From subalternity to autonomy

In this latest text published in Pluto Press’ “Reading Gramsci Series”, Massimo Modonesi seeks to explore the theoretical genesis of three core concepts that make up the title of the book—namely, subalternity, antagonism and autonomy—and the problems that the usage of these pose for Marxist debates. The concepts in question, as first revealed in my review for Antipode online, are explicitly linked to the process of political subjectivation (or subject formation) in terms of the experiences of subordination, insubordination and emancipation. Each concept is also linked to a key author associated with its development. Antonio Gramsci’s writings are therefore explored in relation to subalternity; Antonio Negri’s in regards to antagonism; and those of Cornelius Castoriadis in connection with autonomy. Scholars of each respective thinker are likely to find merit in various individual chapters of the book as it traces in detail the development of their intellectual trajectories.

Importantly, the main concepts are not simply explored in the abstract, but rather are  linked to concrete periods of history, including: the defeat of the Factory Council movement  and the rise of Fascism in Italy inspiring Gramsci’s thoughts on subalternity; the emergence of “workerism” and various forms of mobilization that rocked Italy in the 1960s and 1970s that influenced Negri; and finally the experience of the French student uprisings in 1968 and subsequent debates about autogestion for Castoriadis. The book makes a useful contribution therefore to critical geography in that it demonstrates the place-based nature of revolutionary theory and praxis. In other words, it combines “lived experience”, to coin a phrase from Henri Lefebvre’s The Survival of Capitalism, with conceptual development. We therefore get a keen sense of how each concept serves as a form of “militant particularism”, forged out of the experiences of one particular time and place but subsequently generalised to wider locales, as detailed by David Harvey in Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference.

The book has clear importance as the above-named concepts are frequently invoked within radical theorising about social change. However, as this text serves to highlight, this may be done without due attention being paid to the actual meaning behind the terms, or without exploring the potential contradictions involved. Perhaps the best example from the book comes in the form of the critique of the Subaltern Studies Group (SSG) in India. Here, key authors such as Ranajit Guha and Partha Chatterjee (among others) sought to recover history “from below” in contrast to the elite history “from above” associated with colonialism and, later, nationalism. In order to do this they invoke the notion of subalternity. However, as Modonesi demonstrates, the problem with this analysis is that it often leads to an association of subaltern history with a fully autonomous sphere of action, rather than seeing within the very notion of subalternity a relational character to the dominant exercise of power (hegemony). The SSG slip easily therefore into a view of social change that elides the wider field of force. This is not to argue […]