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Roger Farr, "Gramsci is Dead"

Gramsci is Dead

Roger Farr


Reviewing Richard J.F. Day (2005) Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements. Toronto/London: Between the Lines/Pluto Press.

It appears that Antonio Gramsci’s death certificate has been signed by anarchists.

In Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements, Richard Day reassesses from an anarchist perspective the “logic of hegemony” that unites classical Marxism and liberalism, and declares that this logic has been “exhausted” by recent social movements. To support his argument that certain strains of contemporary struggle have broken with this logic in favour of “direct affinity” and “structural renewal”, terms he recovers from Landauer and Kropotkin, Day examines several examples of autonomous organizing and offers new readings, informed by post-structuralism and autonomist theory, of classical anarchism. Achieving an admirable balance between the demands of high-theory and the need to make his argument comprehensible, Day makes an important contribution to social theory in general, and to “post-anarchist” theory in particular. While this book is certain to be controversial among activists (the critique of “the politics of demand and recognition”), academics (the truncated argument and polemical tone) and anarchists of every stripe (the authority granted to Marxist theory at the expense of the diverse, contemporary anarchist movement), in short, Day’s entire audience, it should nevertheless be read by anyone who is serious about creating radical, anti-authoritarian alternatives to the market and the state.

Gramsci is Dead is organized inductively. The first chapter examines a number of “do-it-yourself” tendencies, from crusty punks to social centres to direct action casework. Here Day draws extensively on interviews, conducted as part of the Affinity Project (affinityproject.org) at Queen’s University in Ontario, with people actually involved in these struggles. This information and context is then put on the back burner for a couple of chapters, while Day surveys the theory of hegemony from Gramsci and Lenin to Laclau and Mouffe. Chapters four and five evaluate “Utopian Socialism Then ... and Now”. Chapter four offers a reading of classical anarchist theory that reasserts much of Engels’ criticism brought against anarchism in “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”, while chapter five uses concepts derived from Deleuze and Guattari and Foucault to rescue select anarchists (Landauer and Kropotkin) from the old dustbin. The last two chapters link this new “post-anarchist” subjectivity (exemplified in the figure of Deleuze and Guattari’s “smith”) to “the coming communities” (Agamben). The book culminates in a call for a post-hegemonic “affinity of affinities”—a “groundless solidarity” (18) between the global North and South; the latter, Day argues, has already provided the initiative and guidance for how to realize the coming “exodus” from neoliberalism (148-9).

Rather than analyze the details of Day’s argument, it would be more practical in this short review to focus on the two terms that provide a structure to his discussion: “hegemony” and “affinity”. The preliminary definition of hegemony Day offers is “a process through which various factions struggle for meaning, identity and political power” (6). Hegemonic political strategies are those which seek to achieve their effects over the widest terrain possible, and as such they are closely bound to the nation state. While the term hegemony tends to be equated with words like “domination”, “subjugation”, “coercion” and “oppression”, carrying negative connotations, it is important to note that in Gramsci’s work, hegemony is used positively, because it is always consensual and “popular”. Whereas early uses of the term refer only to the political domination of one group by another, perhaps by the use of military force, the Gramscian theory, which makes some significant departures from objectivist Marxism, holds that hegemony must constantly be reproduced through the coordination and maintenance of voluntary social alliances to ensure that antagonistic classes internalize a set of perceived “common interests”. An example might be unions fighting to keep a factory open to protect jobs, while the state acts as “neutral” mediator between workers and owners. Here, the hegemony of production is secured through a perceived coincidence of interests (jobs) between labour and capital, even though such an arrangement clearly perpetuates the exploitation of one group by the other. For Gramsci, and many of his later “post-Marxist” followers, this meant that it was necessary to develop political and cultural “strategies” to help the proletariat to assert its hegemony over society. If successful, this proletarian hegemony would in turn dominate all forms of cultural and political expression, providing a “correct” hegemonic social relation.

