Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 1.2 – Reviews


George Katsiaficas: The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life.

1997. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press. 289 pp including index. $60.00 Cloth, $19.95 Paper.

The Subversion of Politics is an examination of autonomous social movements in Europe. These movements are often marginalized or ignored by the American press, and George Katsiaficas is trying to rectify this situation. The movements themselves (it would be inaccurate to speak of Autonomia, the Automen or any other Autonomous group as part of a coherent singular movement) are products of 1968 and rose out of the feminist, anti-nuclear power and anti-nuclear war movements.

Katsiaficas begins his analysis by looking at the development and dissolution of Autonomia, a collection of Italian movements which rose an fell between 1968 and 1977. He also examines the foundations of German autonomous movements, other movements in Europe, and the actions of the Autonomen, specifically in response to a rise in Neo-Nazi violence, after the re-unification of Germany. These chapters provide an excellent historical analysis of the development and interconnectedness of the movements later labeled "Autonomous." In every case, activists were protesting what they saw as an encroachment of government and business on the space which should be reserved for independent, individual action. These movements used demonstrations, squatting and violence to attempt to take back their autonomy as actors within the political and social system. Some even set up independent communities in which to practice autonomous society.

What may be of special interest to readers of this publication is that while working within the disarmament and pacifism movement, individuals who would later form into German Autonomen supported militant action in order to subvert the existing social structure and allow for the creation of autonomous space for individual action. It was the embrace of violence which led to the gradual split, not only between the autonomous movements and the disarmament movement, but between the autonomous and the feminist and anti-nuclear movements as well. For the autonomous movements, fundamental social change is the only path to peace or equality. This book would be valuable if it were only a historical study of Autonomous movements, but Katsiaficas also includes chapters in which he attempts to lay the groundwork for an understanding of Autonomous politics itself. These two chapters, one dealing with the Autonomous movements compared to the German Greens and the Left and the other on the possibility of an Autonomous critique of contemporary capitalist society, provide the foundation for an analytic, as opposed to strictly descriptive, knowledge of the movements.

In comparing autonomous movements to the Greens and the Left, Katsiaficas notes that the Autonomous movements are movements of the present, and are much less concerned with the past. Since the Greens are action from within the political system, they cannot work toward autonomy. Likewise, the Left is limited by its desire to maintain a central authority and just change who is in charge. Autonomous movements are much more fluid, combining and dissolving as necessary, and are concerned with weakening centralized control to allow for community, neighborhood and individual relations.

Katsiaficas also provides an autonomous critique of capitalist society. Since Autonomous movements are so decentralized (political discourse occurs mainly face-to-face or through photocopied articles signed with pseudonyms) there has been no systematic attempt to use an autonomous approach to examine contemporary society. Katsiaficas sees three major characteristics of late capitalist society: increasing unemployment and marginalization for large parts of society, an insatiable need to increase profit which forces the "colonization of the life-world" where more and more of what was autonomous space (identity creation, etc.) is governed by profit, and capitalism's disregard for non-economic impacts which causes degradation of the environment and the creation of unnecessary infrastructure.

In order to overcome these characteristics, Katsiaficas believes that a society based on autonomous action is the only solution. Politically, this means decentralization and more representative democracy. Socially, it means a system with much more freedom for action and for identity creation. Katsiaficas does give two practical first steps: universal housing and reducing the reliance on massive capital projects.

Katsiaficas writes as one who has lived among the Autonomen, which he did during stays in Berlin in 1979-81, 1988, 1991 and 1993. It is clear in his later chapters that Katsiaficas is not just an observer, but also a believer ("Autonomy is the political form appropriate to postmodern societies" (219). This occasionally seems to cloud the historical discussion, and the reader feels that the entire picture may not be being shown. For example, in discussing a bombing which killed fourteen people in Milan in 1969, Katsiaficas states that "Two anarchists were arrested and accused of the action, one of whom died while in police custody – a ‘suicide' which ‘proved' his guilt, according to some daily papers. The ruse worked" (22). Without corroboration, Katsiaficas‘s analysis in these (few) instances is likely to be doubted. In spite of his pro-autonomous bias (which is, to Katsiaficas‘s credit, not concealed), The Subversion of Politics is an introduction to a underreported and not well understood movement.

This book is valuable as history, as a study in comparative social movements and as political theory. Katsiaficas not only explains in a clear and organized fashion where autonomous social movements have come from, but also where they, and the rest of us, may be heading.


By Derek Sweetman, editor


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