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.

Pre-Prison Writings II

gramsci_pre-prison-writingsThe Gramsci of these pre-prison writings would probably surprise readers whose acquaintance with Gramsci’s thought is only casual, however much they may quote one of two of his bon mots (“pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will”; “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”) or even however much they deploy the concepts associated with him, from “hegemony” to the “subaltern” or the notion of “organic intellectuals” and so on. In fact, it may well turn out that the vast majority of those who quote Gramsci are casual acquaintances at best, who might be unpleasantly surprised if they were ever to read a little more. This in itself need not of course damn either Gramsci or even those concepts. As I suggested previously, it is hard to see Gramsci as a particularly systematic thinker (which is not to say that he didn’t see himself as such), and maybe that’s a good thing, too. We could take what we want from him, without having to buy into everything else that might come with it. Indeed, at this point perhaps that’s the only way to read Gramsci productively: selectively, unfaithfully, even treacherously. Rather than trying to reconstruct “what Gramsci thought” by careful attention to history or philology (this is the approach of many of the faithful few careful readers of his work), he merits rather something of a smash and grab raid. Or, as Deleuze famously said of his critiques of the philosophical tradition (Hume, Nietzsche, Kant, Leibniz, etc.), it would be a matter of taking him “from behind and giving him a child that would indeed be his but would nonetheless be monstrous.”

The biggest surprise in this early Gramsci is, I think, his emphatic economic determinism. It may be that this shouldn’t surprise us… he is a Marxist, after all! But given especially that our Gramsci is so much shaped by cultural studies and particularly by Laclau and Mouffe, who explicitly champion him for going the farthest (if not, for them, far enough) in renouncing all determinisms–this, they tell us in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, is the basis of their theorization of hegemony, whose history they chart in terms of a tendency to renounce the priority of the economic–the bluntness here of Gramsci’s economism is surely a bit of a shock.

At the outset of his essay “The Factory Council” (of June, 1920), for instance, Gramsci gives us what is essentially a version of Marxism 101, which is worth quoting at length:

The proletarian revolution is not the arbitrary act of an organization that declares itself to be revolutionary, or of a system of organizations that declare themselves to be revolutionary. The proletarian revolution is an extremely long-term historical process that manifests itself in the emergence and development of certain productive forces (which we may sum up by the term “proletariat”) within a certain historical context (which we may sum up by the terms “regime of private property, capitalist mode of production, factory system, organization of society in a democratic-parliamentary State”). At a certain point in this process, the new productive forces are no longer able to develop or organize themselves in an autonomous fashion within the official framework of the human community of the time. It is in this phase that the revolutionary act occurs. This consists in a violent effort to smash apart this existing framework and to destroy the entire apparatus of economic and political power within which the revolutionary productive forces had been trapped. It consists in a violent effort to shatter the machinery of the bourgeois State and to construct a new kind of State within whose framework the newly liberated productive forces can develop and expand; whose organization provides them with strong defences and the necessary and sufficient arms to eliminate their enemies. (163)

There is not much of the “war of position” or the struggle for “hegemony” on the terrain of “civil society” to be found here! And again, I wonder how many of today’s “Gramscians” would happily sign up to this description of the revolutionary process (if indeed they would sign up to any notion of revolution), which Gramsci simply presents as established fact.

As for politics, Gramsci similarly gives us what he himself describes as a “fundamental (and elementary) canon of historical materialism,” that “Any form of political power can only be historically conceived and justified as the juridical apparatus of a real economic power” (168). “Real” power is always and only economic. It is, to use Marx’s famous formula in his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, the base or “real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.” The economic is primary; the political is very much secondary. Hence (back to Gramsci) “the revolutionary process takes place on the terrain of production, in the factory” (164). The revolution will not come about by political decree: “Communism as a system of new social relations [. . .] cannot be introduced by legislative or administrative means” (177). There is little if any room for any autonomy of the political.

