The discourse of autogestión is part of a secret code. You either know the secret code or you don’t. You have either clicked on this post not having ever heard the word autogestión before (and “self-management” doesn’t mean much to you either) or you clicked on it with hackles raised, ready to disagree. But the meanings of autogestión are ambiguous. Different actors—activists, academics, even MBAs—use the code but talk past one another. Everyone assumes that they know what the word means, and there are commonalities among these meanings, but there are also disjunctures. In Mexico, the famous masked Zapatista Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano (formerly Marcos) reveals in speeches that he associates the term with punk, while Mexico City rockers mostly associate it with Zapatismo. Pulling on the thread of autogestión and mapping its constantly shifting meanings reveals a lot about the the histories of our overlapping political traditions on the Left over the last sixty years.
Often favored by anarchists, the term autogestión mostly appears in radical literature and traces a historical political line of neither (neo)liberal capitalism nor state socialism/communism. Once I began to delve into this genealogy specifically in Mexico City, a coherent narrative of some of the most defining political histories of the twentieth century as well as the politics of academic social theory itself began to unravel. The most startling revelation—more of an unexpected corpse dragged to the surface than an unraveling—has to do with the business and culture of scholarship. The history of autogestión demonstrates how academic discourses and pieces of political ideologies circulate and are rearticulated with incredible and unpredictable momentum around the world. Scholarship (even excellent, well-meaning, and even politically committed scholarship) reorganizes this coeval churning of continual mutual influence to obscure some connections and exaggerate others. Prestige scholarship systematically ignores and erases how activism, popular culture, and scholarship from the Global South influence and are appropriated by European and North American scholars. Autogestión, a term I argue was coined by North African revolutionaries, becomes displaced and expropriated to Yugoslavia. In other words, scholarship is very often a process of accumulation by dispossession.
Mexican authors, for example, tend to be relegated to “data” rather than social theory if they are brought into the conversation about global politics at all. Their place in the circulation and continual rearticulation of ideas is ignored so that it seems as if ideas sprang from the head of a well-known and published European scholar doing a “case study” of Mexico, when in fact, their very ideas originated in Mexico, often specifically in Mexico City. Particularities of Mexico City have been embedded into the foundations of Cultural Anthropology as a discipline through E.B. Tylor, who more or less invented the field of Cultural Anthropology after spending a long spring break in Mexico City in 1856 for his health. It is baked into the foundations of punk through William S. Burroughs, the Godfather of punk, who became a writer in Mexico City. Burroughs wrote and set all of his early books in Mexico City, while his later books, including his Soft Machine series that were influential for punk, drew from his graduate studies in Mesoamerican Archaeology.
The history of autogestion distorts the neat lines that we like to draw between social theory and case studies, between the literature review and the ethnography. Everything is the literature review. Everything is the ethnography. In my study, Autogestión: Origins and Activism from Algerian Revolution to Mexico City Punk, I make very little distinction between prestige social theory, ethnographic scholarship, oral histories from activists, and popular writing like anarchist zines or political fliers. I frequently invert the traditional relationship between data and social theory, delving deeply into the exact wording of political essays in punk zines to parse through meaning and intellectual genealogy, while glossing multi-volume sets of dense social theory as products of their time. The history of autogestión unravels the distinction between scholarship and the business of scholarship, the university as a site of cultural as well as intellectual production.
Rethinking the relationship between activism and scholarship
Understanding the history of autogestión also requires us to rethink the relationship between activism and scholarship. Scholarship develops in a way that often purposefully, and at other times merely carelessly, obscures its relationship with activism. In some cases, scholarship and activist pamphlets (or zines) about autogestión are written by literally the same people. Situationist Raoul Vaneigem, for example, theorized autogestión and also wrote revolutionary calls to action under his pseudonym Ratgeb. He is perhaps a stand-out case, but many scholars are activists at one time or another, and nearly all were implicated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Henri Lefebvre was accused of inciting student revolt in France. José Revueltas was spending time in prison for being the “intellectual author” of student revolt in Mexico. (The two, by the way, were also friends. Lefebvre even wrote a lengthy, though unpublished manuscript about post-revolutionary land reform in Mexico.) Michel Foucault, hardly one to yell a political slogan, was an activist for prison conditions many years before writing Discipline and Punish. He hung out with former prisoners, encouraging them to drop by his apartment to talk prison conditions, among them possibly an exiled Mexican activist/scholar or two. When they did, he could typically be seen going through a mess of surveys on his floor (and smoking weed? having sex?) with Gilles Deleuze, a frequent younger companion.
Contemporary prestige social theory is the trafficking of mid-century French Marxism, which was very much preoccupied with the enormous social and political upheavals of 1968, including the upheavals in Mexico City. US scholars tend to ignore this history, often even writing off their Marxism as a French eccentricity. The history of this social theory demands that we contend with the cultural and political revolution of 1968 (in Mexico City as well as Paris) that all of our obligatory sources of social theory were grappling with.
Autogestión, as a less prestige and more activist discourse, was at the very radical epicenter of these revolutionary political forces. It is too often missed in English scholarship and activism through accidents of translation. Elaborating its history to a US audience unravels the political, activist context of many of our obligatory citations. Generally, we can be reasonably assured that the academic books have very little to do with the activities and people—lives—they describe. But in the case of autogestión, the books have blood on them and the kid holding them doesn’t care about your class or your conference paper.
Autogestión: Origins and Activism from Algerian Revolution to Mexico City Punk is grounded in extensive use of formal and informal archival material, ethnographic fieldwork since the 1990s in Mexico City, and oral histories with Mexico City area anarchists and autogestivos (not the same population!). The manuscript tells the story of the political term autogestión from the mid-1960s when it was coined in Algeria (not the 1950s!) through its popularization among anti-capitalist movements in Mexico City at the beginning of the 21st century. Along the way, the book provides a more radical lineage of well-known social movements and scholarship and demonstrates how integral Mexico City/Tenochtitlan has been to the very foundations of prestige social theories, from those of Lewis Henry Morgan and Karl Marx, to Henri Lefebvre and Slavoj Žižek.
Livia K. Stone is an Associate Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at Illinois State University. This article is a part of a manuscript of her upcoming book, Autogestión: Origins and Activism from Algerian Revolution to Mexico City Punk.
Image: Livia K. Stone.