Walking Away from Failure
A Response to AK Thompson (and Others)
When one writes a book, one hopes that it will be read. And when a book is read, one hopes that it will be read well - heartily, carefully, honestly, provocatively. I can say that I’m quite happy that Gramsci Is Dead (Between the Lines, 2006) has been read, and that it has generally been read well. Not surprisingly, I don’t agree with everything everyone has said, so I’m glad to have an occasion to respond to AK Thompson’s lengthy discussion of the book in the previous issue of Upping the Anti, and to a number of other commentators who have taken up similar themes. I will do my best, of course, to read them well, too.
Where to begin? Perhaps by re-stating something crucial to the argument of the book, but which I fear I didn’t make quite as clear as I could have. Gramsci Is Dead opens with a quote from Italo Calvino:
Seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
This quote comes from a book called Invisible Cities, and that’s noted when I cite it. It seems to me that Invisible Cities is about appearance and disappearance, or what might be called, to make a little pun on neoliberal jargon, visibility management. I don’t want to get too on point – that’s the point – but perhaps it will suffice to say that constantly shouting about how you’re going to take over the world is precisely what brings on the kind of repression that class war revolutionaries of all persuasions seem to simultaneously fear and desire. Might it not be better to be a little quieter, a little more subtle? This is to say: even if I thought that the ‘ultimate’ goal of the construction of alternatives to the neoliberal order was to bring about radical social change on a global scale, I certainly wouldn’t say so in public. Rather, I’d hint to those who could hear: let’s build invisible cities. Let’s create places we can run to, where we can meet, build our capacities for autonomy and solidarity, where we can live in the kinds of worlds we want to live in, here and now, rather than die trying to convince someone else to let us live / live like us, later on, somewhere else. What does one wear to a Revolution these days? As figures like Subcomandante Ramona seem to suggest, a cloak of invisibility might be most appropriate.
Giving up on Revolution?
A number of people have said that what some of us see as being smarter about radical social change means ‘giving up on revolution’ (kersplebedeb)1 or ‘making friends with failure’ (AK Thompson).2 First of all, I feel compelled to point out that there can be no fonder friend of failure than the class war revolutionary, whose best laid plans have gone aglay across several hundred years and on every continent, spilling buckets of blood to no good end. States – whether they be liberal, leninist, workerist, or whatever – have proven to be very poor solutions to the problems of social organization they set out to address, because although they sometimes do a bit of ‘good’, they always – and increasingly, in the societies of ‘anti-terrorist’ control – end up perpetuating domination and exploitation.
Most marxists know this – they have developed all kinds of theories about how the state and capitalism work together. All class war anarchists know this – they usually say they want to ‘smash’ the state as such. But I find it interesting that those who reject non-hegemonic forms of social change are reluctant to speak about exactly what hanging on to a hegemonic practice means to them. Does it mean seeking state power, or doesn’t it? Certainly within the western marxist tradition following from Gramsci – as I point out in some detail in my book – achieving hegemony means having ideological sway over so-called ‘civil society’ as well as holding state power. In the softer, ‘postmarxist’ approach, hegemony means only sway over civil society, and letting go of the hankering for state power. But then, unfortunately, one becomes a liberal, not any kind of Revolutionary at all.
So I am left truly confused when AK Thompson says that radical social change requires “a hegemonic orientation and a willingness to forge a collective ‘we’ out of disparate, scattered, and often contradictory experiences.”3 The way in which this collective we has been formed, historically, has been through political parties seeking to hold or influence state power. Is this what he means, but is unwilling to say, because he knows he would be making friends with several centuries of failure? Or does he see some other way of forming a collective “we,” a way that is neither marxist nor liberal, that he doesn’t talk about? (Certainly, that’s what I talk about). Later, he says that “politics without force of assertion is unworthy of the name.”4 What, precisely, is meant by “assertion” here? How does a political force assert itself, hegemonically, without seeking to take or influence state power? Thompson’s text does not answer this question. Again, is this because he doesn’t want people to know the answer, or because he doesn’t know what the answer is?
