The technification of thinking: Notes on Gramsci’s Prison Writings (V). by Gerardo Muñoz

In the “Fourth Prison Notebook”, Gramsci offers a treatment of the science of “historical materialism”. A science that is not to be understood as a region of thought, but rather as a totalization and condition of possibility of the very opening of a new epoch. At some point in the notebook, Gramsci writes the following (which is also exemplary exposition of the reduction of his program): “As a matter of fact, historical materialism has no need for extraneous support: it is itself so robust that the old world turns to it to supply its own arsenal with some more effective weapons. This means that while historical materialism is not subjected to hegemonies, it has itself stared to exercise a hegemony over the old intellectual world. (156). We do not want to put too much pressure on the term “intellectual” here, but it is a notable expression. There is a dual logic of “hegemony” at play: hegemony is both the archê that can sustain an epoch phantasmatically never fully closing it; while, at the same time, it is also the opening of the epoch of the “reign of freedom”, which is the discovery of historical materialism as a science of totality. When Gramsci writes that historical materialism has potential hegemony over the totality of the intellectual world, he is strongly positing a civilizational principle as a new conception of the spiritualization of the world. From this basic condition of transitional political thinking, it is difficult to see how Gramscianism can ever be freed from Hegelianism, given that Hegelianism is what informs substantially the theory of hegemonic reduction. Hegemony: what reduces the world.

         At the same time, and in order to secure this transition to this new epochal principle, another operation comes to the forefront: to obtain hegemony over the totality of the old intellectual world requires a technified form of thinking as such vis-à-vis its intellectual class as an active player in the process. A few pages later after he treats the exception to epochal hegemonies, Gramsci writes that: “…the importance of the technique of thinking in the construction a pedagogical program; here, again, one cannot make the comparison between the technique of thinking and the old rhetorics…the technique of thinking cannot be compared to these things, which is why one can say that it is as important to teach this technique as it is to reading and writing.” (160). This thematizes the political hegemony that harbors above the alleged organic development of the new epoch; as if, the menace of the deviation from hegemony is a “bad adventure” in thought, a derailing of intensity that needs to be straighten out by the force of pedagogic reinforcement. Gramsci recognizes that thought does not have a technique, but it is in virtue of said absence that its instrumentalization must be set tightly. There is no doubt that this is catastrophic. This is the internal catastrophe of any thought when reduced to hegemony. By positing thought as pedagogical techne, Gramsci cancels any possible relation to the world. The world has already been annihilated, since it has been taken to the limit of its realization, making it only accessible from the condition of the specie’s alienation with reality. To a certain extent, pedagogy and the “common school” program stands for the performance of the laws that make up the new science of history. Hegemony becomes the accessory that guarantees the entry into a theoretical totality that pushes out any relation with the world. 

There is a “genetic problem” that can be contested even at the level of its own “scientific” assumptions. Already Hans Blumenberg in The Genesis of the Copernican World (1975) argued that the configuration of a totality of knowledge is impossible given its heterogenous conditions and “inherent pressures of its workings”. There problem of epochal hegemony, then, it is not that it elevates a supreme and all-inclusive principle; but rather that, as a concept, it cannot name a process of rationalization required to advance a civilizatory principle. Indeed, Gramsci calls “the conquest of the historical world, a new civilization” (164). This is why Gramscian appeals again and again to Catholic ecclesiastical administrative capacities for the formation of the new communist integral state. However, whereas for Weber “bureaucratic rationalization” was an organic process within history; for Gramsci, on the contrary, it is conceptual and pedagogical. In other words, it is a mimesis that transforms itself as a command of the Party, the militant, and disciplinary orientation. The Gramscian cosmos of production is a secular form of angeology for the intellectual class that must guide the working class (203). Of course, as we know, angels are not mere mediators between God and the sublunar world, they are also the keepers that glorify the dogma. And dogma here is the secular science of historical materialism. 

One last point about the date of this notebook (1932). This is most certainly a Gramsci that is no longer the one writing in the 1910s full of enthusiasm and good convictions; a Gramsci that could sense the trembling of gates of the revolution conquering the world. On the contrary, the Gramsci writing in the wake of the 1930s is one that is already noticing that “workerism” is dominion and form, or form that is already the byproduct of total mobilization. It is no coincidence that Ernst Jünger’s The Worker is published this year. At this point the worker is no longer a fixed transcendental category of the philosophy of history, but rather an energetic gestalt driven by mobilization and will to power. This means that formation – giving form – is always infinite, while the world remains objectivized into this total encompassing movement. Gramsci would mobilize intellectuals – but also thinking and imagination – to accomplish the labors of hegemonic politics.

