Central to the autonomist
tradition is the idea of Marxism(1) as a critique immanent
to capitalism. Attempting a thorough going materialism it has tried to
avoid appeals to transcendent ideas. In this sense autonomist Marxism
is a philosophy of pragmatics. It's a reading of Marx that: "Self-consciously
and unilaterally structures its approach to determine the meaning and
relevance of every concept to the immediate development of working class
struggle. It... echews all detached interpretation and abstract theorising
in favour of grasping concepts only within the concrete totality of struggle
whose determinations they designate."(Cleaver, 2000 p. 30)
As Kenneth Surin(1996
p.181) aphorises, "The 'relevance' of Marxism is derived from struggle."
To this end it is important to link autonomist ideas to the struggles
within which they developed.
The history of political
and social struggles in Italy during the 1960's and 1970's is not well
known or documented in the English speaking world - despite their size,
intensity and duration. "Some like to say that whereas 1968 lasted only
a few months in France, in Italy it extended over ten years." (Hardt,
Vianno, 1996 p.2). Unlike the rest of Europe the movement didn't slip
back after the explosion of 1968 but intensified with the university and
workplace occupations of 'the hot autumn' of 1969. In the early 1970's
there was an outbreak of struggles autonomous from the trade unions and
the vanguard groups both in the factories, with an iconic occupation of
Fiat in March 1973, and outside the workplace with housing occupations
and the self-reduction of utility prices. These struggles, along with
the emergence of the women's movement, caused a crisis amongst the Marxist
Leninist New Left groups who had become hegemonic in the movement after
1968. This crisis provoked some of the groups to dissolve their organisations.
Most famous amongst these was the group Potere Operaia (Workers Power),
whose leading intellectuals included Toni Negri. What followed was known
as autonomia or the "area of autonomy," a loose collection of usually
local groups with diverging views but a common commitment to autonomous
struggles and the ideas of Operaismo (Berardi 1980). When a new movement
erupted on a massive scale in and around the universities in 1977 the
autonomists were hugely influential within it. The high point of the movement
of '77 was in March when for a few days the movement fought over and occupied
large parts of both Rome and Bologna. (Red Notes, 1979). For a moment
autonomist ideas and practice became hegemonic within the Italian extra-parliamentary
left. It wasn't to last. The repression that followed through the late
seventies and early eighties was unprecedented in the recent history of
western Europe. There were mass arrests, most famously the April 7th arrests
of nine intellectuals including Toni Negri. According to Negri(1988 p.252)
there were 3000 militants in special prisons by 1980. This was accompanied
by a rising toll of people shot dead by the police, a practice legalised
by the Legge Reale law. Crushed between the violence of the state and
the violence of the Red Brigades, the space the movement had created was
closed amidst a legacy of detention, mental illness and heroin addiction.
The roots of autonomist
theory lie in the crisis that developed within the politics of the Italian
Communist Party (PCI) and the Italian Socialist Party (PSI). This crisis
was provoked both internationally and domestically. Stalin's tanks rolling
into revolutionary Hungary in 1956 provoked a collapse of belief in Stalinism
the world over. In Italy this was compounded by Palmiro Toggliatti's ultra
reformist leadership of the PCI. His prioritising of electoralism became
increasingly dissonant with an increasing worker militancy in the 1950's
and 1960's (Lumley, 1990), a dissonance symbolised by the storming in
1962 of a Social Democratic union office in the Piazza Stauto by striking
Fiat workers (Red Notes, 1979). As the struggles slipped out of the PCI
and PSI's control and understanding, intellectuals around the two parties
started to shift their thinking in an attempt to theorise the new autonomous
struggles. This thinking eventually solidified into a current known as
Operaismo (literally workerism) based around the reviews Quanderni Rossi
(Red notebooks) and later Classe Operaia (Working class). The
principle theorists were Raniero Panzieri, Mario Tronti, Romano Alquati
and Antonio Negri. They were influenced not only by this militancy against
the PCI compact but also by a similar rethinking of Marxism being undertaken
by the Johnson Forest tendency in America (2) and Socialisme
ou Barbarie in France (Wright, 2001).
