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Is Gramsci Dead in Latin America?

by Chris Hesketh on August 1, 2019
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In my latest article ‘A Gramscian Conjuncture in Latin America? Reflections on Violence, Hegemony and Geographical Difference’ I explore whether the ideas and concepts of Antonio Gramsci still “travel” to Latin America.

During the twentieth-century, Gramsci was one of the most important theorists invoked to understand forms of social order in Latin America, as well as providing resources to reflect upon subaltern culture, resistance and the construction of alternatives. Gramsci’s work subsequently became a touchstone for challenging Soviet orthodoxy, instead providing a specifically national (as well as regional) analysis of political realities as witnessed in the classic work of scholars including Héctor Agosti, José Aricó, Dora Kanoussi, Carlos Nelson Coutinho, Juan Carlos Portantiero and Rene Zavaleta.

However, over the last decade or so, there have been several theoretical and practical challenges to Gramscian thought as applied to Latin American reality. These challenges are multifarious but have often sought to contest the logic of hegemony as well as the privileging of the “national-popular” as a mode of politics. This raises questions about “travelling theory”. In other words, do the concepts that Gramsci generated have a significance beyond their original time and place? The question I address in the article is whether, in Latin America, Gramsci’s journey has come to an end.

I make my own intervention by using the current regional conjuncture to reflect critically on the relevance of Gramscian thought in and for the twenty first-century. Latin America currently stands at an ominous moment. Among the most important recent events to have taken place in the region are: a profound economic contraction in Venezuela, leading in turn to mass protests against the government and the declining social legitimacy of the Bolivarian regime (alongside the threat of U.S. military intervention); rising authoritarianism and repression in Nicaragua; a soft-coup taking place in Brazil to oust the government of Dilma Rouseff (2016), followed by the ascent to power of the far-right Jair Bolsonaro (2019); the replacement of Kirchnerismo in Argentina with the coming to power of the neoliberal Mauricio Macri (2015); conservative billionaire Sebastian Piñera assuming power in Chile (2017); and the technocratic Pedro Pablo Kuczynski gaining power in Peru (before his resignation and replacement by Martín Vizcarra [2018]). We have also witnessed increasing levels of violence directed against environmental defenders (mainly indigenous people), who are trying to protect their land and resources in the context of neo-extractivist development. The optimism that once surrounded the so-called Pink Tide-era in Latin America, when the continent moved, with some exceptions, to elect governments of the left and centre-left, has been punctuated, leading some to proclaim that the epoch of “progressive hegemony” in the region is at an end.

This invites questions as to how we should examine the current conjuncture in Latin America. This is a vitally important task in terms of the intellectual tools and concepts we use for analysing power and seeking social change across a range of spatial scales. The purpose of this article is to engage with some of the recent challenges that have been raised to a Gramscian way of thinking. I consider these in light of the current conjuncture to assess whether Gramsci’s concepts still retain their utility. Carlos Nelson Coutinho argued that the task for Marxists inspired by Gramsci is to reflect and concretise Gramsci’s concepts in a different time and place, and to continue the theoretical development of such concepts. It is in the spirit of this exhortation that the article is written.

The argument is structured around what I consider to be the three most important challenges to a Gramscian way of thinking about power, politics and political economy. The first of these concerns the role of violence. Here I explore whether historical and contemporary forms of state formation in Latin America – where violence has played an enduring role –  renders a Gramscian focus on notions of hegemony problematic. In other words, does Gramsci’s conception of the modern state, informed as it was by European reference points, still travel beyond this range of experiences? How, if at all, can Gramsci be invoked to understand the increasing role of violence in places such as Brazil and Nicaragua? Here I submit that reducing the notion of hegemony purely to the realm of consent (as diametrically opposed to that of force/violence) fails to acknowledge the dialectic relationship between them. A Gramscian analysis thus requires that we explore the breakdown of compromises within a contradictory political economy to examine which groups are then being accommodated and which groups are being coerced, within the construction of new political projects.

Second, I examine the contention that the role of ideology has declined within the political sphere and that, normatively it is spontaneous action by subaltern groups that is to be valued above the development of revolutionary consciousness. Such a contention would render the notion of trying to build subaltern hegemony nugatory. I draw from a variety of examples here including the piquetero movement in Argentina and the wave of social struggles in Bolivia between 2000-2005, to make the case that the role of ideology in constructing a political project remains central to transformative action. As Asef Bayat has argued, without an ideological component there is a disjuncture between the two central components of revolution: that of movement and that of change.

Finally, I explore whether Gramsci’s notion of politics (and indeed political transformation) was too state-centric to be applied to the geographical differences and heterogeneity that we witness in Latin America, (following what Rene Zavaleta captured with his notion of abigarramiento). This issue of geographical difference has been given additional impetus by the proliferation of indigenous struggles that have often challenged the nation-state or the national-scale as the principle axis of political contestation.

Across these three points of critique, I contend that a close reading of Gramsci  – as opposed to reading Gramsci through one of his proxies –  reveals that he was highly attuned to these issues and indeed his concepts sought to grapple with these very problems. Moreover, his framework of the philosophy of praxis excluded the possibility of simply grafting an abstract theoretical model upon another society or region. Rather, concepts associated with him were given a lived experience from the realities they encountered in a particular time and place. This is how they become translatable between different cultures, as they are given ‘geographical seats’. To quote Gramsci directly, “only in the philosophy of praxis is the ‘translation’ organic and thoroughgoing, whilst from other standpoints, it is often simply a game of generic ‘schematisms’.”

I conclude therefore that rumours of Gramsci’s theoretical death remain greatly exaggerated, but the struggle to construct a meaningful subaltern hegemony in Latin America (and beyond) remains the profound challenge of the immediate future.

Chris Hesketh
Chris Hesketh is Programme Lead for Politics, International Relations and Sociology at Oxford Brookes. He received his BA, MA and PhD all from the University of Nottingham. Before joining Oxford Brookes in 2012 he taught at the University of Nottingham and at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has an inter-disciplinary research agenda that combines political economy, the historical sociology of international relations, political geography, political theory and Latin American studies. These interests are captured in his monograph, Spaces of Capital / Spaces of Resistance: Mexico and the Global Political Economy (University of Georgia Press, 2017 in the Geographies of Justice Social and Transformation Series).

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