What can Gramsci teach us about the current economic crisis?

Thomas

This post originally appeared on Adam Morton’s person blog.

Recently, myself and Andreas Bieler were jointly awarded the 2012-13 British International Studies Association -Higher Education Academy Award for Excellence in Teaching. One of the innovations we have introduced on our modules has been the idea of co-hosting a roundtable event revolving around the invitation of outside guest speakers to address the core content of the curriculum across several modules. Our aim is to expose students to different viewpoints and styles of delivery as well as to socialise them into the cut and thrust of intellectual debate. As a result, we recently co-hosted a roundtable on the theme of ‘Gramsci & Political Economy Today’ that attracted undergraduate and postgraduate students taking modules on heterodox political economy as well postgraduate researchers. The invitees were Chris Hesketh (Oxford Brookes University) and Ian Bruff (Loughborough University) and the roundtable event itself was part of a “Gramsci Week”, succeeding the presentation by Peter Thomas (Brunel University) to the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) seminar series. What was at the heart of the presentations and the ensuing discussions?

Starting with the CSSGJ seminar presentation by Peter Thomas, the key focus was the delivery of a forthcoming article of his entitled ‘Hegemony, Passive Revolution and the Modern Prince’, to be published in Thesis Eleven. Departing from four dominant interpretations of Gramsci, Peter delineated the lineages of passive revolution in order to analyse the historical formation of modern state power and the condition of political modernity. One outcome of his argument is an emphasis on a relational integration of passive revolution along with an articulated series of concepts in the Prison Notebooks including the condition and concept of hegemony that gives rise to a theory of political action that should be understood as an alternative to the dominant paradigm of modern sovereignty.

Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is understood by Peter Thomas as a ‘dialectical chain’ combining social and political leadership; a political class project; the realisation of this hegemonic project in concrete institutions and organisational forms or a ‘hegemonic apparatus’; that, lastly, is ultimately based on the social and political hegemony of the workers’ movement. His reflections then turned to the extent to which passive revolution is a deformation of hegemonic politics marking capitalist modernity. As Peter Thomas puts it:

As an analytical concept, passive revolution was a strategic intervention that aimed to highlight an historical failure of hegemony, or the structural inability of the bourgeois political project (particularly in the ‘West’, but also internationally) to realise fully the potentials of this new political practice and theory (originally essayed in the ‘East’, but of international significance).

One can add that the condition of hegemony-passive revolution might also be best understood as part of a ‘dialectical chain’, or a continuum as I put it in my Capital & Class article (available here for free download), in marking and shaping capitalist modernity. Breaking the link in the chain of passive revolutions ensnaring popular mobilisations would then require, in Gramsci’s vocabulary, the potential formation of a ‘modern Prince’. As Peter Thomas concludes, this idiom could be today understood as part of a prefigurative vocabulary in which to understand diverse contemporary mobilisations of resistance and rebellion.

Turning to the roundtable event, Chris Hesketh began by discussing the financial crisis and what this might mean for the future of the global economy. He placed the current financial crisis in the wider context of historical crises that have helped precipitate shifts in capitalist development, but citing Gramsci he noted that immediate economic crises do not themselves produce ‘fundamental historical events’ but simply create new ways of posing and resolving certain questions. The current conjuncture was thus argued to be a period of open-ended struggle that paved the way for the progressive articulation of radical ideas but also carried with it the danger of reactionary ones gaining popularity (as witnessed with the rise of neo-fascist movements such as Golden Dawn in Greece). Turning to questions of resistance he argued that if there is a region in the world where neoliberal capitalism is being challenged it is in Latin America. Specifically he cited the tactics of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional in Mexico and how their response to neoliberal restructuring has predated much of the more recent alter-globalisation movement via their formation of counter-spaces to state power (for further elaboration see his recent article in Latin American Perspectives).

Refuting the narrative that ‘there is no alternative’  – repeated in recent weeks by David Cameron –  Chris argued that the four lessons to be learned from the Zapatistas’ struggle  include the importance of: (1) commanding space; (2) expanding civil society; (3) revoking mandates, or the instant recall of officials who do not obey the will of those that they represent; and (4) promoting radical democratisation, including the democratisation of the workplace.

