Autonomism: The revolution devalued


— Part II: A critique of Marina Sitrin’s “Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina” (Zed Books, 2012). We printed the first installment of this article on May 16.

One advantage of the horizontalist view is that one can gaze lovingly across fields of newly sprouted self-managed workplaces, admiring how they’ve spread as the wind casts their ideological seeds adrift. True, while smelling the sweet flowers, one must avoid sideways glances at the looming dark and vertical towers of Capital on the horizon. But oh, what sweet bliss for the single-minded who can focus so intensely.

Still, sooner or later one will have to pay the inevitable price for casting one’s view only down and sideways (or in the Zapatista phrasing so often quoted by Sitrin, “below and to the left.”). Eventually, the truncheon of the cop, the bomb of the military, will come raining down to mar the vista.

We saw above how, despite such dangers, Sitrin tries to keep our gaze fixed rigorously downward (“Ignore the State! Make everyday revolutions, not The Revolution!”). But even from a horizontal viewpoint she ignores a deadly danger to her project: capital’s inevitable and unavoidable snake-like creep.

For capital must expand, in fact it cannot survive without doing so. To capital, its perpetual spread, its reclaiming of ground ceded, is a matter of life and death. The territory ruled by the law of value knows no limits, however much its adversaries may limit themselves. There can be no “peaceful coexistence” between economies dominated by the law of value and “self-managed workplaces” seeking to exist alongside it.

In a moment we’ll look at Sitrin’s attempts to deny or sidestep such iron rules. But first, some brief extracts from an article explaining clearly but forcefully how this works, Ernest Mandel’s “The Laws of Motion of the Capitalist Mode of Production” (available at ).

Mandel describes the forces compelling capitalists to accumulate: “Capital appears in the form of accumulated money, thrown into circulation in order to increase in value. … The inner logic of capitalism is therefore not only to ‘work for profit’, but also to ‘work for capital accumulation.’ ‘Accumulate, accumulate; that is Moses and the Prophets,’ states Marx in Capital, Vol. I. Capitalists are compelled to act in that way as a result of competition. It is competition which basically fuels this terrifying snowball logic: initial value of capital -> accretion of value (surplus-value) -> accretion of capital -> more accretion of surplus-value -> more accretion of capital etc….”

The fuller quote from Marx sheds additional light on this phenomenon: “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets! ‘Industry furnishes the material which saving accumulates.’ Therefore, save, save, i.e., reconvert the greatest possible portion of surplus-value, or surplus-product into capital! Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake: by this formula classical economy expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie, and did not for a single instant deceive itself over the birth-throes of wealth.”

Explaining capitalists’ “unquenchable thirst for surplus-value extraction,” Mandel writes: “The compulsion for capital to grow, the irresistible urge for capital accumulation, realizes itself above all through a constant drive for the increase of the production of surplus-value. Capital accumulation is nothing but surplus-value capitalization, the transformation of part of the new surplus-value into additional capital. There is no other source of additional capital than additional surplus-value produced in the process of production.”

Capital must find new sources of surplus value not only under the whip of competition in prosperous times but even more so in times of downturn and decreased profitability: “Finally, the increase in the mass of surplus-value—especially through the extension of wage labor in general, i.e. the total number of workers—offsets to a large extent the depressing effects of moderate declines of the average rate of profit … capital accumulation will not stop under these circumstances, nor necessarily slow down significantly.”

And in periods of crisis, it will employ far harsher measures—not only economic, but political and military if need be—to try to restore accumulation and the profit rates based on them.”

As a result, Mandel concludes, “The only way to avoid crises of overproduction is to eliminate all basic sources of disequilibrium in the economy, including the disequilibrium between productive capacity and purchasing power of the ‘final consumers.’ This calls for elimination of generalized commodity production, of private property and of class exploitation, i.e. for the elimination of capitalism.” This last warning is precisely what Sitrin denies or avoids.

Alternatives to the market?

Through her descriptions of worker self-managed firms in Argentina (“recuperated workplaces” or sites of “autogestion”), Sitrin tries to buttress her claim that such operations provide in the here and now a counterpoint to the market, to an economy based on the law of value.