Bill Carroll is also dubious of the possibilities of achieving real change through non-hegemonic means. “What Day underestimates,” he writes in a recent article in Socialist Studies, “is the totalizing dynamic of capital, against which the strategy of rendering existing social relations redundant can be no more than a retreat to self-limiting experiments contained and even engulfed by the commodification of everyday life.”5 Like Thompson, he sees a necessity for an “effective leadership willing and able to organize the scattered and isolated movements of the powerless into a coherent whole.”6 Like Thomspon, again, he refuses to say precisely what this means. A state? A party? Worker’s councils? He does mention the World Social Forum, but unfortunately, as we know, Coke and Pepsi are now vying for dominance there, and are likely to win that game between them, as usual. On the other hand, I rarely see them, or any other corporations, at the Yellow Bike Action shop up the street, or at the local music festival in the park. Perhaps commodification is not that difficult to ward off, if you are creating real anti-capitalist alternatives?
Despite their similarities, it must be noted that Carroll’s reading is a lot more subtle, a little more friendly, and – perhaps ironically – ultimately more disconcerting than Thompson’s. Carroll agrees that it is time to reject the fantasy of total liberation and the exclusive focus on the state form, and even acknowledges the value of a prefigurative politics. But he says that one need not reject Gramscian marxism in order to do all of this. Indeed, he claims that “prefiguration was central to Gramsci’s concept of counter hegemony.”7 This is certainly true – one seeks sway over civil society in order to set up an alignment of forces that will allow one to achieve state power, and vice versa. All of that can be called ‘prefiguration’, but only if one understands this term in a way that is very different from how I and others are currently using the term. In the world of anarchist/autonomist theory and practice, prefiguration requires ensuring that the means of your action today are consistent with your ends in the long run. That is, if you seek a non-authoritarian diversity, you can’t ‘prefigure’ it by using ‘leadership’ to force people into a “strategically coherent form.”8 You have to actually live and organize in a non-authoritarian way, here and now.
Carroll is not alone in his attempt to subsume the logic of affinity under the rubric of Gramscian marxism. In a paper presented at the Rethinking Marxism conference in 2006, 9 Ian McKay suggests that I mistakenly see hegemony as a static achievement that involves the same kind of project in all situations. He says, more or less, that I essentialize hegemony, and argues instead that:
What is and is not required for a given hegemonic project, whether those of rulers or subalterns, is a question resolvable only through empirical analysis of a given economy and society, and cannot be decided abstractly and in advance: dividing movements between the “hegemonic” and the “non-hegemonic,” and favouring the latter, suggests we can easily distinguish between the two in any setting, when in many specific cases a Gramscian would surely reserve judgement: a “non-hegemonic” movement grasped at one moment of its eventful history may be a “hegemonic” movement when probed at another, later moment. (McKay p. 13)
There are two things I’d like to say here. First, by talking about logics of struggle, I am purposely avoiding the reduction of any particular concept or practice to a set of essential characteristics. Indeed, the notion of a logic of struggle necessarily implies an analysis of elements or currents that stretch across discursive formations (subjects, objects, practices) that are usually seen as relatively disparate. Hence, for example, as I have tried to show, one can see the deployment of certain common elements of hegemonic theory and practice across (neo)liberalism and (post)marxism, over a large span of time, in each case taking on certain common characteristics while maintaining a certain particularity.
Second, and more importantly I think, it is precisely the possibility that supposedly non-hegemonic movements might become hegemonically oriented that worries me. And, it seems to me, this worry is well placed, since McKay goes on to clarify something quite important, something that, as I have noted, is left implicit in the positions taken by AK Thompson and William Carroll:
The example of the Risorgimento suggests a diversity of historical uses to which hegemony might be put. It illuminates three moments in the rise of liberal hegemony: (a) the economic-corporate (the direct expression of class interests); (b) the political moment of the struggle for hegemony (to impose a new ‘conception of the world’ with its appropriate ‘norms of conduct’); and (c) the moment of state power, “when the existing economic, political and ideological structures are transformed by the victorious class and its allies.”10 At the same time, it can also illuminate the three necessary and corresponding steps in the rise of a subaltern hegemony.11
Here it is clear that it is not just possible that a ‘subaltern class or group’ ‘may’ seek state power – any ‘movement’ worthy of the name must necessarily do so. Thus, for McKay, ‘affinity might be better theorized as a moment of hegemony’, rather than as a logic with its own specificity.12
In his paper, McKay laments the fact that I appear to want to kill Gramsci,13 that I am interested in polemics rather than dialogue. I certainly prefer dialogue over polemics, and I have been involved in an ongoing dialogue, as well as in a number of common projects, with individuals and groups who identify primarily as autonomist marxists. But in any such dialogue, I think it is absolutely crucial to respect the particularity of one’s interlocutors. It’s just a fact (call it a historical fact if you will) that there are many radical activists around these days who don’t want to be reduced to an element of someone else’s paradigm. Attempting this kind of reduction is as clear a demonstration of the operation of the logic of hegemony as one could possibly provide. That’s what worries me about saying that ‘Gramsci knew all of this’. It can be seen as a way of opening up dialogue across the age-old marxist/anarchist divide, or it can be seen as an attempt to co-opt the emergent forces of the newest social movements into an ‘integrated’ and ‘professionally led’ ‘movement’ based on centralization and hierarchical control.
