Autonomia Reading Group Session 2: The Changing Language of Politics
The movement of 1977 was not only a totally different way of conceiving of the relation between life and politics, but a series of contents and values that had never been placed on the agenda of the political project. Despite having apparently left a void in its wake, despite having apparently only laid bare the crisis of political forms, including the crisis of the party-form, 1977 has to be considered one of the greatest anticipations of the forms and contents of political and social life seen in recent years. After 1977 there is no turning back, despite all the errors committed, and for which many are still paying in an atrocious manner. 1977 was a year in which the wealth and complexity of problems was such that the political form able to contain and organise them all adequately could not be found.
(Sergio Bologna, 1980)
Here are some of my thoughts on the reading for week 2 of the Bingham University Autonomia reading group.
The Personal is Political
The pamphlet “Lets spit on Hegel” by an Autonomist feminist group Rivolta Femminile is interesting and I’d pretty much agree with the analysis put forward by the Bingham group. Although having no familiarity with Hegel at all the article made some interesting points, namely:
- A rejection of contemporaneous Marxist-Leninist politics which sought to subsume gender struggles within the class struggle, interpreted within Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic.
- A very interesting critique of the liberal and juridical conception of equality.
- A recognition of the political nature of the everyday experiences of people.
This pamphlet marks some interesting changes within radical thought during this period. The rejection of Leninist politics, the emegrence of new spheres and forms of struggle marked an extremely productive and creative flowering of political antagonism towards which most of the old leftist forms of organising were simply no longer relevant. Whether these organisations moved down a parliamentary road (see next section on the PCI and PSI), dwindled to small isolated groups or disbanded such as Lotta Continua (see the Free Associations great article on Autonomia and Punk here), the changing nature of society, its class composition i.e. how work was organised, the aspirations of people, the political struggles which were apparent or deemed necessary – was changing beyond the abilities of the workerist organisations to adapt.
The langauage and co-ordinates of politics were changing. Politics moved into the social factory and struggles were fought over access to culture, the role of gender in society, and housing. The terrain of political conflict moved beyond production to social (re)production. These two markedly different forms of organisation with different lexicons of desire struggled to be legible to one another.
The underlying economic and political changes which laid the foundations for new forms of Leftist politics are made clearer through a reading of the two chapters from Steve Wright’s “Storming Heaven”. This book has been sitting on my bookshelf for about a year now and I was glad to finally get the incentive to start reading it (although it felt a little like cheating skipping to the final chapter).
Wright’s first chapter focuses on the major leftist organisations in 1950’s and 1960’s Italy, the Communist party (PCI) and the socialist party (PSI) and their gradual incorporation into the world of formal politics with both parties aiming for centre coalitions using the political capital gained by fighting the fascists during the endgame of the second world war and an economic boom brought about by productivity bargains and the Marshall plan. This economic boom occurred between 1948 and 1962 and exacerbated an uneven geographical development of Northern and Southern Italy. For a brief but interesting analysis of this see Ernest Dowson’s “The Italian Background” over at libcom. The increasingly dogmatic reformist politics of the PCI and the PSI led to many radical leftists leaving these groups and beginning to develop their own ideas. Particularly around the concept of class composition and attempting to develop a parallel sociology to that of bourgeois sociology and develop it as an analytical tool for radical social change. These militant workers enquiries revealed lots about changing forms of production and the increasing irrelevance of the unions and leftist parties to ordinary workers struggles.
By the final chapter, set almost two decades after the first, Wright paints an image of an organised Left in chaos with the Autonomia movement facing a choice between self-conscious political ghettoisation or combattentismo, the cult of machismo and political violence which occurred in several places throughtout Europe and North America during this period (presumably as a response to the petering out of the radical potential of the New Left, though I’m certainly no expert). Wright argues that a political disconnect has occurred between the Operaist (Workerist) current and the movements of Autonomia, whose politics emphasised “needs over duty, difference over homogeneity, the localised and personal over class struggle”. This new political language marks a clear break from political ideas and forms of organising which were becoming increasingly irrelevant. The Rivolta Femminile article is one clear example of this rupture with traditional forms of worker based politics. The worker as the privileged political subject was undermined.
As the quote I chose to start this post with highlights the autonomous politics of 1970’s Italy mark a clear break with previous modes of organising. However, some of the concepts of tools of operaismo, and the workers tradition in general, still have purchase today. As I’ve mentioned in a few other posts the concept of class composition, is useful for those of us organising beyond the capital relation. The political laboratory of Italy in the 1970’s speaks to those of us involved, yet demand a critical analysis, whilst the impotence of the unions and the failure of workerist politics are still clearly evident, so to are many forms of political activism which have been associated with Leftist politics in the past twenty years. Ultimately what I’ve taken from this week’s reading has been an analysis of political change in a political situation not too far removed from our own yet still with enough distance that it’s political contours can be fairly clearly sketched out. What we witness when we place these three chapters in a chronological order is a story of political experimentation, successes (even if at first they don’t appear as such) and also failures. Hopefully future reading will beign to untangle the move towards analysing the “Social factory” and the move towards extra-parliamentary politics.
Finally, I’d like to end with a few questions which I may perhaps take up at some other time: What might an analysis of the class composition of our given situation reveal today? Could a workers or a students or an unemployed workers enquiry reveal important hints about possible future forms of organisation? What is the relevance of Autonomia to our current struggles, what political resonance exists between these very different time/spaces?