Monday, March 06, 2006

Review: Gramsci Is Dead

[Richard J. F. Day. Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements. Toronto: Between The Lines, 2005.]

Recently, someone I'm just getting to know came across a piece of writing in which I identified in passing as an anarchist. It was written a few years ago, so he asked if I still identified that way. This took me aback.

Partly, that's because of a flash of insecurity that my political practice was somehow inadequate or unworthy of the label in the eyes of this other person, who meets a much more conventional picture of what "anarchist" means in current activist subcultures. But that's just me being insecure: all political labels are flexible enough to relate to a broader range of practices than might be conventionally recognized, and I think "anarchist" most of all.

But mostly, I was taken aback because I actually had to think about it. I tend to shy away from applying labels to myself, especially high-twitch labels like "anarchist," because such terms have been so filled with emotionally laden and completely incorrect content by those who oppose them that their appearance in conversation often serves to shut down discussion before it begins.

As M. Junaid Alam says, often in a tongue-in-cheek way, in an article I've linked to before called "Why I Am No Longer a Radical":

Once you tell folks you’re a radical leftist of some sort, they’ll either smile at you slightly like you’re trying to save the dinosaurs from extinction, or stare at you in deep puzzlement as if you’ve just announced that you applied for death row....For to let the Right claim the very mantle of “mainstream” for themselves, as they have increasingly tended to do, to let them spin off basic values like social equality, human rights, religious tolerance, and peace as the byproducts of a bygone era of amoral “radical” hippies, would be a total catastrophe....So the way I see it, if we are to be real radicals, we need stop acting like our agenda is, well, radical. We need to focus on the fact that even though our aims have been depicted in such distorted ways that they are not even popular among our target audience -- ordinary people -- we are not just standing up for unpopular justice. Rather, we are standing up for justice that has been unpopularized, because the Right has popularized injustice. [emphases in original]

Of course an ability to openly claim labels that apply to you is very important as well, and it had been awhile since I last really evaluated how well this claimed identity fit me. And I came to the conclusion that:
  • it still very much fits my gut feelings about the world;
  • how it relates to my analysis of the world has probably shifted somewhat since I wrote that, as I have learned more from Marxism-derived sources and from anti-oppression-based sources (which, admittedly, can have a strong anarchist flavour to them, though often don't directly claim that influence and often, at least the more theoretical ones, do claim a Marxist or more broadly socialist heritage) in the last few years;
  • how it relates to my political practice is probably not best judged by me.

Gramsci Is Dead is a wonderful piece of anarchist theory that is helping churn up some of that stuff and make me rethink and think in new ways. It might even be helping to provide me with some theory to help me connect my gut, my head, and my practice in new ways.

The main purpose of this book is to contrast two different logics of social change, which the author names "hegemony" and "affinity." Hegemony he links to both the liberal and the Marxist traditions which dominated much political thought and action throughout the twentieth century. In this understanding, a single order, a single centre, a single system, dominates (has hegemony over) a geographical area, often a nation state but increasingly at the global level. When applied to social change, the idea is that in order to effect change you must shift or transform the forces exerting hegemonic control, but keep the hegemonic nature of such control intact.

Affinity, on the other hand, is much more comfortable with change that is transient or incomplete, with struggles that are ongoing, with decentralized networks of nodes of collectives that come together, partially liberate some time and space, that say "this is what we want for us, what do you want for you?", and perhaps dissipate and reform and resurge in another guise elsehwere, elsehwhen, but do not seek to impose a single model of change on everyone and every thing. He sees this as a logic with a history in anarchist thought that is coming to the forefront in the newest social movements, from the Zapatistas and other indigenous struggles to the Independent Media Centres and the Italian autonomous zones.

The book uses a technique borrowed from Michel Foucault called "geneology" to examine the paths that these two logics have followed in Western political thought. He examines texts of classical Marxism, liberalism, and anarchism, and on through to neoliberalism, academic postmarxism, postanarchism, autonomist marxism, and poststructuralism. Which is perhaps an intimidating listing of labels, but it needn't be. One way that this text was very useful was in its examination of these various traditions, and its explanation of at least a few of the key features of each -- I have read bits and pieces of various items on that list, but my reading of theory (and everything else) has tended to be very self-directed and therefore very incomplete and fragmented, so even his partial summaries were useful to me.