The 0.5% Solution
On one point, at least, Thompson and Carroll and McKay and I seem to agree – they all end their articles by asking ‘what is to be done’, which is of course precisely the question that my book addresses. Because they don’t like the answer that is provided there, however – we should work to escape from the horizon of the hegemony of hegemony – they simply re-state the question: what is to be done, they ask implicitly, within that horizon? This points to the kind of incommensurability that makes dialogue difficult, perhaps impossible. It’s like people who speak different languages shouting the same thing at each other again and again, with ever-increasing volume, all to no effect. Given that consensus-oriented communication is very difficult to achieve in this case, perhaps it is better to ask: how can those who are working non-hegemonically understand – and be understood by – those who remain within the hegemony of hegemony?
My argument in Gramsci Is Dead is about possibility, probability, and logics of struggle. In its most simple terms, it is that those of us seeking radical social change have, for too long, been putting too much of our effort into trying to influence the dominant order. I’ve already been called a bad sociologist,14 so I have nothing to lose by tossing out a few more unreliable figures. Let’s say that about 89% of the political energy of the privileged denizens of the global north is expressed as a kind of consumer fuelled nihilistic apathy, which is deeply conservative at the same time as it sees itself as continuously pushing boundaries. I have to admit that I have a hard time believing that much good can come from this, despite the arguments about subversive readings of popular TV shows. Surely it is clear that, here and now, what Emma Goldman called ‘the majority’ is very unlikely to bring on the Dawn.15
Let’s say that another 10% or so goes into reform-based strategies such as voting, working for NGOs, or contributing to charities. These are ‘hopeful’ activities – they are neither nihilistic nor apathetic – and I think this is why, at many talks and workshops over the past couple of years, I’ve had people ask questions like: Since you reject the politics of demand, do you mean to say that there shouldn’t be any women’s shelters? No work to find a cure for AIDS? The two-sided answer to these questions is: Yes, I think it’s a good thing when women and children in abusive relationships have safer places to go while seeking to change their situations, and I think it’s a good thing that AIDS is, to a certain extent, seen as something we should act upon, because it potentially affects all of us, not just a marginalized ‘sexual minority’, or a marginalized continent. But no, I don’t see that working outside of the dominant order means that we can’t set up women’s shelters or address HIV infection. I am not the enemy of those who attempt to ameliorate the worst excesses and exclusions of the dominant order, even when they identify as reform-oriented liberals. Indeed, it’s part of my job to try, each year, to cut loose a few of the outliers in that group, and I do it diligently.
All I’ve pointed out is that we need to find ways of addressing these excesses and exclusions that minimize state and corporate mediation. And I’ve pointed out that, curiously, it is in places and at times where the states and corporations can’t be bothered to ‘help’ (e.g. Argentina), or are prevented from ‘helping’ by those who are the targets of the proposed ‘help’ (e.g. Chiapas), that communities are most often seen to be meeting their needs themselves. Do I mean to say that the collapse of a national economy necessarily leads to neighbourhood assemblies? No. Do I mean to say that indigenous peoples have a ‘kind of inborn knowledge’ of how to live autonomously?16 No. What I mean is precisely this: in places where the ‘easy’ route to a non-autonomous life (privilege) is unavailable, and where there is a living history of autonomy to draw from (it’s cultural, not genetic), it is more likely that autonomous ways of defining and meeting social need will emerge.
