Carlos Nelson Coutinho Gramsci's Political Thought, Brill, Leiden, 2012; 198 pp: 9789004228665, 99 [euro] (hbk)
Domenico Losurdo Gramsci: Du liberalisme au 'communisme critique'. Trans. Jean-Michel Goux, Editions Syllepse, Paris, 2006; 238 pp: 284950064X, 22.31 [euro] (pbk)
The next left will arise out of the ruins of the 20th-century citadels that bore the names 'liberalism' and 'socialism', and its architects must ponder what is to be rescued from the last century for constructive use in the next. The question for radical democrats, with their long immersion in the Marxist tradition, has been since 1956 a difficult one: what is living and what is dead in 'the tradition'? Yet it would be easy to miss the even more difficult challenge facing liberals, confronted today with the contradictions inherent in their own seeming triumph. In its contemporary neoliberal form, their doctrine, released from all the restraints imposed by its socialist competitors, now reconfigures the globe. Possessive individualism--that property-centred ethos that arose alongside their political theory in the 17th century--now overpowers and imperils all other aspects of the liberal tradition.
Michael Freeden, one of the most sophisticated of the contemporary liberal explorers of ideology (see Freeden 1986, 1996, 2007), suggests that liberalism is a pliant tradition, or rather a 'family' of traditions, held together by different ideological threads (Freeden 2005: 12). For Freeden, 'liberalism' and 'liberality' come close to meaning the same thing: 'to be liberal evokes generosity, tolerance, compassion, being fired up with the promise of open, unbounded spaces within which the free play of personality can be aired ...' A key to Freeden's liberalism is tolerance, and this in turn 'suggests a flexibility, a movement, a diversity--of ideas, of language, and of conceptual content--that sets liberalism aside from most of its ideological rivals, whose declared aspiration is to finalise their control over the political imagination' (Freeden 2005: 3). In addition to the conventional objections radical liberals like C. B. Macpherson have made to such ahistorical representations, with their tell-tale avoidance of all questions of class and property (Macpherson 1962; 1973; 1977; 1978; 1987), and to those less conventional ones lodged by Marxists alert to slavery and empire (Losurdo 2011), a more pertinent challenge to Freeden would be to dwell upon his own definitional distinction between liberals and their finalising Others. To 'finalise their control over the political imagination' --who could imagine a better job description for the neoliberals who coined the phrase, 'There is no alternative?' (1)
Contemporary liberals, in short, are caught in Macpherson's dilemma, compromised by liberal social relations that render nugatory the liberties they cherish. Yet rather than rejoicing in their dilemma, Marxists should extend to them the gift of historical materialism--analytical resources that can help rescue liberty from contemporary market-focused liberalism.
As both Carlos Nelson Coutinho and Domenico Losurdo remind us, Antonio Gramsci is perhaps the pre-eminent democratic theorist capable of illuminating the liberals' dilemma. Today's 'Gramsci,' one might say, is the fourth: Gramsci 4.0, so to speak. The first Gramsci was the loyal Communist, the Italian Communist martyr (b. 1891, d. 1937) who became his party's patron saint. Over time, this Italian Gramsci morphed into the leading light of Eurocommunism, an umbrella term that covered various attempts from the late-1950s to the mid-1980s to find national, non-Soviet, often primarily parliamentary 'paths to socialism'. Gramsci 3.0--the 'cultural Gramsci'--took off with the fuller recovery and dissemination of the Prison Notebooks in both Italian and many other languages from the 1960s on. (2) This Gramsci was a social theorist, inspirer of cultural studies, and (improbably) a postmodern political philosopher. Cinema and sexualities, religion and popular culture: everything, it once seemed, could be seen anew using a Gramscian lens (for exemplary work in this cultural vein, see Landy 1994; Creehan 2002). Indeed, some even quipped that Gramsci risked being turned into the nice revolutionary you could bring home for tea with Mom and Dad (to paraphrase the witty assessment of US historian Jackson Lears, 1985).
Gramsci 4.0 is an update that retains many of the best features of the earlier programmes. A disaster for the planet and its people, neoliberalism has been good to Gramscians. In the 'neo-liberal counter-reformation' (Coutinho 2012: 156-162), once fiercely contested Gramscian theses about hegemony have received their tragic confirmation (see especially Green 2011; Bieler and Morton 2006; cf. Hall 1979). No longer the supposed poet of the superstructure, Gramsci in this fourth version is the re-politicised and realistic diagnostician of late capitalism (Bowles and Gintis 1986, 1990; Joseph 2002; Lester 2000; in international relations, Agnew 2005; Morton 2007). Coutinho's excellent study will find many readers among those who seek insight into the possibility of leftism under conditions of global...