Observations on Capitalist Folklore

09. 05. 2019

The vitality of Gramsci’s thought is located at the hinge (and the rift) between the drive for unity and the reality of difference. That unity is not just that of a revolutionary class project, crystallized and catalyzed by a party capable of shaping a collective will into a destructive and reconstructive historical force; it is also the transvalued heritage of an idealism (Hegelian first, Crocean later) which strives to culminate in a unified “conception of the world and of life” – to employ a recurrent formulation from the Quaderni del carcere.

Anni Albers, Under Way, 1963.
Anni Albers, Under Way, 1963.
The political urgency of unification - at the interpenetrating levels of class (and its alliance), nation, party, culture - is only matched in Gramsci by his reckoning with the multiple fault-lines and stratifications, the variety of speeds and rhythms, criss-crossing Italy and Italians. These historical (and "pre-historical") differences need to be articulated, reduced, and surpassed before the figure of contradiction can even be attained. The conditions for a historical and political dialectic must be forged. If hegemony is the strategic and analytical designation of a historical and political unity - an oriented organization - wrested from the disorder and disorientation of difference, this is not a merely formal unity; it is the form of a content. The historical trajectory and accumulated capacities of a group or class cannot but shape its efforts to impress its transformative will onto others (who it will lead, how and where to), its ability to articulate (in the sense both of bind together and give voice to) a plurality of experiences and interests. Among the trickiest tasks for a reader of Gramsci is to hold together the sensitivity to the (linguistic, cultural, psychological, political) texture of difference with the incessant reflection on the strategic construction of unity. Unfortunately, the price paid for the circulation of Gramsci's ideas - extracted and modularized from his carceral annotations by successive generations of political and academic interpreters - has been a kind of formalism, stripping the historical content from his thinking of difference and the political content from his strategy of unity. This explains why, irrespective of its political colorations, the notion of hegemony can so often degrade into a formula of political marketing, less Croce and Lenin than Edward Bernays and his public-relations progeny.

In this respect, invocations of Gramsci and hegemony in the ambit of the often insubstantial contemporary debate on populism - where the antagonistic identification of the people as the innocent and indignant counterpart to a corrupt casta or 1% is regarded as the nec plus ultra of politicization - would do well to pause on one of Gramsci's definitions of the people, set down in his observations on folklore. In a 1935 draft of reflections first made in 1929, the communist leader frames the problem of folklore not merely as that of an area of social research or cultural policy but as the site of a contrast between the conception of the world and of life of subaltern social strata and that of the "official" (cultured, intellectually dominant) components of society. The people is here not the name of a unity, be it substantial or formal, but that of a motley amalgam (we could recall here the Bolivian theorist René Zavaleta Mercado's sociedad abigarrada), a sedimented palimpsest of diverse experiences, practices, ideas. The people's "conception of the world is not elaborated and systematic because, by definition, the people (the sum total of the instrumental and subaltern classes of every form of society that has so far existed) cannot possess conceptions which are elaborated, systematic and politically organized and centralized in their albeit contradictory development. It is, rather, many-sided - not only because it includes different and juxtaposed elements, but also because it is stratified, from the more crude to the less crude - if, indeed, one should not speak of a confused agglomerate of fragments of all the conceptions of the world and of life that have succeeded one another in history. In fact, it is only in folklore that one finds surviving evidence, adulterated and mutilated, of the majority of these conceptions." The tradition decanted into folklore is a kind of mosaic, the product of a "bizarre" procedure of assimilation. Far from a holistic form of culture and consciousness, folklore is connoted by "contradictoriness, fragmentation, dispersal, multiplicity, implicitness, non-elaboration, unsystematicness, difference, juxtaposition, stratification, indigestibility, etc." To the extent that "the people" is inseparable from this process of cognitive and cultural accumulation - a process at once exquisitely historical and dehistoricizing in its forms of appearance - it is anything but an empty, political signifier, as a certain post-Marxist current suggests; the people is rather an over-determined, pre-political signified. It is worth remarking upon how the crucial problem of unevenness and non-contemporaneity which painfully confronted the most astute critical Marxists in the interwar period - be it Lenin and Trotsky in the face of Russian economic life, or Ernst Bloch surveying the fracturing psychic landscape of German class society - is here given a geological cast ("stratified"). The "people" is both pre-historical and post-historical, still bereft of an organized impetus but saturated with historical experience - albeit one which is generally not its own, since "folklore has always been tied to the culture of the dominant class." Accordingly, as an accretion of historical derivations, distortions and degradations, ‘nothing is more contradictory and fragmentary than folklore." The geological metaphor can also be enlisted in an attempt to detect that which in the people - specifically in its moral life - is not reducible to the incoherent sediments of "official" conceptions. This is why in the sphere of morality "one must distinguish various strata: the fossilized ones which reflect conditions of past life and are therefore conservative and reactionary, and those which consist of a series of innovations, often creative and progressive, determined spontaneously by forms and conditions of life which are in the process of developing and which are in contradiction to or simply different from the morality of the governing strata."

