May 15, 2021
From The Commoner
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I have put no small amount of thought, as I was writing this series, on how to conclude it. Were it a younger version of myself writing this, or if I was writing for Novara/Tribune, I might try and tie it up with a convenient bow. I might say, full of confidence, that having established the blueprints for footballer intellectuals through my short overview of its history, and by showing examples of counter-hegemonic football communities, that communists should go ahead and support Rashford-esque figures in their campaigns. But the title of this piece is ‘The New War of Position,’ and it is important to consider exactly what this means, and what the change in conditions since Gramsci wrote his famous Prison Notebooks means for it. First we shall explore the war of position in its original form.

In the section from the Prison Notebooks on the State and Civil Society, Gramsci explores how exactly a capitalist state maintains its control over society and the country’s population outside of using force. This is the aforementioned ‘civil society’. To understand what civil society is, and how it relates to the State apparatuses, or political society, we can look at Edward Said’s summary of it from Orientalism:

‘Gramsci has made the useful analytic distinction between civil and political society in which the former is made up of voluntary (or at least rational and noncoercive) affiliations like schools, families, and unions, the latter of state institutions (the army, the police, the central bureaucracy) whose role in the polity is direct domination. Culture, of course, is to be found operating within civil society, where the influence of ideas, of institutions, and of other persons works not through domination but by what Gramsci calls consent. In any society not totalitarian, then, certain cultural forms predominate over others, just as certain ideas are more influential than others; the form of this cultural leadership is what Gramsci has identified as hegemony, an indispensable concept for any understanding of cultural life in the industrial West.’

The relationship between civil society and the state, and therefore how it produces hegemony, directly affects the course of action one might take in terms of political strategy. Gramsci explains the options in two terms; the war of manoeuvre and the war of position. The war of manoeuvre ‘involves physically overwhelming the coercive apparatus of the state.’ Gramsci draws an example of this from Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions. Using the example of political actions taken during an economic crisis, Gramsci writes:

‘The immediate economic element (crises, etc.) is seen as the field artillery which in war opens a breach in the enemy’s defences – a breach sufficient for one’s own troops to rush in and obtain a definitive (strategic) victory, or at least an important victory in the context of the strategic line.’

A prime example of this would be the 1917 Revolution. But for a war of manoeuvre to take place, and for it to have any chance of being effective, certain conditions need to be in place. Above all what is needed is that the war of manoeuvre is a ‘reflection of the general-economic-cultural-social conditions in a country in which the structures of national life are embryonic and loose.’ Gramsci notes, that this is only in possible in places like ‘the East’ (Russia), and we would add the Global South as well, and that in the West where ‘there was a proper relation between State and civil society’, where the two can fortify each other, a strategy with infinite amounts more patience is needed. This is the war of position, slow moving, stubborn warfare. Gramsci took note of the fact that just like the years-long stalemate that took place in the First World War, communists must prepare to face the same in class struggle within civil society. This is often taken to mean a mostly intellectual and cultural strategy of creating a counter hegemonic, proletarian culture that encourages class consciousness. Having explored and confirmed our belief in a rational discourse, the logical conclusion is that Marxists should take part in electoral political parties, and instigate political education programs both in and outside of them.

Again, there is temptation to end it here, with the declaration that rather than joining a party, what is needed is to join a football fan community and to support whatever footballers can be classified as left wing and intellectual, and do some speeches or workshops on the side. But this is a misreading of Gramsci, I would argue. It overemphasizes the section on organic intellectuals, and whilst that section is important, I would argue that to rely entirely on organic intellectuals as some sort of neo-vanguard not only misses the crucial description of them as growing organically as a part of working class culture and social production, but it ends up subordinating the rest of Gramsci’s work to that chapter, which by virtue of being the first to appear in Selections of his notebooks, can be mistaken as the starting point of his wider view on political strategy. We also risk deluding ourselves, as many ‘leftist’ media outlets have, that the answer to any political situation within Western Civil Society, is to set up yet another Pseudo-Gramscian think-tank, or website, or youtube channel, and that, letting the phrase ‘permanent persuader’ do a lot of heavy lifting, we simply explain and explain and explain the follies of capitalism and the necessity of socialism until the “war” is won. In this context, we mislead ourselves into believing the ‘exposures’ we make with our writing are equivalent to victories, and thus we lead others into a particular kind of war of position, whilst pretending the events of it have the effect of a war of manoeuvre. Gramsci notes this as a particular characteristic of surface level analysis, where events, people and other social phenomena are analysed ‘with the conviction that certain phenomena are destroyed as soon as they are “realistically” explained as if they were popular superstition (which anyway are not destroyed either merely by being explained)’.

