Encyclopedia of Teacher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Autonomism and Teacher Education

  • Patrick CarmichaelEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_118-1



Autonomist Marxism, or simply “autonomism,” has been an important strand within radical political thinking since the middle of the twentieth century, although its history has been checkered and complex. It is perhaps better understood as a radical tendency rather than as a theoretically unified and historically continuous tradition. That said, at particular times and in specific contexts, it has been highly influential, and it has been particularly significant in providing critical analyses of globalization and neoliberalism; the regimes of “austerity” imposed by governments in the early twenty-first century; and the ways in which work and workplaces have changed as a result of these. Autonomism provides theoretical frameworks for understanding these issues but has also led to the development of distinctive approaches to inquiry. As such it provides unique insights into educational systems and processes; the political positioning of educators; and the nature and scope of teacher inquiry, development, and education.

Operaismo and Autonomism

Autonomist Marxism differs from other traditions in Marxism in that it emphasizes the potential of working people to organize and effect change through self-directed action, without the leadership of a political party, leadership cadre, or trades union. In this respect there are similarities and associations with anarchist-communism and anarcho-syndicalism, as well as the “council communism” that emerged in Europe following the Russian Revolution, but which critiqued the leading role assigned to the Communist Party rather than workers’ councils or soviets. Intrinsic to autonomist Marxism is the idea that this self-directed action incorporates reflective, politicized inquiry on the part of workers into their subjective experiences, alongside and contributing to broader theoretical developments.

There had of course been previous inquiries into working conditions, notably by Marx and Engels. Marx had, in 1880, proposed a framework of “Workers’ Inquiry” (Enquete Ouvrière) to explore how workplaces and working practices were changing, particularly as a result of the introduction of machinery. Members of the Trotskyist Johnson-Forest Tendency in the USA and those associated with the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie (“Socialism or Barbarism”) in France also undertook inquiries into the subjective experience of workers. The roots of contemporary autonomist Marxism, however, are conventionally considered to stem from the establishment of the journal Quaderni Rossi (“Red Notebooks”) in the early 1960s and from the theory and practices of operaismo (workerism) that was articulated there and later in the pages of Classe Operaia (“Working Class”). Wright (2002) in his book Storming Heaven provides a good overview of the political and historical background to these developments.

Autonomism is sometimes described as “compositionist Marxism” because of its concern with what is described as “class composition.” What this means is that while it explores questions of “technical composition” such as the subjective experience of work and how it contributes to the composition of capital, it also links this to broader, “political composition” involving identification of common class interests, activism, and political activity (Wright 2002). As such, autonomist accounts have often been concerned with the entanglements of work and social life more generally, notably in Marxist feminist studies of how employment and domestic labor are co-constituted under capitalism. This compositionist perspective has also shaped autonomist patterns of activism, whereby workers’ immediate concerns around their working conditions are used to initiate or catalyze wider activism, beyond the workplace, in the wider “social factory.”

Thoburn (2003) explores the associations and similarities between such autonomist perspectives, Deleuzo-Guattarian ideas about the emergence of “societies of control.” He argues that these necessitate new political alliances and novel kinds of collective action premised on the Marxist notion of a “refusal of labor.” These need to be accompanied by explorations of new ways by which workers, individually and collectively, could extricate themselves from existing cycles of production and consumption. These explorations have included the establishment of community and social centers, “social unions,” experiments in communal and cooperative living and working, and the establishment of community radio stations. Reflecting on the decline of the industrial working class and the need for reconceptualization of what it is to be a worker under contemporary capitalism, Negri suggests that the metropolis rather than the individual workplace is the new focus of political activity and accordingly calls for new forms of “militant metropolitan inquiry” (Negri 2018).

What is also significant is the way that broadening of the focus of political action beyond industrial workplaces positions educational workers, together with schools, colleges and the structures and processes within them, as part of the broader social factory. Those working in education and providing childcare, whether at home or in preschools and nurseries, are recognized as being integral to broader production processes and have the same (and possibly even greater) potential to initiate political action as those directly involved in other forms of work. School pupils and university students, similarly, are understood to be workers-in-formation, whose education is shaped by existing employer needs (i.e., it reflects current patterns of technical composition) as well as political imperatives. As such, the nature and scope of education are recognized to be intrinsically political, contested, and a potential site of resistance and refusal.

Autonomism, Employment, and Education

In addition to these broad themes, operaist and autonomist thought has focused on a number of issues which are particularly salient to teacher education. The first of these is the transformation of production processes and in the resulting composition and distribution of the labor force as a result of various kinds of automation. The operaists of the 1960s were particularly interested in the ways in which the automation of production lines and the development of geographically distributed supply chains led to new patterns of work in large employers such as Fiat and Olivetti. They also highlighted how automation and the distribution of production across multiple sites, rather than in single, large factories, caused a fragmentation of the working population and greater expectations of worker mobility. This in turn required novel forms of radical organization and activism. Subsequent autonomist and “post-operaist” analyses have explored how further waves of automation and the introduction of digital platforms have impacted on the nature of work, through studies of workers in service industries, call centers, logistics, and taxi and courier services.