The problem, already in 1932, should have been contested at the level of the form of life and distance between domination and world that I call post-hegemony. The false exit was taken: the multiplication of the modes of production, including the production of an “intellectual class” in an attempt to tilt the bourgeois order towards true hegemony. By 1930s it becomes clear that Gramsci cannot stand up to a problem oriented at the level of the critique of metaphysics. By adopting the science of historical materialism, Gramsci seems only capable of giving us a regional political practice masked by the metaphyisical pretensions of universality and totality. It wasn’t enough then, and it is most definitely not enough today. 

On Jesuit militancy: Notes on Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks (IV). by Gerardo Muñoz

As I continue the systematic reading of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, one can finally provide substance to the thesis that gramscianism amounts to a sort of new priesthood of the political. The question here is about the specific substance and form of the theological. Most definitely, Gramsci is pursuing a strong theological position that is not reducible to monasticism, nor his he interested in subscribing a counter-modern Christian ethos against the modern “gentleman”. In this sense, Gramsci is a modernist tout court. Now, it seems to me that underneath the secularization of his political subjectivation is Jesuitism. This makes sense for at least two reasons. First, Jesuitism is a modern attempt of deification in this world through discipline. But, secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Jesuitism is a practice that serves to expand the energy of political militancy. As Alberto Moreiras suggested a while ago in an essay on the onto-theology of militancy, the reduction of the subjection into action has an important point of inflection in the Jesuitical practice. 

So, what would happen if we read Gramsci when he claims that he prefers a politician that “knows everything” and that is the most “knowledgeable” not as a Machiavellian strategy, but rather as a Jesuitical exercise? Leaving aside the paradoxical instrumentalization of Machiavelli’s political lesson (paradoxical because if political virtue is about keeping the arcana of power at a distance, then why reveal it?), one could very well say that Jesuitism is not just about the management of contingent events, but rather about the administration of habits and practices of the subject in order to reduce any interference of the event. Jesuitism, then, is an instrument to block and reduce all exterior turbulence vis-à-vis the very capture of the heteronomic intrusion. This capture accomplishes two things at once: from the outside it initiates a process of controlling the irruption of heterogeneity; from the inside, it is a technique of subjective militant discipline. It seems to me that Gramsci was not unaware of this theological apparatus when, in the third notebook, he writes the following: 

“New orders which have grown up since then have very little religious significance but a great “disciplinary” significance for the mass of the faithful. They are, or have become, ramifications and tentacles of the Society of Jesus, instruments of “resistance” to preserve political positions that have been gained, not forces of renovation and development. Catholicism has become “Jesuitism”. Modernism has not created “religious orders”, but a political party – Christian Democracy”.  (332)

Now we are in a better position to state that Gramsci’s political theology is compartmentalized in the specificity of Jesuitism. Indeed, he himself reads the transformation of the Church into Jesuitical practice of resistance as parallel to the bourgeois Christian democratic party formation. Does not Gramscianism amount to the same, that is, a combination of party formation and disciplinary militant form? Indeed, Jesuitical practice contains the production of form. Here we see the dimension of Gramsci’s anti-populism, since the main strategy is not to “construct a people”, but rather to build an army of militant community of believers. Any study of Gramscian political theology has to begin by displacing the veneer of political Machiavellism to the concrete practices propelled by theological Jesuitism.

Thus, the gestalt of the “new priest” is profoundly Jesuitical. As Walter Benjamin noted in the fragment “Zu Ignatius von Loyola” (1920), the practice of “consciousness transformation” becomes the way to submit to the spiritual authority. This mechanic domestication of habits becomes the sacrament that regulates the interior life of the militant. A question emerges from all of this: is there a counter-figure to sacramental militancy? 

