I do not intend to make an historical recapitulation of the movement called
autonomy, but I want to understand its peculiarity through an overview of some
concepts like “refusal of work”, and “class composition”. Journalists often
use the word “operaismo” to define a political and philosophical movement
which surfaced in Italy during the 60s. I absolutely dislike this term,
because it reduces the complexity of the social reality to the mere datum of
the centrality of the industrial workers in the social dynamics of late
The origin of this philosophical and political movement can be identified in
the works of Mario Tronti, Romano Alquati, Raniero Panzieri, Toni Negri, and
its central focus can be seen in the emancipation from the Hegelian concept of
In the place of the historical subject inherited from the Hegelian legacy, we
should speak of the process of subjectivation. Subjectivation takes the
conceptual place of subject. This conceptual move is very close to the
contemporary modification of the philosophical landscape that was promoted by
French post-structuralism. Subjectivation in the place of subject. That means
that we should not focus on the identity, but on the process of becoming. This
also means that the concept of social class is not to be seen as an
ontological concept, but rather as a vectorial concept.
In the framework of autonomous thought the concept of social class is
redefined as an investment of social desire, and that means culture,
sexuality, refusal of work.
In the 60s and in the 70s the thinkers who wrote in magazines like Classe
operaia, and Potere operaio did not speak of social investments of desire:
they spoke in a much more Leninist way. But their philosophical gesture
produced an important change in the philosophical landscape, from the
centrality of the worker identity to the decentralisation of the process of
Félix Guattari, who met the operaismo after 77 and was met by the autonomous
thinkers after 77, has always emphasized the idea that we should not talk of
subject, but of “processus de subjectivation”. From this perspective we can
understand what the expression refusal of work means.
Refusal of work does not mean so much the obvious fact that workers do not
like to be exploited, but something more. It means that the capitalist
restructuring, the technological change, and the general transformation of
social institutions are produced by the daily action of withdrawal from
exploitation, of rejection of the obligation to produce surplus value, and to
increase the value of capital, reducing the value of life. I do not like the
term “operaismo”, because of the implicit reduction to a narrow social
reference (the workers, “operai” in Italian), and I would prefer to use the
word “compositionism”. The concept of social composition, or “class
composition” (widely used by the group of thinkers we are talking about) has
much more to do with chemistry than with the history of society.
I like this idea that the place where the social phenomenon happens is not the
solid, rocky historical territory of Hegelian descent, but is a chemical
environment where culture, sexuality, disease, and desire fight and meet and
mix and continuously change the landscape. If we use the concept of
composition, we can better understand what happened in Italy in the 70s, and
we can better understand what autonomy means: not the constitution of a
subject, not the strong identification of human beings with a social destiny,
but the continuous change of social relationships, sexual identification and
disidentification, and refusal of work. Refusal of work is actually generated
by the complexity of social investments of desire.
In this view autonomy means that social life does not depend only on the
disciplinary regulation imposed by economic power, but also depends on the
internal displacement, shiftings, settlings and dissolutions that are the
process of the self-composition of living society. Struggle, withdrawal,
alienation, sabotage, lines of flight from the capitalist system of domination.
Autonomy is the independence of social time from the temporality of capitalism.
This is the meaning of the expression refusal of work. Refusal of work means
quite simply:I don‚t want to go to work because I prefer to sleep. But this
laziness is the source of intelligence, of technology, of progress. Autonomy
is the self-regulation of the social body in its independence and in its
interaction with the disciplinary norm.
Autonomy and Deregulation
There is another side of autonomy, which has been scarcely recognized so far.
The process of the autonomisation of workers from their disciplinary role has
provoked a social earthquake which triggered capitalist deregulation. The
deregulation that entered the world scene in the Thatcher-Reagan era, can be
seen as the capitalist response to the autonomisation from the disciplinary
order of labour. Workers demanded freedom from capitalist regulation, then
capital did the same thing, but in a reversed way. Freedom from state
regulation has become economic despotism over the social fabric. Workers
demanded freedom from the life-time prison of the industrial factory.
Deregulation responded with the flexibilisation and the fractalisation of
labour. The autonomy movement in the 70s triggered a dangerous process, a
process which evolved from the social refusal of capitalist disciplinary rule
to capitalist revenge, which took the shape of deregulation, freedom of the
enterprise from the state, destruction of social protections, downsizing and
externalisation of production, cutback of social spending, de-taxation, and
The movement of autonomisation did, in fact, trigger the destabilisation of
the social framework resulting from a century of pressure on the part of the
unions and of state regulation. Was it a terrible mistake that we made? Should
we repent the actions of sabotage and dissent, of autonomy, of refusal of work
which seem to have provoked capitalist deregulation?