The concepts of Operaismo,
later developed by autonomia, are organised around the central idea of
workers autonomy, both the potential autonomy of labour from capital and
an emphasis on "dal punto di vista operaio" (the working class point of
view). The orthodox Marxism that Operaismo was theorising against was
seen as emphasising the power of capital and always taking at face value
the inevitable unfolding of its laws. Operaismo, in what Yves Moulier
calls a "copernican inversion"(Dyer-Witherford, 1999 p.65), asserts the
primacy of struggle and recasts capital in a reactive role. As Mario Tronti
"We too have worked
with a concept that puts capitalist development first and the workers
second, and this is a mistake. Now we have to turn the problem on
it's head... and start again from the beginning: and the beginning
is the class struggle of the working class. At the level of socially
developed capital, capitalist development follows hard behind the
struggles" (Lumeley, 1990 p.37)
Inherent in an emphasis
on the autonomy of labour is the danger of seeing capital as external.
One of Marx's fundamental insights is the view of capital as a social
relation that contains labour within it. As Marx characterises workers:
only begins with the labour process, but by then they have ceased
to belong to themselves. On entering the labour process they are incorporated
into capital. As co-operators, as members of a working organism, they
merely form a particular mode of existence of capital. Hence the productive
power developed by the worker socially is the productive power of
capital." (Marx, 1976 p451)
For Marx capital is
reliant on the expenditure of labour power to valorise itself. What lies
under capitalist development is the social production of co-operative
labour. However to trigger co-operative production capital must bring
together large numbers of workers (Marx, 1976), which "inevitably creates
the conditions in which workers can establish a social unity that is in
fundamental opposition to capital" (Surin, 1996 p.197). Labour can never
be totally autonomous from capital but through its constant insubordination
it tries to affirm itself as independent. Conversely capital constantly
tries to reduce the working class to mere labour power (Negri, 1991).
For Operaismo this forms the fundamental cycle of class composition. Labour's
autonomous struggles provoke capital to restructure the production process
and the division of labour in order to reassert its command. This in turn
leads to the development of new antagonistic subjectivities, a recomposition
of the working class based on the new productive relations. The only possibility
of exiting this cycle is the structural asymmetry of the relationship;
while capital needs labour, labour doesn't need capital. Instead of the
familiar view of capitalism as confident and monolithic, we are left with
a picture of an unsteady capitalism constantly forced to recompose itself
in attempt to co-opt, channel and cap the creative unrest of human activity.
For Operaismo working
class insubordination is the driving force of capitalist development.
Not only is the ingenuity and creativity of social labour the well spring
of capitalist production, but capital's restructuring is a response to
labours constant attempts to escape capital's discipline.
"The history of
capitalist forms is always necessarily a reactive history: left to
its own devices capital would never abandon a regime of profit. In
other words, capitalism undergoes systemic transformation only when
it is forced to and when it's current regime is no longer tenable"
(Hardt, Negri, 2000 p.268)
Autonomists like Negri
see working class struggles and the development of new antagonistic subjectivities
prefiguring the future developments in capital. "The Proletariat actually
invents the social and productive forms that capital will be forced to
adopt in the future" (Hardt, Negri, 2000 p. 268). Restructuring is of
course closely linked to technological change. "As our friend Marx says,
machines rush to where there are strikes." (Negri 1988 P.206). It was
the violent refusal of technological restructuring in the post war period
by the Italian Industrial working class which led the originators of Operaismo
to examine capital's use of technology as a means of social control and
domination. It was the PCI's backing for this restructuring, coupled with
their inability to see the possibility of the valorisation of working
class needs outside the logic of capitalism, which led workers' struggles
to develop autonomously of the party and led many theorists of Operaismo
away from it (Wright, 2001).
