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Politics Without Politics

A new book offers a flawed road map for rebuilding the Left.

Police watch as protesters affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement though Lower Manhattan's Financial District on October 5, 2011 in New York City. Mario Tama / Getty Images

Why does the Left almost always lose? Why, despite the obvious failures of the prevailing order, do we remain weak and marginal when we should be moving from one victory to the next?

Maybe it’s our own damn fault. According to Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, we lose because we’re willfully out of touch with the masses. We’d rather be small, “speaking a language no one understands, in a minority, hiding behind our traditional symbols” — red flags, hammers and sickles, Che t-shirts, rose emojis — instead of engaging with the messy world of everyday life. The Left will remain weak and marginal, says Iglesias, until it understands that “politics has nothing to do with being right, that politics is about succeeding.”

This emphasis on “winning” at the expense of leftist shibboleths isn’t a recent development, of course. It was central to Saul Alinsky’s approach to organizing, and it’s one of the major themes of Jonathan Smucker’s recently published book Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals.

As a veteran of the anti-globalization movement and Occupy Wall Street, Smucker offers a wealth of hard-earned insights about the flaws and limitations of the activist cultures that spawned these movements and gave them their distinctive character. Smucker’s criticisms of that milieu often hit their targets, but the political and strategic conclusions he draws from them are highly questionable — particularly for those of us working to rebuild the socialist movement in the US.

Smucker’s book is symptomatic of a common tendency on today’s left: the reduction of politics to technique. While he looks to Antonio Gramsci for strategic inspiration, the version of Gramsci that Smucker employs in the book has more in common with the priorities of today’s NGO-driven, professional organizing milieu than the theory and practice of the great Italian revolutionary.

Fortunately, two works on Gramsci and hegemony by the intellectual historian Perry Anderson — The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci and The H-Word — were also published recently. These works help us understand the limitations of Smucker’s approach. And while they’re definitely not “how-to” guides, they offer a better starting point for organizers looking to make a strategic intervention in contemporary politics.

Hegemony: A Very Short Primer

It was the Russian social-democratic movement, not Gramsci, which introduced hegemony to the lexicon of revolutionary socialism. It was one of the movement’s central concepts, and reflected its situation in a largely agrarian and feudal society. Hegemony was the strategic approach by which the working class would lead all of Russia’s exploited and oppressed — most importantly the peasantry, which comprised the majority of the population — in a political alliance to overthrow tsarism.

For Lenin and his comrades, it was through the construction of hegemony that the working-class movement would transcend workplace struggles and provide political leadership to the people as a whole.

With the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the defeat of post-WWI revolutionary upheavals in the West, Marxists had to grapple with the new realities before them. Gramsci’s major innovation along these lines, in Anderson’s words, was to “extend the notion of hegemony from its original application to the perspectives of the working class in a bourgeois revolution against a feudal order, to the mechanisms of bourgeois rule over the working class in a stabilized capitalist society.”

Ruling classes in pre-capitalist societies governed their populations primarily through domination and force. Under capitalism, by contrast, the ruling class maintains its leading position through a combination of coercion and consent, with the latter usually predominating (the threat of force always being held in reserve for use if needed).

Hegemony, therefore, is a synthesis of domination and leadership, the means by which the working class and other subordinate groups are subjected to the rule of the bourgeoisie.

A close reading of the Prison Notebooks, however, makes it clear that Gramsci’s discussions of hegemony and other concepts are often subject to slippage and incoherence — an unavoidable result of the fact that Gramsci did so much of his thinking and writing in a fascist jail cell. The incomplete nature of Gramsci’s prison writings has given rise to a vast industry of academic interpretation. Unfortunately, many of Gramsci’s own perspectives and commitments have been lost in translation.

The most influential of Gramsci’s academic interpreters are undoubtedly Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, authors of the landmark 1985 book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (HSS).

In HSS, Laclau and Mouffe hail Gramsci’s reformulation of the Russian conception of hegemony as a breakthrough in socialist theory and strategy. In their view, however, Gramsci failed to carry his theoretical revolution through to what they saw as its logical end: the rejection of Marxism’s ostensible “class essentialism,” as well as its insistence that material conditions decisively shape popular consciousness.