On the metropolitan civilization: Notes on Gramsci’s Pre-Prison Writings (II). by Gerardo Muñoz

There is really not much that I can add about the young Gramsci writing in the L’Ordine Nouvo during the ’20s. I think Alberto Moreiras has already done a fabulous job of showing the underlying productionism of Gramsci’s knot around the Party, culture, subjects, and objects. Therefore, there is no need for me to gloss those arguments and their inscription in the context of Italian political history. Rather, I would only add a footnote to the question of productionism by focusing on some aspects of the short, albeit interesting, article “The Historical Role of the Cities” (1920). Here we are confronted with a Gramsci that appears as the defender of “urban civilization”, which is rather strange, but in any case, still very relevant. Insofar as today gramscianism is a cultural-political rhetoric of the enlightened metropolitan left, one could say that they are following Gramsci’s “original intuitions”. In this 1920 article, Gramsci argued that “the proletarian dictatorship will save the cities from ruin” (136). Like the foco guerrillero some decades later, this will to power will necessarily produce a “civil war in the countryside and will bind vast strata of impoverish peasants to the cities” (136).

Indeed, this is what historically ended up happing whether in contexts of “successful” revolutions or in instances of accelerated post-fordist capitalism. In other words, the destruction of what Carlo Levi called the communal form of life as an exodus to urban integration was, in the half of the twentieth century, one of the most radical spatial-political transformation of the dynamics of territorial power in the West. There was no modern revolution that stood “against the metropolitan domination”. On the contrary, every revolution was tailored as the full metropolitization of the national body. If we think about the Cuban Revolution of 1959 this is extremely clear: following the triumph of Fidel Castro & his men, there was a literal civil war in the Escambray highlands of the island that hunted any peasants that opposed the ‘integration process’ (hunted in the literarily sense, since the youth sent to the mountains to persecute the peasants were called cazabandidos). Parallel to the metropolitization as a total project, there was also a project of subjective transformation of the people into the metropolitan ethos. Hence, once again in the case of the Cuban revolution, all peasants were invited to the urban centers in a deescalating vector that ran from the countryside to the cities. When Gramsci defends the “modern industrial civilization” one must take him literarily: he is defending the a stealth metropolitization of public life.

Gramsci writes: “The decisive historical force, the historical force capable of creating an Italian state and firmly unifying the bourgeois class of all Italy, was Turin…but today Turin is not the capitalist city para excellence, but it is the industrial city, the proletarian city par excellence” (137). There are two movements here: on the one hand, Gramsci is anxious about the territorial fragmentation that is unable to make Italy a sovereign state that can coincide with its ‘people’. On the other hand, there is the assumption that any given city that holds the monopoly of production is already, sooner or later, the topos that will follow through with the revolution. This is true because, according to Gramsci, “the class of workers and peasants must set up  a strong network of workers and peasants to take over the national apparatuses of production and exchange, to acquire a keen sense of their economic responsibility and to give the workers a powerful and alert self-consciousness as producers” (138).

Of course, it follows that (and this is a teleology similar to what foquismo thought exactly forty years later), if there is a revolution in Milan, then there is a revolution at a national scale because “Milan is, effectively, the capital of the bourgeois dictatorship” (139). If for foquismo the starting point was a diffuse group of conscious revolutionaries in the highlands that will ignite the rebellion in the city; for Gramsci the rebellion in the city will allow for a revolt of the peasantry. Aside from having different starting points, what both Gramsci and foquismo have in common is the same teleological conception: this is a politics that is interested in “saving the metropolis” to reconstruct an artificial “national unity”.

The irony is that already in the 1960s the Gramscian dream of a metropolitan civilization was brought about in the post-Fordist regime of production which, as Marcello Tarì has shown in an important book about Italian Autonomia, realized a new systemic conception of power tied to a hegemonic metropolitan way of life. But perhaps this is specific to Italian Autonomia, since it speaks to the cosmos of socialism itself as a project tied to a “point de capiton” that regulates a “body” in the name of community. This operation, of course, seeks to suture fragmentation with the avatar of formal “social relations”. This is why the defense of the metropolitan city life is so important for Gramsci, which coincides with contemporary pseudo-radicals that propose a “democratic socialism” based on “this life”: it is a new form of domination that amounts to opening the flows of communication for “participatory subjects”. As Gramsci himself defines his communism in the article “The Communists Groups” (1920): “Communism as a system of new social relations can only become into being when material conditions are in place that permit it to come into being” (200). This is a good definition of a pastoral communism, “an integrated class” that has now become one with the metropolis.

