Going nowhere: on Jason E. Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work (2020). by Gerardo Muñoz

Jason Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work (Reaktion Books, 2020) provides us with a renewed cartography of the labor transformations in the wake of automation and the cybernetic revolution, which has ultimately created a “vast service sector” (9). Although at first sight Smith’s book seems to be preoccupied with questions of technology innovation in the post-fordist epoch, the central vortex of the book sheds light on the notion of “servant economy” that has become the fast-evolving segment of today’s job-market. Smith notes that the expansion of the servant economy propelled by automation “poses special obstacles to organization and action in a fragmented workforce. The rise of the “servant economy”, increasingly forces workers into smaller, spatially dispersed workplaces, where they carry out labor-intensified production processes…. deemed low-skill occupations and therefore poorly paid” (14). The new region of the service economy is an effect of the exceptionality of capital form self-abdication where unemployment becomes an existential problem for the social fabric. 

The nuanced analysis undertaken by Smith shows how the fragmented spatialization of labor has become the byproduct of the automation in which control, optimization, and feedback ensemble a new regime of total calculation. Already in 1956, Friedrich Pollock warned of a potential “totalitarian government” that could lead to mass unemployment. Pollock’s Cold War predicament was not off target: the fear of totalitarian unemployment (Habermas would call it crisis of legitimation) was answered with a total (service) economy that compensated for the paradox of stagnation of profit growth. The encompassing force of real subsumption through compartmentalization of services rendered effective James Boggs’ “nowhere to go” in the final dispensation of historical capitalism.

The phase of stagnation announces the “productivity paradox”. Smith writes glossing Mason: “If ours is an age defined by monopolies, cheap credit, rent-seeking and asset bubbles, it is not due to the concerted efforts of elites keen to forestall or smother in the cradle a new, sustained period of productivity gains….despite claims to the contrary, the weather of stagnation and drift that has settle over the advanced capitalist economies since the 1970s, and special since the turn of the century is attributable in no small part technological inertia” (41). The boom of “diversionary gadgets” are on the side of unproductiveness; and, as Ure argues, “do nothing towards the supply of the physical necessities of society” (43). But perhaps diversion usage accounts for the mobilization of the medium of the new phase of automated capitalism. In other words, precisely because traditional form of political legitimacy has crumbled, zero value technology becomes the compensatory psychic equilibrium within the process of abstraction of profit. The subjective dimension of the “medium” in the new phase of automation operates to drive dynamism in the “historic low” of labor productivity growth and the disjointed structural relation between economic growth and rise in wages (64, 69).

One of the conclusions that one can derive from Smith’s rich political economy empirical analysis is that the expansion of the service economy is fundamentally an anti-institutional phenomenon, both at the level of social forms (unions, movements, legal grounds for disputes) as well as in terms of mediations of exchange (intellectual labor, shadow-work, spatial relations to urban centers, etc.). In this sense, the absolutization of the regional “service economy” is the reallocation of reduced labor. In the same way that all ‘originary accumulation’ is an ‘onging accumulation’; the “crisis” of the economy is always already the recurrent stagnation of growth. But Smith notes with precision: “services therefore appear to obscure more than it clarifies” (80). This new process of rationalization mobilizes the valorization of the outside, that is, of every non-market sphere. This process draws a specific ordo rationality: “The true “advances” such as they are, have been in the domination of the labor process by employers: their ability to coerce more labor out of a given hour by means of refinement in supervision, oversight, and workplace discipline” (112). 

Mirroring the optimal logistics of cybernetic and automation processes, one could claim that the expansion of the service economy initiates a regime of governmentality that allows for the attenuation and cost-benefit management of flows. Now I think one can clearly see that “service” is not just an avatar to formal processes of value, but also, as Ivan Illich showed, a secularized theological concept of the Christian notion of hospitality. According to Illich, hospitality was transformed into a use of power and money to provide services and needs [1]. For the ex-Catholic priest, this meant nothing less than the corruption of human freedom, which became tied to the logistics of equivalence. This is why, more than an economic theory, neoliberalism needs to defend an ever-expanding freedom of the subject. In the context of deep social atomization, the service economy self-legitimizes itself as absolute freedom in the social (141). 

At the end of the book, Smith notes that in the wake of automation the relation between political struggles and the new economic composition begin to diverge. There is on one side the model of the teachers and that of the expendables (146-147). In a sense, the “nowhere land” registered by Boggs in the 60s has only intensified, as modern politics forms no longer seem up to the task in the face of total extraction and exclusion. If we think of arguably the most successful leftist political strategy in the last decade or so (the strongest cases have been in Latin America and Spain), the left populism rooted in the theory of hegemony; it becomes clear that after the empirical analysis of Smart Machines, any set of ‘equivalential demands’ is already a demand for exploitation within the regime of the service economy. During this months of pandemic the right has been calling for the immediate reintegration into the economy, bring to bear the internal production at the heart of the project of hegemony. Rather than thinking about a new multitude or unified subject of class, the expendables that Smith situates at the outskirts of the metropolis (the ‘hinterland’), constitute perhaps a new experiential texture of life that is no longer moved by representation but rather expression; it is no longer defined by class, but consumption; it is not interested in negation, but rather in “discovery” (148). Indeed, the new marginalized surplus population does not constitute a new “subject”, but an energy that seeks an exodus from the ruins of the political given the collapse of the whole framework of leftist hegemony [2]. It seem reasonable to think that it is precisely in the threshold of Boggs’ call for a “discovery” (a movement of anabasis), devoid of place and time, where the unfathomable stagnation of our epoch is defied.




1. Ivan Illich. The Rivers North of the Future (Anansis, 2005). 

2. “Onwards Barbarians”, Endnotes, December 2020: https://endnotes.org.uk/other_texts/en/endnotes-onward-barbarians

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.

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?