In The H-Word, Anderson summarizes their basic argument: “rather than interests giving rise to ideologies, discourses created subject-positions, and the goal today should not be socialism but a ‘radical democracy’ of which socialism  . . . would remain a dimension, not the other way round.”

The working-class movement would still play a role in the struggle for radical democracy in Laclau and Mouffe’s formulation, but it would lose the strategically central position it occupied in Marxist conceptions of socialist strategy. Instead of leading a broader political alliance for socialism, the workers’ movement would constitute one link in a “chain of equivalence” in which no particular actor or set of demands carried any disproportionate social weight or strategic importance.

Laclau and Mouffe were undoubtedly right to observe that there’s no automatic correspondence between one’s location in the class structure (or in social relations generally) and one’s political ideology. And some past Marxists surely overestimated the extent to which capitalist social relations generate a class-conscious working class. The solution Laclau and Mouffe propose, however, is worse than the problem.

By severing ideas, interests, and demands from any grounding in objective social structures, they displace political conflict exclusively into the symbolic realm of language and discourse. Instead of a battle of power and interest, politics becomes a clash of competing narratives that can be wielded by anyone regardless of their social location.

All is contingent, indeterminate, and fluid, with no underlying pattern or logic to shape the course of the battle. As Anderson puts it, in this framework “anything can be articulated in any direction,” leaving us with little sense of what the ultimate goals of political activity are or how they might be practically achieved.

The influence of Laclau and Mouffe permeates Smucker’s work, and provides much of the conceptual framework for his strategic prescriptions. In fact, the book can be read as an application of Laclau and Mouffe’s theoretical perspectives to the practical problems of building a movement for social change in the US today.

More Than a Story

This influence is crystallized most clearly in Smucker’s argument that the “historical task” of progressive movements “has more to do with ‘telling a good story’ than it does with ‘speaking the truth,’” and that the central front in the battle for power is “essentially a contest over popular meanings and common sense.”

Storytelling is all the rage in today’s professional organizing milieu, and a number of NGOs have emerged to offer their services in developing “narrative strategies”: Working Narratives, the Center for Story-Based Strategy, #AllofUs, and Smucker’s own Beyond the Choir, among others. The fundamental assumption here is that politics is ultimately a clash of discourses and cultural norms, and that the key to winning power is winning the “Battle of the Story.

Any effective political project needs to succeed at defining the terms of debate. But it can’t do this primarily by telling a better story than those who wield real power. Hegemony needs a solid social basis to be effective, and it’s the ruling class’s control over the economic resources we all rely on, not mass delusion, that ultimately allows it to establish and maintain its political and cultural power.

Gramsci himself recognized this in his prison writings. While hegemony is “ethical-political, it must also be economic, must necessarily be based on the decisive function exercised by the leading group in the decisive nucleus of economic activity.” Politics and ideology can’t simply be reduced to objective material interests, but that doesn’t mean (as Laclau and Mouffe claim) that they’re fully autonomous from them either.

The construction of rhetorical frames is critical, but insufficient. To be effective, they need to be grounded in a theoretically informed political perspective and connected to the real material interests of a social base. As Daniel Aldana Cohen puts it: “Every political psychologist and their mother knows that stories are what move people. To work, these stories must connect to people’s underlying material needs and inspire them at a time when, with housing brutally expensive, health care costs ever rising, and wages stagnating, economic pain is widespread.”

This emphasis on the material needs and interests of working class-people is crucial. As Cohen points out, it’s a major reason why demands like “Medicare for All” and “Free College Tuition” have gained momentum while the climate movement — despite addressing the single most important question of our time — struggles to break out of a relatively elite sphere of academics and policy wonks.

Today’s left doesn’t seem to suffer from a lack of discourse and narrative. What we lack, in too many cases, is an accurate analysis of the terrain on which we’re fighting. And above all else, we lack an organic relationship to the social forces potentially capable of attacking the foundations of ruling class political power.

Paralysis of Analysis?

It’s a commonplace to say that the Left is great at analyzing the society we live in, but terrible at actually changing it.

