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.

Ramiro Gómez, “Happy Hills”

Ramiro Gómez, "Yoselin and the glass of water"

Thanks to Kinsey Lane Sullivan in PolicyMic for her profile of Ramiro Gómez, a Los Angeles artist and (ex?)nanny whose ongoing project “Happy Hills” is devoted to “documenting the predominantly Hispanic workforce who work tirelessly behind the scenes to maintain the beautiful imagery of these affluent areas.”

Gómez’s technique involves a) installations featuring cardboard cut-outs of otherwise overlooked service workers (leaf-blowers, cleaners, nannies) in public places and so plain sight and b) interventions into images of pristine homes, taken mostly from magazines and adverts (but also occasionally high art) to reinsert the figures of domestic labour that have been erased or marginalized but without whom none of this would exist.

I particularly like this image, “Portrait of an Affluent Family”:

Ramiro Gómez, "Portrait of an Affluent Family"

The funny thing is that, according to a note on Gómez’s Facebook page, so does the man pictured with his family. I’m not entirely sure what we can gather from that.

Margaret Thatcher, Scholarship Girl

form_photo_1hI was only nine when Margaret Thatcher came to power in May 1979, but I was among the first beneficiaries of her largesse. For one of her government’s earliest acts was to create the “Assisted Places” scheme, by which public funds were used to provide private education to a privileged few. As a result, under the Tories the state paid for my attendance at one of the country’s most academically elite secondary schools, which currently charges £10,545 a year in fees. As an added bonus, it even paid for my bus pass, with which I could roam the city. So much for “rolling back the frontiers of the state.” Thatcher was happy to use public money not only to subsidize private enterprises, such as the school, but also to lavish it on individuals such as myself if they were reckoned to be suitably deserving. At the same time, the 1980 Education Act cut funds to schools (and pupils) in the public sector.

Thatcher had first made her name as Education Secretary, so her interest in the issue was unsurprising. Long before she became the “iron lady,” she was Thatcher the “milk snatcher” when, in 1971, she undid the 1946 Free Milk Act and removed the right to free school milk from children over the age of seven. Consistently, then, she was against the principles of universal provision enshrined in the Welfare State. But again, she was not against state spending per se. She was in favor of what in today’s buzzword would be called “targeted” spending: the few would benefit at the expense of the many. But note that the “few” in question here were not those who were already elite: the point is that this is a form of class engineering; the “able” or “deserving” few were to be pulled from their surroundings and given a ladder to join the elite. Better: the effect of the Assisted Places scheme was to give those who were culturally but not economically privileged (the children of teachers, single parents, or in my case the clergy) the chance to entrench or even improve their middle-class status on a working-class salary. Only 7% of those who benefitted from the scheme were children of manual laborers.

And yet (ironically for someone who, as Education Secretary, created more comprehensive schools than anyone before or since) Thatcher did effectively reintroduce the category of the “scholarship boy” (or girl). This is the person that Pierre Bourdieu would call an “oblate”: who identifies with the educational institution rather than with his or her class, because it is the institution that has enabled him or her to gain or maintain their class position. The scholarship subverts class loyalty without subverting class. It enables class mobility apparently under the guise of “merit” alone, but on terms structured by entrenched hierarchies of both economic and cultural capital. It is social mobility without social change. Or as Raymond Williams long ago put it, what he called “the ladder version of society” both “weakens the principle of common benefit, which ought to be an absolute value” and also “sweetens the poison of hierarchy, in particular by offering the hierarchy of merit as a thing different in kind from the hierarchy of money or of birth” (Culture and Society 331). And yet it is precisely this vision of so-called “meritocracy” that the Labour government that eventually succeeded that of Thatcher (and her epigones) fully embraced–even though, in another apparent irony, one of its first acts on gaining power in 1997 was to abolish the Assisted Places scheme.

But the ideology of merit cannot so easily dispel the reality of class. Thatcher, a scholarship girl herself who famously made her way from a flat above a grocer’s shop in Grantham to Oxford and then married into money, always suffered from the condescension of those whose privilege could come to seem natural precisely because it was not so obviously dependent on any one institution. In some ways this woman who was so keen on asking whether a putative ally was “one of us” was always keenly aware that she was not “one of them,” if by “them” we mean both the grandees whose control of the Conservative Party she had so surprisingly usurped and indeed the men (and women) on the Labour benches whose sense of belonging was so much more secure. Thatcher was constantly derided for her provincialism and/or suburban allegiances, whether they were expressed in her choice of clothes (Marks and Spencer blouses!) or her accent and voice (hence the elocution lessons). In short, she stood out for her lack of cultural capital, her perceived inauthenticity; for the fact that she was neither to the manor nor the miner born. And it was precisely on this basis that she could articulate her populist revolt: against the “Establishment”; against the post-war consensus that had seemed to exclude an entire class of those who no longer believed in class, who felt their dreams of social mobility frustrated by entrenched privilege.