This is in part due to a tendency to remove Gramsci and his writings from the historical conditions which produced them. Asad Haider explores and decisively counters this tendency in his essay ‘Pessimism of the Will’, which assesses it through the analysis of Gramsci’s famous ‘Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will’ as a oft repeated, rarely understood maxim divorced from the specific context of political strife and struggle in 1920’s Italy. During this essay he notes that:

‘It is common to see Gramsci invoked to advocate gradualist programs of reform, with the language of “war of position,” or to see him turned into a cultural critic who advocated building “counter-hegemony” in the academy — his ardent enthusiasm for the insurrection of the workers’ councils seems to drop out of the picture.’

To relegate Gramsci’s ideas to a purely intellectual sphere is to misuse them, and furthermore to underestimate the difficulties present in using football as an organising space. During the course of my research for this article, there are two which have come up. The first of which is the fact that Paolo Virno himself has raised the issue that virtuosity as a form of labour-action in a cultural sense presents its own problems which must be faced. He writes that ‘The intermingling of virtuosity, politics and labor has extended everywhere. What is left to question, if anything, is what specific role is carried out today by the communication industry, since all industrial sectors are inspired by its model.’ To communicate this better, he refers to Guy Debord’s concept of the spectacle, given that ‘”spectacle” is human communication which has become a commodity. What is delivered through the spectacle is precisely the human ability to communicate, verbal language as such.’

A starting point for what this means is that through the media, professional sport undergoes the transition from a commercialised, association league conducted by local teams into a national and international commodity. But Debord would go deeper than just saying that a spectacle is simply a commodity in the culture or media industry, but point out that ‘the spectacle represents the dominant model of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production.’ We must not limit our understanding to football as mass media entertainment, but rather analyse it with the knowledge that ‘The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.’ What the spectacle does is alter the way we perceive and interact with the dominant mode of production, and it is this alteration which is the desired end result or product of the mode of production. To fully understand the extent to which this happens, we return to Virno, in order to emphasise its nature as a commodity which communicates, one where what ‘presents the spectacle, so to speak, are the productive forces themselves of society as they overlap, in ever-greater measure, with linguistic-communicative competencies and with the general intellect.’ And in the spectacle, that linguistic element has a double nature, being both familiar to the general discourse, but also specific and constructed within the semiotics (that is to say, its sign system) of the spectacle itself. Debord elaborates on this by noting ‘The language of the spectacle consists of signs of the dominant system of production – signs which are at the same time the ultimate end-products of that system.’

In terms of football, we must then consider what exactly the ‘linguistic-communicative competencies’ are. I said earlier that football has a virtuosic nature that expands on Virno’s use of it. But that was in terms of the live event of the game itself. With the introduction of mass media, with its own form of presentation (and representation), its own sign system, we must account for how this transforms the game from live event to spectacle. The main, and obvious element of communication that situates football within a more easily consumable and typically virtuosic form is the commentary. Historically, the forms, commentary and television, were at first separate, given that the former preceded the latter, when BBC radio broadcasted the Arsenal v. Sheffield game on January 22nd 1927. This means that commentary, developing outside of visual media, developed its own traditions and formal conventions, which provided a pre-existing form within which the visual medium fit into and then developed on from. As this article written by the podcast By Association makes clear in a quote by Simon Hall: ‘People think you just turn up to do commentary and it’s as simple as talking off the top of your head. I can assure you, it’s anything but. You know, it’s an art form, it’s a skill.’ Commentary can be considered a traditional virtuosic act through several factors such as individual skill, extensive research and personal charisma. Aside from this, it can be found to have variants in both its aural and visual forms:

‘In radio you’ve obviously got to find a lot more words because you are being descriptive as well as following the action. But television can be tricky because you have to complement the pictures, so you’re almost trying to talk around the pictures in some ways. TV is a more disciplined art and can be quite tricky to perfect.’

