Reform and Ecstatic Politics: Notes on Gramsci’s Prison Writings (VIII). by Gerardo Muñoz

Gramcsi’s turning away from economic primacy of the Third International meant that he had to endorse a robust principle of “politics” to suture the separation (and there crisis thereof) between theory and praxis, which is also a division of action and thought. In a certain way, going back to Machiavelli’s writings or Croce’s Hegelian Idealism is a way to introduce a total politics suture over philosophy and life. This becomes clear when in Notebook 8, while glossing Croce “Hidden God”, Gramsci asks rhetorically but with force: “In what sense can one speak of the identity of history with politics and say that therefore all life is politics? How could one conceive of the whole system of superstructures as (a system of) political distinctions, thus introducing the nothing of distinction in the philosophy of praxis? Can one even speak of a dialectic of distincts? (271). 

It becomes rather obvious that what has passed as the great Gramscian novelty – mainly, the emphasis on “superstructure” as a way to relax the mechanistic economic structure of capitalist development driving the laws of History – in fact, it rests on a metaphysical principle rooted in the total politics over life. In other words, Gramscianism means, if anything, a new totalization of political domination over the texture of life and every singular destiny. This conceptual maneuver is nothing original if placed in the epochal framework of what Alain Badiou called the “ecstatic politics” of the 1930s, in which politics (and later legality) became the instrument to suture philosophy and life. 

It is almost as if Gramscian political life becomes the new instrument for the age of total mobilization and the worker insofar as life is nothing but the site of immanence that must be reintegrated, conducted, and translated as co-terminus with full political activity. At the moment where “life” was fleeing from the organic reproduction of capitalist development unto autonomous forms (Camatte), the Gramscian emphasis on “superstructure” became the progressive technology to “contain” its eventual dispersion. Again, in the same section 60 of the eighth notebook this insight is explicit: “One must say that political activity is, precisely, the first moment or first level of the superstructures; it’s the moment in which all the superstructures are still in the unmediated phase of mere affirmation – willful, inchoate, and rudimentary” (271). The question solicited here is where does the “class struggle” fit in this picture, if at all? 

If superstructural political life is not the site of the horizon of the working class’ emancipation, this could only entail, as Jacques Camatte understood it very early on, that the conduction of the communist party in politics demanded that militants and the working class had to act as if the communist society was a “living fact”. In turn, this meant that there was a clear “reformist” transmutation, since one could discard (in fact, as later authors of the so-called post-foundational theory of hegemony demanded, it *had to be discarded*) the horizon of revolutionary emancipation. What is surprising is that even today a reformist declination of ecstatic politics is announced and branded as “true radical political thought”, when it is just a mere inversion and reorganization of capitalist value organization. On the contrary, the total politics of the superstructure over life could only mean, as Íñigo Errejón repeated recently, merely a “struggle between opposite values”; in other words, it is no longer a transformation of the world instead of interpreting it, but a mere gaming of values to facilitate the occupation of the state.  

This could explain why, many pages later in Notebook 8 Gramsci could define hegemony as the crystallization of morality. He writes univocally: “Hegemony” means a determinate system of moral life [conception of life] and therefore history is “religious” history along the lines of Croce’s “state-church” principle” (373). And of course, history is always “a struggle between two hegemonies”, whose main nexus is the unity of rulers and the ruled (373). Gramsci gives this unification without separation the label of “patriotism”, which amounts to a direct secularized form of the medieval pro patria mori. This is the vortex that organizes the ecstatic political dominium over life in every hegemonic order.  

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.

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? 