Ian Bruff then pursued and extended his pivotal focus on contesting the political economy of ‘common sense’ in relation to the Eurozone crisis, as set out earlier in his book Culture and Consensus in European Varieties of Capitalism (2008). Citing Gramsci, he argued that ‘the only “philosophy” is history in action, that is, life itself’, which led him to then tackle some of the myths surrounding the European crisis as well as the rise of authoritarianism in the reconfiguration of state power across Europe. The possible futures he then sketched for Europe were: (1) the end of ‘social Europe’, increasingly in tandem with far-Right mobilisations; or (2) a radical shift rooted in social movements and new parties of the Left.

Linking Ian Bruff’s presentation to the two earlier contributions thus entails recognising resistance as a dynamic collective process in striving to forge new organisational social and political relations. As Gramsci put it: ‘The modern prince, the myth-prince, cannot be a real person, a concrete individual. It can only be an organism, a complex element of society in which a collective will, which has already been recognised and has to some extent asserted itself in action, begins to take concrete form’. Ian’s conclusion is that we are clearly not “all in this together” and that another world is possible through the forging of a collective will as a process of becoming. For Ian Bruff, this entails thinking withfor, and against Gramsci in shaping the future terrain of social struggle, which is a highly prescient way of approaching Gramsci’s thought and practice echoing the need to think and organise “in and against the state”.

Reading Gramsci anew, to purloin a set of phrases from Toni Negri, is therefore essential to heterodox political economy today as part of the struggle to revolutionise human praxis.

You can listen to Chris Hesketh’s and Ian Bruff’s talks in full here:

[soundcloud url="http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/87225086" params="" width=" 100%" iframe="true" /]

Adam Morton

Why Michael Gove can’t claim Gramsci as an influence

LOrdine-NuovoAcross ten densely packed but concisely organised paragraphs, Antonio Gramsci penned a piece of journalism entitled ‘Towards the Communist International’, printed in the newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo on 26 July 1919. Although the egregious Michael Gove, UK Secretary of State for Education, may claim Gramsci as one of two individuals that have most influenced him (the other was reality TV star Jade Goody!), there is little in Gramsci to relate to the content of Conservative policies currently ripping apart contemporary British society. Specifically in this piece of journalism, Gramsci poses the fundamental problem of proletarian revolution in the tumultuous years following the Russian Revolution. We can surmise that proletarian revolution was not a top priority for Gove during his time at Oxford University or writing for Rupert Murdoch’s The Times and that this remains the case today. In contrast to Gove’s social function, Gramsci’s article is interesting for two reasons: (1) it demonstrates Gramsci’s wider role in shaping the politics of the Communist International (or Comintern) (1919-1943); and (2) it clarifies that Gramsci was very much a thinker of “the international” referring to a grasp of the geopolitical circumstances of capitalism in shaping state development. How is this so?

Gramsci’s aim in and beyond Italian politics in 1919 was how to channel the revolutionary ferment of the time into the sort of organisational structures needed to accomplish revolutionary consciousness and power. My previous post detailed how Gramsci would come to conceive of the role of the ‘Modern Prince’ as the form to forge a new organisational and political party as a revolutionary agent. Earlier in his thinking Gramsci viewed the Soviets as the new institutions of self-government capable of expressing the sovereign autonomy of labour in the production and distribution of material goods in the internal and external relations of the State.

In one illuminating comment, Gramsci states that these workers’ organisations ‘must be further developed and systematised on a national and international basis: the anti-State must be organised’ within the productive process of capitalism in order to to control and immobilise it. It is worth citing him at length on issues of political organisation that go to the heart of recent debates on radical Left organising:

The Communist International is not a bureaucratic headquarters of “leaders” of the masses . . . it must consist of a network of proletarian institutions which themselves give birth to a complex and well-articulated hierarchy, capable of waging all aspects of the class struggle such as it takes place today both nationally and internationally.

Following World War I, the Entente Powers in Gramsci’s view had formed an enormous administrative and political apparatus that was ‘effectively the instrument of Anglo-Saxon world hegemony’. In anticipation of the global reach of industrial and international organisation – in today’s parlance transnational capitalism – Gramsci makes explicit reference to ‘the global politico-economic system controlled by Anglo-Saxon capitalism’. Recall that this is in 1919. As argued some time ago in my article ‘Waiting for Gramsci’, it is always therefore rash to assume that Gramsci refused the international dimension any constitutive status, as a causal factor, in his analysis of historical development and social transformation.