This portrayal of folklore repeats the critical characterization of common sense (defined in turn as the "folklore of philosophy," in Gramsci's very expansive use of the latter term) as not coherent, "usually "disjointed and episodic," fragmentary and contradictory. Into it the traces of and "stratified deposits" of more coherent philosophical systems have sedimented over time without leaving any clear inventory." The originality of Gramsci's understanding of political consciousness and subjectivity lies, as Stuart Hall long ago suggested, in his recognition of the "‘plurality' of selves or identities of which the so-called ‘subject' of thought and ideas is composed. He [Gramsci] argues that this multifaceted nature of consciousness is not an individual but a collective phenomenon, a consequence of the relation between ‘the self' and the ideological discourses which compose the cultural terrain of society. It contains ‘Stone Age elements and principles of a more advanced science, prejudices from all past phases of history ... and intuitions of a future philosophy[.]' As the Italian avant-garde poet Edoardo Sanguineti observed, this is not just true of subaltern, "folkloric" consciousness, since Gramsci teaches that there is "a chaotic stratification in each of us who thinks himself enlightened and rational but then discovers this is not true."

This stratigraphy of political consciousness was intimately bound up with the diagnosis of the socio-cultural retardations besetting any effort at a progressive construction of party, state, nation, culture and class, above all in that over-determined complex going by the name of the Southern Question. The South emblematizes the notion of difference as fragmentation; as Gramsci declared in the article on the Southern question left unfinished by his 1926 arrest (the germ-cell for many of Gramsci's carceral meditations), "the South can be defined as an area of extreme social disintegration"; at its core we find a peasantry which, echoing the "sack of potatoes" of Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire, Gramsci dubs a "great amorphous, scattered mass," whose elements "have no cohesion among themselves." Whence the political verdict: "The Southern peasants are in perpetual ferment, but as a mass they are incapable of giving a unified expression to their aspirations and needs." Ideological unity is instead visited upon them by the intellectual reaction incarnated above all in the thought and action of Benedetto Croce and his ilk (enabling a "monstrous agrarian bloc" in which "the Southern peasant is linked to the great landowner through the mediation of the intellectual," but also the only historically possible "Reformation" for the Italian peninsula). And yet, contrary to an uncritical celebration of cultures of popular resistance, the political dialectic of difference and unity in Gramsci dictates that the heterogeneity and incoherence of subaltern experience be pushed, through a pedagogy of alliances, towards a truly unified conception of the world and of life which, in advance of the emergence of a "red Prince," is the possession of the bourgeoisie and its adjutants. As the anthropologist Alberto Maria Cirese noted, this is the political chiasmus at the heart of Gramsci's confrontation with folklore. The latter "is allowed the rank of a conception of the world, but within this category of phenomena it is placed at a lower level in the hierarchy than that assigned to the official conceptions from which it is distinguished and which stand in opposition to it. By definition, it is denied all the formal qualities of coherence, unity, consciousness, etc., which are typical of the hegemonic classes and their ‘official' conceptions. Gramsci's esteem goes entirely to the latter, quite independently of the specific content of the conception in question or what social class it belongs to. ... The cultural expressions of the social classes with which Gramsci solidarizes so clearly at the political level are assessed positively to the extent that they are to be considered simply as an object of scientific research - but are judged negatively when it comes to seeing them as factors in real life and its process of development. Alternately, the cultural modes of the classes which Gramsci opposes both political and culturally are esteemed as permanent ‘values' and ‘forces'" - a paradox and tension, which, we could note, was also present at this time in Bolshevik debates on proletarian culture, particularly in Trotsky's Literature and Revolution (a text which incorporated Gramsci's letter to the Bolshevik leader on the topic of Italian futurism).

