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. 

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.