This diary was written at the invitation of the Anti-Capitalist meetup, where most of the members are much more highly qualified to discuss the finer points of various Marxist philosophies and their derivatives than I am. However, I am also writing for anyone who might be interested in how academic theories can and do impact the culture in which our daily lives take place.
For those of you who have a background in fields where Gramsci is considered part of the canon, the following could seem an oversimplification of a very complicated subject. However if you are unfamiliar with his work, join me below the decorative doodle, but be advised that the most interesting part of diaries such as this one are often the alternative interpretations, arguments and commentaries in the following thread.
Who was Antonio Gramsci, and why should we care about his theories? He was an Italian Communist whose work in the early twentieth century elaborated on that of Marx through combining it with theories of the liberal Italian political philosopher, Benedetto Croce, as well as those of Machiavelli. Because he was a Marxist, and his work was written in the early twentieth century when social conditions were much different, he is generally unknown in the US outside of some academic fields such as critical theory and economics. His reception outside of Italy has been sporadic but cumulative. The Russians published his writings after Stalinism became discredited in the late 1950s. He also became popular within the European left wing during the 1960s and 70s, and came to the attention of UK and American academics when Selections from the Prison Notebooks became available in English in 1971. His posthumous importance stems from two things: he explained why Marxism hadn’t been embraced in countries that seemingly would have benefitted from an overturn of the status quo, and his work can be loosely interpreted to inform critical analysis of everything from gender and minority studies to media theory
This diary can only cover a tiny portion of Gramsci’s work, but some of his more important principles show how certain groups come to be dominant in a culture (hegemony) by influencing people’s innate understanding of themselves and the world around them (common sense) through a long process of dialogue between groups within a society (war of position). A very similar method for changing cultural perspective was proposed by Joseph Overton of Overton Window fame for the right-wing Mackinak Center for Public Policy. Changing public perception was considered dangerous enough that, in Gramsci’s own time, a prosecutor once said, “For twenty years we should keep this brain from working”. (Forgacs)
Marx had based his work on the economic self-interest of the working class, but outside of Russia other proletarian groups had been less successful at changing their own economic systems. Gramsci, questioned why radical reform of Italian society was inherently difficult:
There was no adequate Marxist theory of the State or of what Gramsci called ‘the sphere of the complex superstructures’: political, legal, cultural. In order to conduct his analysis, therefore, Gramsci needed to make a theoretical critique of mechanistic forms of historical materialism.” (Forgacs)In contrast to both Marx, who thought that takeover of the means of production would produce political change, Gramsci believed that the base (economic structures) and the superstructure (culture, the law, and politics) were inherently interrelated and that change could be brought about by slowly changing the make-up of those who had hegemonic control from capitalists to the marginalised workers by changing people’s “common sense”, the way that they thought about themselves and their world, to reflect a different set of future possibilities.
Common sense, in his sense of the term, was an amalgamation of different and sometimes conflicting beliefs that could be imposed from outside sources as well as from personal experience.
Many elements in popular common sense contribute to people’s subordination by making situations of inequality and oppression appear to them as natural and unchangeable. Nevertheless common sense must not be thought of as ‘false consciousness”…it is contradictory- it contains elements of truth as well as elements of misrepresentation- and it is upon these contradictions that leverage may be obtained in a struggle of political hegemonies. (Forgacs)Gramsci’s definition of hegemony arose from the political commentary of the Russian Social Democracy, where it meant leadership of an alliance between the working class and land-based peasants. In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci broadened the concept to describe historical rule by any group. He also used it to mean cultural, moral and ideological leadership, which constantly changes and rebalances, eventually influencing who is in power and who reaps economic benefit. Overturning a dominant hegemony through changing people’s perception required mass education and encouraging intellectual activity, especially by those coming from the marginalised working class, a process which later theorists extended to women and minorities. This constant rebalancing and negotiation is part of what Gramsci called a “war of position” which he compares to a siege, as a long and arduous process. He felt this form of struggle was particularly necessary in Western countries, as their existing civil societies were particularly robust and resistant to change. He contrasted this with the “war of manoeuvre”, a frontal attack on an existing government. He used the example the Russian revolution as a successful war of manoeuvre as both economic and civil systems there had been ripe for change.
The war of position has a lot in common with the Overton Window, though as formerly unthinkable right-wing ideas and radical personalities become more accepted and then poular, we on the left fear the resulting change. Likewise, right-wing theorists, despite enthusiastic pushing of the Overton Window, express a fear of Gramsci’s influence. John Fonte, writing for the Hoover Institution, on “Why There is a Culture War: Gramsci and Tocqueville in America”(2000), blames the work of Neo-Gramscians for current corporate, political, and educational standards, a trend he truly believes threatens American culture :
While economic Marxism appears to be dead, the Hegelian variety articulated by Gramsci and others has not only survived the fall of the Berlin Wall, but also gone on to challenge the American republic at the level of its most cherished ideas. For more than two centuries America has been an "exceptional" nation, one whose restless entrepreneurial dynamism has been tempered by patriotism and a strong religious-cultural core. The ultimate triumph of Gramscianism would mean the end of this very "exceptionalism." America would at last become Europeanized: statist, thoroughly secular, post-patriotic, and concerned with group hierarchies and group rights in which the idea of equality before the law as traditionally understood by Americans would finally be abandoned. Beneath the surface of our seemingly placid times, theFonte’s piece was quoted widely in other right-wing contexts from the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal to Free Republic, where a writer protests:
ideological, political, and historical stakes are enormous. (Fonte 2000)
Why it is that we suffer a way of thinking that attempts to coerce us intellectually? Look around. How many times have you heard: You must not be "judgmental" or "intolerant." What does that mean in Gramscian terms? It means: You must accept our values and not argue. If you do not you are out the mainstream. Remember the Gramscian objective of turning their ideas into "common sense"?I would argue that, despite obvious examples of racism such as the Trayvon Martin shooting and its justification on FOX and other right-wing outlets. The “common sense” which threatens the WSJ and Freepers is moving slowly in the direction of more inclusiveness and tolerance, and should be considered at least a partial success. Even in corporate culture, Fonte complains that private corporations are more supportive of gay rights than government agencies, a turn for the better even among entities that we on the left consider part of the dominant hegemony. Perhaps corporations have become convinced that inclusiveness works to their economic advantage, but a Gramscian war of position is a process of negotiation and considering the self-interest of the parties is part of that process. Neo-Gramscian Nicole Pratt says,
Democratization is not only about allowing multi-party elections or enabling the independence of the judiciary, but also about reconfiguring relations of power in order to open spaces for pluralism, diversity and inclusiveness. This necessarily entails challenging monolithic representations of national culture that impose unity to the detriment of the rights of individual citizens. (2005, p.90)However, while Pratt sees inclusion as upholding the rights of the individual, Fonte sees it as privileging groups of people (gays, minorities, women) over individuals, and it is here that we on the left need to complete our work toward shifting the national culture toward a more inclusive model and by doing so, eventually achieving economic parity for us all. Convincing the majority of the people that previously marginalised groups are comprised of individuals who have equal right to be part of the national culture is part of the process by which the accepted “common sense” in our culture will become open to the proposition that no one group of people has the automatic right to political or economic hegemony.
Sources used aside from those linked:
Forgacs, David (2000) The Antonio Gramsci Reader, London: Routledge
Harris, David (1992) From Class Struggle to the Politics of Pleasure, London: Routledge
Jones, Steven (2006) Antonio Gramsci, London: Routledge