Sunday, February 19, 2006

Giving Up On Revolution

Last night i went to hear Richard Day – author of Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements – speak about his book, along with a panel of local activists commenting on their own experiences/observations about “hegemony”, “affinity”, solidarity and radical social change.


I had some misgivings about going: my mother had bought me a copy of Gramsci Is Dead for Christmas, and i had given up about half of the way through. It wasn’t only the constant references to post-modernist and post-structuralist authors who i have never read (and have no desire to read), it was more the fact that i couldn’t see how the book related in any way to my own experiences and observations about what activism is all about.

After hearing Day speak, i now suspect that i was deeply mistaken in my initial appraisal of his book. Which isn’t to say that i agree with his conclusions, but i do think the questions he is tackling are very relevant to radical social change, and he represents ideas that must be confronted and wrestled with by serious revolutionaries - even if only for us to reject (some of) them.

I write this without having read the entire book (add it to the reading list!) but only on the basis of last night’s talk, so perhaps it is best to actually deal with what was said last night…

Day argues that radical movements have to “overcome a logic of hegemony” in favour of a “logic of affinity.” He identified this position as being “post-anarchist”.

The term “hegemony” seemed to be understood in quite different ways by almost everyone who spoke last night, so i will try to explain how i understood Day to be using the term here:

Hegemony: As Day explained it, the “logic of hegemony” seeks to impose change across an entire social space all at once. Think the overthrow of the State, the destruction of capitalism… the event or series of events which will separate “then” from “now”, “today” from “tomorrow”, “the bad old days” from the utopian future… really, what Day is talking about is Revolution (or the possibilities it represents).

Day claims that hegemonic (or revolutionary) strategies rely on offensive force (i.e. violence, and not just in self-defense) and involve “organizing others”. By this last criterion, i am not sure if Day meant that hegemonic strategies involve activists substituting themselves for “the masses”, or if he meant that they act as a vanguard (i.e. trying to lead the way), or if it is a matter of hegemonic strategies designating one specific “revolutionary agent” (such as the proletariat, oppressed nations, indigenous people, etc.)… but from what i could gather he kind of meant all three of these… making his position quite the anti-revolutionary critique!

Looking around at the “newest social movements” Day is encouraged by what he sees as a lack of hegemonic thinking, and in his talk he did a good job of distilling what this “non-hegemonic” approach entails. This he called “the logic of affinity”, and as it too was misunderstood by most of us, it too is worth defining.

Affinity: The logic of affinity, which Day proposes we embrace, involves abandoning “grand schemes” and instead setting up alternative structures, combating oppression within these structures and then reaching out to others in solidarity.

This is not an affinity group, nor does it mean organizing with those whom we have an affinity for (i.e. with our friends). Rather, it means organizing with those who recognize that they have common interests with us, and with whom we have a shared approach.

When i asked Day how affinity differed from class consciousness, he said that affinity is not restricted to questions of class (i.e. one can also unite on the basis of “race”, gender, nation, or really anything else that works for you) and that as he understands it class consciousness is something people have to be taught as opposed to an awareness people can come to on their own. (That this last generalization is either confused or grossly simplistic is not really important to his argument.)

For what it’s worth, i think a better term than “affinity” would be “antagonism”, as this word does a much better job at describing a consciousness of being opposed to and in struggle against the system…

Day anticipated many criticisms of the “logic of affinity” in his talk, and by doing so he showed (to me) that his position is not simply some shallow deviation. He acknowledged that by abandoning revolution people may assume he embraces reformism, but he denied that this was the case. The goal of (post-)anarchist groups should not be to reform capitalism or the State, but to set up spaces outside of the system – “the way to make a different world is to construct small-scale experiments” as he put it – which would federate, encourage others, snowball, and eventually… well, eventually was left somewhat up in the air…

Day also acknowledges that even when successful spaces or alternative structures have been established, they are all too often co-opted and re-integrated into the system, or else (if they resist this) the system just flows around them, untroubled by their “non-hegemonic” alternative.

So Day is not pretending to have all the answers. He seemed to suggest that we should just continue working on and struggling with these questions, while resisting any temptation to adopt hegemonic strategies.

Day fielded several questions after his talk – almost all of which quite hostile to his downgrading of class struggle and his retreat from revolution. Although i think most if not all of the audience was unfamiliar with “post-structuralism”, and somewhat confused by the terms hegemony and affinity in how they were used, there was a sense that Day was rejecting essential elements of the anarchist tradition. I point this out because i am aware that some M-L comrades reading this might see it as proof of their worst impressions of anarchism, so (just to keep the record as accurate as possible) it bears telling that most anarchists have certainly not staked out a “non-hegemonic” or “post-anarchist” position.