On page 126, she writes: “Taken together, autogestion, horizontalidad and the creation of new subjectivities within territories creates a new sort of value production: one that sometimes falls outside the system of capitalist domination, breaking from the profit motive, alienation, and capitalist relationships in day-to-day relationships to production.”

But she adds in a footnote: “As is explored later in this chapter, the argument here is not that the new relationships are beyond capital, but that the relationship to production specifically is changing and not based on capitalist value—i.e. to profit and money alone.”

Having grudgingly admitted the limits of these workplaces’ incursion into the realm of capital, she refers to debates among its activists about where to go next. On page 138, in the section on the relationship between occupied workplaces, she writes: “A fundamental point of disagreement among recuperated workplace networks is how much to engage in politics of the formal kind; also, for example, how much to challenge capitalism actively.” But this disagreement, she adds, is not all that important, as partisans of both views “support workplace day to day activities.”

She also refers to disagreements among self-management activists—or as we’ll see immediately below, internally contradictory views within the same activist’s arguments—on how to respond to state attempts at cooptation and/or repression.

In the section on autogestion and the unemployed workers’ movement, for instance, she quotes an activist named El Vasco: The state, he says, tries to exert power over us, but instead we develop new social relationships “that negate this power over [us].” Yet Vasco admits the limitations of such development: “the state is not going to just disappear; in this case, the capitalist state has as its fundamental essence to preserve the reproduction of capital and capitalist relations … to create more capital—and we refuse this form of the reproduction of capital … we are permanently in a place of constantly creating new social relationships that negate capital, that negate the state, value based in the market—and to reconstruct new forms of life permanently. … Ultimately, we are trying to create a world in which many worlds fit [a Zapatista expression, Sirtin explains], and this presumes many logics, many ways of thinking and doing, and especially not the logic of the reproduction of capital” (page 160).

But what does it mean to negate something? In a dialectical view, negation at some point must give way to the destruction and superseding of that being negated. That is most certainly true in the case of an economy based on capital’s unceasing efforts to expand its horizontal scope across workplaces, industries, societies, and the world as a whole—as well as to reconquer markets lost, whether by economic or military measures.

For Vasco, however, negation means building alternatives alongside the market, i.e., “a world in which many worlds fit,” a world of “many logics, many ways of thinking and doing.” To which he adds cryptically, “and especially not the logic of the reproduction of capital.” But how can that “not” be meaningful, how can the negation be achieved, with such a vision of a multi-polar world?

But this pluralistic approach is fine with Sitrin, who lauds “the creation of alternative ways of producing value—forms that, while not outside capitalism, do not fit into traditional modes of capitalist production either” (page 176).

The recuperated workplaces, she says, comprising tens of thousands of workers and hundreds of thousands affected by the workplaces, along with the unemployed workers’ movements and those who have participated in horizontal assemblies and barter networks, “have all been contributing in various ways and to various degrees in the production of alternative value, and values, in Argentina.” Such workplaces, and the networks linking them, are creating new ways of relating, “new social relationships and subjectivities based on the politics of affection and new subjectivities.” What’s more, they are doing so in ways that “break with the rules of capitalist production, creating less exploited and alienated lived experiences.” They create “new values, and a new value-based relationship to production.”

Sitrin then notes that unemployed workers movements have sometimes gone farther than recuperated workplaces, that they have a clear intention to attempt to “break with capitalist modes of production and value.” But not so the recuperated workplaces, which although “creating value,” and “often pushing the boundaries and even cracking the capitalist form of value production, this is not always being done with conscious intention.”

Another admission of the self-limiting scope of the workplaces’ vision is on page 180, where she writes: “This rethinking and reforming of forms of production does not function independently from, nor outside, capital. People creating these modes live in the capitalist world and its global neoliberal economy, but crucially they are operating under different assumptions, pushing the boundaries of the rules and forms of capitalist social relations.”

“These new values and forms of value production are breaking with (and creating something different from) capitalist market relations, yet simultaneously they exist within the overall framework of capitalism and are pushing (and moving) the boundaries of the limits of capitalist production value—not merely residing within it.”