My biggest learning about classical anarchism was that most of the big names in the canon (a problematic and unanarchist idea itself) were not really anarchists as we would understand the term today. Anarchism has had a curious tradition of each generation being very selective in how it reads the preceding generation, and then following generations largely just accepting that.

I also learned a lot about poststructuralism. I have tended to follow the trend of dismissing such theory as being arcane and depoliticizing, but Day emphasizes that there is a difference between a certain set of French theorists who founded poststructuralism and who were themselves very concerned with practical social change, and the trend in the North American academy towards postmodernism, which is often purely careerist and very disempowering. I don't know enough about poststructuralism myself to assess what he says about it, and he admits that his discussion of some of these thinkers is even more partial than in the other traditions, but I am more convinced than before that these thinkers have things of value to offer people trying to make practical change in the world, even if the accessibility of their writing remains a serious issue.

I am unwilling to pass a final judgment on the central thesis of the book, for a number of reasons. There are a few points I remain unconvinced of, but mostly I just need to let it settle for a year or two.

One thing with which I was unsatisfied was the climax of the discussion of hegemonic logic. He argues that in both its liberal and marxist or postmarxist forms, social change based on this logic cannot grant the demands of the pluralistic actors in social change that must be considered if you are going to end up with a system that is not just replicating oppression. He uses liberal multiculturalism as a detailed example of this, which is perhaps too easy a target, and was convincing on that side of things. My instinctive reaction is to agree with the idea that such a problem is inevitable with any radical marxist restructuring of the state, but I don't think he did enough to demonstrate that such problems are inherent in all articulations of hegemonic logic rather than just a problem of liberalism and some marxisms.

I am also, as I said, a little unsure about some of the post-structuralist stuff. He did say he was aiming to reach activist academics and theoretically inclined activists, and I appreciate that because I think I fit in that group. But I'm not sure that all of the post-structuralist stuff was explained as clearly as it could be. I mean, all language is metaphor, but it was not always clear to me how the more deliberately deployed abstracted metaphors from some of these theorists were really relevant to doing stuff on the ground. That may be my problem, not the text's, but then if it's my problem, it is probably other people's problem too.

I am also curious about how this framework, and Day's obvious desire to have people give struggles based in the logic of affinity more serious consideration and support, might relate to the horrific environmental crisis that is in the works (whether George Bush and some segments of the left admit it or not). While people liberating themselves in different ways, in different places, with different end goals in mind sounds wonderful, right now the hegemonic logic in control of most institutions on the planet is killing the planet, and I wonder whether a vision for changing this that is non-hegemonic is really sufficient. I suppose the counter-argument would be that hegemonic approaches don't seem to have done so well so far, and what we need to aim for is a critical mass of different affinity-based counter-projects that are sufficient to disrupt the dominant hegemony without replacing it. Not sure I completely buy that, though.

Anyway, I need to let it all settle more. It has succeeded in convincing me that the main concepts used in the argument are useful ones, and ones that I will assess against what I see in the world and what I read in the future. I think the distinction between social change based on a logic of affinity and that based on a logic of hegemony is a real and useful one, even if I have not completely bought all of the details.

And I like the logic of affinity. That shouldn't be the only way we evaluate analyses of the world and ways of intervening in it, but I think it is important.

I like it because it escapes the reform/revolution dichotomy, something I've thought was a dumb way of thinking about social change since I first saw it in I.S. materials back as an undergrad. No millenial moment of traditional revolution will make it all better, but no supplication to our rulers will make them nicer no matter how cleverly argued, so surely there must be a different framework. And perhaps there is.

I have also been thinking for awhile that what we need, practically speaking, are nodes of activity (i.e. groups of connected (inter)active resistant people) grounded in logics of behaviour that are something other-than-the-neoliberal-market. Their collective nature would hopefully make these nodes more stable and more able to exert power than purely individual decisions to act in some way differently. In a way, this is what Taiaike Alfred argues for in his grounding of social change by indigenous peoples in indigenous cultures and ways of being that are collective, distinct, but non-hegemonic. I also see some similarities to anti-integrationist queer writers like Michael Warner and his advocacy of a radical embrace of shame as a political grounding. Of course, it is important that we not prove the traditional marxists right in describing this affinity-based logic as a flight of fancy by having illusions about how different it can be -- it won't always be permanent, it won't always shed its ties to oppressive ways of being as completley and immediately as we might like, and it will always be "in process." Our argument has to be that, even when "the revolution" wins or, at least, is winning as in places like Venezuela, it is still just as much "in process" as struggles that explicitly disavow the seizure of state power, like the Zapatistas, albeit in different ways. In any case, one useful insight for me is that the "collective" that is necessary for constructing meaningful opposing to and difference from the currently hegemonic neoliberal capitalist atomized individualism (etc., etc.) just needs to mean "some," it doesn't need to mean "all" to have some value. That idea isn't new to me, but I haven't always connected that fact to an approach to social change that this book would class as being about affinity rather than hegemony.