Indeed, any political organization may call itself Communist or revolutionary all it likes, but so long as its activity is not premised on the economic base, specifically what is going on in the factory (as the most advanced expression of material forces), it hinders rather than furthers the goal of real social change. This, then, is the point at which Gramsci breaks from the Italian Socialist Party, as he criticizes all such organizations–even “revolutionary” organizations–that “have grown up on the terrain of bourgeois democracy and political liberty, as affirmation and developments of this political liberty” (164). Here, “the traditional structure of the Socialist Party is no different from that of any other party which has grown up on the terrain of liberal democracy” (174). It is, as such, overly invested in politics, in that its “lifeblood” is “the desire to win a majority in the popular assemblies [. . .] and to win this majority by the method that is proper to democracy–by reeling off generic and muddled policies to the electorate (and swearing to put them in practice at all costs)” (174-5). Politics, in short, is part of the problem; the effort to win over an electorate is a distraction from the real matter at hand. It is retrograde and even barbaric: “The Assembly[,] the form of political association that corresponds to the State based on territorial boundaries [. . .] is a continuation of the arrangements of the barbaric peoples who expressed their sovereignty by beating their pikes on the ground and howling” (175). If anything, any true revolution will be a revolution against politics, certainly against any politics that is not immediately rooted in the economic and material base.

Gramsci’s position thus far seems far from what is usually taken to be the struggle for what will become known as “hegemony” (a term that Gramsci is still not using at this stage), which tends to be identified not only in practice with the construction of electoral coalitions but also in theory with political autonomy and what Louis Althusser will come to describe (in part, following what he saw as Gramsci’s lead) as “overdetermination.”

In fact, the revolutionary process that Gramsci describes here often (if intermittently) has more in common with posthegemony than hegemony. Beneath consciousness and evading representation, it develops “in the darkness of the factory and in the darkness of the minds of the countless multitudes [delle moltitudini sterminate] that capitalism subjects to its laws. The process is not something that can be controlled or documented at this stage” (164). It comprises, moreover, “feelings, desires, habits, the stirrings of initiative and a new way of life [i sentimenti, le velleità, le abitudini, i germi di iniziativa e di costume]” (164). Affect, habit, multitude. Almost all the elements are here. Moreover, “initiative” in the essays of this period tends to replace the notion of “spirit” that, in his earlier writings, indicated the expansive movement of something like constituent power.

In fact, Gramsci refers explicitly to a constituent impulse in an article on “Two Revolutions” that is perhaps the most interesting piece in the collection so far, and which also contains the germ of what will come to be a theory of hegemony. For it is here that the Communist Party is described as something more than an appendage to forms of organization that arise, quasi-organically, within the factory. Here, indeed, the party’s role is to bind together the “two revolutions” of this article’s title. The first of these revolutions is political, or even anti-political in that its energies are directly primarily against political institutions. It “tends to be prevalently anarchic and destructive in character: to take the form of a blind explosion of rage, a tremendous outpouring of furious undirected passions” (169). But it is not solely destructive: it may lead to a “constituent assembly”; “it may go so far as to create soviets, the autonomous political organization of the proletariat and the other oppressed classes” (169). Yet this is not enough. For this merely political revolution is not yet the Communist revolution, whose shape is determined by the relations and conditions of production. It is this second revolution that establishes the factory (not the assembly) as “the basic unit of the new State” and “build[s] the new State in a way that reflects the industrial relations of the factory system” (170). And it is then the Party’s role to articulate these two revolutionary impulses, the political and the economic: to “create the conditions in which the revolution as destruction of the bourgeois State can be identified with the proletarian revolution, the revolution that is to expropriate the expropriators and initiate the development of a new order in the relations of production and distribution” (171). And surely this then is the struggle for what will become known as hegemony, the project to “create the conditions in which the proletarian revolution may be identified with the popular revolt against the bourgeois State” (171). Neither strictly speaking political, nor the direct emanation of economic forces, it is the role of the Party as would-be hegemonic power to bind economics to politics.

I will leave to one side how faithfully this is later transcribed or translated in the early work of Laclau (in Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory) into an articulation between the “people-power bloc contradiction” and the more properly economic contradiction between proletariat and bourgeoisie. But suffice it to say that the necessity for this articulation reveals a problem in the basic assumptions of the base-superstructure model that Gramsci otherwise never questions. For the Party, and its hegemonic project, appears as a supplement that does not derive fully from the economic processes inherent to the new forms of organization within the factory system. Gramsci can neither live with determinism nor can he relinquish it. Ultimately, Laclau’s path will be to drop any priority of the economic, to usher in a vision of the world in which everything is politics (and all politics is one modality or other of popular revolt). But surely there are other options.

