Complexio Oppositorum: Notes on the Left in Neoliberal Italy
What keeps the social order from dissolving into chaos,” wrote Pierre Bourdieu about neoliberalism, “is the continuity or survival of those very institutions and representatives of the old order that [are] in the process of being dismantled, and all the work of all the categories of social workers, as well as all the forms of social solidarity, familial or otherwise.” Embedded in his account are two assumptions. One is that neoliberalism is incapable of producing a stable social and moral order of its own and that it creates only chaos. The only order it can generate is “the utopia of endless exploitation.”1 The other is that old and new orders are not only incommensurable ontologically but set apart temporally. Locked in battle, the representatives of previous forms of social solidarity exert their influence on the present by bravely stitching together the fragments wrought by neoliberalism’s alienating, atomizing powers.
This article takes issue with both these assumptions by arguing that neoliberalism is often better understood as a form that can contain the oppositional — old leftist solidarity and new rightist utopias — and fold them into a single moral order. The contemporary situation is seldom best characterized as a battlefield with clearly drawn political dividing lines. Instead, it is fraught with “new obscurities” so opaque that “the very meaning of left and right” has become difficult to determine.2 In fact, to call them either Right or Left at all is “not simply misleading, but wrong.”3 So, how are we to understand how leftists relate to the neoliberalism they so vehemently oppose? And what might Carl Schmitt’s earlytwentieth- century reflections on Catholicism’s imperial nature tell us about neoliberalism at the dawn of the twenty-first? To answer these questions, I explore how leftist Italians summon themselves into the neoliberal welfare economy in a manner that is at once critical of neoliberalism yet consonant with it ontologically. I focus ethnographically on the phenomenal rise of the role of leftist citizens’ voluntarism in the privatizing social service economy. These citizen volunteers provide services that the state, whose redistributional mechanisms they had come to believe in and fight for during the twentieth century, is increasingly unwilling or unable to provide. It is in this welfarist domain that the unstable moral and political terrains of our era, and thus the contours of contemporary neoliberalism, are rendered particularly visible.4
Such a focus on the Left and its critical-complicit labor in a privatizing “welfare society” offers insight into a peculiar kind of hegemony. Antonio Gramsci’s model of hegemony assumed that an elite “led” the masses into a relation of domination governed by consent. Consent for him was a complex thing, for he recognized that people might disagree ideologically with a prevailing order while signing on, either consciously or inadvertently, to its discourses and practices in ontological terms.5 The stabilization of a hegemonic project thus occurs not necessarily because it is ideologically coherent. As Gramsci argued, unity had to be built out of difference. Hegemony became “organic,” that is, historically effective, only because it could articulate “different subjects, different identities, different projects, different aspirations” into a single configuration.6
But even armed with this complex theory of consent, Gramsci probably could not have anticipated how neoliberalism today articulates with leftist — specifically, anarcho-communist — practices and forms. Indeed, the processes of neoliberalization that I outline here are hegemonic not because they operate through the production of consent, as David Harvey has recently written, but because they put to work those citizens who think of themselves as belonging to an actively oppositional tradition of leftist “solidarity.”7 It is critique, not consent, that animates citizen volunteers to participate in the privatization of care. Many of the tens of thousands of leftists who are today engaged in the so-called welfare society do not interpret their free labor as beholden to the neoliberal project. On the contrary, they think of their actions as linked to past leftist practices and critiques of commodification and marketization. Many ordinary Italians active in the voluntary sector thus experience neoliberalization not as a radical break, as scholars often describe this era,8 but as a recuperation and reinvigoration of a deeply rooted solidaristic culture — specifically, of past Italian communist practices oriented around local, autonomous, self-managed, democratic action. At the same time, “solidarity” has long ceased to pertain exclusively to the Left’s narrative repertoire. Rather, it is now part of a master narrative perpetuated by a range of actors in the welfare society, including neoliberal reformers, so much so that it appears to emanate from everywhere and nowhere at once. A trope that circulates across various social and political domains, solidarity draws together disparate projects and agents while seemingly eradicating historical and ideological difference. It is this problem of ventriloquation that leftists struggle with. They see that the multiple summonings of “solidaristic citizens” provide the grounds for the mobilization of voluntary labor and thus the withdrawal of state provisioning. Yet their political commitments, deeply rooted in Italy’s communist past, do not allow them to withdraw from the new poverties that cuts in public funding have spawned. The Left has thus, ironically, become an ambivalently complicit force in the neoliberalization of care, moved by a sense of hope grounded in the possibility of historical rectification — “a second chance at achieving some previously derailed project.”9
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This piece, first presented at the conference “W(h)ither Welfare?” organized and hosted by the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory in late 2007, benefited greatly from the thoughtful comments of Neil Brenner and Evalyn Tennant, as well as from many inspiring conversations with Susan Gal, Jean Comaroff, and especially John Comaroff. I also thank Claudio Lomnitz and Public Culture’s Editorial Committee for their engaged and thoughtful suggestions. Finally, and most important, I thank Andrew Gilbert, Kelly Gillespie, Jessica Greenberg, and Elana Shever for their crucial intellectual friendship and support.
- Pierre Bourdieu, “The Essence of Neoliberalism,” Le monde diplomatique, December 1998, mondediplo.com/1998/12/08bourdieu.
- Jürgen Habermas, “The New Obscurity: The Crisis of the Welfare State and the Exhaustion of Utopian Energies,” in The New Conservatism: Cultural Criticism and the Historians’ Debate, ed. and trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989), 48 – 70; Claudio Lomnitz, “Foundations of the Latin American Left,” Public Culture 19 (2007): 24; Douglas R. Holmes, Integral Europe: Fast-Capitalism, Multiculturalism, Neofascism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000).
- Holmes, Integral Europe, 13.
- For the purposes of this article, I define as pertaining to the Left those actors who have emerged from Italy’s communist tradition and whose utopian desires centered on the expansion of the welfare state and its regulatory and redistributive capacities for much of the twentieth century. I define as pertaining to the Right those actors committed to neoliberal reform or, broadly, to the privatization of social services and the concomitant reduction of state spending. In Lombardy these reformers are often self-identifying conservative Catholics. Though it is clearly reductive to equate Catholicism with the Right and communism with the Left, I do so here because many neoliberal reformers in Lombardy identify themselves as conservative Catholics who are invested in the gospel of free marketeering as much as in the recuperation of Catholic social doctrine.
- Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).
- Stuart Hall, “Gramsci and Us,” in The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (London: Verso, 1988), 166.
- David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
- Pierre Bourdieu, Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market, trans. Richard Nice (New York: New Press, 1998); Harvey, Brief History.
- Lomnitz, “Foundations of the Latin American Left,” 23.