Alongside the refusal
of restructuring there developed a series of struggles that came to be
theorised as the refusal of work. This was a theorising of the autonomous
struggles that arose in the great northern factories in the form of strikes,
sabotage and work slow downs, as well as more day to day struggles to
avoid the reduction of life to work. Epitomised by the prominent slogan
of the time: "Less work, more pay." By the 1970's this term had also come
to encompass a more general refusal by youth to accept the discipline
of the factory. This led to a generation with only an episodic relationship
to work. (Negri, 1979) The new "social subjects" were both met and partly
formed by a recomposition of capital involving the expansion of unemployment
and the undermining of the mass Fordist worker. There were the beginnings
of a decomposition of the old bastions of working class power. The mass
workplaces were to be broken up, work was to be subcontracted out or relocated
to the newly industrialising countries. Theorised as the diffuse factory
this trend was in its infancy in 1970's Italy but has been massively expanded
since. This tendency had been prefigured by Tronti (1980) in the 1960's
in his analysis of the social factory. Moving away from the traditional
Marxist focus on the point of production, Tronti analysed how increasingly
the whole of society functioned as a moment of production. His analysis
of how areas of life outside the workplace were subject to disciplines
traceable back to the needs of capital has only been confirmed as more
and more of life has been brought under overtly capitalist social relations.
This phenomena is theorised by Hardt and Negri (2000) as the move from
the formal to the real subsumption of labour under capital; the idea that
there is no outside to capital. However instead of the pessimistic conclusions
drawn by adherents to Critical Theory this tendency is seen as spreading
the points of contestation throughout society. Culture then becomes a
sphere of huge struggles and is confirmed as a site crucial to production.
The rapidly developing women's movement in Italy elaborated this concept
with an analysis of the unpaid work women did in reproducing labour. This
led to the demand "wages for housework" but also to an expansion of the
term working class to included not just the industrial workforce but all
those who contributed to the movement against capital. This reflects the
move in autonomist theory away from its early privileging of the struggles
of the factory working class to a recognition of the autonomy of different
The new social subjects
that came to the fore in the movement of 1977, the precarious workers,
the students, the marginalised, those without the traditional point of
collectivity in the mass factories, had to find new expressions of their
collectivity. They had to recompose in denial of their material conditions(Negri,
1979). The universities were occupied not just by students but by all
those with nowhere else to physically assemble. There was also a very
important proliferation of free radios as a point of deterritorialised
collectivity. Radio Alice was used as an open mike to inform demonstrators
of police movements during the intense fighting of February and March
in Bologna. However this was merely the high point of a collectivity based
around Radio Alice's reflection of the 'mao-dada' sensibilities of the
"The key to this
new outlook was the affirmation of the movement as an 'alternative
society', with its own richness of communication, free productive
creativity, its own life force. To conquer and to control its own
"social spaces" - this becomes the dominant form of struggle of the
new 'social subjects'". (Negri, 1988 p.236)
The rejection of factory
discipline was accompanied by the desire for the direct satisfaction of
needs and the development of new collective desires. There was a huge
expansion in squatted housing and the generalising of the tactic of self
reducing prices. This had started as a union tactic in the early 70's
and had been generalised as a way of life by groups dubbed the Metropolitan
Indians by the press (Berardi, 1980) They were so called because of their
use of American Indian imagery; painted faces, feathers in their hair
and the adoption of names like Tomahawk and Apache. These were the most
visible wing of an area collectively termed creative autonomy: an explosion
of creativity and experimentation in new ways of living. The Metropolitan
into shops and appropriate useless goods.... they also frequently
appear at the most elegant movie theatres in groups of about thirty
people, naturally after visiting the most expensive restaurants where
they obviously didn't pay"(Torealta, 1980 p.102).
This lifestyle rested
on a more general breakdown of capitalist discipline where the paying
of 'political prices' for essential services and goods and even the 'proletarian
shopping' of mass looting became widespread. Alongside this was the development
of a counterculture recognisably similar to that which had developed in
the US and Britain during the previous decade. Its development in Italy
had been hindered by the intensely political nature of the struggles of
1968-9. However by the mid 1970's there were huge battles over the level
of commodification of this culture. Autonomists organised to tear down
fences around pop festivals (Berardi, 1980). There was also a widespread
rejection of party discipline and the self sacrificial role of the militant.
