Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements
Pluto Press 2006
In Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements, Richard Day of Queens University argues for a supposedly “new” kind of radical activism, one which is neither revolutionary nor reformist. He describes this “new” activism as “non-hegemonic” and his own theory as “post-anarchist”.
While the book deals with questions of ethics vs. morality, post-structuralism, identity politics and more, what interests me most – and what i will focus on here – is the question of revolution, which we are told to abandon.
Let’s see if we can make some sense of this, shall we?
(you may want to read my previous posting on Richard Day’s Montreal talk about Gramsci Is Dead as background to this posting – also please note that this entire discussion is available for easier reading as a PDF file.)
Affinity vs. Hegemony
Gramsci Is Dead is all about differentiating between two modes of political activism: the “hegemony of hegemony” and the “logic of affinity”.
According to Richard Day, hegemonic changes “(1) are to be felt over an entire social space, usually a nation-state, and (2) are expected to occur across a wide spectrum – indeed, the widest spectrum possible – of social, political, cultural, and economic structures and processes.” (65) As Day explained when he spoke in Montreal last month, hegemonic (or revolutionary) strategies rely on offensive force (i.e. violence, and not just in self-defense) and involve “organizing others” in order to realize their “grand schemes”.
(Day also claims that privileging one form of oppression as being more important than all others is an aspect of hegemonic thinking. Class is the example most often used. While this is an important question, and one perhaps related to the rest of Day’s anti-hegemonic thesis, it is not tied in so tightly as to directly relate to the question of revolution that I am choosing to focus on here. Perhaps another post on another day, huh?)
Opposing hegemony, Day suggests that radicals adopt a “logic of affinity” – in fact he looks to the anti-globalization movement and claims that activists have already been doing so. Rejecting hegemonic goals and the belief that there is one fundamental form of oppression, the logic of affinity recognizes that “as individuals and members of communities, [we] must free ourselves, in an effort that cannot be expected to terminate in a final event of revolution.” (127) The “logic of affinity” requires us to concentrate on setting up alternative structures, combating oppression within these structures and then reaching out to others in solidarity.
If affinity does not lead to revolution or other “totalizing” transformations, it can nevertheless be effective at radically changing society. Borrowing from Martin Buber, Day refers to such “non-revolutionary non-reformist” change as “structural renewal”.
So far so good, and yet it remains difficult to grapple with this, because Day seems to vacillate between different possible implications of what the “logic of affinity” might entail. Much of the time, Gramsci Is Dead seems willing to push things as far as they will go, bravely rejecting any and all hegemonic goals or strategies. One is left with a romantic, futuristic vision of “packs” (as opposed to classes or movements) carrying out small-scale experiments “under the radar”, embracing that “incoherence within the ranks of those who oppose the neo-liberal order, each for their own reasons.” (152) “The figures of the hacker, the monkeywrencher and the invisible hero of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler… all come to mind.” (174)
Occasionally though, you can hear something else poke through, as when Day protests that “I am not advocating total rejection of reformist or revolutionary programs in all cases […Rather, I am] arguing that non-hegemonic strategies and tactics need to be explored more fully than has so far been the case.” (215)
This is a critical distinction. How really opposed to “hegemony” is Day? Does Gramsci Is Dead propose to reject the old hegemonic paradigm, or is it merely a call for us to supplement it with “affinitive” tactics? This question makes all the difference in the world…
I have chosen to respond to Day’s arguments as if they are intended as an outright rejection of hegemony. Throughout his book there seems to be a consistent argument against hegemonic goals, which are described as being fundamentally opposed to the logic of affinity, and intrinsically authoritarian. I recognize that he does also point in other directions – including several positive examples of “hybrid” projects – and I accept the possibility that I may be misreading him (indeed, I hope that this is the case!) – nevertheless, for an argument to be coherent it must be interpreted in one way or another… and Day’s book does seem predicated on this wholesale rejection of hegemony.
Gramsci Is Dead spends quite a bit of ink tracing the history of hegemonic ideas, from Hegel on. Leninists and bourgeois reformists will find themselves rejected as intrinsically authoritarian, subjected to the standard anarchist critique of any and all Statist programmes.
One might expect Day to really test his argument on anarchists, for as he is forced to admit, many of these make claim to being both revolutionary and completely opposed to “state-centred models of social change”. As such, a credible revolutionary anarchist position would seem to disprove Gramsci Is Dead’s entire argument.
