Friday, May 09, 2008

Crisis and hegemony

The phrase 'war of position', in Gramsci's writings, refers to the kind of struggle conducted in the event that the possibility of revolution is foreclosed. (Or, in the case of Bolshevik Russia, after the revolution has been successful and elements of civil society are organising through the Whites for a counter-revolution). It is a battle for hegemony in a given population group fought along ideological and organisational lines, in order to create the best possible circumstances in which to meet a crisis. What one wants to achieve is a socialist common sense, somewhat analogous to the the 'antiwar common sense' I mention below. Sticking with the martial language for a second, the term 'subaltern' also appears in Gramsci's prison writings at several points. Just as his references to the Machiavelli provided a coded language to talk about the revolutionary party and strategy that would hopefully get past the censors, so the word 'subaltern' adapts Roman military language to talk about the oppressed in a particular way. In its conventional military sense, the term refers to non-commissioned officers, those who are excluded from rank and privilage but are necessary foot-soldiers in the battle. In Gramsci's usage, it designates the oppressed, with a deliberate connotation of them being engaged in a struggle. It was not, pace a certain de-Leninised version of Gramsci popular in postcolonial studies, a designation of pure difference, nor a situation to be celebrated as a realm of occult freedom. (Timothy Brennan is brilliantly scathing on this point in Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right, and Perry Anderson's pre-emptive strike against Gramsci's misappropriation is worth a read). Among the subaltern operate the 'organic intellectuals' - selling newspapers, circulating petitions, gradually undermining the line manager's authority, acquiring epithets like 'ringleader'. That is what the 'war of position' involves.

This is an argument about what hegemonic struggle for the left entails at the moment. The polarising features of the global situation are obvious enough. The first is that the economy is tanking. This doesn't always redound to the left's advantage. For example, it could be used by the right in Venezuela to attack the Chavez regime, particularly if Chavez is compelled by the logic of his position to try to constrain any militant response to the crisis. In Italy, part of what brought the right surging to power was the left's complicity in a feckless neoliberal regime that had seen the economy decline badly. Need I even mention what happened last Friday? Didn't think so. So, this invites caution about the relationship between capitalist crisis and the fortunes of the Left. Nonetheless, deep recession bodes poorly for the established order, as a rule, and does open up opportunities for a left able to take them. The neoliberal policy mix isn't going to be abandoned by any of the major parties of government in Europe or America until the crisis gets so bad that it becomes destabilising, but this reinforces the duty and obligation of the left to give expression to anti-neoliberal feeling.

The second is that the 'war on terror', despite recent triumphalist narratives, is tanking as well. The recent slaughters in Sadr City, now accompanied by what looks like a Fallujah-style operation (more on that in a future post), don't look like the actions of a power that is winning. All indications are that the Sunni insurgency is taking off again and practically everyone in the American military and political elite knows that the battle now is over how hard the loss of Iraq will hit. In Afghanistan, the government is begging the occupiers to 'leave the Taliban alone', to their great embarrassment, because they can't defeat them. If the US and its allies don't appear to have the means to subdue either of the two frontier zones at the moment, only a fool would believe that this is because of 'Al Qaeda'. If it was possible for a tiny cluster of hardened Salafist fighters to hold back the American Empire, the damned thing would have fallen already. Clearly, it is because in both countries the rebellion is animated by popular hostility to the occupation. This hostility is strong enough to drive poor farmers who must be sick and tired of war to take up arms, and to even ally with the Taliban whom they have had every reason to despise. The US isn't even having much luck getting the Lebanese government to move seriously against Hezbollah (the talk of a new 'civil war' after recent clashes across the country strike me as hyperbolic, not least because the pro-government forces haven't the means to defeat the opposition forces). This state of overstretch and stasis is why US policymakers are having to rely on a range of militias from the Jundullah to the Mujahiden e-Khalq to assail Iran rather than going for a direct hit. One must also factor into this the political cost of taking the measures necessary to win. Neither Bush nor Brown can up the ante too far without risking domestic upheaval and seriously damaging the legitimacy of their future operations. We in the antiwar movement underestimate our role at our peril: after all, if protests and activism didn't count, the government would not invest so much in trying to neutralise it. One interesting aspect of the antiwar movement has been its ability to accelerate the degeneration of Israel's reputation. The celebrations over its founding hardly look so glamorous in light of the Nakba memorials that are taking place at the same time (and don't forget to join tomorrow's Free Palestine demonstration).

I mentioned a few of the local implications of this global situation in Britain before, so let me instead repeat and summarise an argument about how to relate to that. I note:
  • Labourism is more in crisis than ever before, with its heartland erosions pointing to a long-term breakdown in party identity;
  • The Tories didn't win on the basis of Howard-style immigrant-bashing and being 'tough on crime', but by playing on Labour's weakness on the 10p tax and post office closures, so this isn't exactly a Thatcherite resurgence;
  • Labour's response is to move to the right. Brown is planning on cutting 'green' taxes, Liam Byrne is imposing a points system on immigrants, and the Home Secretary is pressing ahead on upgrading cannabis against expert advice. Given this, it is unlikely that Labour will benefit from a big rush by left-wingers back into the party in order to save it from the Tories;
  • But Labour owes its rich friends millions and has no money repay it. It is therefore entering an almighty battle with the unions over funding. Jack Straw is proposing to force unions to hand over all political funds from 4 million affiliated members straight to Labour HQ, with new legislation. Even the relatively friendly leaderships of the GMB and Unison are talking about breaking from Labour if that happens. If the Blairites get their way, their may be a further push to reduce the union block vote (still 40%), diminish the reliance on union funding, and continue the re-alignment of the party on Democratic Party lines by shifting further to the right and soliciting more funds from business. Even if they don't, something has to give, and this opens opportunities for the Left;
  • The Tory vote, despite its recent showing, is also fragmenting over the long term with right-wing voters backing smaller parties like UKIP as well as the Nazis. Far be it from me to use metaphors like "the kaleidoscope has been shaken", but the party system is changing with growing rapidity.
  • The antiwar movement has created a kind of common sense, which led people to spontaneously oppose Israel's assault on Lebanon and automatically prefer Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's version of events to Tony Blair's during the brief 'hostage crisis'. This is not unassailable but, given the long-term centrality of the 'war on terror', it is a strategically important accomplishment in itself. It has also been significant in combatting the Islamophobia that the far right feeds off.

I think these are the basic co-ordinates of our 'war of position'. We are fighting in a context where the usual fixtures of bourgeois politics are in a state of speedy deterioration, and opening up new territory. Any space that the Left is unable or unwilling to occupy will likely be an opportunity either for unprincipled forces like the SNP or the Liberals or, at worst, the far right.