other. His criticisms and concerns are with the Marxist notion of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat', which he feared would become the 'dictatorship over the proletariat'. He was mindful that post-revolution suppression could take hold and, in fact, he was right in the case of both the former USSR and China after these countries' 'socialist' revolutions. It is no surprise, then, that autonomists have rebelled against political party diktats and trade union rules.

Autonomism, properly so-called, emerged in Italy in the 1960s among Marxist intellectuals and rank-and-file trade unionists. They established the journal Quaderni Rossi (Red Notes), which drew inspiration from the actions of a working-class militancy that rejected both capitalism and trade union orders by conducting wildcat strikes at the Fiat plant in Turin (Wall, 2005: 125). According to Wall (2005) this form of autonomism peaked in the 1970s and was met with a vicious crackdown by the Italian authorities. Autonomism advocates 'workerism', which refers to the independence of the working class from the state, trade unions and centralized political mechanisms. Autonomists advocate this position because they argue that institutionalized political groups, including trade unions and communist parties, are sometimes affiliated to, or broker compromises with electoral political parties. There is a political desire to reject top-down organizations and instead autonomists aim to be led by the working class. While the above has offered a general outline of autonomist political ideology, it needs to be said that, from the 1960s up to today, autonomism has never been a single entity, organization or a political party. Many different cells advocating autonomist politics can coexist, and not always peacefully; such is the nature of autonomism.

In the UK context (as outlined below) autonomism and anarchism are much more difficult to separate out, since activist groups such as Earth First! and Reclaim the Streets, and later Dissent!, Critical Mass and parts of the Occupy movement are clearly influenced by a diverse range of anarchical thinkers and practices: some like Holloway and Hardt and Negri, who are autonomists, but also others, such as Guy Debord and the Situationists, as well as postmodern thinkers such as Foucault, and Deleuze and Guattari. Within the UK there is a strong subjectivist rather than objectivist approach. The anarchical approach is naturally an independent and rebellious ideology, it advocates a rejection of all forms of power and dominance, and seeks to challenge and prevent the exercise of power, even within and among the activist community itself.

Some of the autonomist influence has come from the likes of Toni Negri (who was originally involved in the autonomist movements in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s) and Michael Hardt, who have produced two key texts, Empire (2000) and The Multitude (2005). The first of these texts, Empire, refers to global domination by elites, including supranational political institutions such as the IMF, WTO, World Bank and multinational corporations. They claim that there is now an end to national conflicts and imperial battles, with a focus on global exploitation - the US is the hegemon of this Empire phenomenon. They argue that all workers, in various forms - non-wage labourers too - are part of the working class and are exploited to a greater or lesser extent by the capitalist system. Some examples include students, who produce intellectual labour, house workers who produce domestic labour and so on. All, whether wage labourers or not, help capitalism to function. They argue that society has become a 'social factory'. Their claim is that the neoliberal form of capitalism attempts, through the aforementioned political and economic institutions, to be total, in such a way that everybody becomes productive, that no one can exist outside of it, all must conform to the rules of the market. However, resistance through the myriad of activist groups does exist, and those social movement activists who try to create social and political space outside of capitalism are attempting to fight capitalism at the social margins. This was the focus of Hardt and Negri's second book, Multitude (2005). These groups are referred to as the 'tribe of moles', social activists who are digging subversively. Thus, multitudes are resisting Empire (Wall, 2005: 125).

Through their work, the influence of Marx and postmodern thinkers such as Deleuze and Guattari, and Foucault become apparent. The 'tribe of moles' metaphor gives a name to a myriad of new subjectivities following the rise of post-industrial society, whereby the old working class is now no more in terms of a mass workforce with a collective identity. Rather, the tribe of moles is made up of the many and diverse people who resist capitalism and Empire in various forms from the edges of the social factory. Now and again they pop their head up between bouts of open conflict. Holloway's (2010) Crack

Capitalism outlines the many and varied ways in which people are resisting capitalism - and it needn't be as grand as an open conflict which entails staffing the barricades and taking up armed rebellion. It can be:

The composer in London who expresses his anger and his dream of a better society through the music he composes. It is the story of the gardener in Cholula who creates a garden to struggle against the destruction of nature. Of the car worker in Birmingham who goes in the evenings to his garden allotment so that he has some activity that has meaning and pleasure for him. Of the indigenous peasants in Oventic, Chiapas, who create an autonomous space of self-government and defend it every day against paramilitaries who harass them. (Holloway, 2010: 4)

These are just few examples of people (as multitudes) who use whatever resources and means they have to resist the domination and colonization of space by neoliberal capitalism (Empire). The tribe of moles fighting capitalism at the margins of society is similar to the metaphors of rhizomes and plateaus used by Deleuze and Guattari (1988). For them the rhizome constitutes the complex underground networks which have become a mass of nodes and connections that shoot in different directions without leaders or political parties. The plateau is the space in which these networks form (Ibrahim, 2009). In the case of the wider anti-neoliberal movement, and certainly the autonomist/anarchist branches of this network, it can include open protest events and physical spaces such as social centres or online forums that are not always visible, but underground. Again, in this respect, the meaning of these metaphors is not new. Melucci's (1989, 1996) nomads of the present or submerged networks are ideas that are similar to the tribe of moles, and rhizomes and plateaus. These terms refer to those who work, politically speaking, beneath the neoliberal radar. They are resisting and not conforming to neoliberalism since they lead a nomadic existence in the activist sense of the word.

The common political ground that the UK anarchists (including autonomists) agree on is that power is no longer centralized in the form of the state or a single economy. Power is diffuse, thus resistance needs to be too. To this end resistance should not be comprised of a single social movement organization or, say, a political party, as no one overall movement can represent resistance and, in any case, this could potentially stifle resistance. By contrast, a multitude or rhizome grows without restriction and can encompass diversity, which could lead to new and more innovative ways to 'crack capitalism'. The general anarchist approach is to create space outside of capitalism (or Empire, its neoliberal form) and adopt a prefigurative approach to politics, which refers to living the political life you want to live now, as opposed to waiting for the revolution as a future event. Rather, create many small revolutions and hopefully this will crack capitalism eventually. The autonomists advocate a minoritar- ian approach, which is about individuals empowering themselves, not being led or being constrained by majoritarian systems which exclude the minority.

This has also been expressed as DIY politics, which is a dominant action repertoire among anarchist groups in the UK (McKay, 1998). This framework of ideas, including Zapatismo, helped to shape British autonomist and anarchist anti-capitalist groups such as Earth First! UK and Reclaim the Streets in the 1990s, and later, from 2005 onwards new networks such as Dissent! and No Borders (Carter and Morland, 2004; Harvie et al., 2005; Plows, 2004; Wall, 1999, 2005). However, from 2001 the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) enjoyed a renewed popularity as an anti-capitalist organization. Indeed, a number of newer Marxist socialist influenced organizations and networks emerged to resist neoliberalism generally, such as Globalise Resistance, and Stop the War Coalition to rally against the wars in Afghanistan and later, as predicted, in Iraq. These groups are ideologically distinct from the anarchist ones, since they are heavily influenced by the other main British anti-capitalist ideology, Marxist socialism. This is the point at which we see the beginning of political competition and conflict between the groups who subscribe to these main ideological positions. Before this is outlined though, a general treatment of Marxist socialism is provided which outlines the key ideas that shape this political practice.

 
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