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(Im)possibilities of Autonomy: Social Movements In and Beyond Capital, the State and Development

Boehm, Steffen and Dinerstein, Ana C and Spicer, André (2008) (Im)possibilities of Autonomy: Social Movements In and Beyond Capital, the State and Development. Working Paper. EBS Working Papers, University of Essex. Colchester.


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Recently, we have witnessed the emergence of what appears to be a new set of claims in contemporary social movements based around the idea of autonomy. In this paper we interrogate this demand for autonomy. In order to do this, we first engage with existing literatures, identifying three main conceptions of autonomy: 1) autonomous practices vis-à-vis capital, or, what Negri calls, the ‘self-valorization’ of labour; 2) self-determination and independence from the state; and 3) alternatives to hegemonic discourses of development. We will then problematize and point out the central potentials, weaknesses and antagonisms at the heart of the concept of autonomy. We argue that social movements’ demands for autonomy point to, what Laclau and Mouffe call, the impossibility of society, the idea that society can never be complete. That is, there will always be resistances, such as those expressed by autonomous social movements. However, this also lets us understand the conception of autonomy to be incomplete. Autonomy itself is hence an impossibility. To point to these limits of the discourses of autonomy, we discuss how demands for autonomy are tied up with contemporary re-organizations of: 1) the capitalist workplace, characterized by discourses of autonomy, creativity and self-management; 2) the state, which increasingly outsources public services to independent, autonomous providers, which often have a more radical, social movement history; and 3) regimes of development, which today often emphasize local practices, participation and self-determination. Behind these critical reflections on the conception and practice of autonomy is the idea that autonomy should always be seen as something relational. That is, autonomy can never be fixed; there is no definite ground for demands for autonomy to stand on. Instead, social movements’ demands for autonomy are embedded in specific social, economic, political and cultural contexts, giving rise to possibilities as well as impossibilities of autonomous practices.

Item Type: Monograph (Working Paper)
Uncontrolled Keywords: autonomy; anti-capitalism; theory; impossibility; social movements; Laclau
Subjects: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Divisions: Faculty of Social Sciences > Essex Business School
Faculty of Social Sciences > Essex Business School > Centre for Work, Organisation and Society
Depositing User: Users 161 not found.
Date Deposited: 04 Oct 2013 15:22
Last Modified: 17 Nov 2015 15:52

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