So am I an anarchist? Yeah, I think so. It definitely remains an important strand in how I think about the world and how I want to act in it. But I definitely don't see the traditions most directly associated with that label as having all the answers. And I refuse to let a label, with all the baggage such things drag along even when used by those who apply it to themselves, place arbitrary limits on my personal and analytical and political-practical growth. (Is that an anarchist answer to that question or what? ;) )

This book certainly has implications for my political practice, but I don't know yet what they are. For the time being, I am thankful that it has given me a few new conceptual tools.

And, lefty book nerd that I am, I am both thankful and wearied at the very thought that my already seemingly endless need to read more about 20th century Canadian social movements has just been augmented by an amplified interest in reading areas of theory that I never knew existed or previously chose to pass over.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


Anonymous said...

My name is Wren...hello from Montreal, Quebec.
I stumbled upon your blog today and thought I would send a greeting.
Have a super day!

Ricia said...

Wow. I guess I really should read this book too. There has been much talk about it.

I so very heartily agree with the analysis of hegemony in predominate revolution history and theory - and it's enevitable outcomes. This is precisely what led me to consider Separation theories as viable alternatives.

I try to avoid labels as well, for the same reasons as yourself. But if I have to, I fit well enough into the anarcho-communiste / marxist-feminist groupings. All the same, and for as much brilliance as I believe these doctrines reflect in a comprhension of power and power alternatives - They all reflect the culture and norms of their time. There is no plurality, the Personal is subject to the Movement. Diversity is overlooked and in favour of hegemonic unity. Unilateral forces are seen pitched one against the other and everyone and everything inbetween is considered simply "misled" and treated as future subjects or matter for subjugation.

I think of it this way: They still favoured rectangles and triangles, to circles.

I mean no disrespect to the great minds and acts of the past. Only, I find frustration in the language and mindset of comrades (worldwide) whom evidently see no irony in their blind worship of now aging doctrines. I don't understand why our own generations are not attempting to further and push the reaches of what has been learned from the past aside what is experienced today.

The mimicry of present day as well as historical power structure is inherent in the process, method and cycles of revolution as approached by militants (generalising here). Obviously, we cannot truly expect change where we are only imitating the parameters within which change is wont to occur.
We cannot expect circles from triangles and rectangles.

I should stop there... it's truly unruly that I surf blogs while having my first coffee of the day... I don't know why I do it... !

Scott said...

Hi Ricia!

Sorry I'm slow in responding to this comment.

"I don't understand why our own generations are not attempting to further and push the reaches of what has been learned from the past aside what is experienced today."

I'm not sure that's true. I mean, I think this book is an example of someone doing that. And there are lots of examples of different sorts of theorizing about/for/as resistance being produced today, from the academic and post-structuralist to very rooted anti-oppression to all sorts of other things. They just don't generally try to serve as universal (hegemonic?) a function in relation to social movements as the "classical" theorists did...they don't try to, or they wish they could but just can't, or something.

"The mimicry of present day as well as historical power structure is inherent in the process, method and cycles of revolution as approached by militants"

Totally. But I don't think that's because of a lack of theory, or at least not entirely. There is lots of writing out there, for example, on how many social movements replicate white supremacy in their own structures. The problem isn't that no one is talking about it, it's that most people/groups to which it applies aren't listening and are resistant to listening.

But I totally agree that "we cannot truly expect change where we are only imitating the parameters within which change is wont to occur. We cannot expect circles from triangles and rectangles."

Oh...and I haven't forgotten about the post that you were seeking from me last week. I've thought about it and decided what I want to write about, and I'll probably have something for you in the next week or so.

Ricia said...

Your right. I guess I'm a little reactionary on the topic, due to frustrating re-occuring circular discourse. I too often find stubbornness (alike to religiousity) to be an unfortunate counter-constructive reality among activist factions. Mind you, I am likely among the "stubborn".