Effectively answering this challenge, Gramsci Is Dead includes an interesting chapter on utopian socialists and anarchists, in which two different tendencies – one hegemonizing (i.e. revolutionary) and one affinitive (i.e. non-revolutionary) – are teased out of 19th and early 20th century circle-a thought. As he puts it, “the logic of affinity has been always already present in anarchism, […] it has existed as a counter-pole to the tantalizing revolutionary urge that dominated not only anarchist socialism, but every other political ideology of the modern era as well.” (95)
Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) emerges as the “hegemonic” anarchist par excellence, and yet in criticizing him Day basically takes him to task for being a vanguardist. His point seems to be that were Bakunin (or subsequent anarchist revolutionaries) to succeed in smashing the State, they would be faced with the same challenges as Leninists, and could be expected to make similar decisions…
Day identifies what he considers to be a non-revolutionary anarchist tradition emerging with Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) and then more clearly still with Gustav Landauer (1870-1919). Despite an interesting overview of Landauer’s political ideas, i feel that Day exaggerates the evidence of an actual “affinitive” anarchist tradition. Not only is his case regarding Kropotkin (described as “the first postanarchist to begin to emerge out of the modernist quagmires of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century socialism” (123)) very weak, but he ignores the fact that the vast majority of historical anarchists (including Kropotkin, as Day himself acknowledges) insisted that their goals were revolutionary (i.e. hegemonic). As a coherent tendency “affinitive, non-hegemonic anarchism” seems to be at most a promise or potential within historical anarchism, if even that…
In regards to revolution tout court, Day’s key objection goes beyond the anti-vanguardist critique he aims at Bakunin and the Leninists, but is instead based on an extreme anti-authoritarianism which opposes anybody coercing anyone. Take for instance the following quote, shocking in its implications:
We cannot wait for ‘everyone’ to choose to live in non-statist, non-capitalist relationships, or we will very likely wait forever. Nor can we force socialism on anyone, since that would violate our commitment to respecting the autonomy of individuals and groups. (126)
This goes far beyond simply objecting to Statism – the above paragraph raises the bar so high (in regards to not forcing socialism on anyone, including one assumes the bourgeoisie!) that one is left wondering what, if anything, we can do to change the way anything works?
Day gives us a poor answer: “there is no choice for those of us who desire to live differently but to begin to do so ourselves.” (126) Clearly this is unsatisfactory, as “beginning to live differently ourselves” may cover “constructing alternatives” without any “violation of autonomy”, but little else.
In fairness, despite the fact that Day sometimes seems to contradict himself, he does provide us with clues as to what the “logic of affinity” would entail. He claims that it would allow for “conscious attempts to alter, impede, destroy or construct alternatives to dominant structures, processes, practices and identities.” (4) Plus, he specifically refers to indigenous struggles, “non-branded tactics” (by which he means tactics that “work” but which nobody “owns”, like Independent Media Centres or Food Not Bombs), intentional communities, the Zapatistas and People’s Global Action as all being affinitive experiments.
In other words: people who share certain beliefs should act on them when appropriate, but without having any larger “totalizing” imperatives to bring about any global change (that would be hegemonic). Through such actions we will help usher in the “coming communities” which will be based on “shared ethico-political commitments that allow us to achieve enough solidarity to effectively create sustainable alternatives to the neoliberal order.” (186)
To the degree that these “coming communities” will alter, impede or destroy bits of the system, one assumes it will simply in the way of self-defense – i.e. to protect their own autonomy – not as part of any offensive logic.
The State and Other Bad Things
Day’s rejection of hegemonic change (either revolutionary or reformist) is the result of how he understands the State and other structures of domination:
Landauer insisted that the state is a condition, a certain sort of relationship. […] In analyzing the state as a set of relationships among subjects Landauer grasped the key insight of Foucault’s governmentality thesis – that we are not governed by ‘institutions’ apart from ourselves, by a ‘state’ set over against a ‘civil society’. Rather we all govern each other via a complex set of capillary relations of power. (124-5; italics in the original)
It is because he considers the State to be everywhere in everyone that Day rejects hegemonic solutions as ineffective. Even if they destroy a particular institution or oppressive structure, they will not be able to abolish the State itself, because the State is everywhere – even (especially?) within the hegemonic revolutionaries themselves. At worst such solutions lead to totalitarianism; at best, they represent a blind alley: “while we might rid ourselves of particular states, we can never rid ourselves of the state form. It is always already with us, and so must be consistently and carefully warded off.” (140)
Indeed, not only is the State “always with us” as a potential, but as a potential which most people are likely to prefer. Even in cases where a State might collapse, “as has happened so many times before, very few people would be ready to accept a life of non-domination and non-exploitation – most would seek new masters, and a few would try to accommodate them.” (34)
This pessimistic vision owes a lot to Foucault, but its greater debt is to Christianity. Consider for instance this approving passage: “Foucault sees that within each of us as individuals, and within any group, there is a potential for things to go ether way, or to go both ways at once.” (137) Every soul can be saved, any soul can be lost… good and evil existing as potentials that each person can choose, either resisting Satan’s (the State’s?) temptations or giving into them. This flows right into that Christian idea of personal salvation, or every person being able to save their own soul. God deals with us on a case by case basis, he is loving and fair, so do good (act in a non-Statist way) and he will be pleased.
