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.

Ernesto Laclau

Ernesto Laclau

I have spent almost the entirety of my academic career reading, and responding to, Ernesto Laclau, who has died at the age of 78. Ernesto was one of the great systematic thinkers of the past fifty years, possibly the most influential Latin American theorist of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and one of the most significant influences on Anglo-American cultural and political theory as a whole. We all write to some extent in his shadow and in his debt, myself perhaps more than anyone.

“Hegemony” was Laclau’s signature concept. He was not the first theorist of hegemony, but he made the term his own and spent decades elaborating a theoretical structure around the basic recognition of the contingency of political allegiances. This insight first came to him as an activist in 1960s and 1970s Argentina, faced with Peronism’s extraordinary capacity to mobilize people of all classes and every political inclination. Populism thus became the great problem that Laclau addressed. He showed the ways in which populism posed difficult questions for political theory, but also the practical issues it raised for any movement that sought social change. It is worth underlining that, for all the occasional abstraction of his theorizations, first and last Laclau was a militant.

Beyond theorizing hegemony, Laclau added a series of new formulations to our lexicon of political theory, often taking up terms elaborated in other fields (Linguistics, Psychoanalysis, Poststructuralism) and putting them to new uses in an effort to understand the fundamental workings of politics. A mark of his originality and significance is the ways in which he gave new life to notions such as “articulation” or created concepts such as the “empty signifier.” Laclau’s strength was his combination of eclecticism and flexibility in his sources and case studies–he had provocative observations on everything from medieval mysticism to Turkish nationalism–with a steadfast consistency and focussed sense of purpose.

It is no doubt partly thanks to this focus that Laclau was able to enter a lecture hall with half a dozen words scribbled on the back of an envelope for notes, and proceed to give an hour’s fluent, densely argued exposition of his thought. In some ways he was always expounding the same basic intellectual architecture, if always accommodating or responding to critiques while taking on new topics or new issues of pressing political importance.

For Laclau was indeed above all else a systematizer, and the system he constructed had great power and a certain seductiveness. This was perhaps his signal virtue, and it is the reason why I regard his version of hegemony as the strongest and most developed that we have. And it is also why I took issue with it, in a critique that was always driven by respect for what Laclau had accomplished and with acknowledgement and gratitude for what he had made possible.

Back in 1997, as a graduate student, I invited Laclau to Duke, along with his partner (in writing and in life), Chantal Mouffe. I was thrilled to host them for a few days in North Carolina, and very much liked them in their various ways: Mouffe, animated and spiky; Laclau, calm and generous, the very image of the perfect gentleman, thoughtfully playing with his mustache or drawing elaborate patterns with pen and paper as he listened intently to a question offered to him. Both of them were rich conversationalists, and what is more, a lot of fun to be around.

In a long (no doubt over-long) introduction to one of their events, I said among other things the following:

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe are among the most important thinkers of our time, who have continually redefined the fields of political and cultural theory, philosophy, and ethics. Their visit to Duke will be a major event, especially as they promise to put their theoretical insights to work in the analysis of our current situation in an uncertain world of globalization and political and cultural upheaval.

[. . .]

Indeed, anyone concerned with analyzing social processes, cultural development, the meaning of politics and particularly the effort to enrich and deepen democracy has had to work through the contributions of Laclau and Mouffe in these areas. They have provided perhaps the most thorough and the most challenging general theories of society and culture for a whole generation of researchers and activists. Especially for those on the left, their work marked a watershed between a generation that had remained within the Marxist tradition, and the “new wave” of cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and particularly the work on “new social movements” that has been heavily influenced by Laclau and Mouffe, and that has been a means to understand developments in modern Europe, Latin America and elsewhere in this era of globalization.

[. . .]

In short, Laclau and Mouffe are theorists of the first order, who have shaped not just one but several fields of study and research, and yet who have always remained engaged with the most practical and pressing of contemporary problems. Their influence has been marked for twenty years, but their 1983 masterpiece Hegemony and Socialist Strategy even grows in importance, given the prescience we can now see it showed concerning the challenges posed by world developments of the most recent ten years. Their work since has only deepened and extended their impact and importance. Their visit to Duke will be inspirational and productive for all those working in these areas they did so much to define.