It is also true that I have found a great many continuations and critiques of past doctrines, detached philosophical analysis, but very little in the way of newly constructed tactical (reality-based) proposals.

That said, I have been removed from the liberty of reading-at-will since going to school. My lifestyle (parent, work, school) hasn't afforded personal reading time... My reading / writing habits are now dictated. So I am finding that references others make to new reads 'out there' are not in my repetoire at this time.

- That's GREAT! I'm going to be largely out of commission writing-wise the next weeks, so I will experience an added pleasure in seeing someone elses contemplations, observations, and voice 'up there'.

Looking forward to it!

Scott said...

Yes...circular discourse, stubborness, and religiosity pop up everywhere and are immensely frustrating. We seem to need to have the same debates over and over again in all kinds of different contemporary spaces, and in fact those discussions are often very similar to those happening ten years ago, thirty years ago, sixty years ago. Sigh.

And you're right that a lot of the theory that gets produced is very abstracted -- I fall prey to that in my ramblings on this site all the time. But I think the other side of that is that much of what gets produced that is reality-based and grounded in practicality is dismissed (in some quarters, often quarters with a certain amount of power) as not really being theory and therefore not being worth listening to.

I sympathize with the lack of reading time...I do manage to grab a fair amount of time to read, considering the demands of parenting, but I've found that I still have to focus on making the most of it so I get to read relatively little that isn't related in some way to my main project. It's stuff I'm interested in, of course, but I do miss being able to pick up a book at random just because it looks interesting. Of course, sometimes I'm bad and I do that anyway -- self-employment and its lack of external deadlines leaves room for indulging some bad habits, I guess!

Ricia said...

it's true (self employment).. but i always found it preferable - one is well aware of the "to do" list and anytime spent distracted or otherwise occupied is always compensated for regardless! also, better for parenting i think... can respond to the stuff that 'comes up' without having to ask 'for time off'. ick. i hate that.

i'm glad this project that you're working on exists, truly interesting and ultimately, valuable. don't let those publishers drag ya down!

kersplebedeb said...

i thought you might be interested in seeing my discussion of some aspects of Gramsci Is Dead, which i just uploaded today.
You can check it out on my Sketchy Thoughts blog and in PDF format to my website.

Let me know what you think!

Dark Daughta said...

I'm getting ready to take my daughter to daycamp. I'll be back to read this and to comment. I also trekked over to kersplebedeb's blog. I haven't read the book and may have to. Though, given our present world climate, corporate climate, governmental dictatorships unfolding... I'm a more than a little dismayed about the idea of us being in a post revolutionary time where passion, commitment to struggle and movements that push hard are being defined as passe. But I have to go eat breakfast and get dressed. Scott and Ricia, be seeing you both.

Scott said...

Ricia: I agree...if you can manage to figure out a way to do it, self-employment is definitely preferable!

Kersplebedeb: Just read your review...very thought provoking! I left a comment at your site, which I have reproduced below.

Dark Daughta: Good luck to both you and your daughter with the daycamp...L is a little young for that kind of thing, yet, but I can imagine it being anxious for both of us! And kersplebedeb has pointed out plenty of flaws in the book that I didn't notice or was not able to articulate, but I am fairly sure that in Day's rejection of "revolution" as understood in a particular way, he isn't arguing that we are or should be in a time when "passion, commitment to struggle and movements that push hard are being defined as passe."

Anyway, here's my comment from kerspledeb's site:

Thanks for this interesting review, and for the pointer to it over on my own review of the book.

I think at least some of the problems with Day's analysis that you elaborate in some detail are related to the vague and largely unpursued reservations that I mentioned. But certainly the failure to deal with how affinity-based struggle at a much more advanced stage than anything we have seen would be treated by the state, and how such affinity-based networks might respond, is a weakness that I did not notice but that is very important. That discussion would be very hypothetical, of course, but I think necessary to strengthen Day's case.

I think I differ in that I don't see Day's vision as being quite as pessimistic as you seem to. I think that may be based on a blurring of two different uses of the word "revolution" -- he rejects a very particular technical understanding of that term but what he advocates would probably still qualify as "revolution" under most lay understandings of it, I think. The way I read the text was not that it was advising that the overarching structures that dominate and regulate our society will remain the same even as we engage elements of them in battle, but that via affinity we seek to destroy them without replacing them. In lay terms, that would still be quite revolutionary, I think. The critical question, which you have raised and he has not addressed, is whether that is possible.

