The End

The first third (several hundred pages) of the final installment of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s monumental My Struggle is more or less what we have come to expect by this point: an account of a couple of days in the narrator’s life. Specifically, we are more or less in the “present”: Karl Ove is installed in Malmö, Sweden, with his (second) wife and their three young children, though for much of the short period described, the wife is away and his friend and confidant, Geir, comes to visit. Nothing very dramatic happens, and in lieu of any grand events the minutiae of daily routines are recounted in intense detail. A representative sample: “I filled a bowl with cornflakes and put it in front of Heidi along with a carton of milk, went out onto the balcony to get the vacuum jug, filled it with coffee, took a cup from the cupboard, poured myself the few mouthfuls that wouldn’t fit into the jug and went out onto the balcony again” (126). And so on, almost ad infinitum.

At one point the narrative, such as it is, truly devolves into a list, as Knausgaard describes Malmö’s urban environment: “Hotels with flags flapping at their entrances, sports shops, clothes shops, shoe shops, electrical dealers, furniture shops, lamp shops, carpet shops, eyewear shops, bookshops, computer shops, auction houses, kitchenwear dealers” (306) and on and on and on. All this is what Fredric Jameson, in his review of the book, calls “itemisation”: “we have abandoned the quest for new languages to describe the stream of the self-same or new psychologies to diagnose its distressingly unoriginal reactions and psychic events. All that is left is to itemise them, to list the items that come by.” Jameson is rather scornful of this style, if style is what it is: “these pages do not quite enliven the palate.” But he makes a mistake, I think, in suggesting that what happens next, from around page 400, is merely a further instance of such itemisation.

What “happens” is still not exactly an event, but instead a long digression into literary and cultural theory and history, specifically a rambling reading of a poem by Paul Celan followed by a discussion of Nazism with a focus (if focus is the right word) on the book from which Knausgaard’s own series derives its title: Mein Kampf. Previous volumes have also included such digressions into what Jameson (still scornful) calls “a kind of banal philosophical psychologising,” but never at such length. And the key point here is less what Knausgaard says about either Celan or Hitler (some parts of which are interesting, other parts undoubtedly less so), or the other authors that he touches on along the way–Kafka, Joyce, Klemperer, Levinas–than what such reflections say about the former or genre of the book, and implicitly the series as a whole.

For during much of the first part of the book, while Karl Ove is making breakfast for his kids or shopping for dinner or chatting to his friend, everything is overlaid with an anxiety about the response provoked by the first volume of My Struggle, and implicitly also about the reception of this final volume, too. Book One dealt largely with the aftermath of the death of the narrator’s father, who is portrayed as having sunk into a squalid alcoholism in his final days; what is itemised there, among other things, are the immense quantities of cleaning products required to sanitize the house in which he died, shared with his aged mother (Karl Ove’s grandmother), who likewise is presented as someone who has lost all shame about the state of her immediate surroundings. It’s a harrowing depiction of downfall and demise, as the narrator struggles to come to terms with his father’s impact on him (one of the series’s central preoccupations) as well as his own ambivalence towards drinking (for he, too, is often at least a borderline alcoholic). But as this first installment is about to be published, his uncle–that is, his father’s brother–protests that this account is essentially libel: in effect, that Knausgaard is making things up, in order to tarnish his father’s good name. The uncle writes to the book’s publishers, threatening to sue if Karl Ove persists in this malicious denigration of his own family. So in the midst of the regular routines that comprises the bulk of the first few hundred pages of this final installment of the saga, the narrator is continually checking his email, dreading that his uncle may have written him yet another poison pen letter, and fearing for the consequences if this scandal becomes public.

In the meantime, then, both to himself and to his friend Knausgaard seeks to justify what he has done–and, again implicitly, what he is still doing as he writes this last volume of the series. In the first instance, he worries that his memory is indeed faulty. This too is a constant theme throughout My Struggle: perhaps improbably, this author of 3,600 pages of excruciatingly detailed memoir repeatedly tells us that he has a problem remembering. From Book One (A Death in the Family): “I remembered hardly anything from my childhood” (171); “My memory was nothing to brag about” (304); “I usually forgot almost everything people, however close they were, said to me” (387). And later books tell us that, once he starts drinking, at least in his youth, Knausgaard would habitually get so drunk that he would black out and wake up in the morning with no recollection of what he had done the previous night. Indeed, if anything structures the entire grandiose project (and this is further proof in favor of Jameson’s argument that Knausgaard’s enterprise is nothing like Proust’s) it is not so much memory as amnesia. Karl Ove is consistently asking himself “What did I do?” and if anything the overly detailed itemization is like the painstaking attempt to reconstruct a past that he can at best only fitfully recall. Now, however, his uncle’s angry rebuttals challenge the validity of all that careful work. Perhaps, after all, he had got it all wrong? “Had I really been unreliable in everything I had written” (The End 163).

At this point, then, while insisting on the fundamental truth of his account, Knausgaard falls back on the notion that what he has been writing is less memoir than novel, even if “the whole point is it’s meant to be true” (257).

Hence the strangeness of the long digression that soon takes over much of the book. For though in large part Knausgaard’s reading of Celan, for instance, is concerned with issues of truth and language, this excursus can hardly claim to be “true” in any conventional sense, even as it certainly also seems to break any novelistic form. If anything, this is the point at which My Struggle most obviously escapes the orbit of literature entirely, to become instead perhaps an anti-novel. It is as though the uncle’s objections had derailed the narrative entirely, shaky and tenuous as it was at best in that lists and the accumulation of detail substituted for plot, digression and association for any sense of causality or consequence. Here Knausgaard gives in to digression as the only possible organizing structure for what has now become an endless stream of words tied only tenuously to memory, place, or incident. Though there are still hundreds of pages to go before the volume concludes (with a famous final paragraph that locates itself fully and immanently in the present of the writing process: “Now it is 07.07 and the novel is finally finished” [1153]), midway it appears that the book is already flirting with what its title announces as “the end.”

The Mahogany Pod

“The past is another country; they do things differently there.” In her affecting memoir, The Mahogany Pod, my old friend Jill Hopper revisits a past that feels so close and yet so distant, half a lifetime ago, when she was in her early twenties and she fell in love with a man who would die within the year. Her narrative fluidly switches from now to then and back again as she unravels her memories and realizes that she still has lingering questions and loose ends to be resolved from all that time ago.

Things were different back then because Jill was young, and life is always different for the young: more dramatic, more intense, more involved, more highly strung; more of everything. As Jill puts it: “What does a twenty-four-year-old want? To be young, to live to the tips of his fingers, and the ends of his toes, to have wild nights out with friends and wild nights in with lovers, to get crazily drunk, to sing and dance, to travel and see new places” (104). At the same time, Jill and her friends feel like they are in the limbo at the very end of what has been an extended youth. Done with university, but still living like students (sleeping on mattresses on the floor, a collage of postcards decorating the walls), they are waiting for their careers to begin or to take off, and perhaps to settle down with husbands and wives rather than flatmates and flings. Hopper knows in some ways that she is only treading water (“typing, filing and catching moths” [49]), waiting for something to happen, when into her life walks Arif, who, it turns out, will forever be young, will never grow old.