The movement of autonomy actually forestalled the capitalist move, but the
process of deregulation was inscribed in the coming capitalist post-industrial
development and was naturally implied in the technological restructuring and
in the globalisation of production.
There is a narrow relationship between refusal of work, informatisation of the
factories, downsizing, outsourcing of jobs, and the flexibilisation of labour.
But this relationship is much more complex than a cause-and-effect chain. The
process of deregulation was inscribed in the development of new technologies
allowing capitalist corporations to unleash a process of globalisation.
A similar process happened in the media-field, during the same period.
Think about the free radio stations in the 70s. In Italy at that time there
was a state-owned monopoly, and free broadcasting was forbidden. In 1975-76 a
group of media activists began to create small free radio stations like Radio
Alice in Bologna. The traditional left (the Italian Communist party and so on)
denounced those mediactivists, warning about the danger of weakening the
public media system, and opening the door to privately owned media. Should we
think today that those people of the traditional statist left were right? I
don’t think so, I think they were wrong at that time, because the end of the
state-owned monopoly was inevitable, and freedom of expression is better than
centralized media. The traditional statist left was a conservative force,
doomed to defeat as they desperately tried to preserve an old framework which
could no longer last in the new technological and cultural situation of the
We could say much the same about the end of the Soviet Empire and of so-
Everybody knows that Russian people were probably living better twenty years
ago than today, and the pretended democratisation of Russian society has so
far mostly been the destruction of social protections, and the unleashing of a
social nightmare of aggressive competition, violence, and economic corruption.
But the dissolution of the socialist regime was inevitable, because that order
was blocking the dynamic of the social investment of desire, and because the
totalitarian regime was obtruding cultural innovation. The dissolution of the
communist regimes was inscribed in the social composition of collective
intelligence, in the imagination created by the new global media, and in the
collective investment of desire. This is why the democratic intelligentsia,
and dissident cultural forces took part in the struggle against the socialist
regime, although they knew that capitalism was not paradise. Now deregulation
is savaging the former soviet society, and people are experiencing
exploitation and misery and humiliation at a point never reached before, but
this transition was inevitable and in a sense it has to be seen as a
progressive change. Deregulation does not mean only the emancipation of
private enterprise from state regulation and a reduction of public spending
and social protection. It also means an increasing flexibilisation of labour.
The reality of labour flexibility is the other side of this kind of
emancipation from capitalist regulation. We should not underestimate the
connection between refusal of work and the flexibilisation which ensued.
I remember that one of the strong ideas of the movement of autonomy
proletarians during the 70s was the idea “precariousness is good”. Job
precariousness is a form of autonomy from steady regular work, lasting an
entire life. In the 70s many people used to work for a few months, then to go
away for a journey, then back to work for a while. This was possible in times
of almost full employment and in times of egalitarian culture. This situation
allowed people to work in their own interest and not in the interest of
capitalists, but quite obviously this could not last forever, and the
neoliberal offensive of the 80s was aimed to reverse the rapport de force. .
Deregulation and the flexibilisation of labour have been the effect and the
reversal of the worker‚s autonomy. We have to know that not only for
historical reasons. If we want to understand what has to be done today, in the
age of fully flexibilised labour, we have to understand how the capitalist
takeover of social desire could happen.
Rise and Fall of the Alliance of Cognitive Labour and Recombinant Capital
During the last decades the informatisation of machinery has played a crucial
role in the flexibilisation of labour, together with the intellectualisation
and immaterialisation of the most important cycles of production.
The introduction of the new electronic technologies and the informatisation of
the production \ cycle, opened way to the creation of a global network of info-
production, de-territorialized, de-localised, de-personalised. The subject of
work can be increasingly identified with the global network of info-production.
The industrial workers had been refusing their role in the factory and gaining
freedom from capitalist domination. However, this situation drove the
capitalists to invest in labour-saving technologies and also to change the
technical composition of the work-process, in order to expel the well
organised industrial workers and to create a new organisation of labour which
could be more flexible.
The intellectualisation and immaterialisaton of labour is one side of the
social change in production forms. Planetary globalisation is the other face.
Immaterialisation and globalisation are subsidiary and complementary.
Globalisation does indeed have a material side, because industrial labour does
not disappear in the post-industrial age, but migrates towards the geographic
zones where it is possible to pay low wages and regulations are poorly
In the last issue of the magazine Classe operaia, in 1967, Mario Tronti wrote:
the most important phenomenon of the next decades will be the development of
the working class on a global planetarian scale. This intuition was not based
on an analysis of the capital process of production, but rather on an
understanding of the transformation in the social composition of labour.