A New Priest: Notes on Gramsci’s Pre-Prison Writings. by Gerardo Muñoz

While reading the articles of the young Antonio Gramsci (penned from 1914 to 1920) it becomes evident that he was a keen observer of the historical and geopolitical reality of his time. Gramsci was a realist thinker but of a strange kind. The emphasis on “faith”, for instance, runs through the articles conforming a providential design of history. There are many “entities” that incarnate this providentialism: the Party, the transitional state, the proletarian culture, the organizational discipline, and the productionism of the working class. In fact, all of these subjects are vicarious and obedient to historical developmentalism. In a way, Gramsci appears as a “new Priest” (humanist, Hegelian, and providential) rather than a “new Prince” (Machiavellian, contigent, desicionist), which has become the gentle image through which he is remembered today. The 1914-1920 newspaper articles are filled with theological deposits, but I will limit these notes to three subdivisions, which do not exhaust other possible combinations.

  • The Party. The conception of the “Party” is understood by Gramsci in the same way that official authorities of the Church understood the providential mission; that is, as “the structure and platform” for salvation. But it is also a subjunctivizing apparatus that demands submission and supreme cohesion under a party-culture. For instance, in “Socialism and Culture” (1916) he writes: “Culture is something quite different. It is the organization, the discipling of one’s inner self; the mastery of one’s personality, the attainment of a higher awareness, through which come to understand our value and plea within history, our proper function in life, our rights and duties” (9-10). So, for Gramsci, it is through the energic investment with the Party that one “becomes master of oneself, assert one’s own identity, to enter from choke and become an agent of order, but of one’s own order, one’s own disciplined dedication to an ideal” (11). In the same way that official Church administered the “soul” through a regulatory exercise of “sin”; Gramsci’s conception of the Party is limited to an administration of “revolutionary energy” vis-à-vis discipline and sacrifice in the name of an objective ideal of “philosophy of history”.


  • Faith. The notion of faith in Gramsci is intimately intertwined with History. To have faith is to “transcend” the otherwise empty void of History. In this well-known theological conception, faith is the force to have true “objects of History”. The object here means two things: both the intention and “end” to carry forth the revolutionary process. But faith here is nothing like the “knight of faith” who stands beyond the ethical and universalist positions. On the contrary, faith is always a communal faith of believers, whose are the resilient militants of the communist idea. As Gramsci says clearly in “The Conquest of the State” (1919): “And it must be ensured that the men who are active in them are communist, aware of the revolutionary mission that their institution must fulfill. Otherwise all our enthusiasm and faith of the working classes will not be enough to prevent the revolution from degenerating wretchedly…” (114). Or as confirmed in “History” (1916): “Our religion becomes, once again, history. Our father becomes; one again, man’s will and his capacity for action” (14). We see the double movement produced by the apparatus of “faith”: it unifies under a command (the Party), but it also instantiates an objectification to cover the void of History. Indeed, “life without an end’ is a ‘life not worth living”, says Gramsci. This particular instrumentalization of faith legitimizes the struggle against the bourgeois cosmos.


  • Order. Throughout these articles the defense of order is quite explicit. It is in this point where Gramsci comes closer to upholding a political theology that transposes the principles of liberalism unto “socialism”. He writes in “Three Principles and Three Kinds of Political order” (1917): “And the socialist program is a concrete universal; it can be realized by the will. It is a principle of order, of socialist order” (25). There is never a substantive idea of “order”, in the same way that there is no clear “transformation” of the state once the state has been occupied and functional to “administrating”, “managerial”, “productive systematization”, “vertical planning’, and “coordinating functions” (“The Conquest of the State”, 113). Gramsci goes as far as to say that “the proletarian state is a process of development…a process of organization and propaganda” (114). And although he claims that it is not, the occupation of the state is a pure “thaumaturgic” act pushed by the community of believers. Isn’t someone like Álvaro García Linera today a faithful follower of this strategy?

So, in this early Gramsci I find a priest rather than a modern prince. A priest driven by a substantive and coordinated theological effort to establish a voluntarist and teleological dogma for historical change, which really does not differ much from the principles of modern Liberalism and its potestas indirecta. It is interesting that in the last issue (1977) of the mythical Italian journal L’erba Voglio, there is a small satirical portrait of Gramsci dressed as a bishop with pen in hand, which speaks to the theological garments of Gramscianism well into our days. But the problem is not theology; it is rather that it is a theology of submission organized around order, reproduction, and history as idols in the name of consented domination.