Not having read it, i cannot comment on Day’s book itself. I have put it on my list, and hopefully at some point over the next month i’ll get through it, and then i’ll let you know. However, as i have spent a lot of time thinking about the questions he raised last night, i do have a thing or two to say about them. Here it goes…

There has never been an anarchist revolution anywhere, nor has there been a revolution led by Marxists that has managed to establish a classless society. But by abandoning Revolution and embracing a far less ambitious “affinity” (or “antagonism”), Day is merely making a virtue of our failures.

Indeed, the defensive posture of Day’s “logic of affinity” – not attacking the State or capitalists, rather trying to out-maneuver them or limiting one’s response to self-defense – is suicidal. As political prisoner David Gilbert (formerly of the Weather Underground and the Revolutionary Armed Task Force) has put it: “[Self-defense] can be important, especially when it is done to help sustain mass struggle. But people also have to be aware of the strategic danger of being trapped in a static, defensive position where the government can bring in their overwhelming superiority of force.”

In other words, by rejecting any offensive strategy against capitalism or the State, comrades merely abandon any possibility of choosing the terrain upon which they will eventually be forced to struggle. We are not going to be “left alone” – telling ourselves that this is a viable strategy is not a solution – and if we do not even try to determine the terms on which we will struggle, the State will determine them for us. While Gilbert was discussing armed struggle, this fact applies to all levels of confrontation.

Furthermore, missing in Day’s talk last night was an explanation of why revolutionary goals should not co-exist with antagonistic organizations. In other words, why can’t different groups operate with what Day would call “affinity”, working on practical solutions to people’s everyday problems, while at the same time thinking in terms of strategies which will eventually (and sooner is better than later!) abolish rather than merely circumvent capitalism and the State?

So far as i am concerned, it is precisely through building such antagonistic movements with revolutionary goals that we will best effect radical social change. But it is not just a seamless quantitative progression of this struggle combining with that struggle, this infoshop federating with that commune, etc. – at some point the quantitative does become qualitative, and it will either be a matter of Revolution or else Reaction winning out.

Choosing to not fight that battle – or closing your eyes to its inevitability – will not prevent you from being defeated.


p.s. Though it did not come up last night, I should also mention that by turning it into a contradiction like all others, we risk forgetting that “class” (no matter how problematic as a be-all-and-end-all category) is nevertheless fundamentally different from “race” or “gender” or “nation”. By making class no more central than anything else that gives rise to subjective feelings of antagonism/affinity, i wonder if we do not (unknowingly) abandon the very concept that binds the revolutionary left to the struggle for human liberation.

To put it simplistically: “class warfare” has a liberatory and humanist connotation because by abolishing class differences, the human misery that comes from poverty and exploitation will also be abolished. “Racial warfare” and “national warfare” contain within themselves none of this inherent humanism, except inasmuch as particular circumstances may invest entire nations (or “races” or genders) with specific class attributes, in which case – temporarily - these other struggles can embody this liberatory dimension of class warfare. (Fanon’s Wretched Of The Earth is an excellent book that deals with this...)


p.p.s. as luck would have it,  just a few days ago i was reading one of my favourite blogs – Red Flags – where there has been a long string of comments by (mainly) Leninists about precisely this kind of “non-revolutionary” trend in anarchism. While i think they grossly exaggerate the degree to which the anarchist movement had given up on revolution, some of those M-Ls do make some good points – so i recommend you check it out.

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  1. Great post, thanks very much. This reminds me of a related question I've been thinking of lately.

    I just read Georg Lucak's "Tailism and the Dialectic", after a friend gave it to me saying she thought I'd like it. It's Lucak's response to Stalinist critiques of his "History and Class Consciousness"---which I haven't read, and didn't previously know anything of Lucaks, in fact.

    But anyway, the main argument Lucaks makes in it (or at least what I got) is that the revolution doesn't happen automatically. The actions of the revolutionary can make a difference---there are crucial moments where the revolutionaries can make the right or wrong decision. Likewise, the revolutionary consciousness of the proletariot doesn't neccesary come about automatically---the revolutionary (according to Lucaks the revolutionary party, of course) has a role to play in developing the revolutionary consciousness of the proletariot (or whoever else you think the potential revolutionary actors are---the point is that the potential revolutionary actors can be assisted into becoming actual revolutionary actors by the intervention of the revolutionary).

    This seems kind of obvious maybe. But the Stalinist argument to the contrary (I guess at the point in history where Stalin was abandoning the idea of the neccesity of international revolution, instead wanting to make accomodation with the capitalist world? Soviet history isn't my strong point), anyway, the Stalinist argument was apparently that this was all just due to material conditions. Under the right material conditions, a revolutionary body would arise. Under the right material conditions, the revolution will succeed. If not, there's nothing that can be done about this, sorry, you don't have the right material conditions. If so, there's nothing that need be done about it, it'll happen automatically. Lucaks call this a stupid vulgur determinism, an excuse for lack of revolutionary engagement.