If we are to recover a posthegemonic Gramsci, perhaps a first step would be to refuse the dichotomy that he asserts between politics and economics. After all, it is only because he sees such a stark distinction between the “two revolutions” he describes that he feels the need to call upon the Party to suture that gap. But it may be even more to the point to observe that the “feelings, desires, habits, the stirrings of initiative and a new way of life” are neither fully political nor fully economic, though they may be both the consequence and condition of politics and economics alike.

Pre-Prison Writings I

Cross-posted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction.

Antonio Gramsci’s reputation on the Left, the academic Left at least, is surprisingly solid and enduring, especially when compared to other figures within Western Marxism (Lukács? Adorno? Althusser?) who may once have been much cited but who are now marginal tastes at best. Other names that have similarly withstood the vagaries of time and the fickleness of fashion are perhaps Walter Benjamin and Raymond Williams, and what Gramsci shares with them (Benjamin in particular) is the fact that his writing is quite varied and even fragmentary, permitting a wide range of interpretations and re-readings in different circumstances and for diverse purposes. Indeed, famously this is particularly the case for Gramsci: his most important and influential work by far is the Prison Notebooks, an unfinished textual labyrinth of historical investigation and political creativity produced under the extreme conditions of incarceration and fascist censorship, that was not published until after his death and has still not been fully translated into English. From this cauldron of often ambiguous and sometimes obscure enquiry, many Gramscis or Gramscianisms have subsequently been reconstructed, informing bodies of thought and activism as diverse as the Eurocommunism of the 1970s, Anglo-American Cultural Studies in the 1980s and 1990s, and more recently a “neo-Communism” that pledges, at times more convincingly than others, to employ philological tools to be more faithful to the supposedly systematic character of Gramsci’s original thought. But it is in the nature of the form in which that thought has come down to us that there is much room for dispute and divergence.

gramsci_pre-prison-writingsSome claim, especially in reaction to the version of Gramsci popular in Cultural Studies (for which a term such as “hegemony” can come to mean both everything and nothing), or to his “post-Marxist” appropriation by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, that turning to his pre-prison writings reveals the truer, more pragmatic and political, essence of an unadulterated Gramscianism. And no doubt Gramsci was at vastly more liberty to speak and write his mind before he was arrested and imprisoned by Mussolini’s police and judicial apparatus. Moreover, for the most part these comprise texts that were published, often in venues over which Gramsci had some measure of editorial control, and that as such appeared in something like finished form. It is here that we can read Gramsci the organizer and agitator, the Leninist Gramsci who threw his support behind both the Russian Revolution and the Turin Factory Council movement that sprung up in its wake.

Yet these early texts hardly resolve the Gramscian enigma. For one thing, it is evident that Gramsci’s restless mind was continually developing, experimenting, and trying out new ideas even (perhaps especially) once it was locked up in a prison cell. We have no reason to assume that he thought the same way about things in 1929 as he did in 1919. For another, this corpus is no less fragmentary than the Prison Notebooks, consisting as it does on the whole of short pieces written to a deadline on topical debates for the socialist press. If anything, prison gave Gramsci the freedom to work more consistently and coherently on the key concepts and underlying concerns that mattered to him. Finally, it is not as though censorship and, perhaps above all, self-censorship did not shape and constrain these articles that he knew would see the light of day, by contrast to the long labour of the notebooks that had no immediate audience. After all, throughout this period from 1914 to 1926, Gramsci was quite self-consciously (and unabashedly) engaged in a project of what he himself would call propaganda.

Take for instance Gramsci’s paean to the Bolshevik state, published as “The Price of History” in June 1919. Here he tells us that “The Russian communists are a first-class ruling elite. [. . .] Lenin has revealed himself as the greatest statesman of contemporary Europe [. . .] a man whose vast brain can dominate all those social energies, throughout the world, which can be turned to the benefit of the revolution” (92). Hence “the State formed by the Soviets has become the State of the entire Russian people” thanks to “the assiduous and never-ending work of propaganda, elucidation and education carried out by the exceptional men of the Russian Communist movement, directed by the lucid and unstoppable will of the master of them, Nikolai Lenin” (93-94). In short, “Russia is where history is; Russia is where life is” (95). Yet for all that this article manifests Gramsci’s undoubtedly heartfelt belief in the priority of state-building (“A revolution is a genuine revolution [. . .] only when it is embodied in some kind of State” [92]), one does not have to be an egregiously suspicious reader to wonder whether the hyperbole understandably directed to praise of the leaders of the first successful workers’ revolution might not extend also to the subsequent affirmation that “Society can only exist in the form of a State” (93). What, after all, has happened here to the Gramsci who is famously the champion of organizations of “civil” society, relatively autonomous from or even hostile to the state apparatus?

