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Review of Esteve Morera's "Gramsci, Materialism, and Philosophy"

I know I hinted at a review of Morera's Gramsci's Historicism but I'm going to break that non-promise and instead review Morera's recent Gramsci, Materialism, and Philosophy. Some background for this decision… First of all, a week after I finished Gramsci's Historicism I met with the author (who was also my former dissertation supervisor) to present him with an advance copy of Continuity and Rupture (since he wrote a lovely endorsement for it) and, because he's such a giving and sweet academic, Morera gave me a free paperback copy of his most recent book that, because of its size and engaging prose, I finished very quickly. Secondly, while it is clear that Gramsci's Historicism is a monumental work on Gramsci, and it is impossible to imagine contemporary Gramscian scholarship without it, the fact that the latter exists because of the former already means that this book has been thoroughly reviewed and absorbed into something that can vaguely and informally be called "Marxist Gramsci Studies." It is doubtful that recent and popular engagements with Gramsci, such as Thomas' The Gramscian Moment (which I haven't read but I have discussed with Morera) would be possible without the intervention, a quarter of a century ago, launched by Morera's first book. So rather than go back to that book (which I still think is a must read mind you) I want to instead discuss Morera's recent short, punchy, accessible, and quite heterodox book.

That lovely Routledge cover that looks like a screen saver.

What makes Gramsci, Materialism, and Philosophy compelling is that it is a work by a foundational Gramscian philosopher that critiques and rejects a particular aspect of Gramsci that has become foundational to the kind of Marxism, as well as post-Marxism, that locates itself in Gramsci's work. That is, Morera has written this book in order to reject Gramsci's understanding of materialism while, at the same time, using Gramsci's approach to philosophy to do so. This book is motivated by S. Timpanaro's claim "that, in its attempt to avoid vulgar materialism, Western Marxism abandoned materialism completely." (1) Morera holds that such abandonment is in large part motivated by Western Marxism's uncritical assimilation of Gramsci's theorization of historical materialism, that he feels is in fact hampered by materialism, and is predicated on the following "dangerous" question: "If we accept materialism (if materialism is true), what else are we committed to accepting (what else is true)?" (Ibid.) And, pace Gramsci and yet through Gramsci's approach to philosophy, Morera suggests that "vulgar" materialism is not only correct but that it is in fact necessary for a historical materialism that can properly account for a non-idealist conceptualization of freedom, ethics, transformation, etc.

Most interesting for me was the fact that sections of this book resonated with my early summer reading of Meillassoux, particularly Morera's assertion that material reality exists independently of [or anterior to, using Meillassoux's lingo] human experience. Indeed, Morera is interested in defending the supposedly "vulgar" assertion of philosophical materialism. He even demonstrates how Gramsci's critique of this vulgar position vis-a-vis Bertrand Russell was in fact a straw-person argument and that, tragically, Gramsci was wrong: no matter what you try to say about the meaning of London's position in the world the fact remains that, anterior to human existence, the space that it occupies will still be south of the space Edinburgh occupies, the conceptual terms "north and south" notwithstanding.

Even more interesting was Morera's defense of the category of human nature as in fact necessary for materialism. Now I've long been interested in debates around the meaning of human subject, essence, nature, being and, by the time I read this book, had finally started to realize that the main problem with these debates was that there was no unity behind these terms and, even worse, an idealist slippage between them. That is, human subject, human essence, human nature, human being are not at all synonymous terms, and the picking and choosing of these terms (where they are sometimes conflated and sometimes not) represents a philosophical messiness on the part of both analytic and continental philosophers. While I have serious problems with Laruelle I can at least sympathize with his project in this context: most of these codings of the category of human have to do with prior philosophical decisions that allow for the pretense and forcing of a unity between these terms that does not in fact exist. Indeed, it's not even materialist. For example, rejections of the category of "human subject" on the part of Althusser and then the post-structuralists is often taken as also a rejection of essence/nature/being but why should this be the case? Why are these concepts synonymous? Inversely Sartre rejected essence/nature but was quite happy with subject/being––but for what reason, what philosophical decision permits this focus when Sartre's human subject can, on another reading, simply be the smuggling of essence/nature back into the philosophy but recoded as subject/being according to philosophical sophistry?

In any case, regardless of how we make sense of these different ways to explain the category of "human" it has become in some quarters philosophically fashionable to reject any definition of this category whatsoever, to declare the category null and void. After all, if we are to say that the category of "human" means something materially would we not be stuck in the realm of biodeterminism and evolutionary psychology? Would this not in itself be "idealist" since biodeterministic definitions of the category of human tend to reduce the human experience to something that resembles ruling class ideology––like phrenology or physiognomy? But Morera, in defiance of this fashion, opposes the nullification of this category, arguing against a tradition he feels is operationalized by Gramsci's pseudo-materialism, namely an idealistic conception of human agency. That is, Morera argues that the category of "human nature" [he is careful not to use subject, essence, or being] is in fact a materialist category and to think otherwise is to court the kind of materialism that Gramsci unfortunately promoted.

