Production as a total religion of man: Notes on Gramsci’s Prison Writings (VII). by Gerardo Muñoz

In an important moment of Notebook 7, Antonio Gramsci writes that production in the age of industrialization amounts to a “new religion of the common man”. This thesis conditions many aspects of Gramsci’s thought and fully exposes his thinking as determined by the epoch of industrialization. If so, this means that his thinking is fundamentally insufficient for our historical present as defined by stagnation and the end of growth. First of all, the condition of industrialization allows for the famous “war of position”, which is exerted as a moralization of politics (hegemony). It is important to note that the concept of hegemony is introduced only “after” the historical reduction to industrial productivity is rendered as the unity of all historical time.  In an explicit Hegelian fashion, Gramsci argues that: “The process of historical development is a unity in time, which is why the present contains the whole of the past and what is “essential” of the past realizes itself in the present, without any “unknowable” residue that would constitute its real “essence”. Whatever is lost….it pertained to chronicle not History, a superficial episode and, in the final analysis, negligible” (175). This is at the core of Gramsci’s thinking, not at the margins.

So, the Hegelian absolute movement of the philosophy of history as coterminous with the flattening of the “rational is the real” is the metaphysical ground in which Gramsci not only operates but the venue through which he offers us a “new religion of the common man”. A few sections later (§. 35), Gramsci confesses that “hegemony was also a great “metaphysical event”. Of course, one could suppose that Gramsci was delivering a new God within the gigantomachy of the age of production. The irony is, of course, that this strict “political theology” is only justified by the industrial regime that it seeks to overturn. Therefore, the question that the so-called contemporary Gramscians (or anyone taking up Gramsci today, say from the 1970s to the present) should respond is: how can the analytical conditions of Gramsci’s thought illuminate post-Fordism in the wake of the exhaustion of growth? 

If according to Jason E. Smith’s important new book Smart Machines and Service Work (2020) since the 1980s we are witnessing an ever-expanding service sector (in the US and the UK drifting well above the 80% of the GDP) as a compensatory for growth stagnation in the age of technological innovation, how could the Gramscian “new religion” on industry mobilize a horizon of emancipation, or even minimal transformation from said regime of exploitation? On the contrary, it seems (as I tried to argue recently here) that if we take Gramsci’s insight about the material conditions of “production” in any given epoch, the work of hegemony today can only open to a demand for exploitation as subjected to servant domination in the stagnant regime. In other words, if we accept Gramsci’s own analytical conditions (industrial production), this necessarily entails that we must move beyond hegemonic domination. To think otherwise – say, believing that a “temporal form of dictatorship” or “populist takeover”, now in ruins – amounts to a solution oblivious to the historical conditions, which can only blindly accept the “command” of a hegemonic principle. It is not a surprise that only the new nationalist right in the United States today can be properly labeled “Gramscian”, since they want to recoil political form to industrialization, organic community flourishing, and national “delinking” from globalization decomposition of the regime of total equivalence. But this is only a “storytelling” (a bad one, indeed) in times of stagnation.

More broadly, this speaks to the divergence between Gramsci’s faith in industrialization and Protestantism, as he defends it in section 47 of the Notebook. While glossing Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic, Gramsci notes that only the “spirt of the Reform” can produce reciprocal positions vis-à-vis grace and “good works”; whereas in Catholicism, activity and human action is not bounded by labor form, but by corporativism. On the surface this links Gramsci’s thesis with that of Max Weber’s; however, given the conditions explained above, it also shows that Gramsci’s thinking is really at odds with a commitment to thinking reform within the concrete conditions of a historical epoch. In other words, the political categories of Gramscianism (war of position, hegemony, production) are undeniably more on the side of reaction rather than in the production of new reforms. Of course, his position is not even a Catholic reaction; since, as Carl Schmitt observed in Roman Catholicism and Political Form (1923), at least the Church offered formal institutionality as a response to the total electrification of the world, whether in the hands of the Soviets or the American financial elite. But, as we know, the theory of hegemony is also oblivious to the problem of institution and the concrete order. 

