The aspiration for autonomy is above all the struggle against political and moral alienation from life and work - against the functionalization of outside interests, against the internalization of the morals of our foes ... This aspiration is concretized when houses are squatted to live humanely or not to have to pay high rents, when workers call in sick in order to party because they can’t take the alienation at work, when unemployed people plunder supermarkets ... because they don’t agree with absurd demands of unions for more jobs that only integrate people into oppression and exploitation. Everywhere that people begin to sabotage, to change the political, moral and technical structures of domination is a step toward a self-determined life.
from a 1983 meeting of Autonomen in Hamburg
Back in the day, LAVA, the space where defenestrator keeps its office chose to call itself the Lancaster AVenue Autonomous space. At the time the name LAVA and the autonomous label seemed like a good fit. To some of us it contained enough meaning to show our general political motivations, while being inclusive enough to allow for a pretty wide spectrum of voices and ways. But after having to explain the meaning of that word over and over again to people who’ve come in to visit the space, it became apparent that even many who were members of the groups using the space probably couldn’t explain why we were called that or where our name even came from. So it seemed like we needed to maybe revisit what that second A in LAVA was all about. ...
Autonomy as a movement seems to first have developed out of study groups inside of the the Italian labour movement. Groups like Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power), Lotta Continua (the Struggle Continues) and later Autonomia Operaia (Workers’ Autonomy) began challenging the role labor unions and political parties had in revolutionary struggle, rejecting some of the institutional and hierarchical Communist ideas at the time in favor of a horizontal, radically democratic form of struggle. Before long this translated into combative worker run organizations in car factories and subsequent wildcat strikes outside of union control. Their ideas often directly clashed with the Leninist dominated paths many anti-capitalist radicals were taking at the time. These groups and the larger social movement from which they sprang became loosely known as Autonomia (or Autonomy in English).
Theoretically, these autonomous thinkers also dug much deeper than many others on the left. Autonomous groups that began in factories looked at the dehumanizing aspects of commodity society and work itself. Essentially, what made up autonomous politics was a rejection of capitalist logic (like working for wages, private property etc.) and a rejection of hierarchical institutions including those on the left. The bulk of politics developed out of lived experience and experiments in how to live outside of and fight powers of capitalism. Folks began attacking ideas of private property and waged work itself, which eventually inspired takeovers of abandoned buildings in Italy’s big cities - both for living spaces and to create spaces where autonomous politics and ways of being could flourish.
And flourish they did. Squatted social centers popped up across Italy, and then the rest of Europe, transforming abandoned industrial spaces and housing into vibrant rebel social centers. Between 1969 and 1975 some 20000 buildings were squatted in Italy as part of this movement. Just after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, squatters who had already been active in the West took over hundreds of abandoned buildings on the East Side, also creating free social spaces by the hundreds. Evictions and attacks on the squats were met with riots and attacks on capital, targets including supermarkets, shopping centers, offices of developers and speculators, and always police. Across Western Europe, the politics in these spaces usually spelled out a distinct alternative to the Cold War binary politics that were prevalent. In most of these spaces decisions and work are carried out explicitly without bosses or leaders.
In the mainstream media across Europe, Autonomy was often smeared as violent or sometimes terroristic. Squatters often took on police in street battles defending houses from eviction, or defending themselves from police attacks during demonstrations. Guerilla struggles in the global south were definitely an influence tactically at least, but the autonomous riots, defense of spaces, and attacks against capitalist institutions using weapons like molotov cocktails and rocks though hardly non-violent were always a far cry from the armed struggles of the day. And even the armed actions of the left never could compare to the violence of the state whether in the form of police repression or the economic devastation that it feeds off.
Autonomy isn’t by any means a European phenomenon. Shortly after the EZLN (Zapatista Army for Nation Liberation) an army of mostly poor indigenous Mexicans, took over San Cristobal, Chiapas’ City Hall in 1994, the declarations and work which followed the initial government massacres in the South of Mexico had a distinctly different quality. As some of the most influential Latin American guerilla movements were well on their way out, the Zapatistas were talking about horizontal structures, production collectives, autonomous education and seized large swaths of hoarded land from landowners. Though identifying as autonomous, the bulk of Zapatista ideas were not eurocentric but had roots in indigenous “ways and customs”: forms of direct democracy which had been integral to Mayan life for centuries predating any European contact.
zapatista mural with kidAnd immediacy is important here too. Along with demands for Indigenous Rights from the government, from the start the rebel communities re-organized their lives to be revolutionary and egalitarian and continue to do so. Co-operative farming and other economic work have been a big part of the work as has taking back the political space where these transformations could happen.
The uprising in southern Mexico helped reinvigorate and enrich movements around the world. Notably, a couple years after the uprising, the Zapatistas hosted the “National Democratic Convention” (or CND), a gathering of thousands of organizers and organizations from across the left, to gather ideas on how to move forward. Out of the CND was born, among other projects, “People’s Global Action”, a global co-ordination of radical social movements, grassroots campaigns and direct actions. It was the PGA who put out the initial calls for the global days of action that reinvigorated the North American anti-capitalist movement, notably in November of 99 when massive direct actions disrupted World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle and gave strength and inspiration to anti-capitalist struggles around the world.
If the more recent uprising and subsequent repression in Oaxaca seemed influenced by the Zapatistas one state over, it’s because it was. The Oaxacan People’s Popular Assembly (APPO) also pulled direct action, grassroots direct democracy and rejection of political parties to the center of their struggle. Like the Zapatistas, the Oaxacan struggles also had a strong internal indigenous element informing it politics from the beginning.
Further south, we find active autonomous groups in Venezuelan shanty towns around Caracas, thousands of families claiming land and the political space that comes along with it across Brazil, in Argentina’s occupied factories, unemployed workers groups and neighborhood assemblies. In India groups like the Karnataka State Farmers Association who have destroyed genetically modified crops and the Narmada Bachao Andolan who’ve resisted dams being built on their land are just a few more examples of such movements.
Theoretically, autonomy has often been expressed as a healthy mix of anarchism and marxism, drawing the best from each, ditching authoritarian or dogmatic strains , but learning mostly from applying an anti-capitalist desire for freedom to life directly. And though the learning experiences that have come from squatting, the social centers, building non-capitalist alternative economies and from direct actions of various scopes have been a tremendous learning experience stretching over decades, autonomy has also had some thinkers who’ve shaken up radical theory. Toni Negri took on the rigid communist parties of Italy and, together with Michael Hardt, shook up discussions on class and globalization over the last few years. Sylvia Frederici of the Midnight Notes Collective has shared invaluable insights into women’s unacknowledged exploitation by capitalism. The EZLN’s Subcommander Marcos and his sidekick the beetle Durito brought indigenous democracy into the foreground of rebel movements around the world. The discussions in papers, on the internet and in our movements has never been less static.
And in the spirit of things not static a small group has been discussing autonomous ideas at LAVA in West Philly. A discussion on autonomous communities at LAVA began what will hopefully become a series of rich and fruitful exchanges. Keep your eyes peeled for future get togethers!