All I would add to that tribute is to note how productive Laclau (and Mouffe) continued to be over the following decade or two. Laclau’s On Populist Reason of 2005, for instance, has every right to be considered on the same level as Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. I look forward to his new book, now to appear posthumously, The Rhetorical Foundations of Society. Indeed, what is striking is not only Laclau’s consistency of purpose, but also the consistently high quality of his work. He was never one to rest on his laurels.

Our paths crossed a few times after that meeting in Duke, if never with quite the same intensity. Last summer a friend told me that my name had come up in conversation with Laclau at a conference in Italy, and I thought to write to him to reiterate my respect and admiration for his work, as well as for him as a person and intellectual of such stature. I am sorry that I failed in the end to write. It is a true loss that someone who has had such profound influence on the landscape of our thought, and perhaps on mine in particular, is with us no more.

missing a trick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

not nearly far enough

Adam MortonAdam Morton continues the discussion prompted by my reading of Althusser’s Machiavelli and Us. (See also his earlier post and my response.) Again, he’s less concerned to engage with my reading of Althusser per se than to give me a somewhat heavy-handed lecture on how to read in general. But I don’t find his purported distinction between “interpreting, appropriating, or negotiating a text” (outlined also here) particularly helpful. It sounds to me like one of those irregular verbs: I negotiate a text; You merely interpret it; He, she or it has the nerve to appropriate it. Except that it turns out that there’s another twist to the declension: Jon Beasley-Murray goes so far as to “importune” the text. Quelle horreur!

To put this another way: I don’t claim any particular purity to my own reading of Althusser. All readings are messy. They are inevitably interested in some way or another, and mine is clearly informed by my own interests. There are no doubt elements of appropriation (if you want to use these terms) as well as interpretation and negotiation. But I do try to read Machiavelli and Us, and also the various texts discussed in Posthegemony, with care and attention, alert particularly to their tensions, slippages, and contradictions. This is because all texts “say more than they do” (to use Morton’s own symptomatically awkward phrase) and I’m interested precisely in this excess. Again, though, I find it especially productive to think of Althusser’s book with such slippages in mind, in part because this is the tack that he himself takes in approaching Machiavelli. As Althusser notes, “Machiavelli grips us. But if by chance we want to grasp him, he evades us: he is elusive” (4). In my terms: something always escapes. Which is why, in similar spirit, I make much of the revisions and changes that Machiavelli and Us underwent over time. Morton is apparently less concerned with such things; well, so be it.

Let me conclude with a word or two on Gramsci. Morton criticizes me for saying (in the prologue to Posthegemony) that for Gramsci “hegemony, in fact, is primary: [. . .] power is grounded in consent, and force is employed only secondarily’ (1). He tells me I “would have to be aware that coercion/consent [. . .] come as a couplet.” But I am of course quite aware of this fact. My point is that in any such couplet (including also the others indicated by Morton: “state/civil society,” and so on) there’s always a fundamental dissymmetry: one of the pair is primary; the other appears to be supplementary. More complications then ensue, but I was merely pointing out that for Gramsci it is hegemony (defined as “‘spontaneous’ consent”) that is primary. Coercion, then, is presented as a supplement: employed, Gramsci tells us, “in moments of crisis and command when spontaneous consent has failed.”

A rather more interesting critique of Posthegemony is that I don’t in fact spend half as much time on Gramsci as I should. Rather I focus, at length and for reasons I outline in detail, on the work of Ernesto Laclau (and Chantal Mouffe). But in his review, ”Affective Hegemonies”, my friend and colleague Gastón Gordillo upbraids me for what he calls my “masterful silencing of Gramsci.” By generally avoiding Gramsci’s work, concentrating instead on his neo-Gramscian avatars, he suggests I am ironically “perhaps paying oblique homage to the man who first thought about hegemony.” By contrast, then, Gordillo implies that it is time to “appropriate” Gramsci a little more thoroughly, to work harder at disrupting the banalities and superficial readings propagated as part of “the academic infatuation with Gramsci.” Indeed, Gordillo’s main criticism of Posthegemony (and it is a smart and attentive reading that he offers) is that it goes not nearly far enough in the task of “importuning Gramsci” for which Morton would otherwise condemn it.

a bit of a leap

Adam MortonAdam Morton responds to my brief account of Althusser’s Machiavelli and Us with a fairly lengthy blog post on “Machiavelli, Gramsci, Althusser, and Us”. But he doesn’t so much respond to my reading itself; what he intends is a more comprehensive swipe at the notion of posthegemony as a whole. Which is fair enough, but a bit of a leap.

