RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2019

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377 Towards an autonomist economic geography: Rethinking the classed relations of work, housing and debt (1): New compositions, new struggles?
Affiliation Economic Geography Research Group
Convenor(s) Nick Clare (University of Nottingham, UK)
Shaun French (University of Nottingham, UK)
Chair(s) Shaun French (University of Nottingham, UK)
Timetable Friday 30 August 2019, Session 3 (14:40 - 16:20)
Room Sherfield/SALC Building, Room 9
Session abstract The autonomist Marxist ideas of ‘class composition’ and ‘workers’ enquiry’, as well as political strategies such as autoreduction and accelerationism (Wright, 2017), provide a powerful framework with which to reanimate a whole host of contemporary economic and labour geography problematics, enabling a deep and more politicised engagement with, for instance: changing labour processes, housing precarity, everyday financialisation and the social relations of debt. Critical scholars have recently reengaged with autonomist thinking (Wright, 2017), with work looking at precarity and the gig economy (Woodcock, 2017), money and finance (Lucarelli, 2013), and migration (Campbell, 2018). Despite this, and a much welcome resurgence of interest in working class geographies (Stenning, 2008), autonomism remains comparatively and surprisingly underexplored in economic geography, and the geographical potential of these concepts is still to be realised. Research has begun to address this lacuna (Gray, 2018), adding clarity to implicitly spatial autonomist ideas like the ‘social factory’ (Clare, 2018), but autonomist thinking is also extremely well-placed to explore the contours of more contemporary disciplinary debates such as logistics and, given the importance of feminists to the autonomist project (see Federici, 2012; Toupin, 2018), social reproduction. Moreover, the political history of workerism and post-workerism offers important resources and insights that can critically inform urgent struggles against, for example, indebtedness, zero-hour contracts, and welfare reform. And in so doing, autonomist Marxism can contribute to a more hopeful and progressive geographical politics of the present.

The session aims to explore the synergies between economic geography and autonomist ideas, especially given the latter’s ‘exquisite’ yet inchoate spatiality (Toscano, 2004). Further, following recent debates about the state of UK economic geography, this session is intentionally interdisciplinary, drawing on, and engaging with, important work from business schools (e.g. Pitts, 2018) and beyond. An autonomist economic geography can breathe life into a whole host of contemporary ‘big issues’, and we seek to explore these radical possibilities, both in terms of theory and political praxis.
Linked Sessions Towards an autonomist economic geography: Rethinking the classed relations of work, housing and debt (2): Emergent urban resistance
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: ac2019@rgs.org
Debbie Webster (St Ann’s Advice Centre, Nottingham, UK)
Debt city: Debt composition and class in Nottingham
Nick Clare (University of Nottingham, UK)
Shaun French (University of Nottingham, UK)
In seeking to transition from an industrial past to a more hopeful and progressive, post-industrial future Nottingham has periodically sought to reinvent itself as the ‘Queen City of the Midlands’. A refrain that finds echoes in a present narrative of Nottingham as embryonic Fintech hub. The Fintech narrative draws heavily, discursively and materially, on the cities’ role as location for the UK headquarters of Experian and Capital One, as well as other corporations operating in the personal credit-debt market such as the TDX Group, owned by Equifax. However, this progressive, Fintech narrative jars significantly with the everyday socioeconomic realities of a city that is estimated to have the highest level of personal over-indebtedness and the lowest levels of disposable income per head of anywhere in the UK. The paper explores these tensions as well as the emergent possibilities for resistance through the lens of autonomist theory. We argue that in a period of financialised capitalism the role that credit-debt relations play in constituting class necessitates a revaluation of social composition theory to foreground ‘debt compositions’. We draw on and seek to extend (post)autonomist literature on finance, debt, and money, arguing that these ideas are at their most powerful when (re)turning to an engagement with the core of the autonomist Marxist project: class composition analysis.
The Social Factory and the Spaces of Subsumption: From Class Composition to Spatial Composition
Neil Gray (University of Glasgow, UK)
The question of real subsumption across the entire social sphere was central to the ‘social factory’ thesis within Italian operaismo (workerism), but in practice the concept was never fully developed beyond the factory walls. In this sense, it can be characterised as a false totalisation. On the other hand, the term resonated in different ways with urban social movements, Italian Marxist feminists at the point of social reproduction and Italian architects such as Manfredo Tafuri, suggesting its heuristic potential beyond the frame of workerism. Yet, I argue, an understanding of the social factory was arrested because the question of urbanisation (as a process that modifies the relations and forces of production) remained under-theorised within Italian autonomous Marxism.

Through the concepts of real subsumption and the ‘planner state’ developed within operaismo (the latter bearing a close relation to Lefebvre’s theory of the ‘state mode of production’), it may be possible to breathe new life into the rather inchoate social factory thesis, while prompting a deeper spatial understanding of Italian autonomy: from class composition to spatial composition. The concept of subsumption, wrenched from a teleological theory of periodisation, asks the question: what is inside or outside of capitalism? And what does this matter for an exit from capitalism? These points of entry allow a critical consideration of subsumption conceived across the entire social factory by Italian autonomous theorists (often without reference to the urban terrain) and pose another set of questions raised by Lefebvre around urbanisation as an immanent base for political recomposition.
Organising the economy despite crisis: the case of Mercado Bonpland Buenos Aires
Victoria Habermehl (University of Sheffield, UK)
The 2001 Argentinian ‘Que se vayan todos’ movement was structured through complex relationships of autonomous politics, horizontal organisation, autogestion, neighbourhood assemblies and state rupture. More than fifteen years after the 2001 economic, social and political crisis, the reclaimed retail market Mercado de Economía Solidaria Bonpland is an example of the organising legacy of the Palermo Viejo neighbourhood assembly, and assembly movement in Buenos Aires. Mercado Bonpland was established by neighbourhood assemblies in 2007 in an abandoned municipal market space in Palermo, Buenos Aires, and has seventeen organisations and stalls, selling products including fruit and vegetables, dried foods, drinks, books, pottery, clothes and artisanal products. These seventeen organisations focus on developing and supporting autogestive production (reclaimed factories, small family farms, co-operative or artisanal production) as well as dignified work, fair trade (i.e. where producers decide the terms) and responsible consumption. Throughout this production process Mercado Bonpland facilitates and is facilitated by networks of autogestion, which operate in-against-and-beyond everyday life in the city. This paper draws on this radical history and potential of alternative economic organising, but makes a contribution through examining mundane everyday practices of producing a market, from the long term processes to different social groups, because of and despite political, social and economic crisis.