Autonomism and the State
As I argued in an earlier post ("The Revolution is Not Being Televised"), it is a mistake, when engaged in building counter-institutions as the basis of a new society, to ignore the political arena. Unlike Katz, the anarchist does not focus on the political arena for the sake of creating a successor regime. The anarchist's goal is to contest the existing system of power, to seize its commanding heights, and to dismantle it and devolve its functions to civil society. But to do this, some form of political engagement is necessary. It is not enough to simply withdraw consent, until "the last one out turns off the lights." So long as privileged classes find it in their rational self-interest to support the state, there is the danger that they, with a minority of dupes from the producing classes, and with the security forces directly engaged in coercion, will attempt to retain power through open repression even when the illusion of majority support is withdrawn: the Iron Heel scenario, in other words. Until the remains of the state are seized and dismantled once and for all, it cannot simply be treated as though it does not exist. I also dealt with these questions in the introductory section of "A 'Political' Program for Anarchists."
In addition to Katz's useful observations on contesting control of the political sphere, his general account of autonomist movements is of interest also.
They [autonomists] broadcast a moral critique of capitalism from an anti-authoritarian perspective, rejecting all forms of leadership and state power. They use a libertarian language and defend autoorganización [self-organization], emphasizing values of solidarity and community. They question participation in mainstream institutions and encourage autogestión [self-management] in the economic sphere....
Zibechi [Genealogía de la revuelta (Letra Libre: Buenos Aires, 2003)] synthesizes many of these viewpoints in the political sphere, because he identifies the autonomist project with the practice of various social movements in the region. He asserts this connection in his analysis of the Zapatistas in Mexico, the MST [Landless Workers’ Movement] in Brazil, the Ecuadorian indigenous movement, the Bolivian cocaleros [coca growers], and the Argentine piqueteros [the unemployed workers’ movement]....
The popular uprising of 2001–2003 in Argentina was a particularly relevant experience for the autonomists because they concluded that their project was beginning to take shape in the organizations emerging during this rebellion. They presented the neighborhood assemblies and the piquetero protests as examples of a new emancipatory autoorganización and extended this assessment to the bartering clubs (where workers and farmers exchanged goods and services without cash), the reoccupied factories, and the counter-cultural collectives.
But the upsurge of these experiments in popular control did not prevent the old political system from reestablishing itself in record time. The bourgeoisie’s recovery weakened the assemblies and pickets and diminished expectations for the continuation of popular action. The ruling classes deactivated the immediate democratic demand “Que se vayan todos” [“They all must go”] through governmental channels that the uprising was not able to counteract.
The autonomists did not grasp that the oppressors took advantage of the limitations of a rebellion that took militant action, but lacked organization, leadership, and ideological coherence. Moreover, they celebrate these features as a sign of the uprising’s novelty (“a festival without programs, nor objectives”).
The assemblies emerged when the collapse of government institutions turned neoliberal propaganda against politicians and the “government” into a radicalized mobilization against the entire regime. The assemblies focused popular participation in the key moments of the uprising, but they declined when the ruling class regained the reigns of power. Many autonomists refuse to see this, forgetting that the oppressed cannot liberate themselves if they do not develop their own political project. They do not consider this to be an obstacle because they think that the social movements will construct a new society from the spontaneous act of rebellion.
This vision extends to the characterization of the piqueteros as architects of parallel forms of social organization. Many autonomists see them as creators of political networks and economic alternatives, and therefore conclude that the piqueteros “do not want to be workers, or citizens.”
But the experience of recent years does not bear out this characterization. The piqueteros always attempt to join with other oppressed groups and bring their marches into the centers of the cities to avoid isolation in remote localities.
It is wrong to suppose that the piqueteros do not want to return to formal work or that they have constructed an identity opposed to that of workers. This belief contradicts the core of the demands and actions of the unemployed. They always demand unemployment assistance and reinstatement in the formal workforce. In their mobilizations they demand genuine employment and decent salaries.