“Breaking with” yet “existing within,” yet “pushing the boundaries.” No wonder they advocate “making the road by walking” (i.e. make it up as you go along): What strategic roadmap could possibly depict such contradictory perspectives?

Clearly tired of having to respond to accusations that her vision is no grander than that of the isolated communes of past decades (actually, centuries), she says: “What is being created and put forward is not a small group dropping out of society so as to grow crops and build homes together on the land, as with a commune.” Rather, activists have “the agenda of going against and beyond capitalism. The aim of recuperated workplaces is not to organize cooperatives of the traditional sort (that is, cooperatives that create a parallel to the capitalist market while functioning entirely within the logic of the market); instead they are using solidarity to break with alienation and as a way of creating new forms of production. In doing so they are laying the groundwork for a new economy based on exchange and new values.” These movements are “building a foundation upon which a new society can emerge, and which I argue is emerging.”

But neither here nor anywhere else in the book does she say how they will go “beyond capitalism,” or how the “newly-laid groundwork for a new economy” can supersede the law of value—or the state protecting it. Instead, we are encouraged to admire the persistence and creativity of those who are “pushing the boundaries,” “expanding,” “breaking with and creating something different from,” “going against and beyond.”

She quotes with disapproval Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden, who warn that “autogestion must also confront and resolve the problems of the organization of the market. Neither in its theory, nor in its practice, does it deny the law of value. One cannot claim in its name to ‘transcend’ the market, the profitability of business, the laws of exchange value. Only centralized statism has had this excessive ambition.” Clearly Brenner and Elden feel no compunction to explain how the autonomist vision can “expand”—to do so would be succumbing to “excessive ambition.”

But Sitrin knows her audience, and so explains that “sin patrón [operating without a boss] or alternative value production is not resolving the organization of the capitalist market or proposing a reorganization of the state—at least not yet. However, it is not sufficient to dismiss the reality of what is taking place, as is being done in the above passage. These are not only sites within capital, they are more than that. People, by the many thousands, explain that they are creating themselves anew, and are finding ways to survive based on new principles of solidarity, horizontalism, affective politics, and new values” (Emphasis in original). And they are supposedly doing so with a regional, national, and international vision and participating in meetings and networks on all those levels. “They are creating a new generation of people … who are choosing a different way to organize their lives, different social relationships and different forms of relating to production.”

So, she asks, how to assess their success? “No one has claimed that we are witnessing the absolute reorganization of all social relations, not yet at least. However, they do argue their lives are better, they walk with more dignity, and hold new values. In my interpretation, these products lie outside the capitalist frame of analysis.”

But can they stay outside that frame? Isn’t that the ultimate measure of success? And isn’t that only possible if the frame itself is destroyed?

Sitrin never addresses this, falling back instead on quotes from an activist justly proud of the dignity that he has recovered—in his particular workplace. It’s inspiring, we feel glad for that newly empowered worker. But where is the dignity in being jailed, beaten, or worse when the agents of the bosses inevitably come in order to end your self-managed experiment? For Sitrin to end her assessment of measures of success with this quote is both cynical and patronizing to that worker.

Going beyond capitalism?

But Sitrin remains confident that a new day is dawning: “It is from this base that the movements are creating the groundwork for a new system of relations that is social as well as political and economic. For now this is within capitalism but it is against capitalism, pushing the boundaries, creating value systems that can go beyond it.”

Her only concrete suggestion for how the movement might “go beyond” is an appeal for more national and international coordination (page 142). She speaks of her “personal hopes” that self-management activists will take up “one of their greatest challenges,” i.e. the lack of such coordination. She feels compelled to stress these are only her own “personal hopes,” fully mindful that elsewhere in the book she has sneered at and admonished those who would put forward visions of their own, visions which are contrary to hers—and allegedly contrary to those of the activists—and baits them for supposedly not listening to the workers. (More on this hypocritical method in a future installment.)