This "turn to the personal" was inspired by the women's movement and led
to Lotta Continua (continuous struggle), the largest organisation to the
left of the communist party dissolving itself in a dramatic conference
in 1976 (Berardi 1980). The most iconic moment in this rejection was the
expulsion of Luciano Lama, the communist union leader from the occupied
Rome university on 17 February 1977. Sent by the PCI to dissipate the
occupation Lama was met with an ironic sensibility that highlighted the
distance between the two political cultures.
"In the large
open area of the campus where he was to speak, Lama found another
platform rigged up, with a dummy of himself on it (complete with his
famous pipe). There was a big red cut-out of a valentine's heart,
with a slogan punning his name- "Nessuno L'ama" (Lama nobody... or
nobody loves him). Around this platform there was a band of Metropolitan
Indians. As Lama started to speak they began chanting: "Sacrifices,
sacrifices, we want sacrifices!"..." We demand to work harder and
earn less!"(Lotringer, Marazzi, (eds) 1980 p.101)
of creativity and development of new subjectivities were theorised by
the movement as positive constitutive struggles. The flip side to the
more destructive and disrupted strategies of the refusal of work. In the
time and space reclaimed by the refusal of work there were creative attempts
at new ways of being. This linking of the self-valorisation of working
class needs with the destructuration of capitalist command was a theorising
of the break with the PCI and reformist thinking. As Negri puts it: "Valorisation
for reformism is univocal: there is only capitalist valorisation"(Negri,
1979 p.112). The satisfaction of working class needs within the limits
of capitalist valorisation had already been rejected in autonomous struggles
against capitalist restructuring.
The term self-valorisation
(selbstverwertung) was used by Marx to describe the way value adds value
to itself (Marx, 1972 p.255). In a moment of inversion Negri (1991) applies
that term to the working class point of view to indicate struggles autonomous
from capitalist valorisation. "The self-valorisation of the proletarian
subject contrary to capitalist valorisation, takes the form of auto-determination
in its development" (Negri, 1991 p.162). This is intimately linked to
the rejection of capitalist command: "if capitalism is successful in converting
all of life into work there is no space or time or energy for self-valorisation"(Cleaver,
1992a P.130). Projects of self-valorisation should be seen as experiments
in new ways of living, so that although they are in no way pure and often
recomposed by capital through strategies of commodification, incorporation
or outright repression they push forward boundaries and provide the basis
of future experiments in self valorisation (Cleaver, 1992a).
For Negri these experiments
are the basis of communism, a view of communism that reconnects to the
Marx of the German Ideology: "Communism is not for us a state of affairs
which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust
itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present
state of things" (Cleaver,1992b n.15).
of communism isn't the construction of a unified social project traditional
in the socialist imagination. Instead communism is something that is continually
launched by new forms of self-valorisation, new "lines of flight" out
of capitalism. Communism is as Cleaver puts it: "the realisation of 'multilaterally'
of the proletarian subject, or, better, of a subject which in its self-realisation
explodes into multiple autonomous subjects."(Cleaver, 1992a P.130)
the Italian movement of mass occupations, demonstrations and riots doesn't
have many surface similarities with the development of punk rock in the
UK. There is some resemblance between punk and the Metropolitan Indians
but the history of the two countries developed quite separately. At the
time Italy was treated as exceptional, particularly the longevity of the
movement (Hardt, Vianno, 1996) There doesn't seem to be any direct circulation
of influence between the two movements, at least not until the eighties
when punk and autonomist influence fused in many countries, most influentially
in the Dutch squatters' movement and the German Autonomes. In Italy punk
was an influence only when its popularity and use as a point of unity helped
restart a movement grounded in autonomist ideas based around the Centri
Social, "self managed, occupied social centres" in the early eighties (Wright,
2000). However for both countries, and international capitalism as a whole,
the mid seventies were a time of dramatic change. The oil crisis of 1973
signalled the beginnings of the end of the post-war settlement. capital
was embarking on a project of restructuring which would undermine Keyenesian
policies based on harnessing old forms of working class power.