That takes care, pretty much, of everything that is ‘realistic’ or ‘practical’ in terms of social change. As much as we might bicker, let’s face it: both anarchists and marxists are dreamers. We orient to the other 1%, among whom we find a few socialist-inspired folks who are working for the Revolution, maybe 0.5% of the population of ‘the canada’. To them I say: good on you. It’s great to have that energy out there, especially since so much of it is directed towards anti-poverty work, immigrant / refugee / detainee solidarity, solidarity with indigenous peoples. This activity does some real good, here and now, for those among us who are most marginalized, and when combined with direct action tactics, prefigures autonomous ways of life by openly challenging state and corporate power. (This is why I talk about the piqueteros in Argentina, by the way. Their road-blocking tactics were a hybrid form, combining direct action to disrupt neoliberal flows with the politics of demand; in the crossover between piqueteros and MTD, we see the additional elements of constructive direct action and the prefiguration of autonomous alternatives. Once again, it’s not ‘one movement, one element’). All of this to say: I am not the enemy of class struggle revolutionaries either: at least not until they ‘win’.
I hope that last comment helps to clear up another little misunderstanding, but perhaps it is too oblique. To be quite clear: I think it is quite useful and necessary to deploy the concept of hegemony to describe what goes on in state- and corporate-based societies. Parties struggle for state power, states struggle for increased sway over daily life, corporations struggle over market share – everyone is after controlling the ‘collective we’, locally, regionally, nationally, internationally, globally. This is what actually happens, and understanding how it happens is crucial to taking up an informed position within or against it. What I reject, and what I see other people rejecting, is joining in with this game , by either ‘asking’ for things from those who are dominant, or by seeking to become dominant oneself.
Now we’re down to that elusive 0.5% of the population – I know, it’s probably an exaggeration – in which I’m most interested: those who are working non-hegemonically, by constructing radical alternatives not only to the currently dominant order, but to all of the imagined orders of the hegemonically oriented political paradigms. As I’ve pointed out before, here we find a diverse network: indigenous peoples, anarchists, anti-racist and queer activists, various sorts of feminists – what’s important, though, isn’t how someone identifies, but how they work. That’s what is meant by a ‘logic of struggle.’
One doesn’t have to become some kind of uber non-Revolutionary untainted by any contact with states or corporations in order to realize a logic of affinity. One can – and usually must – orient to the dominant order in a variety of ways, precisely because it is dominant. But one need not orient only to the dominant order, as is assumed by those who say we must stay within the hegemony of hegemony or risk wasting our energy. What would happen if a few more of us, a bit more often, put a little bit more of our time and resources into the creation of linked and sustainable radical alternatives, here and now? Gustav Landauer had it figured out, I think. That would be The Revolution. (But now I’ve said too much…)
Lowering the Beast into the Ground
Many years ago I made a collection of quotes from radical anti-capitalists, starting in the 17th century and running up until the late twentieth. All of them said pretty much the same thing, using terms appropriate to their time: this system is horrendous, it dominates and exploits human beings and nature, it can’t last. It has 10 or 20 years, 50 at the most, before it collapses. Of course, Gerard Winstanley and Emma Goldman are in the cold, cold ground, while their enemy is still standing. Why does capitalism have so much resilience? Is it infinite in its capacity to adapt to changing circumstances?
Several things that have started to happen in the past few years suggest that it is not. One of these is the simple fact that it’s no longer a marginal, crazy thing to wonder out loud whether we can go on as we have been. Now, for the first time, utterly mainstream figures like Al Gore are adding their voices to the chorus. Maybe the belief in an ongoing and intensifying ecocatastrophe is just a sham, a cover for a new business-political opportunity – it is that, no doubt. But it is perhaps more than that as well. Given the sociological-historical fact that the construction of radical alternatives seems to occur in places and at times where there is a failure of the dominant order to ‘provide’, can we not speculate that new forms of systems failure will open up new possibilities and necessities for the creation of alternatives? The beast is dying, and in a way that has at least the appearance of novelty, it is coming to know this itself. Perhaps ‘our’ task then, is to help lower the beast into the ground, gently, carefully, so that it does as little damage as possible in its death throes, and so that there is something left after it’s gone.