The suggestion that humans are nothing more than an "assemblage of social relations", a definition pursued by Gramsci and enshrined by post-structuralists who conflate the problematic of subject with nature, is useful on one level, Morera argues, but completely anti-materialist if and when it denies that there is a biological category we can properly call "human". Morera's claim, here, is that it is idealist to assume that a biological category of human nature does not exist because this would be tantamount to denying evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and all of the materialist disciplines that indeed prove humans are a particular species. Let's be clear: humans do things that other species do not; the human apprehension of the world and its behaviour can be, though crudely, mapped by the natural sciences. To deny this fact is to deny science; it's idealist nonsense since so much of this science actually results in real world affects (serums, technologies, etc.) that would also have to be denied if we dismissed the category of human nature as meaningful. There are biological facts and to ignore these facts is to embrace spiritualist nonsense.

To be clear, Morera also thinks that biodeterminist explanations are equally idealist. In fact, following Dennett (and he is also critical of Dennett's politics), Morera argues that one does not have to be biodeterminist to accept that human biology is in a broad, general sense determinant. He refers to biodeterminism and evolutionary psychology as "greedy reductionism" (52-53) since it attempts to locate a biological destiny simply and impossibly, and thus often in line with ruling class ideology. But one does not have to be a "greedy reductionist" to recognize that there are biological facts to which human actions are reducible; the reduction is not easily grasped, and may never be grasped, because of the fact that humans are also an "assemblage of social relations". Similarly, just as we are forced to recognize that determinism is correct––that if we are not to deny science we must admit that all material bodies are in some sense determined––it is not as if we are currently capable of making sense of this determinism in the grand sense, we do not reduce morality and ethics to the level of anti-agent causal networks because we understand that these networks are complex. The overall point here is that: a) there is a biological category that we can call "human"; b) to suggest otherwise is to deny science; c) if we do not accept that there is a human biological category, as long as we do not court "greedy reductionism" we are idealists; d) all attempts to simply define human existence according to the vague category of "assemblages" Gramsci selectively pulled out of Marx are mystic nonsense.

Going further, zooming out from the category of human, Morera's desire to defend vulgar materialism against even Gramsci's kind of materialism, defends causal determination as intrinsic to freedom. (And here is where he diverges from the similarity he exhibited regarding Meillassoux.) Morera's point, here, is that determinism demonstrates the kind of regularity that provides a "modest" but materialist sense of freedom. If we imagine a world that is not causally determined, where anything can happen just because, then we cannot imagine being able to count on drinking water to satisfy our thirst. "Lack of determinism entails the impossibility of realizing our purposes." (124) Without being able to count on regularity, to make inferences to the best explanation, the kind of freedom presumed by a rejection of causal determination (which would simultaneously be, Morera argues, an idealist gambit) "would amount to the impossibility of action." (Ibid.) In this context, "adequate knowledge of both natural and social processes" is required "so that we can have meaningful choices." (Ibid.) Conversely, "[i]n a non-determinist world actions would not be possible." (Ibid.) The worry that the acceptance of determinism leads to the annihilation of freedom (if you are part of causal determination, that is, choice becomes non-sensical since all your choices are also determined) is simply a confusion of conceptual categories. While it may be the case that everything, even all of our supposed free choices, are determined, it is not very meaningful to worry about this concern since it would be another form of "greedy reductionism" where we attempt to determine the meaning of our social existence according to a materialist reality that is theorized rather than experienced. The parallels to Kant's thoughts on things in themselves is clear and, to be fair, might invite critique. Even still Morera's thoughts on this matter are worth considering: on the one hand we cannot deny that determination is correct if we are to uphold materialism and even a meaningful sense of human activity; on the other hand, because we generally think of ourselves as free it is not as if we directly experience causal determination––neither do we directly experience the molecular structure of H20 when we drink a cup of water, or feel the particles when we touch a table.

What was most interesting about this small book that employed Gramsci against Gramsci was its journey through the realm of African philosophy. Recourse to work by Towa, Gyeke, Appiah, Wiredu, Hountondji, and others serves to buttress Morera's heterodox Gramscianism. According to Morera (and following Taiwo), "much of African philosophy in the last seventy years has been an attempt to exorcize Hegel's ghost," (17) the very ghost Morera is attempting to exorcize from Gramsci. At least one review of this book was bemused by Morera's excursion through African philosophy, but I feel that this bemusement is based on the reviewer's failure to understand that Morera is trying to pull back from a particular western understanding of political philosophy which Gramsci helped valorize. A philosophical mindset outside of the canon is thus a necessary vaccination to the idealism Morera hopes to critique.

At the beginning of this book Morera wonders whether Marxist philosophy has a place outside of work that is not "immediately connected to practice." His response is that such a definition of philosophy would "impose too narrow a limit on what is possible to think." (4) And yet, considering that Morera interrogates questions regarding the meaning of materialism and ethical practice this worry, though I would agree accurate, is in fact misplaced: Gramsci, Materialism, and Philosophy is in fact concerned with practice and it has been all along.