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.