Morbid Phenomena

If you’re a regular reader of opinion columns, you have probably encountered this chestnut, or some variant of it, from the Italian Neo-Marxist Antonio Gramsci: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid phenomena.”

Gramsci wrote these words in jail where he’d been put by Mussolini. They were not part of a fully fleshed out work and there has been a good deal of debate over precisely what he meant.

“Morbid phenomena” was probably not a reference to fascism, the rise of which after World War I Gramsci saw as part of the old order’s death throes. He had in mind instead what Lenin, likewise using a medical metaphor, called the “infantile disorder” of “ultraleftists” bent on seizing power before the proletariat was ready to rule (or be ruled).

President Mbeki called his critics on the left “infantile” in much the same sense, seeing them as enemies of the National Democratic Revolution in their fractious impatience to bring it on before conditions were ripe.

However one interprets Gramsci’s dictum, over here in the US one has a powerful sense of being in an interregnum between old and new. It is easy to think of Trump and Trumpism as a “morbid phenomenon”, but are they really the obstacle to the birth of something new? Or will the blockage be an American version of “infantile leftism”? Bernie Sanders, for example.

Stanley Greenberg, the political consultant who helped Bill Clinton to victory in 1992 and Nelson Mandela in 1994 (he persuaded the ANC to adopt “A Better Life for All” as its slogan rather than its first choice, the faintly threatening “Now is the Time”) has a new book out. Its encouraging title: “RIP GOP”. 

Greenberg’s thesis is that the Democratic blue wave which battered the Republicans in 2018’s congressional elections is going to be followed by a veritable blue tsunami  next year as “the New America” — his term — rises up to oust Trump’s reactionary white minority regime.

Overwhelmingly Democratic, New Americans were born in the 80’s or more recently, often in another country. Increasingly secular, they are open-minded on matters such as gay marriage and abortion and think climate change is a real threat. They live in and around cities, are offended by inequality and discrimination, and believe that openness to the world and its people is the foundation of the country’s vitality. They look to government as a force for positive change.  

These Americans elected Barack Obama, a man of mixed race with an activist agenda and a name that made him sound like a Muslim. 

In response, the Old America mounted a counterrevolution and picked Trump to lead it on a platform of backward-looking nationalism. Now, energised by Trump’s utter hatefulness, the New is going to come storming back and deal the GOP such a crushing defeat that it will have to reinvent itself or die.

So, at least, argues Greenberg, and he does have his finger on the electorate’s pulse more firmly than most. He has conducted the surveys and focus groups that back his case. Hillary Clinton has herself admitted that she ignored his advice in 2016 — pay more attention to the white working class — to her cost.

“The pessimism of the intellect, the optimism of the will” is another Gramsci-ismthat fits nicely with these times. There are moments in “RIP GOP”, with its signs of hasty editing, when one worries that will may be getting the better of intellect. And while I would never call my choice to replace Trump “infantile”, I do worry that Elizabeth Warren, though no Sanders,  may be a little further to the left than even the New America is ready to accept.

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