Anyhow, on Althusser… Morton asks “whose reading” this is that detects in Althusser “a posthegemonic reading of Machiavelli,” to which I unapologetically confirm that it is indeed my reading. Whose would it be otherwise? But it’s a reading that, I hope, is attentive to some salient aspects of the text, not least its ambiguities, product in part of fairly constant revisions over a long period. Morton reiterates what I call a hegemonic reading of Machiavelli and Us, a reading that I point out myself; it is admittedly pretty obvious. My own interest is in the tensions between that aspect of the text and another that is in sync with the late Althusser’s aleatory materialism of the encounter, which I term posthegemonic. Morton’s interest is in consolidating and underlining only the first of these two readings so as to show Althusser’s resonances with Gramsci. Again, fair enough in its own way, but it’s no less an “appropriation” than my focus on the tensions within the text.

Indeed, compared to conventional readings of Althusser, Morton’s take is perhaps even more idiosyncratic, as neo-Gramscian theories of hegemony were quite explicitly opposed to an Althusserianism understood in terms of over-determination, history as a process without a subject, and the like. Another way of putting this is that Machiavelli and Us is interesting and problematic precisely because it points to two possible ways out of canonical Althusserianism: both towards the concept of hegemony and radically away from it. As such, it anticipates the contemporary dilemma of cultural studies. Morton likes the first path; I acknowledge it’s there, but prefer the second.

Morton then jumps to a lightly revised series of quotations from his book on post-revolutionary Mexico. There’s a certain tension here, as whereas on the blog the claim that “calls, then, to analytically displace hegemony and move towards a posthegemonic politics should be resisted” is presented as following on from the discussion of Althusser (“then”), in the book the rather similar claim that “calls for a wholesale retreat from the logic of hegemony and the move towards a posthegemonic politics should be resisted” comes merely as the start of the second of three discussions of critiques of hegemony. And the subsequent sentence, that “A posthegemonic condition [. . .] refers to the presumption that ideology critique is now superfluous in an age where affective relations or bodily dispositions are regnant” is sourced in the book to my 2003 article “On Posthegemony” (as well as to an article by Benjamin Arditi) while on the blog it’s apparently derived from my 2010 book, Posthegemony. On the blog, Morton then refers directly to his own book, but Revolution and State in Modern Mexico is hardly much more “detailed” on this point than the blog post: both contain almost exactly the same assertion that (in the book’s words) “this extremist take on hegemony theory and its attempt to decentre analysis from the strategic field of the state, however, merely collapses into a ‘pluralism of micropowers’, conceiving ever more microcosms of meaning within a world of individuated actors (Poulantzas 1978: 44)” (10). Despite the invocation of his student Poulantzas, we’re now far removed from Althusser, even though we are oddly enough still dealing with what, in discussing Machiavelli and Us, I described as “a strange, tortured text that bears all the marks of its” revisions.

What’s more, then Morton shifts to quoting an article of his from 2007 that is a critique of Randall Germain, and which never mentions posthegemony in the slightest. In that article, it is Germain’s notion of a “collective ‘us’” that prompts the comment: “I am troubled in IPE by something Raymond Williams (1980, p. 3) long ago articulated: the acceptance of total contingency when attempting to assess forces in struggle over hegemony” (“Unquestioned Answers / Unanswered Questions” 135). I’m not entirely sure how what we can only call Morton’s “appropriation” of his own critique of Germain relates to my blog post, my book, or posthegemony in general–though I would note that questions about determination are indeed properly Althusserian, if not (of course) the concern of Machiavelli and Us.

In Althusser’s interpretation of Machiavelli, there is no “struggle over hegemony” at all, in that he observes that The Prince and the Discourses alike are books about beginnings: they are about the leap, always under-determined if never entirely contingent, that establishes a new political regime. It is its under-determination, its element of contingency, that opens up a space for politics–and for Althusser, Machiavelli’s work is fully political, fully inscribed in a political space that cannot be determined in advance. Whether or not you feel that what is to be instituted is a form of hegemonic politics (Morton will probably say it is; I stress rather Althusser’s ambivalence and increasing hesitance), there’s no doubt that the leap itself has nothing to do with hegemony. As with all the many ruptures that mark Althusser’s thought (from the famous “epistemological break” he claims to detect in Marx’s work, to the “lightning flash” in his discussion of the “Piccolo Teatro”), the real political moment is this posthegemonic fracture that his texts themselves re-enact. Perhaps Morton’s blog post, too, is trying for a similar leap?

