Autonomy Marco Scotini

In the sphere of political philosophy, the concept of autonomy appears through an original conflict. In modern democracies, the right of the State, as the legitimate authority, to control citizens ends up creating a permanent and constitutive contradiction with the individual’s refusal to be dominated. The individual’s moral autonomy finds its proper statute as the counterbalance of political authority. The autonomous man is not, by definition, subject to the will of another—he questions the duty to obey, he does not recognize what we call orders. He is his own legislator, the author of his own decisions, and the deliberator of those laws that adjust proper conduct. No external conditioning can either affect or adopt a privileged role over the autonomous deliberation process: no institutional mediation, no party organization, no delegation of political representation. The fundamental assumption of moral philosophy—as Robert P. Wolff asserts in a Kantian sense—is that human beings are responsible for their actions and, as such, they are autonomous. It is not by chance that the diffusion of the collective action of this principle would find a unique solution in a pluralist and voluntary contractualism. If it is true that the rigorous development of such autonomist conception would be destined to meet—as in fact it has met—anarchy as the only political doctrine consistent with it, it is equally true that one of the richest theoretical consequences has been led by heretical Marxism. This other meaning of Autonomy—autonomy from the capitalistic domain—overlaps with the movement of the Italian labor vanguard during the struggles of the 1970s.

If, as Sylvère Lotringer wrote, this conception has no geographical boundaries from a social and political point of view, as we have seen with globalization, it still has a story. And this story is an Italian one. But it is again Lotringer who gives us a general theoretical preface to the concept of autonomy, through forms examined by Deleuze and Guattari. “Autonomy is a political body without organs; antihierarchical, antidialectical, antirepresentative. It is not only a political project, it is a project for existence. Individuals are never autonomous: they depend on external recognition. The autonomous body is not exclusive or identifiable. It is beyond recognition. As a body of workers, it breaks away from labor discipline; as a body of militants, it ignores party organization; as a body of doctrine, it refuses ready-made classifications. Autonomy has no frontiers. It is a way of eluding the imperative of production, the verticality of institutions, the traps of political representation, the virus of power. In biology, an autonomous organism is an element that functions independently of other parts. Political autonomy is the desire to allow differences to deepen at the base without imposing a ‘general line,’ to allow parts to coexist side by side, in their singularity.”1

The history of autonomy consists of a curve of diverse political experiences that weave through the 1970s and whose identity revolves around two powerful ideas: “class composition” and “refusal to work.” It is about raising awareness of a unit of problems, and about approaches more than solutions—about acknowledging the emergence of hostile needs no longer confined to the factory, the formation of the social and political autonomy of the new revolutionary individual.

The first problem concerned forms of antagonistic organization inside the factory. Through the criticism of the trade unions it found one of the starting points of a major consciousness for the new movement of self-organization of the workforce. This is not simply about a timely and systematic disapproval of the role of mediation carried out by trade unions with regard to the specific points of contractual negotiations with the bosses. It is now clear that the trade unions are an inner institute of capitalist dynamics and, therefore, an instrument for negotiating the selling price of the workforce. Here the new avant-garde forms of organizing labor arise not only outside the trade union movement, but mainly as an alternative to it, developing a radical and destructive criticism toward it. At the same time the concept of “class composition” radically shifts the focus of the working class to social self-composition, in which the different cultural, political, and imaginary elements produced by social work merge. As Toni Negri asserts: “With the end of Labor Power, the origin of the councils and the crisis of organized political groups, the first autonomous assemblies emerged in the factories.”

The major incentive to their birth came not only from a complex series of political issues formed within the framework of the struggles, but in particular from the Fiat dispute in 1972–1973, which gave rise to the complex political grouping of workers known as the Mirafiori Party. From Turin, the activity of autonomous labor assemblies spread rapidly, making contact with emerging political student groups and autonomous collectives that were being established in many of the proletarian areas of towns and cities, giving life to a large and informal network of social disputes in schools and factories that, due to the groupings involved and their composition, can be identified as the birth of the Autonomous Zone. Five more years were required to reach the fateful year 1977 when the movement reached the culmination of the spread of autonomous behavior en masse. If initially “labor autonomy” (autonomia operaia) was an expression subordinate to 1960s “union autonomy,” in which one could find forms of inferior contractualism and of the politicization of the working class struggle, from 1973 onward the words “labor autonomy” began to mean something different, something more. The struggle for self-organization moved beyond trade union control and a political logic. But with the events in the Mirafiori district of Turin in 1973, the expression “autonomia operaia” took on a new meaning. It became something more radical. It meant that the laborers, the supportive proletarian community, could set up social terms of exchange, production, and cohabitation independent from bourgeois justice. Autonomous from the laws governing shifts, working hours, and private ownership. The autonomy principle acquired its full etymological meaning: proletarian society defines its own laws and pursues them in territory under military occupation by the bourgeoisie.

Without going deeper into the story and the nature of the operaista acceptance of autonomy, it is not difficult to identify the currently relevant elements of the word in the ways in which the Zapatista Movement has organized itself since 1994 and in the Argentine insurrection against liberalism on December 19 and 20, 2001.

This is a new type of uprising that does not respect any kind of centralized organization and does not claim to represent organizations in order to symbolize and dominate the protest undertaken. It is not by chance that in this case political and trade union organizations have also remained on the margins, losing their relative weight when faced with the presence of a multitude that dismisses representation in its operations.


1 / Sylvère Lotringer, “The Return of Politics,” Autonomia: Post-Political Politics, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, Christian Marazzi, Semiotext(e), New York 2007, p. 8.