Posts Tagged ‘Antonio Gramsci’

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In the United States and around the world, governments are responding to the twin pandemics—of novel coronavirus and escalating unemployment—with massive bailouts. Not unlike what happened more than a decade ago, after the global crash of 2007-08.

But there seems to be something different this time around—not only because of the speed of both the viral contamination and the economic meltdown, but also as a reaction to the terms of the bailout that was enacted in the midst of the Second Great Depression.

Here, for example, is

During the last crisis, the global financial catastrophe of 2008, the authorities protected corporate interests above those of ordinary people, many economists assert. Britain and the European Union bailed out financial institutions, then recovered the costs by hacking away at public services, effectively punishing laborers and taxpayers for the sins of wealthy bankers.

Just like that, with no apparent controversy, he drops in the idea that, after the last major crash, those in charge sought to safeguard corporations and neglect the interests of “ordinary people.” That was certainly the stance, in the United States, of groups like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street but Goodman now asserts it as a commonly held view, with a gesture to authority (“many economists assert”).

 

Another example is NBC News Senior Business correspondent Stephanie Ruhle, certainly no radical, who argues the last bailout “didn’t trickle down to workers,” and strings need to be attached to corporations in any new bailout.

Even Donald Trump said he would be “OK” with a conditional coronavirus bailout that bans stock buybacks for companies that receive federal relief—joining both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

The question is, is something going on here—in the United States, Europe, and perhaps elsewhere—that represents a shifting of the ground, a fundamental change in the common sense concerning economic issues?

Now, to be clear, I am using the term common sense not in the manner of Thomas Paine or as it is often invoked in English, but instead as it figured prominently in the writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks. As Kate Crehan explains in the preface to her insightful and prescient book, Gramsci’s Common Sense: Inequality and Its Narratives (Duke University Press),

the Italian senso comune is a far more neutral term than the English common sense. The English term, with its overwhelmingly positive connotations, puts the emphasis, so to speak, on the “sense,” senso comune on the held-in-common (comune) nature of the beliefs. In the notebooks, Gramsci reflects on the complicated roots of such collective knowledge, its shifting and often contradictory components, the ways it becomes accepted as beyond question—and by whom—and when, and how it changes. The collective here is important: “What matters is not the opinion of Tom, Dick, and Harry but the ensemble of opinions that have become collective and a powerful factor in society.”

Common sense, as I am deploying it here, is a generally accepted, collective, body of knowledge, a way of understanding or interpreting what is going on in the world that appears, at least at any moment in time, as beyond dispute. Moreover, there is nothing fixed about common sense, since it can—indeed, we should expect it to—shift and change over time.*

So, again, the question is, has the common sense about economic issues been moving in a new direction in recent weeks?

It’s pretty clear, at least to those of us on the Left, that the $2.2 trillion (or, if you count the leveraging, close to $6 trillion) CARES Act is mostly a bailout to large corporations—Boeing, the airline industry, and, with little oversight, any other corporation that manages to get its snout into the trough.

In fact, as Tim Wu and 

The companies that will be receiving the largest bailouts were, until recently, enjoying unprecedented levels of corporate profitability, thanks to large corporate tax cuts, industry mergers and the avoidance of significant wage increases for employees.

And, indeed, spending enormous sums on stock buybacks, which reward only shareholders and increase executive pay.

But the way the bailout has been discussed, at least outside the halls of Congress and the White House, reflects a critique of the bailout of Wall Street and the automobile industry that was orchestrated by the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama after the crash of 2007-08. The ground, it seems, has shifted.

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The debate about the terms of the bailout—across media platforms, from many different pundits and political perspectives—has been much more attuned to how workers and others got completely shafted in the previous “recovery” and how corporations, banks, and the rich were handed bags of money, almost none of which “trickled down” to workers, poor people, and others at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Even more, the way the bailout was structured added to the ability of those at the top to capture the lion’s share of whatever new income and wealth were generated in the aftermath. My sense is, there is a common understanding that economic inequality in the United States got a whole lot worse because of the way the bailout was first envisioned and then enacted.

Even the Wall Street Journal now admits, joining others in acknowledging the new common sense:

what many remember from a decade ago is that after the banks were bailed out, the stock market and financial industry rebounded, while ordinary workers and homeowners struggled with stagnant wages and underwater mortgages.

But, of course, this shift hasn’t occurred in a vacuum. In addition to concerns about how the United States was transformed in a much more unequal manner during the Second Great Depression, people have witnessed how inadequate the U.S. private, profit-driven, medical-industrial complex has been in either preparing for or responding to the health pandemic.** And workers—those toiling away on the front lines of overburdened and perilous public health facilities, the many who are required to abandon their families and endure unsafe conditions while laboring in “essential” industries, and the millions and millions of others who are being forced to join the reserve army of the unemployed and underemployed—are the ones who are paying the costs.