Ever the anti-hierarchist, the guardian against verticalism, she is careful to note that she is not recommending a national or global organization, but only networks for regular communication and information exchange: “This goal of national and international coordination is one that I envision for the workplaces, and is linked to my personal vision [again with the falsely apologetic personal vision!] of a post-capitalist society.”

And ever careful lest anyone think she is urging revolutionary Bolshevik views on the activists, she adds: “The recuperated workplaces are creating new values and new social relationships, ones that are breaking with capitalist modes of relating, but this does not mean that they are actively striving to eliminate capitalism. As of yet, the slogan does not go beyond ‘Occupy, Resist, Produce.’ Through struggle this may change [!], but for now international coordination is not on the agenda.” “May change?” How, why, when, and under whose leadership? Oops, sorry, I forgot that “leadership” is a curse word in these circles.

In her concluding chapter, Sitrin summarizes the various supposed advantages of the “everyday revolution” vision, including a recapitulation of her satisfaction with activists’ being inside or alongside capitalism as long as they continue their “boundary pushing.” On page 221 she cites studies of autonomous movements, “as well as more generally the growing urban peripheries where the poor are forced to function outside the system, as the system no longer permits them on the inside.”

She then quotes Raul Zibechi, another chronicler of the Argentine self-management movement: “Production of livelihood in the territories signals a second radical break from the industrial past. The popular sectors have erected for the first time in an urban space a set of independently controlled forms of production. Although these remain connected to and dependent on the market, vast sectors now control their forms and rhythms of production, and are no longer dominated by the rhythms of capital and its division of labor.”

And Sitrin herself adds in the same vein that “what is being produced is being done outside the frame of capitalist market production. I do not argue that it is outside capitalism as a whole, but that what determines how much people work, when they work, and what to do with their final product is decided upon by themselves … the movement decides together questions related to production. … What is produced by the autonomous movements and the relationship of that production to the state and capitalist market—or outside of it—is central to the construction of alternative ways of being.”

People are creating relationships in which they “feel happier,” are “finding new ways to survive.” “In and of themselves these are not answers to the capitalist market, but within the experience, within the creation of alternative ways of producing value, one can begin to see the seeds of an alternative economy that is central to the total transformation of society.”

How that transformation will happen, again, we will know only by making the road to it. (One begins to think autonomism would in fact be better called Zen Socialism.)

In conclusion

This section of my critique of Sitrin’s book is entitled “The Revolution Devalued.” By that I mean that by devaluing the need for a Revolution (as opposed to “everyday” small-scale “revolutions”), Sitrin is diminishing our potential for, indeed even the need to, thoroughly remake ALL of society. She is thus presenting an obstacle to the achievement of a society in which value-creation is done away with, in which we no longer have “recuperated workplaces” side by side with capital, but rather a global, shared, democratically-managed socialist society.

I’ll note finally the virtually total absence in Sitrin’s book of any reference to the historical record on ideas and experiments with self-management, whether their successes or limitations. A rare exception is on page 127, where she cites antecedents of autogestion: Fourier, Owen, Proudhon, Kropotkin, and the “libertarian” or anarchosyndicalist tradition more broadly. She also cites various experiments with workers’ councils in the Soviet Union, Iran, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere. But very tellingly, although she mentions these experiments, she has nothing to say about how and why they led to states based on such councils (or failed to do so), and why such states fell. In this regard the obstinate refusal of autonomists to address theoretical and historical explanations by Trotskyists of such matters is appalling, if not actually dishonest.

Intermission: Lenin’s “On Cooperation”

As a supplement to the last section, below are some excerpts from Lenin’s 1923 work on cooperatives. In it he explains why, although cooperatives were a utopian fantasy, a diversion from struggle, before the revolution, once the working class had seized power cooperatives became, given the particular circumstances facing the still-largely peasant Soviet Union, the most advantageous means of advancing toward socialism. wrote: “It seems to me that not enough attention is being paid to the cooperative movement in our country. Not everyone understands that now, since the time of the October revolution and quite apart from NEP (on the contrary, in this connection we must say—because of NEP), our cooperative movement has become one of great significance. There is a lot of fantasy in the dreams of the old cooperators. Often they are ridiculously fantastic. But why are they fantastic? Because people do not understand the fundamental, the rock-bottom significance of the working-class political struggle for the overthrow of the rule of the exploiters. We have overthrown the rule of the exploiters, and much that was fantastic, even romantic, even banal in the dreams of the old cooperators is now becoming unvarnished reality.