Finally, I could very well imagine that some could rebuttal these theological imprints by claiming that this is only early Gramsci, and that things change later on. I am not too sure about this. It seems that this heuristic claim is analogous to Kafka’s “Leopards in the Temple” parable. In other words, isolating an “early” from a “late” Gramsci becomes a general ceremony to save the philosopher in spite of himself. But this is a self-defeating maneuvering from the very start.



*Image source: from the magazine L’erba Voglio, N.30, 1977.

Rough Notes on Antonio Gramsci’s Pre-Prison Writings. by Gareth Williams

  1. What Gramsci is, or appears to be:
  2. “Gramscianism” (here between October 1914 and June 1919) is an orthodox humanist Hegelianism.

Gramsci’s geopolitical world comprises Turin, Italy (as object of political commentary and an under-developed ethical state-form), Germany (as ethical state-form), England (as ethical state-form), France (as ethical state-form), and Russia (as revolutionary process and challenge to the previous ethical state-forms).

  1. The overall dispositive of writing in these pages is comprised of three essential historical determinations:
  • World War I:  shifts in the extension, dimension, and form of the capitalist mode of production.
  • The Russian Revolution, as apparently the least suitable (“Anti-Capital”) of environments for revolution. And yet . . .
  • The understanding of “socialist history” in relation to organization, consciousness, and the regional/national conditions of the capitalist mode of production, the coming revolution etc.
  1. The last of these three (c) is perhaps the most important for reading pre-prison Gramsci, since it leads to the question of how, and whether, Gramsci comprehends historicity in general, and the historicity of capitalism in particular. At this point there are a number of questions and problems herein, which Gramsci himself extends, naturalizes, and does not resolve.
  2. Why? Because he is a card-carrying orthodox Hegelian who puts the cart of Absolute Spirit (that is, his conclusions; the coming into being of the revolutionary dialectic of consciousness) before the horse (of historicity, or of analytic method etc). He does this in the name of objective commentary, knowledge, and therefore science. Socialist history remains internal to the dialectical relation between knowledge and Spirit; it is this enclosure and presupposition that establishes the “actuality” of the ground of his thinking, and also the idea that socialism, or communism, raise political thinking to the level of science. Absolute Spirit is the presupposition and structuring principle of Gramsci’s understanding of the entirety of Enlightenment history and of the coming politics. But does this not mean that Gramsci’s understanding of history is in fact groundless, or at the very least, myopic? Gramsci, like Hegel before him, and, indeed, like Marx to an extent, had already decided in what direction history was flowing and why.  “Spirit” is the moving forward of the new shape of the new era.  It is this glaring contradiction alone—between the claim to method and having decided on a prior conclusion regarding finality, or Absolute Spirit—that informs Gramsci’s understanding of a socialist epochality. While the proletariat is the determined negation of the bourgeoisie, the dialectical passage by which the proletariat ceases to be merely a negation of the bourgeoisie and becomes entirely Other is never really elucidated, other than by claiming the absolute reconciliation of the State-society relation at some point in the proletarian overtaking of the State and the full achievement of consciousness; the entirety of humanity coming into its own (humanity achieving its destinal completion). The signifier “Russia” is almost itself a stand-in for this constitutive lack, or absence.  As a result, the proletariat as the determined negation of the bourgeoisie is the positive content of (bourgeois-socialist-communist) progress in the direction of Spirit. The proletariat in the unfolding of its consciousness is the “not that” of the bourgeoisie; it is the bourgeoisie’s inverted positive, which, in Hegelian terms, could only ever be recognized as such from within the bourgeois dialectic of recognition, the dialectic of Lord and Bondsman in which both are recognized by the other, in their self-consciousness.

