“Politics is a protracted war. Do not be in a hurry. Try to see things far in advance and know how to wait, today. Don’t live in terms of subjective urgency.” Louis Althusser, letter to Maria Antonietta Macciocchi, 2 April 1968 1
It might seem strange to mention Antonio Gramsci together with COVID-19 in the title of this piece. After all, what could Gramsci possibly have to say about the 2020 epidemic? Furthermore, isn’t his connection to the contemporary left somewhat questionable? Doesn’t he stand as a symbol of Communist wishful thinking, of the unattainability of Leftist ideals? Doesn’t he represent the manifestation of the left’s inability to organize a revolutionary force against the relentless onslaught of the enemy? A plea for a Gramscian politics and the idea of re-actualizing him could appear to be useless, in these times. Yet, I argue that in fact Gramsci still has a great deal to offer, especially in these times.
Today, it seems there is a silent agreement between the radical Left (if there is still such a thing) and liberalism, an agreement to forget Gramsci and abandon his legacy—namely, affirming the importance of class struggle, the organization of the masses, and power struggle. But the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that in today’s tumultuous times, when silence has lost its ability to speak, Gramsci remains our contemporary and can shed a different light on the situation at hand.
The true hateful
As the epidemic continues and fear spreads, long lists of guidelines and explanations are published. All of these, despite their ideological differences, have one thing in common: the emphasis on the need for coordinated action and cooperation to combat the threat of contagion.
The ongoing crisis has also triggered broad ideological interpretations, from paranoid conspiracy theories to the explosion of racism fables. In order to move forward, we need to overcome a whole series of semi-leftist misconceptions. The first and the most disgusting misconception is the paranoid conspiracy theory, harbored by some leftists, that secrete agencies are deliberately responsible for the outbreak. Several “leftists” have gone so far as to claim that China has intentionally designed and spread the virus around the globe to undermine Western economies and establish PRC hegemony. This form of leftist paranoia must be pitilessly discarded. It confirms that, as Jean Baudrillard put it, we always have within us a demand both for a radical event and a total deception. The logic of this conspiracy theory is that it is preferable to believe humans have control and let things get out of hand than to endow obscure and stupid viruses with the power to inflict such horrors on us. In other words, “even if it is a serious matter to admit one’s own shortcomings, it is still preferable to admitting the other party’s power.”2The true “destructive” element which undermines the foundations of our societies is not an external threat, like the current health emergency, but the dynamic of the global capitalism itself which sets the stage for such risks.
These speculations tend to ignore the fact that capital-led agriculture produces hotspots in which pathogens can evolve the most virulent and infectious phenotypes. As Rob Wallace puts it, “capital is spearheading land grabs into the last of primary forest and smallholder-held farmland worldwide. These investments drive the deforestation and development leading to disease emergence.” Therefore, if we are to learn anything from our condition, we must focus on what Slavoj Žižek calls “capitalism with Asian values”, a new form of capitalism, which is more productive and functions even better than the usual western one, but which doesn’t generate a long-term demand for democracy.
Thus looking the imaginary “hateful” and creating paranoid narratives certainly illuminates nothing and it further elides the fact that the “state of exception” no longer offers any concrete solution. This crisis has shown once again that the state of exception is not an emergency breakdown or catastrophe, but the current system of capitalism as such. The actual “state of exception” is the normal and evidently unpoliced everyday, the un-freedom we experience as freedom.
The ghost of antagonism past
Our current predicament has given new life to one of the left’s oldest concepts: antagonism. One should note the undeniable fact that in the face of viral infections, it’s easy for many of us, with the means to self-isolate, to accept lockdowns and quarantines, to entertain ourselves with free books, music, and virtual museum tours. But what about those who are not able to do so? What about the “essential workers” and others who are forced to keep working in the current situation just to stay alive and to keep us alive as well? Here there is no better interpretive concept than that of class antagonism. We must reintroduce that classical category. To do so, we need a new radical form of political action, an intervention that changes the very framework which determines how things work. This intervention enables us to go beyond the “normal order of things”. As Jacques Rancière puts it, “it is this anomaly that is expressed in the nature of political subjects who are not social groups but rather forms of inscription of the (ac)count of the unaccounted-for.”3
It is precisely here that Gramscian politics should come in. Gramsci’s great insight was that in the face of changes that could wipe out the world as we know it, a new form of thinking and political act is needed to abolish the old regime:
“Events are the real dialectics of history. They transcend all arguments, all personal judgments, all vague and irresponsible wishes. Events, with the inexorable logic of their development, give the worker and peasant masses, who are conscious of their destiny, these lessons. The class struggle at a certain moment reaches a stage in which the proletariat no longer finds in bourgeois legality, i.e., in the bourgeois State apparatus (armed forces, courts, administration), the elementary guarantee and defense of its elementary right to life, to freedom, to personal safety, to daily bread. It is then forced to create its own legality, to create its own apparatus of resistance and defense.”4
This contagion has shown that the principal problem of capitalism is not neoliberalism, austerity politics, nor new and varied forms of authoritarianism, apartheid, sexism, homophobia and racism, but rather it is the capitalist form itself, that is, the value-form. Instead of referring to neoliberalism as the cause of our plight, we should return to older critiques and the overcoming of capital as the ultimate goal of our thinking and actions.5
To achieve this goal, there is another misconception that must be set aside. We should brutally dismiss left populism as the way to overcome this predicament. There is no doubt that, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are experiencing a massive increase in unemployment, a severe economic crisis, and widespread social unrest. Of course, from a leftist point of view, it is difficult not to empathize with uprisings against the ruling order. However, this quick judgement in favor of protest, this all-to-easy , should give us pause.