Our undeniable lack of power is often used as a justification to put down the books and get on with the real business of organizing. But as Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti argued in a classic polemic on the state of the US left, “movements that can’t think can’t really do too much either.”

While Smucker can’t be accused of anti-intellectualism, he consistently seeks to sever analysis and critique from the formulation of political strategy. In his view, “knowledge of what is wrong with a social system and knowledge of how to change the system are two completely different categories of knowledge,” and possession of the former “does not automatically confer them with the latter.”

Smucker is undoubtedly right to observe that even the most correct analysis won’t automatically carry an individual or an organization to power. If that were the case, any number of bygone socialist sects would be running the government by now.

But while these two categories of knowledge may be conceptually distinguishable, completely divorcing them from each other is potentially disastrous. If our practical activity isn’t grounded in an accurate understanding of the society we live in, it will be ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

Despite his admiration of Gramsci, Smucker’s approach to this question diverges from the Italian thinker’s in important ways. For Gramsci, the concept of hegemony wasn’t limited to the practical means by which revolutionaries come to power. It was thoroughly intertwined with a conception of how a new socialist society would be constructed and sustained.

In an illuminating essay on Gramsci’s political thought, Eric Hobsbawm makes the important observation that “the basic problem of hegemony, considered strategically, is not how revolutionaries come to power, though this question is very important. It is how they come to be accepted, not only as the politically existing or unavoidable rulers, but as guides and leaders.”

Because Smucker’s strategic prescriptions are unrelated to any kind of vision of a new society, this crucial aspect of Gramsci’s conception of hegemony completely falls by the wayside. To be guides and leaders, we have to be able to explain to people what we are guiding and leading them to, and why.

Smucker repeatedly identifies “winning” as the ultimate goal of political activity, but at no point does he define in any detail what winning would mean. That might not be a problem for single-issue groups and nonprofits with relatively limited goals. But any movement with larger aspirations needs to be able to convince people that participation in such a project is worth the significant risks and sacrifices it entails.

“Meet People Where They’re At”

Like many others on the Left, Smucker misinterprets Gramsci’s conception of hegemony to justify the acceptance of prevailing symbols in order to manipulate and “reframe” them. All too often, this maneuver results in tailoring one’s politics to reflect the existing state of popular consciousness instead of challenging and shifting it.

“Meet people where they’re at” is a common axiom in organizing circles. To the extent that it prevents organizers from indulging in ultra-left or sectarian stupidity, it’s good advice. But again, for socialists looking to build a movement capable of winning a new society, the way this is implemented in practice is often inappropriate to our purposes and goals.

This becomes clear in Smucker’s advocacy of an organizing approach he calls “bloc recruitment”: that is, recruiting individuals through existing networks and institutions “without feeling that they would have to lose their existing identity in order to do so.” In this framework, individuals “can work for social justice as an expression of who they already are” — union member, student, congregant, etc. — without adopting a new identity as an activist or, presumably, a socialist.

It’s understandable why an organizer might seek to recruit people on the basis of already existing identities and solidarities. For one thing, it’s much easier to clear the barriers to collective action this way. And it might be appropriate to win limited, short-term campaigns and goals.

But socialists should be wary of adopting this approach to organization in a systematic way.

To begin with, all of the leading figures of our tradition recognized that one of the main tasks of a socialist movement is to help people overcome the narrow and oppressive identities the current system imposes on them. That can’t be done by simply adding up the struggles and interests of various groups — they must be integrated on a new political basis.

That’s precisely what the theorists of the Second and Third Internationals (Gramsci included) sought to do in their conceptions of hegemonic strategy. Using the concept of hegemony to reinforce the limited “corporate” interests of existing groups fundamentally misunderstands and misuses the concept.

More importantly, the creation of a strong collective identity is indispensable to building a successful oppositional movement. Almost all of capitalism’s structural pressures load the dice against collective action from below. They reinforce and encourage every tendency toward individualism and fragmentation, making successful collective organization the exception to the norm.

Because of this, oppositional movements have always put a premium on building a collective political identity, an ethos of group solidarity capable of maintaining its members’ loyalty to the cause in the face of powerful pressures and constraints.