    Pretty convincing. But what just occured to me, is that many anarchists today seem to take what was in that argument the _Stalinist_ position, and accuse those who take Lucak's position of being Stalinists. But to be fair, they probably don't mean to be technical with the "Stalinist" acusation, they also will accuse those taking that position of being Leninist or vanguardist, which of course Lucaks was.

    But I think the focus on "authoritarianism" or "vangaurdism" in these anarchist's critique misses an important point. Before we even get to the "correct" revolutionary intervention, we need to believe that revolutionary intervention is both possible and neccesary. On the surface these anarchists critique "authoritarianism" or "vanguardism"--but they don't offer an alternative revolutionary intervention---or if they do, it's the "affinity" style of intervention you discuss here (which is how it all comes together). But as far as revolutionary actors---this weird anarchist (nee Stalinist) argument is that either they spontaneously come into being, or they don't---they don't seem to think that existing revolutionaries have any role in fostering the development of new revolutionaries (that would be 'vanguardism'). Likewise, either spontaneous insurrection spontaneously turns into succesful revolution---or 'affinity' style 'build outside the system' spontaenously turns into succesful revolution---or it doens't. In any case, this is something, this weird anarchist argument goes, that the revolutionary anarchist has no role in, and to think otherwise is 'vanguardist' or 'authoritarian'.

    Obviously, I think this is ridiculous, and is likewise the worst M-L(-M) stereotype of all anarchists--which is true of more anarchists than it should be. If you are opposed to the methods of M-L(-M) revolutionaires (and I'm not talking the ridiculous cults in the US that pretend to be such, they are too easy targets), as there are good reasons to be, the task before us is then to come up with an alternate theory of revolutionary intervention---not to imply that revolutionary intervention is a lost cause from the first place.

    Whew, that was way longer then I meant it to be. Hope you find it somehow slightly relevant.

  2. Wow - thanks for the very interesting comment! I am with some trepidation!) now adding "Tailism and the Dialectic" to my reading list too...

    The question of how to intervene responsibly, without distorting or impeding people's self-activity, is certainly one of the key questions facing activists today. It is exacerbated by the fact that activists are often more privileged than the people most effected by the issues they are acting around - increasing the risk that new forms of oppression may be contained in the trojan horse of revolutionary intervention.

    I am also intrigued by what you mentioned about the (originally) Stalinist position resembling the (current) anarchist position... i suspect that there are more than a few cases of ideological drift like this between (what some people like to think of as) hermetically sealed traditions.

  3. This was a great post. I have linked it to my site BARAKA BASHMENT and would like to link you there as well. If you'll have me... :)

  4. Glad you like my ramblings. One correct, I misspelled the fellow's name, which is actually "Lukacs" (with an accent over the 'a'). And secondly, a decent summary of Tailism and the Dialectic, with some contextualization that was useful to me just now, is at:

    Reading that summary still brings all up sorts of interesting things about how various contemporary anarchist ideologies match with those old communist debates.

  5. Thanks for the post, and the responses. Amazing stuff.

    There's a lot here to digest -- suffice to say that I'm very much in agreement. In terms of intervention and privilege, Friere comes to mind, although developing the consciousness in the pedagogues necessary for this to work seems to be a rather large and looming issue.

    As to whether or not decentralized "movements" are suicidal: the counter-argument to that is that vanguards et. al. are suicidal, which of course brings up the whole Stalinist/anarchist thing anonymous described. (As in, if you, as an anarchist, view engagement in a vanguardist et. al. fashion suicidal, one response is to not engage in it at all -- which gives credence to the thinking that revolution has to be spontaneous, in a "I just did something, now how am I going to justify it" sort of way.) However, it seems to me that both approaches are high-risk at this point -- which then brings up that most Zen (tm) of questions: Now What? If memory serves, Ward Churchill did a pretty good job of addressing this towards the end of "Pacifism as Pathology."

    Wow, long breath for a short post! More to come later.

  6. It is a question rife with implications. Which is why - even though i am disagreeing with a central part of his thesis - i am very grateful to Richard Day for having staked out a serious argument against "hegemonic" (revolutionary) struggle.
    Many of us have always adopted a non-revolutionary/non-hegemonic practice, but have still referred to ourselves as "revolutionary", in a sense shying away from the implications of our choices. By distilling, expressing and defending this retreat from revolution, Day puts the question on a level where it can be debated.

    And i must say - i am really enjoying the comments people have made about this post. I consider this to be a very important question, and while for the time being i'm going to refrain from actually writing any more of what i think (i do have other things scheduled for this week, for better or for worse!), i am very interested in seeing what other people have to say!

  7. This whole "hegemony" thing is the issue, isn't it?

    What Day is arguing in a round-about way is that it's all well and good to be good, but heaven forbid we do anything that impinges the abilty of the capitalist class to function on its own terms. That would be "authoritarian," and by extension make us complicit in some system of oppression.

