Gramsci Again

Following the Georgia special election in which Karen Handel, a Republican, defeated Jon Ossoff, a Democrat (as expected in the heavily Republican district), the hand-wringing over the direction and strategy of the Democratic Party has begun anew. I’m particularly struck how the discussion has become suddenly narrower this time. Whereas before the debate might have centered around whether or not the party should focus on long term strategy versus short term tactics, now it is solely revolving around the question of how to best win elections. And I think this is worth teasing out a bit.

To be certain, not every circle after the election was arguing for a reorientation of the Democratic Party (or its progressive wing). But there was some talk of what Gramsci called a “passive revolution,” a battle for cultural hegemony that would play out in the world of ideas and discourse. The analog to a hypothetical left war of ideas is of course that which the libertarian right began soon after World War II. Out of organizations like the Mont Pelerin Society and the Heritage Foundation, neoliberals believed that in order to win elections, they couldn’t so much as find or target the voters that they needed. They had to create them. Their decades long war bore fruit slowly. (And yes, they called themselves neoliberal.)

Then Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity soared in the UK, and something changed. The near universal assumption among the American left seemed to become that if you held elections, and presented progressive candidates with a democratic socialist (or at least a social democratic) vision, they would win. This was effectively a revival of the “Bernie would have won” argument.

The good folks at Chapo Trap House even explicitly dismissed Gramsci’s notion of cultural hegemony as something only “losers” do. And technically they were right: neoliberals adopted a war of ideas because after the ascendance of New Deal liberalism, they felt like they had lost. The Chapo guys were dismissing it out of hand though. If that makes the founder of Cultural Studies Stuart Hall a loser I guess I’m one too.

But let me be clear: I have no investment in the “Bernie would have won” argument either way and I think it’d be great to see leftists win elections. The problem at the core of all is this is the binary thinking that suggests only one thing or the other can be true; to use Gramscian language, that we must wage a “war of position” or a “war of maneuver.”

Then there’s also a depth of conversation that’s lost when we take out the Gramscian question entirely and simply make everything about the question of how best to win elections. It creates a false logic that insists that if one doesn’t believe that Bernie would have won, then one must believe in the necessity of supporting status quo liberal candidates in the Democratic Party.

The alternative, to embrace both the war of position and the war of maneuver—the strategy of passive revolution and that of winning elections—is to see the affinity between the two. If the impatient left is correct—and I hope they are—then putting forth candidates that can articulate the ideas of democratic socialism, the ideas of the People’s Budget, and the ideas of the Movement for Black Lives policy group, serves both a short term purpose and a long term one. (This much is evident is the degree to which Bernie’s candicacy stoked a larger discussion around socialism.) On the other hand, if Corbyn’s success in the UK has made a portion of the American left a bit overzealous, I think a broader portion of the left and the progressive movement can coalesce around a reasonable notion that putting forth a strong progressive vision and a new language apart from that of neoliberalism is one strategy that might take the state of the struggle beyond its “resistance” phase. And it would give those who do make it into office an agenda on which to govern.

I hesitate to discuss quotidian political and electoral analysis because I often find it lacking and myopic. But I think it’s become clear that Trump voters are, to a large degree, members of the bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie, not the working class, which is increasingly made up of people of color. As some parts of the press has most recently and succinctly put it: Trump voters are Romney voters. I suppose this means that the left—or even Democrats—have a couple of decent options. One, which the media has put forth, is to mobilize the Obama voters of 2008 and 2012. The other is to do like the libertarians and neoliberals did beginning a half century ago: to create the voters they need instead of just trying to find them.

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