“Indeed, since political power is in the hands of the working-class, since this political power owns all the means of production, the only task, indeed, that remains for us is to organize the population in cooperative societies. With most of the population organizing cooperatives, the socialism which in the past was legitimately treated with ridicule, scorn and contempt by those who were rightly convinced that it was necessary to wage the class struggle, the struggle for political power, etc., will achieve its aim automatically….

“Indeed, the power of the state over all large-scale means of production, political power in the hands of the proletariat, the alliance of this proletariat with the many millions of small and very small peasants, the assured proletarian leadership of the peasantry, etc.—is this not all that is necessary to build a complete socialist society out of cooperatives, out of cooperatives alone, which we formerly ridiculed as huckstering and which from a certain aspect we have the right to treat as such now, under NEP? Is this not all that is necessary to build a complete socialist society? It is still not the building of socialist society, but it is all that is necessary and sufficient for it…

“And given social ownership of the means of production, given the class victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, the system of civilized cooperators is the system of socialism…

“Why were the plans of the old cooperators, from Robert Owen onwards, fantastic? Because they dreamed of peacefully remodeling contemporary society into socialism without taking account of such fundamental questions as the class struggle, the capture of political power by the working-class, the overthrow of the rule of the exploiting class. That is why we are right in regarding as entirely fantastic this “cooperative” socialism, and as romantic, and even banal, the dream of transforming class enemies into class collaborators and class war into class peace (so-called class truce) by merely organizing the population in cooperative societies.

“Undoubtedly we were right from the point of view of the fundamental task of the present day, for socialism cannot be established without a class struggle for the political power and a state.

“But see how things have changed now that the political power is in the hands of the working class, now that the political power of the exploiters is overthrown and all the means of production (except those which the workers’ state voluntarily abandons on specified terms and for a certain time to the exploiters in the form of concessions) are owned by the working-class.”

[Note by A.P.: Lenin then makes recommendations that contain in them an implicit recognition, a materialist explanation, of the weakness of the Revolution. For autonomists, in contrast, its failures were due simply to malicious, indeed gratuitous tyranny. But hear what Lenin says about the challenges facing the Revolution—challenges that, thanks to armed foreign intervention, the Revolution didn’t have time to resolve:]

“Two main tasks confront us, which constitute the epoch—to reorganize our machinery of state, which is utterly useless, in which we took over in its entirety from the preceding epoch; during the past five years of struggle we did not, and could not, drastically reorganize it. Our second task is educational work among the peasants. And the economic object of this educational work among the peasants is to organize the latter in cooperative societies. If the whole of the peasantry had been organized in cooperatives, we would by now have been standing with both feet on the soil of socialism. But the organization of the entire peasantry in cooperative societies presupposes a standard of culture, and the peasants (precisely among the peasants as the overwhelming mass) that cannot, in fact, be achieved without a cultural revolution.

“This cultural revolution would now suffice to make our country a completely socialist country; but it presents immense difficulties of a purely cultural (for we are illiterate) and material character (for to be cultured we must achieve a certain development of the material means of production, we must have a certain material base).”

Concluding Remarks

Further delving into the book to try to get to the bottom of its mistaken approach is a very tiresome exercise, as one returns from the depths with the same message over and over again: “Leave us alone, we’re happy and dignified in our self-managed niches! Let us ignore the state! We already HAVE power because we’ve recuperated this workplace/health clinic/school, and that’s all the power we need!”

In the midst of this is a curious little passage (pp. 185-88) in which Sitrin praises the Argentine state under the Kirchners (Presidents Nestor and Cristina) for some tepid human-rights improvements, for being a tad tougher in negotiations with the IMF, etc. It is odd, on the surface, for such a die-hard “don’t take power” autonomist—but hardly the first time someone from this tradition has displayed such an opportunist methodology. See my “Spain 1937: Anarchism Fails Its Grand Test; Lessons for Today’s Movements,” at

Then there are the long diatribes against academic theorists of social movements for insisting on “conflictual” or “contentious” approaches toward social movements—i.e., the expectation that movements should actually want to change society as a whole, or at least to make concrete gains against bosses or the state.

