June 26, 2012

Despite its overuse and/or abuse by various theoretical schools, the concept of hegemony developed by Antonio Gramsci is something that I have more and more come to believe is extremely useful for revolutionary communists. Unfortunately, the word has become a synonym for a rather banal, and perhaps even idealist, concept of power employed by post-structuralists and post-modernists. Theorists will speak off-handedly of “the hegemony”, or how they are interested in “counter-hegemony”, or how something is somehow “hegemonic”, and that bad-bad-bad hegemony. (Sometimes, and this is an especially American phenomenon, they will pronounce the word with a hard g––which is really neither here nor there but, for some reason I cannot really explain, bugs the hell out of me.)

We can trace the appropriation and misuse of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, perhaps, to Edward Said’s Orientalism. And though I love Said and feel that Orientalism is a foundational theoretical work, I also feel that it is sadly flawed in so many ways: how it dismisses marxism with a single passage, how it relies too much on Foucault and thus undermines some of its own assertions, and how it somehow thinks that it can blast Gramscian concepts out of their historical materialist context and apply them, as if theory is an all you can eat buffet, in contexts where they do not necessarily belong. Following Said there was an explosion of post-colonial theory that relied heavily on Gramscian concepts but, like Said, did damage to these concepts (hegemony, subaltern) in an attempt to hammer them into a post-structuralist mould.

The post-structuralist obsessive theories of power conditions this misuse of Gramsci. Totalizing power, biopower, power deployed genealogically, always inescapable and ineffable power at the root of even the subject… An idealist notion of power to be sure because this power is something that often appears to be transhistorical, is ultimately not generated by anything except itself (for the subject is a myth, we are told, and cannot produce anything––in truth it is fully produced), and is thus akin to some Platonic form. And when those of us who are critical marxists argue that you cannot speak of power unless you are willing to also qualify its material meaning––is it economic or political, reactionary or progressive?––this anti-marxist critical tradition would have us believe that to even ask these questions is itself the result of discursive power relations. Yes, I know I am simplifying here but I am not interested in taking the piss out of post-modern philosophy. Rather, I am interested in noting how Gramsci has been simplified and appropriated by this theoretical tradition: hegemony becomes a synonym for this idealist concept of power, is thus treated as something malicious (saying the hegemony is often tantamount to saying, for secular post-structuralists, the devil), and counter-hegemony becomes the progressive solution to hegemony.

And yet Gramsci’s theorization of hegemony had nothing to do with this almost moralistic––post-structuralist complaints about the construction of morality notwithstanding––understanding of his concept. Rather, hegemony is a way of understanding the marxist theory of ideology as well as what it means to build a revolutionary movement against capitalism and possible problems encountered in the building of socialism. That is, it is not simply just a theorization of some bare notion of power, some moralistic complaint about the oppressive power, but about the general relationship of power and ideology. Most importantly, and this is why I keep coming back to it in discussions and meditations about concrete organizing, Gramsci’s theory of hegemony concerns real problems encountered in the real world regarding how to build something that is properly revolutionary.

All of this is to say that I’ve found myself relying on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony whenever I’m arguing for the necessity of a revolutionary party and what that might mean concretely, even if I don’t use the word hegemony or the name Gramsci. And when I encounter the word in my students’ readings, not entirely surprised to discover it in a text that is not in the least bit Gramscian let alone marxist, I often feel the need to go to the blackboard and attempt to diagram the basic Gramscian understanding of the concept in order to clarify terms. Perhaps I find myself returning to Gramsci in these instances because my doctoral supervisor was a consummate scholar of Gramsci who, though failing to get me to filter everything through Gramsci in my dissertation, succeeded in lodging Gramscian categories in the back of my mind.

In any case, Gramsci’s theory of hegemony “is a tool intended to answer the question, how does a society manage to create the kind of conformism that makes it run smoothly without the need for state intervention or coercion?” [Esteve Morera, “Antonio Gramsci”, in the Avenel Companion to Modern Social Theory] When it comes to capitalism, this question is meant to interrogate why people are so willing to conform to the terms of capitalism and accept capitalist ideological justification for capitalist oppression as common sense. For Gramsci, the supremacy of the class in power results in:

“the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental social group, a consent that arises ‘historically’ from the prestige (and hence the confidence) which the dominant group derives from its position and function in the mode of production.” [Gramsci, Quaderni 4]

In other words, the ruling ideas of the ruling class become a mirror for the values desired by ruled class. The values of the dominant class are treated as more valuable, because we are socialized to believe that these ideas predominate because they are more valuable, and so are treated as standard of value. Thus, argues Morera in his analysis of Gramsci, “consensus must be understood not simply as the spontaneous willingness of individuals to consent to a moral order, but rather as the set of conditions that make that willingness possible. For hegemony is the organization of a collective will: to create a new hegemony means to organize the will of individuals so that in their free actions they nevertheless choose within permissible limits, limits that are set by the interests of the ruling group.” [I am using Morera for two reasons: he is an important Gramscian; he is also the thesis supervisor who taught me Gramsci.]