That other Gramsci, of what we might in shorthand call “society against the state” is indeed visible in these writings. Perhaps most interestingly, he can be found for example in a piece entitled “Socialism and Italy” in which he condemns “liberals, conservatives, clerics, radicals, republicans, nationalists, reformists” (27) as being, precisely, creatures of the state but not of society, or at least not of the Italian nation. Indeed, he offers here a hint of a counter-history of Italian nation formation, not as a process driven by Cavour and the Piedmontese bourgeoisie (who established a relationship to the Italian South that still remained, Gramsci repeats several times, “colonial”), but as the product of Italian socialism: over the course of what he calls a “plebeian Renaissance,” “Italy has become a political unity, because a part of its populace has united around an idea, a single programme. And socialism, socialism alone, was able to provide this idea and this programme” (28, 29). In other words, there is society despite the state, and in the face of the state’s resolute provincialism and particularism. This is “the history of the Italian people [that] has yet to be written–its secret, its spiritual history” (28). And maybe this is the history of the Russian people (and the Russian revolution) that also has yet to be written, even by Gramsci himself.

Again, none of this is to deny the strong statist tendency within Gramsci’s thought. There is no doubt at all that he saw the political objective of the working class movement in terms of the construction of (to borrow the title of the journal he co-founded in 1919) a “new order” premised on a new state guided by the Communist Party that he would also end up co-founding. As he put it even when he was, previously, a member of the Socialist Party of Italy, “The Party is a State in potentia, which is gradually maturing: a rival to the bourgeois State, which is seeking, through its daily struggle with this enemy, and through the development of its own internal dialectic, to create the organs it needs to overcome and absorb its opponent” (4). This is what will later be cast as the struggle for hegemony.

And yet there is also a tension here evident even in the thought of this early, manifestly Leninist, Gramsci. It is a tension perhaps best characterized in terms of two concepts that he continually employs that are both perhaps dissonant to our contemporary ears: “spirit” and “discipline.” As a party man, Gramsci is a great believer in discipline, which is a function of political leadership and education. Italians above all, he tells us in the few pieces that are dedicated to what we would now recognize as “culture” (articles on sport, for instance, and drugs), are a disorderly lot. Their preference for card games, for example, full of “shouting, fists slamming on the table and often in the faces of opponents,” reveals a country that is “backward economically, politically and spiritually” (73, 74). And yet it is precisely this spiritedness that indicates an alternative (and maybe posthegemonic) history, far from the rigidity and farcicalness of the state form. For sure, in Gramsci’s view, these “disorderly and chaotic energies must be given a permanent form and discipline” (97). But without them, without spirit, Italy is nothing.

Friends, Enemies, and Others

bercowPresented at “Theologies of the Political: From Augustine to Agamben, and Beyond”
UBC Medieval Workshop
Green College, UBC, 29-30 March, 2019

“Friends, Enemies, and Others: Political Theology and the Art of the Encounter”

To adopt a phrase from the liturgy of monarchical succession: Political theology is dead, long live political theology. In what follows, the argument I hope to sketch out concerns the link between sovereignty and politics. For Carl Schmitt, who first coined the phrase “political theology,” this link is fundamental. Schmitt defines sovereignty as the ascription of a singular point that has the power to decide over the exception, and politics in terms of the dyadic distinction between friend and enemy that such an ascription frames and enables. I argue, by contrast, that this link is broken (if it ever functioned), that there is no such singular point (if there ever was), and that the friend/enemy distinction is, and always has been, a misleading distortion.

Along the way, I will not even pretend to be a medievalist, for which I hope you will forgive me. The case study that I will be analyzing, through which I will be reading Schmitt’s concepts, is about as contemporary as one could imagine: it is the ongoing legislative uncertainty around Britain’s projected withdrawal from the European Union, an event that should have happened yesterday but which may now take place on April 12 or May 22, or sometime, or never. Brexit is an unusually odd and complex affair; it is, in every sense, exceptional. But it is an exception that does not ground traditional conceptions of sovereignty (as Schmitt would have it); it radically undermines them. And I argue that Brexit is symptomatic, that it tells us something about the limits of political theology today (and perhaps always), and not only in the UK.

