Freedom vs. Autonomy: A tale of two logics

by Jason Del Gandio

In March of 2011, I had the privilege of having a conversation with Franco Berardi, a key theorist associated with the post-Workerist movement [i].  During of our conversation, I asked “Bifo” why he and the other post-Workerists (such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno, Maurizio Lazzarato, and others) rarely address the issue of freedom.  These thinkers are known for waging fierce critiques of global capitalism, assessing the changing conditions of labor, and providing innovative concepts for understanding radical social change.  But rarely do they specifically address freedom.  Berardi responded by saying that he prefers the term “autonomy” rather than freedom.  At the risk of misquoting Berardi some eighteen months after our conversation, he believes that the whole concept of “freedom” is too connected to the Nation-State and the liberal democratic tradition.  Liberal democracy does not refer to the political position of liberalism (vs. conservatism, for instance), but rather to the practice of a government bestowing democratic liberties upon its people.  As will be discussed throughout this essay, this type of relationship between a government and its people is problematic.  Berardi, and presumably other post-Workerists, try to circumvent this problem by employing the concept of autonomy, which, generally speaking, can be defined as self-rule.

This essay addresses these issues by approaching freedom and autonomy as two different political logics.  By “logic,” I do not mean an abstract thought detached from the real world.  Instead, my use of logic refers to the practice of everyday life.  One’s logic is an enactment that emerges from and contributes to the wider field of social interaction; it is an ongoing accomplishment of daily living, a habitual gesturing, a continuous materializing.  As Ludwig Wittgenstein once said (via Goethe), “In the beginning was the deed.” [ii]  In other words, action precedes and even produces thought.  Likewise, Pierre Bourdieu argued that social norms—i.e., social logics—are generated and perpetuated over time and across diverse contexts through patterns of enactment; some patterns are re-inscribed while others fall to the wayside; people with the most power disproportionally influence the perpetuation and/or dissolution of particular patterns. [iii]  And to reformulate the phenomenological tradition that began with Edmund Husserl, there is no actual mind—there is no special place where logic magically ensues.  Such a conception perpetuates a mind/body dualism.  Instead, phenomenology argues that the mind is the body thinking about itself. [iv]  The ability to think emerges from our bodies existing in relation to one another—i.e., intersubjectivity.  That intersubjectivity enables the possibility of individual experience, the exchange of signs and symbols, and the development of personal and collective logics.  Given the insights of these and other theorists, it is safe to say that a logic is not separate from, but rather co-existent with, the everyday world of interaction.  A logic exists and persists in what we do and how we live.  And that is why differentiating between the political logics of freedom and autonomy is so important—because each logic impacts our lives in different ways.

In brief, freedom is a relation of subjugation; it is something granted to us by an exterior force or power.  One of the best examples of this is the liberal democratic tradition in which a sovereign power (the State) grants particular rights and freedoms to its people.  The logic of this type of freedom actually renders the people unfree.  This obviously contradicts the customary way of understanding freedom.  But it is the responsibility of critically engaged individuals to investigate and expose such customary logics and to propose alternatives.  That is the purpose of this essay: to articulate autonomy, contra freedom, as a form of radical self-rule that precedes and exceeds any and all exterior and/or dominating powers.  Contrary to what one might think, this self-rule is not based on selfishness, isolated individualism, a lackadaisical attitude, or detachment from the world.  Instead, autonomy is based on a hyper-interconnectivity and a radical relationality that enables anyone and anything to connect and relate in infinitely varying combinations.  Such open-ended, unpredictable creativity renders autonomous logic unruly and ungovernable, which is the whole point.

Pursuing Autonomy: From Workerism to Post-Workerism

One prominent lineage of autonomous logic can be traced back to the Italian Workerist movement of the early and mid-1960s. [v]  The Workerists were dissatisfied with the official Italian Communist Party, arguing that the Party was too concerned with mediating rather than overthrowing capitalism.  The Party, according to the Workerists, had become its own institutionalized structure with its own interests and did not represent the real conditions and concerns of actual workers.  The Workerists thus sought to create theoretical frameworks for undermining not only capitalism, but also other forms of institutionalized, bureaucratic parties, organizations, structures, etc.