And coming in for abuse for similar reasons are those activist intellectuals such as Tariq Ali, James Petras, and William Robinson who also have higher expectations of the movements. Which just incenses Sitrin and brings her back to her plea of “leave us alone, we’re doing fine just as we are.” All of this makes even more maddening the complete absence, as mentioned previously, of any reference to the historical record of why revolutions fail or succeed.

Because Sitrin just doesn’t care. Sorry, but that’s just not good enough.

And so we bid a not-so-fond adieu to this paean to escapism. Back to the real world of struggle against the state, and the fight for new workers’ states, and by that path to the eventual withering away of all states. And back to doing the historical research and theoretical study needed to concretize that effort, along with comrades similarly concerned and who are interested in building a party to carry the lessons learned thereby into practice. (Did I mention Sitrin’s hatred for parties, and her repeated red-baiting of them for daring to step foot in assemblies?).

Yes, Comrade Sitrin, I KNOW the path I want to go on, the path I want all my comrades to travel with me on. And it doesn’t get made just by walking it, but by studying the conclusions drawn by those who’ve walked it previously, and by concrete application of those conclusions to today’s road.

Below is an extract from Lenin’s “What Is To Be Done?” which makes the case for the very scientific approach, the analysis rooted in history and practice, which Sitrin so assiduously avoids. There was a time not so long ago when this extract was quoted far too often, too casually, and frequently erroneously, in usually failing attempts to appear scholarly and/or witty. But the fact that Comrade Sitrin’s works—and those of John Holloway and the Zapatistas (and Chomsky for that matter and all the rest of the latter-day anarchists)—can be quoted so widely and uncritically today tell me it’s way past time to go back to Lenin.

Dogmatism And “Freedom of Criticism”

A. What Does “Freedom of Criticism” Mean?

From “What Is To Be Done,” by V.I. Lenin: He who does not deliberately close his eyes cannot fail to see that the new “critical” trend in socialism is nothing more nor less than a new variety of opportunism. And if we judge people, not by the glittering uniforms they don or by the high-sounding appellations they give themselves, but by their actions and by what they actually advocate, it will be clear that “freedom of criticism” means freedom for an opportunist trend in Social-Democracy, freedom to convert Social-Democracy into a democratic party of reform, freedom to introduce bourgeois ideas and bourgeois elements into socialism.

“Freedom” is a grand word, but under the banner of freedom for industry the most predatory wars were waged, under the banner of freedom of labour, the working people were robbed. The modern use of the term “freedom of criticism” contains the same inherent falsehood. Those who are really convinced that they have made progress in science would not demand freedom for the new views to continue side by side with the old, but the substitution of the new views for the old. The cry heard today, “Long live freedom of criticism,” is too strongly reminiscent of the fable of the empty barrel.

We are marching in a compact group along a precipitous and difficult path, firmly holding each other by the hand. We are surrounded on all sides by enemies, and we have to advance almost constantly under their fire. We have combined, by a freely adopted decision, for the purpose of fighting the enemy, and not of retreating into the neighbouring marsh, the inhabitants of which, from the very outset, have reproached us with having separated ourselves into an exclusive group and with having chosen the path of struggle instead of the path of conciliation.

And now some among us begin to cry out: Let us go into the marsh! And when we begin to shame them, they retort: What backward people you are! Are you not ashamed to deny us the liberty to invite you to take a better road!

Oh, yes, gentlemen! You are free not only to invite us but to go yourselves wherever you will, even into the marsh. In fact, we think that the marsh is your proper place, and we are prepared to render you every assistance to get there. Only let go of our hands, don’t clutch at us and don’t besmirch the grand word freedom, for we too are “free” to go where we please, free to fight not only against the marsh, but also against those who are turning towards the marsh!