Bernie’s War of Maneuver
Joseph Buttigieg was America’s leading scholar on Antonio Gramsci and the translator of the authoritative English edition of the Italian Marxist’s influential Prison Notebooks. A professor of literature, he devoted much of his career to exploring Gramsci’s theories of cultural hegemony. It’s a shame that Buttigieg died before he could witness the 2020 primary and the role his son Pete played in it. The elder Buttigieg would have found it quite interesting as an object lesson in the very phenomena he spent his life studying.
Gramsci argued that the capitalist class does not rule by force alone. As capitalist societies mature, they rely less on naked coercion and more on ideological control through class dominance over institutions within civil society. He contrasted the two forms of control, labeling the former “dictatorship” and the latter “hegemony.”
His theories were an elaboration of Marx’s maxim that the “ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas.” Hegemony supplements coercion with manufactured consent, where the lower classes internalize the values, beliefs and attitudes of the dominant groups.
Writing in the 1930s before the advent of mass media, Gramsci was primarily concerned with the role of art, literature, newspapers, the church, intellectuals and educational institutions, but his work prefigured the more sophisticated system of cultural hegemony that has developed since.
With his characteristic fondness for military metaphors, Gramsci compared the state or “political society”— the police, the army, political parties, administrative officials— to a “forward trench,” while he likened civil society to a “succession of sturdy fortresses and emplacements.”
Gramsci divided class confrontation into two types: the War of Maneuver and the War of Position. The former is a direct assault on political society, such as a general strike or an armed uprising, while the latter involves the long-term work that is done within civil society to build alternative institutions capable of countering the hegemony of the ruling class.
The War of Maneuver is inevitably doomed to fail, Gramsci argued, without the preparatory work of the War of Position because the legitimacy of ruling groups is anchored in civil society. In the 21st century, hegemony is even more entrenched, with new forms of cultural control that didn’t exist in Gramsci’s time, such as think tanks, lobbyists, cable news, social media, etc.
The 2020 Democratic Primary provided a perfect case study of Gramsci’s theory. Though Gramsci used the term primarily to refer to revolutionary insurrections, such as the Spartacist Uprising or the Russian Revolution, Bernie Sanders’ campaign was arguably a War of Maneuver — or what passes for one in the United States, where opportunities for class confrontation on a mass scale are rare.
To use Gramsci’s metaphor, Sanders broke through the “forward trench” but was annihilated when he tried to lay siege to the “fortress.” Collectively, the elements of political society — his opponents in the primary — were weak and defeatable. They were uninspiring, out of touch with the party rank-and-file, and no single candidate could attract the undivided support of the ruling class.
Nevertheless, the ideological hegemony of centrism held firm thanks to the power of party-dominated mass media as well as a broad cadre of pundits, think tank wonks and political experts.
Sanders proved largely successful at advancing many aspects of his political program from 2016 to 2020. Attitudes have shifted within the Democratic Party to the point where more Democrats have a favorable view of socialism than capitalism. Growing support for Medicare for All forced many of his primary opponents to adopt it in their platforms or at least give a nod to it rhetorically, e.g. “Medicare for All who want it.”
But building support for specific policies or normalizing the idea of socialism could only get Sanders so far. Hegemony entails the power to construct and define “common sense.” The Democratic Party has cultivated what Gramsci called a forma mentis or “way of thinking” about how elections are won and who is “electable.”
“Common sense” holds that presidential elections are a fight over voters in the center situated at a point equidistant between the two parties. The most “electable” candidate is whoever is best suited to that task.
In this schema, the more moderate candidate is by definition more electable — even if this is contradicted by the experience of the past 20 years. Poll numbers, campaign infrastructure, scandals and other factors that might affect a candidate’s actual ability to win are irrelevant.
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Notions about what is “realistic” and what is “pie in the sky” are also hegemonic. Incrementalism is inherently “pragmatic” whereas massive structural change is “utopian.” Medicare for All is “unfeasible” whereas the public option is “practical.”
The case for Sanders’ electability was always objectively strong — he consistently bested Trump in head-to-head polling for five years straight — but it wasn’t made on a level playing field. Liberal pundits warned that GOP strategists were licking their chops at the prospect of running against an “avowed socialist,” sowing doubt in the minds of primary voters who were absolutely terrified about the possibility of Trump’s reelection.
For a brief moment, Sanders appeared able to upend this “common sense.” In early states, he trounced the ostensibly more electable Joe Biden, raising public confidence that he could win. But the forma mentis about electability remained, providing the basis for Biden’s sudden comeback once the whole of the party establishment rallied behind him.
At that point in the story, Pete Buttigieg acted as an agent of the hegemony his father so fiercely critiqued, when he dropped out and endorsed Biden before Super Tuesday, effectively sealing the fate of Sanders’ leftwing challenge.
