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.