To say that this Landauer/Foucault/Day conception is also a very Christian one is not meant to discredit it, or to be a snotty put-down. These ideas are useful (which is why they were adopted by the Church, the original capitalist think tank, one that “thinks in centuries”) but on their own they are inadequate. They are one dimension of politics, but not the whole thing. Which is why the Church has always paid so much attention to what people think and do in their personal lives, while at the same time doing all it can to use coercive, hegemonic institutions like the State to order society.
(i should mention that Landauer was in fact inspired by elements of anti-authoritarian Jewish mysticism, not Christianity – a subject ignored by Day, but which would be interesting to examine at some future date…of this subject see the book Future Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age, by Russell Jacoby)
Mesmerized by the “capillary” ubiquitous existence of power, some people miss the point that as complex as it may be, there are still significant differences between different forms of domination. Between, if you will, the “cop in your head” and the cop in the street. Analyzing and combating “capillary” forms of domination is important – that’s a key insight of many different liberation movements, most notably the women’s movement – but “analysis” means measuring, studying, understanding something. What doing so reveals are distinct mechanisms of power and exploitation, linked in a particular fashion. Not a web so fine that we should throw up our hands, admit it is too complex to be understood, and simply say “it’s all equally bad” and move on!
This vision of seamless domination – too complex and microscopic to measure – underlies much of Day’s critique. Really, it is an unwillingness to see quantitative changes as ever becoming qualitative, of saying “this is worst than that” or “this is of critical importance” or “this is bad, but it’s not going to change until we tackle this larger problem”. It is an ahistorical vision, which closes its eyes to the fact that capitalism did not spread over the world by simply “percolating into everyday relations” (124), but rather required violent, dramatic, hegemonic struggles in which a particular class (the bourgeoisie) gained power, and in which most of the world was conquered.
The one place where Day seems to acknowledge that qualitatively different kinds of domination exist is when dealing with the differences between the First and Third Worlds. One gets the feeling that this is his way of justifying his enthusiasm for certain Third World struggles which often violate the limits of a pure logic of affinity. Yet a historical analysis of how capitalism, patriarchy and the State form spread across the globe shows these asymmetrical realities have a common point of origin, and that the only thing that could have put imperialism in check would have been a hegemonic event of one sort or another – either revolution in Europe or the defeat and smashing of the new settler states in the colonies.
Is this to say that there was no “percolating”, “capillary” side to the imperialist plague? Of course not. The way in which capitalism and patriarchy ensnared and seduced ambitious male classes around the world is well documented – it is what made the European conquest of the world so devastating, as it corrupted and transformed every culture and nation it came in contact with. (See Butch Lee’s The Military Strategy of Women and Children or Jailbreak Out Of History: the re-biography of Harriet Tubman, Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, and Carol Devens’ Countering Colonization: Native American Women and Great Lakes Missions, 1630-1900 for more on these processes.)
But to pretend that “percolating” and “capillary” power is all that was involved, or to suggest that capitalism could have emerged from these and these alone, is to close one’s eyes to equally well known and well documented facts. Primitive accumulation required massive violence and coercion, hegemonic “winner take all” battles, genocide and the enforced subjugation of women, not just bribery and subterfuge.
Not So Newest After All?
Despite Day’s claim that the “logic of affinity” is inherently opposed to “hegemonic” politics, what emerges from a look back at past revolutions is the incredible degree to which they have all in fact incorporated “non-branded tactics” and at times even embraced the “logic of affinity”. Such “hybrid” revolutionary movements are not exceptions, but rather the unexceptional norm. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any movement for radical or revolutionary social change which has been purely hegemonic.
