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.

The Prince

Machiavelli, The PrinceFor a political writer renowned for his commitment to realism–to real politik, indeed–it’s remarkable, and surely significant, that Niccolò Machiavelli should open and close The Prince with a couple of extended metaphors. The resort to literary tropes frames what is otherwise often taken to be the founding text of a political “science” that simply tells it as it is, without ideology or obfuscation. After all, Machiavelli himself tells us in his preface dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medici: “I have not ornamented this book with rhetorical turns of phrase, or stuffed it with pretentious and magnificent words. [. . .] For my intention is that this should be a book without pretensions” (5). The frame, however, turns out to be rather more decorative than this preface (itself in point of fact hardly lacking in rhetoric) admits. And it’s perhaps precisely because this surprisingly gilded frame is in tension with what it contains that it’s worth further investigation.

On first sight, the metaphor with which the book concludes is conventional and, however disturbing, frankly not that interesting: “Fortune is a lady,” Machiavelli reports. Hence “it is necessary, if you want to master her, to beat and strike her” (76). Yet it’s precisely the conventionality of the image, or rather conjunction of images–of both the fickleness and the subservience of women–that reminds us that for all his originality and scandalous novelty, for all of what Louis Althusser terms his “solitude,” there are plenty of ways in which Machiavelli is very much of his time, part of the crowd.

The book’s opening metaphor is rather more complex, not least because it is also a self-referential comment on the status of Machiavelli’s theory itself. It’s worth quoting at length:

I hope it will not be thought presumptuous for someone of humble and lowly status to discuss the behavior of rulers and to make recommendations regarding policy. Just as those who paint landscapes set up their easels down in the valley in order to portray the nature of the mountains and the peaks, and climb up into the mountains in order to draw the valleys, similarly in order to properly understand the behavior of the lower classes one needs to be a ruler, and in order to properly understand the behavior of rulers one needs to be a member of the lower classes. (6)

This is an image of an image, of the ways in which images are produced: it is a representation of the proper process of representation, an analysis of how best to analyze. Moreover, it concerns the proper perspective or point of view from which images, representation, and analysis should be drawn. One might ask immediately from which standpoint is this image itself drawn, which after all takes in both the mountain and the valley and purports to compare both. Doesn’t this already indicate the strange slippage in Machiavelli’s work: that he presents it as though envisaged from the valley, from the humble advisor; and yet he needs endlessly to imagine how things look from the mountain, to identify with the view of the prince.

At issue here is the place of the book and Machiavelli’s theory itself. Why would the virtuoso, the man gifted with virtù, need a guide like this at all? He who is sovereign should surely not have to depend on another; he who is decisive should not waver by looking for advice. The book is called The Prince, not “The Prince and His Advisor.” The prince should be singular, independent, and free. And yet it seems he is always haunted by his shadow, by the man who can see from the valleys and acts as a mirror in which the ruler can see his own reflection but in that same moment is divided, distanced from his own image of himself. Equally, as the prince follows the advisor’s counsel, so he begins to reflect him, to take on the attributes and characteristics of the lower man. A strange and dynamic symbiosis emerges, in which the true source of influence and power becomes increasingly obscured.

However much Machiavelli tries to resolve this tension, it persists and even colours his infamous reputation. Who, after all, is more fully Machiavellian, more the “Machiavellian type”: the heartless prince or the sinister advisor? Marlowe’s Duke of Guise of Shakespeare’s Iago? Nixon or Kissinger, Blair or Campbell, Bush or Rove? Should we fear the cruel autocrat or the eminence grise? Is it enough to say that one could not subsist without the other, that the prince is thereby doubled, his sovereignty fatally split? Or perhaps it is more to the point to note that sovereignty is always split, always both lacking and excessive, and that without that essential fissure it would not exist. And would it be too quick to identify this doubleness at the heart of sovereignty, enabling and yet undoing its basic claims, with the perpetually unresolved tension between constituent and constituted power?


A couple of quick links, and some thoughts about the current state of British politics…

First, it’s good to see the recent success of Sweden’s pirate party. The one spark of life in an election that otherwise was pretty dismal, not least in Britain with the implosion of Labour (in itself no bad thing) but the absence of any decent alternative (hence votes for Ukip and the vile BNP).

Second, on the political mood in the UK today, K-Punk is excellent in suggesting resonances with the late 1970s and the world recently conjured up so expressively by David Peace. In his words, “It seems as if we are tumbling and stumbling back towards a version of Callaghan’s era, living through a negative 1979… tumbling and stumbling out through a political-economic event horizon that marks the end of neoliberalism.”

The difference is that in 1979, at neoliberalism’s outset, Thatcherism did offer some kind of alternative (in the guise, of course, of “no alternative”). Politics, for better or worse, was still alive and well. And even in 1997, when Labour came to power finally almost by default, as John Major’s Tories crumbled under charges of sleaze not unlike (if less widespread than) those of today, Blair et. al. did at least seem to stand for something, an “ethical foreign policy” for instance, even if those principles were soon revealed as simply an extension of the New Labour brand.