This is the heart of both Hegel and Gramsci’s essentially topological imagination (topos of recognition, the proximity of the common, friend-enemy relation etc; question: how could planetary revolution be imagined from within such a topological imagination?). One is left wondering, moreover, how a “true” revolution can be created by the dialectic of an inverted positive alone (again, the mere signifier “Russia” might appear to stand in as the resolution for that problem [?]). This might be why “true” revolution appears to be akin to the collapse of all mediation itself, in the name of “reconciliation”, or “Spirit” as the unity of all the different independent self-consciousnesses which, in their unification, enjoy perfect freedom and independence via the I that is we and the we that is every I (however, a world in which both I and Other disappear, it might be said, is no world; the world of absolute spirit can only be no world, because it has no movement). “True revolution” is the vanishing of mediation itself that has come about, somewhat mysteriously, via the (disciplined, disciplinary, moral) desire for absolute mastery. Is this a desire for an objectless world? To be master in the absence of the object—of the Other—? Can such a thing be possible? Obviously not. No language is given to the status of the object within the epoch of the collapse of all mediation, which is also referred to as “perfection”. From with the advent of “true revolution”, how could anything be grasped, dialecticized, actualized? Can there be a world in which the object—the Other—has no status? And yet Gramsci says that this arrival is inevitable, underway, realistic, already in the process of coming into being in consciousness.

  1. What Gramsci is not (or at least, not yet):
  • He is not a thinker of value, of surplus value, of commodity fetishism per se. He is a thinker of exploitation of the masses by the capitalists, and the place/role of these groupings in the overall terrain of national politics. Capital Volume I does not appear to be here in any specific way, though the Manifesto clearly is (perhaps excessively so).
  • He is not a thinker of anything that might be behind, beneath or beyond consciousness. He maintains no critical, or even agnostic, relation to the cogito. The proletariat exists internally to the epochality of the bourgeois cogito, as its negation. By definition, the proletariat does not think for itself (yet). Gramsci is a thinker of the proletarian amelioration of the cogito, but the cogito itself remains untouched. His thinking appears to be profoundly Cartesian (I think, I am).
  • He is not a thinker of language, of the signifier, metaphor, or of metaphor’s limits or decomposition(s)
  • He is not a thinker of the drives. Rather, he is a moralist. A thinker of the law, of mastery.
  • He is not a critic of “police thought”; on the contrary, “emancipation” is a variant manifestation of the police (discipline, order, morality, confession, self-other improvement, single-mindedness, organization of the army of the masses etc)
  • He is not a thinker of the decision
  • He is not a thinker of the relation between capital and the body; of gender; sexual difference (there is no reason to expect him to be so either).
  • He is not a thinker of the economy.
  1. Up to now, is there anything here to be salvaged for 2020, a “Gramsci for our times”?

Reality, or the social, is exactly the same at Gramsci’s point of departure in any given writing as it is at the point at which his thinking lands again at the end of any given writing. The real itself remains unquestioned. Perception remains unquestioned (faith in the cogito). In this sense, he is a 19th century realist thinker of the political, or, rather, he would be, if it were not for his faith in the Hegelian dialectic of Spirit. He is an astute commentator of the political conditions of his place and time.  But I cannot yet see anything for our times, since, as said at the beginning of these notes, Gramsci is an orthodox humanist Hegelian, a thinker of humanity’s movement in the historical direction of Absolute Spirit.  What we now comprehend as the modern historicity of capitalism itself circumvents Gramsci’s understanding; his secular faith in modern history—in temporality itself—as the bourgeois-socialist-communist teleology of human progress and development is unconvincing, though it remains the structural principle of his reading, and understanding, of both history and capital before, during, and in the wake of World War I and the Russian Revolution.

Hegemony, Legitimacy, and the Mature Position: on Chantal Mouffe’s For A Left Populism. By Gerardo Muñoz.

Chantal Mouffe’s For A Left Populism (Verso, 2018) is deliberately written for the ‘populist moment’. It resembles the patriotic pamphlets, which according to historian Bernard Bailyn fueled passions months prior to the American Revolution. For Mouffe, the crisis of democracy will continue to grow if populism is not taken seriously both politically and theoretically, and her book is an excellent guide in that direction. For A Left Populism does not pretend to tease out new arguments. Rather, it seeks to revise and render accessible some of the main tenants of the radical democracy project that she elaborated, along with her late partner Ernesto Laclau, in books dating back to Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985). Mouffe reminds us that their task was to propose a theoretical horizon in the wake of the crisis of Eurocommunism, and against the ‘third-way’ of liberal democracies that dismantled the Welfare State. The populist agenda is ambitious: it proposes a move beyond Marxist liberationism, but in doing so it takes distance from market liberalism of Western democracies.