During the popular rebellion many varieties of economic organization proposed by autonomism flourished. Of these, the bartering clubs were particularly short-lived because they took commerce back to primitive forms. Bartering only lasted under the particular circumstances created by devaluation of the peso and issuance of province-level currencies. As the circulation of goods and the cash economy recovered, the bartering clubs disappeared.
The impulse that fueled other experiments also diminished under the impact of the economic recovery. Capitalism’s competitive pressure especially affected the self-managed shops. Some autonomists lose sight of the defensive character of these experiments, which emerged as a means of survival at the height of economic crisis. Because the principal objective of these initiatives was to preserve some source of income in the midst of the catastrophe, they began to decline when the depression receded.
But many bakeries, soup kitchens, and peoples’ gardens continue to exist because they were creations of popular struggle. They developed without government assistance, but only with the support of the community. Now they are part of the tradition of resistance because they demonstrate that the unemployed are not lazy and could surely contribute to the development of a people’s program for economic recovery. But they do not generate large-scale employment, nor provide income to the bulk of the population. Many autonomists ignore these limitations.
The worker-managed enterprises constitute another major achievement of the rebellion. They won difficult battles with the courts, governments, and ex-proprietors that wanted to expel them or to strangle them economically. They survived repression, from judicial attacks to financial strangulation, showing that they could run the businesses without the bosses.
But certain autonomists forget that these companies operate in a limited segment of the labor force and should not be idealized. They ignore the difficulties created by government pressure to convert them into small capitalist firms. The worker-managed enterprises can develop and assist an emancipatory project. But it is wrong to imagine they are liberated islands within a capitalist universe....
The autonomists extend their romantic vision of the rebellion in Argentina to all of the social movements of Latin America. With this projection they frequently ignore the difficulties these organizations have in winning their demands in the political arena.
The autonomists refuse to grasp the fact that the representatives of the ruling classes co-opt many popular movements. They do not recognize the importance of the challenges that confront the Ecuadorian indigenous movement, the landless of Brazil, or the cocaleros of Bolivia in the face of betrayals, neoliberal policies, and right-wing repression from the governments that emerged from their struggles. They promote an idyllic image of the social movements, acting as if these groups advance from strength to strength.
The autonomists trust in the sufficiency of the social struggle and dismiss the necessity of a socialist political project of the oppressed. They think that the accumulated experience in popular action leads to the spontaneous development of anti-capitalist sentiments within the population....
The defense of social struggle at the expense of political action leads many of the autonomists to promote the expansion of an “anti-power” outside the boundaries of bourgeois institutions. They proclaim this alternative will be constructed by means of direct democracy, with horizontal methods and by avoiding all types of hierarchies. But they do not present evidence of the implementation of these proposals, nor do they take into account the obstacles that confront these mechanisms.
These difficulties have been, for example, recognized by many autonomist militants who have participated in the neighborhood assemblies in Argentina. That experience proved that the absence of rules of procedure and the lack of criteria for adopting majority decisions were as damaging as doing without an elected and accountable leadership.
Undoubtedly, self-organization plays a decisive role in any popular explosion, but experience shows that this mobilization declines in periods of retreat. For this reason it is necessary to have stable, continuous popular organization that is reinforced with forms of indirect representation. Only on a small local scale can these measures be set aside.
The operation of the contemporary economy and the complexity of the political choices that confront society today demand that we delegate authority and use legislative tools. The different forms of direct democracy proposed by autonomists could only contribute in a complementary way to the organization of society in the process of constructing a socialist society.
Autonomism counterposes the broadening of communal forms of democracy to the institutions of the bourgeois regime. For this reason, autonomists regularly oppose participation in elections, or hold their noses to take part in certain races. They only intervene explicitly when they perceive a serious right-wing threat. But in these cases they do not support candidates of the social movements, but rather proponents of the “lesser evil” of the same oppressive regime. This anti-electoralism fails to understand the role that elections play in preparing for the future creation of true democracy under a workers’ government.