Punk was a media aware,
self-conscious and self mythologising movement from its birth. Trying
to disentangle the story and meaning of such a complex and varied set
of experiences is only complicated because our experience of it now is
so mediated. The Autonomia movement was just as complex and given the
lack of English language history it is possible to outline the bare bones
of the story in only the most general and provisional manner. Punk's over-analysed
status, if anything, makes it more difficult to give a definitive portrayal.
Recent writings about punk (Sabine, 1999) have tended to further problematise
this situation by asserting that the most 'part time' punks experience
was just as authentic and valid an experience of punk as John Lydon's.
Of course there are many 'lines of flight' from punk. However if we return
to autonomist theory being one of pragmatics, the ultimate resort is not
to a claim of authenticity but to one of efficacy.
One of the useful
things about looking at punk as a moment of self-valorisation is that
it emphasises the continuities amongst struggles that might not be apparent.
One of the questions that has always been contentious is whether punk
was a reaction against or a continuation of, the
cycle of struggles
of the sixties. Of course this comes down to how you interpret the sixties.
Autonomists have interpreted them as the development of needs and desires
that went beyond those that could be provided by the post war settlement.
As Negri and Hardt says in a recent book: "'Dropping out' is really a
poor conception of what was going on in Haight Ashbury and across the
United States in the 1960's. The two essential operations were the refusal
of the disciplinary regime and the experimentation with new forms of productivity."
(Hardt, Negri, 2000 P274) These struggles disrupted the post-war regimes
of discipline, refusing the mass factory and nuclear family structures
and favouring the sort of immaterial and mobile productivity that was
taken up in distorted form as the new productive paradigm for capitalism.
Jamie Reid's famous
slogan "Never trust a hippy" was aimed first and foremost at Richard Branson
(Reid, Savage, 1987) but it did sum up a generational anti hippy feeling.
As sixties veteran Caroline Coon says: "I hadn't expected to see the idealism
of my generation denigrated with such aggressive negativity. When these
boys were slagging off hippies, I realized they had grown up reading about
hippies in the tabloid press, and what they were doing was spouting "the
shock and the filth" of the hippies. So I said 'The gutter press did to
the hippies what they going to do to you'"(Savage, 1991 p.231)
However punk was a
continuation of many of the sixties ideas and themes in an anti sixties
form. What punk was reacting against was the recuperation of the sixties
struggles. It was the continuation of 60's counter cultural ideas in the
form of a nihilism against that media creation: hippy. What punks tended
to object to in hippy were the fakes, the falseness and totalitarian niceness
that hippy had been reduced to; symbolised perhaps by the yellow smiley
face logo. On Jamie Reid's poster for American punk band the Dead Kennedys
record "California Uber Alles" the smiley face is portrayed as masking
the threat of a laid back Californian style of Fascism. This seems iconic
of a certain theme in punk; the assertion of social realism against the
superficiality of the smiley face. This was after all a time when the
recomposition of capital was making the smug self satisfaction of recuperated
The form this reaction
took was a nihilistic rage against the failings of the previous generation.
The rejection of hippy can be seen in the earliest manifestations of punk
around the club CBGB's in New York. Stylistically this was represented
by short spiky hair and straight trousers, 'like trouser like mind' as
Joe Strummer said (Sabine, 1999 p.6), but also by a stylised urbanism,
violence and unpleasantness. This rejection of hippy certainly wasn't
alien to the sixties counterculture. The San Francisco Diggers staged
its mock funeral in 1967, proclaiming "the death of hippie, devoted son
of the mass media" (Lee, Shlain, 1985 p.191). However in the CBGB's scene
the negation of hippy sometimes slipped in to reactionary and even racist
In London there were
a group of people gathered around the Sex Pistols who were still enthused
by the libertarian spirit of May 1968. Arguably it took this reconnection
of punk to its more radical predecessors to bring out the revolutionary
potential in punk. The influence of Situationist ideas is
usually traced through
Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid's association with the group King Mob in
the early 1970's (Savage, 1990). King Mob contained members who had been
expelled from the Situationist International for being too influenced
by the "street gang with an analysis" (Vague, 1997 p.130) Black Mask Group,
later called Up Against the Wall Motherfucker.