Arif and Jill would never have got together if it were not for his disease. It is only because he has already had a lymphoma, now in remission, that he returns to his hometown of Oxford for treatment and becomes Jill’s housemate. Then when the cancer returns, she compares the situation to seeing a friend drowning: “Everyone else was watching Arif from the shore. But for me it wasn’t enough to stay on dry land, to shout encouragement or throw him a line. I had to be in the experience with him. I couldn’t stand to watch him suffering and now suffer myself. I didn’t want him to be along. I got into the water” (87). In the weeks and months that follow–all in all, Jill knows Arif for nine months, and he dies on the eve of his twenty-fifth birthday–the two of them experience the highs and the lows, joy and grief, hope and desperation. They open themselves up to each other, gambling everything on the moment as every moment is precious, overshadowed by Arif’s diagnosis. As Jill puts it in the wake of his death: “The sense of immortality, invincibility, that had swept me along all through my teens and early twenties, had vanished, and I knew I would never get it back. [. . .] My greatest fear was that I’d never again feel so intensely alive as I had with Arif. I had spent months at the highest pitch of existence, when every note of every song dropped right into the center of my heart, when every smell, every touch, penetrated so deeply it could never be forgotten” (67). Of course, you can’t live like that forever. And when Arif dies, in more ways than one Jill ends up saying goodbye to something of herself.

Things were different back then, too, because it was the mid-1990s and we weren’t yet always online, with everything mediated through the Internet or the ether. Hopper is a would-be writer, but has a typewriter rather than a laptop in her room. Nobody ever Googles or texts. A mobile phone features only once, going off inappropriately during a wedding, which “wasn’t exactly an advert for their virtues” (149). Instead, there are letters, post-it notes, mixtapes, which end up as an archive (in a shoebox, of course), alongside the eponymous mahogany pod, a present from Arif, that Jill can consult in the present. It is thanks to these material traces that she can unwind and relive her memories, struck once again by the physical intricacy of handwriting, or by the atmospheric sense of the mixtape, to which she listens finally, for the very first time, and through which she ultimately feels Arif speaks to her once more, as briefly she is can no longer distinguish between then and now: “How have I got from that doorstep [. . .] to this one? The intervening decades have gone; I’m jumped straight from there to here. It’s too much” (211). Could a Spotify playlist have had the same effect? What if the relationship had had to be reconstructed through text messages? Ironically, it’s the almost old-fashioned, time-incrusted materiality of the surviving memory prompts that allow them to come to life once more in the present.

This is a story about then, but it is also a story about now. In the end, Jill decides she has to go see Arif’s mother, to work through a tension she feels has always come between them. And thanks to their conversation, she comes to see her younger self in new light, through someone else’s eyes, doubly distanced by this change of perspective. She also comes to realize that, for all the intense intimacy of her brief time with Arif, he had held something back, perhaps even told her a lie: his father was not, as she had thought, from Sri Lanka, but Pakistan. In fact, much that she thought she knew for sure turns out to be wrong. Even the mahogany pod that gives this book its title transpires (an expert from Kew Gardens reveals) to come not from a Mahogany tree. “Nothing is quite what it was,” muses Jill. “Perhaps the past is no more fixed than the present” (207). Arif comes into focus through her memories, but also shimmers slightly, as if in a mirage.

But it’s in that shimmering, as with the uncertainty that shadows any memoir, all autofiction, that they may get something wrong, that they are somehow untrue, that one person’s story can take on meaning that can be shared, can travel like a river. Jill Hopper’s beautifully-written account takes us all back to our various pasts, even as it reminds us that we can never go back, that the past is something we can only ever reinvent, never truly re-live.

Republican Citizens, Precarious Subjects

Why do we work? The obvious answer, for most of us, is that we do it for the money. Yet in acknowledgement of the fact that structural unemployment is (apparently) taken for granted, and that not everyone can work, at least not all the time, Western democracies provide economic assistance to the unemployed. But the level at which such benefits are set is designed to ensure that they are not to be seen as more than a fallback option. Still, these days recipients often have to show that they are actively seeking employment, and that they are not too fussy about the kinds of employment they may be offered, all of which perhaps betrays an anxiety that money is not motivation enough. Indeed, the jobless are regularly stigmatized, and there is a whole public discourse surrounding “benefits cheats” or “welfare queens” and the like, a more or less mythical (under)class of people who supposedly prefer not to work, or who (allegedly) put almost as much effort into not working as others put into negotiating the rat-race of paid employment. Though proposals for a “universal basic income” are increasingly popular, for diverse reasons, both on the Left and on the Right, one of the major obstacles that they face is the fear that a living wage paid to all would reward, and perhaps even encourage, laziness. Why would anyone work if they did not have to?

People work, or persuade themselves that they work, for many other reasons beyond the purely economic. Compensation comes in many forms. Some feel a sense of vocation or a desire to be of service, others pursue status, and many find–or at least seek–pride in whatever they happen to be doing. There can no doubt be satisfaction in a job well done, whether it be a wall well built, a meal well cooked, or a class well taught. There is surely something unbearable about seeing the world in unblinkingly Marxist terms, about agreeing that wage labour is simply exploitation and alienation, which is why most of us are hesitant to believe that, as workers of the world, we have “nothing to lose” but our chains. It is less a question of ideology than (more viscerally) a matter of affect, habit, and even our sense of self. Many of us spend so much time at work, or more fundamentally and unconsciously have invested so much in molding ourselves and our sensibilities to fit in with and progress within the workplace, that it is not clear who or what we would be without our job titles and all the routines that accompany them. Hence, however much we may complain about our conditions of labour, our bosses or colleagues or lack of perks, unemployment (and even retirement) can be felt as an almost existential crisis.

Yet this link between employment and identity is breaking down, and the crisis is upon us, imminently at hand. The assumption of a job for life is, for all but a tiny minority, no more than a distant memory. In place of long-term specialization and the accumulation of entrenched habits and embedded knowledges in durable institutions, we are now enjoined to be flexible and prepared to endlessly retrain for ever-new opportunities in increasingly transient and precarious conditions. The ideal type in the “new economy” is the “start-up” firm or the “pop-up” shop, and we are sold as a form of freedom the uncertain hours and unpredictable pay the go with becoming self-employed contractors dependent on Internet platforms such as Uber and the daily battle for “likes” and positive endorsements. As such, a new relationship between employment and identity arises, but one that has constantly to be renewed as we become, in Michel Foucault’s words, “entrepreneurs of the self,” free-wheeling mini-enterprises or incarnations of human capital whose stock prize is always in flux. YouTube influencers and the like may be the purest instances of the ways in which work has become permanent social performance, but we are all increasingly affected by the new forms of assessment and valuation are now all-pervasive: a wall should not simply be well built, but it must be built with a smile; a meal is only well cooked if the ratings on Yelp agree; and student evaluations are the test of whether a class is well taught.

The crisis that ensues is not simply individual, but also social. In his new book, Republican Citizens, Precarious Subjects: Representations of Work in Post-Fordist France, Jeremy Lane traces what he describes as the breakdown of the Republican contract in contemporary France as a result of transformations in the world of work and the meanings attached to it. Lane argues that this crisis is especially acute in France, given the specific contours of that country’s welfare state and the centrality of work to the conception of French national identity. “The French Fordist post-war compromise,” he tells us, “institutionalized a particularly close interrelationship between salaried employment, rights to social protection, and, through that, access to full republican citizenship” (8). Hence, he argues, the transformations brought by post-Fordism, increasing precarity, Uberization, and so on have led not only to sporadic but intense social protest, as for instance with the “gilets jaunes,” but also to widespread anxiety manifest in much recent cinema and literature. So although the changing status and meaning of work may well not be unique to France–on the contrary, they are part and parcel of a globalized neoliberal order–the symptoms of these changes are perhaps particularly legible in French cultural production, played out in many different political valences.

