Thursday, 4 May 2017

Autonomy Centres

Dr John Crossan , University of Strathclyde

Last month The Guardian newspaper ran an article entitled ‘How Punk Changed Cities – and Vice Versa’. The article, while focusing upon Punk music from the mid-1970s until the present, expands the idea of Punk beyond the riffs of Suburban Disease, Crass and the like, to include a wealth of socio-cultural and political activities that make up what has been termed D.I.Y. Counterculture. One such activity is setting up and running ‘autonomy centres’. Sometimes referred to as social centres, these D.I.Y. spaces are nodal points of creativity for this decentralised and diverse scene. (I use the term scene to capture a range of cultural tropes that link this collection of groups and individuals). According to the Guardian article, these centres are beginning to emerge as important places for those whose politics stands in direct opposition to the extremes of the far-right and the post-politics of the mainstream party system.  

Autonomy centres have sprung up all over Europe and the US over the last century or so and each centre has its own story, very much related to the towns and cities they are found in. What follows is a very short history and geography of European autonomy centres and the autonomous scene in Europe more widely (for further insight see Chatterton, 2008 and Miguel Angel Martinez Lopez, 2016). Three waves of autonomy centre activity preceded the latest centres mentioned in the Guardian article. Understanding the political dynamic within today’s centres and what purpose they might serve is made easier through understanding their history. 


 The first wave: socialism from below:

Today’s autonomy centres are the descendants of a libertarian socialist current that utilized factory buildings, farmhouses, churches, bars, and schools, and that stretches across Europe and back to the early 20th century. Schmidt and van der Walt (2009: 185) write about the Libertarian Athenaeums in the early years of last century “that existed in every district and village of anarchist strength in Spain”. A type of anarchist community centre, the Athenaeums, with their plays, picnics, dances, language classes and more, were a critical component of the Spanish syndicalist unions. During the same period, the Bourses du Travails (labour exchanges) in France were used by revolutionary syndicalist Fernand Pelloutier (amongst others) as centres of radical libertarian counterculture.

It is important to understand these community spaces as one arm of a dual strategy employed by anarcho-syndicalists in Spain and France, the other arm operating in the workplace. This dual approach points towards recognition by anarchist-syndicalists of the importance of struggles taking place outside the factories in the sphere of reproduction. For Rocker (2004 [1937]) it was here the ongoing “educational work […] directed toward the development of independent thought and action” would make “clear to the workers the intrinsic connections among social problems”. While the content and aims of each space differed in line with the political context of the participants (consider for example the different terrains of struggle of the industrial worker and the rural peasant), these early examples were very much rooted in a culture of mass participatory democracy and community self-determination. Alongside the strike, sabotage and the printed word, these early examples of autonomy centres formed the weaponry of those no longer willing to accept their lot under conditions set by an industrial bourgeoisie protected by the liberal state.


 The second wave: reclaiming the city

Influenced by the student and working-class revolts of 1968, we see a second wave of centres springing up across Europe in the 1970s. Many of the voices in the revolts of 1968 spoke out against not only the ‘rebirth’ of capitalism post-1945 but also the revolutionary torpor of political parties claiming to represent the working classes during this period. Political anti-establishmentarianism was somewhat mirrored in a renaissance of culture with political folk music and countercultural literature enjoying a wide audience. The OSCs (Occupied Social Centres) in Italy, for example, utilised empty buildings and public spaces as countercultural hubs in their struggle against the state, capital and the paternalism evident within the political left during the period.

Montagna (2006: 296) tells us that the OSC movement was rooted in the “antagonistic juvenile social movements” of this time in Italy. Disillusioned with ‘capitalist work’ and the socialist parties (which they felt had been de-radicalised by their pursuit of state power) “groups of young people started a process of ‘claiming the city’ through widespread squatting” (Ruggiero in Montagna 2006: 297). For Mudu, the Italian centres were part of a critical response to what was seen by many on the left as the development of both a crude workerism within the Italian communist movement and, supporting Montagna’s claim, “a drift towards more moderate institutional political programmes” (Mudu 2004: 919). For the mainstream left, the workplace and the high corridors of political power came before the sphere of reproduction as important arenas of struggle (Katsiaficas 2006). Unsurprisingly then, woman played a key role in challenging the paternalistic character of workplace and institutional politics. Silvia Federici’s (2009) paper ‘The reproduction of labour-power in the global economy, Marxist theory and the unfinished feminist revolution’ details the extent of women’s revolt throughout the 1970s. Autonomy centres became the conspicuous platform from which these voices of dissent were heard outside of the private sphere.