Smucker rightly points out that this situation gives rise to what he calls the “political identity paradox.” A strong collective identity is needed to keep people committed to the movement, but can quickly give way to destructive in-group dynamics that help cut it off from the rest of society.

Occupy Wall Street was guilty of this in many respects, and Smucker’s extensive criticism of it is well founded. But he bends the stick too far in the other direction by insisting we identify with the existing society and its culture. All of the mass socialist movements of the last century (including Gramsci’s own Italian Communist Party) built a wide array of educational and cultural institutions that offered an alternative to the values of bourgeois society. There’s no reason to think a new generation of socialist organizers won’t have to do the same.

Say What You Mean

Following Laclau and Mouffe, Smucker emphasizes what he sees as the strategic value of purposeful ambiguity in crafting a hegemonic political project. “A good degree of ambiguity is necessary if the symbol” — a narrative, meme, or frame — “is to catalyze a broad alignment.”

Instead of constantly advancing a clear and unambiguous program, movements should construct a “floating signifier” (i.e., “We are the 99%”) to align disparate groups under the same banner. While organizational leaders should have a clear understanding of the movement’s goals and what it will take to win them, a high level of ambiguity in the movement’s public communications is needed “to attract the social forces we need” in order to win.

The electoral success of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn calls this formulation into serious question. Their clarity and consistency is one of the biggest reasons for their newfound popularity and success.

Each spent years in the political wilderness telling the truth and hammering the same themes over and over again. For decades they were ignored, mocked, and marginalized, but the times finally caught up to their message. Both are very clear about what they want and which sets of interests stand in the way of their agendas. This has been to their advantage.

Labour’s recent parliamentary campaign, for example, looked dead in the water until the release of its extremely detailed and openly socialist election manifesto. A marked lack of ambiguity in his politics is one of the major reasons why Corbyn’s leadership has revived Labour’s previously moribund prospects and put him on the threshold of becoming the country’s next prime minister.

Smucker’s preference for ambiguity dovetails nicely with his separation of analysis from strategy. It obviates the need to ground his strategic prescriptions in a detailed analysis of the political economy and the current balance of political forces.

Given his debt to Laclau and Mouffe and their brand of populist politics, this makes sense. As Anderson puts it in The H-Word, “once hegemony went automatically populist, there was no call in any precision in characterizing the social checkerboard. . . . No need — or indeed possibility? — therefore of the kind of fine-grained analysis that Marx supplied of France, Lenin of Russia, Mao of China, Gramsci of Italy.”

Why bother when everything is contingent, indeterminate, and ambiguous, and one narrative can be dropped for another to meet the exigencies of the moment?

“Hegemony Is Here Born in the Factory”

Toward the end of the book, Smucker finally grapples with the question of agency — who or what will be the social force that drives political mobilization?

For decades, the Left’s answer to this question would have been more or less automatic: the working class and class struggle. As a populist, however, Smucker rejects this formulation and questions the utility of class and class identity as a basis for collective action.

In his view, movements that seek to mobilize people on the basis of their shared class position “face some unique challenges that other bases of unification, like nation, race, ethnicity, and religion do not seem constrained by.”

Class, so the argument goes, is a structural and abstract phenomenon, whereas nation, race, ethnicity, and religion are more intuitive and more deeply felt. “Race, ethnicity, or religion often feel like real and compelling categories — and legitimate bases for categorization — while economic class tends to be ‘a very elusive entity.’” Therefore, organizers should look to other sources of solidarity when recruiting people to their political project.

Smucker isn’t wrong to identify the unique constraints on collective action that workers experience under capitalism. Workers are dependent on employers for their income, which systematically stacks the deck in the boss’s favor.

And since workers are both the subject and the object of labor-market transactions, it can be very difficult for them to discern whether their interests are better served by individualistic or collective strategies. As anyone who’s tried to organize a workplace can tell you, class-based organizing under capitalism (especially in the US) is an extremely difficult business.

While that’s a valuable and sobering insight, Smucker’s implied conclusion that the Left should downplay workplace and class-based struggles is deeply misguided.

