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Author: Richard Barbrook


“How was the conference?”, Simon Schaffer asked. “Very interesting”, I replied. “The Autonomists have finally come out of the closet as reformists!”At the opening session of the Immaterial Labour conference in Cambridge, Andrea Fumagalli had told us that Toni Negri and the other gurus of the movement now advocated a commendably pragmatic political programme: a guaranteed income for all citizens; employment rights for precarious workers; the democratisation of the European Union; and more environmental protection. “As left-wing members of the Labour Party”, I pointed out, “we can no longer criticise the Autonomists. Their policies are also our policies!”

I continued, “It’s particularly good to see that – after 25 years – the Autonomists have at long last aligned their practice with their theory.” Back in the early-1980s, Simon and I had both diligently studied the Red Notes booklets which had first made available the key texts by Negri, Tronti and their comrades to an English-speaking audience. What was then so striking about the writings of the Autonomists was their engagement with Marx’s critique of political economy. In contrast with their Althusserian and Trotskyist peers, these Italian leftists did have something intelligent to say about the neo-liberal restructuring of capitalism. However, at this point, the Autonomists’ admiration for Marx’s theory didn’t extend to his practice. Far from being social democrats, they took pride in their revolutionary intransigence. Autonomism was the extreme left of the Ultra-Left.

“What was the comrades’ reaction to Andrea Fumagalli’s speech?” Simon asked. “As you might have guessed”, I replied, “it didn’t go down very well with most of his audience. For the old school, it was a betrayal of the holy precepts of Autonomism. For the younger generation, it was a bit like going to see Johnny Rotten and discovering that he had always been a Bee Gees fan!” “What did they expect?”, Simon exclaimed. “It was obvious that Autonomism was reformist right from the beginning. Haven’t they ever read Negri’s article on Keynes from the mid-1970s? If you – correctly – point out that ‘effective demand’ is a euphemism for working class struggle, then you’re arguing in favour of social democracy!” “Maybe”, I mused, “their horrified reaction proves that the revolutionary image of Autonomism was always more important than its theoretical achievements? It can’t be an accident that its acolytes prefer reading the Grundrisse to Capital. If they carefully studied the chapter on the Factory Acts in Volume 1, they would realise that Marx himself was a social democrat!”

“So was your visit to Cambridge worthwhile?”, Simon enquired. “Back in the early-1980s, we might have disagreed with their politics, but we always enjoyed going to their conferences.” “Of course”, I responded. “It’s not just that our politics which have converged. Do you remember the cyber-communism article which I wrote in the late-1990s for the McLuhan conference in New York? At the time, it was meant as a satirical piece: America invented the only working model of communism in human history – it’s called the Net! Well, you’ll be pleased to hear that there were two excellent papers at the conference which put forward the same argument.” “Very good”, Simon said. “But do you think that anyone outside the academic Left is listening to what was said?” “I do hope so since the conference was – rather appropriately – being held in Keynes Hall at Kings. Looking at the current state of the Labour Party, it certainly needs some fresh ideas. Maybe – as in the 1930s – Cambridge can again provide them?” My comrade smiled somewhat sceptically, “I look forward to that day!” “You never know”, I joked, “in a couple of decades time, we could be going to a similar conference in the Negri Hall at Kings.” “After Blairism”, Simon announced, “Autonomist reformism!” “We should drink to this future!”, I concluded – and so we left for the pub to continue the conversation over a few pints…

Within this MySpace version of the electronic agora, cybernetic communism was mainstream and unexceptional. What had once been a revolutionary dream was now an enjoyable part of everyday life.