This is why the bourgeois order doesn’t need to rely on coercion as the main recourse to maintaining its power. Better that the proletariat consent to bourgeois rule because it treats the bourgeois orders, and bourgeois ideology, as common sense. As Machiavelli argued in The Prince, a text that partially inspired Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, it is better for people to consent to being ruled rather than being coerced––though the threat of coercion (i.e. the police, the military) should always be present in order to dissuade those who might not consent to their domination.

Obviously, when the theory of hegemony is applied to the current order of capitalism it is easy to relegate it to the moralistic category of bad. This is why post-modernists are so obsessed with some half-baked notion of “counter-hegemony” that is somehow not hegemony and instead a quasi notion of anti-power. But the reason why I find Gramsci so important in an organizational sense is that this theory is simply a description of class power and ideology and not at all loaded with the moralistic garbage that it has somehow been forced to adopt.

We need to ask this important question: how did the bourgeoisie successfully become hegemonic? It’s not as if one day it usurped the aristocracy and suddenly its ideas were essentially hegemonic––that is, common sense. People did not consent to its rule, for example, in that sudden and violent moment in one place in the world when a bunch of nobles lost their heads. Nor did this moment of crystallizing bourgeois power happen without the organization of a class force to counter the hegemony of the nobility. Before capitalism, after all, feudalism was hegemonic and people consented to the values of its dominant class. Take feudal Western Europe as an example: the values of the “Great Chain of Being”, the divine right of kings, and everything that now seems like so much garbage was the default common sense. Thus, the rising bourgeois class in various nations could not declare its victory outside of a historical process that, as it gained more power economically, established its world order politically.

So this is what a Gramscian notion of “counter-hegemony” actually means. Not some mundane concept of anti-hegemony, but the process of a class to establish the power of its class rule. It is not as if the ruling tributary classes of Europe stepped aside because the nascent bourgeoisie was already commanding economic power; they didn’t just, one day, all get together with the various bourgeois groups in various states and say “hey, it’s clear that we’re now economically obsolete so we might as well let you take over because capitalism makes more sense.” Even if the relations of production are being outpaced by the forces of production, and a certain ruling class is holding back history, things do not change because of some economic predestiny; nascent capitalist relations and the forces of production they were bringing into being continued for a long time under the political command of a non-capitalist ruling class––a class which needed to be forced off the stage of history in order for the bourgeois order to become complete.

Thus, class hegemony is accomplished through a process of counter-hegemony where a class that does not possess hegemony––a class that is not able to automatically enforce consent––has to pursue its hegemony in order to make its economic order manifest. Bourgeois hegemony is the result of a protracted process of counter-hegemony where those parties militantly organized around bourgeois interests violently placed society under their dictatorship. Violent revolutions, suppressions, negotiations, cultural wars: a political period of transition, built around the economic period of transition, necessary to produce consent.

Which is why the theory of hegemony is not some simple moralistic description of power and its deployment. Because, for Gramsci, the point of looking at bourgeois hegemony was to understand possible proletarian hegemony. If the bourgeoisie’s relations of production are obsolete, and the proletariat is the class that holds an unrealized economic power, then it can only consolidate this power by pursuing its political hegemony. That is, like the bourgeoisie, the proletariat needs to pursue a counter-hegemonic program in order to establish its dictatorship and thus, hopefully, its hegemony. The bourgeois thrives as a ruling class primarily because we consent to its rule; similarly, the proletariat needs to pursue a project that will lead to the same consent, to a scenario where proletarian values displace bourgeois values––just as bourgeois values displaced aristocratic values––and thus become common sense.

This means, contrary to the post-structuralist appropriations of Gramsci, that hegemony is not something that is necessarily malicious but simply a fact about class rule. For Gramsci, then, it was necessary for the proletariat to build class power and hegemony. Most importantly, because of the fact of the current dominant class’ hegemony, any attempt to build a counter-hegemonic process that could ultimately produce a new class hegemony is going to begin by challenging the common sense of the class it seeks to displace––the dominant ideology, the ruling ideas of the ruling class, is going to be a significant problem for any revolutionary movement. And, as Althusser (who in many ways compliments Gramsci) has pointed out, a class struggle on the domain of ideology is part of the work in which any revolutionary party needs to engage if they are to succeed.

Therefore, revolutionary movements need to begin by gathering in those who already question the supposed “common sense” of the ruling class (for every class society has its cracks), those with the so-called “advanced consciousness”, and slowly extending its sphere of counter-hegemony––this is how every revolutionary movement in the twentieth century (and we must remember that Gramsci was a Leninist) has succeeded in becoming a significant revolutionary movement. The Bolsheviks under Lenin and the Peoples Liberation Army under Mao, for example, were the consummation of counter-hegemonic processes.

The problem, however, is in establishing hegemony. It is one thing to displace a ruling class in a moment of revolution; it is quite another to displace its values. Socialism is still, as the maoist turn in revolutionary communism argues, a class struggle; placing the bourgeoisie under a dictatorship does not, anymore than the placing of the French monarchy under the dictatorship of the Jacobins, result in the hegemony of a post-capitalist order. Even still, despite and because of the last great socialist failure, we should be forced to realize that pursuing and finally solving a project of revolutionary hegemony is necessary for communists.