Globalisation and informatisation could be foretold as an effect of the
refusal of work in the western capitalist countries.
During the last two decades of the twentieth century we have witnessed a sort
of alliance between recombinant capital and cognitive work. What I call
recombinant are those sections of capitalism which are not closely connected
to a particular industrial application, but can be easily transferred from one
place to another, from one industrial application to another, from one sector
of economic activity to another and so on. The financial capital that takes
the central role in politics and in the culture of the 90s may be called
The alliance of cognitive labour and financial capital has produced important
cultural effects, namely the ideological identification of labour and
enterprise. The workers have been induced to see themselves as self-
entrepreneurs, and this was not completely false in the dotcom period, when
the cognitive worker could create his own enterprise, just investing his
intellectual force (an idea, a project, a formula) as an asset. This was the
period that Geert Lovink defined as dotcommania (in his remarkable book Dark
Fiber). What was dotcommania? Due to mass participation in the cycle of
financial investment in the 90s, a vast process of self-organization of
cognitive producers got under way. Cognitive workers invested their expertise,
their knowledge and their creativity, and found in the stock market the means
to create enterprises. For several years, the entrepreneurial form became the
point where financial capital and highly productive cognitive labour met. The
libertarian and liberal ideology that dominated the (American) cyberculture of
the 90s idealized the market by presenting it as a pure environment. In this
environment, as natural as the struggle for the survival of the fittest that
makes evolution possible, labour would find the necessary means to valorise
itself and become enterprise. Once left to its own dynamic, the reticular
economic system was destined to optimise economic gains for everyone, owners
and workers, also because the distinction between owners and workers would
become increasingly imperceptible when one enters the virtual productive
cycle. This model, theorised by authors such as Kevin Kelly and transformed by
Wired magazine in a sort of digital-liberal, scornful and triumphalist
Weltanschauung, went bankrupt in the first couple of years of the new
millennium, together with the new economy and a large part of the army of self-
employed cognitive entrepreneurs who had inhabited the dotcom world. It went
bankrupt because the model of a perfectly free market is a practical and
theoretical lie. What neoliberalism supported in the long run was not the free
market, but monopoly. While the market was idealised as a free space where
knowledges, expertise and creativity meet, reality showed that the big groups
of command operate in a way that is far from being libertarian, but instead
introduces technological automatisms, imposing itself with the power of the
media or money, and finally shamelessly robbing the mass of share holders and
In the second half of the 90s a real class struggle occurred within the
productive circuit of high technologies. The becoming of the web has been
characterised by this struggle. The outcome of the struggle, at present, is
unclear. Surely the ideology of a free and natural market turned out to be a
blunder. The idea that the market works as a pure environment of equal
confrontation for ideas, projects, the productive quality and the utility of
services has been wiped out by the sour truth of a war that monopolies have
waged against the multitude of self-employed cognitive workers and against the
slightly pathetic mass of microtraders.
The struggle for survival was not won by the best and most successful, but by
the one who drew his gun — the gun of violence, robbery, systematic theft, of
the violation of all legal and ethical norms. The Bush-Gates alliance
sanctioned the liquidation of the market, and at that point the phase of the
internal struggle of the virtual class ended. One part of the virtual class
entered the techno-military complex; another part (the large majority) was
expelled from the enterprise and pushed to the margins of explicit
proletarization. On the cultural plane, the conditions for the formation of a
social consciousness of the cognitariat are emerging, and this could be the
most important phenomenon of the years to come, the only key to offer
solutions to the disaster.
Dotcoms were the training laboratory for a productive model and for a market.
In the end the market was conquered and suffocated by the corporations, and
the army of self-employed entrepreneurs and venture microcapitalists was
robbed and dissolved. Thus a new phase began: the groups that became
predominant in the cycle of the net-economy forge an alliance with the
dominant group of the old-economy (the Bush clan, representative of the oil
and military industry), and this phase signals a blocking of the project of
globalisation. Neoliberalism produced its own negation, and those who were its
most enthusiastic supporters become its marginalized victims.
With the dotcom crash, cognitive labour has separated itself from capital.
Digital artisans, who felt like entrepreneurs of their own labour during the
90s, are slowly realizing that they have been deceived, expropriated, and this
will create the conditions for a new consciousness of cognitive workers. The
latter will realise that despite having all the productive power, they have
been expropriated of its fruits by a minority of ignorant speculators who are
only good at handling the legal and financial aspects of the productive
process. The unproductive section of the virtual class, the lawyers and the
accountants, appropriate the cognitive surplus value of physicists and
engineers, of chemists, writers and media operators. But they can detach
themselves from the juridical and financial castle of semiocapitalism, and
build a direct relation with society, with the users: then maybe the process
of the autonomous self-organisation of cognitive labour will begin. This
process is already under way, as the experiences of media activism and the
creation of networks of solidarity from migrant labour show.
