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A Brief History of Italian Autonomia from Sylvère Lotringer

[Caveat lector – reporter is largely ignorant of recent European history; comments welcome.]
Sylvere Lotringer spoke recently [3/09 at a Chelsea gallery; there were related events] about the republication of the 1979 Semiotext(e) issue of Autonomia he edited, concerning the Italian Autonomist movement. Lotringer marked out the group, the most famous of whom is the once-jailed Antonio Negri, for a U.S. audience. In his intellectual history, this group began with the journal Quaderni Rossi in 1961, the “red notebook.” These contributors would become the Autonomists. Simone Weil was influential, with her account of going to the factories. Sylvere said he had asked Antonio Negri, “Did you work in a factory?” Negri replied that, ‘No, we were there with our notebooks.’ This Sylvere called “high modernist.”
In 1964 Autonomist writings define the “Classe Operaia,” a new working class of workers against work, or at least trying to reduce it. Theorists were very experimental with Marxism, drawing from Marx’s “Grundrisse” rather than the canonical “Capital.” Mario Tronti was then an important theorist, although his work has not been much translated. He wrote of the “social factory,” and the strategies of refusal of work. The struggle of these workers was not for better conditions, but for a redefinition of work. Rather than enter into a dialectical struggle with the capitalist class, they decided to separate themselves as much as possible. (A banner in Lotringer’s slide show cries “Poetere - Operaio”.)
Negri wrote of the sabotage of work as “the negation.” The aim was self-valorization, to locate value in your own efforts. Work, okay, but not to create surplus value. Through Negri’s theory, Lotringer said, “work is reclaimed from the sphere of value.” Rather than struggle within the context that has been created for you, you can create your own context.
There is in this philosophy of organizing no frontal confrontation, no dialectical waltz. (And no Hegel, whose theory of dialectics so deeply marks the French school.) The workers’ strategies were wildcat strikes, absenteeism (in rates up to 30%), occupation and kidnapping bosses – “boss-napping.”
(I recently saw a clip of a French drama in which this bizarre practice is enacted [when 16 Beaver showed the clips they’d gathered in “What Does Occupation Mean?” during the Migrating Forms festival at Anthology Film Archives in April]. The bosses are more or less held against their will in their offices. Watching the film I figured they maybe could fight their way out if they wanted to get pushed around. It was odd.)
These workers asked for shorter hours, and when these were not given, they engaged in self-shortening of hours, a practice called by 1976 “auto-reduction.” At that time began the “strategy of tension,” as agents of the state began to provoke incidents and blame the Autonomists. This soon turned into a legalized repression through unsympathetic communist judges.
In 1973 the Red Brigades came out of the Fiat factory in Turin. (At the “House Magic: Bureau of Foreign Correspondence” show about European social centers at ABC No Rio we have been watching Marcelo Esposito’s “First of May/Primero de Mayo,” an artist’s documentary which see-saws in time, looking at the Fiat plant and contemporary activism in Turin. In his film, the period of the Autonomists and rebellious workers is excised, and it is an eerie elision.)
The Red Brigades delivered old fashioned anarchist retributive violence, the kind with a long shadow. (Novelist Thomas Pyncheon traces this in “Against the Day,” from Colorado mine wars to Venice canals in his fable of robber baron capitalism and its antagonists.) Between ’73 and ’74 there was an argument and split among Autonomists over the question of violence. At the same time, the concessions won from bosses by organizing, gains that the capitalists had given up under duress, were effectively cancelled. Again, auto-reduction was the response. Workers groups paid the bus companies directly, and rode public transit without paying. They collectively decided to bypass the government. They created their own law and financial arrangements. They occupied buildings and auto-reduced rents.
There may be “no outside of capitalism,” Lotringer said. But the Autonomists sought to “turn it against itself.”
1977 was the apex of the Autonomia movement. Workers from the south of Italy, students, unemployed, women (who were little acknowledged in other left movements) joined together. (“They struggled transversally,” Lotringer said. This Deleuzean term is key to much Euro-think about social movements; the term remains obscure to me.)
In Italy, half of the economy is black, that is, hidden from view. There is not a class, but a concatenation of people. Said Marx: class must be made, through class consciousness. The proletariat was the class made by industrial capitalism and the communist movement. After May ’68, the labor unions entered the picture to negotiate salary raises and dissipate the revolutionary steam by giving the workers a stake in their rotten systems instead of the possibility to be free.
