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Autonomia Reading Group Session 3: The Refusal of Work

This week’s reading for the Bingham Autonomia series consisted of Tronti’s “The strategy of Refusal”  and Selma James’s and Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s “The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community”. The Bingham group have posted up some notes here, whilst Hilary Malatino has further explored the genealogy of the refusal of work  and the ways in which these currents exist in the contemporary politics of the left.

As these two commentaries have already highlighted, from our position now, the two articles which we have read for this session dovetail neatly. The social relations of capital rely upon unwaged reproductive labour in the social factory as much as in the industrial factory. The refusal to “collaborate actively in capitalist development, the refusal to put forward positive programs of demands”. Both look to move beyond the party and examine social relations, and social conflict, through the eyes of its producers in both their waged and unwaged forms. Indeed, as Michael Denning argues in a recent article what unites us is not the wage (indeed a guaranteed wage is fast becoming the exception rather than the norm throughout the world) but rather our precaritisation and dispossession from the means of subsistence and production.  In recognising that ‘there is a class even in the absence of the party” (Marx, in Tronti), previous forms of organising such as the labour movement and the ‘party’ are challenged. The task now is to recognise the new forms in which our struggles are articulated and the terrain upon which they are inscribed.

Precarity, Social Labour and the Refusal of Work

Under capitalism, the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited

Michael Denning, NLR

I’d agree that the refusal of work is one of the key “Autonomist gestures” but how is this translated into political action? Tronti is dismissive of the general strike as a “romantic naivete” and develops this to critique the official labour movements endorsement of the dignity of labour and demands for its “fair share” of the produce (written at a time when many of the ledt wing parties in Italy were endorsing the “historic compromise” between capital and labour). Looking towards future readings this scepticism of the general strike as means to take power, rather than create crisis, is echoed in the invisible committee’s concept of the “human strike”. In a time of mass unemployment and precarious labour what does the refusal of work look like? Where are the (as Tronti so poetically puts it) “New Barbarians of the proletariat”?

Dalla Costa and James analysis of unwaged labour which occurs in the household resonates with some of the reading I have been doing regarding precarity and immaterial labour in the past week. As well as household work we help to (re)produce society, produce immaterial commodities and invest them with meaning in our everyday life. From helping make parts of cities “cool” (See the Berlin Left’s intensification of its anti-gentrification campaigns) to developing new niche scenes (the “hipster” scene in Shoreditch perhaps?) or micro-musical genres (witch house anyone?) we are involved in producing unwaged cultural capital in many different ways. Even our facebook data is mined and sold as marketing information, returning to us in the form of personally targeted ads. In the 21rst century of more widespread immaterial labour surrounding the production of signs, meanings and emotional affects the refusal of work seems broader than downing tools at the sight. Anti-gentrification struggles, internet piracy and counter-cultural trends all seem to suggest partial connections to the refusal of work yet, ultimately, are prone to recuperation and commodification. Leading us back to Tronti and his (sometimes unconvincing) argument that our struggles are the real motor of capitalist development.

A Lenin for 2011?

Finally it’s worth highlighting the leninist roots of some of the currents which came together within autonomia. Tronti is clearly pro-leninist arguing the “subjective leap forward” for the capitalist driven by a Keynes inspired fusion of state planning and economic development is as important as Lenin has been for the working class. What is the Leninist legacy? can anything be salvaged from it? Slavoj Zizek clearly thinks there is, and I’d be tempted to say that there are some important things we can take from him (a theory inspired by the belief we can win and a willingness to analyse the political context strategically) but other parts of is theory e.g. the party and the vanguard must be assigned to the political graveyard. As we progress it is clear that Autonomia has some roots which may seem alien to the predominately anarchist and autonomous Marxist positions which find inspiration in it.

Comments on Autonomia Session 1 – The Society of the Spectacle

Situationist ideas are still used all over the place; in texts, articles and agit-prop by radical groups as well as by an ever increasing army of academics, commentators and ‘theorists’ who demonstrably have nothing useful to say, but have nevertheless created a minor publishing industry which feeds on the SI (and has done so ever since its disbanding in 1972). They have sought to reduce the SI and its principal theorists to the status of cultural or artistic avant-gardists, precursors of punk or proto-post modernists; conveniently forgetting that the central point of their project was nothing less than total social revolution.

Link here

On Monday the Bingham Autonomia Group met for the first time to discuss Society of the Spectacle. As already mentioned I am hoping to keep up with them on this side of the water and try and chip in frequently with responses to the discussions which the group are having. For the first meeting the Bingham group discussed The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord (1968) and, from the notes, attempted to use this as an historical marker for upcoming discussions on Autonomia and Italian Politics in the 1970’s.


The spectacle

The spectacle is seemingly one of the most familiar of the idea’s developed in the text. However, I’d be inclined to agree with the opening quote that “a minor publishing industry” has developed surrounding The Situationist International’s (SI) ideas and the spectacle is perhaps both the most frequently used and the most frequently misinterpreted by commentators on the SI. From the first two chapters it becomes clear that, despite what some media theorists may wish to argue, the Spectacle is not a phenomenon limited solely to the visual sphere. Rather, it is the visible outcome of a concrete mode of production i.e. capitalism. Debord himself explicitly states that the spectacle is not merely a visual phenomenon.


The spectacle is not a collection of images, rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.

(Thesis 4)

The alienation which occurs during the production of commodities is mirrored in the alienation experienced in a world organised both socially and politically around the production of these commodities.