To be clear, the outcome of this changing common sense is still quite uncertain. If it has shifted, and I think it has, it has taken on dimensions that both the nationalist right and the progressive left have been able to seize on. Private markets have failed, grotesque levels of inequality are driving the divergent costs of the health and unemployment pandemics, and the previous bailout enriched a small group at the top and failed, more than a decade on, to reach the vast majority of American workers. But that common understanding of what has gone wrong in recent years opens up new possibilities for both ends of the political spectrum when it comes to economic issues.

Where this changing common sense actually ends up will depend on who is more effective in pushing and pulling that collective understanding. As I see it, the final result depends on the work of intellectuals as well as the lived experience of the “masses,” the reporting on events in the media and the positions articulated by political parties, comparisons with what is happening in other countries and what can be delivered in newly imagined ways of organizing economic and social life.

There will be many, of course, who, in the midst of the current crises, will call for the previous common sense to be restored.*** My view, for what it’s worth, is that time is past. The old common sense has been effectively discarded. We just don’t know, at this point, which one will take its place.

 

*The other, related term that has some play in the United States is the so-called Overton Window, which was produced within public choice economics and is central to the work of the conservative think tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. What I don’t particularly like about the Overton Window is that it is defined not as a body of collective knowledge, which comprises “shifting and often contradictory components,” but instead as a set of policy options, a “window,” that forms the boundaries of political debate.

**The irony, of course, is, the ideas and policies that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren articulated during the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, which the extreme moderates in the party did their best to stamp out, have become increasingly “mainstream,” especially in reaction to the crash that has happened and will no doubt escalate in the midst of the health and unemployment pandemics.

***The tragic irony is that Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is precisely the candidate who has articulated and defended the Obama administration’s bailout and thus the old common sense. How exactly he’s going to invoke the previous common sense and position himself and his party to defeat Trump in the November election is anybody’s guess.

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In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci wrote: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum morbid phenomena of the most varied kind come to pass.”*

The world is once again living an interregnum. It is poised between the failed economic model of recovery from the crash of 2007-08 and the birth of a new model, one that would actually work for the majority of Americans.**

Morbid symptoms abound, including slow economic growth, persistent poverty, and obscene levels of inequality. Perhaps even more significant, especially at this point in the so-called recovery, when according to mainstream economists and policymakers full employment has been achieved, workers’ wages are actually declining.

According to the latest release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (pdf), both real average hourly and weekly earnings for production and nonsupervisory employees decreased 0.4 percent from December to January. And, over the course of the past year (January 2016 to January 2017), real average hourly earnings for all employees failed to increase (remaining at $10.65 (in constant 1982-1984 dollars) and real weekly earnings actually decreased by 0.4 percent (from $368.66 to $366.32).

That’s what happened under the last administration, based on an economic model that is dying. And there’s nothing in the new administration’s proposed economic policies that promise any better. In fact, the likelihood is that things will stay the same or get even worse for most American workers in the next four years.

Only large corporations and wealthy individuals will likely gain from promised changes in business regulations and tax policies.

That’s a scenario that pretty much guarantees the appearance of even more morbid symptoms in this interregnum.

 

*The passage is from Notebook 3 (pp. 32-33), written in 1930, which appears in the second volume of the English edition of the full Prison Notebooks, edited and translated by Joseph A. Buttigieg.

**Nicholas Eberstedt [ht: bg], of the American Enterprise Institute, argues the current model failed around the turn of the century, with warning signs even earlier: “For whatever reasons, the Great American Escalator, which had lifted successive generations of Americans to ever higher standards of living and levels of social well-being, broke down around then—and broke down very badly.” David Brooks, as it turns out, concurs.

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Clearly, U.S. capitalism continues to face a serious legitimation crisis.

According to new Pew survey [ht: db], 62 percent of Americans now think the existing economic system unfairly favors the powerful, and 78 percent think too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies. The only group that thinks otherwise—on the Right or the Left—are “business conservatives.”

Here’s the breakdown according to the political categories devised by Pew:

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Most Americans, then, believe current economic arrangements are unfair.

That should invite a robust discussion—in the academy, in the public sphere—of alternative ways of organizing the economy. We can and should be debating how to create more economic fairness and how to change the way corporations are organized so that, instead of wielding excessive power over the rest of the economy, their power might be democratically exercised by their employees and the communities in which they operate.

But we’re not there yet. Capitalism’s legitimacy continues to be called into question but alternatives to capitalism are still, for many people, hard to imagine. As Antonio Gramsci wrote during the last Great Depression, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

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Stuart Hall, former direct of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University and professor of sociology at the Open University, has died at the age of 82.