Today, one should shamelessly emphasize that left populism does not provide a feasible alternative to the system. All those who make abstract demands in response to the ongoing conditions secretly know that their demands will never be satisfied. Here we witness the ultimate embodiment of the Hegelian “Beautiful Soul”, which feels superior to the corrupted world while secretly participating in it; they need this corrupted world as the only terrain where they can exert their moral superiority. This means that the left must play a double game here and make governments its main target: controlling the epidemic and providing accurate information is the main task of governments, and the authorities must use all their resources to achieve this! In a Lacanian sense, hysterical subjects are needed here, to take aim at the master’s discourse, to review and question it.
If we don’t do this, worse pandemics than current Coronavirus will await us. A few years ago, BBC portrayed what might be waiting for us as a direct result of the ways we intervene in nature:
“Climate change is melting permafrost soils that have been frozen for thousands of years, and as the soils melt, they are releasing ancient viruses and bacteria that, having lain dormant, are springing back to life.”
According to this report, with the continuation of global warming, and as a consequence of permafrost melt, the vectors of deadly infections from the 18th and 19th centuries may re-emerge and re-infect animal and human populations. These warnings may seem more like an exciting scenario for an apocalyptic movie. But we must not forget that the environment—and the changes that have taken place in it—are an integral part of our daily lives and can easily disrupt its course.
To return to my initial point about Gramsci, what is interesting in his ideas is that he sought to provide a revolutionary reading of historical materialism. He emphasized that the core of Marxism was based on the rejection of the idea that history was a “natural organism.” According to Gramsci, to get out of a dreadful predicament (in his time, fascism), the left must emphasize mobilizing forces to overthrow the bourgeois dictatorship. Within the framework of Gramsci’s thought, Marxism becomes a revolutionary act that can oppose the hegemony of the bourgeoisie, in various fields and contexts. The greatness of Gramsci lies in the fact that he did not intend to portray the ideal image of the New World but made every effort to portray the path that must be taken to achieve it.
The lesson the left must learn here is that the only realistic solution to the current impasse is to re-introduce the classic concept of antagonistic social relations. It may be true that the virus does not care how much money its host has in their bank account, but the handling of this health crisis is rooted in class antagonism and we must unashamedly place that antagonism at the center of our analysis.
Furthermore, contrary to many assumptions, what we need today is not the easing of pain and the diminishment of suffering. If psychoanalysis has taught us anything, it is that in catastrophic times, we must abandon the vulgar logic of self-knowledge and replace it with the struggle for a greater, external cause. The goal is not to alleviate the pain but to understand that there are things more important than our daily suffering. As Mark Fisher put it brilliantly, “the rebuilding of class consciousness is a formidable task indeed, one that cannot be achieved by calling upon ready-made solutions—but, in spite of what our collective depression tells us, it can be done.”
Change on trial
It seems that a demand for change is the new slogan of our times. Almost everyone is talking about change, including former U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. “The reality is the world will never be the same after the Coronavirus,” said Kissinger in a Wall Street Journal editorial. “The U.S. must protect its citizens from disease while starting the urgent work of planning for a new epoch.” Today we are bombarded with slogans like “things will change after this epidemic.” Even Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who recently tried once more to blackmail Europe by sending a wave of refugees to Greece, is talking about a new world arising from the remains of the pandemic.
Nevertheless, one of the main problems with change is that it can lead to constant transformation, and continuous transformation can lead to no change at all! This is precisely what we are facing in today’s economy. The main question is how change or innovation can lead to something that is at the same time static, something that offers new principles, but not principles that can be used to maintain the same framework.
There is no doubt that after the dust settles, the world needs radical change and we’ll be facing a new reality. But change for whom and for whose benefit? The present state of affairs is a unique chance for the Left to represent itself as the “true solution.” The biggest triumph of the ruling class has been to present themselves as the only ones who can effect change, while presenting leftists, conversely, as naïve utopians who call for changes that cannot be effected. Now, we have the opportunity to manifest a practical and modest model of the future and show everyone that, on the contrary, the true utopians are those who advocate the same ideological system over and over again!