Machiavelli and Us

Louis Althusser, Machiavelli and UsLouis Althusser’s Machiavelli and Us is a strange, tortured text that bears all the marks of its long germination. It originates in a lecture course given in 1962, which was cut short by Althusser’s nervous breakdown and hospitalization. The notes for that course were apparently lost, and rewritten from scratch, we are told, “very probably after 1968” (vii). These led to a new course, given in 1972, but Althusser continued to work on the manuscript “on and off up to the mid 1980s” (vii), although he never published it in his lifetime. It finally saw the light of day in 1995, five years after his death. Hence the version we have (in the translation by Gregory Elliott) has numerous footnotes indicating some of the major handwritten revisions, correction, and addenda, often of very uncertain date. One can only suspect that there is a reason for this difficult history, and perhaps also a reason why Althusser kept on returning to Machiavelli, seemingly obsessed but at the same time dissatisfied with his analysis. As he himself notes, “Machiavelli grips us. But if by chance we want to grasp him, he evades us: he is elusive” (4).

On the one hand, the book does its darnedest to present Machiavelli as a theorist of hegemony. No wonder, in that Althusser takes much of his inspiration from Antonio Gramsci’s reading of The Prince. Machiavelli, Gramsci and Althusser argue, is not so much a thinker of the principality, of the many principalities that dotted the Italian peninsula: he is a theorist of the nation state. More particularly, Althusser grants “Gramsci’s master theme,” that Machiavelli is a theorist of “the political question of Italian unity–that is to say, the political problem of the Italian nation’s constitution by means of a national state” (11). So the prince’s task is to found a state that will both expand and endure: it has to expand until it is coterminous with the limits of the Italian nation; and it can only endure so long as it wins the “friendship” of the people, siding with them against the nobility to overturn the legacy of feudalism. The successful prince, Althusser argues, employs both coercion and consent to fashion a people who fear but do not hate him. Hence the role of ideology, both “a basic ideology” and particular ideologies; it is religion that takes on the role of basic ideology, “a general, constant ideology,” while particular ideologies relate to the specific attributes of the prince himself, expressed “in the form of the representation of the Prince in popular opinion” (92). Althusser therefore concludes that “to appreciate this policy of ‘fear without hatred’ properly, it must be called by its name: it is an ideological politics, politics in ideology” (101).

On the other hand, many of Althusser’s revisions reveal another side to the book. Here, instead of the telos of the nation state, the historical destiny of Italian unification, what is stressed is rather the conjuncture defined by its “aleatory” singularity and unpredictability: “Machiavelli is the first theorist of the conjuncture or the first thinker [. . .] to think in the conjuncture: that is to say in its concept of an aleatory, singular case” (18; the phrase “aleatory, singular case” is a late addition); “There comes a moment when Machiavelli can no longer ‘gamble on’ classical theory, or play it off against another, to open up his own space: he must leap into the void” (42; “into the void” is a late addition). Systematically, Althusser shifts the emphasis of what he had previously written such that what begins to emerge is what he elsewhere terms “a materialism of the encounter, hence of the aleatory and of contingency” (qtd. xiii). Here what counts are not so much the means by which the prince binds the people to himself by “establish[ing] Italian unity from the standpoint of the ’populare’ [. . .] gaining the people’s friendship–that is, to speak plainly, an alliance with the people against the nobility” (129). Rather, what’s at stake are “the forms of the encounter between fortuna and virtù” and the undecidability of the tension between concrete actuality and an aleatory future, “the discrepancy between the definite and indefinite, the necessary and the unforeseeable” (80). From this perspective we might turn from thinking about ideology in terms of representation to a consideration of how the army, for instance, acts more like what we might call (drawing on Althusser’s famous “Ideological State Apparatuses” essay) “ideology in general” by interpellating and constituting subjects through habit and affect. Rather than taking the “people” (and its hostility to the nobility) for granted, we would then turn instead to the prior process of “the becoming-people of the people” (102).

