This piece was republished from a new Marxist journal called Spectre. The original post can be found here.
It would be an understatement to call what we’re going through an epidemiological crisis, but that’s precisely what this is: a pandemic of proportions unparalleled for a century, catching governments completely unprepared. A dismissive hand-waive no longer suffices. We were lucky here in the States with SARS, Ebola, and influenz as both avian and swine, but now plugging our ears is no longer an option. This isn’t just a public health crisis after all, but what Gramsci called an organic crisis: the confluence of crises in nearly every sphere.
He termed this sort of concatenation of crises “organic” insofar as they threaten the very foundations of capitalist stability. As Peter Thomas puts it in The Gramscian Moment, an organic crisis isn’t “merely conjunctural disequilibrium,” akin to the periodic recessions that shake out overcapacity. Instead, a crisis can be called “organic” when cracks begin to appear in the very edifice of bourgeois rule.
For Gramsci, capitalist rule is secured by what he called “hegemony.” Capitalists as a class have successfully convinced the rest of us that their own particular class interest – maximizing profit – is in the interest of the rest of us. Think of the way we talk about the economy: business confidence is invoked as a measure of economic health, even though it doesn’t alter the fact that wages have remained stagnant for decades despite productivity gains. We conceive of abstract measures like “economic growth” or “GDP” as somehow corresponding to the common good – even though these figures tell us nothing about inequality or the well-being of the working class.
An organic crisis occurs when this bourgeois claim to universality begins to crumble, and previously hegemonic assertions are revealed for what they truly are: means of securing capitalist stability. The social consensus, in other words, deteriorates, and capitalist claims no longer appear to correspond to the general well-being. This is when those famous “morbid symptoms” begin to appear. Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and other assorted class enemies openly call for elderly Americans to sacrifice themselves on the altar of Mammon: profitability should trump life, they openly proclaim, and we should reopen the economy now. Meanwhile, the Dow Jones sees an incredible rally the same day as an unprecedented number of Americans file for unemployment. Mike Pence unabashedly calls for testing an unproven coronavirus vaccine on Detroit residents, as if we don’t all know what he’s signaling by invoking the name of that city.
That’s the first telltale sign: the jig is up, and politics appears a bit less mediated than usual. It’s no coincidence when strikes begin to proliferate just as the economy crashes and unemployment spikes, and all of this occurs just as traditional party systems begin to collapse across the globe. This is precisely the type of conjuncture Gramsci had in mind. The key thing to understand is that an organic crisis is not some chance happening in which all of the various cosmic crises align; it’s rather what happens to hegemony when capitalists as a class fail to maintain it.
Stuart Hall points out that organic crises don’t straightforwardly erupt “in the political domain and the traditional areas of industrial and economic life, [nor] simply in the class struggle in the old sense.” To be sure, they do emerge on these terrains sometimes. But oftentimes they appear elsewhere. They are articulated, Hall tells us, “in a wide series of polemics, debates about fundamental sexual, moral and intellectual questions, in a crisis in the relations of political representation and the parties — on a whole range of issues which do not necessarily, in the first instance, appear to be articulated with politics, in the narrow sense, at all.”
Think about all of the unexpected ways in which the current crisis is beginning to take shape. Just this week, protesters in cities across the South and Midwest drove around in a socially distanced automotive mobilization, demanding that state governments reopen local economies by ending shelter in place orders. Of course, this was a directly political mode of engagement, with these protesters channeling Trump’s insistence the day before that he had sole authority to force these economies open. Meanwhile, as Democratic governors publicly sided with science, science itself became something to oppose, a populist instinct articulated to partisan identity.
In the process, all sorts of positions assume political form – Hall’s “whole range of issues which do not necessarily, in the first instance, appear to be articulated with politics, in the narrow sense, at all.” Science, freedom of the press, public health, sexuality, education: all of these and more, through an extended chain of mediations, are articulated to a fundamental struggle between parties. Meanwhile, this partisan competition becomes increasingly disarticulated from the struggle between classes. Workers disaffected by decades of Democratic dithering looked to Trump, only to be met with additional waves of upward redistribution.
When workers no longer trust their political representatives, they begin to turn elsewhere. And given the timidity of most union leaderships, wildcats increasingly become the norm as workers slough off these chains of mediation and confront their employers directly. We began to see this with the teachers’ strikes that swept the country, and as David McNally shows in the first issue of Spectre, these mass strikes are on the rise across the globe. While politics often assume unorthodox forms in organic crises, these are also periods that tend to be marked by an upsurge in working class militancy as elected leaderships of all stripes turn out to be emperors with no clothes.
While all of the various crises that comprise the larger organic crisis are inextricable, I’ve tried to map out in schematic form a number of the crises I see cascading across our conjuncture. As you will see, it’s nearly impossible to talk about one without talking about all, but that’s what I’ve tried to do here: provide a roadmap to the organic crisis that’s only just begun.
Economic: Don’t believe them when they tell you that the emergent recession is a fluke, that we couldn’t have predicted the novel coronavirus, or that the crash is merely a consequence of the pandemic. It was many months before the first death on US soil that the Fed began pumping repo loans into Wall Street trading houses, fearful of an impending liquidity drought. And in January, we learned that industrial production was down nearly a percentage point from a year prior. This is to say nothing of longstanding concerns over an inverted yield curve and an enormous stock market bubble. The failure of profitability to recover after the last recession lies at the root of the current downturn.
Political: Never have the signs of a crisis of representation been so apparent. Around the globe, center-left and center-right parties have been hemorrhaging support as voter turnout continues its long slide. With left-wing parties only occasionally able to compete in earnest – in Greece, Spain, France, and Brazil, for example – right-wing authoritarians have tended to fill the void. After decades in which nominal working-class parties clearly represented capital more effectively than labor, workers around the globe have turned to nationalist populists. For all their proto-fascist tendencies, at least these leaders are able to successfully appeal to working-class interests, even if only in rhetoric. At least they make proletarian voters feel recognized. The rare left-wing populist who attempts to do the same – Sanders, Corbyn – is predictably marginalized by a party apparatus with its head in the sand. People may be wary of Trump, but when the alternative is Biden’s tragedy-and-farce act, his approval rating continues to climb.