Indeed, what is at stake, according to Lane’s persuasive analysis, is a new set of relations between the particular and the general, the individual and the state, the national and the global, and so on. His book is interested in the uneven distribution of the effects of post-Fordism, or rather how they entail a redistribution of hierarchies between (for instance) masculine and feminine, white and immigrant, the metropolitan centre and the regions, and so on. Lane repeatedly enjoins us to refuse easy binaries, such that for instance he warns against nostalgia for the republican tradition, not only because it had its own exclusions and injustices, but also because (and contra a vein of Gallic complaint that imported Anglo American ideas are all to blame) within it were already implanted the seeds of the current crisis.

After a lengthy theoretical section, in which Lane tackles sociological and political theoretical debates about post-Fordism and draws not only on Foucault but also on Gilles Deleuze’s “Postscript on the Societies of Control” to consider the links between work and different forms of subjectification, we get a series of readings of texts ranging from Michel Houellebecq’s novel La Carte et le territoire to Kim Chapiron’s movie La Crème de la crème or Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, and many others. He covers themes such as the perceived feminization of the new forms of labour, as well as the rise of portrayals of so-called “femme fortes” (strong women), whether as executives with a mandate to introduce corporate changes or as working-class activists pledged to combat them. His chapter on “doomed youth” and the changing role of education is perhaps particularly interesting, as it shows how the sense of crisis not only affects those who might easily be identified as “losers” within the new (anti)social compact, such as second-generation immigrant young men in the (para)urban banlieues, but also it is represented as troubling the apparent winners, such as the business-school graduates who have lost any sense of public vocation. Paired with an account of the changing national frameworks of economic policy, employment law, and welfare brought in by governments of the Left and the Right alike, the book suggests that these cultural representations perhaps stand in for a public debate that has never quite got off the ground, or for which conventional political distinctions are no longer of much use. Indeed, despite (or because of) the fact that Lane draws on a wealth of French social and political theory, what emerges is a sense of disarray within the country’s fabled left-leaning intellectual field. As Lane notes, there has been “a proliferation of proposals emanating from left-wing thinkers and activists,” but little clear consensus or agreement among them (251).

Not that we are that much better off elsewhere. Lane’s perceptive analyses prompt reconsiderations of similar cultural symptoms in the UK and the USA: films such as The Full Monty or Made in Dagenham, say, also seem to address similar concerns about gender roles amid deindustrialization in Britain, for instance, though the latter movie projects them back into a somewhat nostalgic re-envisaging of what had been a high point of union organization. And the United States may at first sight seem to lack the republican tradition whose crisis is the focus of Republican Citizens, but we can perhaps see there must once have been some sense of social solidarity, sufficient to give Trump and Trumpism something to destroy. Moreover, both sides of the Atlantic, intellectuals are not simply in disarray, they are stigmatized as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, no doubt in part because they (we) have allowed the university to be so thoroughly infected by, and indeed encouraging of, the kinds of “entrepreneurship of the self” that have provoked such anxiety and discontent.  

So why do we work, even those of us fortunate enough to be employed in relatively durable institutions (though we will see about that) and especially those of us who have that rarity that is a “job for life” (though who know how long tenure will truly last), when we find that those institutions have betrayed the compact that we assumed they held to when we first entered them, and when job security can feel like golden manacles, binding us to the wheel of a ship that has long since been set adrift? Perhaps because we still hope that there are parts of the job, the unsung and slightly subversive aspects that never enter the false calculus of merit and are if anything penalized by the powers that be, that still make things worthwhile. Or perhaps we are fooling ourselves, and it is only ever about the money.

Infrapolitical Passages

There is an odd but (perhaps) not unwelcome tension in Gareth Williams’s new book, Infrapolitical Passages: Global Turmoil, Narco-Accumulation, and the Post-Sovereign State. On the one hand, as even the title announces, this is a far-ranging survey of our contemporary situation (global turmoil!). Moreover, it hardly confines itself even to this broad critique of the present: it opens with an account, drawn from some words of Greta Thunberg’s, of imminent future apocalypse (“extinction,” in Thunberg’s terms, “perishing” in Williams’s) and then, in search of the origins of this catastrophe, proceeds to take us back to Prometheus, via a reading of Shelley. We are in the “epoch of the end of epochality” (121), Williams repeatedly tells us, of “post-katchontic” or “post-sovereign decontainment” (110), and it is clear that Williams has no wish to be restricted in the scope of his reflections or argument.

In short, this is a hugely ambitious work that, what is more, takes issue with many of the major thinkers of our time (Badiou, Agamben), seeks to demolish plenty of sacred cows (politics, hegemony, the subject), and gives short shrift to others, often via endnotes as if they were not even worthy of being dismissed in the body of the text itself. (Full disclosure: I am one of those whose work is despatched this way in the end matter, for “provid[ing] no evaluation of the place of the negative in any conceptual matrix, including [my] own” [210]. But I do not lack company; elsewhere, for instance, another note summarily condemns “humanists, culturalists, hegemony thinkers, decolonials, populists, Marxists, post-Marxists, neocommunists, and antitheory types of all persuasions” [208].) To put this another way: this is a book that often gives the impression that it is endlessly sure of itself, as it seeks from its opening sentence to “clear a way through some of the dominant conceptual determinations and violent symptoms of globalization” (1). Clearing such a path sometimes requires a machete, and the will to wield it.

And yet. On the other hand, there is something quite modest and reticent about Williams’s project. After all, beyond the image of bushwhacking through conceptual thickets, the other metaphor that the book employs to describe its methodology is that of a retreat, for it is “in retreat” that “infrapolitics strives to clear a way” (26); “now the struggle is to find a way to backtrack [. . .]. This backtracking is the basis for the infrapolitical exodus [. . .]” (27-28). Or as Williams puts it, for all the talk of “passages,” by which he hopes to take us (for instance) “from hegemony to posthegemony” and from there to establish or prepare the way for “a renovation or potential turn in our thinking” (96), at best we are ultimately offered “a timorous step toward the possibility of questioning in such a way as to clear away inherited limitations in the realm of thinking and acting” (106). This is a highly qualified ambition indeed! And even that “timorous step” may not be forthcoming. As Williams admits at the outset: “This is a book that makes no progress, and intentionally so” (29). The passage may well end up being a “nonpassage,” and we may not even be able to tell the difference thanks to “a certain indiscernability” between the two (29). As Williams goes on to concede, “Some might feel that this offers in fact the formalization of very little” (29); “and it could very well lead to absolutely or virtually nothing” (32). Alongside the ambition and self-assuredness, in other words, this text also offers us a striking humility, a sort of pre-emptive bet or hedge that it will all end in something like failure, no progress made, nothing to show. Or at least it is prepared to take that risk, which is indeed (perhaps) quite a risk.

This resolute reticence or self-assured uncertainty is not new in Williams’s work. His first book, The Other Side of the Popular (2002) ends with a sustained meditation on the “perhaps,” a word which also becomes a refrain in its final section and closes (without closing, as it opens up) the text: “perhaps. . .” (The Other Side of the Popular 303). As he puts it there, with the same mix of affirmation and doubt, stating and yet taking back at the same time: “One thing appears to be sure, however: being toward becoming worldwide leaves us with the affirmation of perhaps ringing in our ears and suspended on the tips of our tongues. . . perhaps. . .“ (272). A “perhaps” rings, or perhaps it rings, suspended and so not (yet?) fully articulated. This is the “one thing” that is sure, or (perhaps) only appears to be sure for those who have eyes to see what cannot in fact be seen.