Autonomia was an experiment with politics as non-unified, non-hierarchical – “there are a lot of ‘nons’,” Lotringer said. They maintained singularity, and did not seek to repeat the dialectics of the class struggle within their group. They were non-exclusive synthetists. The ideas of Deleuze and Guatarri of the “rhizomatic” form of human organization, and their schizo-logics were influential. People were very analytical, including the workers (although he said “even”). Diverse opinions would cohere for collective actions. They engaged in “reappropriating,” that is, organized looting of supemarkets.
(This strategy continues. We saw this a few years ago in videos of the actions of the activist cultural group Yomango in Barcelona. During a tango a few couples danced around and with a supermarket champagne display, a case or so was publicly spirited out of the store. Out of view, many other carts of groceries departed as well, and organizers are being prosecuted for it.)
Slogans of the movement were “from the margin to the center,” and “We are the front of luxury.” Only away from the factory line can one think and create.
At one point, Lotringer said, the Autonomists seemed to control Italy. But they did not seek to replace the state. Murders of members by fascists and assassinations by police raised the tension. To be sure, these were answered by Red Brigades in classic anarchist retributive violence. Lotringer put this as the Stalinists in the trade unions going underground to try to achieve the ends the Communist Party had given up. Evidently taking a page from the U.S. Cointelpro, police agents within the Red Brigades tried to push the group to more violence.
This was the period of Eurocommunism, the western solution, very distinct from the USSR. The Communist Party joined with the Christian Democrats in coalition, and sought to criminalize Autonomia. Through the “repentiti” law, the government sought to get them to betray their own. Many remain in jail from that time. By 1977 the key Autonomists were either jailed or had fled Italy.
In 1979, attempts in the U.S. to support Autonomists failed. The U.S. left backed Eurocommunism because it was anti-Soviet. Toni Negri and Michael Hardt’s book “Empire” (2001) changed the situation. There are hundreds of reviews of the book. Now members of neo-Autonomia call themselves post-Fordists, that is, organizers of the workers who are no longer in industrial factories. These include knowledge workers. They don’t build barricades, they turn all the traffic lights red using “techno-intelligence.”
The Autonomists shared many of the views of the Situationists, active in France, England, Holland, and the U.S. “Ne travail jamais”/“Never work,” is the famous slogan painted on the Paris street by Guy Debord and Asger Jorn (or so it is credited in art history books). Also among their slogans: Luxury is not a luxury. Autonomists in Bologna formulated the concept of immaterial labor, carried out in Mario Tronti’s social factory. (This analysis lies at the root of the critique of MySpace, Facebook and other social networking sites as exploitation of the free labor of users to frame ads.)
Fordism territorialized work. (As Bifo [aka Franco Berardi] pointed out, there is now no place to organize the workers. The Fordist factory operated under strict time constraints, and organizers could meet masses of workers at the factory gates.)
Now the distinction between work and non-work has been abolished. Now it can’t be calculated where the surplus value which capitalism, according to Marx is bound to extract from workers, is to be found. Life has become work; we are working all the time.
Against this dismal picture Autonomists privilege inventivity. This is the idea that the surplus value of intelligence can be used to reinvent life. As the characteristics of life change, we all become performing artists in whatever category of labor we may find ourselves. Fluidity, what Paolo Virno calls virtuosity – all the qualities discouraged during the Fordist regime of labor, now become indispensable. (And conmen and hobos become our heroes.)
This was a dazzling lecture, full of historical detail and provocative ideas. During the question and answer, Lotringer described the conditions of our lives as being enclosed within the “crystal sphere of capitalism.” During the questions, Jack Bratich recalled the Metropolitan Indians, examples of the Autonomists’ inventive activism as they mobilized subcultures like the Provo had in Holland. He also referenced the Autonomists’ Radio Alice project, a pirate radio which gave live direction through pay phone call feedback to street demonstrations. (The project is discussed in Franco Berardi’s new book from Autonomia press.) Free radicals engender new social combinations. Lotringer then drifted towards dystopianism, urging us to hoard whiskey and guns as the crisis makes our possible societies become impossible.
See also Patrick G. Cuninghame’s “A Laughter That Will Bury You All” recently posted to

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