Perhaps, then Gramsci’s insights can still clarify today’s world in relation to his activism within the Comintern and with reference to his understanding ‘the international’, rather than him simply becoming a flippant reference point for the political class. In order to generate ‘teeming communist forces’ the immediate task for Gramsci was to organise ‘from the base upwards, from the inner reality of the industrial process, from the capillary sources of capitalist profit’. These are conclusions that surely have contemporary resonance and relevance like never before.

Adam David Morton

 

Monumentalising Revolution

‘. . . we begin to recognise the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled’ Walter Benjamin

This epigraph from the critical theorist Walter Benjamin prompts a number of reflections about the role of monumental architecture in shaping state-led projects of modernism. Architecture, after all, is a way of defining the ideas of an epoch as well as materially representing state codifications of national politics and identity.

Specifically, this comment provokes a number of thoughts about my current research project on the Monument to the Revolution in Mexico City, which I presented at the 48th annual Society for Latin American Studies (SLAS) conference.

My argument is that the Monument to the Revolution is one of the foremost commemorative spatial sites of state power in Mexico City. Completed on 20 November 1938, the monument has served as the stage for official ceremonies remembering and honouring the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) and its heroes ever since. As Thomas Benjamin has argued, the Monument to the Revolution was built to heal the wounds of different factions that divided the revolution and weakened the development of the emerging post-revolutionary institutional political order. Its primary purpose has been and remains the legitimisation of state power and authority.

The site of the Monument to the Revolution was originally proposed in 1897 as the Federal Legislative Palace under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911). But after years of ‘military Diazpotism’, the construction was abandoned after the outbreak and unfolding of revolution. Following the institutionalisation of the revolution through the state in the 1930s, plans to convert the site and indeed the revolution itself into a monument were proposed and completed.

Subsequently, the site on Plaza de la República in Mexico City has been the location for official ceremonies remembering and honouring revolutionary heroes on 20 November, Revolution Day. Since 1942 the ashes or mortal remains of a pantheon of revolutionary heroes have been interned in the bases of the monument. Venustiano Carranza (1942), Francisco I. Madero (1960), Plutarco Elias Calles (1969), Lazaro Cárdenas (1970), and Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa (1976) were all transferred to the pillars of the monument. The fetishism of the monument has also included souvenir postcards; a $4 peso stamp was launched with its image in 1934; a $200 peso coin was released in 1985 with the monument as backdrop; and a centenary $100 new peso banknote was released in 2010 with the monument’s logo.

As invaluable as previous scholarship is in terms of tracing the history of the monument, it is important to develop a spatialised view of this commemorative site, meaning a recognition of space as a product of interrelations, the existence of a multiplicity of trajectories that coexist, and a plurality of competing struggles. Also, it is crucial to develop a temporal understanding of struggles over space, meaning awareness of time as overlapping, plural, and coeval rather than as a flat horizon. In this manner the geographer Doreen Massey has referred to the importance of prompting questions about the multiplicity of trajectories in time-space.

I have carried these insights into my new research on the monument based on archival work at the Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) in Mexico City that has produced some 200 plus original documents accessing historical and photographic material as well as new developments linked to the monumental site itself. The above archival image is of anti-riot tanks on the streets on the sixth anniversary of an attack against a demonstration of 10,000 students that marched to the monument, later known as The Corpus Christi Massacre (10 June 1971), which led to some 50 deaths and “disappeared” victims at the hands of a state-financed paramilitary group known as Los Halcones. The impetus for this research flips out of my new book on Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).

In particular, my interests are drawn in this research to a little noted insight from Antonio Gramsci on the ‘material structure of ideology’: prompting attention to the role of architecture, street lay-outs, and street names in order to ‘inculcate the habit of assessing the forces of agency in society with greater caution and precision’.

With that in mind, renovations to the monumental site were announced in 2010 with the Mayor of the Government of the Federal District, Marcelo Ebrard, remarking that the recuperation of public space would be accompanied by the remembrance of the great achievements of the Mexican Revolution, including labour rights, agrarian reform, access to education and health, Mexican nationalism, and, of course, the expropriation of petroleum. The Monument to the Revolution and the Plaza de la República – a space of 49,000 square metres – has now been completely renovated. At a cost of around $25 million, the restoration includes a new observation deck (or mirador)—reached via a new glass elevator located in the monument’s central axis—that offers 360° views of Mexico City; new nocturnal illumination; the new “Adelita Café” and gift shop; working water fountains; and the reopening of the National Museum of the Revolution. On 20 November 2010 with the reinauguration of the site, Marcelo Ebrard called for the realisation of a “new revolution” in the country but via a peaceful route based on democratic norms and the retaking of the ideals of the armed struggle that exploded in 1910 for greater social justice. He declared: ‘the new Plaza de la República will soon reunite us to celebrate the triumph of the left and the values advanced in Mexico’.

