Bad Pragmatism in Theory (pt.4): Gramsci vs. the Republicans

(1;00PM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

There are two models of the acquisition of political power discussed here:

1) the Republican model, in which an “aestheticized” politics is promoted (in this case, it’s the “aesthetics” of the War on Terror and of insecurity in general) in order to capture power for an elite (the Bush administration and its neoconservative cronies, and its financial backers in the oil and defense industries)

2) the model proposed by the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, in which a coalition comes to power in order to support the claims of working people.

Here I will try to suggest that the former is “bad pragmatism” and the latter is real pragmatism, and suggest that the Democratic Party stop imitating 1) and find a way to subscribe wholeheartedly to 2).

(crossposted at Big Orange)

I want to start this diary by reviewing for my readership what bad pragmatism is: bad pragmatism is when bad policies are justified by the excuse that “it’s the practical, realistic thing to support.”

Now, in previous diaries in this series, I’ve emphasized the Machiavellian nature of bad pragmatism: bad pragmatism grasps for power at all costs, never mind the ugly nature of the ultimate outcomes.

So, at any rate, this diary is about THEORY.  In theory, we ask BASIC questions, questions like “how is power obtained?” and such.

Now, in America, like in all capitalist countries, you have a political elite.  You know who I mean; they’re the politicians with “political capital,” and their wealthy backers.  Machiavellian theory draws upon the writings of Machiavelli (The Prince, The Discourses), which discussed how power was maintained in the context of 16th-century Italy, to discuss how power is maintained today.

In this context, Machiavelli was the ultimate pragmatist, as well as being the source of most of what I call “bad pragmatism.”

To understand how elites maintain political power, now, I’d like to refer you, dear readers, to an online book: Kees van der Pijl’s A Survey of Global Political Theory.  Specifically, I’d like to refer you to Chapter 9, which discusses a debate between the followers of Machiavelli, and the 20th century Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, whose work I have written about previously on


One thing to emphasize about Gramsci is that he’s a powerful thinker – so much so that the Right in the US has appropriated Gramsci for its own purposes.  Rush Limbaugh has read Gramsci; Pat Buchanan has read Gramsci; and they’ve both adapted the concept of the “war of position” to their twisted, right-wing goals.  I don’t really understand what the American Left is waiting for.  (Any of my readers who need to brush up on Gramsci are directed to my earlier diary on Gramsci, which explains the stakes quite well.)

At any rate, in Chapter 9 of Kees van der Pijl’s A Survey of Global Political Theory, Gramsci is discussed as an intellectual product of the 20th followers of Machiavelli, most notably Gaetano Mosca but also a number of others.  These thinkers were elitists, and their work was dedicated to showing the elites how to hold on to power.  Their theories are summarized as follows:

The neo-Machiavellian elitists, then, produced the following components of a new political science:

• Politics is concerned solely with conquering and keeping power;

• The actual ruling class is too small, too few in numbers, to do this on its own;

• therefore must mobilise a cadre from among the middle classes, especially the new middle classes, as allies, to organise the stability and flexibility of the power of the existing order;

• To this end, it relies on ‘political formulas’ or comprehensive programmes with a propagandistic capacity for capturing large audiences, to be developed again by elites recruited from its middle class allies especially.  This latter component involves developing the ‘aesthetic dimension’ of politics, bring in emotionally powerful elements such as the nation, war, etc. (256-257)

Notice anything familiar here, dear readers?  This is how the Republicans operate politically.  Van der Pijl even spells this out, with specific reference to neoconservative ally (and once-employee of the Trilateral Commission)  Samuel Huntington:

Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ thesis (of a world historic contest between Western Christianity, Islam, Confucianism etc.) is a contemporary example of an aestheticised politics. It serves the need of mobilising a cadre by providing them with a heroic framework in which to conceive of their actions, and on that basis mobilise a mass following for war and far-away intervention in the current circumstances. (256)

This seems to me to be the core reason for the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, saber-rattling against Iran, proxy war via Israel against Lebanon, and so on.  Oh, sure, there are other motivations – all that Iraqi oil being the most prominent – but the neocons and their pro-war friends doubtless see themselves as modern-day Crusaders, fighting the good fight against retrogressive Islam and for the “neocon utopia” of “free enterprise” described by Naomi Klein.  (Never mind that the “terrorists” are good businessmen too.)  This is their “heroic framework,” and they promote this through a propaganda program (the “War on Terror”) that emphasizes a distinctly aesthetic dimension of politics – most notably the lockdown which they’ve placed upon America through the Department of Homeland Security.

Who ever said the Right didn’t use theory?

Now, sure, creating a fancy propaganda line, a bunch of think tanks, and “mobilizing a cadre” of rich folks and middle-class cheerleaders to support this whole shooting match may have gotten the Republicans great power and ludicrous sums of wealth.  The problem, of course, is if the Republicans are allowed to apply this formula for “success” indefinitely, the whole nation is liable to catastrophe.  We could talk, for instance, about their indefinite lallygagging on the threat of abrupt climate change and the bad end that’s likely to produce.  So the strategy I described above falls in the category of “bad pragmatism” – it looks practical, but, generally, it sucks, and will bring everyone to disaster.  If we really wish to save the Earth from the Republicans, we had better find another path to power.