But I say all this not to criticize Williams. This unerring hesitation is not a flaw in his project; if anything, it is the project itself. Moreover, the minimalism of the gesture, and the willingness to take the risk that nothing may result, is perhaps its greatest contribution to our thinking about politics. For let there be no doubt: this is a thoroughly political book, which asks the most important, the most essential of political questions. Which is, precisely: What is the smallest difference that may actually make a difference? This is, after all, Lenin’s question (though I am not at all suggesting that Williams is any kind of Leninist): “What is to be done?” Not, note, “What should we do?”–more properly the question of the subject, and of ethics or morality, with which politics is so often confused these days–but, in the passive, what is to be done for some change to come, for a detour or turn to be effected that will not soon enough (or given enough time) be inevitably assimilated or appropriated or turned back such that we find ourselves merely back where we started, or worse. One step forward, two steps back; rather than one step back, two steps forward.

There is a double irony here. The first is that those who are so intent on “being political” or putting politics first, seeking a program or party line to proclaim or to follow, inevitably end up mired only in false pieties and the spectacle of morality (“virtue signalling” and the like) that we see all too insistently wherever we look. The second is that, as Williams (and elsewhere, Alberto Moreiras) shows at length, the one properly political question, the question of the “perhaps,” only arises when we step back from politics, when we try to withdraw from the turmoil, when we hesitate before entering the fray, when we realize that everything is in doubt, and when we acknowledge that “what is to be done” is far from self-evident, being as it is a matter that politics itself can never resolve. Without it, however, there is no politics at all. The very possibility of politics, in other words, as Williams eloquently tells us, depends upon the infrapolitical.

The Tyranny of Merit

Like Michael Young, Michael Sandel frames his critique of meritocracy in terms of a populist backlash against elite condescension but also (hot off the press and presumably added at the last minute) in terms of the botched response to the current global COVID pandemic. Focusing on the United States, he argues that the country was stymied not only by logistical issues or lack of political will to implement the required measures to combat infection. It was, furthermore and more importantly, “not morally prepared for the pandemic” (4). Whereas a coherent response to Coronavirus required solidarity, the USA was laid low by the discovery that this was a sentiment in short supply. Over decades, any sense of social solidarity has been eroded on the one hand by rising inequality fueled by neoliberal globalization and on the other hand by a “toxic mix of hubris and resentment” (5) that Sandel sees as the result of the entrenchment of meritocratic values throughout the body politic.

As such, seeking a culprit for the current woes of the United States, Sandel indicts less Trump than his liberal predecessors, such as Bill Clinton and, perhaps surprisingly, Barack Obama above all. Trump and Trumpism, he argues, are merely the unwelcome harvest of seeds sown long ago by a generation of center-left as well as center-right politicians who pushed equality of opportunity as the compensation for economic transformation, without considering those who, for whatever reason, were unable to take advantage of the opportunities they were given.

For, however level the playing field, meritocracy still envisages losers as well as winners. The difference is that the winners in a meritocratic system are told that they deserve their success, which is a result of their talents and hard work (rather than the accident of fortune). Conversely, the losers are told–and the more perfect the meritocracy, the more they are also likely to believe–that they, in turn, deserve their failures, which come from their lack of talent or their laziness. Rather than protesting the injustice of their lot, those at the bottom of the meritocratic pile tend to feel humiliated, left only to nurse their lack of self-esteem. Moreover, their misfortunes elicit little sympathy or solidarity from those who have done better in life. If everyone started with the same chances in life, the poor have nobody to blame but themselves.

This stigmatization of failure, and its psychological internalization by those who fail to rise to the opportunities they are offered, is the converse of the meritocratic faith that those who rise to the top should be those who deserve to do so. The losers in life’s race are doubly afflicted: not only are they left behind; they are also told they brought it on themselves. They are both victims and culprits of their own demise. Hence a politics of (sometimes violent) resentment, and the attraction of somebody like Trump, who tells them that he knows what it feels like to be called a loser, and how much it hurts. And hence, incidentally, how counter-productive it is for Trump’s foes to brand him a loser, or laugh at his mistakes: it is precisely thanks to that branding and that elite condescension that meritocracy’s underclass recognize Trump as one of their own.

Not that meritocracy’s victims are only those at the bottom of the pack. Sandel argues, especially in his discussion of higher education, that those on top are also afflicted, forever running to stand still as the stakes of every competition become higher and higher. Hence the way in which high school becomes an exercise in CV-building, with tutors and extra-curricular activities indulged in only to increase the ever-slimmer chances of making it to the elite universities that seem to hold the keys to future success. All this under the watchful eye of helicopter parents ready to fly in to ensure that their precious offspring really do fulfil their potential as surely as the meritocrats promise they can. Then at college itself, students have no time to rest on their laurels, as they dedicate their all to improving their GPAs, making the Dean’s List, and moving on to the most prestigious Law School or Medical Program. Especially at the most elite institutions (such as Harvard, where Sandel teaches), university has been transformed into “basic training for a competitive meritocracy. [. . .] The sorting and striving crowd out teaching and learning” (182). If anything, these are the last places to go if you want anything like an education, or the chance to reflect on what Sandel calls “the common good,” a concept long since abandoned in these bastions of excellence.

To remedy these ills, and to restore a lost sense of social solidarity, Sandel offers two proposals, one rather more concrete than the other. First, to give higher education back its meaning, and to rescue it from its fate as the key institution in the conveyer belt that is meritocratic sorting and measurement, he suggests that admission to college–especially its most elite echelons–should be determined by lottery rather than competition. He does admit that there should be some basic threshold, and allows some possible tweaks to the lottery system to enable (say) affirmative action or even the continuation of legacy privileges, but he argues that everyone stands to gain–those who are admitted, those who are not admitted, and the institutions themselves–if access to higher education were to be seen as a happy accident rather than the end-all and be-all of success to which the young dedicate all their time and their talents.

Second and somewhat more vaguely, Sandel insists on the need to accord due dignity to work. His point is that the contribution of the working class to fulfilling social needs is increasingly unrecognized. To add to the fact that ordinary, non-college-educated men and women are disparaged for their failures to measure up to meritocratic ideals, the value of what they do do is frequently ignored or taken for granted. Liberal programs (welfare, for instance) that attempt to enact a distributive justice frame the poor as simply recipients of state aid, passing over their myriad contributions to society. Sandel argues therefore for a what he terms a contributive justice that allows people to feel that they are part of a broader project on more or less equal terms.

The specific policy proposals that Sandel suggests might help shift our perspective on our fellow citizens from seeing them as simply consumers (whether of market goods or state hand-outs) to producers include changes in tax law–a Tobin tax on financial transactions that do not materially contribute to the economy, for instance, or a move from taxing payroll to higher taxes on consumption and capital gains–or perhaps a wage subsidy for low-paid workers. One might add to this list, for instance by suggesting that macroeconomic policy should be less blasé about structural unemployment, or that we might revive the type of public works projects and work programs that Roosevelt’s New Deal rolled out during the Great Depression. (Strangely, FDR doesn’t get much of a mention in this book, despite its attention to the rhetoric of US Presidents; if Obama is the surprise villain of the piece, if anything it’s the Kennedys who come closest to coming out as heroes.) Yet the mere mention of unemployment points to the fact that Sandel’s claim for the dignity of work is undoubtedly the weak point in his argument.

