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What can Gramsci teach us about the current economic crisis?


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:

Adam Morton

Published inGlobal Justice


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