At root, however, she no longer thought (if she ever had done) that the educational system was sufficient to make real her dream of a world in which there were merely “men and women.” She preferred council house sales and privatization, the vision of a property- and share-owing democracy, as a more efficient vehicle to change the “society” that she wouldn’t or couldn’t bring herself to believe in. No wonder that the New Left, many of whom were scholarship boys and girls themselves (from Richard Hoggart to Stuart Hall), not-so-secretly admired and envied her ability to articulate what they saw as a “hegemonic” bloc that waged war (almost) as much against the elite as against organized labor. It helped that the establishment obligingly played into her hands: by snubbing her nomination for an honorary degree, for instance, Oxford University no doubt boosted Thatcher’s credibility among the many who never had a chance to go to Oxford in the first place, if not among her own front bench who were (as always) almost exclusively Oxford and Cambridge men themselves.

So Thatcher’s class war was double-sided, as populist insurgencies have to be: she was ruthless on the poor and the working class, but she was also serious, I think, about confronting those she had come to know, but never to like, as a scholarship girl at Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School, Somerville College, Oxford, and ultimately in the House of Commons. No wonder she was never particularly keen on the House of Lords, either as Prime Minister (when her government frequently suffered defeat in the upper house) or as Baroness Thatcher, of Kesteven in the County of Lincolnshire.

But in the end it was the grandees who brought her down. It was after all Geoffrey Howe (not Arthur Scargill) who, with his resignation speech, put the nail in her political coffin and forced her to resign. And perhaps here we also see her greatest political failure more generally. By the time New Labour came to power, its leaders had taken on the mantra of meritocracy but also effortlessly felt at home with the guardians of cultural capital. None more so than the Right Honourable Anthony Blair (Fettes and St Johns College, Oxford). And after a brief hiccup in the personages of John Major and William Hague, the current Tory party, stuffed with members of the Bullingdon Club, has returned to form. Which is why it’s hard to imagine another Margaret Thatcher coming along any time soon: now that the chances for scholarships have disappeared, in part because the idea of the school or university as “ladder” rather than simply requirement has effectively disappeared, an entire structure of feeling has gone with it, too. Among those who can imagine themselves rich and can read the right magazines to appear cultured, deference is the order of the day; among those who know that they have been excluded more viciously than ever, thanks largely to the legacy of Thatcherism’s attack on universal provision, the only reasonable affect left is anger.

Meanwhile, my old school claims now to offer “need-blind” admissions, boasting of a war-chest it has accumulated from constant fund-raising and appeals, often to former pupils like me. A few years ago its website used to feature a list of the postcodes from which its pupils came (and the numbers in each case), as a testament to the wide geographical swathe of Northwest Britain from which it could recruit. But I pointed out that the list was drastically skewed to the leafy suburbs of affluent South Manchester: over a hundred pupils commuted in from each of SK8, WA14, and above all (my own former postcode) WA15. I suggested then that the test of a truly need-blind admission policy would be if there were proportionately equal representation from the postcodes (and so the dilapidated council estates) that immediately surround the school itself, located in the inner suburbs: M12, M13, M14, and M15; at the time, there were no pupils at all from M12 or M15, and only a handful from M13 or M14. I said I would contribute money for their appeal when there were as many children admitted from M14 as from WA14. Strangely, that list of pupils by postcode has now disappeared from the school’s site.


Michael Barnholden’s Reading the Riot Act: A Brief History of Riots in Vancouver is not a great book. But it’s a useful corrective to the notion that this city is (or even should be) immune to social disturbances. This June’s bit of social disorder may have been unusual, but it was far from unprecedented. Even the 1994 Stanley Cup Riot was far from the first of its kind–or the most significant.

We learn, for instance, that when it comes to sports riots it’s the 1963 and 1966 Grey Cup (Canadian Football) riots that were Vancouver’s largest, at least in terms of the number of participants and arrests. The 1963 melée started with a bit of over-zealous policing in the Castle Hotel beer parlour, and ended with 319 arrests, mostly for public drunkenness but also for unlawful assembly.

But it’s not just sports games that provoke Vancouverites to manifest their discontent. They also riot over music (the Rolling Stones Riot of 1972; the Guns ‘n’ Roses Riot of 2002) and even good old-fashioned politics. Or rather, bad politics as much as good. Barnholden’s survey begins with anti-Asian riots in 1907, when Chinatown and Japantown were both trashed. But they are followed swiftly by the Free Speech riots of 1909 and 1911, when the city authorities came down hard on agitation and organization promoted by the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies).