    This is why Leninists don't beat around the bush about the "dictatorship of the proletariat." Socialism isn't for all people on their own terms. Some will find themselves shit out of luck.

    How could it be any other way?

    Was it "hegemonic" to send troops to the American deep south enforcing Reconstruction? Desegregation? Abortion rights through federal mandate?

    Should the fundamentalists be allowed to "locally" impose creationism?

    To Day, the answer is plainly YES. What's wrong with a little foot-binding when the "rights" of the oppressor are the limits of what we can accomplish?

    I've added the Day book to my reading list, which is currently jammed with materials related to John Holloways "How to Complain About the World Without Really Doing Anything."

  8. Related to this post, you may want to check out "Confronting The Question Of Power" by Wayne Price (of the North East Federation of Anarchist Communists), at

  9. I have just one small bone to pick in this thoughtful and engaging discussion:

    I think it's unfair to Richard Day to claim he suggests that a "non-hegemonic approach" means either abandoning revolutionary ends or refusing to engage in "any offensive strategy against capitalism or the State." Rather, as Day stresses in his introduction, his interest throughout the book is in the kind of "radical activism" that undertakes "conscious attempts to alter, impede, destroy or construct alternatives to dominant structures, processes, practices and identities."

    As he goes on, "My focus is quite literally those struggles that seek change to the root, that want to address not just the /content/ of current modes of domination and exploitation, but also the /forms/ that give rise to them" (4).

    I recognize that you make clear that you're commenting on his presentation during the panel, not on his book. Indeed, I'm only halfway through the book myself, so I'll hold off on weighing in further, but I just had to jump in on that one point for fear that people's critique of Day might begin to rely too heavily on what I would see as a bit of a straw-man version of his argument.

    Perhaps we should all retire to our respective comfy chairs and our begged, borrowed, or stolen copies of _Gramsci is Dead_, and rejoin the battle in a couple weeks' time.

  10. i take your point, and you're obviously right - i'll hopefully be posting on this soon...

  11. OK, i finally did read Day's book - twice! - and have posted a long
    critique of his position on Revolution at I just uploaded it to here
    and in PDF format to my website here... please let me know what you think!

  12. Walking Away from Failure: A Response to AK Thompson (and Others)

    October 8, 2007 - 10:42pm — ant

    Richard JF Day

    When one writes a book, one hopes that it will be read. And when a book is read, one hopes that it will be read well - heartily, carefully, honestly, provocatively. I can say that I’m quite happy that Gramsci Is Dead (Between the Lines, 2006) has been read, and that it has generally been read well. Not surprisingly, I don’t agree with everything everyone has said, so I’m glad to have an occasion to respond to AK Thompson’s lengthy discussion of the book in the previous issue of Upping the Anti, and to a number of other commentators who have taken up similar themes. I will do my best, of course, to read them well, too.

    Where to begin? Perhaps by re-stating something crucial to the argument of the book, but which I fear I didn’t make quite as clear as I could have. Gramsci Is Dead opens with a quote from Italo Calvino:

    Seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

    This quote comes from a book called Invisible Cities, and that’s noted when I cite it. It seems to me that Invisible Cities is about appearance and disappearance, or what might be called, to make a little pun on neoliberal jargon, visibility management. I don’t want to get too on point – that’s the point – but perhaps it will suffice to say that constantly shouting about how you’re going to take over the world is precisely what brings on the kind of repression that class war revolutionaries of all persuasions seem to simultaneously fear and desire. Might it not be better to be a little quieter, a little more subtle? This is to say: even if I thought that the ‘ultimate’ goal of the construction of alternatives to the neoliberal order was to bring about radical social change on a global scale, I certainly wouldn’t say so in public. Rather, I’d hint to those who could hear: let’s build invisible cities. Let’s create places we can run to, where we can meet, build our capacities for autonomy and solidarity, where we can live in the kinds of worlds we want to live in, here and now, rather than die trying to convince someone else to let us live / live like us, later on, somewhere else. What does one wear to a Revolution these days? As figures like Subcomandante Ramona seem to suggest, a cloak of invisibility might be most appropriate.

    Giving up on Revolution?

    A number of people have said that what some of us see as being smarter about radical social change means ‘giving up on revolution’ (kersplebedeb)1 or ‘making friends with failure’ (AK Thompson).2 First of all, I feel compelled to point out that there can be no fonder friend of failure than the class war revolutionary, whose best laid plans have gone aglay across several hundred years and on every continent, spilling buckets of blood to no good end. States – whether they be liberal, leninist, workerist, or whatever – have proven to be very poor solutions to the problems of social organization they set out to address, because although they sometimes do a bit of ‘good’, they always – and increasingly, in the societies of ‘anti-terrorist’ control – end up perpetuating domination and exploitation.