This second wave is when we first see the D.I.Y punk ethos establish itself within the autonomous scene. In the UK, key political struggles for centre participants revolved around the setting up of Claimants Unions, and organizing anti-fascist and animal liberation actions (Hodkinson and Chatterton 2006).


 The third wave: re-territorializing struggle

The late 1990s saw the much wider alter-globalisation movement informing a third wave of autonomous centres. The politically plural message behind terms like ‘one no, many yeses’ and the participatory democratic tools developed in the temporary autonomous zones of protest camps and mass mobilizations such as at the G8 summit in Seattle (1999) and Genoa (2001) achieved within autonomous centres a degree of stability in the streets of towns and cities.

The alter-globalization movement has, within its ever-shifting ranks, a vast array of political opinions on display. For example, the movement is populated with Marxist and Leninist groups as well as International NGOs such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. To this constellation of organizations and ideologies we can add numerous anarchist-influenced groups (e.g. anarchist-communists and anarchist-feminists). This last group has a longer history of association with autonomous centres but, in my experience all the above political sensibilities are active in influencing the direction of their particular centres. 

Routledge, Cumbers and Nativel (2008) argue that the ephemeral, transitory and to this we might add de-stratified role (‘belonging to no class’) of the alter-globalization activist fighting on the streets of Seattle and Genoa, defending the forests of Oregon and Ecuador, is a position open only to a privileged few. Juris (2005) suggests that an unintended effect of such actions is to de-territorialize struggle, positioning it in the ‘out-of-reach’ imagined geographies of the global. For most people struggling against capitalism, patriarchy, classism etc., the parameters of a stratified existence places limits on their geographical horizons. The third wave of autonomous centres, although influenced by the alter-globalization movement, is a critique of and response to these more exclusionary practices. These autonomous centres are firmly situated in territorial struggle – the territory in question being the city.


 A fourth wave …

Roberto Unger, writing about radical democratic potential, noted what he understood as “an astonishing gap between the alleged interest in alternatives and the lack of any tangible signs that this interest is real” (Unger in Harvey 2000: 188). The presence of newly formed autonomous centres such as those mentioned in the Guardian Article is heartening. This fourth wave is emerging because people – whose interest in alternatives is real – are working hard to make these alternatives visible and accessible. Struggling against 30 years of neoliberalisation has certainly made realizing alternatives extremely difficult. A far longer and arguably more banal history of top-down organisational structures has exacerbated this condition. The ability of communities to effect substantive change in their urban environments has long been undermined and prohibited by top-down command and control structures. Autonomous centres are important in this regard because they give us the opportunity to collectively define our urban lives through our active relationship in and with urban space.   


Chatterton, P. (2010). So What Does It Mean to be Anti-Capitalist? Conversations with Activists from Urban Social Centres, Urban Studies, 47, 6, 1205–24

Federici, S (2009) ‘The Reproduction of Labour-Power in the Global Economy, Marxist Theory and the Unfinished Feminist Revolution’. Paper presented at the seminar on the Crisis of Social Reproduction and Feminist Struggle, 27 January 2009, University of California, Santa Cruz . Available at:

Harvey, D. (2000). Spaces of Hope. Edinburgh Edinburgh University Press.

Hodkinson, S. & P. Chatterton (2006) Autonomy in the City. City, 10, 305-315.

Juris, J. (2005) Social forums and their Margins: networking Logics and the Cultural Politics of Autnomous Space, Ephemera, 5, 253-272.

Katsiaficas, G. (2006). The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Movements and the Decolonisation of Everyday Life, Edinburgh: AK Press.

López, M (2016) Squatters and migrants in Madrid: Interactions, contexts and cycles, Urban Studies, First published date: March-29-2016, 10.1177/0042098016639011

Montagna, N. (2006) The decommodification of urban space and the occupied social centres in Italy. City, 10, 3, 295-304.

Mudu, P. (2004) Resisting and Challenging Neoliberalism: The Development of Italian Social Centers, Antipode, 36, 917-941.

Rocker, R. (2004). Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice. UK: AK Press.

Routledge, P., Cumbers, A., & Nativel, C. (2008) The entangled geographies of global justice networks, Progress in Human Geography, 32, 183-201.

Schmidt, M. & van der Walt, L. (2009) Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (Counter-Power vol. 1), England: AK Press.

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