the Sex Pistols were others influenced by the sixties: Sophie Richmond
had been involved in the Situationist magazine and printing press Suburban
press with Jamie Reid but she had also previously been involved with the
libertarian socialist group Solidarity. Others include Bernie Rhodes the
Clash's manager, John Tiberi the Sex Pistols Road manager and Fred Vermorel,
friend of McLaren's and publisher of the pro-Situationist magazine "International
Vandalism". Vermorel later said of the situation: "The whole Pistols thing
was basically a Marxist conspiracy, which sounds ridiculous but that's
what it was. You had Jamie Reid, Sophie Richmond and Malcolm sitting around
talking radical politics, about how to radicalise this and that, how far
can we go with this and that." (Vague, 1997 p.135)
The level of influence
they had on the band is contentious but they clearly provided a milieu
of ideas around punk when it was being created and songs were being written.
The affinity between punk and the ideas circulating some years earlier
in King Mob is clear. Practising an active nihilism, outrageous plans
were mooted, including blowing up a waterfall in the lake district as
a protest against romanticism. Reflecting the attitude: "Better to be
horrible than a pleasant altruistic hippy, as a kind of undialectical
over-reaction to hippy."(Wise, D. Wise, S. 1996 p. 66). This nihilism
was also apparent in punk, as indicated in its name. In the early seventies
Chris Gray a member of King Mob had circulated the idea of creating "a
totally unpleasant pop group" (Wise, D. Wise, S. 1996 p. 67). He never
got further than some graffiti proclaiming the Chris Gray Band but the
idea was one of the many threads which fed into the Sex Pistols. It was
planned as a critique of consumerism, an expose of the rubbish capitalism
will commodify, an unveiling of the workings of the music industry and
a repudiation of its artistic pretensions. The idea's influence can be
seen in McLaren's retrospective interpretation of punk as a swindle perpetrated
on the music industry. The Pistols as the anti Bay City Rollers, a playing
back of the right wing press's interpretation of punk, the media unwittingly
creating its own worst nightmare (Savage, 1990).
Of course punk was
more than just the machinations of a few manipulators. A group of suburban
and inner city teenagers were already exploiting the gaps in pop culture
to create their own style and way of life. The untutored genius of Johnny
Rotten's persona is one of those things that just cannot be planned. That's
the problem with the 'punk as con' narrative, the Sex Pistols were too
good. Their critique was so strong it undermined all previously existing
pop culture, including the position of political rock (Garnett, 1999).
Greil Marcus argues that "the Sex pistols made a breach in... pop" (Marcus,
1989 p.3). By undermining the conventions of pop and rock the Sex Pistols
opened up a huge liberating space. Musically, by refusing to learn to
play their instruments properly, punk broke down the conventions that
had straight-jacketed musicians. By demystifying culture punk created
a space for an explosion of self activity. People were inspired to form
their own bands, create their own fanzines or outfits or put on their
own gigs. The legacy of the empowerment people felt is still with us.
As Punk journalist Richard Boon says: The threat posed by earlier punk
was that intelligent young working class people would throw off the shackles
of oppression! and step into history!" (Savage, 1991 p.397)
In this sense punk
can be seen as a moment of self-valorisation analogous to the Metropolitan
Indians in Italy. A powerful self constituting experiment in new ways
of being. Punk, through records, fanzines and gigs, can be seen as a point
of deterritorialised unity amongst a constituency subject
to the atomising effects of an increase in youth unemployment (3).
The ethos of 'Do It Yourself' entailed a creativity outside the realm
of work. This refusal of work extended to the unemployed: after all the
work of the unemployed is to look for work and act as a downward pressure
on waged workers demands. The point of unity provided by punk was shown
most dramatically when the Sex Pistols record "God Save the Queen" reached
number one during the Queens Jubilee week. The fact that name of the record
was famously blanked out of the charts listings is indicative of the important
role it played in representing subjectivities excluded from official discourse.
One of the strengths
of Self valorisation as a concept is its awareness of its own limits.