We needed to go through the dotcom purgatory, through the illusion of a fusion
between labour and capitalist enterprise, and then through the hell of
recession and endless war, in order to see the problem emerge in clear terms.
On the one hand, the useless and obsessive system of financial accumulation
and a privatisation of public knowledge, the heritage of the old industrial
economy. On the other hand, productive labour increasingly inscribed in the
cognitive functions of society: cognitive labour is starting to see itself as
a cognitariat, building institutions of knowledge, of creation, of care, of
invention and of education that are autonomous from capital.
Fractalisation, Despair and Suicide
In the net economy flexibility has evolved into a form of the fractalisation
of labour. Fractalisation means fragmentation of time-activity. The worker
does not exist any more as a person. He is just the interchangeable producer
of micro-fragments of recombinant semiosis which enters into the continuous
flux of the network. Capital is no longer paying for the availability of the
worker to be exploited for a long period of time, is no longer paying a salary
covering the entire range of economic needs of a working person. The worker (a
mere machine possessing a brain that can be used for a fragment of time) is
paid for his punctual performance. The working time is fractalised and
cellularised. Cells of time are on sale on the net, and the corporation can
buy as many as it needs. The cell phone is the tool that best defines the
relationship between the fractal worker and recombinant capital.
Cognitive labour is an ocean of microscopic fragments of time, and
cellularisation is the ability to recombine fragments of time in the framework
of a single semi-product. The cell phone can be seen as the assembly line of
cognitive labour. This is the effect of the flexibilisation and fractalisation
of labour: what used to be the autonomy and the political power of the
workforce has became the total dependence of cognitive labour on the
capitalist organisation of the global network. This is the central nucleus of
the creation of semiocapitalism. What used to be refusal of work has became a
total dependence of emotions, and thought on the flow of information. And the
effect of this is a sort of nervous breakdown that strikes the global mind and
provokes what we are accustomed to call the dotcom-crash.
The dotcom-crash and the crisis of financial mass-capitalism can be viewed as
an effect of the collapse of the economic investment of social desire. I use
the word collapse in a sense that is not metaphorical, but rather a clinical
description of what is going on in the western mind. I use the word collapse
in order to express a real pathological crash of the psycho-social organism.
What we have seen in the period following the first signs of economic crash,
in the first months of the new century, is a psychopathological phenomenon,
the collapse of the global mind. I see the present economic depression as the
side-effect of a psychic depression. The intense and prolonged investment of
desire and of mental and libidinal energies in labour has created the psychic
environment for the collapse which is now manifesting itself in the field of
economic recession, in the field of military aggression and of a suicidal
The attention economy has became an important subject during the first years
of the new century.
Virtual workers have less and less time for attention , they are involved in a
growing number of intellectual tasks, and they have no more time to devote to
their own life, to love, tenderness, and affection. They take Viagra because
they have no time for sexual preliminaries. The cellularisation has produced a
kind of occupation of life. The effect is a psychopathologisation of social
relationships. The symptoms of it are quite evident: millions of boxes of
Prozac sold every month, the epidemic of attention deficit disorders among
youngsters, the diffusion of drugs like Ritalin among children in the schools,
and the spreading epidemic of panic..
The scenario of the first years of the new millennium seems to be dominated by
a veritable wave of psychopathic behaviour. The suicidal phenomenon is
spreading well beyond the borders of Islamic fanatic martyrdom. Since WTC/911
suicide has became the crucial political act on the global political scene.
Aggressive suicide should not be seen as a mere phenomenon of despair and
aggression, but has to be seen as the declaration of the end. The suicidal
wave seems to suggest that humankind has run out of time, and despair has
became the prevalent way of thinking about the future.
So what? I have no answer. All we can do is what we are actually doing
already: the self-organisation of cognitive work is the only way to go beyond
the psychopathic present. I don‚t believe that the world can be governed by
Reason. The Utopia of Enlightenment has failed. But I think that the
dissemination of self-organised knowledge can create a social framework
containing infinite autonomous and self-reliant worlds.
The process of creating the network is so complex that it cannot be governed
by human reason. The global mind is too complex to be known and mastered by
sub-segmental localised minds. We cannot know, we cannot control, we cannot
govern the entire force of the global mind.
But we can master the singular process of producing a singular world of
sociality. This is autonomy today.