Deriving from course notes and draft texts, Louis Althusser’s Machiavelli and Us has not perhaps attracted as much attention as it deserves given the rich re-readings it delivers not only of Machiavelli but also Gramsci. Recently, though, Jon Beasley-Murray released a blog post, also entitled ‘Machiavelli and Us’, which delivers a fresh intervention. What does it offer?

There are strained nods to different interpretations of Althusser’s text. So it is accepted that Althusser’s book, ‘does its darnedest to present Machiavelli as a theorist of hegemony’. It is granted that, following Gramsci, Althusser affirms Machiavelli as a theorist of the fragmented process of state formation marking the Italian peninsula. But there is also a swiftness, a hasty shift of gear, an inattentive rush to quickly claim an alternative appropriation of Machiavelli, of Gramsci, and of Althusser. It is claimed that in Althusser ‘there is a posthegemonic reading of Machiavelli that is constantly escaping and perhaps threatening to overwhelm Althusser’s otherwise Gramscian insistence on hegemony’.

But whose reading is it that claims that there is no hegemony, that the concept and condition has been displaced by the politics of posthegemony? Who is doing the posthegemonic reading and what does posthegemony mean? The reading and the meaning is not from Gramsci. Nor is it from Althusser or Machiavelli. This is Jon Beasley-Murray’s appropriation. And yet authorial ownership of the appropriation is only vaguely articulated. If there is ‘a posthegemonic reading of Machiavelli’ let’s at least be more self-reflexive about who is doing the interpretation and what is missing as a result.

When approaching the reading of texts, it is key to be clear in our own minds what activity we are performing in terms of interpreting, appropriating, or negotiating a text, as outlined in my blog post ‘Reading Gramsci’. Unfortunately, Jon Beasley-Murray shirks any engagement within such interpretative groundwork and the costs are high. He delivers a skewed appropriation of the text(s) he engages that can be revealed as highly selective readings whereby the ideas of Machiavelli, Gramsci, and Althusser are taken up and used for his own purposes.

Rejecting any notion of delivering meaning by interpretation, based on establishing the ‘truth’ within the meaning of a text, my argument is that a more fruitful way of establishing meaning is through negotiation. This means highlighting that the meaning of given texts written in the past can and do alter. At the same time, background conditions set a limit to the range of possible readings that might legitimately be given to a specific text by an individual reader living in a particular society at a certain moment in time. Negotiation represents in effect some sort of dialogue between the author of the text and its reader. The meaning of a text and the ideas which they contain can and do alter over time.

First off, then, my negotiation with Althusser (and thus Machiavelli and Gramsci) would highlight something entirely absent from Jon Beasley-Murray’s appropriation. That is the way in which Althusser is working within a dispositif to question processes in the making of modern state formation in Italy set against the backdrop of early modern Europe. As Gregory Elliot clarifies in his introduction, a dispositif is a mode of enquiry that states a series of general theses on history that can be contradictory, yet they are organised in such a way as to generate concepts that are not deducible from them in their singularity. In my understanding, this means rubbing up against each other the ideas and the conditions within which they arise in order to produce something anew. The main innovation that Althusser delivers in Machiavelli and Us is a dispositif on state formation that does not place the texts of Machiavelli and Gramsci outside space. Rather, these texts are inserted in specific conjunctures relating to Italy and its fragmented process of historical state formation. In Machiavelli, to quote Althusser, ‘we are dealing with something quite different from simple descriptions: namely, an uneven development, a genuine difference that poses the problem of Italy and fixes its historical task’ (19). The texts of The Prince and the Discourses are thus inscribed in the space of political practice shaping the modern Italian state. In Althusser’s words (18):

Machiavelli merely registers in his theoretical position a problem that is objectively, historically posed by the case of the conjuncture: not simply by intellectual comparisons, but by the confrontation of existing class forces and their relationship of uneven development.

For Althusser, Machiavelli is a theoretician of the national state and absolutism, a transitional state between feudalism and capitalism, which ‘the Prince’ needed to forge in order to overcome division and invasion. That, Althusser states in conclusion, is why Machiavelli ‘is perhaps one of the few witnesses to what I shall call primitive political accumulation, one of the few theoreticians of the beginnings of the national state’ (125 original emphasis). For Gramsci, it was the task of historical materialism and the ‘Modern Prince’ to negotiate and shape a different conception of politics as a process of ‘“becoming” in a “concordia discors” [discordant concord] that does not have unity for its point of departure but contains within itself the reasons for a possible unity’.

Calls, then, to analytically displace hegemony and move towards a posthegemonic politics should be resisted. A posthegemonic condition, according to Jon Beasley-Murray in his book Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America, refers to the presumption that ideology critique is now superfluous in an age where affective relations or bodily dispositions are regnant. As detailed in my book Revolution and State in Modern Mexico, such an extremist take and its attempt to decentre analysis from the strategic field of the state merely collapses into what Nicos Poulantzas would call a ‘pluralism of micropowers’, conceiving ever more microcosms of meaning within a world of individuated actors. What is specifically troubling about posthegemony arguments is something Raymond Williams long ago articulated: an antipathy towards recognising determinations in any shape or form and the acceptance of total contingency when attempting to assess relations of force in the struggle for hegemony. That is, surely, the point of negotiating with Machiavelli, Gramsci, Althusser and us.

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