The party’s over: a reply on autonomism, organisation and bad history

The Internationalist Communist Tendency recently published a critique of autonomism, ranging across the fields of history (which I know a bit about), economic theory (which I’m pretty shaky on), and organisation (which is one of those areas where we’re all pretty much guessing what might work or not work, if we’re being honest). I wouldn’t particularly describe myself as an autonomist, and I don’t think that autonomist theory has all the answers or anything, but I do think that some of the most useful efforts to get to grips with our contemporary situation have come from autonomist-influenced groups like the Angry Workers of the World (AWW) and Plan C. Insofar as the ICT article is a critique of those groups, it seemed worth engaging with.

The introduction states “Over the years we have had contact with a number of groups who have been influenced by the ideas of Italian Autonomists in their various forms. Whilst we have points of agreement with them and sometimes find they produce good analyses we have often found it difficult to engage with them especially since attempts to discuss political issues are dismissed as irrelevant because they are mere “ideology”. For them the terra firma of the workplace is all that matters.”

It’s difficult to respond to this without knowing who they’re talking about, so, without wishing to re-visit last month’s debates about whether it’s OK to write an article that has a list in it, it would be useful if they’d named names here. The one contemporary group named in the article is the AWW; trying think of other people they might be talking about, I came up with Wildcat Germany, Plan C, the now sadly-defunct Recomposition crew, and Gurgaon Workers’ News/Faridabad Majdoor Samachar (who I think have some overlap with AWW). None of them remotely resemble the caricature of anti-theoretical, apolitical economists that the ICT set out… and thinking about it, the description isn’t even consistent – how is it that these unnamed people, who don’t want to discuss politics and only care about the workplace, are also to be found producing good analyses?

The introduction also sets out one of the article’s central claims, which is also a complete falsehood: “The movement had a mass following and intervened extensively in both the workers’ struggles and social struggles but never formed a political organisation.” This is quite simply untrue – I’m pretty sure that Potere Operaio (who rate a brief mention later on in the same article) would count as a political organisation by anyone’s standards, and they were very clearly an operaist/autonomist grouping, and I think it’d also be fair to describe Lotta Continua as an autonomist political organisation. While PO and LC were the big two, Steve Wright’s work also describes a whole galaxy of smaller groups that formed the tendency known as “organised autonomy”.

So, literally the only way the claim “The movement had a mass following… but never formed a political organisation” can be read as true is if we’re extremely charitable and interpret it as “The movement formed several political organisations (plural) but never formed a political organisation (singular)” – that is to say “one organisation to rule them all”. This is technically true, but more or less meaningless.

Of course, to say that autonomists formed political organisations is not to say that these organisations are perfect models to follow, or that they got everything right – famously, even Lotta Continua wouldn’t say that Lotta Continua got that much right – but it is to say that a critique of these groups has to start with their existence, and the actual mistakes that they made, not to pretend that they didn’t exist. This move is wearyingly reminiscent of the classic Trot rhetorical tactic of “you don’t agree with the exact organisational model I want to promote, therefore you don’t agree with any kind of organisation ever.”

Moving on, the author argues that “Autonomist theorists were, however, influenced by the massive class struggles going on around them and tailored their analysis to suit what they saw before their eyes. In the 60s and 70s workers in Italy (and just there) were refusing union negotiated contracts, striking, not bothering to turn up for work, sabotaging machinery and so on.” The qualification about “(and just there)”, suggesting that autonomism can be explained away by some kind of special Italian exceptionalism, deserves further examination – it would probably be broadly correct to say that the refusal of work in 60s/70s Italy went further, over a more prolonged period, than anywhere else, but to say it only happened there seems bizarre – even just considering the core industrialised Western economies, I’m sure I can remember hearing about how there was some kind of minor kerfuffle in France at some point during the late 60s. Similarly, I don’t think it was unruly Italian workers who were described as suffering from “the British disease”, and last time I checked Lordstown and Detroit were both a long way from Milan and Turin.

Getting toward the point, the author insisits that “labour is not autonomous of capital under capitalism. Labour can only survive without the wage while the social wage exists and the social wage can only exist while workers in work are taxed to provide it. The working class is not therefore autonomous of capital.”

To which I’d reply “ehhh, sort of.” To expand, I think it’s more helpful to think about relative autonomy, with some proletarians in some times and places being able to exercise more autonomy than others, than to just view it as a black-and-white, yes-or-no question. One major example is in the field of housing – where mass squatting movements have existed, and to the extent that they continue to have a presence in places like Italy or Germany, I think you can talk about squatted places as having a qualitatively different relationship to capital than places that are rented (and so relatively directly dependant on the wage) or supplied by the state.