Mario Tronti, one of the original Workerists, argued in “The Strategy of Refusal” (1965) that working-class subjectivity precedes and exceeds capitalism’s capture and control. [vi]  In other words, working-class subjectivity is ontologically primordial while capitalism is a secondary outgrowth that feeds on that subjectivity.  Working-class subjectivity is therefore constituted as inherently subversive and resistant to capitalism.  Oppression and exploitation obviously occur, but are never complete and total.  A slippage always remains between working-class subjectivity and capital’s attempt at subjugation; and that slippage is what actually drives social change, innovation, and the unfolding of history.  In a sense, then, working-class subjectivity is ontologically autonomous, while capitalism impinges upon but never fully eradicates that autonomy.

The Workerists wanted to better understand this continual battle between autonomy and subjugation and thus conducted socio-historical analyses of working-class subjectivity.  This is referred to as “class composition analysis.”  They argued that capitalism constantly adapts itself to the inherent resistance posed by the nature of working-class subjectivity.  As one form of capitalism (such as industrialism) proves insufficient for total subjugation, another form of capitalism (such as post-industrial consumerism) arises, thus initiating another cycle of autonomy-versus-subjugation.  Compositional analysis attempts to better understand and even outsmart capital’s attempt to subjugate the worker.  Compositional analysis is thus driven by the question: what form of resistance is most suitable for today’s working class?

But Tronti’s strategy of refusal goes a step further.  This strategy, also referred to as the “refusal of work,” is not reducible to withdrawing one’s participation from capitalist production.  For example, factory workers demanding better wages or conditions might withdraw their labor and halt production until their demands are met.  But that withdrawal is only temporary.  Eventually, the workers rejoin the factory and capital re-inscribes its subjugation.  Tronti was looking to avoid this re-inscription and to institute something more radical and permanent.  In brief, he was trying to place working-class subjectivity on a different plane of production altogether—to allow the working-class to produce for itself and on its own terms and to permanently and forever free working-class subjectivity from the clutches of capitalism.  The strategy of refusal is thus a revolutionary process that “sees the working class becoming ever-increasingly what it actually is: a ruling class on its own terrain . . . able to constitute an autonomous power of decision in relation to the whole of society, a No Man’s Land where capitalist order cannot reach . . .”. [vii]

The Workerist tradition and the strategy of refusal were taken up and expanded by different groups for different reasons.  Italian feminists, for instance, applied the notion of “worker” to non-waged labor, arguing that the unpaid duties of birth-giving, child-rearing, and caretaking (traditionally conducted by women) are forms of labor. [viii]  The Italian feminists argued that such duties are the most important labors of all—without those duties no civilization could sustain itself.  This principle is then applied wholesale—every human being embodies a form of living labor and thus contributes to the ongoing construction of the social field.  Since we are all workers, we all have a stake in overthrowing capitalism.

Autonomia is another outgrowth of the Workerist tradition.  Autonomia was a “cultural, post-Marxist left-wing political movement” . . . that opposed “work ethics and hierarchy as much as exclusive ideological rigidity.” [ix]  Combining a counter-cultural ethos with a serious political critique, Autonomists rejected not just capitalism but any and all institutions that capture and/or subjugate living labor.  The State, political parties, constitutionalism, and even trade unions were seen as problematic because they institutionalize working-class subjectivity.  These various institutions mediate and/or manage the relationship between living labor and capital.  On the surface, this seems to be the whole point of political parties and trade unions—to act as buffers between workers and capital.  But there are at least two problems with such mediation.  First, it can be co-opted by larger power structures of capitalism, the State, etc.  The party or union then becomes a power against rather than for worker interests.  And second, mediating forces often place homogeneous and unitary power structures over our inherently heterogeneous and diversified wants, needs, and desires.  We are then forced to act as one unified front rather than a collection of unique and singular human beings—individualities are relinquished and fascistic tendencies lurk in the shadows.  Autonomists thus reject all unitary, top-down party affiliations and promote, instead, a field of bottom-up, ongoing creation that resists any and all subjugation.  Autonomists seek a truly bottom-up world in which workers are no longer “workers” but rather human beings creating-in-common with one another.