At any rate, Gramsci borrows from this strategic framework, so much so that scholar Maurice Finocchiaro (Beyond Right and Left: Democratic Elitism in Mosca and Gramsci) argues that Gramsci is himself an elitist.  (I don’t agree, of course.)  Gramsci’s version of this “formula for attaining power” is like that of the neo-Machiavellians, but it comes from a distinctly left-wing perspective.  As van der Pijl says:

Gramsci replicates the analysis of the neo-Machiavellians, albeit enriched with his reading of Marx and commitment to the struggles of the working classes, by elaborating comparable elements:

• The working class is too small to conquer power on its own in an extended state;

• It therefore must build an alliance, or historic bloc of forces, in which other classes, too, are drawn into the same formations as those of the working class;

• To do so, it must especially win the allegiance of (middle class) intellectuals, through the propagation, by its own thinkers, of certain comprehensive formulas which will shift the political and cultural hegemony of the

ruling class bloc to that of the working class;

• Only a party which unifies all these forces and functions, can hope to be come a new ‘Prince’ (the reference is to Machiavelli’s famous tract) and conquer power.

Now look, folks.  If we really hope to win the “war of position,” and stop not just the Republicans, but Republicanism, then we’d better adopt Gramsci’s program.  What this means is that we need to create a “historic bloc of forces,” a coalition, mind you, of people who don’t necessarily share the same perspective and who don’t agree with each other, but who support ordinary people and their well-being as a basic motivation for entry into politics.

We need to pay special attention to the notion of “comprehensive formulas which will shift the political and cultural hegemony of the ruling class bloc to that of the working class.”  The difference between Gramsci and the neo-Machiavellians was, to a large extent, that Gramsci was in favor of a different set of ideas than the neo-Machiavellians supported.  But the difference extends to more than ideas — it’s a difference in whom to support, in who benefits from the ideas.

At this point, then, the Democratic Party actually needs to be offering legislative triumphs to the working people of America, something we saw in detail the candidacies of John Edwards and of Dennis Kucinich.  “Neoliberalism,” and “free trade,” are slogans of the elites in power, the wealthy folks who can leverage advantages in “free trade” and who regularly do so by moving capital investments to countries with cheap labor and few environmental restrictions.  Being a neoliberal is pragmatic and practical — if you’re a Republican.

Moreover, the effort to create a “historic bloc of forces” needs to be separated from individual candidacies for political office.  That way, when individual candidacies die, the effort can go forward anyway.  This would be like a “Contract With America” for the Left, only at this point it would have to be a genuine partnership (not merely a “contract” between vastly unequal parties) between thinkers for a better America, and not just a Republican conspiracy between politicians against the rest of us.

I would have to add, as well, that the ecological stability of planet Earth is at stake in the way we do politics, and that our coalition needs to provide real, material support to what’s left of planet Earth’s ecosystem resilience.  This is indeed something the Democratic Party has begun to endorse, with the Republican Party tagging along at a distant second.

That’s what would count as GOOD pragmatism in politics.

“Triangulating” our way into power may appear to be “practical” and “pragmatic,” but when our politicians do it a lot it makes the Democratic Party look like a half-baked imitation of the Republican Party, whose members can do the “aesthetic dimension of politics” with far more artistic grace than the Democrats can.  

The “triangulating” approach may look practical and pragmatic, but the cost to the body politic is too high.  Thus, for instance, the Democratic Party failed to contest elections “won” by George W. Bush under suspicious circumstances, and it didn’t have the wherewithal to stop the appointments of Alito, Roberts, Scalia, or Thomas to the Supreme Court, nor the USA PATRIOT Act, nor the No Child Left Behind Act, nor half a dozen other Republican victories.

Thus the Democratic Party needs to look for an ideological alternative to “triangulation,” at least if it cares about its future.  My recommendation, for all those tiny few who will listen, is that of “saving  the Earth.”  Of course, if “saving the Earth” is to actually replace “triangulation,” then it needs to be extended politically to all of the “major issues” of each political campaign.  We need to “save the Earth” not only in environmental issues, but in education, foreign affairs, the economy, and so on.  To this end, I’ve suggested an alternative paradigm: ecological discipline.  We shall see where it goes from there.


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  1. Thanks, cassiodorus, for this great essay.

    I’ve read several essays here which speak of coalitions.

    I think the right-wing has very successfully demolished a lot of the coalitions we used to have on the left.

    I hope you will write more about coalition building.

    I’m not sure yet that saving the earth, the environment, is yet a rallying call, though that time may be coming soon.  But I’ll check out your writing on ecological discipline.  We can use all the new paradigms we can get!  🙂

    • robodd on July 19, 2008 at 7:39 pm

    I wish I had more time to comment.

    My two instant thoughts on this are:

    1.  Is it Machiavellian to make an argument that is logically correct and mutually beneficial to most members of society, i.e., that the commonweal must be protected?  Ultimately, the argument comes down to showing that the neocons belief that they can insulate themselves from the “disease” of the lower classes is wrong:  B.S. and manipulation only goes so far.  There is, in fact, reality.  

    2.  The kind of coalitions you speak of are, in reality, hard to stomach.  Witness the less than fulsome response to Greenwald’s inclusion of Bob Barr into the accountability now/strange bedfellows program.

  2. I think he’d spin in his grave to know that he was being invoked by Limbaugh, etc. and the Social Democrats.

    The idea, lest we forget it, was literally to seize the means of production, to distribute the wealth, and to end surplus profit.  I’m on board for that.  Why do I know the Dem party just isn’t the coalition that’s going for it?  

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