The text was written in the 1960’s, a moment in history when some parts of the world were (still) riding high on the Fordist mode of production and mass consumption was becoming generalised. It is at this moment in which everyday life became increasingly colonised and commodified by capital that the concept of the spectacle, a way of describing the pervasive alienation of humans within a world dominated by the commodity, was developed and gained theoretical traction. Indeed, many of the concepts in the book are as relevant, if not more, than at the time of publishing.

One of the questions which emerged from the Bingham groups discussion was “Is the unilateral function of mass media still true?”. Despite the decline of certain traditional models of mass media such as newspapers (certainly here in the UK) the structural functions of the spectacle are not tied to specific technologies but can be  reproduced in different forms. Whether opinions emanate from large printing presses or the world of web 2.0 (twitter, blogs and facebook) the spectacle, the “official language of generalised separation” (Theses 3) still has the possibility of being reproduced. The spectacle is a political not a technological phenomenon. The democratisation of the media via the internet does not necessarily lead to a challenge to the ideological strength of commodity society.

scan from Breaking Free, a detournement of a classic Tin-Tin text


Contextualising Autonomia


I’d agree that chapter 4 serves as a nice “intellectual prehistory of Autonomia” and a useful thread to start unravelling the relationship between organisation and antagonism to Capital. I’d like to chip in with a few comments about Anarchism but before that it might be useful to briefly discuss those seeking to represent the working class. Debord is critical of both the USSR, which (in his eyes) is essentially a less efficient and more bureaucratic form of liberal capitalism, and the Unions those “mere brokers of labour – traders in labour power as a commodity to be bought and sold like any other” (Thesis 96). A split with both the USSR and the Unions as representatives of the workers and/or the movement towards Communism is, as far as I understand at the start of this reading series, a key facet of autonomous politics and places it clearly at a moment of departure from previous forms of political organisation. Debord’s critique of those that would seek to represent the proletariat is part of an important historical process with regards to the history of autonomous politics.



In thesis 92 Debord argues that the Anarchist position that the goal of the “proletarian revolution as immediately present is at once the great strength and great weakness of the real anarchist struggle”. The SI’s support for the revolution of everyday life (As Vaneigem would have it) and the critique of socialist strands of which “consciousness always comes to the scene too soon” (Thesis 84) are key parts of SI thought. Strands which will clearly emerge later in the programme as we encounter Bonnano and the Invisible committee.


Before making my next point I must confess that my knowledge of the historical conflicts between those that would define themselves as Socialists/Marxists and Anarchists is not particularly abundant. However it seems that the boundaries between Socialist and anarchist organisations as distinct ways of doing appear to be breaking down. Perhaps I’m jumping the gun, but one of the interesting things about autonomous politics in the political laboratory of 1970’s Italy is the blurring of these traditions. Political immediacy, an understanding of the everyday and a commitment to extra-parliamentary politics met with class based analysis and an attempt to understand the mechanics of capitalism. From my position, involved in organisation here in the UK, both the traditional socialist and the anarchist left appear obsolete. Whilst movements critical of capital and the state exist they don’t fit easily into these traditional positions. The most interesting forms of struggle seem to internalise interesting parts of both of these traditions. I personally prefer to name these movements Communist, a term enjoying a resurge in (albeit academic) fashion at the moment, but understand arguments for resisting the urge to name it also. Communism as the “The Real Movement Which Abolishes the Present State of Things”has moved beyond what, definitely here in the UK, is labelled the radical left. The radical left in the UK is, in the most part, resigned to playing what Vaneigem and Debord’s would critique as the role of the militant. This isn’t, for the most part, a conscious role but one which derives from the unwillingness to inform theory with practice. Methods and tactics must change with society. Perhaps this will change, and there are certainly initiatives involved in trying to make this happen, but the process will bevery difficult.


Breaking Free was an entirely detourned Tin-Tin text dealing with radical politics


Workerism and Council Communism

The final point which I feel probably should be mentioned is Debord (and the SI’s) support for workers councils. These were seen as the key transitionary vehicle by which a post-capitalist world could be realised. By giving power to the workers this would help avoid the pitfalls of the bureaucratic management of capital as seen in the USSR. However, as Gilles Dauve notes in his insightful critique of the text, Debord is stuck within a contradiction between two of his key positions. Dauve notes

There existed an historically insurmountable incompatibility between

“Down with Work”


“All power to the workers (Councils)”

Dauve’s Excellent Article can be found here.


One reading of the spectacle is that it is a critique of the production of value (chapters 1 and 2) and an investigation into the seeming divisions and conflicts within the political sphere of capital which are in fact mere sectors of the same unity (chapter 3). Thus leading to the slogan “Down with Work” and a complete rejection of Ebert’s understanding of Socialism as “working hard” (Thesis 97). This is a position shared by the value critique school of Marxism as emphasized by Moishe Postone, Principia Dialectica and the Krisis Gruppe amongst others.

However, this position can’t be reconciled with the other key slogan of the SI “Power to the Workers” in the form of workers councils. Dauve is insightful in recognizing this as a key contradiction and problematic within both this text and the work of the SI. This call for workers councils, and its implicit support for the production of value, is in contradiction with (admittedly what I hazily remember of) Tronti’s “refusal of work” and later autonomist work such as John Holloway’s “Stop Making Capitalism”.

Ultimately this was a great text to start with, helping to situate Italian political thought in the 1970’s and bring to the fore some of the key questions which will be discussed over the course of this reading programme. Hopefully the physical group Stateside will find these virtual comments as interesting as I found theirs.


P.S. If anyone in Manchester, or the UK even, wants to join in reading with me get in touch.

P.P.S. I’ve attached some of the articles that I found discussing the Society of the Spectacle in the library section of the blog. Link can be found here.

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