In comparison to radio, where the virtuosic and spectacular component finds its purpose in communicating what cannot be seen, the commentary in television games seeks to mediate the audience’s perception of the images. This has profound implications for any aspiration to insert political action into the sport. This is not to imply that commentary is some symptom or cloak for a hidden, insidious ideology but rather that the way it is presented and presents football to us reflects the dominant mode of cultural production in the athletic industries. That the game finds its reproduction in a commodified, mostly self-contained form which is separate from our everyday lives in an immediate sense is symptomatic of the way information is produced and transferred to us by the media. The obvious counter to this is to highlight that football is an international game now, and clubs have fans all over the world. It would be unreasonable, and in many cases nigh-on impossible, to expect all of them to attend matches at the home ground. This is not an unfair point, but I believe that an understanding of what I mean can be helped with some elaboration by Debord, who says:

‘If the social needs of the age in which such technologies are developed can be met only through their mediation, if the administration of this society and all contact between people has become totally dependent on these means of instantaneous communication, it is because this “communication” is essentially unilateral.’

It is not entirely unintentional that as football has become a more widely played game all over the world, the sport has developed its own economic tendencies, in order to ensure that business can be conducted on an international scale, and so that the varying clubs may be a profitable investment for those looking to buy into them. Players from all around the world can be transferred to different leagues, countries and clubs, and whilst this may improve a club’s chances, it has over the course of time, divorced teams from what used to be a local player base. Coupled with the fact that most clubs now are also owned by billionaires from around the world, the clubs (and by extension the entire sport) are not held in the hands of its community, either locally or worldwide. In this sense the Tribune article of St. Pauli is right to emphasise the capitalist nature of the game, but the exact dynamic of football’s economic side, and how it presents difficulty for intellectual & political activity within the sport, must be noted. If the demand created by the relatively short transfer window and the resulting high prices for players, along with many other factors, creates a situation in which the club (in terms of its political economy) is divorced from its local surroundings, then the spectacle produced by these conditions, ensures its reproduction by representing the sport so that the action captured in its recording is divorced from its origin point, members of a community affirming themselves through virtuosic action. Virno clarifies the distinction between commodified, profit driven production and a spectacular cultural production: ‘If money is the “real abstraction” (to use a classic Marxian expression) which refers back to finished labor, to labor’s past, according to Debord the spectacle is, instead, the “real abstraction” which portrays labor in itself, the present tense of labor.’

The separated, objectified performance in the televised game acts a semiotic justification for the state of affairs in football. They complete and reify the perception that clubs are out of the hands of fans and the community, and furthermore that sports are entirely separate from political action. This is why instances such as Rashford’s speaking out are so notable, because they disrupt the perception of sports as a place autonomous from politics, and footballers as non-political agents. Whilst in the case of Rashford this type of disruption has proved somewhat effective, as pointed out at the start of this essay this was likely because the way in which a child suffering from food poverty is still seen as an issue of kindness and charity. And in comparison to the issues regarding anti-racism and Millwall, it demonstrates that such interventions will only receive a positive reaction so long as they conducted in the range of issues considered acceptable to talk about in the public sphere, and in a manner amenable to contemporary media discourse. The point remains that if another young black footballer, if they were to speak on a more explicitly political cause, they would likely receive a much more hostile reaction precisely because an explicitly political intervention would interrupt the spectacular element of their labour the media uses to reproduce a reactionary political consciousness. We must take into account the hostility that many anti-racist figures and organisations face from reactionary Britons and the majority of British media if we are to conceptualise organic intellectuals and a revolutionary political culture that is immediate to working class people.