How do we do this? As I have tried to suggest: by creating invisible cities, sites of meeting for those in exodus. But what does an invisible city look like? Obviously, what works in Chiapas or Buenos Aires can’t be directly imported to white settler north america. As many people have pointed out, any attempt to set up an autonomous zone under the cover of defensive armed force would be met with overpowering offensive force from the Canadian state and, if they failed to ‘solve the problem’, the US military would step in. Therefore, it seems to me that an invisible city here would be much more ‘impure’ than a Zapatista autonomous zone – although, even there, not all of the villages geographically ‘in’ every autonomous municipality are Zapatista, and not all villagers ‘in’ a Zapatista village are Zapatista. Perhaps, then, an invisible city is best thought of as a space (geographical/virtual/symbolic/material, urban/rural) guided by a certain logic (of non-hegemonic modes of social, political, and economic organization), adhering to certain ethical and political principles (of minimizing domination and exploitation of humans and the land, internally and externally; of maximizing solidarity with those who are dominated and exploited, internally and externally), devoted to linking up with other such spaces, to form a non-statist, non-corporate, federative structure. It is a place that realizes the possibility of living differently, that creates the kind of culture that can sustain itself in the event of chosen or forced autonomy.
Obviously, access to material resources is crucial to the creation and sustenance of an exodus-driven network – yes, capital in the strict sense of the word – land (not stolen, please, and that’s difficult to find here), money, time, emotional energy, machines (less stinky than our current industrial machines, and less exploitative of people and the land than our current electronic ones). It’s easy to say this, but as those of us who’ve tried to get hold of the resources necessary to live differently without relying upon the state and capitalism know, it’s much harder to do it. What modes of approach to this fundamental problem might work ‘here’, in the geographical territories claimed by the Canadian state? It seems to me that, despite their many difficulties, so-called ‘intentional communities’ are at least an opening towards what is possible for mainstream subjects in exodus.
These projects are interesting in that they are generally oriented to local autonomy and sustainability. They have been limited, however, in their ability to link up with other similar projects (they are to a great extent isolated points rather than nodes in a net), in their lack of an explicit commitment to anti-capitalist, anti-state, anti-oppression practices, and by their tendency to reproduce the forms of privilege that allowed them to be created in the first place (they often draw from a white middle-class base of support and have an escapist orientation). I don’t know of any experiments that have fully addressed these limits (I think they represent an unreachable but necessary horizon), but I have been part of experiments that are at least aware of them, and have been working on them. I see no reason why further work in this direction cannot, and should not, be pursued; why we cannot, and should not, seek to build institutions of mutual aid that make creative and careful use of existing forms such as co-operatives, credit unions, and even perhaps municipalities, city wards, and the various spaces occupied by indigenous peoples, draining energy from the dominant, marginalizing it, duplicating those of its ‘functions’ that are desirable, but not replacing it with a new mode of domination. I see no reason why we cannot, and should not, work to lower the beast into the ground, while we pursue new kinds of relationships with ourselves, each other, and the land.
This doesn’t mean ignoring history and sociology and left wing politics altogether, but it does pose serious challenges to history, sociology, and left wing politics as we know them. And yes, it does mean giving up on what has hitherto been known as Revolution. Not to make friends with failure, but to walk sadly – yet hopefully – away from some of its most obvious causes.
1 From his website
2 AK Thompson, “Making Friends With Failure” in Upping the Anti #3, Nov. 2006.
3 Thompson, p. 83.
4 Thompson, p. 88.
5 William Carroll, “Hegemony, Counter-Hegemony, Anti-Hegemony” in Socialist Studies 2:2, p. 31.
6 Carroll, p. 32, citing Sanbonmatsu.
7 Carroll, p. 33, n.18.
8 Carroll, p. 32.
9 McKay, Ian “‘O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark’: Richard Day, the Many Deaths of Antonio Gramsci, and the Possibilities of Anarchist/Gramscian Dialogue.” Unpublished paper delivered at Rethinking Marxism 2006. A Word version of the ms. provided by the author is cited here.
10 John Gitling, Capital and Power: Political Economy and Social Transformation (London, New York and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1987), n.p. cited by McKay.
11 McKay, p. 15. My emphasis.
12 McKay, p. 19.
13 Even though I find the title of the book unfortunate – I wrote a book called Affinities – I do like the Nietzschean implication that it would be the adherents of Gramsci who did the deed, through their own skepticism.
14 This thoughtful compliment was offered by Darryl Ross, of Concordia University, and can be found at
15 Perhaps teaching at Queen’s University has ruined me, but I have to admit that I don’t feel particularly rejuvenated with Revolutionary fervour when I return to the (dis)comfort of my working class family in Vancouver.
16 Thompson, p. 80.