Egypt and the Dialectic of Passive and Permanent Revolution

First published on the Progress in Political Economy (PPE) blog, this article by Brecht De Smet discusses the themes in his book Gramsci on Tahrir:  Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt.

‘Although it is always difficult, if not impossible, to clearly discern the emergence of a new epoch Gramsci on Tahrirwhen you find yourself right in the middle of the process, there are strong indications that we are experiencing a watershed moment in the development of capitalism. Conjunctural crises such as the 2008 financial meltdown reveal the structural instabilities of the neoliberal system of deregulated capital flows, while the tendency toward increased authoritarianism and securitisation in both core and peripheral capitalist countries show the limits of bourgeois democracy to absorb mass discontent. At the same time, episodes such as the ‘Arab Spring’ sharply posit the relevance of ‘old’ categories such as revolution and counter-revolution for the 21st century. As moments of political hope and despair, optimism and pessimism, succeed one another rapidly, activists’ consciousness and understanding of unfolding events often tail-end the almost bipolar ebb and flow of popular initiative. In order to intervene successfully, activists have to make sense of the direction of the process as a whole and of the various instances of agency at work – their own included. Therefore, radical theory has to extend beyond the sphere of mere philosophical, political or economic critique – the unveiling of relations of power – and into the ‘interventionist’ domain of concrete emancipatory strategies and imaginaries.

Arguably Antonio Gramsci is one of the key figures within this revolutionary tradition. His notion of a ‘philosophy of praxis’ challenged the rigid and mechanical framework of the dominant stream of Marxism in the late 1920s, advocating the development of an intellectually sophisticated, but also practice-oriented theory of social change. The last decade has witnessed a renewal of Gramscian theory in the Anglophone world. Key works such as Adam Morton’s Unravelling Gramsci (2007) and Peter Thomas’s The Gramscian Moment (2009) are moving away from leading postwar interpretations that cast the Sardinian Marxist in the restricted role of a ‘reformist’ and of a ‘cultural’ or ‘postcolonial’ thinker, re-appropriating his thought within the context of a new era of global capitalist crisis and struggle. My book Gramsci on Tahrir is a humble contribution to this ongoing debate. I investigate the process of revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt and its relation to the broad historical development of capitalism through the combined lens of permanent and passive revolution. Conversely, the Egyptian experience is deployed as a means to think about general changes in state and class power.

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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?

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From Subalternity to Autonomy

A new review of Massimo Modonesi’s book Subalternity, Antagonism, Autonomy (Pluto, 2013) has been published in Antipode. The reviewer has kindly granted us permission to reproduce it here.

For more information about the book, go to our website, or click on the cover image.

Chris Hesketh

Modonesi T02749In this new text published in Pluto Press’ “Reading Gramsci Series”, Massimo Modonesi seeks to explore the theoretical genesis of three core concepts that make up the title of the book – namely, subalternity, antagonism and autonomy – and the problems that the usage of these pose for Marxist debates. The concepts in question, as first revealed in my review for Antipode online, are explicitly linked to the process of political subjectivation (or subject formation) in terms of the experiences of subordination, insubordination and emancipation. Each concept is also linked to a key author associated with its development. Antonio Gramsci’s writings are therefore explored in relation to subalternity; Antonio Negri’s in regards to antagonism; and those of Cornelius Castoriadis in connection with autonomy. Scholars of each respective thinker are likely to find merit in various individual chapters of the book as it traces in detail the development of their intellectual trajectories.

Importantly, the main concepts are not simply explored in the abstract, but rather are  linked to concrete periods of history, including: the defeat of the Factory Council movement  and the rise of Fascism in Italy inspiring Gramsci’s thoughts on subalternity; the emergence of “workerism” and various forms of mobilization that rocked Italy in the 1960s and 1970s that influenced Negri; and finally the experience of the French student uprisings in 1968 and subsequent debates about autogestion for Castoriadis. The book makes a useful contribution therefore to critical geography in that it demonstrates the place-based nature of revolutionary theory and praxis. In other words, it combines “lived experience”, to coin a phrase from Henri Lefebvre’s The Survival of Capitalism, with conceptual development. We therefore get a keen sense of how each concept serves as a form of “militant particularism”, forged out of the experiences of one particular time and place but subsequently generalised to wider locales, as detailed by David Harvey in Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. Continue reading

Dandelions against neoliberalism – Stephen Shapiro


The following article originally appeared in OpenDemocracy. You can view it by clicking here.

It is a commonplace that since the 1970s, capitalism has left the western working class as roadkill on the road to globalization. What is new about our contemporary moment is that the same is increasingly true for the Euro-American middle class.

Be kind, forward wind. What if, despite all the recent left’s hesitation about prophecy, we still feel something is going to happen? Perhaps we are in a similar moment to the early 1960s – only four or five years away from a ‘May 1968’ moment, with all its spontaneous eruptions and consequential structural rearrangements.

Do we need a weatherwoman to recognize the winds of insistence for change blowing through the Middle East, the Mediterranean basin, the ‘north’ Euro-American cities, and Latin America, let alone the vastly under-reported tensions elsewhere? If all these are social trembles, foreshadowing a greater quake, how ought we to prepare in the streets, the classrooms and all the interconnecting spaces in between?

Some preliminary answers come through the keywords: neoliberalism, occupy, and world-system. Within the last decade, ‘neoliberalism’ has replaced ‘globalization’ as the preferred term to describe the latest regime of capitalist accumulation.

Thanks to writers like David Harvey and Naomi Klein, we have a common sense about inequality-producing tactics that overlap and reinforce each other. These maneuvers include privatization, deregulation, financialization, return to the watchman state of police surveillance, opportunistic austerity, and crony collaboration among financiers, civil society institutional administrators, and political elites. Continue reading

When movements take up arms

Mike Gonzalez’s Arms and the People: Popular Movements and the Military from the Paris Commune to the Arab Spring is scheduled for release in December, but is already proving quietly compelling. With Tuesday’s article in the Socialist Worker, commenced the first rumblings of  interest in what promises to be a fascinating, and greatly-needed book for those contemplating, and those engaged in popular resistance around the world.

Obviously, as the publisher we would say that, but why not read the article below for a second opinion… (You can also access the original version by following this link.)


Mike Gonzalez argues that armed struggle is sometimes the only possible response to state repression.

For many, popular uprisings go wrong the moment those fighting back pick up a gun. Any sign of “militarisation” marks a turning point where a brilliant rebellion turns into a tragic civil war.

More in sorrow than in anger, it will be argued that the Continue reading

The arms fair and the media

It has now been six days since the main day of action called by the Stop the Arms Fair coalition against DSEi –the world’s largest arms fair- held in the Excel Centre in East London. The dust will always take a little while to settle after big campaigning days such as Tuesday, but enough of a picture has emerged to process it through the word mill.

Firstly, we were not successful in shutting down the arms fair. If this sounds like too much of a pipe dream to have seriously been considered a possibility, it is always worth remembering that a concerted campaign by peace activists in Australia did bear this very result. Though we are unsuccessful this time around, we can take some comfort from the fact that it has been achieved before, and will be achieved again. Continue reading