Referring to Italy’s experience during Risorgimento, Gramsci listed two types of revolution; the active revolution led by Giuseppe Mazzini and the passive revolution led by Camillo Benso di Cavour. The passive revolution entails an attempt to create cultural hegemony and change through a meaningful process that, from Gramsci’s perspective, would be achieved by patiently preparing for radical and revolutionary transformations. Today, there is a need for that same kind of comprehensive, global, and concrete project (to address everything from the political and economic crises to the ecological one).
Nowadays, more and more people realize that they are genuinely disposable, that there is no necessary job, role, or place for them in society. In other words, we are witnessing the emergence of a critical mass of individuals, who are newly conscious of their precarious positions, on the fringes of communities, who were waiting for their moment to cross over, to join their more prosperous neighbors, but for whom that moment never came. This is an excellent example of why we need a Gramscian politics based on intervention that is at once revolutionary and molecular. This micro-politics emphasizes getting our hands dirty and urges us to mobilize and redefine the very idea of the left. As Gramsci said in the early 1920s, “the socialists have never understood the spirit of the period through which we are passing in the class struggle. They have not understood that the class struggle may be converted at any moment, at any provocation, into an open war which can only be concluded with the seizure of power by the proletariat.”6
The present global situation may provide a unique chance to reexamine ideology and ideological state apparatuses. From a scientific perspective, a virus such as COVID-19 is nothing but a micro-mechanism that blindly reproduces itself. Can’t we say the same thing about the dominant global capitalist economy? Is it not just a mindless mechanism that endures on speculation and blindly reproduces itself? The answer to our predicament is not mere enthusiasm for crisis, but hard work to analyze the situation and provide an appropriate and accurate alternative. This is a task that Gramsci emphasized years ago, and now we must take the same path and embrace the hard work ahead.
Crisis at the gates
What should put fear in our hearts is the widespread and frightful sense that capitalism is the only viable political and economic system and that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.
On March 23, Reuters reported that the “Head of International Monetary Fund Kristalina Georgieva has warned that the damage done to the global economy by the COVID-19 pandemic could be as bad or worse than the global financial crisis in 2008 and lead to a recession.” The report continued, “Georgieva said the outlook for global growth was negative and the IMF now expected a recession at least as bad as during the global financial crisis or worse.” Aren’t we once again witnessing the same paradigm that Naomi Klein once described as “shock doctrine”: the exploitation of national or global disasters to establish controversial and questionable policies while citizens are too distracted (emotionally and physically) to engage and develop an adequate response and resist effectively? One should recall that after the 2008 financial meltdown, billions of dollars were hastily poured into the global banking system in a frantic attempt at financial stabilization. And the main victims were those who lost their life savings in the blink of an eye and had no chance to rebuild. It is important to note that capitalism not only faces crises but also feeds on them and, by implementing socialism for the rich and the destruction of the most ordinary types of social services, strengthens itself even more. We should also bear in mind that there should be an agent (or agents) who will give the “final crisis” of capitalism a positive and pragmatic twist and this is the role the Left needs to take in these troubled times.
Isn’t the COVID-19 crisis the best example of what Walter Benjamin described as “Geschichte ist Choc zwischen Tradition und der politischen Ordnung” (history is the shock between tradition and political organization)? If the present system is a train with broken brakes, speeding towards disaster, then the messianic moment is like a stop-chord. Again, as Benjamin put it, history is awakened with a slap born of long-contained frustration, not a kiss! Are current events a slap? Can this slap wake us up?
Kamran Baradaran is an Iranian translator, author, and journalist. He has translated works by Slavoj Žižek, Paul Virilio, Jean Baudrillard, Antonio Gramsci, Paul Mason, among many others. He has also published a book about Écriture féminine titled Feminine Writing: Improvisation in the Mist.
1 Maria Antonietta Macciocchi, 1973, Letters from Inside the Italian Communist Party to Louis Althusser, translated by Stephen M. Hellman, NLB, p. 21.
2 Baudrillard, Jean, 2003, The Spirit of Terrorism, translated by Chris Turner, Verso, p.78.
3 Rancière, Jacques, “Ten Theses on Politics” in Dissensus; On Politics and Aesthetics, Edited and translated by Steven Corcoran, 2010, Continuum International Publishing Group, p.35.
4 Gramsci, Antonio, 1978, “Real Dialectics” in Antonio Gramsci; Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926, translated and edited by Quintin Hoare, Lawrence and Wishart, p. 17.
6 Gramsci, Antonio, 1978, p. 25.