Operational Autonomy

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Christopher Cox:

""For all that the illusory concept of autonomy as the purview of the self imparts about the politics of domination, one of the most critical points is that humans and technology share the same root conception of autonomy. Human and technological autonomy is not a matter of “here” and “there” but a shared condition inadequate to delineation along lines of a human or machine and, instead, invokes the same questions around the pursuit and application of power, freedom, and control. As Haraway notes, technology is not an object to be “animated, worshipped and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment” (Haraway 1990, 222). Where autonomy “cannot simply be understood as freedom from others” (Baker and Hesmondhalgh 2013, 40), these “others” include both human and machine counterparts. Moreover, instead of conceiving of autonomy as self-set life against or apart from an “other,” recognizing that we are “socially constituted by others beyond themselves” (Baker and Hesmondhalgh 2013, 40) imparts of a sense of how our autonomous potential is truly a question of our autonomy. In other words, conceived in opposition to dualistic conceptions, autonomy is always a shared condition among humans and between humans and machines, even though autonomy is not equitably afforded or experienced. This does not entail a deterministic relationship, however, as economic relations, culture, legal frameworks, and other vectors constitute the circuity that gives human-machine autonomy its variable charge. Notions of autonomy with respect to capitalist relations and technology underscore human-machine autonomy as a shared condition among humans and machines the way capitalism organises and patternises possibilities for autonomy among ownership, workers, and machines.

Notably, Andrew Feenberg describes “operational autonomy” as a facet of capitalist ownership that incorporates autonomous potential into organisation, machinic, and workflow processes:

Operational autonomy is the power to make strategic choices among alternative rationalizations without regard for externalities, customary practice, workers' preferences, or the impact of decisions on their households. Whatever other goals the capitalist pursues, all viable strategies implemented from his peculiar position in the social system must reproduce his operational autonomy. The ‘metagoal’ of preserving and enlarging autonomy is gradually incorporated into the standard ways of doing things, biasing the solution to every practical problem toward certain typical responses. In industrial societies, strategies of domination consist primarily in embedding these constancies in technical procedures, standards, and artifacts in order to establish a framework in which day-to-day technical activity serves the interests of capital (Feenberg 2002,76).

Understood in this light, capital implants self-serving notions of autonomy into processes that carry through to the fabric of material existence so that the autonomous potential of capital is reproduced and enhanced. To the extent that operational autonomy is a hegemonic imposition of capital, workers possess a counterhegemonic potential, a “reactive autonomy” that Feenberg (2002, 84) otherwise refers to as a “margin of maneuver”. This reactive autonomy entails the ability of workers to leverage capitalist technology for the purposes of “controlling work pace, protecting colleagues, unauthorized productive improvisations, informal rationalizations and innovations” (Feenberg 2002, 84), and otherwise countervailing the operational autonomy of ownership. Reactive autonomy is a margin of manoeuvre because the degree to which workers exercise autonomy can expand or contract, as can the operational autonomy of capital. Much like autonomy among humans and technology, operational, and reactive autonomy are not bracketed off from one another and instead exist as co-constituted forms of autonomy inflecting upon on one another even though it is not supposed that reactive autonomy ever exceeds operational autonomy or reactive autonomy is the exemplar way for workers to attain and experience autonomy. Automation plays a variable role in this dynamic, as it

increases management's autonomy only at the expense of creating new problems that justify workers' demands for an enlarged margin of maneuver. That margin may be opened to improve the quality of self-directed activity or it may remain closed to optimize control (Feenberg 2002, 96).

To the mind of the capitalist, regardless of the degree of freedom or control afforded to labour, capitalist exchange “maximizes autonomy in general, promising liberation of the human essence from fixed definitions” (Feenberg 2002, 162), since ongoing acquisition and accumulation are infinite and therefore entail a range of shifting arrangements that increase both operational and reactive autonomy in the aggregate." (https://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/1139/1314)