Similarly, even if it’s not particularly common in the UK in 2017, there are some times and places when proletarians have had a degree of control over their own food supply, whether that’s through individual allotments or whatever or collective garden projects. I think it’s fair to say that someone who has a reliable food supply that’s not dependant on purchasing food as a commodity, or having it supplied by the state as part of a social wage, can exercise more autonomy than those who can’t.

On that note, I also think that there are people being pushed into a form of “negative autonomy” (or what others have termed “disaster communism”), and that’s only going to increase as time goes by. Looking at the people trying to survive in places where the state has more or less given up responsibility for guaranteeing the basics, from Houston to Calais – these places may not be models that any of us would wish to follow (whether we’ll end up having any choice in the matter is another question!), but it would be hard to argue that their relationships to the state and capital have much in common with those who are working 9-to-5 (or, more likely these days, 8:30-to-6) jobs, or someone concentrating on jumping through all the hoops demanded by the jobcentre in order to qualify for universal credit.

To point these things out is not to argue for some kind of individual drop-out strategy of “socialism in one squat” or whatever, but it is to say that, if you’re operating at a level of abstraction where there’s no meaningful difference between having to make enough money to pay “market rent”, having premises that are provided by the local council as long as you don’t do anything to rock the boat, or having a self-managed occupied social centre, existing in opposition to the state and capital and defended by mass street battles like those around, for instance, Rote Flora or the French ZAD, then you’re working at a level of abstraction that makes meaningful analysis pretty much impossible.

They argue at length against the autonomist “Copernican inversion” that puts working-class self-activity at the heart of autonomist analysis, saying that “…digitisation could only be implemented after the defeat of the print workers.

Generally the defeat of a whole series of struggles of the 70s and 80s preceded the globalisation of production and the transformation of the economies of the central capitalist countries into largely service economies. Global industry has been restructured introducing computer control, instant communication, use of robots etc. following an era of defeated workers’ struggles. This has not occurred in response to global struggles, refusal of work, absenteeism, sabotage or whatever else the Autonomists claim. The changes themselves have been primarily in response to falling profitability of capital which provokes the drive to increase production of surplus value, not struggles of workers resisting this drive”

But the global restructuring they talk about does sound an awful lot like capital reacting to workers’ activity. To say that restructuring is just “in response to falling profitability of capital” only works as a rebuttal if you’ve already decided that “falling profitability of capital” is some pure independent force, akin to an act of God, that can’t possibly be affected by anything we do. If you’re prepared to acknowledge that things like workers disrupting production or securing higher wages might have some kind of effect on profitability, then saying that restructuring is a response to falling profitability is just another way of saying that it is (at least in part) a response to workers’ struggles.

Moving on, the ICT author says that “autonomist claims… appear to be simply based on assertions drawn from observation of events in Italy in the period of 1963 to 1980.” There is some truth in this – it is a theory that was drawn up during the dying years of the social democratic settlement, and so its observations can’t be assumed to automatically apply to our present era, when social democracy’s neoliberal replacement is hopefully on its own way out. But having said all that, even if all autonomist thought was completely stuck in the 1970s, that would still give it a good 30-40 years’ head start over many left communists, since all too often reading left communist texts can give the impression that nothing worth commenting on has really happened since WWII (see here for a particularly glaring recent example).

They take issue with the “social factory” idea, and insist that it’s wrong to think that “surplus value is produced outside the labour process”. Honestly I really don’t know one way or another about this stuff – the “social reproduction” perspective that stresses how much (usually unwaged) labour is necessary to reproduce labour power so that waged “productive” labour can happen in the first place sounds kind of convincing to me, but economics really isn’t my strong point. I would be interested to hear more about how this “waged labour is all that matters” approach deals with the whole information/digital economy – as many people have noted, when companies, particularly internet ones, offer “free” services, that means that we, their users, are the commodities. Right now, by typing this, I’m producing content for wordpress, and so presumably boosting their profits/value by some infinitesimal amount (I’d probably be worth more to them if my blog was less boring, but hey ho), but I’m definitely not getting a wage for it – am I inside or outside the labour process?

They insist that this perspective is dangerous, because “If all activity produces value and the distinction between productive and unproductive labour vanishes so does the class analysis of society. Valorisation of capital is no longer the result of material production by the productive working class, and their ability to disrupt the system by withdrawing its labour also vanishes.”

But there’s a problem here – earlier in the same article, they write “Most work done in the central economies does not produce material commodities and is described, by Autonomist theory, as immaterial production.” They also talk about “the transformation of the economies of the central capitalist countries into largely service economies.” So, if everything comes down to “material production by the productive working class”, what are we unproductive workers to do? Faced with the likes of the Picturehouse cinema workers, the Durham teaching assistants, Deliveroo riders, or the Birmingham bin workers, none of whom can really be said to produce anything, is the correct response “well, what you’re doing is all well and good, but what you actually want to do is find yourself a proper job going down t’pit or up t’mills”?

They then go on to consider autonomist accounts of economic crisis, which again I’m agnostic about. Maybe some crises are caused by some factors and others are caused by different ones – it’s not the sort of thing you can run controllable experiments on, so anyone who claims to know this stuff for sure has to be bluffing on some level. I tend to think of questions about things like “the tendency of the rate of profit to fall” as being a bit asking who shot JFK – we may never know the true answer one way or another, and even if we did, what would it actually change?

In their insistence that autonomists have to be wrong about crises, the ICT author writes “In reality a general fall in the rate of profit occurs irrespective of whether the class struggle is intense or non-existent… Capital will always attempt to keep wages to a minimum no matter in what period of history it operates. The higher wages of the post war period were the result of higher rates of profit”. This feels like an incoherent and contradictory attempt to abstract class struggle out of the picture. If it’s true that “Capital will always attempt to keep wages to a minimum” (no argument on that point), then surely “higher rates of profit” alone cannot possibly be sufficient to lead to higher wages. I can’t see any way out of that contradiction, other than to acknowledge the working-class agency that the ICT seem to want to get rid of here.

Moving on to the question of organisation, they write “The movement never aimed to be a vanguard or a party”, which is true enough, “and therefore never formed an organisation”. As I’ve mentioned above, this is a total falsehood.

Following on from this easily-debunked lie, they explain that this meant autonomia “remained heterogeneous and allowed intellectuals to put forward different political positions and go in different directions”. The idea that this could ever be avoided is a dream. Even the most rigidly centralised organisations, such as the Catholic Church, have ended up having to accept the fact that people end up thinking of different ideas and going in different directions. If we look at, for instance, the Bolshevik party in the late 1910s and early 1920s, we find no shortage of “intellectuals [putting] forward different political positions and go[ing] in different directions”, including Lenin himself; but it would be a bit much to conclude from this that the Bolsheviks never formed a political organisation.

They then move on to address Negri’s historical arguments, where he claims that Leninist parties were necessary in one historical era but not today’s. I agree that this is pretty weak stuff. I’m more familiar with the formulation of this argument coming from some communisation theorists, but either way, it tends to read a bit like people coming from a Marxist background trying to agree with some things that anarchists say while pretending that that’s not what they’re doing. Personally, I think that, if Leninist parties really were a necessary product of an earlier era of capitalism, then it’s odd that so many revolutionary workers and peasants at the time didn’t recognise that historical necessity, and in some cases laid down their lives for their independence from it; but whatever, a disagreement about whether or not some Ukrainian peasants or Russian sailors who lived and died a hundred years ago knew what was good for them is a pretty abstract argument if there aren’t any practical consequences that come from it.

For the ICT, Negri’s views on organisation are shown to be wrong by the fact that “the massive Italian class struggles of 1969 and 1973 did not generate a party as he… expected. Rather they died down without leaving any organisational remains.” Which is fair enough as far as it goes, but this line of argument does point to one of the most fundamental flaws in the ICT’s critique: the tendency to argue from “outside history”, as it were.

I’m wary of leaning too much on arguments from failure, because after all none of us, to date, have successfully managed to overthrow capitalism, so there is the danger that any argument among communists can degenerate into “well, these people you like didn’t manage to get rid of capitalism so you must be wrong”/“NO U”.

Still, the point seems worth stating: the ICT’s article is presumably intended to convince the reader that autonomist ideas are wrong and left communist ideas, or at least the specific brand of left communist ideas favoured by the ICT, are right. But while autonomists are judged by their actions and their consequences, even if these are presented in a somewhat distorted light, the “correct” attitudes about the party, organisation and so on, are just presented as abstract ideas, not attached to any fallible humans. I’m not an expert on leftcom family trees, but I’m pretty sure that the ICT currently has an Italian section, and even if it wasn’t around in precisely the same form in the 1970s, I’m sure that some of the groups and individuals who went on to take part in it must have been around then. If the defeats of the mass movements of the 70s can be explained by the wrongness of the autonomists’ ideas, then why is it that the Italian left coms, with all their correct attitudes about building the party, weren’t able to make more of an impact? If this kind of analysis is sauce for the autonomist goose, then it should also be sauce for the left communist gander.