Now, however, politics is no longer about politics… It’s about petty corruption. Or it’s about a new constitutional project, a project to reform the voting system and (finally) finish off the reform of the House of Lords.

The turn to constitutionalism is interesting, however much it is clearly also a mark of some desperation on the part of a party that has run out of ideas and hope. It’s interesting because what is at stake is the shape of the body politic itself, which is why its tied to the now wholesale disrepute of the representational system triggered most recently by stories of duckhouses and the like.

So maybe, just maybe, we are truly entering interesting times.


Cultural studies and civil society theory purport to be progressive projects, liberatory alternatives to the dominant social order. Yet cultural studies’ concept of “counter-hegemony” only reinforces all the populist assumptions upon which hegemony rests, leaving the state unquestioned. Likewise, for all its talk of “society against the state,” civil society theory also merely entrenches state power, by excluding other logics that might unsettle sovereign claims to legitimacy and universality. In short, both appeal to and uphold constituted power, instantiated in and exercised through representation. Constituted power is the transcendent power of the sovereign subject, but it is a delegated power: it is the result of a prior articulation (in cultural studies’ terms) or mediation (for civil society theory). Constituted power draws its strength from an immanent constituent power that precedes it, and which it claims to represent. Hence the power that a political order exercises is always derivative, and that order is itself the creation of constituent power. In the words of the Abbé Sieyès, who first formulated this distinction in the context of France’s 1789 Constituent Assembly, “in each of its parts a constitution is not the work of a constituted power but a constituent power. No type of delegated power can modify the conditions of its delegation” (“What is the Third Estate?” 136). For Sieyès, the constituent assembly was to harmonize these two modalities of power: to ensure that government was well constituted. But the very notion of good constitution presupposes a distinction between the constituent and the constituted. Indeed, this split is at the heart of what Martin Loughlin and Neil Walker term the “paradox of constitutionality”: that the people, the presumed subject of power, are denied access to it; “the power they possess, it would appear, can only be exercised through constitutional forms already established or in the process of being established” (“Introduction” 1).

Read more… (long .pdf file)


Constituent power is continuous and everyday. Appearances, however, are deceptive: in appearance, constituent power emerges only in moments of crisis, in the transition from one political order to another, soon thereafter to disappear. As Negri notes, “once the exceptional moment of innovation is over, constituent power seems to exhaust its effects” (Insurgencies 327).

The normative regulations of constituted power are more familiar than is the uproarious intensity associated with constitutional assemblies, when constituent power is glimpsed in full force as it intervenes decisively on the political stage. But for Negri, this “appearance of exhaustion” is simply “mystification”; in fact, “the only limits on constituent power are the limits of the world of life” (327, 328).

Constituent power “persists”: once a constitution is declared, it goes underground; unseen, it continues to expand until it erupts once more to interrupt constituted power, forcing drastic changes in social relations. Capital responds with a series of class recompositions that it presents as natural; the state reacts with periodic refoundations that it presents as simple renegotiations of some original social pact.

At each stage, the multitude is beaten back, temporarily defeated, “absorbed into the mechanism of representation” (Insurgencies 3) and so misrecognized as class, people, mass, or some other docile political subject. But even such misrecognitions, Negri claims, signal an “ontological accumulation” (334). Being itself is transformed through the “continuous and unrestrainable practice” that is the multitude’s everyday, permanent revolution (334).

A focus on constituent power, then, rather than on the different forms taken by constituted power, opens up “a new substratum” of history, “an ontological level on which productive humanity anticipate[s] the concrete becoming, forcing it or being blocked by it” (232).


“Life and Letters”
(Beneath the Bathtub, the Ocean)

David's Death of MaratWhen we first meet the General, he is in the bath. But this is not so much a place for cleansing refreshment and revitalizaton: it is more of a watery grave. As the General’s loyal aide and manservant, José Palacios, catches sight of his master floating naked with his eyes open in the bath’s purgative waters, he believes that the great man has drowned.

Not that the General’s demise is marked by tragedy. On the contrary: Palacios reads on the semi-submerged body before him the signs of an “ecstacy” that is reserved only for those who are no longer of this world. The General is known for his habit of bathtime meditation; he has now simply gone a step further, and entered a state of blessedness that is no longer mortal, no longer human. No wonder Palacios approaches with trepidation, fearful of coming too close. The General is his master, but the master’s death promises not liberation but rather a new form of enchantment. Palacios softly calls to the inert form in the tub, fulfilling his orders to wake the General up even if he senses that the great man is now beyond the call of a human voice. Palacios’s is a voz sorda: a lowered or whispered voice, but also literally a deaf voice, an unhearing sound that calls out without the expectation of response from an unhearing ear.

In fact, however, the supposed corpse in the bath does respond. The General Simón Bolívar (for it is he) emerges from his stupor, his state of enchantment, and with unexpected force and grace he rises from the waters. Yet even this sudden rush of energy is compared to the “spirit of a dolphin”: an animal that leaps above the waves only to fall back down almost as soon as it has appeared. The General Bolívar, asleep or awake, is in his labyrinth. And in the book that this incident introduces, Gabriel García Márquez’s El general en su laberinto, the great Latin American Liberator will remain always on the verge, hovering somewhere between life and death, reason and ecstasy, the dazzling surface and the deadening deep.