Sobre un artículo de Peter D. Thomas contra “posthegemonía”. por Gerardo Muñoz

El reciente artículo de Peter D. Thomas titulado “After (post)hegemony” (2020) termina con una conclusión muy triste, pero sintomática de lo que es la izquierda contemporánea con toda la carga de su impasse teórico. Escribe Thomas: “Posthegemony’s proposal to go beyond hegemony thus finally results in a return to precisely those political problems to which the emerge of hegemony in the Marxist tradition – as a concept and political practice – as designed as a response. The ultimate significance of this debate can therefore be comprehended in at least two sense, one textual and the other one political” (17). Es una conclusión lamentable en la medida en que incluso suponiendo que la “posthegemonía” indica una regresión a las condiciones previas a la teoría de la hegemonía elaborada por Antonio Gramsci, también se puede decir que el gesto filológico de Thomas no es otro que seguir empantanado en lo mismo. O sea, lo que Thomas propone al final no es otra cosa que una mera competencia de filologías.

Obviamente que no tengo porqué defender la teoría de la posthegemonía aquí – cosa que ya he elaborado en varios lugares y que desarrollo en el próximo ensayo La fisura posthegemónica (Doblea editores, 2020) – tan solo quiero indicar (algo ya tematizado por Alberto Moreiras) que la posthegemonía es otro estilo teórico de pensar la política en lugar de ofrecer una enmienda al concepto operativo de la hegemonía. No es para nada increíble que buena parte de la izquierda contemporánea (con raras excepciones), heredera de las esquirlas ideológicas de la modernidad, jamás haya podido hacer otra cosa que escarbar en los basureros de sus “archivos” con la triste misión de erigir un principio que les vuelva a oxigenar un horizonte de acción.

Nada nuevo. En realidad, incluso dentro de los debates de los 70 alguien como Giorgio Cesarano en un texto decisivo de 1975 escribía lo siguiente contra la insuficiencia de las aspiraciones gramscianas: “Frente a la totalización materializada que se opera en el dominio del capital, el momento teorético se ve obligado a representar la ausencia del sujeto revolucionario y de su violencia en la forma de un distanciamiento de la «totalidad», concebido como prefiguración «abstracta» (en positivo y en negativo) del comunismo que se realiza sin transición.” («Ciò che non si può tacere», Puzz, n. 20, 1975). En la medida en que no se busque pensar contra la abstracción epocal todo termina en juegos arcaicos desde la mediación del archivo, de los conceptos, de la tropología, de la “historia intelectual”, o de la Idea; toda una serie de variantes para evitar el pensamiento. De ahí que cuando escuchamos con reiterado énfasis que Gramsci es la “verdadera alternativa latinoamericana” al “marxismo realmente ortodoxo” porque se distancia del materialismo dialéctico o del socialismo nacionalista cubano esto es algo un poco más que risible. En el caso de Thomas, en una última acrobacia desesperada, la distancia la toma de Laclau & Mouffe con el fin de llegar a develarnos nada más y nada menos que la piedra filosofal del “estado integral” (revolución pasiva mediante) que nos garantizaría la salvación.

Pero sabemos que cualquier acto de circo en un parque de verano tiene más gracia y diversión. En realidad, todo esto atrasa (para el pensamiento), y como me decía un amigo recientemente, es un gesto que no debe ser entendido de otra manera que como el momento desnudo del leninismo: una forma de tomismo. El partido del Tomismo es el partido del orden, de la pedagogía (lo decía con lucidez Rodríguez Matos), del respeto sacerdotal al textualismo. Nunca como hoy el marxismo ha estado tan cerca de la deconstrucción académica y de lo que en la jurisprudencia norteamericana se llama el “originalismo”. Tal vez esto explica su éxito “programático” y litúrgico. De ahí que cuando en tiempos recientes hemos escuchado ciertas críticas a posthegemonía como formula “pre-leninista” en realidad están operando de la misma forma que el gramscianismo tomista. En otras palabras, el predecible gesto de siempre: neutralizar una intensidad de pensamiento y estilo para seguir bailando en la cuerda floja. Una cuerda floja que en un siglo no ha cesado de romperse. Pero claro, el hecho de que se rompa justifica el “providencialismo” de toda hegemonía.