In short, there is a posthegemonic reading of Machiavelli that is constantly escaping and perhaps threatening to overwhelm Althusser’s otherwise Gramscian insistence on hegemony. There is, we might even add, an ontological dimension that undermines Althusser’s contention that Machiavelli’s singularity is his insistence on “the primacy of politics tout court” (99). Or rather, there is a “primitive political accumulation” (125) that precedes the establishment of any space or institutions onto which hegemony can be projected as though it were politics, and as though politics were hegemony.

Nietzsche and Philosophy

Deleuze, Nietzsche and PhilosophyAs with most of his books on the History of Philosophy, Gilles Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy is in large part a work of ventriloquy. Deleuze is speaking through Nietzsche, or making Nietzsche speak for him, as part of a series of debates and concerns that are perhaps more properly “Deleuzian” than they are “Nietzschean.” This is no doubt clearest in the book’s excoriation of Hegelianism and the dialectic: “There is no possible compromise between Hegel and Nietzsche,” Deleuze tells us (195). Written in 1962, Nietzsche and Philosophy is then part of a broadside within French thought against the prevailing postwar interest in Hegel (very much as mediated by Alexandre Kojève). A few years later, Louis Althusser would also join in the fray, with his attempt to construct a Marxism in which all indebtedness to Hegel had been absolutely excised.

The war against Hegel and Hegelianism is also a war against negation. In Nietzsche, Deleuze claims to find a philosopher of pure affirmation: the affirmation of affirmation against the dialectic’s famous negation of negation. The dialectic can at best produce “a phantom of affirmation” (196). In Hegelianism, “everywhere there are sad passions; the unhappy consciousness is the subject of the whole dialectic” (196). By contrast, for Deleuze,

Nietzsche’s practical teaching is the difference is happy; that multiplicity, becoming and chance are adequate objects of joy by themselves and that only joy returns. Multiplicity, becoming and chance are the properly philosophical joy in which unity rejoices in itself and also in being and necessity. (190)

At every turn, Nietzsche chooses activity, life, the will, over against the forces of reaction and ressentiment. The only negativity in his work, Deleuze says, is in fact positive: it is always in the service of creation; it is a total critique that enables the new to manifest itself. Hence “destruction as the active destruction of all known values is the trail of the creator” (177); in Nietzsche, “the whole of the negative has become a power of affirming” (179).

Deleuze’s book, as though intoxicated by Nietzschean affirmation, ends with rather a flourish, heralding the powers of Zarathustra, Dionysus, and the Over-man. We a presented a vision, that can’t help but seem a little mystical, of the triumph of dance, “laughter, roars of laughter,” and a sense of “play [that] affirms chance and the necessity of chance” (194). All well and good. But the fact is that, if we look around, all we see is the supremacy of reaction, the ubiquity of ressentiment, and the ascendancy of nihilism. How can this be? Is it conceivable that reactive forces are in fact stronger than active ones? If not, what explains their triumph? How does action, activity, affirmation, and the will to power give way to the tyranny of the negative?

This is a question that Deleuze will never stop asking. Indeed, in some ways it is the central question of his philosophical career. In Anti-Oedipus, he and Félix Guattari put it in more strictly political terms:

Even the most repressive and the most deadly forms of social reproduction are produced by desire within the organization that is the consequence of such production under various conditions that we must analyze. That is why the fundamental problem of political philosophy is still precisely the one that Spinoza saw so clearly, and that Wilhelm Reich rediscovered: “Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?” (Anti-Oedipus 31)

In short: if activity and affirmation are primary, how are they so easily overcome? What goes wrong? Are reactive forces of the same nature as active forces? Do active forces somehow become reactive? If so, how? How does joyous creation end up so badly?

Deleuze’s argument is complex. It all begins when the strangely positive power of forgetting is itself forgotten. Forgetting is “an active and in the strictest sense positive faculty of repression” (113). After all, the first distinction between the noble soul and the slave is that the noble soon forgets any slights; the slave, by contrast, broods and breeds resentment. Ressentiment is only possible once the traces of past ills are preserved, even harboured and nurtured. When this happens, “reaction itself takes the place of action, reaction prevails over action” (114). But what Deleuze wants to stress–indeed, it is vital that he does so–is that “reactive forces do not triumph by forming a force greater than active forces. [. . .] Everything takes place between reactive forces” (114). Then, in a second stage, active force is itself disarmed by being “separated from what it can do; or rather, we find this fiction is propagated. Here we see also the birth of the subject, a fictional entity separated from its own powers of action and activity. But what is most important is that in the forgetting of forgetting and in the construction of the fiction of the subject alike, “in neither of the two cases do reactive forces triumph by forming a greater force than active forces” (124).

