What is baby and what bathwater? I can’t answer that here (with regard to autonomist marxism I mean, with my actual baby this is a lot easier), but I’d like to sort it out eventually. In any case, it’s abundantly clear at least some of it is bathwater… For now, just some notes from some earlier conversations, to come back to later-ish.

One of the things I now reject is the idea that capitalism’s development historically is conditioned solely by the struggles of the working class. I think that’s a fair paraphrase of ‘the autonomist hypothesis,’ which is a misnomer because it’s more like an axiom for a lot of autonomists. I think Negri’s work in particular is only able to ever identify a historical advance, the working class is always recomposing on a higher plane of struggle and so on. It ends up being like a clock with the hands frozen – sometimes it gets the time right, but it usually doesn’t. That’s some bathwater. The baby here, to my mind, is the idea of trying to pay attention to what’s going on and identify when and where history may be advancing (“historical advance” is not my favorite idea, but I hope the gist is clear), and when the forces
of reaction are rising or winning. Another thing I now reject is Negri’s idea that all of our life time is productive. I think the baby here is again the question of when and where and how the capital relation shapes our lives and our lives serve to help maintain the capital relation; the bathwater is the move that provides pat answers, usually of an entirely theoretical nature, which close off questions and stand in place of investigating actually existing phenomena.

The other big thing that I’ve come back to wondering about is the question of organization(s). Autonomist marxism strikes me as quite bad about that. Here too, baby and bathwater. The baby is the emphasis on the limits of some organizations/organizational form, expressed sometimes as the autonomy of the class from “its” official organizations – parties and unions and so on, and the power of workers to create new organizations and organizational forms. The bathwater is that all of that remains, in much autonomist marxism, at basically the level of an abstract gesture with very little concrete details. And here Negri in particular seems quite limited, seeing every organization as contributing something to the forward march of the
multitude, and that something is barely if at all specified, instead of having a critical sensibility that allows one to sort organizations/organizational forms. Whatever there is to say about issues of organization, autonomist marxism seems to me to have little to offer, except the important but to my mind rather basic point that no organization will be the whole class or represent the whole class’s interests.

Where is the process of workers moving from class in itself wanting more of what we’re denied to class for itself wanting the abolition of the structures that produce our denial of needs? Call it coming to class consciousness, or something else, I don’t like any of the terms but I think the problem is key and it’s one that I’m increasingly convinced autonomist Marxism is at best mixed at.

There’s at least a version of autonomist marxism which seems to suggests that the
class is already self-sufficient to some degree, imposing crisis on its own – composing, recomposing, and decomposing class deals without any or much input from the left, use of revolutionary ideas, or even thinking in a clear way about what it’s doing.

autonomist Marxism generally articulates an idea of the relative self-sufficiency of the working class. I agree with that in broad strokes. The thing is how relative this is and what sort of self-sufficiency. What role do writings by autonomists have? What role do people have who don’t just want more of what we’re denied now but who want an end to the structures that produce our denial? Where do such people come from? Is it important to try to get there to be more of such people?

More simply, is there any role for discussions on political organizations and their tasks in all this? Autonomist marxists sometimes form political organizations of a sort – editorial collectives, mostly. I’ve never seen them explain why they do what they do instead of other things, nor have I seen them engage with historical or current questions of political organization, or of the various options of how political organizations can relate to mass organizations and an evaluation of those different options.

I’m still trying to sort out what to make of autonomist Marxism in light of my experiences over the past few years. I’ve had very little experience with localized versions of the class as sufficient. I’ve had limited but positive experiences with working class radicals deliberately acting on other workers to get them fired up about taking action on the job. Through those experiences, I’ve come to wrestle with a question of priorities: do we want to win for the class in itself or do we want to move more workers to a class-for-itself perspective? The two aren’t totally incompatible but a lot of the time at least in my activities we have had to make a
decision about which to prioritize, which has shaped our tactics. I’ve found autonomist Marxism only minimally useful in all this. The empowering narrative is useful as a starting point, but only as a starting point at best, and in some versions of it the emphasis on autonomy precludes certain discussions from even happening. Maybe we can use the Hegelian terms – autonomy is a negation of the idea of our class as determined by capital, there can be what the Hegelians call a first negation and a second negation of this idea. The first negation is the one I’m hesitant about. I’ve yet to see much in the way of a second negation of this, at least in what I’ve read of material that is generally called autonomist.

I also feel like the autonomist stuff, particularly it’s more theoretical end (and it’s a pretty theoreticist milieu over all), namely the post-operaismo stuff like Negri, had me chasing up textual references to certain figures and chasing questions of intellectual history and narrowly philosophical questions rather than more low theory questions (“low” as in “close to the ground”) that I feel like are more pressing and that I am, as a result, ill equipped to answer (and after those questions appeared on my radar I’ve found that at least for me the autonomist stuff doesn’t speak to them very well, either, such that I feel the need for other resources and approaches, and other conversations to be part of).