An annotated list of other disturbances follows. There were then unemployment riots in the 1930s, anti-internment protests in the 1940s, counter-cultural riots in the 1970s, and anti-APEC riots in the 1990s. Barnholden doesn’t restrict his survey to the streets: he points also to a long history of prison riots at the BC Penitentiary.

So this is a useful aide mémoire to a century’s history of violent social protest (or protests that have been violently repressed) in Vancouver. Ultimately, however, the analysis of these incidents is both superficial and dogmatic.

It’s dogmatic in that the book provides us with a fairly schematic class analysis that purports to explain each of these incidents equally: “What all these events have in common is that they are essentially episodes in a larger ‘class war’ between the ‘governed’ and the ‘governors'” (18). And yet the very use of scare quotes around the key terms “class war,” “governed,” and “governors” already suggests that not even Barnholden really believes what he’s saying. Though class undoubtedly plays an important part (not least in the panic that arises when property is destroyed), almost each and every one of these outbursts of violence is rather more complicated than a simple face-off between governed and governors.

And the book is superficial precisely because it doesn’t want to get into complexities. Supposedly, we’re told, its aim is to redescribe these incidents from the bottom up, “to reread and rewrite a people’s history” (15). But this is a history that doesn’t, for example, involve interviewing any actual people or doing much if anything in the way of archival research. Instead, we get a précis of contemporaneous press reports followed swiftly by the ritual declaration that of course it was all about class.

Beyond the clichéd denunciation of capital, there’s hardly any attempt to embed this series of rather varied violent confrontations within a broader narrative of the city and its class politics, working class history, race relations, or the impact of mass culture (to take only a few obvious elements). By highlighting the brief, spectacular moments in which violence flares and glass is broken, Barnholden reminds us that there is a history to be told here. But he doesn’t tell it.


Pierre Bourdieu’s The Social Structures of the Economy landed on my doorstep today. I’ve had the briefest of skims through the book, which doesn’t at first sight seem all that interesting, but the following stands out, from the conclusion to the long first part (essentially a book of its own) on “The House Market”:

What we have addressed throughout this work is one of the major foundations on which the suffering of the petite bourgeoisie is built or, more exactly, on which are built all their little troubles and adversities, all the infringements of their freedom, the blows to their hopes and desires which load their existences down with worries, disappointments, frustrations, failures and also, almost inevitably, with melancholia and resentment. That suffering does not spontaneously prompt the sympathetic, compassionate or indignant reactions inspired by the great hardships of the proletarian or subproletarian condition. No doubt because the aspirations that underlie the dissatisfactions, disillusionments and tribulations of the petite bourgeoisie, who are pre-eminently the victims of symbolic violence, always seem to owe something to the complicity of the sufferers themselves, and to the mystified, extorted, alienated desires by which these modern incarnations of the Heautontimoroumenos conspire to bring about their own unhappiness. (185; my emphasis)

Now, it’s easy enough to see Bourdieu’s work as long preoccupied with the petite bourgeoisie, from, say, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art through to his sympathy for (and self-identification as) the “oblate” in Homo Academicus and even on to his particular brand of anti-globalization politics.

If Bourdieu has populist tendencies, then his is surely a populism of the petit bourgeois. He does here argues that “this ‘people,’ simultaneously petty-minded and triumphant, provides no source of comfort for the populist illusion” (186). But surely it was precisely the so-called C1s and C2s, the working class made good out in the Essex suburbs, that were the core of Thatcher’s populist base. And were not “Reagan Democrats” also quintessentially petit bourgeois?

But what’s most extraordinary is his description of the petite bourgeoisie as “pre-eminently the victims of symbolic violence.” To be fair, there’s an ambivalence here, perhaps introduced by the translation: Bourdieu could simply be saying that the petit bourgeois are more or less cushioned from physical or economic violence, and so feel the effects of symbolic violence all the more. But might he not also be suggesting that it is the petit bourgeois who are symbolic violence’s pre-eminent victims?

Say it ain’t so.

Meanwhile, I wonder about how all this connects with the burgeoning field of suburb studies.

Vancouver SpecialA “Vancouver Special”
Bourdieu is certainly no fan of the suburb, as he reveals in his discussion of suburban deprivation and

the statistically ordinary case of all those inhabitants of prefabricated houses in the so-called residential areas who, lured by the mirage of falsely “individual” housing (like the semi-detached houses on estates, which have almost all the same restrictions as a council flat), experience neither the solidarity of the old working-class districts, nor the isolation of the better-off areas: these people, who spend hours each day commuting to distant workplaces, are deprived of the relationships that formed within their neighbourhoods, particularly in and through trade union campaigns, without being able to create–in a place of residence where socially very homogeneous individuals are gathered together, but without the community of interests and affinities that ensue from belonging to the same world of work–the elective relationships of a leisure community. (189)

NB I think there’s again something up with the translation here (surely “environs” would be better than “neighbourhoods” to describe the milieu of the workplace). There’s also a strange romance of workplace solidarity of the most traditional kind, which ignores the displacement of these same communities and conflicts onto what Mario Tronti long ago termed “the social factory.”

