Monday, February 27, 2012

Gramsci's analysis of hegemony

The following outline on Gramsci and hegemony was originally posted on another blog I had attempted to maintain. The final presentation deviated from this outline to some extent, but I believe that the outline still may be of use.



  • Gramsci was an Italian Marxist who was Secretary of the Italian Communist Party, and was consequently imprisoned by the fascist government in 1926 until he died in prison in 1937. One of the issues Gramsci addressed in his Prison Notebooks was the need to explain the rise of the fascist state, which was obviously opposed to the interests of the Italian workers.
  • Hegemony as an effort to give the present order and power structure, which is in actuality a product of historical circumstances, the appearance of the "natural order" of things. The values of the bourgeoisie are internalized as the "common sense" values of the proletariat.
  • Much of the time, the majority of the population (at least in the North) is ruled by ideas and their own concept of the "natural" order rather than by direct force or coercion.
    Marx: "the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class"
  • Every state is ultimately a dictatorship, but it will not generally bare its teeth unless it faces a serious challenge to its power and/or its legitimacy.
    e.g. the authoritarian response to the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US
  • Two levels of the state:
    • Civil society: churches, NGOs, clubs, parties
    • Political society: Apparatuses that exercise direct dominion over the population, e.g., military, police, courts
  • Intellectuals are key to maintaining capitalism's (and the state's) hegemony in civil society. They "manufacture consent" among the ruled.
  • Every person is an intellectual, but not all persons fulfill the social role of intellectual. Two types of intellectuals exist in class society:
    • Traditional intellectuals - See themselves (incorrectly) as apart from any particular class or interest.
      e.g. "objective" scientific policy, technocrats
    • Organic intellectuals - Thinking persons produced "organically" by different classes and groups in society, including the ruling class. Dissident organic intellectuals linked to oppressed classes.
      e.g. Organic intellectuals linked to the ruling class: Milton Friedman, Alan Dershowitz
      e.g. Organic intellectuals linked to marginalized groups: Malcolm X, Emiliano Zapata, Oscar Romero
    • "it is the intellectual's task to show how the group is not a natural or god-given entity but is a constructed, manufactured, even in some cases invented object, with a history of struggle and conquest behind it" (Said)
  • No hegemony is entirely complete, certain forms of resistance are typically tolerated, particularly if they provide an outlet for dissent that does not endanger the state itself. This tolerance dissipates as a state's hegemony grows weaker.
    e.g. Obama's decision to assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki
  • Authoritarianism is the compliment to hegemony. When a state loses or fails to gain hegemony in civil society, it resorts to force and intimidation.
    e.g. Pinochet in Chile, Castillo in Guatemala, Stalin in Russia, US in contemporary Iraq
  • When no generally-accepted worldview supportive of the state is established in civil society, "politics is the direct and unrefined expression of the dictatorship in the economic sphere" (Gramsci)
  • Parliament and elections are merely formal (and often falsified) representations of democracy---the actual content of the state is predetermined by those with power, in conjunction with the media (which also serves the state)
  • Gramsci's theory of hegemony compliments Lenin's theory of imperialism (and the labor aristocracy) in the international realm.
  • Imperial states prefer to rule through hegemony rather than brute force, yet begin resorting readily to the latter when the former dissolves. Contemporary US rhetoric and assaults on Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel's slaughter of Palestinians as examples
  • Public opinion is the link between civil and political society, and winning its approval or marginalizing it is key to maintaining hegemony. When the state undertakes an unpopular action, it invests significant effort into winning public approval
    e.g. US invasions of Vietnam and Iraq, illegal mining of Nicaraguan harbors
  • Masses break free of the ruling class' hegemony through direct struggle and the production of their own intellectuals. This is a continuation of Marx and Engels' theories of political struggle.
  • An organic crisis in the state's hegemony is an opportunity, but it also presents a danger
    • If progressive forces backed by the masses capture the state, then the state can progress towards greater democracy and social justice. However, if progressive forces fail to maintain hegemony, the state can relapse into authoritarianism or descend into totalitarianism.
    • If reactionary forces capture the state, and their "mandarins" fail to calm the masses, then the state can descend into some form of fascism or face total annihilation.
  • "An old order cannot be made to vanish simply by pointing out its evils" (Bates) Progressive forces need to present a superior (viable, but not necessarily perfect) alternative to the status quo.