The title for this blog comes from the work of Antonio Gramsci, a critical influence on my thinking. There is a great deal of excellent work on Gramsci’s ideas out there (see below), work that is likely a better introduction than I can provide. However, it seems worth offering a brief outline of those portions of his work that most interest me, Domination, Hegemony and Counter-Hegemony. First, a few biographical notes.
Gramsci was born in Sardinia in 1891. He attended the University of Turin on scholarship and joined the Socialist Party there in 1914. While in Turin he made a name for himself as a journalist and leader in Turin’s factory council movement. He joined a Socialist congress walkout and in 1921 helped to form the Communist Party of Italy, which he became leader of. Between 1922 and 1926, Gramsci and the party struggled against the rise of Italian fascism under Mussolini. Political repression was rampant and reached a head in 1926 under a new set of emergency laws. Gramsci was arrested, despite supposed parliamentary immunity, and his trial was little more than a show. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Gramsci suffered from health complications his entire life and his time in prison aggravated these problems. Due to the severity of his condition, only eight years after his arrest Gramsci transferred to a guarded hospital in Rome where he spent the last two years of his life before his death in 1937. Much of Gramsci’s work comes from a series of notebooks he kept while in prison. The notebooks themselves cover a wide array of topics and their translation and interpretation has been the focus of numerous scholars since their first appearance in 1946. There are three elements of his work that I would like to discuss here – his writings on domination, hegemony and counter-hegemony – and I will be adding more of these ‘conceptual summaries’ on a ongoing basis.
Domination and Hegemony
Gramsci theorized that dominant groups maintain their position through a mix of sheer force (coercion through political society) and, more importantly, with the active participation of the subordinate groups (consent through hegemony in civil society).
The use of coercion in the process of domination is the domain of what he calls ‘political society, ‘ meaning “the armed forces, police, law courts and prisons, together with all the administrative departments concerning taxation finance, trade, industry, social security, etc.” (Simon, 1990:71). In Gramsci’s view, however, these are only a portion of the state’s domination framework. Indeed, the role of political society, the “apparatus of state coercive power,” is to enforce “discipline on those groups who do not ‘consent'” (Gramsci, 2003:12). The state, or dominant group, only turns to coercive tactics if efforts to manufacture consent fail. Consent to domination, the second portion of Gramsci’s formula of power, is developed within civil society. It is an internalized form of domination that differs from the external, “direct domination” achieved through the coercive force of political society (Gramsci, 2003:12). Civil society is the sphere within which the state pursues (and maintains) hegemony, a social order where “a common social-moral language is spoken, in which one concept of reality is dominant, informing with its spirit all modes of thought and behaviour” (Femia, 1981:24).
Hegemony, however, is not simply achieved through the alignment of the free choices of subordinate groups. Consent is actively manufactured within civil society; hegemony is pursued through “extremely complex mediums, diverse institutions, and constantly changing processes” (Buttigieg, 1995:7). “Through their presence and participation in various institutions, cultural activities, and many other forms of social interaction, the dominant classes ‘lead’ the society in certain directions” (Buttigieg, 2005:44). Hegemony operates through the social institutions of civil society: the church, the educational system, the press, all the bodies which help create in people certain modes of behaviour and expectations consistent with the hegemonic social order. Gramsci’s civil society “is best described not as the sphere of freedom but of hegemony” (Buttigieg, 1995:6).
Gramsci conceived of two methods for challenging hegemony: a ‘war of maneuver’ and a ‘war of position,’ best understood as points on a continuum rather than mutually exclusive options. A ‘war of maneuver’ involves physically overwhelming the coercive apparatus of the state. However, the success of this strategy depends on the nature of the state’s hegemony, that is, its position within civil society. In a comparison of the state in Czarist Russia with that in liberal democracies (referred to as the East and the West respectively), Gramsci notes that the strength of the latter lies in a sturdy civil society [here Gramsci uses the term State to mean government, or political society, as opposed to his more broad definition used elsewhere and throughout this text (i.e. State= political society + civil society)]:
In the East the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between State and civil society, and when the state tottered, a sturdy structure of civil society was immediately revealed. The State was just a forward trench; behind it stood a succession of sturdy fortresses and emplacements. (Gramsci, 2007:169)
In modern liberal democracies, direct confrontation (armed uprising, general strike, etc.) will not threaten the dominant groups so long as their credibility and authority is firmly rooted in civil society. Buttigieg notes, “civil society, in other words, far from being a threat to political society in a liberal democracy, reinforces it—this is the fundamental meaning of hegemony” (Buttigieg, 2005:41).
However, Gramsci does not give up on the notion of radical change in liberal democracies, he was a writer principally focused on a radical transformation of capitalist society. His central concern was “how might a more equitable and just order be brought about, and what is it about how people live and imagine their lives in particular times and places that advances or hampers progress to this more equitable and just order” (Crehan, 2002:71). Consequently, it was his view that “one should refrain from facile rhetoric about direct attacks against the State and concentrate instead on the difficult and immensely complicated tasks that a ‘war of position’ within civil society entails” (Buttigieg, 2005:41). Described by Gramsci as “the only viable possibility in the West,” a ‘war of position’ is resistance to domination with culture, rather than physical might, as its foundation (Gramsci, 2007:168). Cox succinctly describes a ‘war of position’ as process which “slowly builds up the strength of the social foundations of a new state” by “creating alternative institutions and alternative intellectual resources within existing society” (Cox, 1983:165). For Gramsci, issues of culture are what lie at the heart of any revolutionary project; culture is “how class is lived,” it shapes how people see their world and how they maneuver within in it and, more importantly, “it shapes their ability to imagine how it might be changed, and whether they see such changes as feasible or desirable” (Crehan, 2002:71). The complex program of radical social change in a modern liberal democracy, as described by Gramsci, involves more than anything, developing a strong and dynamic culture capable of establishing the necessary institutions for a subversion of hegemony. It with this mindset that I approach my work and the things I post here.
Works Cited and Recommended Reading
Buttigieg, J.A. 1995. “Gramsci on Civil Society” Boundary 2, 22(3): 1-32.
— 2002. “On Gramsci” Daedalus, 131(3), 67-70.
— 2005. “The Contemporary Discourse on Civil Society: A Gramscian Critique” Boundary 2, 32(1), 33-52
Cox, R. 1983. “Gramsci, Hegemony and International Relations: An Essay in Method” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 12(2):162-175
Crehan, K. 2002. Gramsci, Culture and Anthropology. 1st ed. University of California Press.
Femia, J. V. 1981. Gramsci’s Political Thought: Hegemony, Consciousness, and the Revolutionary Process. Oxford: Clarendon.
Gramsci, A. 2003. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Hoare, Q., Nowell Smith, G., eds. New York: International Publishers.
— 2007. Prison Notebooks, Volume 3. trans. J.A. Buttigieg. Columbia University Press.
Simon, R. 1990. Gramsci’s Political Thought: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Lawrence & Wishart Ltd.