Autonomous Geographies is a two year action research project run jointly by critical geographers at the University of Leeds and the University of Leicester, with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.
The main aim of the project is to critically explore and support the ideas, struggles and practices of ‘autonomous political movements’ in the UK. Although the project will end in late 2007, the intention is to continue our engagement with the case study subjects into the future.
Global society faces unprecedented crises under late capitalism: the assault on democracy; irreversible climate change; the coming shortage of oil; the growing precariousness of work and welfare; the gradual disappearance of public spaces due to privatisation; widening socio-economic inequality; the frightening resurgence of the Far Right; and the globalisation of wars and conflicts. In our view, these crises are driven by the inherent contradictions within global capitalism and the related process of what has been coined the ‘New Enclosures’ (see Midnight Notes Collective, 1990).
The Old Enclosures were the starting point of global capitalist society in the late 1400s when state officials and landlords colluded to force English farming communities off their land and commons, which were then enclosed, privatised and capitalised as giant agricultural areas to enrich kings, religious orders and big landowners.
Instead of being a one-off act of acquisition, however, the process of ‘Enclosure’ is a constant feature of capitalism in response to its internal contradictions, principally the organised power of labour and the rise of real wages. Since the global neoliberal turn from the mid-1970s onwards, international business and its state partners in government and the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) have orchestrated a dramatic and unprecedented privatisation of land and life in almost every corner of the globe – what is better known as ‘neoliberal globalisation’.
Seizing land for debt has pushed a massive new army of labour into the world economy, making mobile and migrant labour the dominant form of labour, undermining collective organization and place-based struggles, depressing wages, and making workers vulnerable and precarious, and thus more compliant to capital. It has also threatened all other forms of social organisation and seen the enclosure of the reproduction of life and the destruction of the natural Commons through corporate patenting of resources and the hyper-exploitation of the environment.
In this perspective, we can see how Enclosure is a universal and holistic process of commodification encompassing all of the Commons – natural and human – from physical assets such as oil, public housing, leisure centres and schools, to the provision of welfare and health services; from open public spaces like city squares, to ancient knowledges, medicines and the very genetic codes of life itself.
The commercialisation of libraries is about Enclosure. The London Olympics is about Enclosure. The wars on Afghanistan and Iraq are flagrant acts of Enclosure. Accompanying the privatisation of everything is the enormous rise in the securitisation of private property and the expansion of authoritarian social control through the steady removal of historically-won civil liberties, the onset of draconian policing powers, and the rise of the surveillance society.
The New Enclosures poses a fundamental challenge – a critical threat – to people and planet. It is nothing short of a systematic assault on democratic values and institutions. Yet it is not going unchallenged.
Each act of Enclosure is being met by popular resistance at every scale of global society: local community campaigns against school and hospital closures in Britain; mass movements fighting water and gas privatisation in Bolivia; armed resistance to multinational oil companies in the Niger-Delta; transnational activist networks pioneering free software; the summit mobilisations against meetings of the G8, World Trade Organisation (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank; and the unprecedented worldwide anti-war movement.
A growing and increasingly influential strand within this Global Justice Movement consists of movements influenced by the political ideology of autonomy, which from its Greek origins (‘autos-nomos’) means literally to ‘legislate for oneself’.
Influenced by anarchist and autonomist thought, and strongly linked to the praxis of the Zapatista communities in Chiapas, autonomous politics is characterised by: a rejection of hierarchy and power; a belief in mutual aid and solidarity as opposed to competition and independence; a commitment to direct action and radical change rather than policy reform; creative forms of resistance which are independent from parties and union structures; and a reworking of the idea of revolution from seizing state power to ‘changing the world without taking power’ and ‘being the change we want to see’ in the everyday.
Central to autonomous movements is their creation of autonomous spaces where there is a ‘desire to constitute non-capitalist, collective forms of politics, identity and citizenship, which are created through a combination of resistance and creation, and the questioning and challenging of dominant laws and social norms‘.
These ‘autonomous geographies’ might be situated locally or spread across localities through face-to-face and/or virtual networks. They might also display very different characteristics due to the nature and aims of the social struggle and its geographic location. So they could be spaces of outright resistance, of communication and movement building, of putting into practice autonomous ways of living.