The next section considers Hardt and Negri’s revisions of autonomist ideas after the defeat of the movement proper. I’ve never really read that much H&N stuff, and don’t feel particularly motivated to defend them; that said, there are still some notably dodgy assertions about crisis and class struggle here. In particular, we’re told that “if the system does not tend to crisis…, then it would not be necessary for capital to attack wages and conditions. Why then should the working class struggle against the system? If class struggle is not a manifestation of the system’s tendency to crisis it must be an act of voluntarism.”

This seems pretty dodgy, and also notably contradicts another assertion made in the same article, the claim that “Capital will always attempt to keep wages to a minimum no matter in what period of history it operates.” Either capitalists are driven to maximise profit, which entails trying to cut the cost of labour, or they’re not. Trying to reduce this down to being something that only happens during crises seems like a weird attempt to abstract class struggle away – after all, why is it that, during the 90s and early 2000s, when the system had supposedly gone beyond boom and bust, so many people found their wages and living conditions stagnating, while the state launched new attacks on the social wage, from early workfare programmes and the Work Capacity Assessment to the introduction of private finance into education and the NHS? I don’t think the Blair government’s actions can be explained away as a response to crisis, or as an attempt to stave off a crisis that they consciously believed to be imminent.

If the statement was modified to “if the system does not tend to crisis… then we’re unlikely to see a revolutionary break with the whole thing”, it’d be easier to agree with, but even then who knows? After all, the French had a pretty decent crack at it in 1968 (even if the ICT are apparently unaware of it), and I don’t think that’s because they were driven to their actions as a result of an economic crisis. They may not have gone all the way, but they went a good deal further than you or I have. Trying to make class struggle itself dependent on crises, which is what the argument as it stands seems to say, is just daft – it’s possible to have a set of interests that are irrevocably opposed to the interests of another group or actor, even if neither of you have an inherent internal tendency to crisis.

They also place a great deal of weight on a H&N quote about how “immaterial labour… seems to provide the potential for a kind of spontaneous and elementary communism.” The “potential” part of that sentence is pretty important here, as it’s not saying that immaterial labour is already communist, just that it provides the potential for it – in other words, more or less exactly what traditional Marxists have been saying about the traditional working class since the 19th century.

Later on in the essay, the ICT mention “the unrealistic and wildly optimistic picture of the potential for revolution which [H&N] locate in the multitude… which we have already noted is autonomous and spontaneously communist.” H&N may well be unrealistic and wildly optimistic, I don’t really know one way or the other, but if you want to prove this, it’ll take more than a quote where they talk about “the potential for communism”, something that the ICT also presumably believe in. At the risk of getting repetitive, someone saying that there’s a potential for something is not the same thing as them saying that thing already exists, and it’s a bit silly and dishonest to try and erase that distinction.

Next they consider H&N’s arguments about “Empire” and imperialism, which, if they’re being presented with any degree of accuracy, I agree sound pretty daft and very 90s. I can see how the perspective of a unipolar world order might have made some sense at the time, but it really hasn’t aged at all well.

After this, we come back to the question of organisation, via that dodgy bit of misquoting about the multitude being “spontaneously communist”. H&N stand accused of reinforcing “the view which bedevilled the earlier Autonomist movement that political organisation was not required” – except, presumably, for all those political organisations that the Italian autonomists built, which are inexplicably ignored. As proof of H&N’s die-hard anti-organisational views, we’re given the following quote: “… This new militancy does not simply repeat the organisational formulas of the old revolutionary working class.”

As anyone with a basic level of reading comprehension should be able to spot, this quote does not really support the point it’s being used to back up. Even more confusingly, in the conclusion to the same article, the ICT author comes out with a line that’s pretty much a paraphrase of the same position: “this global political organisation will not be a repeat of the parties of the past”.

There’s an obvious contradiction here: if saying that what’s required today is not a simple re-run of older forms of organisation means you’re totally opposed to all organisation, then the ICT are clearly as anti-organisational as H&N are. On the other hand, if that’s not the case, then there hasn’t really been enough evidence offered to make the case that H&N are actually anti-organisation at all.