Deleuze has again to push further: How for instance does fiction gain a hold over the reality of force? Indeed, this question will soon be redoubled as the ascetic ideal itself is likewise founded on fiction, on the “projection of debt” and the internalization of guilt. How does fiction gain the upper hand? Why would a narrative about the way things are trump our sensation and experience, our affects and bodily investment in the world. Essentially, this is the question of hegemony–or rather, of the hegemony of hegemony. Why did we come to believe in the superiority of reactive forces? Why did we take their omnipotence for granted, so much so that we became habituated into submission and subjection? And with what effect?

I’m not sure that Deleuze is entirely satisfied with his answers here in Nietzsche and Philosophy. He does after all return to the problem over and over. Is this a symptom of some anxiety? Or is it simply that he feels that we need as many answers as possible: later, the figure of the fold will come to the fore in his consideration of how interiority and subjection develop. Or perhaps it’s the power of the return itself that Deleuze wants to affirm.


One of my panels at LASA (the Latin American Studies Association congress) turned once more to discussion of Ernesto Laclau.

I have spent a long time engaging with Laclau (and I deal with his work at length in my book’s first chapter). His is an important and influential theory–indeed, I argue that it is the most complete theory of hegemony–but it is also fundamentally flawed and fatally limited.

In essence, what Laclau has done is extrapolate from the discussions among a small number of leftist radicals in Argentina during the early 1970s, when populism seemed the only possible horizon for politics. Their question then was how could they redeem populism for a progressive project, when there seemed to be no alternative available.

It is impressive that Laclau has managed to produce an entire politico-theoretical system from the dilemma that these militants perceived in a particular place at a particular time.

But what is extraordinary, given the subsequent adoption of this system almost wholesale by so much of cultural studies, is that if we return to the Argentine situation we see that left-populism was proved totally mistaken.

For the left was violently expelled from the Peronist coalition almost as soon as Perón arrived back in the country following his long exile. Moreover, the subsequent military coup then (and even more violently) showed that populism itself had run up against its limit when it refused to acknowledge the role of the state.

No doubt pretty much any political philosophy is at root largely an extrapolation from a particular state of affairs. Antonio Negri, for instance, is in his own way also still captivated by his observation of the rapid changes in Italy during the 1950s and 1960s, and then by his part in the resulting struggles of the early 1970s.

But Negri was at least to some extent right: the dismal failure of the Italian Communist Party’s so-called “historic compromise” revealed the political and theoretical poverty of the theory of hegemony upon which Eurocommunism (so lauded by Laclau) depended.

Negri was of course wrong about the imminence of revolution both then and, I’d argue, now, though I still think that there is much to salvage from his work none-the-less. I suppose that followers of Laclau could similarly argue that hegemony theory can likewise be salvaged even after its failure in the context in which it was originally elaborated, and for which it should ideally work best.

But they don’t seem to acknowledge that failure in the first place, in part no doubt because Laclau’s increasingly abstract systematization serves to obscure that context quite totally for most of his commentators.


In a strange convergence, it turns out that the disgraced financier Bernie Madoff and the young Somali sea bandit Abdul Wali Muse have both been held in the same New York detention center, prompting the question who is the bigger pirate?

Indeed, where once they were celebrated as wizards, the financial whizzkids of Wall Street, or of corrupt behemoths such as Enron, are increasingly being condemned as pirates. “Make Enron Pirates Answer” demanded the LA Times a few years ago, and now we find that Enron has “gone global” as “hedge fund pirates” stalk the world economy. The comparison with the dangerous seas off the Horn of Africa is made explicit again as we’re told that “Like Somali Pirates, Wall Street Holds U.S. to Ransom”.

None of this, however, should be any great surprise. As Tom Wolfe reports, financiers have long self-consciously struck a “pirate pose”, not least the Hedge Fund that unabashedly goes by the name of Pirate Capital, its website featuring a series of images that switch between wooden-masted sailing boats and computer print-outs of financial accounts. As Wolfe describes the firm:

The 41-year-old hedge fund founder Tom Hudson [. . .] struck a Blackbeard pose right out in the open—Blackbeard, the pirate who took what he wanted and was accountable to no one. When Hudson launched his company in Norwalk in 2002, he named it Pirate Capital and called its hedge fund the Jolly Roger. Outside the door to his office he installed a life-size wooden figure of a storybook pirate, in full color, wearing all the pirate’s rig: the patch over one eye, the golden hoop earring through one earlobe, the tricornered hat, Captain Hook’s hook instead of a hand on one arm, the pantaloons, the peg leg, and the cutlass. He handed out baseball caps and T-shirts emblazoned SURRENDER YOUR BOOTY!, which was funny but no joke.