If we take Marxism as an immanent critique of capitalism then its application
to struggles that push beyond capitalism is limited. Projects of self-valorisation
must be grasped in their own terms. What autonomist Marxism can do is
identify the scars that projects of self-valorisation bear from their
birth within capitalism. As Harry Cleaver (1992 p.134) puts it: "We craft
autonomous environments and activities but we do so in spaces scarred
by capitalist exploitation and with commodities and personalities at least
partly shaped by the process of valorisation." When applied to punk this
can help identify the scars of its birth in the music industry and clarify
some of the directions that it was pushing in beyond the industry. One
of those scars upon which punk would flounder was its inability to move
beyond the rock band form.
Part of the motivation
for punk was the experience of sixties rock stars disappearing into stadiums
and achieving demi-god status. Punk at its best contained a thrust towards
breaking down the separation of band and audience. A line traceable back
to Lautreamont's demand for a "poetry made by all" (Marcus, 1990 p.240).
This thrust is identifiable in the early gigs when the audience was as
important as the bands in creating the style and the attitude of punk.
Indeed the audience one week would form bands and be playing the next
week. Indicative of the cultural empowerment set off by punk. However
unable to shed the form of bands, gigs and records the demands of the
industry and capitalist valorisation gradually reasserted itself.
From a feeling of
bands being in it together as part of a movement there was already a creeping
elitism by summer of 1976 as bands started jockeying for position in the
queue for record company interest (Savage, 1991). Punk's inability to
escape the scars of its birth in the music industry resulted in it having
a partial critique of capitalism. Unable to see clearly beyond its origins
punk posited an opposition between Independent and Major record labels.
Although Independents can provide valuable space and many not for profit
record companies still do, 25 years of hard experience have shown small
record companies to be subject to the same disciplines as larger ones.
This is not to say that if only punks had been better Marxists they'd
have found a solution to these contradictions. There are no pure self-valorisations.
However the autonomist identification of these contradictions as rooted
in capitalist discipline helps undermine the false line in the sand between
Independent and Major that is still being drawn today.
The Sex Pistols position
in the mediated belly of the beast was heightened to crisis point after
their appearance on television with Bill Grundy. Many of the complexities
and contradictions of punk were flattened. The space that had been opened
up was narrowed by the dispersal of punk's ideas through the mediated
form of the tabloid story. But as Jon Savage comments:
"That point is
reached when the mass media take over, a necessary process if that
movement is to be pop. Within this transaction, simplicity is inevitably
imposed on complex phenomena, but there is also a fresh burst of energy
released with unpredictable, liberating results." (Savage, 1991 p.278)
The Sex Pistols fought
against the process of mediation by avoiding being pinned down, hiding
their influences and dodging an easy identity but still the breach they
had made was to some extent closed by 1979. However even in mediated form
the message of punk was powerful enough to provoke a new wave of creativity
that reached into even the smallest towns of the UK. After the destruction
of the Sex Pistols and the co-optation of punk bands into the history
of rock there remained enough space to provide new waves of self-valorisation.
Punk itself couldn't have existed without the self valorisations of the
sixties. Both practically, widespread squatting in London was a material
precondition of punk, but also the theoretically. "While it may no longer
have been 'realistic' to 'demand the impossible', the memory of having
envisioned the impossible remained palpable. It was this that perhaps
made the politics of punk possible" (Garnett, 1999 p.24).
In turn the space
and subjectivities developed in punk provided the basis for new struggles
and self valorisations. Of most note amongst the second wave of punk bands
were Crass. By "making the first, and only, concerted attempt to work
through the nihilist archetypes of the time" (Savage, 1991 p.481), they
created the subculture of Anarchopunk and helped form lines of dissent
that lead directly into the anti-capitalist struggles of the last few
years. Of course this is only one of the lines out of the chaos of contradictions
in punk. A line can also be drawn from the nihilism of punks negation
of hippy through right wing punk bands to neo-Nazi white power rock scene
of today (Sabine, 1999). A line for which the category of self-valorisation
might not be so useful.
