(Im)possibilities of autonomy: social movements in and beyond capital, the state and development

Steffen Bohm, Ana Cecilia Dinerstein, Andre Spicer

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In this paper we interrogate the demand and practice of autonomy in social movements. We begin by identifying three main conceptions of autonomy: (1) autonomous practices vis-agrave-vis capital; (2) self-determination and independence from the state; and (3) alternatives to hegemonic discourses of development. We then point to limits associated with autonomy and discuss how demands for autonomy are tied up with contemporary re-organizations of: (1) the capitalist workplace, characterized by discourses of autonomy, creativity and self-management; (2) the state, which increasingly outsources public services to independent, autonomous providers, which often have a more radical, social movement history; and (3) regimes of development, which today often emphasize local practices, participation and self-determination. This capturing of autonomy reminds us that autonomy can never be fixed. Instead, social movements' demands for autonomy are embedded in specific social, economic, political and cultural contexts, giving rise to possibilities as well as impossibilities of autonomous practices.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)17-32
Number of pages16
JournalSocial Movement Studies
Issue number1
Early online date13 Jan 2010
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2010

Bibliographical note

Steffen Böhm is Senior Lecturer in Management at the University of Essex. He holds a PhD from the University of Warwick. His research focuses on the political economy of organization and management. He is a co-founder of the open-access journal ephemera: theory & politics in organization (www.ephemeraweb.org), and co-founder and co-editor of the new open-access journal Interface: A journal for and about social movements (www.interfacejournal.org) as well as the new publishing press MayFlyBooks (www.mayflybooks.org). He is author of Repositioning Organization Theory (Palgrave) and co-editor of Against Automobility (Blackwell) and Upsetting the Offset: The Political Economy of Carbon Markets (Mayfly).

Ana C. Dinerstein is Senior Lecturer in Socioloy, Department of Social and Policy Sciences, Bath. She is a former editor of Capital & Class. She is member of the associate board of Sociology and Corresponding Editor of Historical Materialism. She published extensively on Argentine and Latin American politics and policy, labour and autonomous movements and emancipatory struggles. She is co-editor of The Labour Debate (2002, 2006 in Turkish and 2009 in Spanish), co-author of The Piqueteros Road (2010), ‘(Im)possibilities of autonomy’ (Social Movement Studies, 2010), ‘Hope Movements’ (Development and Change, 2012). Her book Autonomy in Latin America: The Art of Organising Hope (Palgrave MacMillan) is forthcoming (2014).

André Spicer is an Associate Professor (Reader) at Warwick Business School and visiting research fellow at Lund University in Sweden. He holds a PhD from the University of Melbourne. His research focuses on the Political Dynamics of Organizations. He is the co-author of Contesting the Corporation (Cambridge) and Unmasking the Entrepreneur (Edward Elgar)


  • autonomy, anti-capitalism, theory, impossibility, social movements


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