Hall may have been known as the “godfather of multiculturalism” but, to my mind, he was much more than that. Drawing inspiration from Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony and Louis Althusser’s concept of ideology, Hall was one of the most creative Marxist intellectuals of the postwar period. He joined others in breaking with both economic determinism and theoretical humanism, put a materialist cultural studies on the map, and carried out a thorough-going critique of neoliberalism (which I have written about here and here).

He was also always concerned about the current political conjuncture, as in this interview:

it’s the state of the left that strikes him as the most problematic. “The left is in trouble. It’s not got any ideas, it’s not got any independent analysis of its own, and therefore it’s got no vision. It just takes the temperature: ‘Whoa, that’s no good, let’s move to the right.’ It has no sense of politics being educative, of politics changing the way people see things.”

The examples of this are everywhere, but take as the most pressing the case of the NHS. “How can millions of people have benefited from the NHS and not be on the streets to defend it? Come on. The NHS is one of the most humanitarian acts that has ever been undertaken in peace time. The principle that someone shouldn’t profit from someone else’s ill health has been lost. If someone says an American health company will run the NHS efficiently, nobody can think of the principle to refute that. The guiding principles have been lost.” There was a study recently investigating why America, which spends more per capita on health, has worse outcomes, and the answer was quite clear: when there is a profit motive, the rich are overinvestigated, and the poor are undertreated. People die needlessly.

So there’s quite a sound pragmatic argument against private involvement in health, but Hall’s is a blistering moral statement – who would profit from someone’s ill health? What sort of person would that be? Would you trust them with your budget, let alone your health, or the health of a loved one? The moral case is not being forcefully enough put; indeed, it is not being put at all.

Update

Here’s a link [ht: ms] to Robin Blackburn’s obituary, as well as a list of other obituaries, commentaries, and work by Stuart Hall.

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I’ve long been saying to friends and public audiences that much of what is occurring in the world today—from the imposition of Draconian austerity policies to growing inequality—is a symptom of the failure of the Left. (It’s a hard truth, which, at least in some quarters, hasn’t won me any new friends.)

Writing about the anti-fascist protests in Greece, Alain Badiou [ht: ke] appears to agree.

For what is striking – in Greece above all, but elsewhere as well, particularly in France – is the manifest impotence of the progressive forces to compel even the slightest meaningful retreat of the economic and state powers that are seeking to submit the people unreservedly to the new (though also long-standing and fundamental) law of thoroughgoing liberalism.

Not only are the progressive forces making no headway, and failing to score even a limited success, but also the forces of fascism have been growing and, against the illusory backdrop of a xenophobic and racist nationalism, now claim to lead the opposition to the European administrations’ decrees.

The question is, how do we balance this justified pessimism of the intellect with an optimism of the will?

 

Eric Hobsbawm was, as readers know, not only one of the world’s leading Marxist historians; he was for generations one of our best historians of any sort, especially of the long nineteenth century.

Hobsbawm was also one of the first scholars in the English-speaking world to understand the importance of the work of Antonio Gramsci. Joseph Buttigieg, a world-renown translator and scholar of Gramsci’s writings (including the first complete English-language edition of The Prison Notebooks), kindly assembled for me a bibliography of Hobsbawm’s publications on Gramsci (which he culled from the massive bibliography that is regularly updated by the Gramsci Institute, a project that was begun by the late John Cammett).

Buttigieg notes that Hobsbawm gave a brief paper at the first ever Gramsci conference, which was organized by Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the Communist Party of Italy, and which Hobsbawm notes in the video above. Hobsbawm paid attention rather early on to Gramsci’s thinking on subalternity. His review essay for the New York Review of Books was hugely influential. And, finally, Hobsbawm often emphasized Gramsci’s political thought as his special contribution to Marxism.

Eric Hobsbawm on Antonio Gramsci

“Ce lo ha fatto conoscere la guerra” in Vie nuove, n. 4 (January 25, 1958), p.15

“Il Principe e il suo doppio” in L’Indice dei libri del mese, n. 2 (February, 1993) p. 42

“[Intervento]” in Studi gramsciani. Atti del convegno tenuto a Roma nei giorni 11-13 gennaio 1958, pp. 535-36, Roma: Editori Riuniti – Istituto Gramsci, 1958

“Per lo studio delle classi subalterne” in Società XVI (1960), p.436-49

“Para un estudio de las clases subalternas” in Pasado y Presente, n. 2-3 (1963), p.158-67

“Introduction to Gramsci” in The Nation, n. 8 (1967), p.249-50

“The Great Gramsci” in New York Review of Books, n. 5 (April 4, 1974), p.39-44

“Dall’Italia all’Europa” in Rinascita – Il contemporaneo, n. 30 (July 25, 1975), p.15-17

