‘Gramsci and Foucault: A Reassessment’ reviewed by Nicolai von Eggers

Gramsci and Foucault: A Reassessment

Ashgate, Farnham and Burlington, VT, 2015. 209pp., £60 hb
ISBN 9781409460862

Reviewed by Nicolai von Eggers

About the reviewer

Nicolai von Eggers wrote his PhD Dissertation on the political theory and practice of …


Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault have been two of the most celebrated critical theorists of the twentieth century. Through critical engagement with Marxism (Gramsci) or polemical attacks on supposed Marxist orthodoxy (Foucault), both authors supplemented Marxists’ focus on direct coercion and economic forms of oppression with theories of cultural, discursive and institutional forms of domination. While neither Gramsci nor Foucault saw any of these forms of domination as completely separated from economic interests, they both refrained from explaining the existence of domination in an (economically) determinist way. While this is most obvious with Foucault’s work, the impulse appears to have been the same for both authors. In addition to their approach to forms of domination, Gramsci and Foucault also show similarities in their use of theory as practice, arguing that theory is always meant to intervene in the existing relations of force. Consequently, according to both authors, the ‘the intellectual’ – whether ‘organic’ (Gramsci) or ‘specific’ (Foucault) – plays a significant role in the process of social transformation.

The similarities between Gramsci and Foucault should however not be overemphasized. After all, Gramsci was a member of the Party (PCI) and very explicitly worked within the framework of the Marxist-Leninist party. Foucault, on the other hand, was an ex-member of the Party (PCF), and very explicitly distanced himself from the Marxist-Leninist party form. But the similarities between Gramsci and Foucault should also not be underestimated. Although Foucault in theory and practice denied that the party would be a source of emancipation, he was still closely affiliated with different revolutionary groups on the left. Foucault’s work on ‘power’ was from the outset directly inspired by the Black Panther Party, and it developed in close contact with Maoist currents of the 1970s, such as the Gauche Proletarienne. Furthermore, Foucault’s work on power was developed in a context where Marxist theory, including that of Gramsci, was predominant in French political philosophy. Christine Buci-Glucksmann’s Gramsci et l’état was first published in 1975, and, although he was under heavy attack in the period, Louis Althusser’s somewhat Gramsci-inspired theory was still the point of reference for an entire generation of political philosophers and activists. In fact, Foucault himself attests to the influential role of Gramsci, and laments the fact that he is not treated with enough rigour. Gramsci “is a writer more quoted than truly known”, as Foucault put it.

In other words, there are multiple potential relations between Gramsci and Foucault – direct inspiration, overlapping questions, reaction to the sterility of orthodox Marxism, and the search for new paths of emancipation – as well as plenty of elements to pick up for a fruitful and serious discussion of the analytical and political potential of the encounter between Gramsci and Foucault.

Unfortunately, this anthology does not live up to that potential. While the intention is laudable, and while there are some good discussions here and there, lack of conceptual and theoretical rigour prevents the book from providing any new and profound insights into the theories and potentials of Foucault’s work, Gramsci’s work, and what might be gained from combining them. Instead, the book is a frustrating and confusing read. The source of frustration stems from the book’s general framework rather than the individual articles. While the book carries the title “Gramsci and Foucault: A reassessment”, neither Stephen Gill’s Foreword nor David Kreps’ opening or closing articles provide a reassessment of Gramsci and Foucault that moves beyond a series of superficial observations on similarities and differences, while at the same time pointing in all kinds of directions (from critique of global capital and arguments on the postmodern prince, to a new research programme and discussions of complexity theory). It is thus difficult to see what exactly the reader was supposed to achieve by reading this book. As for the individual articles, some are comparative discussions of the theories of Gramsci and Foucault, but most are applications of Gramsci-Foucault-frameworks – sometimes improvised for the occasion. While the general subject could easily have made for interesting material, the lack of focus and the lack of explorations and clarifications of categories obscure the gains that may have been made.

In the Foreword, Stephen Gill presents his critique of global capital and his appeal to what he calls “the postmodern Prince”. While it is not explained in so many words, it seems to be this definition of ‘the postmodern Prince’ that is the guiding principle for lumping together the series of contributions that follows. The postmodern Prince, as Gill defines it, is “the emergence of emancipatory and insurgent movements understood as political, social, and pedagogical processes. […] It does not simply focus on industrial workers as its ‘vanguard’; its leadership encompasses peasants, other workers, feminists, ecologists, anarchists, indigenous peoples and a wide range of forces, including churches and experts with scientific and technological expertise. Its leaders are millions of organic intellectuals interlinked locally and globally through powerful modes of communication and radical media outlets that deconstruct narratives and tropes of dominant power and lay bare and place unethical and illegitimate practices under scrutiny” (xx-xxi). Furthermore, the members of the postmodern prince “combine both traditional and indigenous knowledge premised upon a long-run time scale as well as the systematic learning and research on the integrity and sustainability of complex systems that is at the cutting edge of new scientific thinking about the relationship between prevailing development patterns and the integrity of the biosphere” (xxi). While it is of course fine to stress the pluralism of insurgent movements and to look for inspiration in all kinds of places, it is difficult to see how exactly these “millions of organic intellectuals” will coordinate and bring about the fall of capital (if this is what their aim is?) Furthermore, it is not clear who today relies on “industrial workers as its ‘vanguard’” (also, isn’t that confusing two concepts better kept apart?) Finally, it is not clear from the fact that these millions of leaders “deconstruct narratives and tropes of dominant power and lay bare and place unethical and illegitimate practices under scrutiny” how this will overturn the rule of capital. For this reader, these remarks point more in the direction of Jacques Derrida’s lofty remarks on the ‘new International’ than in the direction of a serious analysis of how capitalist forms of domination are reproduced and how they may be broken.