In terms of capturing a spatial-temporal analysis of the Monument to the Revolution, I suggest in my paper a threefold periodisation that makes better sense of its contemporary history. These interconnected conceptions of space and time include the periods of: (1) State Power (1933-1968)—when state space was itself represented in its directly “political” sense at the site; (2) State Crisis (1968-1985)—the apogee of collective social protests and violent suppression; and (3) State Rollback (1982-present)—the era in which the site was almost abandoned in step with the rise of the purely “economic” expression of neoliberal power accompanied by continued redemptive forms of collective resistance.

My aim in writing up the paper for journal publication is to reveal the Monument to the Revolution as a profoundly ambiguous carrier of utopian promise and how the present generation may communicate with the hopes of past generations. The significance of this architecture may then still turn on the effective participation of the present generation in shaping the utopian desires of the oppressed, linked to ongoing past and present social struggles.

Adam David Morton

Enrique Semo and the Limits of Neoliberalism II

In the second and final part of his essay entitled ‘Los límites del neoliberalism’ in the Mexican weekly magazine Proceso (14 April), the historian Enrique Semo has delivered an excoriating critique of the iniquities of capitalism.

As detailed in my earlier blog entry, Semo has crafted the rise of neoliberalism in Mexico as the latest in a series of revolutions from above or, drawing from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, as successive passive revolutions that have shaped Mexican state formation. Instances of passive revolution involve a contradictory combination of forces – merging processes of revolution and restoration – to result ultimately in the continuation of the old political order and, commonly, the furtherance of capitalist accumulation processes.

According to Semo, neoliberalism is the latest epoch of passive revolution in the history of Mexico (1982-2012), following the eighteenth century era of Bourbon reforms from 1780 to 1810; and the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz in the years 1880 to 1910. ‘Like in the past’, Semo writes, ‘Mexico continues to be a dependent country in which the great impulses of change do not come from its internal reality, but are subordinate to the movements whose epicentre is the developed countries’. Perhaps there is an echo here of Gramsci’s own comment in the Prison Notebooks on the condition of passive revolution as a situation when ‘the impetus of progress is not tightly linked to a vast local economic development . . . but is instead the reflection of international developments which transmit their ideological currents to the periphery – currents born of the productive development of the more advanced countries’.

The criticisms proffered by Semo on the limits of neoliberalism are wide-ranging and incisive. The present period is witness to the indisputable worldwide hegemony of financial capital; the dominance of transnational corporations and the increased power of capital vis-à-vis labour; global networks of criminality and drug trafficking; an informal economy that has acquired a structural character – transformed into a ‘hallucinating chronic surplus of workers’ – with some 50 per cent of the Mexican workforce located in precarious conditions; and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has signalled the death knell to collective land rights and the end to agrarian reform. Mexico has been put up for sale and sold to transnational capital; something graphically captured in the cartoon accompanying Semo’s second essay in Proceso – reproduced above – of the statue of the Angel of Independence in Mexico City (completed in 1910) ignominiously bundled into a contemporary shopping trolley.

Just as Stuart Hall recently relayed and demolished the geopolitical and country-specific long march of the ‘neoliberal revolution’ in the UK, then Semo has equally presented with both skill and sophistication the main contours and injustices of neoliberalism in Mexico.

For Semo, one of the main challenges to this revolution from above called neoliberalism is the popular expression of democracy, despite massive electoral fraud in Mexico in 1988 and 2006. Indeed, one of the key findings in my book Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011) which also raises the relevance of passive revolution, is that so-called “democratic transition” is actually a specific expression of passive revolution, linked to the organisation and reproduction of dominant class practices. What is Mexico’s pathway out of the stalemate between its neoliberal technocrats and popular sectors?

On this conundrum radical politics becomes somewhat diluted. For Semo, progressive change through the electoral route is advocated by supporting the presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador and initiating widespread social mobilisation before and/or after the July 2012 elections. ‘A Left that is as heterogeneous at present as that in Mexico or Latin America’, Semo writes, ‘cannot go beyond modifying the functions of capitalism’. According to this view, fighting neoliberalism does not mean transcending capitalism.