This particular hostility is something noted by the Afropessimist scholar Frank Wilderson III in his essay ‘Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society?’ where he critiques Gramsci’s concept of the subaltern and the absence of the Black Subject in America, the Slave, from his and successive Marxist writings. It’s important to note Wilderson (and by extension the Afropessimist school) is talking primarily about the Black American experience, which may not totally correlate to the Black British experience (however, to what extent it does is beyond the scope of this essay and my own standpoint of knowledge as a white writer). What it does do, at the very least, is provide us with a theoretical framework to understand how the media as a space can be so hostile to Black people whilst also relying heavily on the consumption of their appearance and labour within the production process of it’s spectacle. And more importantly, it can help us fine tune the certain elements of Gramsci’s writings we can use to respond to this situation. For Wilderson, the issue lies primarily in the fact that ‘marxism assumes a subaltern structured by capital, not by white supremacy. In this scenario, racism is read off the base, as it were, as being derivative of political economy.’

This is exemplified in the Anglo-American’s interpretation of Gramsci that emphasises the reformist and gradual inhabitation of Civil Society, similar to the readings referenced by Haider. But for Wilderson what this tradition, and by implication Gramsci, leaves out is the fact that Civil Society’s very foundation is anti-Black violence. So when Buttigieg remarks that the ultimate aim of a war of position is to expand the trenches of civil society, Wilderon remarks in turn, ‘a chill runs down our spine. For this required expansion requires the intensification and proliferation of civil society’s constituent element: black accumulation and death.’ Because of this, the black subject, the Slave, is one that questions and destabilizes the Marxist historical metanarrative, and even it’s core organisational categories. Whilst one could say that media and sports, being a form of work, does not apply here, Wilderson states emphatically: ‘The fact that millions upon millions of black people work misses the point. The point is we were never meant to be workers; in other words, capital/white supremacy’s dream did not envision us as being incorporated or incorporative.’ Wilderson concludes:

Whereas the positionality of the worker enables the reconfiguration of civil society, the positionality of the slave exists as a destabilising force within civil society because civil society gains its coherence, the very tabula raza upon which workers and industrialists struggle for hegemony, through the violence of black erasure. From the coherence of civil society the black subject beckons with the incoherence of civil war. Civil war, then, becomes that unthought but never forgotten spectre waiting in the wings — the understudy of Gramsci’s hegemony.

It is here, I propose, that we situate the ‘new war of position’. If for Wilderson, the understudy of hegemony is civil war, then a new war of position requires returning to Gramsci, particularly The Prison Notebooks, in order to find those warlike spectres which might allow us to rethink how organisational strategy can look. I agree with Wilderson that Civil Society in the Marxist tradition is too often seen as something neutral to be filled with communist content or culture. However, in contrast to Wilderson I would argue that alongside that there are many elements in Gramsci’s work that challenge this interpretation of civil society and the war of position. Whilst at the very least, The Prison Notebooks does not argue against the expansion of civil society, for likely a multitude of reasons including the fact it was written under Fascist censorship, the war of position does not occupy the same strand of logic. For Gramsci, the war of position is one that communists are forced into, because ‘The truth is that one cannot choose the form of war one wants, unless from the start one has a crushing superiority over the enemy.’

Now I began this series of essays by questioning how football could be a space for organic intellectuals, and whilst we have proven that, we must also take into account everything we have covered in this part, in order to create a constellation of all these elements into a general political strategy. If we are to look at footballers as organic intellectuals, we must think how they themselves must develop in relation to this strategy. But for the moment it is important to note, that despite all the flaws in his approach, and the overwhelming dominance of the UK media’s cultural logic, where our original example, Marcus Rashford, provides a very good demonstration of what we need in that by speaking out, he disrupts the translation of virtuosic work into consumable spectacle by speaking out, disrupting the logic of the spectacular, black subject, who does not often, if ever get to speak out in such a public and widely viewed manner. He refuses to have his action purely translated into the small, diminished movements of the football game, but to take the affirmation that is an intrinsic part and assert himself in the linguistic, performative sphere.It is this disruption that is the starting point of our new direction. The definition on the ground level for the new war of position is this:

