Bourgeois Common Sense on Latin American Politics
“the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental social group, a consent that arises ‘historically’ from the prestige (and hence the confidence) which the dominant group derives from its position and function in the mode of production.”
–Gramsci, Quaderni 4
Everyone has probably seen a political spectrum. These one-dimensional line segments proceed from right to left, with each political ideology given a niche somewhere along the line. Marxists are at the far left, liberal “moderates” are ceded the centre, and fascists have a lovely vacation home way over to the right. Spectra like this tend to convey the sense that political ideologies are all competing on something like an even playing field. Some spectra sprinkle in a bit of Cartesian pizzazz by adding another line (POLITICS! ADVENTURES IN THE SECOND DIMENSION!) and creating a nice field. All the same, these graphics effectively convey that the purportedly universal, rational, parliamentary system that reigns in most liberal capitalist countries, at least formally, functions by way of exclusion. Any form of political action that goes outside of the ballot box is condemned as illegitimate.
What is forgotten is that the current order had to use force to inaugurate itself, and that initial violence becomes customary violence–AKA the rule of law and its enforcement by police and military force–and suppressive “common sense.” Gramsci’s word for this kind of spontaneous consent to the present order that is generated by the ruling class is hegemony. This is an incisive word that has become unfortunately co-opted by postmodern discourse as a badge of shame for all exercises of coercion and power whatsoever. The proletariat forcibly appropriating the property of the bourgeoisie is placed on the same level as imperialist massacres and police repression. It’s all power, after all, and power, in postmodern discourse is always and everywhere bad. Without the force of arms and without being organized under a revolutionary party guided by revolutionary Marxist theory, there is no way to replace the hegemony of the bourgeoisie with that of the working class and of the people more broadly.
If you want to see hegemony in action, it suffices to look at a political spectrum that is somewhat less subtle than most:
This image is far more blatant than most spectra, but the use of the terms “far right” or “radical,” as opposed to “moderate” creates a sense that radical solutions are never called for, that so-called “moderation” and politics by elitist committee are always beneficial for people’s freedom and well-being. In Canada and the United States, this mirrors the highly restrictive nature of the political system where a small number of parties, all of them capitalist of varying stripes, all of them representative of the exploiting classes, represent the only options for “legitimate politics.” Rather than being a straight line, a political spectrum according to bourgeois common sense should look like this:
I was reminded of this listening to a lecture on the politics of Latin America today. The instructor, a widely-traveled Christian who at least affects interest in justice and social concerns and has all the requisite credentials, divided Latin American politics into “legitimate” and “illegitimate.” Of course, some Marxists–the ones who follow the revisionist social-democratic line of gradualism and peaceful collaboration with the bourgeoisie instead of revolution–are perfectly legitimate. Guerrillas and people’s wars, however, were characterized in the same extralegal category as drug cartels and paramilitary death squads. Forgive me for being somewhat irritated by grouping armed expressions of mass democracy with criminality, murder, and corruption. I was reminded of Mao Zedong’s famous aphorism that “politics grows out of the barrel of a gun.” This is not a repudiation of politics by peaceful means. Of course, any Marxist party worth its name will participate in legal organizing, demonstrations, and propaganda. Lenin did not reject above-ground activity in the Bolshevik Party, maintaining that the party needed to keep a dialectical tension between legal and illegal activity, never abandoning the goal or the means of revolution but keeping a public profile to make its aims clear to the masses.
We must understand, however, that any political order can only survive given the threat and, in situations of crisis, the actuality of military force. States, even pacifist bourgeois states like Japan, are born into the world through violence, and the only way to work toward a classless society is through violent revolution. Most of us in the developed West do not live in contexts where people’s war is on the immediate agenda, but to reject any weapon in the struggle against the nightmarish capitalist order is despicable. Part of the struggle, of course, needs to be against such ingrained “common sense” notions of politics. Supporting the efforts of all countries oppressed by imperialism to free themselves, including by violent means, is prerequisite for a consistent and effective Marxist praxis.