“Note su Gramsci” in Id., I rivoluzionari, pp. 327-50 , Torino: Einaudi, 1975

“O grande Gramsci, das lutas à prisão” in Cadernos de Opinião  [Rio de Janeiro], n. 1 (1975)

“Nella ricerca della sinistra inglese” in L’Unità [Interview by Antonio Bronda] (April 24, 1977) p. 8

“L’eurocomunismo e la transizione lunga dell’Europa capitalistica” in Rinascita [Interview by Fabio Mussi and Giuseppe Vacca], n. 12 (March 25, 1977) p. 11-13

“Gramsci and Political Theory” in Marxism Today XXI, n. 7 (1977), 205 -13

“La scienza politica” in Rinascita, n. 50-51 (December 23, 1977), p.17-20

“Gramsci es a politikai elmelet [Gramsci and political science]” in Világosság, n. 1 (1978), p.38-45

“La ciencia política de Gramsci” in El Pensamiento revolucionario de Gramsci. Puebla, Mexico: ICUAP – Editorial Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, 1978

“De Italia a Europa. Gramsci e la teoría política. El gran Gramsci” in El Pensamiento revolucionario de Gramsci. Puebla, Mexico: ICUAP – Editorial Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, 1978

“Gramsci and Marxist Political Theory” in Approaches to Gramsci  Edited by Anne Showstack Sassoon., pp. 20-36 , London: Writers and Readers, 1982

“L’Inghilterra lo studia” in Il Corriere della sera (April 25, 1982), p.3

“Per capire le classi subalterne (In Gran Bretagna – gli impulsi vitali trasmessi alla storiografia in questo cinquantennio)” in Rinascita – Il contemporaneo, n. 8 (February 28, 1987), p.23

“Storie senza Storia”: E. Hobsbawm commenta le attuali polemiche socialiste su Gramsci in L’Unità  [Interview by Letizia Paolozzi] (March 19, 1988)

“Introduzione” in Gramsci in Europa e in America. A cura di Antonio A. Santucci., pp. v-x , Roma-Bari: Laterza, 1995

“Introduction” in David Forgacs, ed., The Gramsci Reader. First edition, 1988. New Edition., London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1999

“Gramsci e la teoria politica marxista” in Politica e storia in Gramsci. Atti del convegno internazionale di studi gramsciani. Firenze, 9-11 dicembre 1977. Vol. II: Relazioni, interventi, comunicazioni  A cura di Franco Ferri., pp. 37-51, Roma: Editori Riuniti – Istituto Gramsci, 1977 [but 1979]

Santucci, Antonio A., Antonio Gramsci 1891-1937  a cura di Lelio La Porta, Premessa di Eric J. Hobsbawm, con una nota di Joseph A. Buttigieg, Palermo: Sellerio, 2005

Gramsci, Antonio, An Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings, 1916-1935  Edited by David Forgacs. New Introduction by Eric Hobsbawm, New York: New York University Press, 2000

“Hobsbawm: la cultura è incontro” in Queer [supplemento di Liberazione]  Intervista di Derek Boothman (April 29, 2007) p. 24-25

“Grazie ai quaderni sono uno storico” in Repubblica  (April 27, 2007) p. 57

“Caro Nino, compagno di lotta e di pensiero” in L’Unione sarda  (April 24, 2007)

Santucci, Antonio A., Antonio Gramsci  Preface by Eric J. Hobsbawm. Foreword by Joseph A. Buttigieg. Translated by Graziella Di Mauro with Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010

“De Italia a Europa” in Revolución y democracia en Gramsci.  p. 25-38, Barcelona: Fontamara, 1976

Reading today’s New York Times article on the debt crisis in Sicily, after months of pernicious punditry (not to mention official pronouncements from European bankers and nostrums from mainstream economists) supporting additional austerity measures in southern Europe, I was reminded of Antonio Gramsci’s 1926 essay, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question.”

He wrote,

It is well known what kind of ideology has been disseminated in myriad ways among the masses in the North, by the propagandists of the bourgeoisie: the South is the ball and chain which prevents the social development of Italy from progressing more rapidly; the Southerners are biologically inferior beings, semi-barbarians or total barbarians, by natural destiny; if the South is backward, the fault does not lie with the capitalist system or with any other historical cause, but with Nature, which has made the Southerners lazy, incapable, criminal and barbaric – only tempering this harsh fate with the purely individual explosion of a few great geniuses, like isolated palm-trees in an arid and barren desert.

Now, the focus is on the social development of Europe but the ideology remains the same: if southern Europe is in the midst of a debt crisis, the fault does not lie with the capitalist system or with any other historical cause, but with Nature, which has made the Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese, and Sicilians lazy, incapable, criminal, and barbaric.