Although more commonly associated with radical left social movements in Italy and Spain, we see an emerging interest in and practice of ‘autonomous politics’ in the UK across a spectrum of social struggles. These include:
The geographical implications of such activities are important to us as autonomous projects raise important questions of scale. They are never just local – they connect local issues with bigger questions at the national, regional or global level. By considering the interactions between these different levels, we can learn more about how our lives operate and how we can live more autonomously.
As action researchers, the overriding motivations of our project are to improve practice and social transformation rather than the ‘production of knowledge’. Or in the words of Italian Marxist, Antonio Conti, ‘the goal of research is not the interpretation of the world, but the organisation of transformation’.
In this vein, our objective is to critically explore as well as support autonomous political ideas, struggles and practices in the UK. In so doing, we are not engaging in a propaganda exercise for anti-capitalism but instead pursuing a serious and critical investigation of the merits, limits and contradictions of these attempts to build autonomy and alternative futures.
We aim to employ people involved in grassroots and autonomous projects where possible. This would include help with writing, video editing, design, photography and publishing.
We are currently participating in three UK-based case studies. The first looks at community opposition to housing privatisation and gentrification in an inner-city area of Leeds called Little London. The second involves working with a new social centre in Newcastle intended to facilitate the exchange, development and praxis of autonomous politics. Finally, the third case study examines the practicalities of seeking to live autonomously within the UK by way of studying a Low Impact Development project in South West Wales called Lammas.In each of these three engagements, we began by identifying with activists the main aims of their group, the history of their involvement, the methods and tactics they employed, and what role we could play as engaged researchers in their particular project.
Our aim is to where possible create joint-outputs in partnership with the people involved in the autonomous projects we focus on. The aim of these outputs is to create socially useful knowledge to promote the idea of autonomy. We have begun by setting up this dedicated project website, which contains useful resources for autonomous politics and will evolve as the project develops. We will publish a number of magazine articles, reports, ‘how to’ guides, history pamphlets, resource packs and education workshops. We also plan to compile film footage shot during the project into a short film montage.
Finally, in terms of academic journal articles, we aim to co-write at least two in collaboration with some of the case study groups, and we are committed to writing one which explains and critically reflects our methodological approach.
On 28-29 August 2009 in Manchester, activist geographers from around the world will share experiences, insights and methods in relation to defending people’s ‘right to stay put’ and resisting gentrification, displacement and privatisation as part of urban regeneration schemes.
‘Third time lucky’ was Lammas’ motto as they resubmitted their planning application in November 2008. Despite being beleaguered by Byzantine bureaucratic bungling the group remain committed to developing nine eco-smallholdings and a community hub building on their first site in Pembs, Wales and the land purchase is going ahead.
A new book on Low Impact Development has just been published. Edited by Jenny Pickerill and Larch Maxey, with contributions from Simon Fairlie, Tony Wrench, Simon Dale and many more, Low Impact Development: The Future in our Hands explores the radical form of sustainable housing and livelihood in tune with the natural environment and offering innovative solutions for the environmental, social and economic challenges of the 21st century.
Engaging Geography is a seminar series (funded by the Economic and Social Research Council) that aims to explore and respond to key challenges facing geography in 2008 and beyond. Our first seminar will be held on Friday and Saturday January 23rd and 24th, 2009 at the Star and Shadow Cinema in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK (see www.starandshadow.org.uk ): ‘How did that happen?’ The creation of time and space for public geographies.
University of Leeds, Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre, 6-8pm.
The teach-in will examine the origins of the credit crisis and why it has become so severe; the policies now being pursued nationally and internationally; and the long-term economic and political implications, particularly in relation to financial regulation and global governance.
The Permaculture Association (Britain) is a small education and research charity that supports individuals and groups to learn more about the theory and practice of permaculture. It is currently advertising two vacancies for a Project Coordinator and Finance Clerk at its Leeds office. Closing date: 27 June 2008. More information can be downloaded from its website
A former PhD student and current employee Nottingham University faces deportation to Algeria on 1 June following his unjust arrest under the Terrorism Act 2000 after he printed an Al Qaeda manual as a favour for a research student. Read on and see the Free Hicham Yezza campaign.
A new book has been published bringing together the diverse stories about many of the UK’s social centres, along with thoughts on their effectiveness, the problems they encounter, and the political ideas they encapsulate. What’s this place? has been written by activists involved in social centres with support from the Autonomous Geographies project.
Undercurrents have released the latest episode of their video series ‘Living in the Future’ about Lammas and many other ecovillage type projects around the world. Living in the Future highlights how people have come together to build their own homes, grow their own food, and create lively and sustainable communities.