To understand why Day considers hegemony and affinity to be not different aspects, but mutually incompatible modes of social change, we must take a closer look at this Revolution that affinity is supposed to eschew. According to Day, this is a “totalizing”, “final” event, of millenarian proportions. On a par with Moshiach’s arrival or Christ’s return, Day’s hegemonic Revolution endeavours to change everything, everywhere, for everyone.
Yet this is obviously a strawman of sorts.
Although I am not a Marxist (and am thus not knowledgeable enough to be 100% sure of this!), my understanding is that dialectical materialism implies a lack of such “final” events, because every thesis is expected to give rise to an antithesis. Furthermore, both of the main branches of Leninism have their own “unfinal” ways of looking at social change, be it in the Trotskyist doctrine of “permanent revolution” or Mao’s “one divides into two”. You don’t have to agree with these, or even understand them, to see that they surpass the kind of all-at-once-or-nothing-at-all ethos that Day paints the entire tradition with.
And in fairness, many anarchist revolutionaries have also rejected the simplistic idea of revolution as “end of history”. Not only Kropotkin, but in fact many if not most anarchist revolutionaries have a more sophisticated and nuanced view of revolutionary change than Day gives them credit for. In the words of Alexander Berkman, for instance, “you must not confuse the social revolution with anarchy. Revolution, in some of its stages, is a violent upheaval; anarchy is a social condition of freedom and peace. The revolution is the means of bringing anarchy about but it is not anarchy itself. It is to pave the road to anarchy, to establish conditions which will make a life of liberty possible.”
In other words, neither anarchism nor Marxism depends on equating “revolution” with “utopia”. The former is a hegemonic event not in the sense of changing “everything, everywhere, all at once for everyone”, but rather in changing as much as possible for as many as possible as quickly as possible (“occur[ing] across a wide spectrum – indeed, the widest spectrum possible – of social, political, cultural, and economic structures and processes” (65)). As such, it preserves its hegemonic ambition, while accepting that victory need not be “total” to be victorious. Many of us would happily concede that more than one revolution may be necessary…
(I am tempted to suggest – with my tongue planted firmly in my hyperbolic cheek – that revolution itself, as has been actually practiced warts and all, is simply a “non-branded tactic” passed down to us from the radical past…)
A Dangerous Fantasy
(In fairness, before getting into the next section I must repeat what I wrote at the beginning of this embarrassingly long review, namely that Day does occasionally seem to contradict his apparent thesis by claiming without explanation that he does not necessarily reject all hegemonic strategies and goals… which, if it is the case, would obviate some of what follows.)
According to Gramsci Is Dead, setting up alternatives and making the State “redundant” is not only our best weapon, it is the only offensive weapon we should use in our struggle against domination.
Such a strictly “non-hegemonic” ethos may be beautiful, but it is also suicidal. If radicals close their eyes to the inherently hegemonic dimensions of our struggle, they risk being unprepared and disarmed when it counts the most. They risk even being dead, or responsible for the deaths of others.
This is serious stuff, so it is worth breaking down where “non-hegemonic” purism goes most seriously wrong…
Most of the time the system is not in a state of collapse, and radical social movements are not threatening to actually make capitalism unprofitable or make the State “redundant”. Indeed, such crises are rare here in the First World. In this stable context, the State’s interests are best served by not imposing hegemonic choices on radicals, by not being too repressive. For the State to declare war on the left would reveal to much about the system’s true nature, and risk destabilizing the ruling class’ own internal equilibrium.
So most of the time First World radicals deal with a certain level of repression, but are not in an actual state of war with the system. This is true post-911 just as it was before, the significant increase in repression these past years notwithstanding.
But what would happen if the State did see itself being made “redundant” by a radical movement? Or – to use one of Day’s awkward terms which seems to mean “business as usual being disrupted” – what if its “flows were impeded”?
This could be expected to happen were Day’s “affinitive” radicalism to prove effective. More and more people would make their “lines of flight” to escape the system, more and more would opt out, more and more would choose to relate to each other in a non-Statist manner. When discussing what might happen, Day suggests that the system may simply collapse:
“[I]f this kind of action proliferates sufficiently, the flows will start to decay beyond the ability of systems of control to manage them. This is especially true as the neoliberal world order expands in size and complexity. […] Extending this line of analysis further, though, we encounter another problem: the sudden collapse of the neoliberal order would indeed create the conditions for a modernist revolution, which many of us would find quite heartening. But, as has happened so many times before, very few people would be ready to accept a life of non-domination and non-exploitation – most would seek new masters, and a few would try to accommodate them.” (33-34)
This is where Day’s vision becomes a fatal mirage.