But what does “left populism” has to offer? For Mouffe the answer is short: a politics for the People, “in the name of the People”, capable of organizing an equivalency of social demands through the construction of a political frontier against a common adversary (the elite). Mouffe is right about the diagnosis: both Liberalism and Communism were attempts to deface the People. Whereas Communism promised a new man in a society outside capital, Liberalism offered the guarantee of happiness for the individual citizen. These two attempts were ways to neutralize social contingency between civil society and state relations. Contrary to the citizen and the subject, populism assumes heterogeneous social actors that vis-à-vis their equivalent demands are capable of radicalizing democracy. This process of radicalization entails that a social dynamic attentive to material needs could avoid the pitfalls of the Marxist historical subject as well as the sedimentary flow of institutions. The strategy that catalyzes such radicalization is the theory of hegemony (Mouffe 24).

Now, the logic of hegemony introduces an array of important elements for the radicalization thesis. First, hegemony, according to Mouffe, is what effectively disputes the “consolidation of neoliberal hegemony in Western Europe” (Mouffe 33). In a way, hegemony here takes the form of an avatar of the existing order of domination; a political transposition of capitalist reproduction. In fact, what hegemony shares with capitalism is the formalization of equivalence. Secondly, hegemony is understood as the missing tool in liberalism, which shrinks democratic life (Mouffe 38). Finally, hegemony emerges as an alternative to communism’s eschatology by accepting the current institutional designs in pursuit of ‘passion for equality’ (Mouffe 43). Common to all of these arguments is the main claim that only hegemony can rescue democracy from its post-political gloom. Hence, the theory of hegemony posses two important edges: one is descriptive and the other one is prescriptive. On the one hand, neoliberal postpolitics is already hegemonic. In other words, it does not allow an outside to what is provided by the general equivalent. On the other hand, hegemony appears, following Antonio Gramsci’s lessons, as a central political force that can transform the real-existing order.

But as political philosopher Jorge Yágüez has noted, Gramsci considered hegemony as a passive development that cannot be merely reduced to a political technique of state domination [1]. Mouffe would reply that she is not interested in gramscian textualism, but rather in the practical uses well beyond his original intentions. That is fair, but at the same time there is no reason to think that Gramsci’s theoretical horizon was more complacent under the sign of radical revolution than in the republican separation of powers or popular sovereignty. In fact, there is something to be said about Mouffe’s efforts in trying to move the discussion about populism outside the sociological determinations. Mouffe is aware that rendering the notion of hegemony effective within liberal-democratic order requires attending to the problem of legitimacy. Indeed, in one of the cardinal moments of For A Left Populism, Mouffe writes:

“A liberal-democratic society supposes the existence of an institutional order informed by the ethico-political principles that constitute its principles of legitimacy. What is at stake in a hegemonic transformation is the constitution of a new historical bloc based on a different articulation between constitutive political principles of the liberal-democratic regime and the socioeconomic practices in which they institutionalized. In the case of a transformation from on hegemonic order to another, those political principles remain in force, but they are interpreted and institutionalized in a different way” (Mouffe 45).

By disposing the idea of a drastic rupture in institutional life, hegemony accepts the liberal-democratic framework in exchange for coming to terms with the principle of legitimacy. But if we are in an epoch that has gone through an absolute decline of founding principles, is a “different way” of management enough? In studying the administrative state, for instance, I have argued that legitimation, once centered on charisma, has ceased its domain to administration. This means that legitimacy becomes synonymous with technique, and the political leader becomes synonymous with the bureaucrat.

How does hegemony stand in relation to legitimacy? Hegemony can stand as a superstructural element above it, but it can also become the principle of legitimacy itself to renew democracy. Mouffe is not explicit about this, except when she considers the Gramscian notion of the ‘integral state’ as significant to remake the contract between state and society (Mouffe 47). It is curious that this formulation coincides with José Luis Villacañas’ recent preface to Gramsci’s prison notebooks [2]. Let me briefly turn to Villacañas’ text.

For Villacañas, hegemony does entail a substitute of the legitimacy principle, now in crisis, which can open a transformative epoch beyond the domination of economy. Villacañas and Mouffe converge on this point: the essence of hegemony juxtaposes the political region against the economic region. But where as for Mouffe hegemony operates to defend and radicalize the principles of democracy, for Villacañas, hegemony is a “civilizational principle” that secures an ethical state in the form of a passive revolution (Mouffe 49, Villacañas 19). But, can legitimacy be resurrected from a political will unified under hegemony? There are two possibilities here. If we say that hegemonic populism is a struggle to politize a post-political scenario, then hegemony is merely a temporal stand-in to the current legitimacy. On the other hand, if we say that hegemony is a principle of legitimacy, what can guarantee its force is the cathexis between the political leadership (“clase dirigente”, says Villacañas) and the People. In reality, neither of the two options have the capacity to offer a social contract to reform democracy.