For what is suburbia if not the paradigmatic assembly line of twentieth-century modernity’s social factory?


I’m about a quarter of the way through Read’s book. It does have some virtues, not least in retelling some of the early history of British Hispanism. Those were very much the days of the gentleman amateur, a continuation of the eighteenth-century “grand tour.” Apparently the founding editor’s contribution to the first issue of the Bulletin of Spanish Studies (in 1923) was entitled “Literary Pilgrimages in Spain” (20). I buy Read’s argument that, at least in these heady days before the Spanish Civil War, the Northern Hispanist found in Spain “an organic, pre-individual, pre-capitalist community, comparable to the ‘merrie England’ of contemporary English critics such as F. R. Leavis, but in the case of Spain, refreshingly real, surviving, that is, into the 20th Century” (20).

Two points, however:

First, if academics are always torn between two fantasies, either of their vital importance as the new “unacknowledged legislators” of the world, or of their marginality and insignificance, mere spectators of the real theatre of power, Read insistently plumps for the first illusion over the other. His particular inflection is a Marxism of a fairly vulgar variety. Hispanism is endlessly found to act in the service of either capital or the state, often both. “Thrown into relief,” for instance, “is Hispanism’s ideological role in the (re)production of the whole social order” (14). Indeed he even presents the possibility that the fate of social reproduction is at stake in the choice of syllabus in specific courses: “the control of the content of Golden Age courses served the purposes of a conservative elite, anxious to defend the prevailing relations of production, just as surely as the superannuation of those courses is related to the need to expand the forces of production” (27). Moreover, the influence of the humble junior lecturer expanded far beyond the confines of national boundaries: “the traditional Hispanist . . . served the middle class in its capitalist exploitation of Third World Countries” (28). And in rather predictable vulgar Marxist fashion, the fact that the professoriat refuse to realize their true role in global oppression is the coup de grace of outraged critical dissection: “Needless to say,” Read strangely feels the need to say about the above founder of the Bulletin of Spanish Studies, “it escaped his attention that the capitalist extraction of surplus value from workers involves a form of legalized robbery, that the freedom of these workers is constantly infringed by cut-throat managers, and that dominant classes have, throughout history, enjoyed a fuller life at the expense of those who serve them” (36).

Yes, there are moments when Read’s excoriation of Hispanism invokes the second academic illusion, when he wishes to suggest that his forbears and colleagues were so dismal that they weren’t even able to ensure the continuation of legalized robbery on the part of the British bourgeoisie. At these points, Hispanism turns out to be a “quietly conservative, marginal discipline” (26). Indeed, Read even contemplates the possibility that the Humanities in general may inadvertently resist capital expansion: “Their knowledge, over the ages, has generally been ‘useless,’ to the extent of holding back the development of the forces of production” (52). But the scare quotes around the word “useless” here indicate, I think, not so much that Read contests prevailing utilitarianism, as that he is reluctant to relinquish the notion that Hispanism must still somehow be a vital link in the chains of capitalist imperialism.

Second, Read’s book is, well, embarrassing. Interleaved with his analyses of Hispanism as an institution are a series of autobiographical essays. One of these compares his own career with that of Paul Julian Smith (professor at Cambridge and probably the most prominent figure in contemporary British Hispanism). I haven’t reached that chapter yet, but even the thought of it makes me wince. (Apparently Read writes about himself in the third person; which if anything makes it even worse.) It is very clear that Read has been advised multiple times to tone down his book, revise it, and make it less personal, less confessional, less full of.. well, of ressentiment. Read glosses Richard’s Hoggart’s famous description of the “scholarship boy” as characterized by “an unusual self-consciousness and tendency to self-dramatization” (38). This description seems to fit Read to a T. (Read, however, will claim that he is not even a scholarship boy, as he failed his eleven plus.) The book’s acknowledgements refer to the fact that one of its constituent essays was essentially rejected by the Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies, and also to the fact that the book as a whole “was submitted to Liverpool University Press, and held by it for several years, before being rejected on the grounds that the Press suddenly found itself ‘over-committed'” (i). Further, the book’s preface reports the reaction of a series of friends and colleagues who had read the manuscript: Michael Sprinker “was significantly guarded in his response” (iv) while other colleagues “obviously felt that I had gone over the top in terms of political rhetoric and ad hominem criticism. More painfully, others failed to respond at all, as if embarrassed by the whole enterprise” (v). Frankly, no wonder.

So what to say about such a book that a) is not clearly (and even more excruciatingly) anticipated within its own pages and b) is not, indeed, a class condemnation of the scholarship boy for not fitting in, for being gauche, for not living up to the decorum of academic convention?