Spatial Sovereignties: Autonomous Subjectivity and Political Resistance in Hamburg’s Rote Flora,1989-2017

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Jones, Allison 

This thesis examines the history and praxis of the left-radical Autonomous movement in West Germany, particularly in the case study of Hamburg’s Rote Flora: the symbolic centre of the European Autonomous ideology. Autonomie emerged in Germany after the ‘red decade’ of escalating terrorist violence from 1967 to 1977, which culminated in hijackings, murders, and kidnappings during the 1977 ‘German Autumn’. The consequences of this period set the stage for the 1978 Tunix Congress, where up to 20,000 activists gathered in West Berlin to re-think the nature and purpose of political protest. Left-radical practice thereafter rejected the use of terrorist violence, and effectively refused organised Leninist Marxism, teleological revolutionary politics, and solidarity with syndicalist organisations, all of which had been defining cornerstones of the transnational left until that point. During the following decades, left-radical practice instead focused upon the self-formation of political subjectivities, concerns with city space and gentrification, and embodied symbolic violence, all of which became the cornerstones of the Autonomous movement.

The thesis is divided into two parts: the first examines the genealogy of Autonomous subjectivity after 1977. It presents the Senate’s city restructuring plans for the Schanzenviertel neighbourhood during the 1980s, against which Autonomists protested, ultimately occupying the building in 1989. The thesis portrays the occupation using 32 participant oral histories, and analyses State and Autonomous perspectives on language, contract negotiations, state pacification strategies, and the consequent breakdown of communication in the 1990s. Theoretically it builds on Hegel’s dialectical model of authority and subversion, as well as Lefebvre’s three levels of space, to present the ultimate failure of any synthesis between the two sides. The second part of the thesis analyses the embodied forms of corporeal praxis and hedonism that developed from this heritage. The Flora group is particularly notable for engaging in a moralised form of militancy, or ‘Militanz’, which they justify by identifying as ‘Anti-Subjects’ expunged of societal ‘contaminants’ such as racism, sexism or capitalism. Gender, sexism, and the body were increasingly important concerns for the movement after 1995, and are tied to the discussion and application of political violence.

To better explain the Autonomous worldview, the thesis develops a political theory of ‘spatial sovereignty’ in the Autonomous movement. It presents a genealogy of squatted spaces as alternate sites of political citizenship in a reconceptualised public sphere, and develops the concept of ‘excess spaces’ by building on Agamben’s (1998) notion of the ‘excess flesh’ of the homo sacer being stripped of citizenship and banished into a State of Exception. However, it inverts Agamben so as to instead analyse subjects, possessing full agency, who nonetheless intentionally establish their own ‘states of exception’ within society. The thesis theorises that within radical left-wing movements, these squatted ‘excess spaces’ foster new ‘spatial sovereignties’, wherein the political body, grounded in a squatted space, becomes the site of alternative and even resistant ‘biopolitical administration’ via practices of conscious self-formation and purification against state influences.

The thesis concludes by applying these theories to the violent riot during the 2017 G20 Summit. It inquires whether, as the subject claiming the moral authority to determine the application of violence in a state of exception, the Flora has not come to assume the role of the sovereign within the decades-long unresolvable dialectic of authority and rebellion in Hamburg.

Ruehl, Martin
Autonomie, Political Protest, Political Violence, Protest, Autonomous movement, Germany, 1968, G20 Riot, Rote Flora, Autonomen, Hamburg, Black Block, Subjectivity, Political Resistance
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge