by Camila Góes*
Reviewed by Giovanna Imbernon and Anna Paula Bennech
Gramsci’s concept of hegemony has been present in Francisco de Oliveira’s work since the mid-1970s as a way of incorporating the political dimension into his sociological and economic studies on social classes, bourgeois domination, and the regional issue in Brazil. The specific problem I seek to highlight, however, arose from the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the sociologist began to draw a real enigma about what the consequences would be, in hegemonic terms, of the new times inaugurated by neoliberalism. In an attempt to decipher it, Oliveira oscillated between recognizing a hegemonic vocation to the neoliberal project and abandoning the very notion of hegemony, signaling a shift to the concepts of “totalitarianism” and “apartheid.” It is worth noting that, in the late 1980s, the author had already warned that neoliberalism, as a reaction by the right to the crisis of the Welfare State, would put the foundations of modern democracy at risk.[i] Deprived of public controls, the capitalist system would run the risk of “transforming itself into a savage storm in which democracy and the sense of equality inscribed in it since modern times would succumb together.” [ii]
The unfolding of this process, throughout the 1990s, led Oliveira to outline a theoretical and political question of ample proportions. It would no longer be a question of an impossibility of hegemony, typical of cases of passive revolution, or even of its possibility, given the widespread dissemination of dominant values, such as monetary stability.[iii] A crucial difference from that conjuncture risked making the concept of hegemony inappropriate: neoliberalism would have renounced the project of universalizing bourgeois values.[iv] In Brazil, this renunciation meant nothing less than the dismantling of the field of meanings created by the contradictory process of “passive revolution,” openly assuming a “totalitarian face.”[v] In his view, the new form of bourgeois domination would present a radical incompatibility with democracy throughout the world. However, the author highlighted the accelerated cadence that the public privatization movement reached in Brazilian society, formed by a complex process of violence and incomplete efforts at democratization.[vi]
If the period between 1964 and 1990 had been seen as a time of political invention, the subsequent period would show that such inventions had not been powerful enough to make a qualitative leap.[vii] Hence, an “Era of indeterminacy” would have been inaugurated with the “financialization of capital,” in parallel with the “explosion of the external debt” and the “loss of centrality of work” that occurred due to the Third Industrial Revolution. This would have generated and continued to generate the very unpredictability of politics. “Instead of a bourgeois hegemony that fed on the civic ‘virtues’ of the market, state coercion is permanently required, without which the whole edifice collapses.”[viii] Oliveira translated the problem in Gramsci’s terms: “in the formula of consensus plus coercion, the coercion portion remains the most important and therefore there is no possibility of a Tocquevillian ‘well-understood interests’, and the republic is not born out of ‘virtue’ from the market.”[ix]
In 2002, the enigma of hegemony would gain enormous complexity in Brazil with the arrival of Lula and the Workers’ Party (PT) to the federal government. What is unusual is that Oliveira, who had founded the PT in the early 1980s, oscillated as to the attribution of a hegemonic vocation to the governments of the right, but in the Lula period he never considered the possibility of understanding it as a “counter-hegemony.” Counterintuitively, the sociologist would no longer hesitate, abandoning the concept. In the first year of Lula’s government, in 2003, Oliveira would leave the party and publish a remarkable essay on the interpretation of Brazil, proposing a new name for the particular mode of capitalist development in the country: O Ornitorrinco [the platybus]. The Brazilian reality was translated from the metaphor of the platypus, a bizarre figure in which underdevelopment would have been overcome, allowing the country’s arrival fully into the modern world, but without this having allowed leaving behind the enormous social inequalities existing in the country. [x] Regarding the hegemonic enigma, Oliveira was categorical: “hegemony, in the Gramscian formula, is elaborated in the superstructure, and in its specific conditions the platypus has no “consciousness,” but only superstructural replication.”
A few years later, he would be once again incisive. In his view, an “epistemological revolution” was underway, for which an adequate theoretical tool would not yet be available. According to the sociologist, the “strength” element would have disappeared from the “force + consent” equation. His hypothesis was that a new form of social domination would have emerged, which would invert the Gramscian terms, being proper and functional to globalized capitalism. We would be facing a “reverse hegemony.” In this context, the “Marxist-Gramscian heritage could be the starting point,” but it would no longer be “the endpoint.”
Scholars of politics worldwide would contradict this diagnosis, constantly resorting to the Gramscian conceptual apparatus. Chantal Mouffe, Nancy Fraser, Wolfgang Streeck, and Boaventura de Souza Santos are some of those who have animated the debate based on the Gramscian hypothesis of “interregnum.” For them, we would be facing a crisis in which the organic balance between consensus and coercion, direction and domination, would have been dissolved: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old dies and the new cannot be born: in this interregnum, the most varied morbid phenomena are verified.”[xi]
Talking about the crisis in the European Union, Mouffe would note that it was not a project that could offer an identification among European citizens and that could mobilize their political passions in a democratic direction.[xii] In her view, the European Union would have been made up of consumers and not citizens. In times of economic crisis and austerity policy, it was reasonable, therefore, that some would question its usefulness. The neoliberal model would be in crisis, but no other would be available. It was in this sense that Mouffe recalled Gramsci’s famous phrase: “the old is dying, but the new is not yet born.” [xiii] This hypothesis would be taken up five years later, in 2018, to refer to the economic crisis of 2008 and the global recession that followed, especially on the European continent.[xiv] According to Mouffe, “at the time of the economic crisis, a series of contradictions condensed, leading to what Gramsci calls “interregnum: a period of crisis during which a series of consensual premises established around a hegemonic project is challenged.” The solution to the crisis was not yet in sight, and this is what would characterize, in theoretical terms, the “populist moment.”
Starting from the same concepts, Nancy Fraser would give the name of “progressive neoliberalism” to the hegemonic bloc that would have entered into crisis. In her view, neoliberalism would not be a vision of the total world, being able to ally itself with different and even antagonistic projects.[xv] In alliance with progressive movements, the neoliberalism of this type would have carried out, at best, a “change of conscience” but would not, in fact, have transformed “structures, institutions, and practices.” [xvi] Fraser is well established in the North American debate, but it is not difficult to see in her concept of “progressive neoliberalism,” understood as a hegemonic bloc that withdraws the intellectual and moral direction of society from social movements, but which together promotes an attack on workers’ rights, similarities with what Oliveira called “reverse hegemony.” “Progressive neoliberalism” would have enjoyed hegemony for several decades, but it would be falling apart at present.[xvii]
According to Fraser, both on the right and on the left, neoliberal narratives would no longer have credibility – which, together with the “desire for the new,” would configure a crisis of hegemony. The “morbid” solutions found, such as the election of Donald Trump in 2016, would have failed to adopt policies different from neoliberal ones. This would show a situation that combined two things in a “tense amalgamation”: “First, a dramatic weakening of the authority of neoliberalism – a lesser confidence in its ideas, policies and the institutional order underlying them; secondly, the inability, at least so far, to generate a plausible alternative, both at the political and institutional levels.”[xviii] Therefore, the idea of the “interregnum” proposed by Gramsci would be so useful. For her, it would be necessary to organize a new hegemonic bloc whose leading force was concentrated in the working classes, recovering the place of unions, as well as political parties and social movements. The question would remain as to whether this would be possible within capitalism or if only with a project that proposed to surpass it.[xix]
If Fraser still admitted this doubt, Streeck, for his part, would be much more pessimistic. In his view, confluent with the hypotheses launched by Oliveira regarding the Brazilian case, politics would have become a minefield: “whatever politics do to solve a problem, it creates another – in the short or long term. What ends one crisis aggravates another; the Hydra’s head that is cut, grows two new heads.” [xx] The understanding of the crisis of “democratic capitalism,” in the view of the theorist, would only be possible if it were extended “as the high point (so far) of a development that began at the end of the long 1960s, that is, around 1975”.[xxi] The political and economic crisis would have started, therefore, in the mid-1970s and continued until 2008, through the buying of time. For Streeck, since then, the crisis could no longer be suspended or postponed. For the author, what would follow capitalism, in its final form, would not be socialism or another hegemonic bloc. For him, we would also be beyond hegemony, in a lasting interregnum, understood as “a prolonged period of social entropy, or disorder (and precisely for this reason a period of uncertainty and indeterminacy).” [xxii] I draw attention to the similarity with what Oliveira had pointed out about the “Age of indeterminacy.” Contemporary “morbid phenomena” would have to do with a society without reasonably coherent and minimally stable institutions, capable of normalizing the lives of its members and protecting them from accidents, and “monstrosities” of all kinds. [xxiii]
Boaventura de Sousa Santos would be the theorist who, starting from the same concepts, would extend his diagnosis to Brazil and Latin America. For him, the world created by neoliberalism, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, would have come to an end with the financial crisis (2008-2011). [xxiv] The problem would have been, precisely, that no other world had come to the fore. The alternative, posed by universal rights, which would have had its most advanced form in the post-war social democracy – the “democratic capitalism” of which Streeck spoke, or, we might think, capitalism with hegemony – would have been once and for all surpassed by neoliberalism.
As for Oliveira, the turn of the 1980s to the 1990s is taken by Santos as a moment of fundamental inflection. From then on, neoliberalism would have found the “appropriate political climate to impose the market principle, contrasting its logic with the logic of the State principle, until then protected.” [xxv] The erosion of the state would have been silently accompanied by a “radical denaturalization of democracy.” [xxvi] With this in mind, Souza Santos concluded, as did Mouffe, Fraser, and Streeck, that we would be living in “a period of interregnum.” Among the characteristics of this interregnum, the theorist highlighted two as being decisive. The first had to do with the universalization of liberal democracy and its limits vis-à-vis neoliberalism. Besides the inability of liberal democracy to defend itself, what would be most surprising today would not be this, “but rather the processes of incapacitation driven by a highly powerful and intrinsically anti-democratic transnational force: neoliberalism”. [xxvii] The second characteristic, in turn, had to do with the widespread attack against wage income, workers’ organizations, and forms of social consultation, with the consecutive transformation of social demands into a police issue. According to Santos, all these characteristics would point “to a condition of irreversible contradiction between capitalism and democracy, including the low-intensity democracy that liberal democracy has always been.” [xxviii]
Even though Mouffe, Fraser, Streeck, and Santos contradict Oliveira, persisting in resorting to the classic Gramscian formula, these authors seem to outline a problem common to the Brazilian sociologist. The hypothesis to be investigated, more directly confronting Santos’ interpretation that extends to Brazil, is whether the main inflection of the current global crisis would be posed, in the country, by the advent of neoliberalism at the turn of the 1980s to the 1990s, and not with the 2008 crisis. Although both authors seem to agree with this diagnosis, Sousa Santos’ analyzes do not point to the kidnapping of politics, as is the case with Streeck. From the confrontation of these organized concepts of hegemony, crisis of hegemony, and interregnum, we intend to theoretically develop a Brazilian hypothesis based on the work of Francisco de Oliveira.
[i] Oliveira, Francisco (1998) . “O surgimento do antivalor”. Os direitos do antivalor: a economia política da hegemonia imperfeita. Rio de Janeiro: Vozes
[ii] Oliveira, 1998 , op. Cit., p. 47.
[iii] Oliveira, Francisco (1998) . “Além da hegemonia, aquém da democracia”. Os direitos do antivalor: a economia política da hegemonia imperfeita. São Paulo: Vozes, p. 201.
[iv] Oliveira, 1998 , op. Cit., p. 202.
[v] Oliveira, 1998 , op. Cit., p. 202 e p.203.
[vi] Oliveira, Francisco (2000) . “Privatização do público, destituição da fala e anulação da política: o totalitarismo neoliberal”. In: Oliveira, Francisco; Paoli, Maria Célia (orgs.). Os sentidos da democracia: políticas do dissenso e hegemonia global. Rio de Janeiro: Vozes.
[vii] Santos, Laymert Garcia dos (2007). “Brasil contemporâneo: estado de exceção?”. In: Oliveira, Francisco; Rizek, Cibele (orgs). A Era Da Indeterminação. São Paulo: Boitempo. p. 292.
[viii] Oliveira, Francisco (2007). “Política numa era de indeterminação: opacidade e reencantamento”. In: Oliveira, Francisco; Rizek, Cibele (orgs.). A era da indeterminação. São Paulo: Boitempo, p. 35.
[ix] Oliveira, 2007, op. Cit., grifos nossos.
[x] Oliveira, Francisco (2003). A crítica da razão dualista/ O Ornitorrinco, São Paulo: Boitempo, p.143. In English, see Oliveira, Francisco de (2003). The duckbilled platypus. New Left Review, London, v. no/dez. 2003, n. 24, p. 40-57.
[xi] Gramsci, Antonio (1975). Quaderni del Carcere. Turim: Einaudi. [Quaderno 3, § 34, p. 52], grifos nossos.
[xii] Mouffe, Chantal (2013). Agonistics: thinking the world politically. Londres, Nova Iorque: Verso [Kindle Edition].
[xiv] Mouffe, Chantal (2018). “Introdução”, Por um populismo de esquerda. São Paulo: Autonomia Literária, iBooks.
[xv] Fraser, Nancy (2020) . “O rei populista está nu”. Entrevista dada a Bhaskar Sunkara. In: O velho está morrendo e o novo não pode nascer. São Paulo: Autonomia Literária, iBooks.
[xvi] Fraser, 2020 , op. Cit.
[xvii] Fraser, 2020 , op. Cit.
[xix] Fraser, 2020 , op. Cit.
[xx] Streeck, Wolfgang (2018). Tempo comprado: a crise adiada do capitalismo democrático. São Paulo: Boitempo, p. 58.
[xxi] Streeck, 2018, op. Cit., p. 51.
[xxiv] Santos, Boaventura de Souza (2020a). “El nuevo interregno”, In: Izquierdas del mundo, ¡únanse! y otros ensayos. 1a ed. – Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires: CLACSO, p. 27.
[xxv] Ibid., p. 29.
[xxvi] Ibid., p. 30.
[xxvii] Ibid., p. 37, grifos nossos.
[xxviii] Ibid., p. 36, grifos nossos.
* Camila Góes holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Campinas (Unicamp), working especially in intellectual history. As a researcher, she has worked at Pepol “Laboratório de Pensamento Político” (Unicamp) since 2009 and, since 2013, in the research group “Pensamento e Política no Brasil” (USP).