Years of Lead

Pub date February 20, 2008
WriterErik Morse
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

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REVIEW Reflecting on his work on millenarian Europe, the autonomist and political philosopher Antonio Negri stated, "This is certainly one of the central and most urgent political paradoxes of our time: in our much-celebrated age of communication, struggles have become all but incommunicable."

Long an influential campaign in Negri’s native Italy, autonomia, or self-rule, has received little critical attention from the English-speaking world. Editors Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi’s Autonomia: Post-Political Politics (Semiotext(e), 340 pages, $24.95), originally released as part of the short-lived Semiotext(e) magazine series in 1980, proffers the first English-language introduction to one of the most controversial movements of postmodernity.

Developed in the vibrant Götterdämmerung of the late 1960s in reaction to the largely corrupt and co-opted Eurocommunist parties, the worker-inspired Potere Operaio and its immediate descendent Autonomia Operaia were a philosophical umbrella, or, as one government critic put it, "a veritable mosaic made of different fragments, a gallery of overlapping images of circles and collectives without any social organization." At its heart, autonomia was a rejection by individuals and marginalized groups of not only the capitalist state but also its traditional ideological enemy — Marxism and its central doctrine of class struggle — for a postideological and immaterial way of life.

Brokered in universities throughout Bologna and Rome but dedicated to labor activism and the street-level situationism of sessantotto (student unrest), autonomia was powered by a number of formidable philosophical proponents. They included Negri, Oreste Scalzone, and Paolo Virno, as well as French sympathizers and arch collaborators Félix Guatarri, Gilles Deleuze, and Paul Virilio. Autonomia collects the various polemics, letters, and récits of these authors in an attempt to again dramatize the revolutionary and sometimes violent struggles between neofascists, unionists, and the ultraleft during the ensuing "Years of Lead."

Semiotext(e) editor Lotringer prefaces this new edition with a short travelogue describing his interactions with the various underground factions of Rome and Bologna in the shadow of politician Aldo Moro’s assassination by the dreaded Red Brigades, or Brigate Rosse. Long associated with the neofascists and socialists as the armed division of the Autonomia Operaia, the Red Brigades began resorting to terrorist propaganda, bombings, and assassination in the wake of government crackdowns in the late 1970s.

Lotringer encounters a gaggle of activists, intellectuals, and simulationists who may or may not pledge loyalty to the Red Brigades and who live in compounds and squats hiding from the omnipresent carabinieri, who continue to surveil the streets. Some are in costume and others spin Velvet Underground records; still others may be government informants or simply thrill to the hip simulacra of espionage. According to Lotringer, this alternative and autonomist space may have accomplished, however briefly, the utopic "non-fascist living" of Deleuze and Guattari.

Throughout Autonomia‘s 300 pages of densely translated text — from theorists and tricksters, reporters and members of the lumpen proletariat — the truly inclusive and sometimes circuitous worlds of the title movement become all the more apparent, yet never transparent. Negri’s contributions are particularly inspiring and frustrating in their brilliant opacity. Ultimately, in rejecting the verticality of hierarchies of power — textual, political, and economic — the autonomists opened up larger interpretative spaces: realms that existed beyond capital and beyond empire.