Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"Principles underlying the German Autonomen movement"

Something I wrote in 2002 and then posted on Interactivist Info Exchange under a pseudonym. On reflection it seems to have as much to do with what I was studying at the time as the actual Autonomous communities in continental Europe.

Economic background to Autonomy.

This is an article about the background and principles which underlie the German autonomist movement.

Right off, at the start, I’d like to point out that there are two movements out there in Europe which have similar names but which are oriented in different directions: there’s the Autonomia movement in Italy, which focusses on the inherent autonomy of the working class from the economy in which it’s located, and then there’s the Autonomen movement in Germany and the Low Countries, which focussed on remaking society through autonomous centers and squats outside of the system.

It’s the latter I’m going to be focussing on today. What I want to talk about is what makes the Autonomist idea possible, what makes it possible to realize it in the real world. I’m assuming a basic knowledge of what this movement was about on the part of the reader, but for those just tuning in hold on because you’ll learn a thing or two anyways.

The Autonomy movement was based on taking the concept of alternative spaces one step further by going from creating counter institutions to creating spaces which used the basic foundations of economy and society in ways totally different from the prevailing capitalist model, and in so doing created a different, functioning, society and economy which existed right now, in the real world.

From alternative spaces to the creation of an alternative world right here, autonomy challenged the notion that we had to accept the basic premises of society and then fight with the crumbs left over for radical thought.

But isn’t this just another form of dropping out? Haven’t we already learned from the experience of communes and co-ops that movements seeking to seperate themselves from society and live by different principles doom themselves to poverty and irrelevance? Not quite. The difference between what traditional, Western, counter-institutions and utopian experiments, on the one hand, and autonomy, on the other, is that while the utopians sought to start a new society from absolutely nothing the autonomen realized that the foundation of the current society could be refashioned, hacked, made to serve a different purpose, made liberatory, and so provide an ‘in’ to modern standards of living, as well as the greater economy as a whole.

It’s one thing to want to start with an agrarian commune in the woods and think that in a few years growth will enable one to move from the country to the city and eventually take over the whole society, and another one to start with an already advanced infrastructure and reprogram it in a systemically harmonious way for operating on different values.

One starts with nothing, the other uses the potentialities in the machine to make something better.

How is that possible, though?

It comes back to the question of ‘What is an economy?’ and to ‘What makes society work?’. Many people have had the experience of living in a technological society, then, one day as a child, getting interested in electronics or computers, reading up, and then realizing that what was once mysterious actually operates according to rational principles, principles which can be tweaked and messed with, improved. The person who starts out with a CB can find, in time, that the world of amateur radio, of ham and shortwave, operates on the same principles that radio and TV stations do, and by that avenue come to understand that rearrranging circuits to make ones’ own radio or television station isn’t that hard.

Breakthroughs come along like this which jolt us out of our alienation from the technological world around us, and open up possibilities for taking control of the machine by working on it and messing around with it’s principles for our own ends.

Electronics are easy, computers more so because of the abstract nature of computer programming and functioning, but maybe the would be hacker takes a look at less hi-tech ventures and realizes that the same pricinples can be applied to them.

Cars can be understood and worked on; you don’t have to rely on a technician who overcharges you if you can understand the principles that your car works on and act accordingly.
In the working class world, where this sort of insight is approved, many people use the potentials of automobiles as vehicles for their own creativity, working on their car and altering it so that it meets their high specifications.

Or maybe you can work down from there and find out how your house or apartment functions, what the electrical system operates by, how water enters into the house, is heated, and distrributed, how isulation is arranged and how roofs are constructed.


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All this is very well and good, it all reduces alienation and opens up avenues for creativity, but it’s lacking the essential component that seperates a hacker from an autonomist----an awareness of work and of the economic sphere in and of itself.

Yes, while all the previous things mentioned do influence our lives and in some sense control them, when we get old enough we find out that there’s an even bigger fish out there called work, wherein we ourselves participate in the maintenance of the machine and take our payments for other products of the machine by.

Work turns what is essentially a consumer affair into a social one, for in work the secrets of the temple from which consumer products are made and into our lives reveal themselves. Work also reveals that the technics of society are just a subset of a process of production and consumption which obeys it’s own commands and operates by it’s own rules. Technology only makes sense within economy, and economy makes sense only within a self sustaining system, whereby, for example, iron is mined, then forged into steel, the made into car parts, then assembled into cars, which are then sold to the people who mined the iron forged the steel made the car parts and put the cars together.

An economy exists so that one mans consumption becomes another mans production.