    Most marxists know this – they have developed all kinds of theories about how the state and capitalism work together. All class war anarchists know this – they usually say they want to ‘smash’ the state as such. But I find it interesting that those who reject non-hegemonic forms of social change are reluctant to speak about exactly what hanging on to a hegemonic practice means to them. Does it mean seeking state power, or doesn’t it? Certainly within the western marxist tradition following from Gramsci – as I point out in some detail in my book – achieving hegemony means having ideological sway over so-called ‘civil society’ as well as holding state power. In the softer, ‘postmarxist’ approach, hegemony means only sway over civil society, and letting go of the hankering for state power. But then, unfortunately, one becomes a liberal, not any kind of Revolutionary at all.

    So I am left truly confused when AK Thompson says that radical social change requires “a hegemonic orientation and a willingness to forge a collective ‘we’ out of disparate, scattered, and often contradictory experiences.”3 The way in which this collective we has been formed, historically, has been through political parties seeking to hold or influence state power. Is this what he means, but is unwilling to say, because he knows he would be making friends with several centuries of failure? Or does he see some other way of forming a collective “we,” a way that is neither marxist nor liberal, that he doesn’t talk about? (Certainly, that’s what I talk about). Later, he says that “politics without force of assertion is unworthy of the name.”4 What, precisely, is meant by “assertion” here? How does a political force assert itself, hegemonically, without seeking to take or influence state power? Thompson’s text does not answer this question. Again, is this because he doesn’t want people to know the answer, or because he doesn’t know what the answer is?

    Bill Carroll is also dubious of the possibilities of achieving real change through non-hegemonic means. “What Day underestimates,” he writes in a recent article in Socialist Studies, “is the totalizing dynamic of capital, against which the strategy of rendering existing social relations redundant can be no more than a retreat to self-limiting experiments contained and even engulfed by the commodification of everyday life.”5 Like Thompson, he sees a necessity for an “effective leadership willing and able to organize the scattered and isolated movements of the powerless into a coherent whole.”6 Like Thomspon, again, he refuses to say precisely what this means. A state? A party? Worker’s councils? He does mention the World Social Forum, but unfortunately, as we know, Coke and Pepsi are now vying for dominance there, and are likely to win that game between them, as usual. On the other hand, I rarely see them, or any other corporations, at the Yellow Bike Action shop up the street, or at the local music festival in the park. Perhaps commodification is not that difficult to ward off, if you are creating real anti-capitalist alternatives?

    Despite their similarities, it must be noted that Carroll’s reading is a lot more subtle, a little more friendly, and – perhaps ironically – ultimately more disconcerting than Thompson’s. Carroll agrees that it is time to reject the fantasy of total liberation and the exclusive focus on the state form, and even acknowledges the value of a prefigurative politics. But he says that one need not reject Gramscian marxism in order to do all of this. Indeed, he claims that “prefiguration was central to Gramsci’s concept of counter hegemony.”7 This is certainly true – one seeks sway over civil society in order to set up an alignment of forces that will allow one to achieve state power, and vice versa. All of that can be called ‘prefiguration’, but only if one understands this term in a way that is very different from how I and others are currently using the term. In the world of anarchist/autonomist theory and practice, prefiguration requires ensuring that the means of your action today are consistent with your ends in the long run. That is, if you seek a non-authoritarian diversity, you can’t ‘prefigure’ it by using ‘leadership’ to force people into a “strategically coherent form.”8 You have to actually live and organize in a non-authoritarian way, here and now.

    Carroll is not alone in his attempt to subsume the logic of affinity under the rubric of Gramscian marxism. In a paper presented at the Rethinking Marxism conference in 2006, 9 Ian McKay suggests that I mistakenly see hegemony as a static achievement that involves the same kind of project in all situations. He says, more or less, that I essentialize hegemony, and argues instead that:

    What is and is not required for a given hegemonic project, whether those of rulers or subalterns, is a question resolvable only through empirical analysis of a given economy and society, and cannot be decided abstractly and in advance: dividing movements between the “hegemonic” and the “non-hegemonic,” and favouring the latter, suggests we can easily distinguish between the two in any setting, when in many specific cases a Gramscian would surely reserve judgement: a “non-hegemonic” movement grasped at one moment of its eventful history may be a “hegemonic” movement when probed at another, later moment. (McKay p. 13)

    There are two things I’d like to say here. First, by talking about logics of struggle, I am purposely avoiding the reduction of any particular concept or practice to a set of essential characteristics. Indeed, the notion of a logic of struggle necessarily implies an analysis of elements or currents that stretch across discursive formations (subjects, objects, practices) that are usually seen as relatively disparate. Hence, for example, as I have tried to show, one can see the deployment of certain common elements of hegemonic theory and practice across (neo)liberalism and (post)marxism, over a large span of time, in each case taking on certain common characteristics while maintaining a certain particularity.