One response to this dilemma might be to jettison political theology. In the end, however, I suggest (all too briefly and cryptically) that political theology can still be redeemed, perhaps via a return if not to the Middle Ages (though Geoff Koziol’s discussion of ninth- to eleventh-century insurrections suggests that the Carolingian era might provide fertile ground) then at least to the Early Modern, and to a counter-tradition that has run parallel to the contractualist orthodoxy that is now utterly exhausted.

Read more… (PDF)

The Politics of Rage


Searching for a precedent for Donald Trump’s surprising success in last year’s US presidential primaries, many people looked back almost fifty years to George Wallace. Writing for the Daily Beast, for instance, Laurence Leamer called Trump Wallace’s ”cynical heir”.

Who was Wallace? He was the die-hard segregationist Governor of Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement. (It was he who oversaw the infamous incident of state troopers beating up marchers who were trying to cross a bridge at Selma in 1965.) Disparaged as a holdover from a Jim Crow South in full retreat, Wallace came to national attention and caused consternation to Republicans and Democrats alike when, running as a third-party candidate, he managed to win six states (and 46 electoral votes) in the 1968 Presidential Election. More unexpectedly still, Wallace also proved able to win support outside his regional base: running as a Democrat in 1972, he won primaries in Florida and Michigan, as well as Tennessee, North Carolina, and Maryland. He did this in part, like Trump, by casting himself as a straight-talking outsider fed up with the impositions of an unrepresentative Washington elite. Or in Jamelle Bouie’s words, “Wallace harnessed the fear and anger of millions of Americans with a pledge, in a sense, to take back their country.” His success, Bouie continues, came by “appealing to his followers in a base, almost visceral way.” Bouie cites Dan Carter’s biography of Wallace, The Politics of Rage, and his observation that the Alabamian appropriated his audiences’ affect, “probing [their] deepest fears and passions and articulating those emotions in a language and style they could understand.”

However attractive they may be, the comparisons between Trump and Wallace seem to have dried up, perhaps because of the one important difference between the two: Leamer and Bouie wrote assuming that, like Wallace, Trump ultimately had no chance; how wrong they (and we all) were. So where Wallace’s significance ultimately lies in the reactions that he coaxed out of others as (in Carter’s words) “the most influential loser in twentieth-century American politics” (474), now that Trump has actually won the presidency he much more directly has the chance to set the political agenda.

Moreover, where Trump famously has no real experience in politics, Wallace had little to none outside of it. As Carter notes, from his teenage years onwards Wallace had few if any other interests: of his time as an undergraduate he tells us that “in later life [Wallace] never mentioned one book, one course, or one professor who had shaped his intellectual development at the university. What he could remember was the precise vote on each of the half-dozen student offices he had sought” (49). Carter also makes it clear that Wallace forever effectively abandoned his wife and family for the chance to hobnob with fellow politicos or embark on yet another campaign. And when he himself was banned (by the state constitution) from running for a second successive term as governor, rather than quietly tend his garden he pushed his wife, Lurleen, into the spotlight to stand as a surrogate in his name: at what were nominally her campaign events, she would read the briefest of speeches before “the crowd roared as George Wallace bounced across the state, gave his wife a quick hug as she retreated to her seat, and launched into a fifty-minute” peroration of his own (282). He had to keep running, keep playing the political game. What’s more, “on the few occasions,” Carter tells us, “when he sat around the dinner table” with his children, he would tell them that “the only thing that counts [. . .] is money and power.” But Wallace himself, whatever the corruption of those around him, “never cared about money” (323). Power was everything.

As a result, though, politics as we usually understand it tended to fade away. For instance, Wallace had very little interest in actual governance: Carter’s conclusion is that for all the iron grip he had over state politics for so long, ultimately Wallace’s impact was minimal; he never really implemented any of his much-heralded programs for his white working-class and lower-middle class base. If anything his “one clear accomplishment,” we are told, came only during his last term in office, in the mid-1980s, when he “promised black supporters that they would be an integral of his administration, and he lived up to that pledge, appointing African-Americans to all levels of state government” (465). Indeed, in the long run the attention that Wallace had paid to national politics and his presidential ambitions over the previous fifteen years had made him something of an absentee landlord in his home state: Alabama continued to languish near the bottom of the rankings for education, public health, job growth, and per capita income. Wallace liked power, but he didn’t want to do much with it.