Of course, those who live by the sword also die by the sword: even before the current downturn, Pirate Capital faced mutiny as it tried to make its own staff walk the plank. But you could never suggest that the firm ever hid its piratical intentions. Rather, it gloried in them.

And now comes The Invisible Hook by Peter Leeson, who is apparently “Professor for the Study of Capitalism” at George Mason University. His website too is adorned with pirate imagery, and no wonder: his book is a whole-hearted celebration of piracy as a model for free-market economic practice.

Eighteenth-century pirates, Leeson want to argue, were the very model of rational economic actors whose bloodthirsty ways were merely the outcome of a commendable search for profit. Moreover, in balance pirates in fact did more good than harm, precisely thanks to their clear-eyed desire to maximize their personal earnings. Contrary to reputation, they were peace-loving democrats who merely cultivated a violent image as part of an enormously successful brand-management campaign. If we study Golden Age piracy, Leeson suggests, we learn the universal truth of the adage that “greed is good”:

Pirate greed is what motivated pirates to pioneer progressive institutions and practices. For example, this greed is responsible for pirates’ system of constitutional democracy [. . .]. Pirate greed is also responsible for some sea rogues’ superior treatment of blacks. (179)

Mind you, Leeson also warns us that we should be careful not to learn too much from pirate self-organization: just because they arguably instituted a form of “workers’ democracy” doesn’t mean that contemporary corporations should feel constrained to follow suit; after all, workers would tend to support “risky decision making,” while external financiers rightly reject such risks as they have “to bear the full costs of failure” (183). Oh, just imagine what a pickle we’d be in now if risk-loving workers held sway over the sensible inclinations of finance capitalists!

Ultimately, this is a superficial and even silly book. It’s an exercise in market-choice dogma rather than a real investigation into the economics of piracy. Though it claims to overturn the ways in which we think about sea banditry, the version of piracy that it promotes is on the whole as abstract and idealized as the Disney caricatures that apparently first inspired the author’s interest. It’s just that these are idealized rational economic actors, rather than barbarous if comic exotic rogues. Either way, we get caricature. Pirates are merely the ruse for a not-so-very hidden agenda: here, a sort of duffer’s guide to economic dogma.

In some ways, the failures of Leeson’s book are predictable. Piracy has long served as a screen on to which all sorts of prejudices or idées fixes can be projected. As Leeson himself notes almost in passing, pirates have been cast as proto-communists as often as they have been presented as neoliberals avant la lettre; they have claimed for gay rights and queer theory as much as they have been condemned for their barbarous machismo; and they have been cast as forming ideal democratic societies as frequently as they have been represented as savages who care for neither morality nor legality.

But rather than repeating his own simplistic morality tale of greed is good, Leeson might have explored the fundamental ambivalence that enables piracy to serve as a Rorscharh Test for so many distinct political and social positions. If, for instance, the joint stock company incarnates what Marx termed the “communism of capital,” perhaps these “sea-going stock compan[ies]” (41) have something to tell us about the capitalism of communism, or about a certain indecideability between a line of flight that seeks to escape all constituted authority and a constituent power that creates ever-new constitutions.

Leeson is really no more interested in politics as such than he is in history; the whole point of the book is show the purported superiority of classical economics to explain any aspect of human behavior. But he has to tangle with politics from time to time. Leeson’s manifest libertarian impulses, that lead him to disparage the notion of state regulation at almost every turn, also force him to suggest a fine distinction between state government and private governance. If greed is good, then government is generally bad; but governance is praised as a form of privatized, self-regulating government. And this idealized conception of governance comes to sound remarkably like hegemony: it is voluntary, non-coercive, and contractual. For Leeson, pirate ships are not only exemplary instances of economic rationality; they are also (almost) perfectly functional hegemonies. And perhaps it is this, rather than the economic as such, that explains piracy’s strange allure: it offers a counterpart to the pseudo-hegemony of the nation state, a romanticized conjunction of liberty and self-organization.