The increasing role of digital technologies in educational processes has been well documented, with the implementation of managed learning platforms, automated and adaptive assessment systems, and behavior management programs being justified in terms of both efficiency and personalization of learning experiences. Beyond these developments, the marketization of educational systems has led to a fragmentation of established patterns of training, organization, and employment of teachers. In the past, most teachers might have attended a teacher training college or university prior to being employed by a school, college, or other establishment which was administered by national, regional, or local government and being supported in their ongoing professional development as part of their employment. The current situation in many jurisdictions is much more varied: marketization, privatization, and outsourcing mean that teachers may be trained “on-the-job” in “school-based” training schemes, prior to being employed through agencies or appointed to pools of employees by an educational service provider.

Maintaining a competitive advantage in such markets involves undertaking professional development and further study as personal “self-training,” often provided online. In addition, many aspects of the work of teachers, such as content development, assessment, moderation of online learning environments, and providing one-to-one tuition and homework support, have been outsourced. Teachers are increasingly portfolio workers with multiple employers and work environments, involved in “platform working” at all levels from seeking employment to providing tuition and support “on-demand” via online and partly automated environments.

A second, related, issue also central to operaist and autonomist analyses is that of the breakdown of historical differences between skilled labor and crafts and professional working. Successive waves of workplace automation have meant that many tasks have increasingly been replaced by machinery, meaning that workers have been expected to develop new sets of techno-literacies, their interactions with productive processes being mediated through mechanical and digital interfaces. At the same time, aspects of professional work have been de-professionalized or “proletarianized.”

This proletarianization takes different forms and in the case of teachers may involve the removal of the requirement for university-level education as a prerequisite for employment as a teacher; orientation of educational practice away from shared values toward externally mandated outcomes; and regulatory regimes which position teachers as “technicians” implementing centrally mandated educational programs, rather than exercising what might previously have been seen as aspects of their professional judgment and expertise. Central to these developments is the increasing “datafication” of educational processes. Increasingly, teaching involves not only the use of digital platforms (as mentioned above) for the generation and analysis of learner data: these also enable monitoring and management of teacher performance, with educational outcomes being treated as measures of the efficiency of instructional processes and of their personal effectiveness (Stevenson 2017).

A third closely related issue that is both an outcome of automation and a corollary of proletarianization and de-professionalization is the precarization and packetization of work. Precarious labor has always existed, for example, in areas where seasonal employment is the norm, but autonomists have argued that it has moved from the peripheral role it played under industrial capitalism to a central role in neoliberal, informational capitalism. As Berardi (2009) argues, what were previously established norms in terms of working conditions, wages, and working hours can no longer be assumed. Negri (2018) and others argue that this has been enabled and accentuated by the rise of digital platform working and by real-time monitoring of workplaces, for example, in food or retail outlets where workers are only assigned to tasks, and paid, at particularly busy times or when sales targets have to be met. In Berardi’s words, employers no longer employ individuals but rather buy packets of their time.

Many emerging kinds of work, particularly those in digital industries, have never been characterized by stable employment, but forms of precarity have become the reality of work for increasing numbers of people in what have historically been considered to be working class but also in the professions, including teaching. Agency working, short-term contracts, and “term-time only” employment all represent forms of precarization which are increasing in their prevalence within educational systems and all have potential impact on the employment prospects and professional development of teachers. Precarity, then, does not simply refer to the nature of work but rather to a state of existence whereby workers experience challenges in other aspects of their life: precarious employment may be accompanied by difficulties finding housing, securing mortgages, accessing healthcare and other services, and establishing and maintaining personal relationships.

With its critical insights into automation, employment, and the emergence of what autonomist writers such as Negri and Berardi term “cognitive labor,” Dyer-Witheford (1999) argues that autonomist perspectives offer a “subversive counterinterpretation of the information revolution.” In this respect it can be used to explore and critique how digital technologies are enabling the automation of educational processes, how the work of teachers is changing, and how technology-rich educational settings are being aligned with the changing world of work. What the autonomist tradition offers over and above this, however, is a distinctive approach to inquiry as an aspect of a radical praxis. The themes identified above (the entanglements of work, education, and social life; changes in the nature and distribution of work; automation and precarization) are not simply analytic categories but are recognized as potential points of departure for radical and emancipatory inquiry by workers themselves. This is the focus of the remainder of this entry.

