Gramsci’s Notion of Cultural Hegemony

Antonio Gramsci was an Italian communist leader and theoretician. He penned most his most important writings (‘The Prison Notebooks’) whilst imprisoned in Mussolini’s Italy. Despite being a man of the Left, we can definitely learn from his writings on – and in relation to – the concept of ‘cultural hegemony.’ It plays directly into any long-term strategic thinking on our part.

 

Cultural Hegemony

In Marxist philosophy, cultural hegemony is the domination of a society by a group* whose domination comes through control of culture – and the implicit ideology contained within that culture (with all the beliefs, values, norms, attitudes and explanations that entails.) With that, the dominant group worldview becomes the worldview of the majority; who see its values as natural and universal values which are good for all. In short, as the way things should be. The domination by one group is thus justified and legitimised.

* In classical Marxism, these are economic-defined groups (proletariat, bourgeoisie…) but in reality, they could – and do – form around any number of things: nationality, religion, purely political ideologies, etc…

 

Base and Superstructure

In Marxism, society is said to consist of two parts: the base and superstructure.

  • The base refers to the economy and the way it is structured (the so-called means, forces and relations of production.)
  • The superstructure consists of the society’s overall culture and political system (including art, family, religion, philosophy, law, media, science, education.)

Marx (as a materialist) believed that the base was the dominating factor, in so far as material factors and relations between employers and employees condition all the elements contained in the superstructure. (The superstructure in turn exerts some effect in helping maintain the status quo of the base – through its legitimisation.) But the primary mover in classical Marxism is the base.

Gramsci’s analysis inverts Marx’s understanding of the relationship between base and superstructure. Instead of the base being dominant, we have the superstructure as dominant (which conditions the former.) This opens up a much greater role for the influence of culture over the social whole, and so power is maintained more through ideology than physical means.

The graphic below I took and altered slightly. (It originally demonstrated Marx’s belief in the primacy of the base. It’s here changed slightly to reflect the dominance of the superstructure.)

Of course, the above graph – representing as it does the views of the Marxist Gramsci – is relevant primarily to Marxists. For our purposes, the relation between superstructure and base is irrelevant – we can forget the base altogether. It’s understanding the role of the superstructure in legitimising one group’s dominance over a society that we’re interested in.

More relevant is to us is Gramsci’s further division of the superstructure into two distinct parts: political society and civil society.

  • Political society consists of the government, military, police, legal system. That which rules through force.
  • Civil society refers to everything between the political world and economy. It is here in civil society that ideologic content is produced and reproduced (through the media, education system, religion, art, science, the family) which legitimises the dominance of one group over the rest in their own minds.

Political society – domination through coercion.

Civil society – domination through consent.

The superstructure therefore offers two different means of attaining and maintaining social control:

  • Coercive control: either through direct force or the implied threat thereof.
  • Consensual control: which arises when individuals voluntarily assimilate the worldview of the dominant group (i.e. hegemonic leadership.)

With any dominant group there is a kind of balance between the two. When control through consent is high, control through force is less necessary and can therefore be low; whereas when control through consent is low, control through force must be high. The latter occurs where the dominant class’s hegemony is either low or becomes threatened.

Back to the idea of cultural hegemony itself. Where hegemony results, instead of being the values of one group, it comes to be seen by everyone as values for the benefit of all (and thus helps maintain the status quo.)

Here is a basic depiction of cultural hegemony in a hypothetical society. We have three types of person which are Yellow, Blue and Green types. Each would naturally possess its own ideology or culture which is an expression of its own values and interests. However, the concept of cultural hegemony assumes it’s possible for one type to subtly impose its own ideology or culture on that of other types; so that it becomes the ‘common-sense’ worldview of all.

So below we have a hypothetical society of 24 individuals. It happens to be equally split, with 8 yellow, 8 blue and 8 green. However, the majority (79.2%) are happy adherents of the yellow type’s ideology — an ideology that originated as an expression of the values beliefs and interests of the yellows. Only 3 of the blues and 2 of the greens adhere to their own respective ideologies, and are manifestly less happy with this. The yellows definitely maintain cultural hegemony. The overall culture will reflect their values and interests. They dominate whether they have physical control or not.

And obviously, cultural hegemony can be of a majority over a minority OR of a minority over a majority.

So, any counter-hegemonic force will have to overcome the fact that the majority may well assert the values of the status quo as natural values that are good for everyone – even if it’s not in their own interest.

 

War of Position vs. War of Manoeuvre

The division of the superstructure into political and civil society presents us with two means to power. 1. Through the direct conquest of political society (which Gramsci thought was most possible in societies without a substantial civil society, such as in early 20th Century Russia.) And 2. The conquest of political society indirectly through the conquest of civil society (which Gramsci thought was necessary for societies that did contain a substantial civil society, such as the Western Europe of his time and beyond.)

Gramsci’s terms for these two strategies for control are ‘War of Manoeuvre’ and ‘War of Position.’

War of Manoeuvre: the struggle for control of the state (whether through democratic or non-democratic means.)

War of Position: an intellectual and cultural struggle. The battle of ideas.

If the war of manoeuvre can be understood as analogous to a cavalry’s charge on the enemy, then the war of position would be akin to taking up a superior position at the top of a hill before launching an attack.

The ideology that rules will inevitably be the one that maintains legitimacy. Either in the eyes of the masses, or even of an elite, such as the military.

 

Cultural hegemony should be achieved first. Then political power.

The hegemony of the dominant group must be fought with a counter-hegemony – to displace their ideology with our own.

Although cultural hegemony must be achieved before political power can be achieved, both the war of position and war of manoeuvre must be fought alongside one another. This is because, on the one hand, the machinations of the war of manoeuvre can be seen as a litmus test of one’s success on the cultural plane; but it can also function as an extension of the war of position if used properly.

 

We’ll end with one last point. Gramsci stressed the difference between what he called the traditional intellectuals and organic intellectuals. His ‘traditional intellectuals’ are what we don’t want – they are those who see themselves as set apart from society; sat away in their ivory towers chatting amongst themselves.  What we want are a kind of ‘intellectual’ (what Gramsci labels as his organic kind) that concerns itself with actively influencing people and winning people over to the worldview. Leading the charge in the cultural war.

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