Do not, after all, the unemployed also contribute to society? What about the disabled? Or children, or pensioners? Moreover, putting work at the center of our notion of engaged citizenship is a strange move for an argument that claims to oppose meritocracy. For merit, after all, is not just a matter of talent or credentials, even under the current meritocratic dispensation; it is also a matter of effort. As the narrator of Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy puts it, “Intelligence and effort together make up merit (I+E=M). The lazy genius is not one” (84). Yet Sandel seems to want to cut away one pillar of the meritocracy–so-called intelligence–while leaving the other pillar intact. In the terms of the religious debates that he (quite interestingly) surveys, despite his attachment to the notion of grace as undeserved redemption, he ends up preaching a doctrine that sounds very much like salvation through work(s). If, as he notes, merit always has a tendency to creep back in through the side door to edge out grace, it is in his drive to accord dignity to labor that this process is repeated in his own argument.

In any case, the erosion of the “dignity of work” is not merely a matter of elite condescension. It might equally be seen as a nascent consciousness of the reality of alienation. Work is indeed often bullshit (as anthropologist David Graeber points out). And even when it is not, we seldom work on terms that we ourselves choose. The enthusiasm with which the contributions of so-called essential workers (from nurses and hospital porters to teachers and lorry drivers and supermarket shelf-stackers) have been belatedly recognized during the current pandemic, with the nightly cheers to their efforts marking the first lockdown last Spring, is poor compensation for the fact that they continue, on the whole, to be not only underpaid but also exploited, their labour power commodified and measured out in terms of socially-necessary labour time (to use the Marxist jargon). Merely noting, and even celebrating, the fact that their labour is indeed socially necessary does nothing to alter the ongoing reality of their exploitation.

Indirectly, however, Sandel’s book point to another argument: a claim made perhaps most famously by Marx’s son-in-law, the Cuban-born Frenchman Paul Lafargue, who in 1883 published the manifesto The Right to be Lazy. Lafargue urges the proletariat to “return to its natural instincts, it must proclaim the Rights of Laziness, a thousand times more noble and more sacred than the anaemic Rights of Man concocted by the metaphysical lawyers of the bourgeois revolution. It must accustom itself to working but three hours a day, reserving the rest of the day and night for leisure and feasting.” Do what you have to do, but do it fast and sloppily if needs be; reserve the rest of your time for enjoyment and relaxation. An entire tradition of the refusal of work has elaborated on this standpoint.

Sandel’s book (perhaps inadvertently) points to something similar in that it strikes this reader, at least, as rather hastily put together, and not simply in the rushed mentions of the current pandemic that top and tail it. Throughout, The Tyranny of Merit is full of repetitions with only minor (and sometimes absolutely minimal) variation; the same points are made over and again, the same figures and statistics reappear as though the author were trying to pad out what would otherwise be an incisive article so as to turn it into something acceptable to Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Moreover, the research on which the book is based seems to rely heavily on Google and other Internet search engines: not simply in that almost all its references are to online material, or the ways in which it uses rather simplistically Google Books Ngram statistics on word frequency, but also in the way it mines the public database of US presidential speeches compiled by UC Santa Barbara’s “American Presidency Project” rather than undertaking a more systematic or nuanced analysis of the ways in which historical discourses emerge and evolve.

At times all this is frustrating, and it is tempting to say that the book was more effective in its earlier incarnation as an eight-and-a-half-minute TED talk, itself a format perhaps more suited to a meritocratic age. But I like to think that Sandel is in fact winking at us, telling us that really the illusion of merit is all that matters, and that we should relax a little and not take our work all that seriously.

The Rise of the Meritocracy

Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy is a strange little book, more akin to a dystopian novel than to a work of sociology (though of course all dystopian novels encode some kind of critique of contemporary society). Published in 1958 but set in 2034, it purports to be a work of historical sociology tracing not just the rise of meritocracy, a term that Young coins here, over the long period from 1870 to 2033, but also its crisis. There may be much that Young’s futurology gets wrong, but surely one thing he gets very right is the prediction that some day meritocrats would face a populist backlash that could even end in violence. (In a note to the book’s final sentence we learn that its narrator has died amid the disturbances, and that this is therefore a posthumous publication.) Have we not seen something of that in the events at the US Capitol a couple of days ago? If anything, Young’s dystopian future has come to fruition a decade or so earlier than he anticipated, in 2021 rather than in 2034.

Yet the difference between Young’s critique of meritocracy and the rejection of expertise that characterises not only Trumpism but also (say) Brexit and COVID denialism is that whereas the current populist insurgency is firmly aligned with right-wing politics, often viciously chauvinist and nationalist, by contrast Young imagines meritocracy to be brought down by a fundamentally left-wing (even feminist) protest against its anti-egalitarian injustices. (We are told that the narrator dies at a public meeting at Peterloo, in clear resonance with the Peterloo massacre of 1819, in which the army repressed a crowd gathered to demand that parliamentary representation be democratized.) It is a sign of the distance between our times and Young’s that it is hard to imagine today the struggle against meritocracy to be a progressive cause, so much has the erstwhile left tied itself to its banners.

The particulars of Young’s futurology also (naturally enough) reflect his own British post-war context more than they resonate with today’s political or social realities. For instance, he envisages the continued relevance of state planning, and can hardly imagine the ways in which the market has effectively supplanted the state in so many areas of life. So although he recognizes that meritocracy means that the school and university become ever more the key institutions of social reproduction (think of that uber-meritocrat Tony Blair’s famous slogan, “Education, education, education”), and even predicts both the exhaustion of the comprehensive system and the increasing prevalence of testing at every younger ages, he somewhat bizarrely foresees the withering away of the private sector where what we have instead seen has been the wholesale marketization of public education as schooling has been firmly painted as a private rather than a public good.

At the same time, though Young no doubt correctly envisages the declining relevance of the House of Commons, as meritocracy eats away at democracy, he (perhaps fancifully) portrays the House of Lords taking its place at the center of the parliamentary system, missing the rise of the executive and the triumph of various forms of presidentialism even in notionally parliamentary democracies such as the UK (and again, Blair and Blairism are no doubt paradigmatic here).

Yet for all its failings, and perhaps because of as much as despite its somewhat quaint air, it is worth returning to Young, not least to shock us out of the meritocratic “common sense” that grips us. Merit, which Young defines here as a combination of intelligence and effort, is firmly entrenched as a supreme virtue not only on the left but also, in the form of a valorization of entrepreneurialism, on the right. It is the shibboleth of our times, so much so that few believe it can be questioned: they assume that arguments against meritocracy can only be framed in terms of the fact that “equality of opportunity” has yet to be achieved by many (minorities, women, the poor, or whoever), and so what is needed is for merit to be more, rather than less, perfectly recognized and rewarded. But Young’s dystopia is in fact a fully realized meritocracy: he takes aim at the ideal itself, rather than the obstacles that lie in its path; he is against equality of opportunity, which he opposes in the name of the rather more radical notion of equality, plain and simple.

It is in the nature of any book that goes so against the grain of prevalent common sense that it is misread and misunderstood. In later years, Young felt the need to add a supplementary introduction, in his own voice rather than that of his narrator, to point out that he was arguing against rather than in favour of meritocracy, a point that the satirical tone also perhaps obscures much as some readers apparently felt that Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (which argued that the eighteenth-century Irish could alleviate their economic woes by selling their children as food for the rich) was somehow a serious proposition. Yet the term that he coined is still almost universally presented as utopian model rather than, as here, dystopian warning.