María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s Who Would Have Thought It? (the first Mexican-American novel in English) is centrally concerned with the notion of “good government”–and its absence from the nineteenth-century USA. Indeed, at some points the problems facing the country seem to be the fault of government per se “If we were to trace our troubles to their veritable source,” the novel’s narrator declares at one point, “we would often reach, more or less directly, their origin in our lawgivers. Not only the dwellers of the frontiers, not only the victims of lawsuits, not only–“ (201).

Here, however, the train of thought is interrupted. The narrator breaks off to declare “But I am no political philosopher. I am wandering away from my humble path” (201). And that path is, ostensibly, a romantic comedy of domesticity and manners.

The narrative opens as the life of the Norvals of New England is transformed when Dr. Norval returns to his family from an expedition to the American Southwest with a young Mexican girl named Lola he has helped to rescue from a band of border Indians. The doughty and upright Mrs Norval is shocked and upset, but the unwelcome arrival is rather sweetened by the fact that the girl brings with her a million dollars’ worth of gold ore and precious stones. Much of this loot has to be kept in trust until Lola comes of age and/or is reunited with her missing father. In the meantime, however, there is plenty that can be appropriated by the family, whose daughters are soon arrayed in the latest fashion and riding out from a New York mansion in the finest carriages. There is even enough money to be spread around family friends and acquaintances, and to outfit entire companies for the Union side when the Civil War breaks out.

The bulk of the novel then charts the ways in which money and warfare expose the frailties and hypocrisies of WASP respectability. The story’s greatest rogue is a lawyer turned preacher turned military man by the name of Mr. Hackwell, who circles the Norvals, their womenfolk, and their money, like a hyena who has sniffed out the stench of moral corruption and is anxious to reap the profits. Hackwell contrives to seduce Mrs Norval into a clandestine marriage once her husband takes off on yet another voyage, while trying to engineer nuptials between her son, Julian, and Hackwell’s own sister, Emma. All the while he lusts after the young Lola, who develops into a striking beauty as she matures, made all the more desirable by the potential dowry that she bears with her.

Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita point out that money and machinations thereby lead to “the fall of Republican motherhood” (“Introduction” xxviii) and “the violation of the marriage contract” (xxxi). But this is also an allegory of broader social disturbances, just as the arrival of Lola and her wealth points to the US acquisition of over half of Mexico’s mineral-rich territory following the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848. As Sánchez and Pita observe, the novel exposes “the degeneration of democratic values and the faltering of the republican ideal” as a whole (xlv). Democracy is a myth, rights are proclaimed only to be abused and ignored, and there is “no informed consent of the governed [. . .] but rather corruption and influence peddling everywhere, even in the highest circles of government” (xlv).

The novel is indeed scathing about the state of the American res publica. Mrs Norval’s sister, Lavinia, travels to Washington to enquire about her brother, Isaac, a prisoner of war in a Southern camp. She discovers, however, that her government is happy to let its citizens languish if it should mean increasing pressure upon the Confederacy’s capacity to feed even its own people. Moreover, Isaac in particular has been removed from any list of prisoners to be exchanged because he once had a run-in with a powerful politician. Private pride (as well as ambition and indifference) is allowed to over-rule any sense of compassion or responsibility.

Lavinia had previously “believed all she had read in printed political speeches” (106); soon, however, she reluctantly comes to share in the cynicism expressed eventually by almost all the novel’s admirable characters. Julian too, for instance, who is threatened with dismissal from the army despite his heroic record, and then studiously ignored when he tries to press his case before the President, soon finds himself learning a “bitter philosophy [. . .] from the leading men of his country” (215).

In short, precisely at the moment at which the United States is forging some of its most potent discourses of self-justification and exceptionalism, from Manifest Destiny to the Empancipation Declaration, Ruiz de Burton reveals their bankruptcy and hypocrisy. Figures such as Mrs Norval may continue to declare that theirs is “the best government on Earth” (67), and to rail against both foreigners and popery; but she is insulated by wealth and blinded by the return of long repressed desires that dance around her, Ruiz de Burton suggests, like “unbottled imps” that have particular and “abundant fun” in Washington (148). As the social contract is revealed to be a sham, any putative hegemony is replaced by the new habits of wealth and the impish antics of misguided desire.