Starting in the late 1970s, many people associated with the aforementioned traditions fled to France due to political repression.  They then came into contact with such post-structuralist philosophers as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and others.  Various theoretical alliances emerged between the thinkers.  For instance, the idea that working-class subjectivity is primordial to capitalism resonated with Foucault’s notion that freedom is constitutive of power relations; Workerist compositional analyses related to Foucault’s genealogical studies; the feminist notion that we are all producers of life is similar to the post-structuralist understanding that human beings are discursive creatures; and the Autonomist rejection of all hierarchies of power connected with Deleuze and Guattari’s proto-anti-fascist concepts of immanence, assemblages, rhizomes, and schizoanalysis.  These types of theoretical alliances gave birth to the post-Workerist movement.

The revolutionary aims of the Workerist movement continue in contemporary times.  Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, writing in the mid-1990s, state: “Living labor is the internal force that constantly poses not only the subversion of the capitalist process of production but also the construction of an alternative. . . .  Living labor is thus an active force, not only of negation but also of affirmation.  The subjectivities produced in the processes of self-valorization of living labor are the agents that create an alternative sociality.” [x]  And Berardi, writing in the mid-2000s, argues that “autonomy means that social life does not depend only on the disciplinary regulation imposed by economic power, but also depends on the internal displacement, shiftings, settlings and dissolutions that are the process of the self-composition of living society.  Struggle, withdrawal, alienation, sabotage, lines of flight from the capitalist system of domination.” [xi]  Although the vocabularies and theoretical details may vary among these thinkers, the basic purpose is the same: to discover and/or to create ways for human beings to individually-and-collectively constitute the world according to their own terms and conditions; to create the world without any top-down, hierarchical controls; to freely pursue and produce forms of life without reference to, interference from, or dependence upon any exterior, alien, or foreign controls.  This is the meaning and purpose of autonomy.

Autonomy versus Freedom

As far as I know, none of these thinkers overtly contrast autonomy with freedom.  But their various approaches to autonomy do provide plenty of material for critiquing the freedom of the Nation-State and liberal democracy.

For example, the United States Constitution grants and ensures particular rights and freedoms.  The First Amendment grants the freedom of religion, speech, the press, and assembly.  The Second Amendment grants the freedom to keep and bear arms.  The Fifth Amendment grants the freedom to remain silent.  And so forth.  These freedoms are intended to buttress against the power of the State.  But, ironically, these freedoms actually institute and enforce the power of the State.  In other words, we are free to enact these freedoms as long as the dominating power—in this case, the State—grants us these rights.  But as we all know, such rights and freedoms can be eliminated at any time.  For example: particular religious practices are outlawed; shouting fire unnecessarily in a crowded theater is against the law; reporters and journalists are denied access to White House secrets and military strategies; and permits to peacefully assemble can be denied and/or revoked for a variety of reasons.  These are not even controversial examples.  Most people would argue that these restrictions of freedom are necessary to maintain social order.  But this entire framework should be subjected to critique.

It is obvious, for instance, that the freedoms of the Constitution are not enjoyed equally among everyone.  The United States has a long history of granting particular freedoms to some while denying those same freedoms to others.  Indigenous populations first had their land forcibly stolen from them and then were systematically excluded from political participation.  African slaves were considered three-fifths of a human being.  Women were denied the right to vote until 1920, and African-Americans were not given full, federally-mandated rights until the mid-1960s.  Same-sex couples are still discriminated against; convicted felons have had to fight for—and in some cases, are still denied—the most basic freedoms (like the right to vote); and undocumented immigrants, though constituting a sizable portion of the population, are legally recognized as “aliens” and therefore excluded from the democratic framework.