States do not allow themselves to “become redundant”, and classes to not non-violently relinquish power. What’s more, when “collapse” does occur, domination is not re-established by some consensual “seeking masters who will accommodate”… what you actually get is not a smaller weaker Statist enclave but an explosive authoritarian rebirth: the Taliban, the Nazis, the Ayatollahs and such. While some children of America may still be able to “escape” Bush’s bad dream, the children of Liberia will tell you that when the shit hits the fan, you can’t just tune in and drop out.
Even before State power crumbles, the ruling class has qualitatively, not just quantitatively, different levels of repression kept in reserve. If a movement for social change “percolates” beyond a certain point, those in power will radically up the ante, placing the entire terrain of struggle on a completely different level. Assassinations, internment camps, martial law… those conditions which Day concedes may make hegemonic struggles acceptable in the Third World will suddenly be brought home, only without a hegemonic vision nobody would be prepared… and yet the State prepares for this eventuality even in times of non-crisis because it understands its own existence in hegemonic terms – it’s just ruling class common sense, like driving with a seat belt or diversifying your portfolio.
In other words: the ruling class will not fade away. If it goes, it will go out with a bang –once a certain line has been crossed, it will engage perceived threats in an “all or nothing”, “totalizing” conflict.
This is not melodrama, it’s simply an unexceptional (and if you think about it, not very surprising) lesson to be learned from even a cursory look back at history. Under what circumstances did Pinochet take power? And Franco? How did the “dirty war” in Colombia come about? How come so many Black Panthers ended up getting murdered way back when? Why is Leonard Peltier still in prison? Do you remember how the “War on Terror” began – do you think it was really just because Bush cares about dead stockbrokers, or might someone have felt their power challenged?
Did America “percolate” into Baghdad?
If the State decides it is threatened by the “newest social movements” – or even if some faction simply wants to exploit some space that has temporarily left capital’s orbit – we will be in a new situation. It will be like playing chess, but only knowing the rules for checkers. Our only hope involves planning, preparation, and ambition which cannot be limited to the strictly non-hegemonic. Offensive actions; neutralizing problems before they become threats; learning skills in anticipation for this future conflict; and most importantly raising awareness that, in the long term, we can not co-exist with this system, but must think in terms of killing it… these are the historic “modernist” “hegemonic” responsibilities of those seeking fundamental radical social change.
To close our eyes to this is to allow ourselves – and others! – to be lead peacefully to the slaughter.
Gramsci Is Dead is well argued, and provides interesting insights into how radical change occurs. It also lays the theoretical foundations for valuing the unglamorous but necessary everyday work that is necessary to build liberation.
Richard Day is not suggesting radicals merely drop out of society and engage in their own escapist fantasies. He clearly considers this system to be evil, and holds that radical activism can influence things for the better. But his vision of how this can be done is too timid. He tells us that the best we can hope for is to win people over from their desire to support the system (or try to re-establish it if it happens to collapse), and argues that the only way we can do this is by showing people alternative ways of doing things.
Nobody is disputing the value of affinity. “Here and now” projects, aimed at building social structures and institutions that put our beliefs into practice are vitally necessary, and serve as strong foundations for our future liberation. This is where most of us should be putting most of our energy most of the time. By providing a theoretical explanation for why such alternative structures are necessary, and how “lifestyle choices” in fact intersect with political activism, Gramsci Is Dead contributes to our vision of radical social change.
So read this book. Apply the logic of affinity to your own practice. By all means, “trust in non-unified, incoherent, non-hegemonic forces for social change” (155) – not because “hegemonic ones cannot produce anything that looks like change to you at all”, but rather because it’s good to keep your eyes on the ball, which should be how to make this world a better place.
But keep your eyes open too – and your mind as well. Clear skies don’t mean there aren’t clouds beyond the horizon. A cloudy sky doesn’t mean the sun no longer exists. Don’t only think about whether or not Day’s argument applies to your reality so far, think of the implications in other situations, ones that you have no guarantee of avoiding forever.
I have always embraced the logic of affinity, and am glad to read what Richard Day has to say about this.
Still, I remain open to the promise of hegemony.
Because in the end, that’s what it will take.