To begin with, it’s generally not very hard to convince a working-class person — of any background — that working sucks. “Take this job and shove it” is a visceral feeling to which almost anyone who’s ever worked for a living can relate. At a time of astounding levels of inequality, record-low unionization rates, and a general climate of economic insecurity for all but the wealthiest, it doesn’t require much convincing.

More importantly, however, Smucker’s approach to this issue overlooks the elementary fact that the economy and the workplace is the ultimate source of ruling-class power under capitalism. This is the arena where profit, the lifeblood of the system, is produced, and it’s where most of us experience domination and subordination on a daily basis. It would be a profound mistake to abandon or downplay this field of struggle, despite the daunting challenges it presents to us.

In an important footnote in Antinomies, Anderson zeroes in on the ways in which structural economic constraints provide the social underpinnings of capital’s political power. As Anderson puts it,

The fear of unemployment or dismissal [can], in certain historical circumstances, produce a “silenced majority” of obedient citizens and pliable voters among the exploited. Such constraints involve neither the conviction of consent, nor the violence of coercion . . . He [Gramsci] thought, for example, that political liberties in the USA were largely negated by “economic pressures”

Gramsci gestures in this direction in a highly suggestive passage in the essay “Americanism and Fordism”: “hegemony is here born in the factory, and requires for its exercise only a minute quantity of professional political and ideological intermediaries.” People accept the rule of capital not because they’re duped by ideology and discourse, but because, in most times and places, they correctly perceive no realistic alternative to its rule.

It’s no accident that the decline of the labor movement around the world has coincided with the most troubling developments of our time: extreme inequality, the hollowing of democratic politics, and the return of the racist and nationalist far right. While workplace organization and economic struggles shouldn’t be the sole focus of our practical activities, the labor movement’s multi-decade defeat has been an unmitigated disaster for the Left as a whole.

Despite their many flaws, unions have done more than simply raise the standard of living for their own members and the broader working class. They’ve played a leading role in supporting a wide array of popular struggles and, in many cases, offered workers an alternative to the individualistic and chauvinist politics of the Right.

The ruling class’s control over economic resources is the ultimate source of its political and ideological power. Without a strong base in unions and alternative economic institutions, we won’t be changing the discourse; we’ll be shouting into the wind.

The Need for Political Organization

What Marx called the “silent compulsion of economic relations” performs a disciplinary function somewhere between the poles of coercion and consent that define Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. This “habituation,” as Harry Braverman calls it in his classic book, Labor and Monopoly Capital, is always conditional and may suddenly come undone when circumstances favorable to collective action present themselves.

Smucker is compelled to acknowledge this reality at various points in the book. “When the landscape dramatically shifts and people can intuit potential political openings,” he writes, “the thick fog of popular resignation can evaporate in an instant” as previously immobilized people flood into organizations and movements. This is precisely how such upheavals have tended to happen historically, which explains the episodic and discontinuous timing of mass movements.

My own organization, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), has experienced something like this dynamic over the last year. For years, our membership remained stagnant at a few thousand. Of that number, only a very small percentage was actively engaged in building the organization on an ongoing basis.

In the last year, DSA has grown dramatically, but not because we finally hit on the right narrative or figured out the secret recipe for successful organizing. DSA was in a good position to grow partly because our leaders made sound political judgments — our strong support for the Bernie Sanders campaign above all else. But it was ultimately the force of events that brought so many new people into the organization.

Smucker consistently downplays the need to build independent political organizations with their own perspectives and cultures. But the explosive growth of DSA (and the broader socialist left) in the last year shows just how important it is to do so — especially during periods of popular quiescence and inactivity.

While organizers can’t bring a mass movement into existence on their own, organized groups of radicals have played a key role in guiding and supporting these upsurges whenever they’ve occurred. Their importance, as Robert Brenner puts it, lies in the ways they have “helped provide continuity between temporally disconnected struggles, offered historically grounded analyses of the current moment, and, above all, suggested strategies for action.”

Whether we make good on the opportunities in front of us is an open question. Four decades of defeat and marginalization means that a new generation of socialists is now joining a Left in serious need of inspiration and guidance. We would be well served to mine our own tradition’s rich vein of history, theory, and practice, including that of Gramsci himself. The alternative is a politics without politics, the substitution of technique for strategy.