But, strangely, the Supreme Court ruled in the 1864 case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad that corporations are “natural persons” and are thus subject to particular rights under the U.S. Constitution.  This ruling has had far reaching consequences, not least of which is the ruling that corporate donations to political campaigns are protected under the free speech amendment.  In the 2010 case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court argued that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political spending.  The logic might be summarized in the following way: corporations are natural persons; natural persons have freedom of speech; freedom of speech includes political spending; corporations are thus allowed to contribute to political campaigns like other citizens.  The only problem is that corporations are not like other citizens.  Corporations, by their very nature, are collections of people dedicated to the accumulation of private wealth.  Considering that we live in a capitalist society, wealth equals power.  And if money equals speech, which is what the Supreme Court essentially argued, then the large majority of actual people are systematically excluded from expressing their political speech: 1% of the U.S. population owns 34% of the wealth; 10% of the population owns 71% of the wealth [xii]; and 1 out of 7 Americans live in poverty. [xiii]  One’s political freedom is thus relative to one’s wealth: the more money you have, the more free you are; the less money you have, the less free you are.

As can be seen, freedom, as understood and practiced within the U.S. and other liberal democracies, is not only granted but also mediated and managed by various forms of power.  One is never free, wholesale.  Instead, one’s freedom is secondary to some exterior force: the State, the government, congress, the Supreme Court, the pursuit of private wealth, hierarchies of race, gender, and sexuality, citizen status, etc.  The logic of freedom is tethered to that which subordinates; it exists in relationship to, and is thus conditional upon, an exterior, dominating power.  I am free only in reference to an other power.  This other power then others myself.  I am other to myself—to my free self—since my freedom to think, act, and live is filtered through and constituted by someone or something else.  If this is true, then freedom actually precludes the very possibility of freedom—in other words, the logic of freedom masks our un-freedom.  In this sense, then, freedom is the ultimate hegemonic mystification:  The more we freely act, the more difficult it becomes to recognize our lack of freedom.  But this lack of recognition is not orchestrated by a mysterious force or a disembodied ideology.  Instead, freedom is a habit, a gesture, an ongoing performative accomplishment, a material rhetoric that continuously inscribes itself through a minutia of communicative practices: the Pledge of Allegiance, the voting booth, pro-choice rallies, same-sex marriage debates, human rights campaigns, eating hotdogs and hamburgers on the Fourth of July, cheering for your favorite baseball or football team, removing your hat and singing God Bless America, obeying law enforcement authorities and honoring judges and lawyers, paying your electricity bill and monthly mortgage, preferring McDonalds over Burger King or Chevy over Ford, passing free trade agreements, freely exchanging goods and money, listening to Obama’s latest speech, collecting unemployment benefits, renewing your driver’s license, carrying a passport when crossing national borders, etc.  These and millions of other tiny gestures create a thick, complicated logic with no outside or beyond.  Freedom is a dark, overgrown forest that we ourselves create and are created by.

Politically conservative constituencies are fond of a particular slogan that says “freedom ain’t free.” [xiv]  The slogan suggests that we must give up certain liberties in order to live freely and, if necessary, sacrifice our lives to maintain such freedom.  Such a slogan supports the point that freedom is actually its own opposite: freedom is not open and unbound, but instead, freedom is limited and limiting.  Freedom is constituted by limits that are established and mediated by a superior power.  And, strangely enough, that superior power survives and persists through the gestures of our own actions—that is, through the gestures of our “own free will.”