Politics as substantive morality: Notes on Gramsci’s Prison Writings (VI). by Gerardo Muñoz

In section 79 of Gramsci’s Notebook 6 we are offered a strong definition of “politics” that I think illuminates the core of the Gramscian program fundamentally as a substantive morality. Gramsci writes the following against the “particularism” of normal associations (say the aristocracy, the elite, or the vanguard): “[an universal] association does not set itself up as a definite and rigid entity but as a something that aims to extend itself to a whole social grouping that is itself conceived as aiming to unify all humanity. All these relationships give a universal character to the group ethic that must be considered capable of becoming a norm of conduct for humanity as a whole. Politics is conceived a process that will culminate in a morality; in other words, politics is seen as leading towards a form of sociality in which politics and hence morality as well are both superseded.” (30). It is an astonishing definition, given the precise way it mobilizes the content of this new politics. Of course, there is the explicit the Hegelianism of the ‘universalist’ translation through the dialectical conflation between state and civil society, which just a few sections prior to 79, Gramsci deploys in order to posit the ultimate goal of communist society. 

But in this section he goes further, since it becomes clear that the state and civil society, as they march towards an ‘integral state’, dissolves politics into pure morality. But Gramsci immediately clarifies that it is not just a “morality” of a new dominant class (which could still be contested vis-a-vis other values), but rather a “morality that is superseded”. This is an absolute morality beyond value disputes. In other words, it is an absolute morality that needs to be so because state and civil society have become a unified whole. Concretely, this means the dissolution of politics and of any concrete order of the republican tradition, which recognizes that, precisely because civil war is the latent in the social, no morality can be granted hegemonic status. At bottom, this is the reason why we need politics and institutions to mitigate conflict. The Gramscian moral universe frames a world in which the conflict not only disappears, but rather it becomes pure morality towards a “substantive common good” in which every person is obliged to participate. Indeed, one could claim that the theory of hegemony as morality has never appeared as strongly as in this fragment. I think it is fair to say that the telos of hegemony is, in every case, a drive towards the consolidation of this uncontested morality. 

Needless to say, this is a frontal assault on positive law, which aimed, from Hobbes to H. L. Hart, to clearly differentiate between politics, institutions, and morals. In a surprising but direct way, Gramsci’s definition of politics as substantive morality is closer to the tradition of “Thomism” in at least three compartments of Aquinas’ thinking. First, because it posits a substantive morality as a unified conception of aims, which negates any competing positions between values. Secondly, the substantive morality of politics informs the Gramscian theory of the state, which, very much like the Thomist subsidiary structure, understands institutions not as a concrete order of conflict (stasis), but rather as a depository for the reproduction of civil society (that is why Gramsci also in notebook 6 will speak about the “state without a state”) in the image of the state. However, if we are to be fair to the natural law tradition, I think we can claim that Gramsci is really an archaic and not a “modern” (or revolutionary) Thomist, since even John Finnis in his Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford, 1980), in an attempt to square natural law with modern liberalism, countered Hart’s objection of unified moral aims in this way: “…there are basic aspects of human existence that are good leaving aside all the predicaments and implications…all questions of whether and how one is to devote oneself to these goods” (30). Finnis distinguishes between general principles and personal elaborations of aims. However, Gramsci is not interested in establishing generic “principles” for plural aims, but rather he seeks the actualization of a morality that is substantive because it is understood as “superseded as morality” as such. The kingdom of the Gramscian integral state is only realized if the heterogeneity of the social is captured by the hegemony of a supreme morality of Humanity. 

The distance between Gramscian moral politics and the modern natural law foundation (Fuller, Finnis) is driven home when later in section 88 of notebook 6 he claims that: “…one should not think of a “new liberalism” even if the beginning of an era of organic freedom were at hand” (76). This confirms that Gramsci is interested in crafting a morality tied to the efficacy of immanent individual ends and desires, and not at the level of generic principles of a common order. If one takes this moral politics seriously, then it becomes difficult (impossible, in my opinion), to square the primacy of this morality with positive law and the republican tradition at large. At its “best light”, the Gramscian absolute morality can only yield a faith in “Humanity”, which feeds from the production of enmity (turning dissent into ‘inhumanity’) in a civil war, as it cannot be otherwise.