And so also, perhaps more importantly, the General as García Márquez depicts him is also endlessly hovering between his mortal body and his impulse to mastery, between the material depradations of his encroaching illnesses and his continued ambition to construct and consolidate a united Latin American republic. Throughout what will follow, an account of his watery passage down the Magdalena river from upland Bogotá to the Caribbean sea, the General is, in other words, rather precariously suspended between biology and politics, the two poles, as Roberto Esposito observes, of what we have come to call biopolitics. Simón Bolívar, the body in the bathtub, is the biopolitical subject par excellence.

Read more… (.pdf document)


Commentary on the recent Venezuelan referendum, particularly among foreign observers, has turned into a rather tiresome to and fro between self-satisfied opponents of Chávez, who like to think that the Bolivarian revolution has been stopped in its tracks, and equally self-satisfied supporters, who think they have refuted the claims of Chávez’s dictatorial tendencies.

The referendum has also been interpreted as a weathervane for the region’s Left Turns as a whole. With the Bolivian constitutional process also stymied, Lula quiescent, Bachelet unpopular, and the Kirchners apparently reinstating Peronist husband-and-wife politics as usual, have we reached the high water mark for Latin America’s renascent left movements?

But in all this discussion, the central point has been lost: that the process of setting constitutions registers a balance of forces between constituent and constituted power.

In fact, the referendum’s obvious winner was Chávez, as the President himself observed when he termed the wafer-thin margin a “Pyrrhic victory” for the opposition. The escuálidos would have been much happier had the poll gone the other way: they were apparently already handing out t-shirts that declared the result was a “fraud,” and even now a week later they continue to propagate conspiracy theories, fuelled for instance by pillars of social democracy such as Jorge Castañeda, alleging that the military had to persuade a reluctant premier to accept the will of the people. Denied the outrage they had counted on, they have had to manufacture it for themselves. As always, the anti-chavistas are such a pitiful sight that, were I Venezuelan, they would almost inspire me to go out and sign up for a PSUV party card out of spite.

In fact, Chávez’s dignified response to defeat enabled him to appear statesmanlike (not an adjective usually applied to a mercurial figure who won recent headlines for trying the King of Spain’s patience) and, more importantly, sovereign, as Stephanie Blankenburg observes in one of the few decent articles to have appeared in the past few weeks.

For constitutions are all about defining and upholding sovereignty. Any alteration to the constitution is also potentially a threat to constituted power: in the passage between constitutions, the state is temporarily ungrounded. Everything is up for grabs, however briefly. There’s no better example of that than the crisis currently affecting Bolivia, where even a hundred-year grievance over the site of the national capital has been thrown into the mix.

Meanwhile, the ongoing deadlock in Belgium, let alone the slow-motion catastrophe that is the process of European integration, both demonstrate that threats to constituted power abound as much in the North as in the South. We’re living in an era of global reconstitution.

And so the defeat of Venezuela’s proposed constitutional changes could be read as an affirmation of the country’s current (hardly any less chavista) constitution and current head of state. Indeed, that’s precisely how Chávez’s defenders have portrayed the situation: as an endorsement of the institutional mechanisms cemented in place by the 1999 constitution, from the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral or CNE) to the clauses that regulate constitutional amendment itself.

In other words, at least at first sight, the rejection of the referendum is a victory for constituted power, and a defeat for constituent power.

Chávez concedes, constitution in hand.
But the situation is rather more complicated. For the proposed constitutional reforms were very clearly generated within the state apparatus, rather than from outside and against it. Heinz Dietrich blames an entire “New Political Class” that he argues has sprung up and accreted to an increasingly sclerotic Bolivarian revolution. More revealing still are the complaints from Chávez supporters that the electoral defeat resulted from a failure to explain the proposals clearly and persuasively enough to the movement’s base. Not only is this an unrepentant admission that the process was conceived as a top-down campaign to court consent. It also shows that what is at stake is a project for hegemony. And the mass abstention that led to electoral downfall is a sign that Chávez’s hegemonic project is seriously frayed around the edges.

That the same result should be a victory for constituted power and at the same time a demonstration of the failure of hegemony should be no surprise. Constituted power has never depended upon hegemony.

What then of constituent power? Perhaps the fact that some three million people failed to vote shows a new development in Venezuela: an Exodus from the mechanisms designed to consolidate the Bolivarian state. Chávez’s relationship with this subaltern excess has always been precarious and contingent, as he himself is fully aware. Hence the President is always in campaign mode, endlessly trying to reconstruct the political by insisting on the classical distinction between “friend” and “enemy.” If the force of this interpellation is now fading, if people are happy not to vote or to vote “no” even when the choice in terms of the defense of national sovereignty, then chavistas have reason to worry.

But it’s the anti-Chávez camp that has most to lose. For if the current president is no longer to keep the forces of constituent power in check, then who can?

Cross-posted to Left Turns? and Long Sunday.