Freedom, while existing in contradistinction to autonomy, is not opposite to autonomy.  Such a conceptual framework would re-inscribe the very problematic of freedom.  Instead, freedom and autonomy are two different practices.  Freedom is a practice that always occurs in reference to a subjugating power.  Autonomy is a practice of self-constituting power that exists in-itself and for-itself.  Autonomy is self-rule, absolutely; it begins afresh and anew, always and already.  This understanding of autonomy may appear to be influenced by a modernist notion of a self-constituting subject.  But the inverse is actually true.  Freedom and the tradition of liberal democracy are based on notions of the free-will: free-willed individuals come together to form a constitutional pact that governs the land; each individual can then choose to obey or disobey the laws and deal with the consequences; the constitutional pact is sovereign and we the citizens willingly submit ourselves to the rule of that sovereign.  As the U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776) states (emphasis added):

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Likewise, the opening line of the U.S. Constitution (1789) states (emphasis added):

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. [xv]

These founding documents establish two independent spheres of experience: the sphere of the people and the sphere of some governing power.  This divide establishes a condition for the possibility of one side subjugating the other side.  That is how the logic of freedom is born—a division between the people and the power, and the people are subordinate to that power.

By contrast, autonomy does not begin with division, but instead, with multiplicity.  Autonomy begins as a primordial plane of communicative labor; a sphere of interaction that precedes and exceeds governments, constitutions, freedom, and all top-down structures. [xvi]  Perhaps the best way to explain the ontological nature of autonomy is to use Hardt and Negri’s reformulation of Foucault’s distinction between bio-power and the bio-political. [xvii]  For Hardt and Negri, the bio-political is a plane of interaction in which bodies, existing in-relation to one another, generate the world from the bottom-up.  The bio-political is a constituent power; it is the power of life—of bodies—to produce, endlessly.  This endless production co-exists with the ability to resist subjugation and to determine alternative subjectivities, thoughts, practices, etc.  Bio-power is the configuration of the world through domination; it is the organization, management, and institutionalization of bodies through top-down configurations.  Bio-power is the power over life—over bodies—and is therefore a constituted power; it is something that occurs after the fact.  Bio-power is something that emerges from—something that is enabled by—the primordiality of the bio-political.  At the risk of muddying the theoretical waters, I want to borrow the language of Deleuze and Guattari and argue that autonomous bio-political production exists on a plane of immanence in which everyone—and presumably everything—exists in relation to everyone and everything else.  This type of radical relationality is the creative sourcing of human potential and possibility.  All things are possible, and it is the political project of autonomy to enable such radical relationality to flourish on its own accord and in its own unruly and unpredictable directionality.

In light of this theoretical framework, it is safe to say that freedom is a bio-power configuration that emerges from, and then impedes and even represses, autonomous bio-political production.  If this is true, then the logic of freedom must be challenged and the logic of autonomy must be placed at the center of a new sociality.

Skeptics may wonder about the applicability of autonomous logic.  What might an autonomous logic actually look like?  How might it function?  How might it be practiced?  I argue that there are glimpses of autonomous logic throughout history: anarchist, anti-authoritarian, and anti-Statist socialist traditions; the current happenings of the Arab uprisings, of the Occupy movement, and of the Quebec student strikes; the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico, the Global Justice Movement of the late 1990s, and the numerous horizontalist movements throughout Central and South America; the Anti-Nuclear Proliferation Movement of the 1980s; the Women’s Liberation Movement and Second Wave Feminism of the 1970s; the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s; and even particular passages of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech—a speech that was not simply about the government granting civil rights to African-Americans, but also a vision of radical inclusion that precedes and exceeds the very framework of inclusion/exclusion.  Each of these examples depicts in some way and at some moment an alternative relationality: a relationality that asks us to orient to each person as autonomous; a relationality that respects and appreciates one’s own self-governing abilities in relation to the self-governing abilities of others; a recognition that we exist simultaneously as individuals and as a collective, and that the tension between these two poles of experience should be the creative and open-ended guide that “governs” our daily lives.  This type of nonlinear, nonhierarchical logic is the basis of autonomy.  Developing such a logic is difficult since we exist in this world but are trying to cultivate a logic of and for another world.

