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Violence and Civilization: Gramsci, Machiavelli, and Sorel

Jackson, RP (2018) Violence and Civilization: Gramsci, Machiavelli, and Sorel. In: The Meanings of Violence: From Critical Theory to Biopolitics. Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy . Routledge, Oxon, pp. 48-64. ISBN 9781138570207

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Abstract

Antonio Gramsci’s writings represent a rich repository for re-thinking the meanings of violence in relation to the political and the ethical in our present conjuncture. Despite a tendency in some quarters to reduce Gramsci’s concept of hegemony to a theory of consent, his Prison Notebooks exhibit a deep concern with the ‘armour of coercion’. Thus, in his reflections on Niccolò Machiavelli’s Centaur, Gramsci regards this figure as symbolic of a dual perspective, half-animal half-human. For Gramsci, political thought should seek to elaborate the dialectical unity of these two levels: force and consent. This chapter considers the formation of this nexus of violence and civilization in Gramsci’s writings through his encounter with two thinkers, Machiavelli and Georges Sorel. Gramsci takes up Machiavelli’s use of militaristic terminology and the Florentine’s emphasis on the military basis of political struggles, expressed in the semantic field of concepts such as ‘war of manoeuvre’ and ‘war of position’. However, Gramsci balances this tendency with a recognition of the relationship between arms and religion, or, in Benedetto Croce’s ethico-political terms, between the universal (state) and the individual (church). Gramsci also draws vitality for his re-articulation of a historical materialist framework from a second source, Sorel’s Reflections on Violence (1906). Examining Sorel’s distinction between myth (a ‘body of images capable of evoking sentiments’) and Utopia (a ‘deceptive mirage of the future’), I consider Gramsci’s efforts to transform Sorel’s political myth by deploying his own reading of Machiavelli’s Prince. While Gramsci accepts Sorel’s case that only the political myth is able to mobilize the strongest inclinations of a people, to create a violent force that can cleave the social fabric, Gramsci also elaborates a constructive aspect to this process. Finally, I deploy the terms set out by Walter Benjamin in his Critique of Violence to evaluate whether we can describe Gramsci’s destructive/constructive notion of political myth as a form of mythical violence or as a form of divine power.

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