Within, Against, and Beyond Myth and Hegemony

Gary Kinsman

Dear UTA,

There are a number of important contributions in the editorial “The Content and the Phrase: Myth and Hegemony Today” (UTA 8). For me these include how the current capitalist crisis makes it clear that the future is unwritten, thereby highlighting the potential for anti-capitalist struggles. The editorial points to the significance of myths and their contested and potentially radicalizing character, as well as the uses and contested terrains of history, the importance of critically reading historical archives (although we also need to trouble who establishes and uses these archives), the significance of a politics of actualization, the need for experimentation in our praxis, and the necessity for the radical left to break out of our isolation. But at the same time, it raises troubling concerns and questions for me. In what follows, I focus on the problems I have with the editorial in the hope of sparking discussion and dialogue in the spirit of the Zapatista phrase: “in walking we ask questions.”

In my view, this editorial suggests a political re-orientation that can limit the creative and strategic potential of our movements. It pushes the journal towards a narrow reading of Gramsci’s work and in opposition to autonomist marxist perspectives that provide a different basis for movement building based on our own capacities, autonomy from capitalist and oppressive relations, and our own “power to do.” Autonomist marxism, the ghost that haunts this editorial, is invisibly present as the current being caricatured and criticized but never seriously engaged with. There is little recognition that the question of organizing ourselves in ways that challenge existing hegemonies is a practical one with lots of space between the caricatured poles of “taking hegemony ourselves” and “effectively removing ourselves from the game.”

I find much of Gramsci’s work crucial and his notion of hegemony can be very useful if used in a non-statist fashion. His wide-ranging contributions are narrowed in the editorial to the war of position, the war of maneuver, with the battle for hegemony revolving entirely within the framework of the nation-state. This is troubling. Despite its insights, Gramsci’s notion of hegemony was always about bringing together consent and coercion in the practices of ruling. Hegemony is about “power over” relations, to use John Holloway’s expression. Rather than winning the battle for hegemony, we should organize different social forms that expand and build on people’s capacities “to do.” It is this direction that is eclipsed in “The Content and the Phrase.” Central to the editorial is the importance of mobilizing potentially progressive national-popular myths and radicalizing them through exploding their contradictions. I partly agree with this. However, this does not go far enough since there are also major dangers of being trapped within these mythologies and their social forms in ways that lead to the containment of radicalizing actualization.

For instance, many lesbian and gay struggles for social transformation have become trapped within the mythologies of the family and marriage. These efforts started as a radical challenge to, and an attempt to transform, these heterosexist social forms and relations, but ended up containing the subversive potential of queer liberation.

The editorial seems to treat desires as something fixed, rather than recognizing that we cannot know that we desire what we’ve never encountered. That can be especially true when that encounter happens in the pedagogically transformative moments of shared struggle with their expansive senses of possibility. In my view, engagement with popular mythologies requires a dual movement – radicalizing and pushing as far as possible mythologies that have some potentially progressive content and at the very same time challenging and transformating of these social forms through an actualization based on very different social forms and social relations. This requires a practice that is within, against, and beyond these mythologies. The perspective suggested in the editorial, unfortunately, runs the danger of trapping us in practice within these mythologies, social forms, and “power over” relations.

These major limitations are related to other concerns raised by the editorial. The crisis of capitalism is reduced to an “economic crisis” rather than a broader crisis of capitalist social relations. This now includes the mediated character of the financial crisis, a recession, and a global food and climate change crisis, constructed in and through each other.

How people, through our own struggles, have helped to produce these crises and are inside them (‘we’ are the crisis of capitalism) is not developed. Therefore, our potential powers to resist and act in the context of these crises are not fully recognized. In my view, the type of political-economic analysis drawn upon here is a misreading of Marx’s critical analysis of capitalist social relations and can contribute to the reification and fetishization of economic relations – transforming social relations between people into relations between things. It would have been better to build on the more comprehensive forms of analysis of capitalist crisis (which recognize that it is mediated with an ecological crisis, a global food crisis, etc.) developed in recent publications by Midnight Notes and in Turbulence.

There is also a way that the struggles of the oppressed and the autonomy (relative as it may be) of these struggles do not get entered into the picture. This becomes crucial when we look to taking up and radicalizing some of the founding myths of nation-states. There also seems to be an emphasis on a unitary popular or national “we” rather than on the possibility of there being a number of “we’s” that can be brought together through struggle in autonomy, alliance, coalition, and solidarity.

A series of questions can be raised here. Do we take up national-popular mythologies from the vantage point of those who have been most affected and oppressed by them? For instance, in taking up and critiquing myths of the Canadian nation-state (and as the editorial points out it is pretty hard to locate progressive mythologies in the context of English-Canada) and in the USA, are we looking at them from the vantage point of indigenous peoples in relation to colonial settler states or people of color in relation to racialization? Although some of these questions begin to be raised towards the end of the editorial they are not adequately addressed. At times it seems like there is even a certain sympathy for forms of English-Canadian left nationalism in the editorial which can work in practice against anti-colonial, anti-oppression, and anti-capitalist struggles.

Given the global character of capitalist crises and anti-capitalist struggles, there is an odd way in which this editorial keeps pulling us back to the confines of the nation-state and its myths. Is this the only context in which a “we” or “we’s” can be constructed? What about notions of a more global and plural “we” that moves us beyond the boundaries of the nation-state? This is certainly suggested in anti-capitalist global justice and No One Is Illegal (NOII) organizing. Is the editorial suggesting that there were/are no acquisitions left from the global cycle of struggle reaching from the Zapatistas through to at least 2001? Are we really back to pre-Seattle (or pre-Zapatista) politics as much of the more traditional left now asserts? Related to this there seems to be a critique of NOII organizing (or no border organizing) for its lack of resonance with “non-radicalized working class people.” How is working class coded here in terms of racialization? Who are these non-radicalized working class people with whom NOII organizing does not resonate, but with whom reclaiming and pushing open national-popular mythologies apparently will? For me, this critique undermines the significance of NOII struggles in constructing new “we’s” that work not only within but also against and beyond national-popular mythologies in developing capacities for revolutionary social transformation that challenge the boundaries of capitalist nation-states.

Moments of active struggle, such as NOII organizing, create a much broader possibility for working class people to experience expansive, non-state, non-nation-based visions for freedom and justice. We need to get out there in people’s daily struggles engaging in a politics of listening and learning that organizes within, against, and beyond mythologies and existing capitalist and oppressive social forms. It is not only the editors of UTA who are grappling with these questions but many activists and organizers rooted in struggles and movements. I hope the pages of UTA can include more of these voices and discussions in the future.

I wish to acknowledge the feedback I received on this letter from Chris Dixon, Alex Khasnabish, Scott Neigh, ander reszczynski, and Lesley Wood. Of course, responsibility for what is written here is mine alone.

In solidarity,
Gary Kinsman