Mouffe claims that hegemony stands for identification via “different forms of subjectivities” (Mouffe 76-77). In other words, hegemony is a form of subjection. This means that in order to partake in hegemony you must necessarily be subjected to it. The civilizational drive of hegemony repeats the same step that led to the crisis of democratic politics in the first place, since it reduces democracy to a legislation of demands for recognition. It is not surprising that the minimal unit of equivalency is the demand. Thus, hegemony is first and foremost the demand to be a subject of hegemony. This is why leftist democratic politics based on hegemony is a self-defeating mechanism: it promises conflict but it reduces it through an empty signifier; it promises to displace the historical subject but it relocates it through equivalent subjective agglutination; it cares for legitimacy but it offers management not very different from the liberal paradigm. In this way, hegemony reintroduces politics as administration cloaked under political cordiality [3]. But we know that no effective politics were ever created on the basis of love or good intentions or unity.

If neoliberalism upgrades the “totalitarian” aspiration onto its economic indexation of life, as Argentine psychoanalyst Nora Merlin has argued, then the concept of hegemony runs the risk of absolutizing political domination as its substitute principle [4]. By reminding faithful to principle of unity and equivalence, the logic of hegemony tends to reproduce the results that it attempts to avoid. In other words, hegemony merely displaces the technique of the economy to a technique of the political. Is there a different position without discarding populism and moving back to liberal technicity? It is interesting that Mouffe mentions in passing posthegemony, which she reduces to an “affective turn” that ignores the lessons of psychoanalysis (Mouffe 74).

I would like to argue, on the contrary, that posthegemonic populism is the mature position that avoids the closure of conflict internal to hegemonic rationality. In fact, if psychoanalysis were to be taken seriously, hegemony would amount to yet another master discourse that aims at administering singular desire through a two step procedure: vertical cathexis and horizontal agglutination. The hegemonic recentralization of conflict leads necessarily to the closure of other potential conflicts and risks. Posthegemony, on the other hand, names the political position that aims at liberating the conflictive nature of politics within any democracy. It comes as no surprise that at the very end of her essay, Mouffe comes full circle to posit faith in “certain forms of consensus” once hegemony has been accepted as the logic of the political (Mouffe 93). By insisting on the optimization of conflicts, rather than in its verticalization, posthegemonic populism would allow turbulence in politics beyond the dead end of consensus.

A hegemonic alternative to legitimacy not only fails to renew democratic life, but it taxes life on behalf of the political. In this sense, by becoming a technique of dominance hegemony is incapable of transcending the antinomies of state and civil society, politics and economics at the root of the crisis. In broader terms, we know that the disintegration of the modern state form is neither an economic nor a political problem, but one of a deeper symbolization as a result of the primacy of legality over legitimacy, something that Carl Schmitt noted in his later works [5]. Hegemony can only offer a political legislation out of the crisis, but not much more.

Legitimacy is vital for democracy. But hegemony cannot do the work, except as faith. Democratic politics, however, is precisely what is incommensurable to beliefs. By positing hegemony as integration from within, Mouffe leaves us with an alternative political theology. This political theology works solely on behalf of its believers. The posthegemonic position concedes Mouffe & Laclau’s formula a winner for democratic politics, but it prefers to recognize conflicts at face value; that is, not as a question of principles, but rather of optimization beyond the intended precautions. It seems that this is the mature position for populism if it wants to be successful today.


  1. Jorge Álvarez Yágüez. “Retorno a Gramsci” (2017).
  2. José Luis Villacañas. Pasado y presente: Cuadernos de la cárcel. Prefacio de J. L. Villacañas Berlanga. Barcelona: Gedisa, 2018. See also, the debate between Villacañas and Moireras on hegemony & posthegemony:
  3. Antoni Puigverd, “Hegemonía de la cordialidad” (2018):
  4. Nora Merlin, “Neoliberalismo, el retorno del totalitarismo por otros medios” (2018):
  5. For Carl Schmitt’s critique of values and a self-critique of his concept of sovereignty, see The Tyranny of Values (1996) and Glossarium (2015).