Revisiting a Classic: Roll, Jordan, Roll and Hegemony

Cover of the first paperback edition of Genovese’s monograph.

A spectre continues to haunt the historiography of slavery in the United States – the spectre of Eugene Genovese’s “nettlesome” classic on enslaved people’s culture in the antebellum United States.  That classic is Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. Over the past decades Genovese’s masterpiece has been subject to a number of different criticisms, but none more common than one I consider to be a vulgar misreading of Genovese’s work.

It’s a misinterpretation voiced by Walter Johnson in his 2001 revisiting of the book for the online journal Common Place, and it goes something like this. In trying to understand why there were comparatively few slave revolts in the antebellum United States, Genovese deploys the concept of paternalism. Paternalism, for Genovese, denoted the way in which the class rule of slaveholders was consolidated in a form of cultural hegemony, understood in the Gramscian sense of ruling by “consent,” strictly counterposed to rule by coercion. As Johnson explained it: “[T]he Gramscian notion of cultural hegemony is a theory of the transformation of rule into consent. At certain moments in time, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued, rule by a single class can be enforced not through violence, but through general, if unwitting, assent to a set of limiting definitions of the field of the politically possible.” Note the dichotomous “not through…but through” construction.

In Johnson’s view this aspect of Geneovese’s argument is highly problematic. When one considers the “balance of power” between slaveholder and slave, and how that balance was “continually made clear to enslaved people through the periodic outbursts of vigilante and state terror” (as well as the beatings and intimidation that were routine on plantations), Johnson believes that it is “hard to argue that Southern slaveholders ever transformed rule into consent–that they ever, in the final instance, succeeded in ruling by anything other than force.” Having evacuated hegemony of any conception of force or coercion from his notion of hegemonic “consent,” Johnson pointed to the ubiquitous and indeed naked violence of the slave system to explode the very theoretical premises upon which Genovese constructs his argument.

But I would contend that this critique of Genovese via Gramsci rests on a strawman of both.

How can one claim that Genovese was not attuned to the pervasive violence of the slave system, and the role that said violence played as a necessary prop to the slave system, in light of such quotes as “Life in the Big House, with its affection and hatreds, its interracial attachments and intolerance, its extraordinary kindnesses and uncontrollable violence, represented in all these contradictions paternalism in its most heightened form” (p. 363)? Or clearer still: “Master and slave had both ‘agreed’ on the paternalistic basis of their relationship, the one from reasons of self-aggrandizement and the other from lack of an alternative. But they understood very different things by their apparently common assent. And every manifestation of that contradiction threatened the utmost violence” (p. 148). The possibility of violence, in other words, hung like Damocles’ sword over the carefully choreographed performance of the asymmetrically reciprocal obligations and duties that defined paternalism. And the threat compelled enslaved people into accepting the status quo, overladen with paternalistic culture, as the least-worst of the realizable alternatives. The idea that Genovese denied or downplayed this universal dimension of the slave system conflicts directly with these passages, and more passages still which I haven’t the space or, I hope, the need to reproduce.

Antonio Gramsci, Italian communist.

It also rests on a caricature of Gramsci’s understanding of how hegemony operates in relation to the use of force. Bourgeois commentators have long reduced Gramsci’s central concepts, as they have with those of Marx before him, into a set of empiricist-positivist categories that are then “tested” by being applied to distinct arenas of the concrete-historical world of social activity. According to this methodology, Gramsci was interested in the state as a distinct region of society empirically counterposed to civil society, hegemonic “consent” empirically counterposed to violence and force, just as Marx was supposedly concerned with the “base” as empirically counterposed to the so-called “superstructure.” When historical reality – surprise, surprise, — turns out not to line up with these overly neat models of discretely compartmentalized sovereign zones of social reality, hands are thrown up, sarcastic criticisms are leveled, and great thinkers are dismissed as starry-eyed dreamers—or worse, doctrinaire fanatics so deluded in their visions of the future that they assume the mantle of incipient authoritarianism (read: Stalinism).

In contrast to the positivist interpretation, we see in Gramsci’s prison notebooks the following elaboration of the relationship between state and civil society: “‘Civil society,’ (that is, the ensemble of organisms commonly called ‘private’) and … ‘political society or state’ correspond on the one hand to the function of ‘hegemony’ that the dominant group exercises in the entire society and on the other hand to the function of ‘direct domination’ or command which is expressed in the State and in ‘juridical’ government [che si esprime nello Stato e nel governo ‘giuridico’].” For our purposes, the point is made clearer in a later text, wherein Gramsci drives the point home specifically about violence and consent in the context of a discussion about classical republicanism: “the ‘normal’ exercise of hegemony on the now classical terrain of the parliamentary regime is characterised by a combination of force and consent, which counterbalance each other [si equilibrano], without force predominating excessively over consent; rather, it appears to be based on the consent of the majority, expressed by the so-called organs of public opinion.” Note that force is always there in the system. It is always, perhaps, even predominant. It is just not “excessively” so.

Notice that these normally dichotomized concepts are described as functions within social reality, and no attempt is made to delineate them spatially or geographically or temporally. They are modes through which power operates, and not mutually exclusive ones when looking at a concrete historical institution like slavery. Rather, they are dialectically interpenetrated aspects of a political formation, feeding off one another, requiring one another, and setting each other in a delicate equilibrium of relative stability. In much the same way as contending classes constitute a unity of opposites within a social formation, violence/force forms a unity of opposites with ‘consent’ – not as externally related discrete objects, then, but as internally related functions. Hegemony – like class society more generally – is produced and reproduced within the contours of forcibly imposed boundaries, not outside of them or beyond them.

What is the nature of the “consent” to which Gramsci alluded above, upon which Genovese relied in his discussion of paternalism, and on which our erstwhile critic Johnson set his historical sights? Is it a “consent” of wholehearted endorsement and agreement by a hoodwinked population of enslaved people who aren’t aware of the possibility of the violence they themselves could deploy against their masters, or of the possibility of violence those masters could deploy in the event that an enslaved person crosses a red line?

Of course not. For Gramsci and Genovese, hegemony consists not in some kind of liberal model of consensus among freely choosing participants. It consists of the coerced and sedimented layers of cultural practices, performances, and routines that grow in the interstices between slaves’ desire to end the horrors of slavery, and their conscious acceptance that any desire to do so would result in even greater horrors for themselves in light of the balance of forces never really hidden from the surface of their daily existence. Herein lies Gramsci’s distinction between active consent, and passive consent. It would require a remarkable feat of suspending disbelief to contend that enslaved people ever accepted or “consented to” the legitimacy or desirability of the slave system.

What they did do was accommodate themselves to it out of fear that the costs were simply too high to resist in certain collective forms at any given moment. Constantly surveiled, intimidated, whipped into a state of mind unwilling to countenance the fashioning of a counter-hegemonic project among themselves, enslaved people in the antebellum south – for the most part – engaged in acts of resistance not geared toward overthrowing slavery as a system, but rather toward positioning themselves as individuals within an order whose existence they felt compelled, by threat of force, to accept as a fait accompli.

That was paternalism. That was hegemony. And Genovese, I think, was right.


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