    Second, and more importantly I think, it is precisely the possibility that supposedly non-hegemonic movements might become hegemonically oriented that worries me. And, it seems to me, this worry is well placed, since McKay goes on to clarify something quite important, something that, as I have noted, is left implicit in the positions taken by AK Thompson and William Carroll:

    The example of the Risorgimento suggests a diversity of historical uses to which hegemony might be put. It illuminates three moments in the rise of liberal hegemony: (a) the economic-corporate (the direct expression of class interests); (b) the political moment of the struggle for hegemony (to impose a new ‘conception of the world’ with its appropriate ‘norms of conduct’); and (c) the moment of state power, “when the existing economic, political and ideological structures are transformed by the victorious class and its allies.”10 At the same time, it can also illuminate the three necessary and corresponding steps in the rise of a subaltern hegemony.11

    Here it is clear that it is not just possible that a ‘subaltern class or group’ ‘may’ seek state power – any ‘movement’ worthy of the name must necessarily do so. Thus, for McKay, ‘affinity might be better theorized as a moment of hegemony’, rather than as a logic with its own specificity.12

    In his paper, McKay laments the fact that I appear to want to kill Gramsci,13 that I am interested in polemics rather than dialogue. I certainly prefer dialogue over polemics, and I have been involved in an ongoing dialogue, as well as in a number of common projects, with individuals and groups who identify primarily as autonomist marxists. But in any such dialogue, I think it is absolutely crucial to respect the particularity of one’s interlocutors. It’s just a fact (call it a historical fact if you will) that there are many radical activists around these days who don’t want to be reduced to an element of someone else’s paradigm. Attempting this kind of reduction is as clear a demonstration of the operation of the logic of hegemony as one could possibly provide. That’s what worries me about saying that ‘Gramsci knew all of this’. It can be seen as a way of opening up dialogue across the age-old marxist/anarchist divide, or it can be seen as an attempt to co-opt the emergent forces of the newest social movements into an ‘integrated’ and ‘professionally led’ ‘movement’ based on centralization and hierarchical control.

    The 0.5% Solution

    On one point, at least, Thompson and Carroll and McKay and I seem to agree – they all end their articles by asking ‘what is to be done’, which is of course precisely the question that my book addresses. Because they don’t like the answer that is provided there, however – we should work to escape from the horizon of the hegemony of hegemony – they simply re-state the question: what is to be done, they ask implicitly, within that horizon? This points to the kind of incommensurability that makes dialogue difficult, perhaps impossible. It’s like people who speak different languages shouting the same thing at each other again and again, with ever-increasing volume, all to no effect. Given that consensus-oriented communication is very difficult to achieve in this case, perhaps it is better to ask: how can those who are working non-hegemonically understand – and be understood by – those who remain within the hegemony of hegemony?

    My argument in Gramsci Is Dead is about possibility, probability, and logics of struggle. In its most simple terms, it is that those of us seeking radical social change have, for too long, been putting too much of our effort into trying to influence the dominant order. I’ve already been called a bad sociologist,14 so I have nothing to lose by tossing out a few more unreliable figures. Let’s say that about 89% of the political energy of the privileged denizens of the global north is expressed as a kind of consumer fuelled nihilistic apathy, which is deeply conservative at the same time as it sees itself as continuously pushing boundaries. I have to admit that I have a hard time believing that much good can come from this, despite the arguments about subversive readings of popular TV shows. Surely it is clear that, here and now, what Emma Goldman called ‘the majority’ is very unlikely to bring on the Dawn.15

    Let’s say that another 10% or so goes into reform-based strategies such as voting, working for NGOs, or contributing to charities. These are ‘hopeful’ activities – they are neither nihilistic nor apathetic – and I think this is why, at many talks and workshops over the past couple of years, I’ve had people ask questions like: Since you reject the politics of demand, do you mean to say that there shouldn’t be any women’s shelters? No work to find a cure for AIDS? The two-sided answer to these questions is: Yes, I think it’s a good thing when women and children in abusive relationships have safer places to go while seeking to change their situations, and I think it’s a good thing that AIDS is, to a certain extent, seen as something we should act upon, because it potentially affects all of us, not just a marginalized ‘sexual minority’, or a marginalized continent. But no, I don’t see that working outside of the dominant order means that we can’t set up women’s shelters or address HIV infection. I am not the enemy of those who attempt to ameliorate the worst excesses and exclusions of the dominant order, even when they identify as reform-oriented liberals. Indeed, it’s part of my job to try, each year, to cut loose a few of the outliers in that group, and I do it diligently.