What is more, Wallace was barely interested in ideology–which perhaps makes his apparent apostasy from trenchant segregationist to penitent integrationist at the end of his life less of a shock. For instance, a Washington Poster reporter covering his 1968 campaign was surprised to find an “innocent–almost totally non-political–atmosphere” in the candidate’s entourage (340). He had little interest in intellectual expertise or prolonged discussion; he argued that experts had got the country into its current pickle in the first place and suggested instead that “maybe a fellow just ought to advise himself from the seat of his pants” (425). Not that this put anyone much off. Indeed, it was all part of his appeal: as Carter notes, “his rise to national prominence coincided with a growing loss of faith in the federal government” (472), and one might add in all governments as a whole. He could, then, like Trump portray himself as an outsider because what he offered was not politics as usual; in fact, it was not politics at all.

What Wallace offered instead, Carter tells us, was something closer to faith than rational conviction or considered calculation. His campaign rallies were “more like a revival than a political appearance,” observed the Associated Press during his 1972 run for office, featuring among other things a “foot-stomping rendition of ‘Give Me That Old Time Religion’” (424). But Carter adds that a Wallace speech mixed as much of the profane with the sacred. Above all, he gave his supporters a performance that touched their very soul as he (in words also quoted by Bouie) “prob[ed] his audiences’ deepest fears and passions and articulat[ed] those emotions in a language and style they could understand.” But perhaps to say he “articulat[ed]” these affects is to overstate the case, in that “on paper his speeches were stunningly disconnected, at times incoherent, and always repetitious. But Wallace’s followers reveled in the performance; they never tired of hearing the same lines again and again” (346). He was as much a rock star–perhaps better, country music star–as a priest: “the energy flowed back and forth between Wallace and his audience in a performance molding rage, laughter, and sheer sexual energy into an emotional catharsis” (346).

What’s less clear, then, is whether Wallace was really a harbinger of the future (as the comparisons with Trump suggest) or a throwback to the past. On this point, Carter equivocates. His book’s overall thesis is, after all, that Wallace’s surprising success on the national stage led to Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” the transformation of the Democratic Party, Reagan’s populist appeal to the disaffected working class, and ultimately (by extension) to what we see now with Trump: he was “the alchemist of the new social conservatism as he compounded racial fear, anticommunism, cultural nostalgia, and traditional right-wing economics into a movement that laid the foundation for the conservative counterrevolution” (12). But equally Carter’s documentation of Wallace’s failures tells another story: that the Alabamian hitched his wagon to a social sector in deep long-term decline; that he was Dixie’s last hurrah; that he was indeed the end of the line for a style of politics that depended on barn-storming rallies and the cultivation of extensive personal contacts.

Interestingly, how you answer this question of whether Wallace incarnated an emergent or a residual force in American culture depends in large part in how you assess the role of television in his political trajectory. On the one hand it was his surprisingly congenial presence on major network shows such as “Meet the Press” that made him a national figure in the first place; on the other, he was “one of the last grandmasters of the kind of foot-stomping public speaking that characterized American politics, particularly southern politics, in the age before television” (345) and in fact TV was too often his downfall, not least because (as when footage of the brutality at Selma was rushed to broadcast on that same day’s evening news) it demanded forms of transparency that were anathema to his good-old-boys style.

But much the same questions could be asked of Trump. After all, Donald is a reality TV star whose relationship with the medium is at best vexed, if not outright antagonistic, and whose own campaign was very nearly brought down by unguarded comments made when he’d forgotten or not realized that its cameras and microphones were recording. Trump seems not to like television all that much, however much he is apparently addicted to it, which is perhaps why he took the unusual step for a sitting president of holding a campaign-style rally last week in Florida. More broadly, even now many of us find it hard to imagine that the future will be Trump, which is why there is so much talk of impeachment or possible resignation, and therefore associated anxiety about the figures who sit in the president’s penumbra (and could one day take over) such as Mike Pence or Steve Bannon.

It would be nice to think that by looking at history and studying a figure like George Wallace (or whatever other precedent we imagine set the scene for the present) we might get answers to the question of what happens next. Sadly, the worthy goal of “learning from history” is never so simple: the past is always as full of uncertainty as the future.