"A lot of the people
in cultural studies these days kind of remind me of the FBI in the fifties:
They find subversion everywhere." (Marcus, 1991 p.28) While autonomist
theory does see subversion everywhere it avoids the uncritical and unspecific
idea of subversion to which I think Marcus is referring. One of its strengths
is that it enables the analysing of links between struggles in the cultural
sphere and those outside it. Applying autonomist theory to punk shows
the links between two quite different movements. Looking at punk as a
moment of self-valorisation is useful in separating its more utopian impulses
from the disciplines to which it is subjected by capitalism. Viewing Marxism
as a critique immanent to capitalism helps identify the limits of its
usefulness for analysing culture.
I use the term Marxism while recognising that certain theoretical moves
within the autonomist tradition make this identification problematic.
For instance Negri's reading of Spinoza as a Pre Marx communist problematises
the term Marxism. While some in the autonomist tradition have suggest
that even the word communist is a "heavy identity" from which we should
flee. (Viano, Binetti, (1996) P.252) [back]
J.R. Johnson and F. Forest were the pseudonyms of C.L.R. James and Raya
Dunayevskaya respectively. [back]
"In June, (1976) unemployment reached 1,507,976, 6.4 per cent of the workforce,
and the worst figure since 1940." (Savage 1991 p.229) [back]
(1999) Cyber-Marx. University of Illinois Press.
Garnett, R. (1999)
Too low to be low: Art pop and the Sex Pistols. In Sabine, R. (ed) (1999)
Hardt, M. Negri, A.
(2000) Empire. London,Harvard University press
Hardt, M. Virno, P.
(1996) Radical thought in Italy. A potential politics. Minneapolis, University
of Minnesota press.
Home S. (ed) (1996)
What is Situationism? A Reader. Edinburgh, AK press.
Lee, M. Shlain, B.
(1985) Acid dreams. New york, Grove Weidenfeld.
Lotringer, S. Marazzi,
C. (eds) (1980) Italy: Autonomia. Post-political politics. New York, Semiotext(e)
Lumley, R. (1990)
States of emergency, cultures of revolt in Italy from 1968-1978. London,
Marcus, G. 1990) Lipstick
traces, a secret history of the twentieth century. 2. London, Picador.
Marcus, G. (1991)
A Hunka' Hunka' Burnin' Text: Greil Marcus on Dead Elvis and other Pop
Icons. Lingua Franca 1.6 (1991) pp. 28-31
Marx, K. (1976) Capital
volume 1, Penguin.
Negri, A. (1979) Working
class autonomy and the crisis. London, Red Notes and CSE books.
Negri, A. (1988) Revolution
Retrieved. London, Red Notes.
Negri, A. (1991) Marx
beyond Marx, lessons on the Grundrisse. London, Pluto.
Plant, S. (1992) The
most radical gesture, the Situationist International in a postmodern age.
4. London, Routledge.
Sabine, R. (ed) (1999)
Punk rock: So what? London, Routledge.
Savage, J (1991) England's
dreaming, Sex Pistols And Punk rock. 2. London, Faber and Faber.
Surin, K. (1996) "The
continued relevance of Marxism" as a question, some propositions. In Casarino,
C. Karl, R. Makdisi, S. (eds) (1996)
Torealta, M. (1980)
Painted politics. In Lotringer, S. Marazzi, C. (eds) (1980)
Tronti, M. (1980)
The strategy of refusal. In Lotringer, S. Marazzi, C. (eds) (1980)
Reid, J. Savage, J.
(1987) Up they rise, the incomplete works of Jamie Reid. London, Faber
Red Notes (eds) (1979)
Italy 1977-8. Living with an earthquake. London, Red Notes
Vague, T. (1994) The
great british mistake, Vague 1977-92. Edinburgh, AK press.
Vague, T. (1997) Anarchy
in the UK, the angry brigade. Edinburgh, AK press.
Vermorel, F. Vermorel,
J. (1978) Sex Pistols, the inside story. London, Omnibus.
Whitehead, P. (1985)
The writing on the wall. 2. London, Michael Joseph.
Wise, D. Wise, S.(1996)
The End Of Music in Home S. (ed) (1996)
Wright, S. (2000)
A love born of hate, Autonomist rap in Italy. Theory, Culture & Society,
Wright, S. (Forthcoming
2002) Storming Heaven, class composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist
Marxism. London, Pluto.