It is also in the nature of the book’s satirical genre that Young’s alternative to meritocracy is seldom articulated. But it is here, and it comes in the form of a Manifesto that is imagined to have been published in the early 2000s, and which deserves to be quoted at length:

The classless society would be one which both possessed and acted upon plural values. Were we to evaluate people, not only according to their intelligence and their education, their occupation, and their power, but according to their kindliness and their courage, their imagination and sensitivity, their sympathy and generosity, there could be no classes. Who would be able to say that the scientist was superior to the porter with admirable qualities as a father, the civil servant with unusual skill at gaining prizes superior to the lorry-driver with unusual skill at growing roses? The classless society would also be the tolerant society, in which individual differences were actively encouraged as well as passively tolerated, in which full meaning was at last given to the dignity of man. Every human being would then have equal opportunity, not to rise up in the world in the light of any mathematical measure, but to develop his own special capacities for living a rich life. (159)

This is the firmly egalitarian left-wing critique of meritocracy, and it should surely be revived.


wilderson_afropessimismFrank Wilderson’s much-heralded new book, Afropessimism, is uneven, inconsistent, frequently repetitive and frustrating, even off-putting. At the end of it all, I’m not sure I liked it much. But it is also often compelling and definitely an important statement, a manifesto of sorts, that should be read by anyone involved in critical theory or political movements today. Indeed, its faults and rough edges are part of the point. This is not a book that seeks to win friends. Quite the opposite: Wilderson notes without apology that it is “common for most people to feel like they’d been mugged by Afropessimism” (328). This is a book that aims to take you by surprise and leave you reeling on the ground, even (especially) if you thought yourself an ally of progressive anti-racist politics.

What is Afropessimism? It can perhaps most easily be contrasted (as it is throughout this book) with identity politics such as feminism. If feminism has been defined as “the radical notion that women are human beings,” Afropessimism is the perhaps still more radical notion that Blacks are not human. More precisely, Blacks are “the foil of Humanity” (13). It is their exclusion from the Human, effected through constant, gratuitous violence, that enables the constitution of Humanity as such that is thus parasitical on a Blackness that it both requires and refuses: “just as economic production is parasitic on the labor power of the working class, the production of Human capacity is parasitic on the flesh of the Slave, the Black” (192). Hence, where the aim of feminism (or, say, LGBTQ politics) is to reclaim a humanity denied to women (or lesbians, gays, etc.), Afropessimism by contrast refuses a humanity that it sees as inherently “unethical” (333) because of its dependency on anti-Black violence. Hence, indeed, Afropessimism is cast not simply in contrast to identity politics but also against them, as well as against any other notionally progressive movement (Marxism, postcolonialism, or whatever) for which the Human is taken for granted or even upheld as the terrain or object of its struggle. The “pessimism” of Afropessimism, then, surely arises in part because (it claims) Blacks will be perpetually disappointed if not betrayed by their would-be allies on the Left. And the mugging that it delivers hits hardest at those (Black or non-Black) invested in a solidarity politics that it claims is at best impossible, at worst damaging to any prospect of Black liberation.

What is Black liberation? Wilderson spends much more time describing what it is not than what it is. As he puts it, “Afropessimism has no prescriptive gesture.” In so far as it envisages a future, it is quite literally apocalyptic: “The end of our suffering signals the end of the Human, the end of [the] world” (331). This is, Wilderson admits, “a program of complete disorder” (250). But Blacks can welcome the end of the world because whereas (say) women or “non-Black people of color [. . .] have something to salvage,” Blacks by contrast “have nothing to lose” (176). Moreover, Wilderson adds that “The desire to be embraced, and elaborated, by disorder and incoherence is not anathema in and of itself. No one, for example, has ever been known to say, Gee whiz, if only my orgasms would end a little sooner, or maybe not come at all” (250). As such, liberation seems to involve an affirmation of the Real, not far distant (despite the reference here to the “faux-politics of Deleuze” [183]) from the untamed expression of desiring-production championed by schizoanalysis.

So Afropessimism is not entirely novel, however much it breaks (at time abruptly) from many of the assumed verities of identity politics or the mainstream left, even in its “intersectionalist” guise. It has much in common with at least one strain of Subaltern Studies (à la Spivak, for instance), as well as with the approach that some of us have been advancing in terms of “posthegemony” and “infrapolitics” and the like. Wilderson certainly has no truck with the Gramscian conceptions of hegemony and civil society, but he returns to them repeatedly as they encapsulate all that he finds wrong with so much of what passes for progressive thinking and leftist political strategy today: “coalitions and social movements [. . .] bound up in the solicitation of hegemony [. . .] ultimately accommodate only the satiable demands and legible conflicts of civil society’s junior partners [. . .] but foreclose upon the insatiable demands and illegible antagonisms of Blacks” (222-3). For Wilderson, political analysis and strategy alike must move beyond the confines of a hegemony theory that only makes things worse, blind as it is to the constituent violence that grounds hegemony itself, seared into Black flesh before the play of either consent or coercion can kick in. Where Afropessimism most strikingly breaks from Subaltern Studies or posthegemony, however, is precisely in that it is Black flesh that is at issue. Here, the excluded subaltern position is explicitly and specifically (and uniquely) coded as Black. Women, gays, the indigenous, the working class (and so on) are never, for Wilderson, subaltern in this sense, as they always have something at stake in the struggle for hegemony. For Blacks, by contrast, what is as stake is hegemony itself, which is only thinkable on the basis of their a priori exclusion from civil society tout court.

It is this assertion that is no doubt one of the most controversial among the many incendiary positions that Wilderson stakes out. Indeed, he chronicles at length the fall-out of one occasion in which he made this argument about Black singularity, at a conference in Berlin where all hell broke loose after he gave a paper on Afropessimism. We can agree that there is something at best distasteful about what he calls an “oppression Olympics” in which injustices would be compared and measured. To use Wilderson’s terms, there is no analogy between (say) the genocide that was the transatlantic slave trade and the genocide that was the European Holocaust. The two histories are incomparable. Indeed, Wilderson would argue that anti-black violence is not even historical; it is what grounds historical narrative without fully being registered by it. Yet, on the one hand, it is undeniable that the slave trade is also historical; its trace can be found even in the historical record that can never do it justice. And, on the other hand, there is something about the Holocaust (and not just the Holocaust) that also both subtends and escapes narrative rationality. In other words, we may accept Wilderson’s analytic distinction between a “contingent” violence that is subject to the logic of hegemony, and an “absolute” or “gratuitous” violence inflicted upon those constitutively excluded from that logic, without necessarily agreeing that only Blacks suffer gratuitous violence, or that the violence inflicted on other social groups is always and inevitably contingent.

Take for instance the post-conquest treatment of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, or more generally colonial violence. Addressing the “Native American genocide,” Wilderson acknowledges that “there are pre-logical or libidinal elements to the murder of eighteen million people–to be sure. But,” he continues, “land acquisition and usurpation give the genocide a kind of coherence and reasonableness” (219; emphasis added). Here that qualification that this is only “a kind of” reasonableness is doing a lot of work, and elsewhere even such qualification is absent as when (only a few pages later) Wilderson posits that “I know that I am not Black because when and if I experience the kind of violence Blacks experience there is a reason, some contingent transgression” (225; emphasis in the original). This is all too close to saying that such violence is indeed reasonable (or at least, that it has its reasons), when surely in fact there is always something in colonial violence–and likewise in the violence of anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, and so on–that exceeds or undermines any possible reason. Conversely, it is surely also true that reasons have been adduced to justify slavery, however rephrehensible those reasons may be, mere figleaves for motivations grounded in what Wilderson denotes as “libidinal economy,” but without them there would never have been debates between slavers and abolitionists; without them, the tireless campaigning of someone like Fredrick Douglass would have been literally senseless.

