Reaping the Whirlwind

7 December 2021

by Freddie Attenborough

The cover of Thoughts on Antonio Gramsci by Michele Filippini

“For they hath sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.” (Hosea 8:7)

As of December 6th, reports Italian newspaper Il Giornale, Italy is rolling out its so-called ‘super green pass’, barring the unvaccinated from a variety of events and amenities, even in the presence of a negative Covid test. The untermensch – as the documentation just about manages to refrain from describing them – will thus no longer be able to eat indoors at restaurants, attend sporting events, concerts, theatres, and many other public events, regardless of whether or not they’ve tested negative for Covid.

It goes without saying that this won’t end well for the people of Italy. I do wonder, though, how the Italian authorities could ever have convinced themselves that it was likely to end well for them either.

It wasn’t so long ago that their celebrated countryman, the Marxist political philosopher Antonio Gramsci, sat in his tiny little fascist-era prison cell and pondered how it was that a tiny class of wealthy, capitalist rentiers could so effectively control, exploit and pacify the downtrodden, impoverished masses. To cut a long, and frankly rather boring story short, his answer was culture, or, as he put it, “hegemonic” culture.

The problem with state-sponsored violence, he argued, was that it forced power to show its hand, thus affording those who opposed it something to fight against and shoot at; an all too palpable target, as it were, for their anger, their hatred. State-sponsored culture, on the other hand, was capable of operating more insidiously. Where violence “explodes”, culture may be said to “vibrate”, controlling us at low frequencies, silently reverberating through our lives, our TVs, our phones, without us ever really being able to sense it, let alone see it – to misquote a character from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, it doesn’t matter how angry you get about “culture”, there ain’t no-one you can shoot to make it stop.

Films, museums, nightclubs, shops, public squares, advertisements, professional sports, mass events, gigs, concerts, opera, ballet – all of them funded by those with vested interests in a capitalist social system and (surprise, surprise) all of them tending to embody values capable of subtly, mischievously, remorselessly, stabilising the status quo: respect for one’s social superiors, the necessity of hierarchy, the American Dream, women who know their place (industrial capitalism), women who are sexy, empowered and successful (consumer capitalism), the stiff-upper lip (imperial capitalism), the self-proclaimed victim (woke capitalism), hard-work winning through against all the odds, positivity in the face of economic hardship, superficiality over criticality, frothy giggling over provocative satire, cheerful adaptation to, rather than moody withdrawal from, the needs of the system, and so on and so forth.

Shove these cultural messages down young peoples’ throats early and hard enough – to paraphrase Patrick Vallance – and you’ll find most of them (or at least enough of them to keep the commodity-obsessed circus on the road) quickly starting to believe in the capitalist system with an intensity that precludes them from ever seeing the system precisely as “a system”. To them, it’s just natural. A thing. Factified. There. An “is”. “The way things are,” or, “The way things have always been,” or, if you play the cards life’s dealt you really well, “The way things should always be.” So it goes…

Buy one get one free! Just do it! Shop till you drop! Live, love, laugh! Every little helps! It could be you! Get the London look! That’s Asda price! Buy now pay later! Here’s Carole with the weather! It’s gin o’clock! Have a nice day! 0% APR for 24 months! Book now and save 4.3%! Half-price sale! Bank-holiday bargains! Bang, and the dirt is gone! Because you’re worth it! For there are no eyes here in this valley of dying stars! Wait, let me take a selfie! Hurry while stocks last! Money back guarantee! Happy hour discounts now in operation! Terms and conditions apply! Text now for your chance to win £50,000! Thank you, NHS!

It’s fair to say that Gramsci’s work – or at least, Gramsci’s style of thinking about the machinations of power – has proven enormously influential. In a sense, much of what now passes for social and political criticism is little more than a collective attempt to map the consequences of this form of cultural power to and for contemporary societies. We see the kernel of Gramsci’s idea, that same problematisation of culture, in Theodore Adorno’s work on the “culture industry”, Louis Althusser’s concept of “ideological state apparatuses”, Michel Foucault’s studies of “governmentality”, and Giles Deleuze’s thesis on “control societies”. In each case, we find the same conclusion, that to successfully govern complex, massified modern societies is not to thrash citizens to within an inch of their lives (the state riskily showing its hand), but, rather, to mould and shape those citizens into people who won’t ever need to be thrashed (the state remaining safely in the shadows).

It’s an idea that makes perfect sense, helping to explain a good deal about the way we live and, in particular, why it is that modern bureaucratic, rule-driven states have such unlikely, yet always intense, relationships with expressive, imagination-driven culture. Just stop and think for a moment about the gargantuan amount the Italian Government must surely spend each year on identifying, mentoring, supporting, funding, promoting, co-opting, subsidising, regulating, censoring and banning certain types of culture on the basis that each such cultural form might – or of course might not – help inculcate certain values, behaviours, habits, mores and beliefs within the hearts and minds of Italian citizens. Given everything you know about the type of person who tends to go into politics, the type of oddbod who ends up wheedling his way into positions of power, does it strike you as at all likely that that type of person would be doing any of this culture-work, going to all of this trouble, offering to help the creative and cultural industries, purely from the goodness of his proto-authoritarian little heart?

