Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Gramsci and the crisis posted by Adam Marks"In this first crisis of the global age the old free market fundamentalism, no matter how it is dressed up, has been found wanting”. The £500 billion bailout is not “to help the bankers, but to help people like you who put away your savings in a bank, or need a loan to buy a house or start a business…"
This is what Gordon Brown said in Sunday’s Observer. It is a fantastically rich and revealing statement. I will restrict myself to regarding how much pressure Gordon Brown is under at the moment. He has to simultaneously rescue British capitalism and the Labour Party. Going into a recession he has to find a way to make working people pay without generating a passive (election defeat) or active (strike wave) reaction from the population.
If you take what he has done and what he proposes to do in the near future at face value, he intends to make workers pay, while rescuing savers and homeowners: there is, of course, a great deal of crossover between the categories.
We have moved from inflation and credit crunch to a full on banking crisis, which, as even Gordon Brown acknowledges, has completely destroyed the governing neo-liberal orthodoxy. The ruling class has to reorganise its system of government across all fronts, economically, politically and ideologically. If it doesn’t it faces the rise of a new politics that puts the entire system into doubt.
The concept of passive revolution, developed by Antonio Gramsci, can be a useful way into thinking about the coming period. Gramsci’s intellect flowered at a time when capitalism and anti-capitalism fought each other to a high stalemate across the globe. Gramsci noted in the related concept of revolution/restoration that this produced unusual and unstable political hybrids. He harvested great insight from comparing the hybrid results of the bourgeois and proletarian revolutions.
Let’s run through passive revolution:
1. Social revolution is the going over of a society from one socio-economic order to another.
2. Successful revolution is usually a combination of two factors, event and process: the storming of the Winter Palace and the toppling of the Provisional government next to the nationalisation and redistribution of land, the agitation for peace on the eastern front, and the establishment of workers control of major industries.
3. The link between these two factors is the mobilisation and organisation of the masses.
4. Significant social change has taken place without obvious mass mobilisations, especially without obvious revolutionary events.
5. Vincenzo Cuoco was a conservative philosopher who speculated upon “passive revolution” in Italy. He wanted to unite the Italian people under a modern state without passing through the Jacobin experience of the French revolution.
6. Antonio Gramsci used the term passive revolution to his own ends. He used it as a way to describe a process of change where the expected bearer of change does not carry out their function. He talked primarily of the Italian Risorgimento of the 19th century but expanded the concept in order to probe the realities and weaknesses of Mussolini’s fascist regime (to a lesser extent developments in the United States and USSR).
7. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels describe how non-capitalist countries adopt capitalist ways on “pain of extinction”. Revolutions of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries created liberal states in Britain, France and the Low Countries, allowing capitalism to develop and grow. In order for the Holy Alliance countries to compete (economically and militarily) they had to adopt aspects of the new society, despite having formally restored the Ancien Regime. This is Gramsci’s related concept of revolution/restoration. The old society takes on aspects of the new in order to sustain itself.
8. In the absence of a wealthy bourgeoisie with a strong culture able to lead masses of ordinary people other actors filled the void. In the 19th century this was commonly the state. For Germany the Prussian monarchy, for Italy Piedmont, for Japan the restored emperor. These bodies, linked to old ruling classes, generally carried out basic reforms essential to the growth of capitalism: a unitary state with a single set of laws, customs and currency, a single monopoly of violence and so forth.
9. Gramsci took Mussolini’s regime to be a modern incarnation of the passive revolution. The working class proved itself unable to strike for power during the Red Years of 1919-20. The capitalist class could no more establish order and stable hegemony. Mussolini’s fascists became a middle-class proxy for capitalist rule. The regime firstly crushed the working class as an organised political force but secondly adopted aspects of the working class programme, in particular the planned economy, and used them for capitalist ends.
10. Another example of the adoption of socialist measures for capitalist ends is international co-operation. The working class invented international cooperation, practiced through several Internationals. As capitalism grows and ages it produces bodies and agencies such as the EU, NAFTA, IMF, WTO, the UN and so forth. The interpenetration of national capital requires international cooperation to work.
11. The progress of passive revolution toward socialism creates a problem. Capital and Labour are antagonistic opposites. There cannot be hybrid worker/capitalist formations therefore there cannot be (stable) worker/capitalist states.
12. The passive revolution can be adapted to modern conditions through the theory of deflected permanent revolution. Middle class radicals in 3rd world countries looked to the USSR, with a formally socialist framework left over after the defeat of the 1917 revolution, as a means of overcoming imperialism and underdevelopment. The revolutions carried out by these groups were bourgeois. They created independent centres of accumulation.
13. The only way to achieve genuine, worthwhile socialism is through an active revolution: the conscious actions of oppressed people, led by the organised working class.
There are some simple applications we can make to modern politics and the current situation. Firstly, international cooperation is the recognised future of mankind. Every serious political and economic force in the world today recognises this. All artistic and philosophical speculation about the future takes this for granted.
The International Working Men’s Association formally consecrated cooperation in 1864, when the ruling class was still trying to form bodies such as Italy, Germany and the United States. There is a reason for this.
Capitalism was founded by revolutions creating unitary states. Competition between different blocs of capital in time became fused with competition between different states. A new, global system was formed out of the feudal patchwork where the ruling class, through its internal competition, was crucially for and against itself.
All subsequent attempts to foster ruling class unity and harmony have foundered on the same fact. The United Nations, for example, was formed at the end of World War Two to promote understanding between peoples. If it ever fulfilled that function it was soon taken over by the five permanent members of the Security Council, dominated by the USA.
It’s worth remembering, with the calls for a new Bretton Woods agreement and the general revival of the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, ‘Keynesianism’ as JM Keynes understood it was never really put into practice. The original plan was to have an international super-currency for nations to multinationals to trade in. The American government nixed this, insisting the dollar become the international reserve currency. Much of modern economic and social history has been shaped by this fact.
The short answer is cooperation between competing blocs of capital and their associated states will be difficult to pull off and hard to sustain.
One final observation, there is a theme running through the list of actors in the passive revolution: deep authoritarianism. As Engels once said, a revolution is an authoritarian thing. There is a huge difference between authority imposed from above and authority developed from below, transformation driven by a minority and transformation driven by the majority. Whether it was led Hitler, Stalin or Joe McCarthy, the ruling class movement needed huge doses of violence and militarism to effect the passive revolution.
The global crisis of capitalism is the cue for the anti-capitalist actor to step in from the wings. If the movement against capitalism does not begin to reach for power, power may begin to reach for us. We could face an unpleasant future.