Sunday, May 01, 2011

Hegemony, war of position and organic crisis

I. Hegemony. In normal conditions of bourgeois rule, the ruling class exerts its domination partly through moral and intellectual leadership. It purports to rule for the good of the whole, not merely its own particularistic interests. Under capitalism, the central good that the bourgeoisie promises to bring to the social whole is growth, from which we may all benefit, even if we do not benefit in equal proportion. The benefits would not exclusively take the form of gradually increasing income, but also peace, political stability, technological and informational advances, cultural development and so on. The bourgeoisie's promise is that its rule serves a wider developmental purpose, which no alternative adequately rivals.

But in fact, there's no necessary reason why anyone should consent to this social image, which attributes 'growth', the sign for accumulated, alienated human labour, to a reifed capitalist 'market'. There's no necessary reason why anyone should even believe that these benefits actually follow from capitalist 'growth', for they very often do not. Nor is there any necessary reason why people should accept this arrangement as just, or 'natural', or 'inevitable', and acquiesce in it. And, of course, many people do not. But the production of social images takes place within an antagonistic and asymmetrical power relation, and the bourgeoisie exerts strategic control over most of the means through which social images are produced and disseminated. So, for bourgeois hegemony to be operative, it has to have achieved decisive leverage over the production of ideology, through universities, the military, the church, media, the parliamentary state, and so on; and the interests and aspirations of subaltern classes have to be plausibly incorporated into the ruling ideology. This requires the production of "tendentially empty signifiers" (Laclau, 'Structure, History and the Political') through which particular interests can appear to represent universal interests. These tendentially empty signifiers - family, market, justice, nation, hard-working, consumer, tax-payer, decent*, etc etc. - permit a certain equivalence between particulars, linking them, and anchoring them in a discourse beyond particularism. (*It is actually an over-statement to consider any of these signifiers 'tendentially empty', which is why VoloŇ°inov's analysis of social multi-accentuality comes in handy).

Since ruling classes are nationally constituted, moreover, they tend to represent their particularist interests first as national interests, and then only secondarily as contributing to planetary embetterment, or at least not inhibiting it. If the ruling class in question stands in an imperialist relationship to other other societies, then that ruling class will represent the national interest in missionary language - manifest destiny, the civilizing mission, containment, democracy promotion, etc., - concerning the nation's extra-territorial role, but this is always subordinate to the national interest, represented in the international terrain as as 'enlightened self-interest'. So, bougeois hegemony in an imperialist state can operate by appearing to meet the needs of subaltern classes within the imperialist mission itself, through their participation in demonstrations of national/racial supremacy, and their apparent benefiting from the fruits of that supremacy.

II. 'War of Position'. In its zenith, the bourgeoisie is capable of delivering sustained social transformation without surrendering its hegemony with respect to subaltern classes; it can take initiative and dictate the pace and nature of social reform; thus, the period following the organic crisis of 1848 is one of sustained reform, and qualitative social transformation, often under pressure from the working classes, but never exactly at their bidding or to their requirements. Similarly, there emerged new national states whose creation was directed by bourgeois-aristocratic initiative, without a popular Jacobin element driving their construction. In these states, notably Italy and Germany, the bourgeoisie could create independent centres of capital accumulation with fully fledged bourgeois cultural and political institutions without the working class taking leadership. This process, Gramsci dubbed 'passive revolution'.

For as long as the bourgeoisie retains its hegemonic position, the prospect of an immediate revolutionary assault on its power bases remains distant, upheld only as an intellectual-moral horizon by revolutionary parties until such time as circumstances change. In these circumstances, what Gramsci calls the "Forty-Eightist" position (referring, of course, to 1848) calling for insurrection against the state is, he claims, historically superseded by the rigidification of state authority and civil society organisation. The 'war of movement' becomes a 'war of position': "The massive structure of the modern democracies, both as State organisations and as complexes of associations in civil society, are for the art of politics what ‘trenches’ and permanent fortifications of the front are for the war of position". (Gramsci, 'The State and Civil Society'). Gramsci was not heterodox in this position, as Peter Thomas has shown - Engels, Lenin and Trotsky had all employed this insight, the latter insisting that conditions unique to Tsarist Russia would not be replicated in stable capitalist societies, and so the class struggle would have to be waged with a view to the specific conditions inhering in those states. The 'war of position' is not a chosen strategy, but a mode of political struggle enforced by circumstance. A 'war of movement' is available where a society is held together by force, where its power is concentrated in the instruments of repression, rather than consent. In advanced capitalist social formations, the bourgeoisie has successfully confined the proletariat's struggles to the sphere of civil society, which dictates where and how the war must be fought. This war will be conducted by means of ideological campaigns, trade union mobilisations, legal-democratic protests, etc. All of this is intended to exploit 'contradictions' in ruling ideology; turn exploited against exploiter; amplify demands for attainable reforms (both for its own beneficial purposes, and to socialise cadres of workers in militant struggles); raise reasonable but unattainable demands to illustrate the limits of the system's ability to meet social aspirations; and in the process convoke new constellations of potentially counter-hegemonic political forces.