In a 2005 essay, Joseph Buttigieg wrote:
[I]n a liberal democracy, one should refrain from facile rhetoric about direct attacks against the State and concentrate instead on the difficult and immensely complicated tasks that a ‘‘war of position’’ within civil society entails. One such important task, as [Gramsci] points out in the same note, consists in ‘‘a reconnaissance of the terrain and an identification of the trench and fortress represented by the components of civil society’’; in other words, one must arrive at a thorough knowledge of the intricate, wide-ranging, and capillary operations of the prevailing hegemony before devising strategies for supplanting it.
The most valuable lesson to be drawn from this primary is an understanding of the “terrain” and a clear-eyed view of the “trench and fortress.”
All analyses of “what went wrong” with the Sanders campaign have been narrowly focused on matters of tactics: He should have been more aggressive to his foes or more conciliatory to potential allies. He should have compromised more (or less). He should have called himself an “FDR Democrat” instead of a “democratic socialist.” He should have worn an American flag on his lapel.
But it’s doubtful any of these steps would have made a difference. His opponent was never Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg or Elizabeth Warren but rather the entire left wing of capital, which was determined to maintain its hegemony at all costs.
Though formidable, the forces that lined up behind Sanders are still too weak to overwhelm the fortress. In terms of prestige and influence, the counter-institutions of the left are still no match for the venerable and well-funded institutions of the center.
One one side, there is a handful of left-wing think tanks, such as People’s Policy Project and the Hampton Institute. On the other we have Brookings , Center for American Progress, Demos, the Kaiser Family Foundations and innumerable other institutions staffed with legions of Ivy League scholars and bankrolled by billionaires. Each year, they produce mountains of white papers quantifying and constructing reality, with a veneer of dispassionate objectivity that conceals a deeper ideological bent.
Alternative media has undergone impressive growth in the last five years, with an explosion of independent people-funded podcasts, Youtube channels and writers, but thei impact is still limited. Can The Young Turks or Rising even be compared to Rachel Maddow or Anderson Cooper? How influential is Chapo Trap House or Citations Needed relative to Pod Save America or any given show on NPR?
And while the Internet has diversified the channels by which people get information, corporate media conglomerates still have the power to set the agenda and act as gatekeepers. Media have the capacity to determine not only what is “common sense” but also what is “real.”
The coverage of the sexual assault allegations by former Biden staffer Tara Reade is a good indicator of the relative strength of alternative vs. establishment media. The story was initially reported in left outlets like The Katie Halper Show, The Intercept and Rising, but largely ignored by the mainstream press for weeks.
Without validation by the corporate media, the allegations could be dismissed as “Russian disinformation” and rendered inconsequential. And when the mainstream media finally did get around to covering them, outlets treated the matter as an unknown and unknowable question.
For all intents and purposes, the allegations were never made “real” because the mainstream media never treated them as such.
On the other hand, while the left is still fundamentally unable to contest ruling class hegemony in the all-important arena of media, Sanders’ campaign has shown that its strength within civil society is growing.
The Sanders campaign: Not an end
Though Bernie’s run is over, the movement was always what mattered most — and it will go on.
The broad coalition of activist groups, intellectuals, unions, media figures and celebrities that backed Sanders represents a burgeoning counter-hegemony built upon the mass movements of the past two decades, such as the anti-globalization and anti-war movements, Occupy Wall Street as well as the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore.
But in the end, it wasn’t enough. From this moment of defeat, the left should gain clarity. Rather than despair, it must confront the enormousness of the historical task and resolve to carry it out.
The Marxist literary critic Frederic Jameson once said that “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” We have a hard time conceiving of it much less conceptualizing a way to bring it about. A clear understanding of why the Sanders campaign failed doesn’t point the way forward, but it does provide us with an outline of the terrain.
A common response to the defeat of the Sanders campaign has been to retreat into fantasy. It’s somewhat understandable that leftists have responded to the failure of electoral politics by quickly moving to the idea of a general strike, but it’s delusional. If we were too weak to beat the Democrats in a primary, what hope is there for insurrection?
It’s a testament to how atomized we’ve all become that there’s this notion a revolution can be memed into existence with a hashtag. While the pandemic has led to an uptick in strike actions, the labor movement has been decimated. Without organization and solidarity, the outbreak actually greatly weakens the leverage of labor by creating a ready pool of replacement workers.
Gramsci wrote that “the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum, morbid symptoms appear.” That’s where we are at right now — the “interregnum” — and “morbid symptoms” abound. Atrophy is the order of the day. The Democrats’ answer to the dysfunction of the Trump Administration is a senile conservative trying to outdo the president in bellicose jingoistic rhetoric.
The left needs to recognize that this moment contains not only potential but peril. This crisis creates an opening, but given the present balance of forces, fascism is more likely to step into it.
Things will get worse before they get better, so the left should get ready.