In Wilderson’s book, the argument that Blacks are not (simply) the foil of Humanity is put most eloquently by the author’s mother, and her critique goes unanswered when she tells her son that “she wasn’t anybody’s slave, and that even when our ancestors were slaves they were Human beings” (329). Wilderson’s response is an uneasy joke (with reference to his white wife, “’Being Human isn’t anything to aspire to,’ I said. ‘Just ask Alice’” [329]). A better rejoinder might have been the observation that they weren’t simply Human beings, and that Afropessimism is interested in operationalizing the gap between Human and Black. But one would have to add that, as the old feminist slogan indicates, such a gap between Human and non-Human traverses many social groups, and perhaps ultimately all of us in one way or another. And to say this is not to assert any false equivalence, any reactionary equalization along the lines of “All Lives Matter.” On the contrary: the gap between any violence to which I may potentially be subject and the violence of slavery (whether historical or ongoing) is incommensurable. But as is attested by Wilderson’s own frequent recourse in this book to autobiographical stories (of his childhood in Minnesota, of a breakdown in Berkeley, or of his experiences in South Africa, for instance), the trace of that incommensurability is to be found in narrative, in history, even if it also always subverts and escapes them.

In short, Wilderson concedes all too much to hegemony, as though it fully (and implicitly without remainder) explained all other forms of oppression and violence that are not anti-Black violence. And at the same time, he could do more to think through the relationship, however contingent, between the anti- or non- (post?) hegemonic position that he ascribes to Blackness and the discursive procedures, his own included, by which that position is both acknowledged and inevitably disavowed. This may win no more friends, but it might suggest a theory of friendship (fleeting or otherwise) that could suggest paths to common programs without the mystifications of solidarity.

Pre-Prison Writings III

gramsci_pre-prison-writingsOf this final selection from Antonio Gramsci’s pre-prison writings, there is no doubt that the most interest text is the final one, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question,” a manuscript left incomplete as he was still working on it when he was arrested, tried, and thrown into a fascist jail in 1926. It is here, at last, that Gramsci first pays sustained attention to some of the themes and concepts that will be at the center of his reflections in the celebrated Prison Notebooks, not least the role of intellectuals and the concept of hegemony.

The term “hegemony” appears previously in this collection, but sparsely indeed. It crops up first in a passing mention to “the hegemonic positions of the reformists within the great trade-union organization” in an article on “Our Union Policy” of 1923 (250). It reappears in a piece the following year on “The Mezzogiorno and Fascism” (with a reference to “the Piedmontese and Northern governing hegemony” [261]), and then somewhat more insistently in Gramsci’s “Letter to the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party” of late 1926, where we are told that what is at stake in internal debates in Moscow is “the doctrine of the hegemony of the proletariat” (312). This last formulation, in an intervention into squabbles in the wake of the death of Lenin, between Stalin’s faction on the one hand and Trostky’s group on the other (Gramsci sides with Stalin), may well be an indication of the concept’s provenance in Lenin’s use of the term “gegemoniya.” In any case, what is clear is that both here and elsewhere (the rather more two-volume Lawrence and Wishart collection, Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920 and Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926 has other instances, including one dating back to 1918, though one would have to check the Italian original; the three-volume Scritti politici has no mention of “egemonia” or “egemonico” before 1920) Gramsci is far from making the concept his own. It is only with “Some Aspects of the Southern Question” that he even attempts a definition and begins to develop the concept further.

Again, this is not to say that something like the seeds of Gramsci’s own “doctrine” of hegemony are not evident already, even before it has received that name. I have noted his interest in the article “Two Revolutions” in an articulation between populist revolt and working-class self-determination. And a slightly different take on the problem of the relationship between politics and economics can be glimpsed in his observation, in “A Study of the Italian Situation” of 1926, that:

Politics is always one step behind–or many steps behind–economics. The State observation is far more resistant than it is often possible to believe; and at times of crisis, it is far more capable of organizing forces loyal to the regime than the depth of the crisis might lead one to suppose. This is especially true of the most important capitalist States. (297)

Indeed, here we surely get an indication of what will motivate the development of hegemony theory. For this is an analysis premised on defeat. We are no longer in the heady days of the Turin factory occupations of the beginning of the decade. In fact, in the intervening years Fascism has come to power, apparently aided and abetted by the “reformists” and Social Democrats who are the main targets of Gramsci’s critique in these articles. The situation is Italy is precarious at best. Not to mention the fact that (as his letter to the Russians indicates, but also judging from his appraisal of developments in England and elsewhere) events internationally no longer seem to be going the way of the Communist Revolution. Gramsci still fervently believes that the objective conditions are ripe for change, but he has to address the series of setbacks that the working-class movement has suffered year on year. And as others, too, will later discover, the notion of “hegemony” seems to offer solace and hope in such troubled times.

Hence, in “Some Aspects of the Southern Question,” Gramsci provides his first attempt at defining and elaborating on the concept of hegemony:

The Turin Communists had raised, in concrete terms, the question of the “hegemony of the proletariat”: in other words, the question of the social basis of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the workers’ State. For the proletariat to become the ruling, the dominant class, it must succeed in creating a system of class alliances which allow it to mobilize the majority of the population against capitalism and the bourgeois State. In Italy, within the real class relations that exist here, this means succeeding in obtaining the consent of the broad peasant masses” (316).

Seeking this consent, Gramsci goes on to explain, will mean confronting the “Southern question” (the relationship between Italy’s industrial north and its still broadly agrarian south) as well as the Vatican (the role of the church).

For the Italian proletariat, then, winning over the majority of the peasant masses means taking on board these two questions, from a social point of view; understanding the class needs they represent; incorporating these needs into its revolutionary transitional programme; and incorporating them among the objectives for which it is struggling. (316)

Here, then, hegemony is envisaged as a project that entails overcoming long-standing social divisions: between North and South, city and countryside, worker and peasant. The project’s success would also mean acknowledging a diversity of positions and perspectives, albeit then translating them into the idiom of class. But perhaps above all it is a matter of adopting “a social point of view” as a means of establishing the “social basis” for the new, socialist state and the dictatorship of the proletariat that will usher it in. That dictatorship will involve the elimination of the peasantry (just as much as it involves the elimination of the bourgeoisie), but for now a “transitional programme” is envisaged, for which the perspective, needs, and objectives of the peasantry are to be acknowledged.

As Gramsci continues to explore and develop this conception of hegemony, he increasingly associates it with the role and social function of the “intellectual,” a social group to which he had paid little attention hitherto. At present, in this truncated, unfinished text, this is a category that is rather amorphous; it includes civil servants and school teachers, as well as writers and priests. What they have in common is their mediating function: “the Southern peasant,” for instance, “is linked to the great landowner through the mediation of the intellectual” (330). And while Gramsci continues to identify “the urban proletariat as the modern protagonist of Italian history and hence also of the Southern question” (334), he is beginning to come to conclusion that the working class is perhaps not yet ready for revolution. For “the proletariat, as a class, is short of organizing elements; it does not have its own layer of intellectuals and it will only be able to form such a stratum, very slowly and laboriously, after the conquest of State power” (336). It is then just as Gramsci’s pen runs out (the text trails off a paragraph later) that he stumbles across a key paradox, even Catch 22: the working class will only be able to produce its own intellectuals (and so, hegemony) after the capture of state power; and yet the state will not be captured, as the previous five years seem to have shown, without the contribution of intellectuals to the labor of hegemony.

We will see whether the concept of hegemony survives this contradiction in the subsequent phase of Gramsci’s writing, the Prison Notebooks, or whether in some sense the unfinished “Some Aspects of the Southern Question” is both high-water mark and dead-end for hegemony thinking.

“Patriarchy: From the Margins to the Center”

Cross-posted to Virtual Koerner’s.