III. Organic crisis. Until one day... An 'organic crisis' is a complete crisis of society and state, not merely of the capitalist market, but of the bourgeoisie's political and cultural institutions, and its sources of hegemony. It constitutes a crisis in the authority of all affected bourgeois states, and stimulates subaltern movements on an international level. A crisis of authority "occurs either because the ruling class has failed in some major political undertaking for which it has requested, or forcibly extracted, the consent of the broad masses (war, for example), or because huge masses (especially of peasants and petit-bourgeois intellectuals) have passed suddenly from a state of political passivity to a certain activity” (Gramsci, 'State and Civil Society').

It is precisely such a generalised crisis that rescues the "Forty Eightist" position from a purely niche, antiquarian, or fetishistic interest, justifying the idea of a permanent revolution taking on the state directly. The ruling order suddenly seems brittle, the civil society no longer as robust, existing channels for popular expression no longer capable of deflating radical critique. Something like this could be said to have occurred in the Middle East. However, in the short-run, such crises are dangerous for the Left. Not all strata can reorient themselves at the same pace - traditional ruling classes have numerous trained cadres, and changes men and programmes with greater speed than opponents. For example, the Left was initially wrong-footed by the crisis of 2008, not helped by it.

One might argue that the revolutionary process in the Middle East reinforces the view that such scenarios only unfold in states with weak civil society organisations, frail or non-existent democratic legitimacy, overwhelmingly dependent on force. This, however, would overstate the extent to which the ancien regimes in the recent revolutionary states, Tunisia and Egypt, were dependent on consent. It was precisely because such consent broke down, and the social basis of their regimes narrowed, that they eventually fell. Mubarak's fall, for example, was precipitated by: a financial crisis; the weakening of state capacity; the defection of important class fractions (particularly the middle class and rural poor); the shattering of elite self-confidence; the transfer of loyalties of strategically significant intellectuals to opposition, which cultivates its own cadres of organic intellectuals; and finally a popular unwillingness to tolerate the old order, even at the cost of privation, injury and a number of deaths. These processes would have been accelerated by the regime's undemocratic nature, and its considerable cultural and socioeconomic distance from the ruled, but they are far from unique to such regimes. An organic crisis can afflict any regime. It would be historically short-sighted not to expect the features of such crises to recur not just in Third World autocracies, but in the Euro-American capitalist core in the near future.

Five years ago, a little noted article appeared in The International Political Science Review. By Adam Webb, the article entitled 'The Calm Before the Storm? Revolutionary Pressures and Global Governance' anticipated "a global revolutionary crisis". This would probably take place within a generation, he forecast, and would be prefaced by a systemic global economic crisis equivalent to the prolonged 'troughs' of the 1930s and 1970s. Such a crisis would intersect with an existing sense of injustice about the inequity of global wealth accumulation, and drive political radicalisation. But this would not result in revolution if the world system and the national regimes comprising it enjoyed sufficient legitimacy to weather the storm. The reason why such a crisis can become revolutionary is because the existing order is brittle, increasingly lacking democratic legitimacy even within the 'developed' capitalist core.

This is a feature of neoliberal governance, which saw "that ‘unstable equilibrium’ between coercion and consent which characterizes all democratic class politics" tilt "decisively towards the ‘authoritarian’ pole" (Stuart Hall). Limited democratic participation was replaced by market-driven decision-making. The fragile, antagonistic nature of this hegemonic project, which involved somehow suturing together a series of 'contradictory' subject-positions, meant that it could only survive through the weakness of its opponents. Indeed, it had derived its initial energy from exploiting unpopular aspects of the old social democratic centre, and of certain labour movement practises, in order to divide and weaken opponents. But given a sufficiently ecumenical crisis, and the revival of radical forces of opposition, the patent weakness of its civil society bases, the lack of popular participation in the regime (even in its limited corporatist forms), and its lack of ability to absorbe and 'transform' popular demands, all become abundantly plain.

On top of this, the national regimes founded on such social pacts are increasingly integrated into global transgovernmental institutions designed to reinforce their lack of responsiveness to popular pressure, to insulate their law-making and economic decision-making processes from popular majorities, while capital has sought to free itself somewhat from controls by national states. The Middle East revolutions show that those who expect 'globalization' in this sense to render the capture of national states irrelevant are mistaken. But if there is a scalar shift taking place in the operation of capitalist power, it is not as yet matched by a global civil society capable of buttressing this transnational power's legitimacy. This affects the level at which revolutionary struggles are pitched, as they increasingly have a regional dimension analogous to the regionalising tendencies within capitalism itself. It also means, however, that reactionary 'anti-capitalist' forces could emerge predicated on national, ethnic or religious revival, particularly if the contending forces reach an impasse, neither able to impose a solution, allowing a charismatic Bonapartist/Caesarist leadership to emerge and carry through a 'passive revolution' that preserves the basic class structure while introducing substantial social changes. Such a tendency is not restricted to, but is most dangerous in, the imperialist states.