In his Introduction, David Kreps gives a short overview of the literature on Gramsci and Foucault, and arguments for either separating or combining them. This is followed by Alex Demirovic’s interesting article, “The Politics of Truth”, discussing the relation between truth and politics in the writings of Gramsci and Foucault. As Demirovic shows, Foucault is critical of assertions of truth that claim to describe, reflect or represent the world ‘as it is’ – truth as theoría, so to speak. This form of truth, which Foucault criticizes throughout his work, is contrasted with a conception of truth as effective, or as lived experience. In his discussions of the cynics, of philosophy as a way of life and of truth as something that is lived, Foucault is much more affirmative of truth – that is, truth as praxis, or, as Demirovic phrases it, truth as “directly binding and lived” (20). This conception of truth obviously has similarities with Gramsci’s ‘philosophy of praxis’. According to Gramsci, while truth is historically situated, the truth of any situation is that which, if accepted and lived, will turn around the power relations between classes. In a sense, Foucault’s and Gramsci’s conception of truth are thus overlapping – although Gramsci works with a ‘political’ conception of truth, while Foucault’s is more ‘existential’. This gauche existentialism of Foucault is revealed in his fascination with what he perceives to be the passion that drove the rioters of Tunisia ’68 and Iran ’79, and which he contrasts to the ‘cold’ politics of Western Marxism. Demirovic argues that in the end, it is precisely this existential rather than political understanding of truth as efficacious, practical and lived that represents the limitations of Foucault’s politics of truth. “Foucault is once again drawing on, and contributing to, the discussions in the left and social movements of the seventies and eighties. These discussions centred the development of such an alternative way of life – taking in such elements as work, living space, gender roles and knowledge – through specific praxis. These alternative projects however failed to affect and reach the power of capitalist structures” (21).

Ngai-Ling Sum’s article develops a framework for studying the discursive production of neoliberal hegemony, and illustrates this framework through a case study of the concept of ‘competitiveness’. Marcus Schulzke argues in his article that a combination of Gramsci’s and Foucault’s theories is particularly well suited for “theorizing resistance that is capable of overcoming the myriad forms of power that shape modern life” (57). Schulzke argues that this is the case because Gramsci’s concept of ‘hegemony’ and Foucault’s analytics of power is a prerequisite for understanding how domination works. Interestingly, he argues in favour of some form of party as the emancipatory force, but a party which, presumably following Gramsci, is a “compromise between Leninist vanguardism and anarchist voluntarism” (66). This is to say that this party needs leaders capable of building counter-hegemony, but also effective structures for holding leaders accountable, for keeping them close to the rank-and-file, and for party self-critique.

Jean-Paul Gagnon tries to reconstruct Gramsci’s and Foucault’s theories of democracy by looking at how they understand and define the demos (to the extent they can be said to do this). In doing so, Gagnon stresses Gramsci’s and Foucault’s focus on educating the demos in terms of politics and philosophy, and their ambitions of creating “citizen-experts who actively resist power” (75). Sonita Sarker analyses the cases of Dalit women in India and indigenous women in Texas in order to argue that in spite of hegemonic conceptions of time, there are always subaltern conceptions, which can be drawn upon for creating resistance. A virtue of this article is how it stresses Gramsci’s own subaltern position as a Sardinian and his reflection on the southern question in this context. Thus Sarker is able to emphasize the structural asymmetry between the dominant and the dominated through a geographical and cultural axis found in Gramsci’s writings alongside his focus on class.

Jan Versieren and Brecht de Smet carry out a very insightful critique of Foucault’s endorsement of the Shi’ism of the Iranian Revolution through a focus on political economy and Gramsci’s concept of ‘passive revolution’. Efe Can Gürcan and Onur Bakiner analyses the counter-hegemonic practices of the Bolivarian movement ALBA. As with other articles in this collection, they argue that Foucault’s analysis of power is productive for pointing out where and how to resist. But they also argue that resistance is far from enough. What really counts is building counter-hegemony and positive ways of asserting the power of the people. ALBA is seen as a source of inspiration for this.

Heather Brunskell-Evans carries out a micro-analytics of power in her discussion of paediatric care in post-invasion Iraq. With Foucault and Gramsci, she shows how post-invasion Iraq is, unsurprisingly, subject to neo-colonial practices. Following Gramsci, she argues that things cannot be sociologically understood in ‘objective’ terms that are not already part of a historically situated subjective position, while, following Foucault, she shows how these situated ‘objective’ categories produce certain kinds of human being. Thus, paediatric care in post-invasion Iraq is characterized by a set of normalizing procedures. Finally, David Kreps rounds off the volume by trying to re-conceptualize Foucault’s and Gramsci’s social theories in terms of complexity theory and thereby pointing towards a “twenty-first century research programme” (180).

Taken individually, most articles are informative, and the case studies are, in most cases, very well executed. After finishing the book, the reader will have encountered concepts such as ‘hegemony’, ‘power’, ‘resistance’, etc. a very large number of times. However, due to the structure and framework of this anthology, none of these concepts feels like they have been worked through. This is not to blame the individual articles, although a couple of them would have benefited from more serious engagement with the work of Gramsci and Foucault before employing their categories. However, the postmodernist inclination of the editorial, which seems to prefer multiplicity over rigidity, unfortunately makes this supposed reassessment of Foucault and Gramsci a missed encounter.

15 February 2016

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