    All I’ve pointed out is that we need to find ways of addressing these excesses and exclusions that minimize state and corporate mediation. And I’ve pointed out that, curiously, it is in places and at times where the states and corporations can’t be bothered to ‘help’ (e.g. Argentina), or are prevented from ‘helping’ by those who are the targets of the proposed ‘help’ (e.g. Chiapas), that communities are most often seen to be meeting their needs themselves. Do I mean to say that the collapse of a national economy necessarily leads to neighbourhood assemblies? No. Do I mean to say that indigenous peoples have a ‘kind of inborn knowledge’ of how to live autonomously?16 No. What I mean is precisely this: in places where the ‘easy’ route to a non-autonomous life (privilege) is unavailable, and where there is a living history of autonomy to draw from (it’s cultural, not genetic), it is more likely that autonomous ways of defining and meeting social need will emerge.

    That takes care, pretty much, of everything that is ‘realistic’ or ‘practical’ in terms of social change. As much as we might bicker, let’s face it: both anarchists and marxists are dreamers. We orient to the other 1%, among whom we find a few socialist-inspired folks who are working for the Revolution, maybe 0.5% of the population of ‘the canada’. To them I say: good on you. It’s great to have that energy out there, especially since so much of it is directed towards anti-poverty work, immigrant / refugee / detainee solidarity, solidarity with indigenous peoples. This activity does some real good, here and now, for those among us who are most marginalized, and when combined with direct action tactics, prefigures autonomous ways of life by openly challenging state and corporate power. (This is why I talk about the piqueteros in Argentina, by the way. Their road-blocking tactics were a hybrid form, combining direct action to disrupt neoliberal flows with the politics of demand; in the crossover between piqueteros and MTD, we see the additional elements of constructive direct action and the prefiguration of autonomous alternatives. Once again, it’s not ‘one movement, one element’). All of this to say: I am not the enemy of class struggle revolutionaries either: at least not until they ‘win’.

    I hope that last comment helps to clear up another little misunderstanding, but perhaps it is too oblique. To be quite clear: I think it is quite useful and necessary to deploy the concept of hegemony to describe what goes on in state- and corporate-based societies. Parties struggle for state power, states struggle for increased sway over daily life, corporations struggle over market share – everyone is after controlling the ‘collective we’, locally, regionally, nationally, internationally, globally. This is what actually happens, and understanding how it happens is crucial to taking up an informed position within or against it. What I reject, and what I see other people rejecting, is joining in with this game , by either ‘asking’ for things from those who are dominant, or by seeking to become dominant oneself.

    Now we’re down to that elusive 0.5% of the population – I know, it’s probably an exaggeration – in which I’m most interested: those who are working non-hegemonically, by constructing radical alternatives not only to the currently dominant order, but to all of the imagined orders of the hegemonically oriented political paradigms. As I’ve pointed out before, here we find a diverse network: indigenous peoples, anarchists, anti-racist and queer activists, various sorts of feminists – what’s important, though, isn’t how someone identifies, but how they work. That’s what is meant by a ‘logic of struggle.’

    One doesn’t have to become some kind of uber non-Revolutionary untainted by any contact with states or corporations in order to realize a logic of affinity. One can – and usually must – orient to the dominant order in a variety of ways, precisely because it is dominant. But one need not orient only to the dominant order, as is assumed by those who say we must stay within the hegemony of hegemony or risk wasting our energy. What would happen if a few more of us, a bit more often, put a little bit more of our time and resources into the creation of linked and sustainable radical alternatives, here and now? Gustav Landauer had it figured out, I think. That would be The Revolution. (But now I’ve said too much...)

    Lowering the Beast into the Ground

    Many years ago I made a collection of quotes from radical anti-capitalists, starting in the 17th century and running up until the late twentieth. All of them said pretty much the same thing, using terms appropriate to their time: this system is horrendous, it dominates and exploits human beings and nature, it can’t last. It has 10 or 20 years, 50 at the most, before it collapses. Of course, Gerard Winstanley and Emma Goldman are in the cold, cold ground, while their enemy is still standing. Why does capitalism have so much resilience? Is it infinite in its capacity to adapt to changing circumstances?

    Several things that have started to happen in the past few years suggest that it is not. One of these is the simple fact that it’s no longer a marginal, crazy thing to wonder out loud whether we can go on as we have been. Now, for the first time, utterly mainstream figures like Al Gore are adding their voices to the chorus. Maybe the belief in an ongoing and intensifying ecocatastrophe is just a sham, a cover for a new business-political opportunity – it is that, no doubt. But it is perhaps more than that as well. Given the sociological-historical fact that the construction of radical alternatives seems to occur in places and at times where there is a failure of the dominant order to ‘provide’, can we not speculate that new forms of systems failure will open up new possibilities and necessities for the creation of alternatives? The beast is dying, and in a way that has at least the appearance of novelty, it is coming to know this itself. Perhaps ‘our’ task then, is to help lower the beast into the ground, gently, carefully, so that it does as little damage as possible in its death throes, and so that there is something left after it’s gone.