Having acknowledged this difficulty, I will end with a quote by the Greek autonomist philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis (emphasis added):

If this monstrous tree of knowledge that modern humanity is cultivating more and more feverishly every day is not to collapse under its own weight and crush its gardener as it falls, the necessary transformation of man and society must go infinitely further than the wildest utopias have ever dared to imagine.  This transformation will require the individual to develop from the outset in a quite different manner.  Through such development, the individual will have to become capable on its own of entertaining another relationship to knowledge, a relationship for which there is no analogy in previous history.  It is not simply a question of developing the individual’s faculties and capacities. Much more profoundly, it is a matter of the individual’s relationship to authority, since knowledge is the first sublimation of the desire for power and therefore of one’s relationship to the institution and to everything that the institution represents as fixed and final point of reference.  All this is obviously inconceivable without an upheaval not only in existing institutions but even in what we intend by institution [xviii]

End notes:

[i]  Two prefatory notes.  First, an earlier version of this paper entitled “Investigating the Roots of Post-Workerism: Re/framing Freedom as Autonomy” was presented at the Rhetoric Society of America Conference (May, 2012).  And second, this essay is still a work in progress.

[ii]  Wittgenstein, On Certainty (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1969), para. 402.

[iii]  For an overview of Bourdieu’s work, see Language and Symbolic Power (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994).

[iv]  Husserl never says this, but it can be gleaned from his writings.  See, for instance, Husserl’s Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis: Lectures on Transcendental Logic (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001).  Also see Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge, 1995).

[v]  For excellent historical overviews of Workerism and related movements and concepts, see (1) Steven Wright, Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (London: Pluto Press, 2002); (2) Sylvere Lotringer and Christian Marazzi (eds.), Autonomia: Post-Political Politics (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007); and (3) Franco Berardi, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009), pp. 27-70.

[vi]  Mario Tronti, “The Refusal of Work” (1965),,

[vii]  Tronti (1965, n.p.).

[viii]  Silvia Federici, “Wages Against Housework” (1975), Caring Labor: An Archive,  Paola Bono and Sandra Kemp (eds.), Italian Feminist Thought: A Reader (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1991).  Mariarosa Dalla Costa, “The Door to the Garden: Feminism and Operaismo” (2002),,

[ix]  Sylvere Lotringer, “In the Shadow of the Red Brigades,” in Lotringer and Marazzi (eds.), Autonomia, p. v.

[x]  Hardt and Negri, Labor of Dionysus: A Critique of the State Form (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), p. 6.

[xi]  Berardi, “What is the Meaning of Autonomy Today? Subjectivation, Social Composition, Refusal of Work,” Multitudes,

[xii]  David Haugen, Susan Musser, and Vickey Klamabakal (eds.), “Introduction,” in Social Justice: Opposing Viewpoints Series (Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2010), p. 15.

[xiii]  U.S. Census Report,, click on “report.”

[xiv]  Wikipedia has an entry on the slogan,

[xv]  Both passages can easily be found online.

[xvi]  On the concept of communicative labor, see essays by Ronald Greene: “Rhetoric and Capitalism: Rhetorical Agency as Communicative Labor,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 37.3 (2004): 188-206; “Communist Orator,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 39.1 (2006): 85-95; and “Rhetorical Capital: Communicative Labor, Money/Speech, and Neo-Liberal Governance,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 4.3 (2007): 327-31.

[xvii]  Hardt and Negri, Commonwealth, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), pp. 31 and 56-63.

[xviii]  Castoriadis, “The Anticipated Revolution,” in Cornelius Castoriadis, Political and Social Writings, Volume 3, David Ames Curtis (trans. and ed.), (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 154.

[Thank you Jason for this contribution despite the challenges in-between]

The writer is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Public Advocacy at Temple University. He is a member of Occupy Philadelphia and has been involved with social movements and radical politics for the last twelve years.  He is author of Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists (2008) and currently co-editing a book entitled Peace Education for Action: Top Ten Strategies for Social Change.

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