In a region in which Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and her administration announced on 16 April the nationalisation of YPF, the former state oil firm, Semo sketches similar populist and leftist policies. Corruption and clientelism are to be restrained; a new agrarian politics based on food sovereignty is to be ensured; fiscal exemptions for large corporations are to be reduced; social welfare policies are to be introduced; the reform of NAFTA is advocated; and the free movement of migration is proposed.

But as David Ruccio, one of the leading heterodox economists on Latin American development and globalisation has summarised, what needs to be put on the agenda more explicitly is the simple idea that those who actually produce the surplus of capitalism should be allowed to take control of the appropriation and distribution of that surplus.

As the backbone of my book on Mexico attests, radical social movements propelling new cycles of class struggle are at the forefront of urban and rural resistance contesting state power in Mexico and Latin America. Yet little attention is cast to these forms of class struggle in Semo’s synopsis. A resulting perilous oversight is that the radical populism of leftist governments in Mexico and Latin America might actually result in new restorative strategies of passive revolution rather than the creation of non-capitalism or socialism.

It is, therefore, to creating new ways out of the historical structure of passive revolution by conceiving and putting into practice anti-capitalist social organisations in concrete sites and spaces of struggle that attention should now turn.

Adam David Morton

Turkey: what kind of a ‘passive revolution’?

Following the June 2011 elections, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (pictured) stands as the most successful prime minister in Turkey’s history after winning, since 2002, a third successive victory as leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The AKP, having won 50 percent of the parliamentary vote and 326 seats in the 550-member legislature, is poised to engage in further fundamental social, political and economic change.

A lively debate is proceeding across academic and media circles in Turkey about the AKP’s success and its relationship with capitalism. One leading voice in this debate is Cihan Tuğal whose Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism utilises the concept of ‘passive revolution’ as developed by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci to explain the dominance of secularist capitalism in Turkey.

As I make clear in my recent book, Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development, a ‘passive revolution’ refers to conditions in which aspects of capitalist development are either instituted and/or expanded, resulting in both ‘revolutionary’ rupture and a ‘restoration’ of class rule. Historical examples could include the Italian Risorgimento (1861), the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), or modern Turkish state formation following the Ottoman Reforms and the institutionalisation of capitalism thereafter (1919-1923). Describing this concept in 60 seconds on YouTube, I stress that a passive revolution can actually involve processes of revolutionary upheaval that become displaced to result in the reconstitution of new forms of capitalist order.

I recently discussed the nature of Turkey’s passive revolution at the international conference on ‘Religion, Civil Society and Political Society in Gramsci’ held on the island of Büyükada in İstanbul and hosted by the Felsefe ve Sosyal Araştırmalar Topluluğu Derneği (fesatoder). My paper, ‘A Critique of Passive Revolution in Turkey: The Limits of Sociological Marxism’, was based on a forthcoming article in Praksis, a journal that aims to defend the role of historical materialism in the social sciences.

My argument is that Tuğal decontextualises and detaches the concept from Gramsci’s original usage and that this gives rise to misdiagnoses of the operations of power in Turkey and of the resilience of the liberal-conservative power bloc that Tuğal wants to combat. Nowhere is this more clearly evident than in Tuğal’s interview with Today’s Zaman—a conservative English-language daily in Turkey—that views the rise of AKP rule as benevolent.

The problem here is that the condition of passive revolution is not a literally passive process. It is often a ruptural (sometimes violent) struggle between classes that emerge in contexts of social, political and economic upheaval whilst carrying continuities with the previous social order. As a consequence, what is missing in Tuğal’s analysis of AKP rule is: (1) a tracking of the continuities of neoliberal policies identified through the AKP’s class, ideology and state practices that have heightened economic exclusion and social polarisation; and (2) a more engaged focus on forms of struggle and practices of resistance including analysis of new spaces of utopian vision, such as the tekel workers’ strike—initiated in 2009 against the closure of 12 factories run by the state-owned tobacco and alcohol company and sold to British and American Tobacco.

These features of social struggle should accompany any account of the reordering of hegemony in Turkey through AKP rule and the restructuring of contexts of capital accumulation through conditions of passive revolution.

Adam Morton