Economy, mediated by work, emerges as a factor which structures things on top of the techonological alienation, and which, by the very nature of it’s essential function, can be hacked in a way which will truly alter the way society is structured and functions.

There are functions and then there are functions, there are functions that are rather trivial----like how UPC codes are derieved----and functions that are more important----like how the manufacture of consumer goods and the maintenance of the industrial system is set up.

When one goes down to this level it becomes apparant that the same techniques which produce amusement and insight in the purely technical realm become, instead, techniques which can redefine how people work, live, consume, etc.....Economy is a system which just happens to be the most important structuring force on the planet, but it is a system nonetheless.

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The autonomen step into the story by their willingness to go beyond neat hacks and instead liberate the knowledge by which the economic system itself functions and use that knowledge to create fully modern, functional, squats, and social centers which exist totally outside of the grid and are operated according to radically different principles of production and distribution.

So why is this possible? An electrical box doesn’t know if you’re an electrician or a squatter; neither does a water main. Pipes don’t distinguish between the master plumber and the talented amateur. Food produced collectively will feed people just as surely as food produced in capitalist agriculture, and shelter and a bed provided by a group obeying a communst/libertarian mindset will keep you from the cold and give you rest just as well as a capitalist hotel will.

Taking a step back from the technical aspects of all of this and instead focussing on the economic aspects, it becomes clear that economies exist because people act in economic ways----not because a social system, or a nation-state, has decried that they should exist as they are. They might act coercively to force economies to behave in a certain way, but this is no more than bludgeoning a system which is indifferent to them into obeying their commands.

In reality, an economy is any process of production and exchange mediated by cultural patterns and human beings. An economy, as Maurice Godelier points out, can be composed of methods of production and distribution which look nothing like modern capitalism but which nonetheless play the structuring role that capitalism does.

The basic reason an economy exists is because farms, factories, stores, and service people, exist and decide to exchange goods and services with each other in a socially approved way.

There’s a great difference between what economy is said to be driven by, consumption and consumer demand, and what economic activity actually consists of, which is work and the manipluation of materal goods.

The money economy is just a place holder for the work economy, for the material economy. Anything bought with money has to be made by work, money is a place holder for the material work and distribution which is required to brings that good from primary resources into final being.

As such money is not the primary foci of economic activity---the real work goes on where the place holders are called in and the goods and services realized.

This material economy has two aspects, the first the production of the means of production, of the basic machines, mines, and farms which make the transformation of primary resources into consumer goods possible; then there is the life cycle of the consumer-producer economy, in which the means of production, as they are needed, are applied to real world problems and adapted to produce goods and services along capitalist lines, through capitalist methods of work.

The production of the means of production is the pure technical resource from which capitalist society draws it’s particular inspiration. It in itself is neutral. But this production allows capitalist production to go on----to make a capitalist economy, you need such and such agricultural practices hooking into such and such industrial practices, hooking into such and such work practices...etc...

But the primary thing, before the production of the means of production, is the work and the culture of those who use the production to fashion an economy based on their own values and beliefs.

In good Marxian fashion, it’s not the ur-production that defines society, and not therefore what we should be looking at, but instead it’s the cultural and social production that makes use of the ur production that makes the difference and is what we should be looking at.

At the bottom, this social production is based on a circle of reciprocity, of producers consuming and consumers producing, so that no one is a complete product of the consumer society and no one is a complet slave to work,. Everyone consumes and everyone produces, just to different degrees and in different ways.

This reciprocal production and consumption, and the economic institutions which make it possible, are what makes up the economy. Nothing more, nothing less.

The economy, then, has definite limits which obey the rough countours of human material and cultural society; change material and cultural society, through the medium of the possibilities that material production open up to us, and you’ve changed the economy.

But it doesn’t have to be regulated by capitalist exchange; once the material primacy in economy is recognized the impetus to continue to use money and property to regulate it all is gone. More creative methods and principles present themselves. After all, it’s only stuff, and stuff doesn’t care if it’s distributed and made in a communist way or in a capitalist way.

Operate the basic functions of consumption/production outside of the established economy, or hooking up to it, or stealing from it partially, according to different principles, and you’ve made yourself an economy just as valid as the capitalist economy around you.

This is what makes the autonomen concept valid and hot.

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A good aside that can be made has to do with the concept of liberty, particularly as it was concieved of by the political philosopher John Locke. Locke is known for his Second Treatise on government, wherein he outlines the case for a libertarian society, an outline which has shaped all liberal political theory down the line.