It has been observed that the higher up a corporate hierarchy you look, the more likely it is you will find a psychopath. Indeed, in an article in Forbes (of all places) we read that “Roughly 4% to as high as 12% of CEOs exhibit psychopathic traits, according to some expert estimates, many times more than the 1% rate found in the general population and more in line with the 15% rate found in prisons.” The same article also reports that “the top four career choices for psychopaths are CEO, attorney, media personality and salesperson.” In other words, there is a congruence between psychopathic personality traits and some of the key institutions of contemporary society: business, the Law, the media, and commerce. So much for psychopathy being an “antisocial” disorder. It is part of the very fabric of the world we live in.

segato_guerraIn her chapter, “Patriarchy: From the Margins to the Center” (from La guerra contra las mujeres [2017]), Rita Segato goes further. We are all trained to be psychopaths now, she tells us, as part of a “pedagogy of cruelty” that is the “nursery for psychopathic personalities that are valorized by the spirit of the age and functional for this apocalyptic phase of capitalism” (102). Segato presents a brief reading of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange to make her point, though what she sees as “most extraordinary” about the film is that the shock with which it was received when it came out (in 1971) now seems to have almost totally dissipated. What was once taken as itself an almost psychopathic assault on the viewer’s senses is now just another movie; this shift in our sensibility is “a clear indication [. . .] of the naturalization of the psychopathic personality and of violence” (102). The narcissistic “ultra-violence” of the gang of dandies that the film portrays is now fully incorporated within the social order that it once seemed to threaten.

For Segato, moreover, this psychopathic violence to which we are increasingly inured is ultimately gender violence: it both establishes and is grounded upon what she elsewhere terms a “mandate of masculinity” by which masculine identity and at the same time both the public sphere and the state is inscribed on and at the expense of women’s bodies. Moreover, all this is folded into a “decolonial” perspective that does not claim that indigenous social structure were free of sexism or patriarchy, but which argues that Western modernity transformed what were once gender relations characterized by reciprocity into a binary system from which empathy is absent and woman are treated as things on which male narcissism inscribes itself.

In short, Segato offers a grand theory of human society and epochal history, at the root of which is (almost) always and everywhere violence against women. As she puts it: “Buried down below, at the foundation, at the foot of the pyramid, sustaining the entire edifice, a woman’s body” (97). As even the reference to a pyramid suggests, confirmed by the frequent invocation of diverse folktales and origin narratives from wildly different contexts, all this adds up to a kind of mythic anthropology that (for all the glancing citations of contemporary theorists such as Judith Butler) has a nineteenth-century feel to it. Indeed, there is a tension between the universalizing gestures on the one hand (an appeal to transhistorical ways of knowing and being), and the attempt to periodize and draw out specificities and differences on the other. Are we all psychopaths now, or is there something psychopathic inherent to modernity? At times, Segato seems to want to have it both ways. Equally, I’m not particularly convinced by her calls to feminine (and indigenous) empathy and reciprocity as modes of resistance to the increasingly violent structure of everyday life, not least because (despite her protests otherwise) all this does indeed sound very much like a form of essentialism.

For me, the parts of Segato’s analysis are very much more interesting and provocative than the whole. I don’t think that we need buy into the (quasi) cosmic unity of her over-arching vision to appreciate the very important ways in which she contributes to our understanding of the mechanisms of gender violence, for instance, not least in her specific studies of cases such as the femicides in Northern Mexico. Even if we see society less as a pyramid (with its base and superstructure) and more as a network or web, Segato’s analyses help us see in new ways how everything is connected, both to ensure the reproduction of forms of domination across many axes, and to offer hope that local resistances can have broad and unexpected repercussions throughout the system. The center has permeated the margins: there are few if any spaces of refuge, and certainly no pre-lapsarian community to which one might fantasize a return. But at the same time, the margins continue to haunt the center: multiplicity is everywhere.

“Las cosas que perdimos en el fuego”

Cross-posted to Virtual Koerner’s.

enriquez_last-cosas-que-perdimosFemininity is all too often defined by the image (and so by the male gaze). Women are reduced to appearance, and judged in terms of the extent to which they measure up to some mythical ideal. Mariana Enríquez’s short story, “Las cosas que perdimos en el fuego” (“Things We Lost in the Fire”), presents a surreal and disturbing counter-mythology that explores what happens when that image is subject to attack, not least by women themselves.

It all starts with a woman who is compelled to support herself by begging on the Buenos Aires subway, after a jealous husband inflicts on her horrific burns that destroy her arms and face, leaving her with only one eye and a slit for a mouth, her lips burnt off. As she seeks contributions from subway passengers, she tells her story: that her husband threw alcohol on her face while she was asleep, setting her alight to “ruin” her, so she wouldn’t belong to anybody else. In the hospital, when everyone expected her to die and she couldn’t speak for herself, he said that she had done this to herself, a tragic accident after a fight. Now that she has recovered her voice, the woman on the subway reclaims her narrative and names the perpetrator. She knows, however, that she will never recover her appearance; her image was lost in the fire.

But perhaps it doesn’t all start there. As another character comments later, referring to a history of witch-hunts but also much more, “They’ve always burned women, they’ve been burning us for four centuries!” No doubt this is why the woman on the subway’s story starts to resonate so much with others.

First, it inspires copy-cat crimes: a model, who seems truly to incarnate that idealized image of femininity, is burnt by her footballer boyfriend in much the same way that the woman on the subway had been attacked. And he, too, blames her for what happened. As if it is only in death (the model does not survive her injuries) that women are granted agency, much like the famous if perhaps apocryphal witch-trials by water, in which only the drowned were presumed innocent.

Then, as Enríquez’s story progresses, small groups of Argentine women start to reclaim their agency while still alive, albeit by anticipating the torture inflicted on them by men. They begin to set light to themselves. Some do so alone, perhaps intending suicide. But, in the face of official disapproval, others form shadowy networks of “Burning Women” to aid and abet ritual ceremonies of self-immolation, complete with clandestine hospitals to ensure recovery thereafter. Because the point is to survive, and to put that survival on display. As one woman puts it: “They have always burned us. Now we are burning ourselves. But we’re not going to die: we’re going to flaunt our scars.”

The notion here is a kind of immunization: if women burn themselves, then they also rid themselves of the idealized image, the fetish that justifies men burning them. Moreover, they show that they cannot be reduced to appearances, albeit by paradoxically revelling in the way in which their new, “monstrous” appearance repels the male gaze. As the woman from the subway puts it, “Men are going to have to get used to us. Soon most women are going to look like me, if they don’t die. And wouldn’t that be nice? A new kind of beauty.” Laying claim to deformity, they challenge the gendered scopic regime of representation and power.

Yet this sacrificial logic is disturbing, and not only to men. The story is told from the perspective of a young woman, Silvina, whose mother is one of the first to throw herself into the campaign. It ends as she overhears her mother and a friend talking about her as a possible candidate for a burning: “Silvinita, oh, when Silvina burned it would be beautiful, she’d be a true flower of fire.” Here, the vision is (almost literally) of the Revolution eating its children, of a new image that ends up as horrific and coercive as the old one. The “ideal world of men and monsters” is no more (or perhaps no less) ideal than our own.

There are obvious resonances here with debates over the tactics of militant groups during Argentina’s Dirty War. There is also an explicit comparison to anorexia, which is also as much a self-destructive as a subversive mode of (re)claiming female agency. Perhaps, too, we might think of our contemporary immunological paradigm, and the price we are called upon to pay to confront all manner of diseases (metaphorical and otherwise). Fire both purifies and corrupts. Without nostalgia, and without any easy judgements, Enríquez compels us to think in new ways about what gets lost when we turn the tools that oppress us into weapons for liberation.