When Gramsci's thought was recovered in the 1970s and 1980s, the emphasis was unsurprisingly on the problem of difference and its political articulation, often at the cost of the (class, proletarian) content of the form of hegemony - ever in the foreground of Gramsci's reflections on the Southern Question, intellectuals, Americanism and Fordism, etc. No doubt, this could in turn be justified by an imperative of absolute historicism, requiring one to take leave from any comforting just-so-stories philosophies of historical inevitability, "simply to attend to [the] riveting of Gramsci to the notion of difference, to the specificity of a historical conjuncture." Stuart Hall put this memorably in a key intervention into the British Left's debate around the formidable challenge posed by Thatcherite neoliberalism. The Gramsci that one still needed to heed was the one who faced up to the failure of the insurrectionary "proletarian moment" in Western Europe in the immediate wake of 1917: "Gramsci, here, came face to face with the revolutionary character of history itself. When a conjuncture unrolls, there is no ‘going back.' History shifts gears. The terrain changes. You are in a new moment. You have to attend, ‘violently,' with all the ‘pessimism of the intellect' at your command, to the ‘discipline of the conjuncture.'" The question remains of course whether the discipline of the conjuncture today allows one to retain from Gramsci more (which is already a great deal) than a militant and methodical attention to the claims of historical difference upon emancipatory projects of transformation. Hall "stretched" Gramsci (as Fanon famously said of Marx) in the direction of a "Marxism without guarantees" pivoting on the notion of "the production of politics - politics as a production. This conception of politics is fundamentally contingent, fundamentally open-ended." We may ask, though, whether - regardless of the validity of Hall's own characterization of politics - such an emphasis on the contingency of politics doesn't come at the price of unravelling the inherent logic of the notion of hegemony itself. If the tendential unity of a proletarian conception of the world and of life, grounded in its singular participation in the historical process of capital accumulation, is jettisoned, along with any non-bourgeois conception of progress (a category hard to expunge from the Gramscian frame), are we not thrown into a merely formal assertion of the centrality of alliances to political struggle in complex social formations? Is the terrain not open to that over-estimation of contingency which Hall himself remarked upon when he stressed the difference between, on the one hand, his own assertion of "no necessary correspondence" between economic and political levels, and, on the other, Laclau and Mouffe's position of "necessarily no correspondence"? Or, to paraphrase Hall, must being riveted to difference (with all the tension of this relation remarked above by Cirese) mean being stuck with contingency?

This question remains foremost on the agenda of any anti-systemic reflection in the present, especially as we witness not the farewell to class discourse announced or anticipated in the wake of the neoliberal ascendancy, but its toxic and distorted reflux - in that spectre of the industrial working class which has come to inhabit phenomena of reaction across the Euro-Atlantic region (Trump, Le Pen, Brexit...). The incoherence, heterogeneity, non-contemporaneity, contradictoriness and "bizarre" historical sedimentation that Gramsci once discerned in the phenomena of subaltern folklore is now spread across the social field, and pathological disorganization and disorientation is by no means the sad monopoly of the dominated. Perversely, among the "stratified deposits" that go on to make up contemporary (pre- or para-) political consciousness are distorted fragments of the productive modernity desired, for an emancipated proletariat and its allies, by Gramsci himself. Fordism haunts societies decomposed by the ravages of "regressive modernization" and primed once again for "authoritarian populism" (to employ two of the Gramscian constructs forged by Stuart Hall in the 1980s, in what has been recently judged "the most clairvoyant single example of a Gramscian diagnostic of a given society on record)." It is not simply that a progressive image of industrial modernity is past, but that it inhabits our political imaginary, as a reactive desire for a lost synchronicity and momentum - in what I have elsewhere tried provisionally to anatomize as an emergent "late fascism." And in this late fascism, folklore is "official," the incoherence at the "top" repeating and intensifying the confusion at the "bottom." And the greatest challenge to those who remain oriented towards an egalitarian horizon - and "the long, dangerous, historical process of reconstructing society according to a different model" - is that fascistic, authoritarian and right populist solutions do not require a unified conception of the world and of life; or rather that, in Fredric Jameson's terms, they can operate with the most degraded varieties of "cognitive mapping," with the image of "totality as conspiracy." If the illusion of the (Left) intellectual is that "ideology must be coherent, every bit of it fitting together, like a philosophical investigation," this is an illusion that the right (especially once it leaves behind the rigor and asceticism of high bourgeois culture) need not entertain, happily flaunting its programmatic incoherence and rejection of the rationalist demand that politics have a logic, crafting its discourse to appeal in incommensurate ways to contradictory audiences. As even the commanding heights come to be inhabited by folklore, in its most derogatory acceptations, the challenges for a politics of solidarity and emancipation "riveted to difference" are formidable - whether they require, as Gramsci firmly believed, the unity of a conception of the world and of life, a hegemonic "philosophy," remains an unsettled question. Gramscian diagnoses may not be followed by Gramscian prescriptions.

Source: Viewpoint Magazine