We live in regressive times. Everywhere we are assailed and cut down so that the worst among us may have a chance to assert their weakness as a strength. This is not a question only of the right. Parts of our so-called left are equally invested in this scene. Now, the “left” is that part of the political spectrum that is supposed to hold back the most egregious onslaughts of an increasingly irrational and suicidal capitalism hell-bent on the annihilation of everything. Yet, a more cynical view might venture that, today, the real function of the “left” (that is, not the movements and manifestations of multitudes of people that exceed the framework of clear political positions, but the politicians that appear the day after so as to give some coherence and institutional gravitas to things) is simply there in order to neutralize all that is actually happening in the political arena across the globe.
Take Gramscianism, as it has emerged academically, via a renewal of philology of all things!, in the last several years. One is always put on guard as to all the revelations that go beyond the 1985 classic Hegemony and Social Strategy by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Cultural Studies, Latinamericanism in its subalternist and post-subalternist modalities, radical Lacanians on the left—they all got it wrong! There is a more intricate and complex concept of hegemony which not only goes to show that people have not done their homework (for these schoolmasters, it is very important to point out that some people have not done their homework), but also that bourgeois conceptions of things have dominated over the last several decades (and by bourgeois conceptions we are supposed to project all-things-post-structuralist—bad because those Pos-Mo theorists are not political enough). No, hegemony is none of that! What, you might ask, is true Gramscian hegemony? Peter Thomas has done us the favor of boiling it down for us in a recent article: “After (Post) Hegemony,” in Contemporary Political Theory (2020).
Thomas establishes that the concept of hegemony was central to political developments prior to the publication of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks in the early post-war years. But it is only the motley and divergent accounts of hegemony that emerge, especially in the 1970s, that begin to coalesce around a concept of hegemony that can provide a realistic analysis of modern political orders and their contemporary transformations. The relevance of this paradigm has been challenged. And Thomas’ article seeks to give an account of the major objections so as to expose to what extent the proposal to go beyond hegemony effectively results in the rediscovery of precisely those political problems to which the emergence of hegemony, in the Marxist tradition, was designed to be a strategic response. Thomas is not only intent on offering a proper account of the text of the Prison Notebooks, he also wants to insist on the relevance of hegemonic politics today.
Thomas has three major interlocutors. Those who see hegemony as a historical fact that has come and gone (this is the temporal concept of hegemony). Those who work out a fundamental critique of hegemony as the concept (Latinamericanists like Alberto Moreiras, Gareth Williams, and Jon Beasley Murray, who dispute hegemony in general). And those who seek to expand the theory of hegemony via the insights of post-hegemony (the ideas cited in this regard are those of Benjamín Arditi and Yannis Stavrakakis). In their representativeness, these three variants encapsulate, for Thomas, the prevalent presuppositions of posthegemonic thought, and thus of a distorted Gramsci: first, the “pre-Gramscian conception of hegemony; second, their acceptance of the hegemony of Laclau and Mouffe’s conception of hegemony; and third, their understanding of hegemony as a universalizing system of power and domination.”
Thomas follows these critical remarks with two sections that propose a new image of Gramscian hegemony. The first is titled “Hegemony after Gramsci” and the second “Hegemony after Passive Revolution.” Here it is a question of calling out the lack of engagement with Gramsci’s writings, which lead to an undue emphasis on consent. And one of the central questions is centered on the fact that affect was not something ignored by Gramsci. The second order of objections concerns the way in which Laclau and Mouffe’s work can or cannot be taken as a paradigm that could “exhaust hegemony in all of its variants.” The short version is that it cannot. It only accounts for the reality of bourgeois revolutions. Or, in a different register, their intervention, according to Thomas, can only be understood under the aegis of passive revolution, which is to say the manner in which the bourgeois revolution came to orient the work and action of subaltern sectors. And it is this form of hegemony which Thomas claims became dominant in intellectual circles. This is the key to Thomas’ argument: When posthegemonic theorists propose to go beyond the understanding of hegemony made influential … by Laclau and Mouffe, it can therefore be argued that they are in fact proposing to go beyond hegemony conceived in terms of the passive revolutionary processes of bourgeois hegemony, rather than beyond hegemony as such.”
But hegemony is none of that. What is it? “The problem of hegemony as leadership functioned as a strategic perspective that guided and structured [Gramscis’s] approach to the concrete task of political organization.” Hegemony is “a method of political work, or of political leadership understood as pedagogical practice.” How?
Here it is: “hegemony in these texts and interventions signified the capacity to propose potential solutions to the social and political crises afflicting Italian society, with the aim of mobilizing the active engagement of popular social strata in a project of social transformation, in opposition to the passive assent to existing hierarchies secured by Fascist dictatorship. This conception of hegemony as a strategic perspective and practice remains central to Gramsci’s carceral writings. It is the basis for his argument that in 1930 the condition of subalternity can be defined in terms of the incapacity of subaltern classes and social groups consciously to assume the tasks of selfdirection, since they are subjected to the organizational and institutional forms of the existing dominant classes (Q 3, §14, pp. 299–300). Hegemony in this sense is also central to Gramsci’s argument in 1931 that ‘the most realistic and concrete’ meaning of ‘democracy’ involves conceiving it in terms of a hegemonic relation in which there is a ‘becoming directive’ [dirigente] of popular social strata…”
And this is the thing about philological schoolmasters: they confuse the truth of their textual proof for relevance. They assume the authority of their text so blindly that it does not ever occur to them to ask if that truth is worth salvaging given their historical moment. They cannot ask this question because doing so would put in danger the investment of so many years burning the midnight oil, straining their eyesight. I find it absolutely ridiculous.
Is not the idea that political work, or political leadership, can be reduced to a pedagogical practice the most regressive and appalling way of understanding all of our recent history? Is that not a slap in the face of just about everyone who has walked out to protest all over the world in the last twenty years? Were not the “leaders” that so pedagogically set out to take over things in the last twenty years the ones that truly needed to shut up and take some notes? Have we not had enough of these pedagogues that always manage to reduce mass insurrections, like we have never seen before, to petty narcissistic party fratricide?
Would that Gramsci, the neo-Hegelian productivist in contempt of the masses that (he thinks) do not know what is best for them, were more like Laclau and Mouffe. Please! I would gladly take that over the Gramsci that the new philology parrots only to convince itself that there is something political to its not even disavowed elitism.