I’ve just released a book with Oxford University Press (Global and Comparative Ethnography series) that seeks to provide micro-foundations for a properly dialectical reading of Antonio Gramsci. As it is typically understood, civil society is the private sphere beyond the purview of the state, or “political society,” in which people begin to organise themselves. But in the book, I argue that this is precisely the opposition against which Gramsci was writing. As he put it in a letter from prison, his theory of the integral state was written to challenge
certain definitions of the concept of the State that is usually understood as a political Society (or dictatorship, or coercive apparatus meant to mold the popular mass in accordance with the type of production and economy at a given moment) and not as a balance between the political Society and the civil Society (or the hegemony of a social group over the entire national society, exercised through the so-called private organizations, such as the Church, the unions, the schools, etc.).
Just as Marx was a critic of political economy rather than a political economist himself, Gramsci’s theorisation of politics must be understood as a critique of political science, and in particular, its theorisation of the state.
But why does this matter? The book, titled Delivery as Dispossession: Land Occupation and Eviction in the Postapartheid City, is a comparative ethnography of two land occupations in Cape Town, South Africa. One of them was evicted, whereas the other was ultimately tolerated. Today, a decade after the latter’s initial formation, it remains a large informal settlement of over 18,000 people.
Typically, theorists of eviction and displacement envision the state as a coherent entity that acts from on high, targeting preexisting populations below. In other words, the state “sees” these populations. But this is to reduce all populations to features of the natural landscape, writing politics out of the equation altogether. In the book, I argue for a relational understanding of state vision: the state may see these populations, but this vision is in turn shaped by how residents organise themselves collectively. The organisational form they assume affects how they are seen by government officials, judges, police, and countless other actors. But of course, this organization does not take place in a vacuum. How residents see the state affects how they articulate their project of land occupation, which, in turn, affects how the state sees them.
Most of the existing literature on mass evictions tends to imagine states – municipal, national, or otherwise – that formulate blanket programs of removal. So, for example, we can imagine a local state attempting to render the city “world-class,” displacing residents in the name of various investment-related aesthetic considerations. Or maybe it’s a case of a straightforward land grab, with the government evicting residents in order to recover valuable real estate. But the bulk of the cases I observed in Cape Town fit neither characterisation. In one of the cases considered in the book, for example, after a months-long standoff and violent battles with police and the Anti-Land Invasion Unit, not to mention proliferating court dates, the occupation was evicted. But today the land remains vacant. It wasn’t even private property, but remains land owned by the City of Cape Town. Why then would the municipal government evict land occupiers?
This gets at a larger question, which is surprisingly absent in the literature on evictions. Why are some occupations targeted for eviction, whereas others are ultimately tolerated? If it’s not straightforwardly about property value or visibility – and as I demonstrate in the book, neither is it about maintaining racial order, subduing restless surplus populations, or party politics – how to account for this outcome?
This is where Gramsci’s relational theory of the state comes in handy. The problem with the “variable”-oriented perspective – as if it’s simply about value, visibility, race, and so forth – is that it conceives of the state as a singular actor with a coherent set of interests and desires. It imagines a state acting upon land occupations, projecting its designs over a landscape of populations.
But these populations actively resist naturalisation. As I argue in the book, all land occupations are articulated as projects, which shapes the organisational form they assume. We cannot simply reduce residents’ self-organisation to a quantitative question, i.e. more or less organisation; there are also qualitative differences in organising strategy.
In one occupation discussed in the book, the project of taking land was articulated as the distribution of plots to residents in need. It was organised by a group that claimed to be acting in partnership with the government – even though it was ultimately a political party front group. But what’s crucial is how this group articulated the project: most participants assumed that the occupation was legal. Rather than working collectively then, they formed what Jean-Paul Sartre called a “series.” In Critique of Dialectical Reason, he famously describes people waiting in line for a bus. They wait simultaneously, but not collectively; each remains a serialised individual.
Similarly, in the first occupation, this object – housing – was experienced much as Sartre’s bus. For their entire adult lives, many of the participants were waiting with countless others for housing; but the “with” here must be qualified. They were not doing so collectively or collaboratively, but simply simultaneously. And they were alienated by the process, bitter that they had to wait decades for housing and were not provided with decent alternative options in the meantime. During this waiting period, they were largely living in backyard shacks in various homeowners’ backyards. Their spatial fragmentation perfectly encapsulates the idea of seriality. When an organisation appeared on the scene and promised to deliver “houses” to each of them, they did not have to adapt their passive seriality to a new situation; once again, they understood themselves to waiting for an external organisation to distribute plots of land as if they were seats on a bus.
In the second occupation discussed in the book, participants articulated their project of occupation themselves, forming what Sartre called a “fused group.” Here too, a mass of people relates to an object, but in this case, they do so collectively, together. In this case, most participants did not come from backyards, but from informal settlements elsewhere in Cape Town. Many of them had experienced conflict with the state – the Anti-Land Invasion Unit, police, and so forth – and viewed it not as a partner in delivery, but as an obstacle to realising homeownership. As such, they related to this object collectively and cooperatively, protecting one another from arrest, building shacks together, and actively trying to expand the settlement. They formed something closer to the model of a social movement, albeit with one major difference: they did not make any demands on the state and actively sought to be left alone.
But “the state” is not a discrete object upon which one issues demands. Whether or not they sought to engage the municipal government, they soon found themselves in dialogue with housing officials, lawyers, and judges, marching for housing, their signs clearly addressed to the municipal government. Their civil society articulation as a fused group, in other words, already had an articulation at the level of political society – whether or not they wanted to communicate with state officials. Their organisational form was never powerful because it granted them some collective leverage over the state; it was powerful because it represented them as a “deserving” poor – not jockeying with each other for a handout but working together to realise their constitutionally guaranteed right to housing.
The political society articulation of the first occupation was quite different. This was ironic, as the second group occupiers were far more dismissive of the state, whereas the first group of occupiers perceived the organisation distributing housing as the state – even if it was not. They constituted themselves as a series, “passive” in Sartre’s sense: they were waiting in relation to an object (housing) which would presumably be distributed to each of them. But there were a finite number of plots, or so they were led to believe, yielding a situation of artificial scarcity as in the Critique. And so they acted simultaneously but never collectively. If anything, they understood themselves to be in direct competition with one another, mobilising to keep newcomers out and forming constantly shifting factions that were often violently in conflict with one another. Even if they did not seek to relate to municipal officials, they soon found themselves having to do so, read by housing officials and judges as an “undeserving” poor who were self-interested and refused to work as a community.
Both of these cases exemplify hegemony in the proper Gramscian sense. This was not something that was forged on the terrain of civil society alone, but one which traversed the boundaries between civil society and political society. Even when occupiers sought to evade the state altogether, organising independently and attempting to withdraw themselves from the government’s housing delivery apparatus, they found this to be an impossible task. They were soon facing proliferating court dates and had to secure legal representation, and they were issuing memoranda to the municipal government in marches and rallies. Even when they sought to disarticulate themselves from political society, acting “solely” on civil society, it turned out to be an impossible task under conditions of bourgeois hegemony. Private property – and the legal order its defense requires – were represented as if they were in the interest of all; but in reality, these exclusively benefited the class of property owners.
This was hegemony at work.