    How do we do this? As I have tried to suggest: by creating invisible cities, sites of meeting for those in exodus. But what does an invisible city look like? Obviously, what works in Chiapas or Buenos Aires can’t be directly imported to white settler north america. As many people have pointed out, any attempt to set up an autonomous zone under the cover of defensive armed force would be met with overpowering offensive force from the Canadian state and, if they failed to ‘solve the problem’, the US military would step in. Therefore, it seems to me that an invisible city here would be much more ‘impure’ than a Zapatista autonomous zone – although, even there, not all of the villages geographically ‘in’ every autonomous municipality are Zapatista, and not all villagers ‘in’ a Zapatista village are Zapatista. Perhaps, then, an invisible city is best thought of as a space (geographical/virtual/symbolic/material, urban/rural) guided by a certain logic (of non-hegemonic modes of social, political, and economic organization), adhering to certain ethical and political principles (of minimizing domination and exploitation of humans and the land, internally and externally; of maximizing solidarity with those who are dominated and exploited, internally and externally), devoted to linking up with other such spaces, to form a non-statist, non-corporate, federative structure. It is a place that realizes the possibility of living differently, that creates the kind of culture that can sustain itself in the event of chosen or forced autonomy.

    Obviously, access to material resources is crucial to the creation and sustenance of an exodus-driven network – yes, capital in the strict sense of the word – land (not stolen, please, and that’s difficult to find here), money, time, emotional energy, machines (less stinky than our current industrial machines, and less exploitative of people and the land than our current electronic ones). It’s easy to say this, but as those of us who’ve tried to get hold of the resources necessary to live differently without relying upon the state and capitalism know, it’s much harder to do it. What modes of approach to this fundamental problem might work ‘here’, in the geographical territories claimed by the Canadian state? It seems to me that, despite their many difficulties, so-called ‘intentional communities’ are at least an opening towards what is possible for mainstream subjects in exodus.

    These projects are interesting in that they are generally oriented to local autonomy and sustainability. They have been limited, however, in their ability to link up with other similar projects (they are to a great extent isolated points rather than nodes in a net), in their lack of an explicit commitment to anti-capitalist, anti-state, anti-oppression practices, and by their tendency to reproduce the forms of privilege that allowed them to be created in the first place (they often draw from a white middle-class base of support and have an escapist orientation). I don’t know of any experiments that have fully addressed these limits (I think they represent an unreachable but necessary horizon), but I have been part of experiments that are at least aware of them, and have been working on them. I see no reason why further work in this direction cannot, and should not, be pursued; why we cannot, and should not, seek to build institutions of mutual aid that make creative and careful use of existing forms such as co-operatives, credit unions, and even perhaps municipalities, city wards, and the various spaces occupied by indigenous peoples, draining energy from the dominant, marginalizing it, duplicating those of its ‘functions’ that are desirable, but not replacing it with a new mode of domination. I see no reason why we cannot, and should not, work to lower the beast into the ground, while we pursue new kinds of relationships with ourselves, each other, and the land.

    This doesn’t mean ignoring history and sociology and left wing politics altogether, but it does pose serious challenges to history, sociology, and left wing politics as we know them. And yes, it does mean giving up on what has hitherto been known as Revolution. Not to make friends with failure, but to walk sadly – yet hopefully – away from some of its most obvious causes.


    1 From his website .

    2 AK Thompson, “Making Friends With Failure” in Upping the Anti #3, Nov. 2006.

    3 Thompson, p. 83.

    4 Thompson, p. 88.

    5 William Carroll, “Hegemony, Counter-Hegemony, Anti-Hegemony” in Socialist Studies 2:2, p. 31.

    6 Carroll, p. 32, citing Sanbonmatsu.

    7 Carroll, p. 33, n.18.

    8 Carroll, p. 32.

    9 McKay, Ian “‘O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark’: Richard Day, the Many Deaths of Antonio Gramsci, and the Possibilities of Anarchist/Gramscian Dialogue.” Unpublished paper delivered at Rethinking Marxism 2006. A Word version of the ms. provided by the author is cited here.

    10 John Gitling, Capital and Power: Political Economy and Social Transformation (London, New York and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1987), n.p. cited by McKay.

    11 McKay, p. 15. My emphasis.

    12 McKay, p. 19.

    13 Even though I find the title of the book unfortunate – I wrote a book called Affinities – I do like the Nietzschean implication that it would be the adherents of Gramsci who did the deed, through their own skepticism.

    14 This thoughtful compliment was offered by Darryl Ross, of Concordia University, and can be found at .

    15 Perhaps teaching at Queen’s University has ruined me, but I have to admit that I don’t feel particularly rejuvenated with Revolutionary fervour when I return to the (dis)comfort of my working class family in Vancouver.

    16 Thompson, p. 80.