Workers Inquiry, Co-research, and Counter-research

Inquiries undertaken into changes in the nature of work and its role in broader society were developed by the Italian operaists not just as a form of radical social science but as a form of activism and self-elucidation: “workers’ inquiries” involved research by workers, not just into the changing experiences of workers. The most comprehensive and best-theorized of these early inquiries were undertaken by Romano Alquati, who argued that the concerns of workers could be explored through processes of co-research (conricerca). Alquati described how the purpose of co-research is to advance the focus of inquiry beyond the specifics of workplace conditions to the nature and role of work itself. Co-research, according to Alquati, was “… not just a question of solving problems; but of initiating research into a meta-problem in a certain way [in order to] re-establish the existing equilibrium and develop a further counter-itinerary, with … a grand purpose, and a strategic objective” (1993, pp. 12–13).

Alquati argued that what such inquiries needed to do was to appropriate the approaches of scientific research and to adapt them to new ends, challenging the ways in which inquiry was aligned with capitalism. Workers would become militant researchers, able to operate “within and against” existing organizations, either to promote less alienating and more democratic alternatives or to extricate themselves entirely from them. Co-research had the potential to develop into “counter-research,” presenting alternative discourses and promoting new practices and social relations.

Over the past two decades, the acceleration of privatization and marketization in education, increasing automation and the experience of “austerity” regimes in some developed economies, has led to a resurgence of interest in autonomist ideas and the radical models of co-research that emerged from Italian operaismo. Inquiries and activism inspired by them have been largely concentrated on issues of worker rights in workplaces where casualization and precarity are the norm (e.g., cleaning, logistics, hospitality, IT services) although there has also been political action around the increasing use of casual staff and their precarious working conditions in higher education in the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The distinctively autonomist nature of these activities is indicated not only by the way in which workers’ inquiries have contributed to campaigning but also by the focus of activism which extends beyond better pay, to the mitigation of precarity for workers; the removal of worker surveillance systems; and the rejection of the idea that workers have to fund their own training or even pay their employer for it. Instrumental in these activities have been “independent” trades unions representing workers from across different work environments or groups organizing autonomously of established trades unions or professional associations.

Autonomism, Action Research, and Teacher Activism

Despite the range of changes that have affected teachers’ work, and the existence of studies which have documented the extent of precarity, casualization, and outcomes-oriented performativity in school education, there have been few examples either of workers’ inquiries specifically looking at teachers’ working practices and professional development or of teacher militancy explicitly informed by autonomist perspectives. However, the conceptual frameworks developed within autonomism are clearly relevant to teacher education and offer broader insights than frameworks which focus primarily on indicators of teacher competence or the effectiveness or efficiency of specific instructional strategies.

There are clear similarities between co-research and the tradition of participatory action research that have been influential in education contexts, most obviously the shared central principle that inquiry is an essential aspect of practice and therefore needs to be undertaken by workers themselves. Another important similarity is that both co-research and participatory action research in education can develop from exploration of a particular pedagogical concern into something much broader, with the potential to inform new practice and effect systemic change. This is an expansive model of action research however: one that is not concerned simply with undertaking small-scale classroom experiments in order to improve personal practice or to implement school improvement processes. Instead, like Alquati’s co-research, it is more a program of inquiry which is transformed by emergent findings, which impact upon the process itself and identify new foci and will influence subsequent outcomes. As in participatory action research, the emphasis in autonomist co-research is not on individual work but rather on deliberative, collective action involving wider groups or communities.

There are areas in which co-research and its associated activism might emerge in educational contexts, and these align with the more general concerns of operaismo and autonomism as outlined above. These points of departure (for what the theorist of operaismo Raniero Panzieri called “hot inquiries”) have typically involved teachers working in collaboration with others in their broader communities. Issues such as intensive testing regimes, automated pupil behavior monitoring, and the use of biometric and surveillance technologies in schools represent manifestations of automation of educational processes and the application not simply of digital technologies but of large-scale digital platforms, in educational settings. The transfer of public education resources out of state or community control, as in the “academies” programs in the UK, has changed the working conditions and reduced the job security of teachers and others working in education. There are examples of collective resistance involving teachers and other educational workers, parents, and pupils to each of these types of development. Tellingly, these involve not only offering opposition but rather the development of counter narratives in which alternative models of the school in its community, of how learners might be assessed and supported, and of school self-evaluation and improvement are proposed.

A broadly autonomist perspective on contemporary schooling provides insights into what teacher development and inquiry might involve beyond the limited scope of ascertaining “what works” in the classroom and how to advance one’s personal competences. Rather, it encourages a broadening of the scope of teacher inquiry to ask questions about the nature of the educational systems in which teachers work and the role of the teacher and the school in broader society and offers models of inquiry that position teachers as community organizers, innovators, and activists.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of BedfordshireBedfordUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Petar Jandrić
    • 1
  • Patrick Carmichael
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Informatics and ComputingZagreb University of Applied SciencesZagrebCroatia
  2. 2.University of BedfordshireBedfordUK