Self is not enough
It seems only old-fashioned conservatives and die-hard party builders could object to autonomy: who wants to be a dependent, especially if it is a dependence upon a boss ? Yet we may wonder why autonomy has become a buzzword lately. Most Trotskysts are not authoritarian any more. Any left-winger now is all for "autonomy", like nearly every politician looking for working class vote talked of "socialism" in 1910. The popularity of this notion may be a sign of growing radicalism. It certainly also has a lot to do with contemporary daily life and the spaces of freedom it grants us: more open communication channels, new types of leisure, new ways of meeting, making friends and travelling, the "network society", the Internet, etc. All these activities have one thing in common: everyone is at the same time constantly on his own and constantly relating to everyone and everything. Autonomy is subversive when it has to be achieved against a teacher or a union official : it isn't when teachers and union officials start promoting it.
The turning of autonomy into a political and commercial slogan, and its recuperation as a management device, are no proof that autonomy is negative. But it should incite us to stand back a little from what society presents to us as possible and desirable.
About a century or even a few decades ago, the big factory was supposed to bring together the workers into a large unified self-disciplined class-conscious whole that would eventually make a revolution. Mass production would help produce mass proletarian action. The proletariat would destroy capitalism because it was deeply rooted in the economy.
Nowadays, the so-called immaterial age, with dispersed and smaller factories, casual work, job insecurity, unemployment, combined with new "horizontal" means of communication and the decline in top-down authority, is supposed to result in a multitude of proletarians loosely tied to a faceless capital that downgrades and scatters them so much that they're able to get together in a myriad of autonomous collectives: these neo-proles will destroy capitalism because they have been uprooted from the economy...
What we have just summed up is not a caricature: it's a short but fair account of a point of view that is common in radical circles.
There can be no understanding of history unless we try to be aware of how the prevailing social forms of each period contribute to critiques that reproduce these forms and therefore are unable to challenge them. Capitalist organization of labour did not organize workers for revolution: capitalist disorganization won't liberate them for revolution either, nor will any form of capitalist freedom.
No revolution without autonomy: quite ! Autonomy is necessary. But it's not enough. It is not the principle on which everything can or must be based. Autonomy simply means giving oneself one's own law (nomos). It's based on the self (auto).
Just what "self" are we talking about ?
Everybody wishes for collective decisions. So do we. And the best way to get them is for each of us to take part in the decision-making process. But once you and I are part of it, we still have to make the decision. Is this "self" strong enough ? Autonomists have their answer ready : the individual self may be weak, but the collective self is strong. Who's being naïve here ? Adding individual wills only transforms them into something qualitatively different if and when they act differently. So we're back to where we started. Aggregating selves widens the scope of the problem without solving it. The solution can only come, not from what autonomy is supposed to give us, but from what it is founded upon. Autonomy in itself is no more creative than any form of organization.
Many radicals believe in the equation
autonomy + anti-State violence = revolutionary movement
and see it vindicated for instance in the protracted Oaxaca insurrection. While this event is one of the strongest outbursts of proletarian activity in recent years, it demonstrates that autonomous violence is necessary and insufficient. A revolutionary movement is more than a liberated area or a hundred liberated areas. It develops by fighting public and private repression, as well as by starting to change the material basis of social relationships. No self-managed street fighting and grassroots district solidarity, however indispensable they are, inevitably contain the acts and the intentions that bring about such a change.