missing a trick

Gramsci, Selections from the Prison NotebooksI had decided I wasn’t going to reply to Adam Morton’s further intervention in this to-and-fro sparked by my blog post on Althusser’s Machiavelli and Us. Some debates are more productive than others, and I’m not sure that this one is getting anywhere in particular. Largely, his latest contribution, “The War on Errorism”, confirms this impression. For once again, Morton doesn’t engage with my reading. By which I mean (if that’s not obvious) that he merely, rather sweepingly, reiterates his own reading and asks, with an air of surprise, how could anybody see things any differently. And he gestures towards a mountain of secondary literature that supposedly confirms his view.

But I do feel now compelled to respond. Because it turns out that Morton is right. I did make an error, albeit not one that he noticed. And I feel somewhat embarrassed about it. Time therefore to make a mea culpa and set the record straight.

Of my brief reading of Gramsci, in which I point out that the couplet consent/coercion sets up a hierarchical relationship between the two, Morton asks, with rhetorical outrage, “Really? Can we have some reference to Gramsci’s texts here please? I find it difficult to conclude that Gramsci treated concepts in a primary/secondary relationship of hierarchy.” I was surprised by these questions from Morton because there clearly is a reference to Gramsci’s texts–and there was from the start, in Posthegemony–which he has now excised twice. Let me quote from the beginning of Posthegemony at more length:

No power can subsist on coercion alone. Hence Antonio Gramsci’s famous distinction between “hegemony” and “direct domination”: hegemony is “the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant social group,” and direct domination is exercised by “the apparatus of state coercive power which ‘legally’ enforces discipline on those groups which do not ‘consent’ either actively or passively.” Hegemony, in fact, is primary: for Gramsci, power is grounded in consent, and force is employed only secondarily, “in moments of crisis and command when spontaneous consent has failed.” Coercion supplements consent, rather than vice versa. (1)

The last of these phrases, “in moments of crisis and command when spontaneous consent has failed” was quoted also in my previous blog post. But here comes the error. I have misquoted Gramsci. Whether this has a material bearing on my reading is another matter, but there is indeed a mistake of transcription here. And I apologize. Here is the full (and rather famous) passage from Gramsci:

The intellectuals are the dominant group’s “deputies” exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government. These comprise:

1. The “spontaneous” consent given by the great masses of the population imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is “historically” caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys precisely because of its position and function in the world of production.

2. The apparatus of state coercive power which “legally” enforces discipline on those groups who do not “consent” either actively or passively. This apparatus is, however, constituted for the whole of society in anticipation of moments of crisis of command and direction when spontaneous consent has failed. (Selections from the Prison Notebooks 12; my emphasis)

In short, in place of “moments of crisis of command and direction,” I put “moments of crisis and command.” This is a mistake. An error. I got it wrong. Once more, I apologize, and am embarrassed.

Now, there is much that can be said about this short passage in Gramsci. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that my mistake alters the text substantially so as to invalidate my reading. But perhaps it is symptomatic, in the way that Gastón Gordillo suggests. As I said before, I find his critique productive and helpful.

But the point is also this: we find such errors by engaging with the readings at issue, and returning to the text. By all means let us wage war on error (if not “errorism”), but we need to be still more ruthless about it. I do find it intriguing that Morton apparently both missed the fact that I was quoting Gramsci–asking “Really? Can we have some reference to Gramsci’s texts here please?”–and also missed the fact that I was unfortunately misquoting Gramsci. For all his grand gestures and lectures about reading and accuracy, for all his attempts to hunt down purported errors in what I have written, he seems to be missing a trick when it comes to a real, bona fide mistake that he would have spotted had he read my text, and Gramsci’s, with a little more care and attention.

4 thoughts on “missing a trick

  1. I do not have the original, I mean the Italian with me at the moment, but ‘direction’ is indeed a crucial omission. Hegemony does not function without ‘direction’; e.g., a way for the individual to become part of the State without experiencing radical moments of crisis (and I presume we are thinking about a form of Hegelian state formation here). Hegemony requires crisis but also continuity within ‘direction’.
    And thanks for the debate.

  2. Francesca, thanks for this. Yes, I agree that “direction” is important. But for what it’s worth, I’m not sure if affects my basic point: which is that for Gramsci coercion comes into play only at times of crisis. It is, ostensibly at least, supplementary. A clear hierarchy is established between consent and coercion.

    • Agreed, I understand — but I think direction is quite a crucial one too (I suppose I am thinking ‘Italian’ here).

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