What follows is an extraction from a longer article co-written by sociologist Pascal Gielen and myself that goes under the title Precarity as an Artistic Laboratory for Counter-Hegemonic Labour Organization published in the Academic journal Frame , biannual journal of literary studies, Fall/Winter issue 2017  Precarious Work Precarious Life

Building a Counter-Hegemony

Through his analysis of the concept of hegemony, Italian theorist and politician Antonio Gramsci broke the Marxist class essentialism that reduces identities into a single logic of class, and challenged the understanding of collective identity formation. By proposing to consider hegemony as the articulation between different social actors who occupy different positions within the social fabric (Laclau and Mouffe 13), Gramsci affirmed how

“the proletariat can become the leading (dirigent) and the dominant class to the extent that it succeeds in creating a system of alliances which allows it to mobilize the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois State.” (324)

Political theorist Chantal Mouffe developed Gramsci’s conceptualization of hegemony and collective identity formation further to define the process of counter-hegemony as a disarticulation of existing discourses and practices (Mouffe, Gramsci). This disarticulation is moreover followed by a process of re-articulation that leads towards new mechanisms of re-identification. In order to avoid the re-articulation by non-progressive forces in moments of hegemonic disarticulation, Mouffe highlights the necessity of a political articulation if an oppositional consciousness is to be really established. Such a statement resonates with that exposed above by Srnicek and Williams and the long-term inefficiency of “folk politics.”

From the standpoint of the hegemonic approach, artistic practices have a necessary relation to politics as they either contribute to the reproduction of the “common sense” that secures a consensus for a given hegemony or, on the contrary, contribute to challenging it. In that sense, Italian philosopher Paolo Virno stresses how advanced capitalist labour processes have become performative. For Virno, social production has become virtuous labour, political action, and the intellect are no longer separable as they are interchangeable nowadays (49). This transformation, nonetheless, also permits to imagine new configurations in which art and work are able to open the way for new social relations and thus the production of new subjectivities and political action. Moreover, as discussed above, the current incapacity of identifying a unified proletariat in Marx’s terms clearly indicates that a counter-hegemonic proposal can only be articulated by transcending class reductionists’ discourses. The importance of the hegemonic approach to artistic practices is hence precisely the conviction that artistic and cultural practices can offer spaces for resistance as they contribute to the disarticulation of previous ideological principles and the re-articulation of new forms capable of inaugurating a new “common sense.”

Before discussing concrete examples of artists and cultural organizations, we would like to further refine the analysis of a possible build-up of a counter-hegemony. From the synthesis of the work of Butler, Lorey, Standing, Gramsci, Mouffe, Virno, Srnicek, and Williams we may conclude that such a counter-hegemony should be constructed on a number of levels. In the first place, there is the level of the articulation in which the current economic and political system is criticized and alternatives are formulated. Articulations mainly take place in the public and discursive space, where ideas are confronted with each other in dissent. In the public space, both visionary ideas and utopias, as well as new ideologies, can be articulated as counter-hegemonies. However, ideas alone cannot produce real social change. This takes actions or acts. Citizens take initiatives to build, for example, alternative social formations and forms of self-organization, or, in the parlance of Butler and Lorey, respectively, build “recompositions” based on “bodies in alliance.” We call this space of “acting” the civil space, which is often informed by the criticism and ideas that were articulated in the public space. Self-organization, however, is usually initiated locally and may therefore become stranded in “folk politics” as noted earlier. In this case, economic and political problems, such as precarization, are addressed for a relatively small and primarily closed community but do not build an effective counter-hegemony, which after all requires structural interventions. In order to build an effective counter-hegemony—i.e., one that can really overturn the present neoliberal hegemony of precarization—alternative models must be distributed and, especially, shared. This is what we call the process of “commoning.” Alternative economies and forms of self-organization must demonstrate their effectiveness to others if they are to generate structural effects. This necessitates the preferably free or very cheap sharing of information and knowledge, of materials and logistics, but also of business models and new solidarity structures based on trust and mutual support. A counter-hegemony strategy that fundamentally addresses precarization should also influence institutional bodies. Processes of sharing, or commoning, force governments into an alternative legislative organization, as we have seen with, for example, the Creative Commons licences or the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons. It is only when actions take place on this political and legislative level that counter-hegemony reform may actually take place and the current precarization can be addressed in a structural manner.