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.