Locke quite literally starts his society off from nothing, in the Second Treatise, and describes how it can grow up to be a mature society which nevertheless is formed from totally libertarian premises; with monarchy and the rest conveniantly side stepped.

Locke based his concept of a libertarian society on the idea that there was an underlying natural law to human society, which people were in touch with, and that by obeying this natural law and forming society from the concessions to collectivity which have to be extracted from natural law, that society could function totally on it’s own.

Locke’s natural law was an individualistic one, but the implications of their being an underlying strata to social life which has to be preserved in order for society to function, and the possibility of preserving this strata within a developed society speak to the collectivist in all of us.

Natural law is, after all, acknowledged by everyone in Locke’s world, so conjointly obeying it is another form of collective solidarity.

But it’s Locke’s contention that a society can grow up on pure natural law without the law of any established society interfering which concerns us now.

In Locke’s day this idea was completely against the political and social though prevelant at the time; the king was entitled to rule because he had been appointed by god, god had also ordained Christianity as the true faith, thereby the organization of society in concentric circles from the monarch on down, with the Church likewise controlling social life on all levels, making it comply with Christian doctrine, was the order of the day.

The thought that you could dispense with a monarch, the origin of social stability, as well as dispense with the Church’s regulation of things “for the benefit of our souls” was uniqeuly anarchistic.

Locke’s vision, although he qualified it in other places, can apply to society today; indeed, the utiliarians declared that Locke’s natural law was nothing other than the pursuit of personal pleasure.

Locke’s thought that society is consituted by a common assent to the natural law and a common agreement on when and how that natural law should be transgressed for the exigencies of society resonate well with the idea that liberty flows from taking back economy into one’s own hands and creating a society of consumer/producers outside of the system and obeying laws and standards against the spirit of the system.
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Locke did believe, of course, that the society which obeyed the natural law the most was the freeest society.

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If the autonomen could build up an economy by hacking the substructure of economic life and devising alternative systems of production, distribution, and consumption, then this activity could also be seen as the raising of an alternative social fabric, a new natural law to undergird society based on libertarian values, exisitng totally apart from the monarchist system of capitalism and the religious system of the state.

The only thing needed for an economy to exist is for it to get going.

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The means to accomplish this are many, as varied as the types of work it takes to maintain and drive the system itself.

As to the apparantly transient nature of autonomist institutions founded on such a basis, it’s worth considering the opion of Piero Sraffa, the neo-ricardian theorist who believed that work and material becomes Capital by the action of time upon it.

Which is to say that if an instution can function for a long enough time that the economy will adjust to it and make it, eventually, an integral part of the functioning of the overall economy, thereby preserving it when the thin times hit regarding variable labor and supplies.

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And autonomist world is possible, it’s possible to take from society and form a new society with society’s splinters, it’s even concievable that large autonomist projects could legitamately hook up into the greater society’s economic structure as integral yet independent blocks.

Which is why autonomist culture, from Kraftwerk to Caffentzis, has a residue of legitmacy which most other social movements, or philosophies, or ideas, lack. That residue is reality. We can hack reality itself if we choose to, all it takes is the will to roll up our sleaves and do the work that those arcane craftsmen and priests from long ago alienated to themselves, for themselves, and for no one else.
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Here are a list of books which flesh out the ideas above a little better:

Anarcho-Syndicalism by Rudolph Rocker,

Community Technology by Karl Hess

Bolo’Bolo by P.M.

Cracking the Movement by George Caffentzis

Fuhrer-Ex by Ingo Hasselbach (he talks a lot about the war between German Autonomen and the Neo-Nazis in Berlin)

Lenin and the Cultural Revolution by Carmen Claudin-Urondo

and any books about, by, or having something to do with the theories of Bogdanov and his ideas about Tektology


Any books about the Austro-Marxist movement in Vienna and Austrria, like “Red Vienna” which
talks about the Austrian Marxist effort to create a workers’ culture by municipal socialism in Vienna, as well as books of primary documents like “The Austro-Marxists” edited by Tom Bottomore which deal with the Austro-Marxist response to the question of nationalism.

Any books from the environmental movement having to do with Appropriate technology

An Introduction to Post-Keynesian Economics (author unknown)

If you search the web you can find a treasure trove of introductions to the Neo-Ricardian theories of Pierro Sraffa, from which the conception of economy above partially derives.

Any books by Maurice Godelier.

Culture of the Future, about the Proletkult movement in revolutionary Russia.

Future Primitive, by John Zerzan.

Against His-Tory against Leviathan, by Freddy Pearlman.

Any books by Cliford Geert

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