State of Siege

Three events converged this week to convince me that “crisis” and “siege” are the words we need to describe our current condition, and by “our” I mean us, this country, this culture, this nation. I read and watched as Baltimore burned, I learned that one of my students would miss the last week of class because he was sent there as a member of the New Jersey National Guard, and I taught Gramsci to my undergraduate course on social theory.

I started to think that our situation has reached the point of repetition compulsion. And I started to rethink the hyperbole of, say, Walter Johnson and Edward Baptist, who have depicted slavery as a labor system governed by sheer force, mere violence, without ideological pretension to consent, and who, accordingly, have challenged Eugene Genovese’s interpretation of the antebellum South.

You might dismiss this last reference as an historiographical curio, something only academics would dispute. But by conflating capitalism and slavery, such historians compel us to rethink the hierarchies of the contemporary workplace, and the larger society—-they make us ask, are we too slaves?

Meanwhile I started to reconsider the arguments of Michelle Alexander, David Oshinsky, and others who have claimed, also with hyperbolic flourish, that the continuities between slavery and Jim Crow and the mass carceral state of our own time are more measurable and important than the discontinuities.

Teaching Gramsci, explaining hegemony, was the key. A ruling class can’t rule by force alone, he taught, and an insurgent class—-or, as I would prefer, a cross-class social movement—-acquires power only by obtaining the ideological compliance, the consent, of its constituencies, actual and potential, thereby attaining cultural authority. (Karl Mannheim and Louis Althusser made complementary arguments in the ornate styles of their respective traditions, and the latter, like Antonio Negri, suffered through some anxiety of influence in doing so.)

Force, power, authority: guns, politics, ideology.

A class-riven society devolves into crisis insofar as the cultural authority of its rulers becomes not a question—-that’s always the case—-but a problem, which happens when the exercise of the rulers’ power appears illegitimate because it’s invisible, not subject to inspection, or arbitrary, not subject to any lawful account.

The “crisis of authority” arrives, however, when the rulers themselves choose how to deal with the accusation of illegitimacy from the common folk, the people out of doors-—those who actually want to consent to the exercise of power because in principle the rule of law protects everybody, but who will neither submit to invisible power nor accede to the arbitrary application of force.

Resort to force or remake the terms of authority? Guns or ideology? That is the choice every modern ruling class has faced, sooner or later.

The failures are familiar. The English aristocracy, the French nobility, the Southern slaveholders, the Mexican hacendados, the Russian landlords, the Chinese oligarchs . . . These defiant social strata chose naked force and lost, but not before unleashing, or rather inflicting, civil war on their own people, their own states.

Is that our situation?

I used to think that the great crisis of authority that dominates the late-20th century was resolved peacefully, by the victory of the Left in the so-called culture wars. Now I’m not so sure. In these recent and multiple acts of police violence I begin to see not random, spastic moments, not deviation from a civilized norm, but something systematically murderous, in keeping with the violence delivered in our name to so many countries that the accounting would become tedious rather than terrifying. Imperium in imperio and all that.

Well, duh, you might say. Where have you been?

I’ve been thinking with Gramsci, hoping that the “war of position” we—-us leftists—-have been winning all these years is the future of revolution. But now I realize that the counter-revolution, the resort to guns on the part of a beleaguered ruling class, call it the universal lock-down, well, goddamn, it fucking worked, starting in the 1970s.

The only remake of the terms of authority attempted by our rulers, then as now, was a reassertion of previous truth, in this case, the divine right of kings, er, of markets. But it, too, worked, and still works. And yet, and yet, it couldn’t have worked without the class war on poor people unleashed by Richard Nixon. This was, and remains, an armed struggle, as everything William Bratton, the police commissioner of New York under extreme liberal Bill de Blasio, confirms.

So Gramsci was wrong. You can rule by force. Just don’t disguise it. Make it real. Make us slaves.