A strategic mode of political action within cultural and social spaces that is focused, not on the leftist inhabitation of civil society, but focusing on the interruption of the social reproduction of hostile, fascistic spaces at the points most immediate to the working class, across all of it’s demographics. Rather than the expansion of civil society elements, we are focused on the disruption of them by the eruption of virtuosic, organic intellectuals and autonomous communities, towards the aim of their eventual abolition. It is to create spaces within a socioeconomic totality whereby alternative ways of living and social organisation can occur.  And we can use elements and parts of Gramsci’s thought in order to ‘ask the right questions’ as Hall would say. For as Gramsci noted, the need to take into account such a totality is because ‘A war of position is not, in reality, constituted simply by the actual trenches, but by the whole organisation and industrial system of the territory which lies to the rear of the army in the field.’ But from here, the central idea of interrupting social reproduction and creating new communities in turn inverts the traditional idea of the war of position, whilst also situating it in the civil war analogy offered by Wilderson. For in trench warfare, one can do the most damage by defending. Creating a new political culture with which to resist and refuse the convincing which civil society has already completed. It is about using football as an autonomous space, both intellectually, creatively and politically.

But an important part of this we shouldn’t forget is solidarity. But it is not solidarity as we know it currently. Solidarity as part of a strategy in creating these spaces, and solidarity with other communities seeking to create similar forms of autonomy. Because as gramsci himself noted, ‘The war of position demands enormous sacrifices by infinite masses of people’. That we have not scrutinised contemporary forms of solidarity means that we have created the situation Wilderson criticises, allowing the slaughterhouse of anti-Black death to run undisturbed. As Robin D.G. Kelly writes in the new introduction Cedric Robinsons’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition articulates, ‘What we are witnessing right now, across the country and around the world, is a struggle to interrupt historical processes leading to catastrophe’ and that in resisting these forms of social organisation in racial capitalism ‘we need to be prepared to fight for our collective lives’. How then to accomplish this in sport? It is hard to say, but I would suggest that the starting point needs to be a rejection of the spectacular, commodified form of football that dominates our media landscape today. Frantz Fanon wrote about what sport should look like in a nation free from the control of colonial regimes, in the process of working against neocolonial development by the national bourgeoisie:

‘The stadium ought not to be a show place erected in the towns, but a bit of open ground in the midst of the fields that the young people must reclaim, cultivate, and give to the nation. The capitalist conception of sport is fundamentally different from that which should exist in an underdeveloped country. The African politician should not be preoccupied with turning out sportsmen, but with turning out fully conscious men, who play games as well. If games are not integrated into the national life, that is to say in the building of the nation, and if you turn out national sportsmen and not fully conscious men, you will very quickly see sport rotted by professionalism and commercialism. Sport should not be a pastime or a distraction for the bourgeoisie of the towns. The greatest task before us is to understand at each moment what is happening in our country. We ought not to cultivate the exceptional or to seek for a hero, who is another form of leader. We ought to uplift the people; we must develop their brains, fill them with ideas, change them and make them into human beings.’

So whilst many of the examples like Socrates and Rashford provide examples of intellectuals within sport, we should not rely on them, because that they became so singularly important is a reflection of the way that sports media produces content. Instead we should look at how Socrates and other examples like St. Pauli have worked to generate a political (and therefore intrinsically intellectual) culture, a collective culture around which all can take part in. But above all this political culture can only become truly effective once we subtract sport from the socioeconomic relations that dominate the athletic spaces today, and to fight for the spaces created in this process of subtraction. This will not be easy, but as Haider concludes in his own article, what is needed is a reversal of Gramsci’s ‘Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will’; the acceptance of the hard war of position ahead, given creative force by the optimistic passion of Gramsci’s theories. He writes we need ‘Optimism of the intellect, because we have to start by recognizing that all people are capable of thought, that they are able to not only form conceptions of the world but also to experiment with new possibilities’, and in turn ‘pessimism of the will, because we know that the will has to take a material organizational form, and that across the history of revolutionary politics the classical form assumed by the young Gramsci is no longer available to us.’ And in treating football as the intellectual, political space it is, we find the possibility of this new form, the horizon of a new revolutionary strategy opened by this way of thinking.


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