Day believes that the logic of hegemony has itself assumed a hegemonic function in social and cultural theory, leading to what Jeremy Valentine has called “the hegemony of hegemony”. This is not simply a clever coinage: Day is convincing when he returns to Locke and to Marx and Engels to show how the logic of hegemony has made it difficult to imagine modes of opposition outside its scope. For example, Day shows how the “reform or revolution” debate between Marxists and liberals is in fact animated by a shared logic of hegemony (as always, interlocutors need some sort of common ground to carry out a debate). While reform-oriented struggles (Day includes post-Marxist calls for “radical democracy” here) demand that the state “recognize” various individual “rights” in the form of laws or policies intended to cover a national terrain in one massive sweep, such struggles leave the sovereignty or legitimacy of the state intact. More specifically, such juridico-democratic initiatives, in Day’s analysis, actually help to increase the state’s hegemony. With each “compromise” it makes, the state (on behalf of capital) redeems itself as “responsive” and “inclusive”; meanwhile, it uses this improvement to its “legitimate” power to further combat and/or capture anti-statist autonomy wherever it appears. Likewise, when revolutionary leftists imagine overthrowing, or seizing, the state or its apparatuses, they also, in Day’s analysis, are working within the logic of hegemony. At best, such revolutionary schemes can aspire to develop “counter-hegemonic” strategies that basically substitute one form of hegemony with another. Insofar as they both seek to universalize, or hegemonize, their political programs en masse via institutional, national and even supranational structures, liberalism and Marxism have much more in common than they might wish to recognize.

So what is the alternative to the logic of hegemony? To answer this question, Day turns to German anarchist Gustav Landauer to recover the concepts of “affinity” and “structural renewal”. In a remarkably prophetic tract published in 1910, titled “Destroying the State by Creating Socialism”, Landauer declares that radicals should “under no circumstances have anything to do with politics”, which he defines as “the rule of the privileged with the help of fictions” (a formulation which precedes Gramsci’s use of “hegemony” by several decades). In place of such “politics”, Landauer calls for a “direct affinity of real interests”, an anti-political defection from any dependence on, or expectations of, the state or the party, a decisively anarchist sentiment one could trace back further to Kropotkin’s 1887 essay “Act for Yourselves”. Although it presents itself as a “thing”, for Landauer the state was more effectively resisted when it was understood as “a relationship between human beings, a way by which people relate to one another”. Anarchists can destroy this thing-that-is-not-a-thing, Landauer argues, by “entering into new relationships, by behaving differently, [because] we are the state—and are it as long as we are not otherwise, as long as we have not created the institutions that constitute a genuine community and society of human beings.”

Day believes that Landauer’s call for “direct affinity of real interests” is being answered a century later. Arguing that the tactics of the “newest social movements” (i.e. post-1980s) are “not oriented to allowing a particular group of people [read “class”] to remake a nation state or a world in its own image”, Day concludes that such movements are attempts to “determine the conditions of [our] own existence, while allowing and encouraging others to do the same” (13). While this might sound like wishy-washy relativism, it is important to note that by “others”, Day means other projects that are rooted in autonomy, de-colonization, and “affinity-based practices” (13). His examples of such projects include “asambelistas in Argentina, LPM activists in South Africa, Zapatista villagers in Chiapas, Mohawk warriors within/against North America, squatters in London” (203).

In the end, Day wants his readers to affirm the “groundless solidarity” which links these various struggles for autonomy and self-determination to one another, across or beyond any central axis of identity (19). In this respect, his conclusion resembles the one made by the autonomist Marxists, where social groups struggle to overcome their decomposition by normalized categories and divisions (class, gender, race) through a shared opposition to capitalist accumulation, except that here, the concept of “infinite responsibility”, a rather heady ethico-political form of contract borrowed from Derrida and Levinas, facilitates the articulation of linkages across “decentralized networks of alternatives” (210).

I wish that at this crucial point, instead of returning to the post-structuralists, Day had found a way to integrate into his concluding chapters the diverse perspectives of the contemporary anarchist milieu he touches on in the first chapter. In particular, I would have liked to have seen a discussion of the affinity-based projects he uses as examples (asambelistas, Zapatistas, indigenous warrior societies) in the context of the often overlooked green, insurrectionary and post-situationist critiques of technology, organization and the spectacle. This was a missed golden opportunity in a book that otherwise makes a significant contribution to anarchist theory. Hopefully subsequent writers will be able to add this component to the valuable spade-work Day has done for us.