But now, of course, the Italian authorities have come up with their new ‘super green pass’. What exactly does it achieve? Effectively, to tell a goodish chunk of the Italian population – men, women, impressionable-and-as-yet-not-fully-socialised-children – to do what they want, fend for themselves, cry, and starve, because they’re filthy, they’re scum, and, frankly, they’re not wanted as active participants within mainstream state-sponsored Italian culture.

In light of what we know about Gramsci’s work, let’s just think about that for a moment, shall we? Disenfranchising people from their own national culture… alienating them from their friends, family and wider peer group… isolating them from society in general… and then telling them to go away and do whatever they want. Hmm.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I expect Mario Draghi or any of his technocractic, federal European fanatical ministers to sit around all day in oak-panelled seminar rooms sporting tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows, puffing on tobacco pipes and debating the finer points of post-structural philosophy’s uneasy relationship with Hegelian dialectics. It’s just that you’d like to think that someone, somewhere in the Italian government, might at some point during the design-phase of these green passes have queried whether a century’s worth of scholarly endeavour, in which the crucial role that inclusive, accessible, citizen-wide cultures have to play in stabilising advanced capitalist societies gets stressed repeatedly, should have been dismissed quite so casually as seems to have been the case.   

Let’s not unfairly single out the Italian authorities, though. Their mistakes will no doubt soon be repeated by others – in Austria, for instance, or maybe in Germany or Greece or Australia or… well, everywhere in the end, one imagines. But if that is indeed the case, then in the years to come I fear for our relationship with those whom the authorities around the world are now starting to excommunicate from the sacraments and services of state-sanctioned, mainstream society. It is one of the more quixotic whims of the smug vaccinated classes to imagine that those whom they wish exiled from society, will simply lie down and cry themselves to death before the bin men come to take away their filthy, disease-ridden bodies and everyone can go back to living happily ever after. One suspects, very much to the contrary, that when the ex-communication happens, these people will know all too well what to do about it. New cultures will undoubtedly emerge; new forms of being, new ways of life… and, at the same time, of course, new forms of hatred.

Who among us today, for instance, can say, hand on heart, that they know anything at all about the specificities of Northern Ireland’s formation – the partitioning, all the exclusions, the discrimination? But we know all about the violence that’s flowed ever since that formation, don’t we? Go to Belfast. To the peace lines. Shankhill Road. Workman Avenue. Cupar Way. Take a look at the mesh fencing, the defensive walls, gardens with roofs made of netting designed to catch stray missiles, gated barriers that still have to be closed at night. The trauma’s still there, even after all these years; still felt, and still raw, still hurting.

But if Ireland’s partitioning began way back when, almost a century ago in fact, I wonder what modern, highly educated, tech-savvy Italians might not achieve now that they’ve been set loose; now that they’ve been banished to go and do what they want because they’re not desired as active participants within mainstream state-sponsored Italian culture?

It seems obvious to me that the Gramscian hegemonic cultural values carried by, and expressed within, the very fabric of each and every cultural space they’re forbidden from entering must now inevitably reflect the values of the illiberal, intolerant, divisive, biomedical fascists who created the ‘super green passes’ in the first place. Who knows, then?

Whilst the rest of us continue to acquiesce, continue to imbibe this toxic culture, becoming lesser human beings all the while, turning our blind eyes to the worst excesses of our leaders, because, well, it doesn’t affect us, and we’ve all got mortgages to pay. Haven’t we got jobs to hold down, that kind of thing, you know, promotions to attain, workplace lanyards to polish on a Sunday evening; besides, you know, well, I mean, if they’re being threatened with death, then maybe they should just grow up, stop being so selfish, follow the science, do as they’re told and just take the jab – while the rest of us are busy degrading ourselves in these and no doubt myriad other ways too, perhaps the ex-communicated will indeed ‘go away’ too.

Perhaps they’ll go away and perhaps they’ll discover different forms of culture, different ways of living; ways of living in which a person’s body is always their choice and bodily autonomy is sacrosanct; in which democracy holds sway over epidemiology; in which science and medicine are kept in check by transparent, accountable democratic procedures and processes; in which blundering do-goodery is never a sufficient reason for anyone to rip up the rule of law; in which public discourse is free and fair, free speech is inviolable come what may, and liberty can never, ever be curtailed at the behest of neurotics; ways of living in which those who tear society apart and create a two-tier, blood-based caste system are held accountable for their crimes against humanity in a court of law; ways of living in which those who sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind.

Let us hope the Italian authorities are worried. They should be.     

Dr. Freddie Attenborough is a former academic. You can subscribe to his Substack account here.