Against Pessimism

Looking for political optimism in today’s deeply problematic world, Óscar García Agustín and Martin Bak Jørgensen, editors of the new book Solidarity without Borders, explore Antonio Gramsci’s Southern Question and its relevance today. 

‘What does Antonio Gramsci have to say on immigration? How would such a perspective analyseSolidarity without Borders the protests and struggles taking place in civil society currently? And what is the potential for emerging alliances and forms of solidarity for social and political transformation? These questions have been central in our book Solidarity without Borders.

When we look at the current political situation in Europe there is little to inspire optimism. The European countries’ response to the financial and economic crisis has not led to a new deal but to a hard readjustment of capitalism, increasing precarisation of society and a dismantling of welfare systems. The few political options, which have emerged with the aim of directly contesting the politics of austerity, are facing enormous difficulties when they take power, as seen in the asymmetrical negotiations between the Greek government and the Troika. Right wing populist parties are gaining strength across Europe (Denmark, Hungary, Finland, France) and have captured the roles of main opponents against the threat from globalisation, from the European Union and from migrants.

Neo-fascist hatemongering is on the rise across Europe. In the city of Calais, refugees living in the ‘Jungle’ camp were recently attacked by armed far-right militia. The refugees accused the local police of failing to protect them from the beatings and for carrying out their own assaults. In northern Finland, vigilante groups patrol the streets of Kemi under the name ‘Soldiers of Odin’ on the watch for asylum seekers. In January, Stockholm saw masked far right members calling for action and starting to ‘clean’ the central station of migrants.

On a policy level nothing seems to point towards optimism either. The European asylum system is on its knees and policies are being tightened on all fronts from control of undocumented immigrants and refugees, quotas for asylum seekers to discrimination of immigrants. Various European countries have undertaken a race to the bottom declaring states of exception, penalising asylum seekers, limiting access to (even) temporary residence and have begun seizing valuables from incoming refugees. Again, we can ask – what’s there to be positive about?

This is where we return to the writings of Antonio Gramsci. In The Southern Question (1926),  he traces a geographical model to explain the division of Italy in two regions, north and south, intertwined in a relation of exploitation between the industrialising north and the dependent, agricultural south. The bourgeois democracy strengthened this asymmetry and the dominance of the north, using state power to reinforce its industrial development. The bourgeoisie in the north and landowners in the south took advantage of this division and the lack of a common response by proletariat and peasants.

Indeed, Gramsci’s main message in his book The Southern Question is that proletariat and peasants should form a new alliance to change the hegemonic order. Solidarity between the subaltern groups should be beneficial for both groups and enable them to transform social and economic relations and eliminate exploitation and dependence. Gramsci assigned to the proletariat the role of the leading class against capitalism that could attract other popular classes and incorporate the claims of the peasants into a unified struggle.

Today, Gramsci’s reflections on the southern question (and his work in general) are as relevant as they were then. The economic crisis which began in 2008 revealed a structural crisis of capitalism which was not limited to the financial or economic arenas. It turned into an organic crisis, as political consensus dissolved and the ruling class was incapable of leading society forward. In 2011, citizens mobilised, became politically active and rebelled against the capitalist system in the name of democracy. However, it is unclear if this will constitute a new historical bloc with an alternative hegemonic system. In Gramsci’s words, ‘the old is dying but the new cannot [yet] be born’ (Gramsci 1971).

This is also where we return to Gramsci’s warning about the fatal consequences of pessimism. At the 5th anniversary of the Communist International, Gramsci considered the pessimism which was spreading among communist militants a great danger because it might imply political passivity, intellectual slumber and scepticism about the future. He wondered how a political project would differ from the Socialist Party, ‘if we also knew how to work and were only actively optimistic in periods when the cows were plump, when the situation was favourable?’ (Gramsci 1924). Gramsci strongly emphasises the risks of pessimism and the importance of reclaiming optimism in times when everything is going wrong. He refers to ‘active’ optimism and not a facile or naïve optimism that progress will happen or every change is possible.

Can we detect such an active optimism in practice then? In February, when Germany’s anti-Islam movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA) staged rallies in several cities to protest against the arrival of refugees – and more broadly, migrants – from the Middle East and Africa in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Dublin, Dresden, Prague and elsewhere, the media devoted a lot of space to cover their objections. However, it was also clear to anyone present at the rallies in these cities that anti-PEGIDA, anti-fascist and solidarity protests out-numbered the anti-Islamist several times. People stood together across race and class and called for solidarity.

Likewise, September 12th 2015 marked an important day for the emerging solidarity movement. In in more than 85 cities in 30 countries across Europe, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched under the headings #Refugeeswelcome and #EuropeSaysWelcome. The emerging solidarity is manifesting from below, and as a result, cracks are opening up in the established political system. Even under the current age of austerity, experiences from Greece show how resistance to austerity includes diverse forms of solidarity and initiatives to create alternatives.

In this book we return to the thoughts and practical directions of Gramsci in order to better understand the emerging solidarities between civil society and refugees today. Our objective is to analyse alliances in civil society which comprise of immigrants and non-immigrant actors who challenge the hegemonic order and undo the political closure which, in the form of consensus, has allowed the implementation of exclusionary immigration and integration policies. Pessimism must not lead us to refuse active optimism and ignore what is already happening in civil society and how it can influence the future.’


Óscar García Agustín is Associate Professor at the Department of Culture and Global Studies at Aalborg University, Denmark. He has published articles on social movements, civil society, and political and discourse theory. He has coedited Post-Crisis Perspectives: The Common and its Powers (Peter Lang, 2013), Civil Society and Immigration: New Ways of Democratic Transformation (Migration Letters, 2013) and Politics of Dissent (Peter Lang, 2015).

Martin Bak Jørgensen is Associate Professor at CoMID at the Department for Culture and Global Studies, Aalborg University, Denmark. He works within the fields of sociology, political sociology and political science. He has published articles in Internal Migration Review and Critical Sociology among others.


Solidarity without Borders: Gramscian Perspectives on Migration and Civil Society Alliances is available to buy from Pluto Press here.



Gramsci, A. (1924) Against Pessimism. Available to read online here.

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin & Nowell-Smith. London: Lawrence & Wishart.



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