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3 responses to “State of Siege

  1. Richard Schneirov

    Jim, I agree: the present situation needs to be understood in terms of the balance between coercion and consent, which helps us understand the working of Gramsci’s hegemony. I doubt, however, whether the degree of police repression of poor blacks (and we should add most Latinos, Native Americans, and others of color) is expanding. It is more likely that it is coming to public light for the first time since the 1960s and 70s—which is all to the good. Of greater concern on the question of consent—as I see it—is the historic decision by Republican Party elites that rather than try to win office through persuasion of the growing number of pro-Democratic voters of color, which is now part of a national majority, they would rather suppress them. This is happening through redistricting, the destruction of unions (the one association in civil society working people have), voter ID laws, reduction or elimination of early voting, in general, finding ways of targeting the poorest and most pro-working class of the Democratic Party’s voters. They have chosen to close off and greatly narrow the means of ensuring consent for the largest part of the bottom half of the electorate. By doing so, they are choosing, in effect coercion over consent.

    Why are they doing this? In the wake of the beginning of a period of intensified “secular stagnation” beginning in the period following the crash of the bubble, neoliberal hegemony (circa late 1970s through 2008) has disintegrated as a governing philosophy. (By the way, I view this hegemony as having enabled a leftwing cultural advance and the maintenance of the welfare state simultaneously with an upward shifting of income shares and a large dose of coercion for the poor and working class segment of people of color. In other words it was a grand bargain.) This has left the Republicans in the grip of libertarians and state level elites, while the Democrats, after initial hiccups are on the verge of embracing much more leftwing thinking (secular stagnation) and have become odious to Wall Street. Without a viable national hegemonic discourse and the narrowing of access to civil society and the levers of government, coercion is axiomatic. Will the corporate elite (increasingly a class) recognize this?

    Does this mean that the war of position is not working? Are we all slaves as the New History of Capitalism avers? I’m not sure what you are thinking, but I don’t think there is any alternative other than attempting to reconstruct a new hegemonic, pro-democratic discourse.



  2. I think you are correct in pointing out the false equivalence one can draw between a worker in the working class and a slave in a slavocracy. However, I don’t think this tells us anything about the slave South in terms of whether or not it was capitalist. Colonial subjects can be treated differently than a wage worker in NYC, but that does not mean they are not both subject to a specific historic representation of capitalism. Capitalism is transnational in its reach, seeking markets, work forces, the liquidation of resources into capital, etc. As such, I don’t see the issue with classifying the slave South as capitalist. I read your recent pieces at USIH blog and found them well thought out and very well argued. In fact, they have been a consistent theme of conversation here at Purdue among some of us grad students since they were initially published. But the more I think about it, the more I don’t have an issue with the theme of what Johnson is saying. Slavery and capitalism seem to be very much compatible with each other.

    To your point on needing hegemony, I agree. I don’t think you need it in order to rule. In fact, I have been wondering more and more how stable hegemony really is. But what are the consequences of that surrendering of hegemony? The state, in places like Baltimore, are losing their validity to use violence. Or, I should say, the police as an extension of the state are losing that validity. What does this mean for Left wing politics? I think, as Rich and you are saying, it represents both a possibility but also a pitfall. If the Right has chosen to forgo any kind of validity in the larger public opinion, then it does not need to worry about how it is perceived. Excessive gerrymandering, restriction of voting, increased militarization, War on Terror type domestic policies, etc. all coalesce into political power that needs little widespread democratic support. But, and I think this is where Gramsci re-enters, how particularly stable is this method of governing? How long before the excesses give way to violent revolt? I think this is where we are currently moving. The Right and larger economic interests conceding an attempt to build consensus, and an increasingly mobilized Left. Can a movement, like Labor, recapture this growing discontent? I don’t know, but I think the Right and the state in many communities following this path of coercion can be an opening to build solidarity with people.

    As always excellent piece, and very thought provoking.

    -Wes Bishop

  3. CP

    I very much appreciate this part of your essay:

    “I used to think that the great crisis of authority that dominates the late-20th century was resolved peacefully, by the victory of the Left in the so-called culture wars. Now I’m not so sure. In these recent and multiple acts of police violence I begin to see not random, spastic moments, not deviation from a civilized norm, but something systematically murderous, in keeping with the violence delivered in our name to so many countries that the accounting would become tedious rather than terrifying. Imperium in imperio and all that.”

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