Rethinking Anarchism

Some thoughts on “Radical Space: Building the House of the People”
November 22, 2008, 2:42 pm
Filed under: Books | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I just finished Margaret Kohn’s “Radical Space: Building the House of the People.” The book is an analysis of the role that autonomous spaces played in the Italian socialist movement before the rise of Fascism. I was partly motivated to read the book because I recently took on the responsibility of establishing long-term financial stability for a local radical community center. I didn’t get much out of the book in terms of practical hints, but it did move my thinking about the role of space in social movements in a new direction.

Kohn’s primary thesis is that rather than being socialized into revolutionary consciousness in the factory, Italian workers’ movements were rooted primarily in cooperatives, chambers of labor, and houses of the people. Most of these structures were non-partisan coalitional spaces shared by various political groups, trade unions, and popular associations. Kohn claims that the “Houses of the People” served to project political meaning onto everyday activities like drinking a glass of wine, relaxing with friends, or purchasing food. Kohn makes arguments about each type of social space in particular as well (cooperative, chamber of labor, factory, the bourgeois public sphere), but these probably aren’t necessary to go over. She also claims that learning how to run cooperatives and community centers helped build the compositional power of the working class.

On the whole I was very impressed by the book. It is surprisingly relevant and readable for an academic text. However, I thought that the argument suffered for the absence of a couple key conceptual tools for understanding capitalism. This became clear toward the end of the book when Kohn devotes a chapter to analyzing the geography of socialist municipalities in Italy in the inter-war years. As a result of her early choice to dismiss the role of the factory as a site of potential liberation, she actually overlooks the central goal of proletarian struggle: emancipation from work. Her emphasis on working class political movements instead must focus on control of local governments by social administrations. Kohn starts out with a promising dismissal of traditional notions of a linear progression of class consciousness to the formation of a working class political party, and ends up glorifying local socialist governments and downplaying the real failure of the socialist movement to seize the means of production.

That said, it is painfully clear that the closure of political space in the postmodern world has been much more than a metaphor. There are no places for people to meet, discuss, and make plans. Back on a metaphorical level, workers today are socialized almost directly by capital without the mediation of the bourgeois private sphere or the autonomous proletarian public sphere. The workplace still produces antagonism between workers and bosses, but the antagonism becomes submerged, continually collapsing back into fascist dependency. Revolution clearly will not spring out of the workplace without outside organization.

It’s a bit of a vicious cycle. There is no consciousness, to there is no organization, so there is no struggle, so there is no consciousness. How does one create something from almost nothing?

Perhaps here is where we can add to Kohn. Before there are spaces, there must be movements that need spaces, or at least an image of movements that might need spaces. This where we are at right now. First the prophets, then the people, then their house.


2 Comments so far
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This book sounds interesting, I should check it out.

“Before there are spaces, there must be movements that need spaces, or at least an image of movements that might need spaces.”

Completely agreed. I think this is a constant pathology in the radical left. We place an enormous value on having “autonomous spaces” before there’s a need to have those spaces, and thus they aren’t supported and needed. Then when they fail (I’m thinking of a recent example we’re both familiar with) everyone in the community feels responsible for its failure.

Sure, organizing would be easier if we had a space, but we need to make sure that it’s appropriate in the context of an escalation of struggles. My feeling is that, on a micro-level, an important factor in making that decision should be “does our movement involve more than one struggle?” If not, if our movement (whatever that means) is only located in one struggle, then space will not be supported and thus fail.

One interesting example is of course mainstream union halls, which only support one struggle, but make up with “artificial” support from high dues and their international’s potential meddling. I feel like a real worker’s center that I would be interested in developing would be one that allowed for struggles around all sorts of proletarian concerns, both on the job and off it, to be organized and discussed.

Like hopefully an IWW space…

P.S. What “local radical community center” are you working with?

Comment by Brendan

hey dude,

Thanks for this. I’d like to read that, it sounds really good.

Something struck me the other day, I think it was while reading something at Brendan’s blog, that I think it’s easy to mix up two sorts of claims.

1. The workplace is where we should try to exercise power or is a particularly important place for fighting back.

2. The workplace is where we will build power.

I think 1 is just true. I think 2 is true in the sense that participation in actions in the workplace can be an incredibly powerful experience for people. I would say those sorts of actions are necessary for the sorts of change we want to see – in individual people and in society over all. But 2 is a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition. Power exercised in the workplace has to be built outside the workplace – in meetings and trainings and so on (I know you know this, I’m just thinking outloud).

I think a lot of time people react against a workplace centered politics (point 1) because they think it has to involve a claim that the actual organizational work has to happen in the workplace, which is false – we do the organizing work inside the workplace in order to build relationships with which we then use to exert power at work. Know what I mean?

The reason this struck me is that I think to some extent claims like “it’s a mistake to limit ourselves to the workplace” often underestimate the degree to which any successful workplace organizing involves a ton of activity that happens outside of work.

Hope this makes sense, I can’t tell, I’m wicked tired.

take care,

Comment by Nate

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