Magazine article Soundings

Optimism of the Intellect? Hegemony and Hope: Thinking with Gramsci Can Help Us to Find Realistic Grounds for Hope

Magazine article Soundings

Optimism of the Intellect? Hegemony and Hope: Thinking with Gramsci Can Help Us to Find Realistic Grounds for Hope

Article excerpt

'Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will' is one of Gramsci's best-remembered sayings, and it has informed much fine critical analysis, including within the pages of Soundings. Critical work has helped uncover the transformations wrought by neoliberalism as a hegemonic project, from Thatcher to the apparent shambles of Coalition. (1) And there have been important critical warnings against hailing any vital new movement as a decisive turning point. (2) Yet political will and critical analysis are not as unconnected as Gramsci's aphorism might imply. Too much criticism can feed despair about these 'End Times' and can paralyse the will. (3) We surely need also an optimism of the intellect: theories and concrete studies that map out a more hopeful future, yet ground strategy in realist historical analysis. Perhaps we need to finetune our political-intellectual outlook to fit today's chaotic world, where possibilities and catastrophe coexist so intimately. We need to recover what Ernst Bloch, the key Marxist theorist of hope, called 'forward dreaming'. (4)

Gramsci again

Personally, I still find both political encouragement and intellectual resources in Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks. (5) Gramsci, though in prison, is writing Notes for a Future Transition: the typical focus of the Prison Notebooks is the search for a new hegemony - an alternative path of social development for an Italy that was dominated by fascism and increasingly capitalist in economic organisation. This alternative is always implied and is, I believe, the ultimate object of Gramsci's scholarship. He imagines a new kind of revolution or fundamental transition, which cannot be fully named except through a military metaphor as 'a war of position'; while its key agency, a new kind of political party, is described partly through scholarly engagement with Machiavelli's The Prince. In spite of these difficulties, Gramsci sketches out the forms, agencies and conditions of a transition that lies beyond (or is coeval with) the new, emerging forms of capitalist modernity - through historical comparison, philosophical debate, political polemic and, not least, cultural study. He is a revolutionary, but of a new kind.

If we read Gramsci like this, his questions are close to those we need to ask today. How far do the conditions of possibility exist for a fundamental ('organic') transition? What can and should be its forms? What kinds of agents (e.g. parties) exist or are needed? What strategies should they pursue? What particular difficulties are there to overcome?

Familiar categories in the Prison Notebooks look different from this perspective. Gramsci's layered, accumulative notes and essays are not only, or primarily even, an account of bourgeois forms of rule. Certainly they don't describe an all-embracing 'ideological hegemony': bourgeois hegemony is a notable absence from Italian history, his key example. Rather, the main concern is the possibility of a new culture, a new hegemony, and a new civilisation.

Similarly, many academics have read the Prison Notebooks primarily as a text on cultural politics (whether theorised as discursive articulation or the relative autonomies of ideology). Yet Gramsci does not disconnect his rich cultural analysis from the older Marxist preoccupation with 'structure' or 'base' - what Marx sometimes called 'the forms of life'. For Gramsci, 'structure' could mean class formation (e.g. the emergence of the Fordist worker in the USA as a new way of living); or Italy's mix of modernity and feudalism (the 'Southern Question'); or, generally, the possibilities of development - the 'merits' and limits of capitalism in its current forms. This conception of structure, or 'the ensemble of social relations', can be extended today beyond class to include gender, sexuality and bodily differences, and the construction of nations, ethnicities and racisms. What remains so exciting, however, about a Gramsci-influenced prognosis is the putting together of the limits and possibilities of 'structure' with a culturally elaborated view of what an appropriate transformative politics might be. …

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