“Hegemony Protected by the Armour of Coercion”: Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and the State

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Abstract

This article argues that Dashiell Hammett's 1929 novel Red Harvest is best understood in the context of the consolidation and expansion of the US state following the First World War and the Russian Revolution. It also argues that Hammett's novel constitutes a highly significant articulation of theoretical debates about the nature of political authority and state power in the modern era and speaks about the transition of one state formation to another. Insofar as Red Harvest explores the way in which the state's coercive and ethical character are bound up together, this article argues that Hammett's novel draws upon an understanding of political authority and state power primarily derived from Gramsci, via Marx. Gramsci insists that control cannot be maintained through force alone (and his conception of hegemony, in turn, suggests a power bloc that can become fragmented and disunited in a war of position). In the same way, Red Harvest traces the transformation of the “economic-corporate” state into the expanded or “ethical” State but crucially any ethical dimension, as Gramsci notes, is always beholden to the needs of the capitalist economy. As such, the apparently arbitrary bloodshed in the novel is conceived as a relatively minor realignment in the ranks of the capitalist classes – certainly less serious than the miners' strike that prefigures the novel. What makes this realignment significant is that it calls attention to the state both as repressive and as a site of conflict and compromise. Here, the work performed by the Continental Op and by the crime novel in general – simultaneously buttressing and, to some extent, contesting the power of the state – needs to be understood as part of the process by which the state is consistently enacting hegemony (albeit protected by the armour of coercion). The article concludes by pointing out that while Gramsci is perhaps too willing to dwell upon the state's expanded reach, Red Harvest is more interested in examining possible “cracks and fissures” in the state formation, even if the critique it ultimately offers goes nowhere and yields nothing.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)333-349
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of American Studies
Volume44
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - May 2010

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