But this is fairly trivial stuff for the most part – to put it in slightly flippant terms, discussing whether Hardt, Negri, Tronti or whoever else is woke bae or a problematic fave might be slightly more interesting and relevant than having the same conversation about Marx or Bakunin, but it’s still pretty abstract. Discussing groups that are actively involved in the class struggle today and the positive and negative aspects of the contributions they’re making is a much more interesting subject, but here too the ICT’s arguments seem a bit shaky.

More precisely, they reproach the Angry Workers of the World for “repeat[ing] uncritically” the idea that “the economic struggle will transform itself into a political struggle without any intervention of a political organisation, or at least it will generate the required organisation itself”. But if you have the slightest degree of familiarity with any AWW stuff, then it’s obvious that this attempt to paint them as apolitical/atheoretical “economists” is completely false. Why is it that these supposedly apolitical types, who are so opposed to any attempt at organised intervention by revolutionaries because they believe that everything will spontaneously sort itself out, put so much effort into writing and circulating theoretical texts, organising meetings to discuss different perspectives on contemporary working-class experience, and generally doing quite a lot of the things one might expect a political organisation to do? Could it be because the portrait being presented here is total nonsense?

After this last attempt to claim that anyone who doesn’t agree with their particular ideas about organisation must be totally opposed to any organisation whatsoever, the rest of the conclusion is taken up with setting out the case for their idea of the party. Once again, we get a bit of arguing from “outside history”, where the idea that an “organisation will arise in a spontaneous way from the economic struggle” is disproved by “the fact that the massive struggles of Italian workers of 69 and 73 led to no such organisation emerging”, but the fact that, during 1969 and 1973, there were some people who more or less agreed with the ICT’s perspectives, and were consciously engaged in trying to build such a party, and whose efforts still came to nothing, is quietly skipped over, and certainly not presented as any cause for reflection on whether those people’s basic perspectives were right or wrong.

Other than this one nod to history – which seems to be a suitable yardstick for measuring other people’s ideas, but never the ICT’s own – the rest of the conclusion is just a pretty abstract statement of principles like “for a programme for gaining political power a class party is required” and “this class is fragmented… It needs a global struggle and global political organisation to become a class that can create world communism.”

Coming from orthodox Leninist types, I can understand this party-fixation, even if I don’t agree with it: for some people, the fact that the Bolshevik party was an organisation that performed a specific task effectively at a certain time means that it’s a model that’s more-or-less valid at all times, and just needs to be repeated to ensure success. But the ICT – who hang around anarchist bookfairs, post on libcom, and assert “this global political organisation will not be a repeat of the parties of the past” – clearly don’t subscribe to that school of politics whereby all questions can be reduced down to WWLD? Which makes their insistence on the centrality of the sacred party that much more confusing. If it’s not just a rehash of the Bolshevik party circa 1917, what does this party look like? What moments in history give us a glimpse of what this party looks like, and why its role is so important? When they assert that “a class party is required”, is this based on observing anything at all, or is it just a pure guess, with about as much authority as if I were to assert “nah, spontaneous workers’ councils will deffo, deffo spring up on the spot, and they will 100% sort everything out, I guarantee it”?

The experience of Italy in the 1960s and 1970s, and the ideas that were developed in that context, will continue to be a useful reference point for those of us who want to get rid of capitalism – it wasn’t a successful revolution, but they had a pretty decent go at it, and the conditions they lived in aren’t the same as the ones we face today, but they’re a lot more recognisable than those of early 20th-century Russia or Spain. Those movements and the ideas that came out of them weren’t perfect by any means, and they should certainly be critiqued and improved on, but criticisms are only of any value if they address what those movements, and those they inspired, actually did and thought. Building strawmen and attacking them might be easy, but it’s not something we can learn much from.

About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
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1 Response to The party’s over: a reply on autonomism, organisation and bad history

  1. Reblogged this on Wessex Solidarity and commented:
    We’ve got a lot of time for AWW and know little about ICT so may be biased, but:
    My 5 eggs (Mal C)

    The labour theory of value is fine as a model to explain some aspects of capitalist production, like Newton’s theory of gravity, which is fundamentally flawed but good enough if you want to build a bridge or fire a projectile. For me, Kropotkin deconstructed the LTV in a few sentences in the Conquest of Bread over a hundred years ago. The most important things humans do – without which social production capitalist or otherwise, would be impossible – are not waged labour, or even part of any transaction, starting with our mothers.

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