Much loathed and admired within the leftist community, autonomists represent a small but mixed bunch. With their focus on the daily, small-scale class struggle, their squats and auto-reduction, and their sometimes incomprehensible jargon they elicit both fascination and contempt from other marxists. Yet it is easy to let our view of them be dominated by theoretical considerations alone, thereby ignoring how their ideology and composition molds them to be excellent journalists, offering key lessons for re-igniting a working-class media to counter hegemony.
Autonomism originally arose from Italian ultra-left tendencies during the contentious sixties and seventies. Generally denominated under the term of “operaismo”, translated as workerism in English, these early tendencies were founded on a key journalistic skill: attention for the small. They obsessively documented the life and labor of the working-class. Where other Marxists often hided in the “high” politics of laws, parliament, and state, they worked like anthropologists among the working class. Thoroughly analyzing factories and neighborhoods, including the famous FIAT car plants. Basing their position on the centrality of class struggle, they viewed it as the force that advanced history and even pushed capitalism to innovate. Thereby placing the workers, and not the entrepreneur, in the position of engine of progress. The daily class struggle of the workers was key for them. Studying it to potentially intervene in it was their main activity. In this they pioneered many techniques later adopted by social scientist, such as questionnaires. A perfect example of this tendency is FARIDABAD MAJDOOR SAMACHAR, an Indian newspaper based on workerist political positions, active in the area around Gurgoan. The publication is spread for free among the industrial workers of the area, and its content is based on the daily experiences of the working-class. They for example allow workers to contribute and exchange their daily engagements with work aiming to create a proletarian public sphere, while also analyzing these experiences to give them political meaning.
Of course describing and being relevant to the daily life of the masses is almost a requirement for any newspaper or news channel, even capitalist. Yet where regular media generally search for the extraordinary or the grotesque, typified with the rise of the “bizarre” section in popular newspapers. Workerists were truly interested in the daily and typical aspects of working-class life. Not to amuse readers, but to see how they would fit into broader structures of oppression and resistance. Always emphasizing how the small, daily class struggle carried within it the seeds of a new society. In this sense they have much to teach to overworked newspaper editors desperately scouring the web for ridiculous stories they can make go viral. The current tendency among mainstream media to ridicule looking strangely like an inferior version of the workerist narrative, used to demonize the working-class, not to emancipate it.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Even at the high point of their history the (proto-)autonomists would only comprise a few hundred dedicated activists. Today probably even less find themselves inspired by autonomist Marxism. The remaining contemporary groups having a certain artistic air about them: often engaging in stunts and producing highly stylized manifestos and propaganda. One would almost think of them being largely composed of artists. Besides of course their main audience of phd-students. Now for all the negative results this artistic air might imply, it also means an end to ugly party newspapers made using nineties layout-software. To be replaced by stylish layouts, good websites, and well written articles. Look for example at Novara media or ROAR magazine. Both linked to autonomism and characterized by a slick layout and high-quality content. Autonomists also seem to actually get the internet somewhat. Experimenting with memes and tumblr-ish minimalist pictures with text. For example the work of deterritorial support group, the title picture being one of their’s. This group managing to attract hundreds to a picket line by claiming Slavoj Zizek would be debating Lady Gaga there, appropriating the concept of the internet hoax in the name of class struggle. Novara media even copying buzzfeed’s style of writing articles, of course this time with a radical message.
Autonomists also have, like most leftist tendencies, debilitating weaknesses. Their excessive focus on the small and the daily allows them to easily slip into lifestylism. Their attacks on parties and trade unions leave them little option but to stay in the political wilderness of left sects, where their talents are underutilized. Finally their aversion to state politics ironically leaves them vulnerable from attack by this same state. Nevertheless, in an age where boring (trotskyist) party newspapers abound. Dominated by headlines and articles nobody outside the left really cares about, while completely incapable of eventually making a dent in mainstream media messages. Recruiting some autonomists might be the best thing your party/alternative-newspaper/blog/podcast has ever done.