I don't want to be using one to support the other's ideas in simplistic and inappropriate ways, but I can't help but connect Day's vision of affinity-based struggle to things Taiaiake Alfred has written about indigenous liberation struggles. And I mean that both in a practical sense and a theoretical sense. Practial: Alfred argues for indigenous nations to reject the current hegemony but also to refuse to depend on and/or subsume themselves (and it would inevitably be subuming themselves because of numbers and current distributions of power) to any white-led struggle in North America, but rather seems to have an openness to the kind of alliance across different affinity groupings that Day talks about. And more theoretically, he advances the need for a vision of what things like "sovereignty" and "autonomy" can mean, and do mean in indigenous traditions, that at least on initial inspection seem to be somewhat connected to what Day discusses as the rejection of the logic of hegemony and the embrace of a logic of affinity. If this is the case, is a refusal to reject struggle based around hegemonic logic in North America just a pseudo-revolutionary reinscription of colonialism?

I haven't thought that out in any detail at all, and I could be misreading or misrepresenting one or both authors. As well, as you point out, it may well be that struggle organized around the logic of hegemony may be a necessary intermediate step to create conditions for creating a society based around the logic of affinity.

At this point, I throw up my hands at abstractions, at least for the time being, and go and make dinner.

sortilega said...

hi ,
i have started reading Day's book yesterday and could only read the first 2 chapters. upto this point i found the book pretty useful for myself in terms of stimulating thoughts.I always seem to have difficulties in defining my position in life, i am not sure if i can call myself an anarchist, maybe relatively more of a feminist. but whatever it is the labels seem to prison one's thoughts since those political/ideological stands are of a hegemonic composition. so here is the dilemma of Day's argument; if there is a way outside the boundaries of hegemony and if it is an anarchist affinity, how will the ideology of this particular affinity will become visible without actually being hegemonic itself?
maybe i will find the answers throughout the rest of the book.

Rev said...


Chris you and I should really get together and discuss this book. Chris and I have already discussed parts but It would be good to include you in the mix.


Scott said...

Hey Alex.

Sure, I'd like that! I think my view of it is a bit more critical than when I first read it and wrote this, and I've often wished I had the time to read it again with some of those criticisms in mind, but even in the absence of an opportunity to do that, it'd be great to hear what you and Chris have to say about it...

SN 8)

Rev said...

its funny, your blog is now the second hit on a google search when it comes to "gramsci is dead"

buro angla said...

Thanks for the review. The book did help me a lot in growing out of Gramsci. It also helped me escape the trap of Zizek, the slithery marxist messiah who seems to know everything about nothing.

"...the "collective" that is necessary for constructing meaningful opposing to and difference from the currently hegemonic neoliberal capitalist atomized individualism (etc., etc.) just needs to mean "some," it doesn't need to mean "all" to have some value."

I wish you explained this a little more. Historically and biologically, individualism comes later. It is preceded by the collective. Does it necessarly entail that it has to return to its origins? Just wondering: can the fact of being an individual, who struggles against the matrices you mention that also deny him his true individuality, be viewed in these times outside terms of this return? What are your thoughts on that?


Scott said...

[Comment spam deleted.]

Filza Naveed said...

I stumbled upon this blog while trying to find a review of this book. I agree with a lot of what you said in your introduction, about how being labelled as an "anarchist" can cause discomfort to one's self, simply because people fail to fully understand what anarchism actually means. My understanding of "anarchism" has also been pretty rudimentary until I took Richard Day's course on Global Development Studies at Queen's University and found much of his work and theory on anarchism deeply inspiring. I would also recommend Ian McKay's, "Reasoning Otherwise: Leftists's and the People's Enlightenment in Canada," if you are interested in Canadian Leftism. :)

Scott Neigh said...

Thanks for stopping by and reading, Fliza! I think I'm a bit more critical of Day's approach now than I was when I wrote this review, but I still think there is a great deal to learn from it. I'm also a fan of McKay's work -- the review I wrote a few years ago of Reasoning Otherwise, if you're interested, can be found here.

Anonymous said...

I would highly recommend you read Ian McKay's review of this same book. His review is entitled " 'O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark': The Many Deaths of Antonio Gramsci," Capital and Class 98 (2009): 131-140.