Political Contingency: We Can Always Succeed and We Can Always Fail, Research Time, 17/06/2014

Outside the strict contexts of the Marxist tradition, which is the place where I read Antonio Gramsci, he develops insights that can be useful for anyone working in any material aspect of political activism. His conception of hegemonic rule is already a wonderful rebuke to the tiresome conspiratorial politics of Noam Chomsky and his fanatical followers. 

Gramsci understands the incredible heterogeneity of the ruling classes, and that their unity is only a fragile coalition among complex mutually incompatible interests constantly on the verge of, if not collapse, then at least reorganization. He’s a kindred philosophical soul to me in this important sense, that he understands the world to be far more complex than any popular dogmatism would depict.

A lot of the dogmatism in his own political activism came from the orthodox conceptions of Marxism that dominated communist politics and thinking in the early 20th century. One example that very much strikes me is the notion that history itself has its own driving force. There are several points in these Prison Notebooks that discuss the weird kind of political apathy that held in Europe’s Marxist revolutionary activist parties. The Russian Revolution having taken place and enthroned itself in that state, many communist activists believed that the international movement had begun. Therefore, they sat back and waited for history to sweep the continent-wide revolution into being. 

Gramsci makes the incredibly sensible argument that it’s the active work of communist parties to sweep that revolution into being. If you wait for history to happen, nothing will happen because you’re too busy waiting. It seems strange to me today how radical it was at the time for Gramsci to tell activists to get off their asses and start acting to move progressive politics forward in its own national arena. But apparently, they had to be told.

There appears, however, to be a sliver of that historical determinism surviving in Gramsci’s thinking. This is just a cursory, initial view right now. Over the next year or so, as I gain more regular access to university libraries, I’ll be able to correlate this with some secondary literature. And if anyone reading this is more familiar with the details of Gramsci’s thought than I am right now, I welcome the advice as I prepare my ideas about him for the Utopias project and possible teaching work.

Kuwait's oil fields burn in 1992, a spectre of the end of
humanity that haunts my generation. A thinker like
Gramsci would be adrift in this era. Sometimes, the greatest
challenges for the great philosophers of the past is how to
deal with the material world making them obsolete.
Gramsci describes two fundamental principles of political philosophy and science that guide his thought. 1) “No social formation disappears as long as the productive forces which have developed within it still find room for further forward movement.” I have no problem with this, as long as we understand those forces as material. The second principle is the one that irks me as an ecological philosopher. But this may be a function of Gramsci’s own material limits — he could only think with the resources and contexts of his time. His era was not ours, was not the ecological era of philosophy and science.

The second principle of Gramsci’s political science: “A society does not set itself tasks for whose solution the necessary conditions have not already been incubated.” The seeds of the resolution of all political conflicts are embedded in the structure and material of the conflicts themselves. Its a very necessitarian principle, albeit one with a Hegelian complicating stripe. I can see why someone working and living (and eventually dying) in a Marxist context would believe it.

I can’t accept it at all. Essentially, it says that, while not all problematic situations are actually solved in real life, the solutions to those problems are contained within the world that the problems themselves create. While failure always remains possible, success and progress are also always possible. And I think this notion is inherently incompatible with the ecological principles of the contemporary age of philosophy and human civilization. 

Ecological crises and cosmological knowledge brings the human existential crisis of humanity’s confrontation with the end of life into stark relief. To take humanity’s contemporary problems seriously, we have to understand that there are some problems for which success is simply not an option. One day, the sun will boil us away, and long before that, the human species will probably be extinct. These were not ordinary thoughts in Gramsci’s day. They are now. Failure is always possible, but what is possible may not include success, or even survival. This is the fundamental principle of the ecological era in human civilization and thought.

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