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Thursday, April 7, 2016

Gramsci- Hegemony, Civil Society, Superstructure,


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Biju P R
Author, Teacher, Blogger
Assistant Professor of Political Science
Government Brennen College
Thalassery
Kerala, India

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Gramsci Introduced

In recent decades, interest in the theoretical ideas of the Italian revolutionary philosopher Antonio Gramsci has steadily grown in India. Gramsci sought to construct a theory of politics as an autonomous sphere in society, and to this end he devised a number of original concepts.

A truthful review of the meaning of Gramscian ideas today has become imperative for more than one reason. On the one hand it is that one of the reasons for the demise of Asian revolutions is to be sought in the fact that these revolutions, by and large, failed to develop a dialectical understanding regarding the role of society's professional intellectuals.

Hence, a study of Gramsci's theoretical approach which identifies politics as the job of intellectuals, appears to be crucial for any evaluation of what went wrong with Asian society in general and India in particular.

Unfortunately, the adoption of a Gramscian theoretical approach has been complicated by the work of the socalled Subaltern School. Interest in Gramscian ideas, in the wake of the demise of Asian revolutions in the 1980s, was initially promoted by the Calcutta-based Subaltern School. This school of thought derived its very name from a term Gramsci employed in his writings to pinpoint the fact that the autonomous experience of society's oppressed is often skipped in academic writings on history. Yet while the Subaltern School for a while adopted certain Gramscian concepts, members of the School have evolved towards a profoundly anti-Marxian position. Partha Chatterjee, for instance, whose analytical work on the history of India/Bengal has drawn much attention, has been criticised heavily for his interpretation of the history of Indian nationalism. In Chatterjee's interpretation, the notion of (religious) community reportedly replaces that of class. Though Chatterjee initially had advocated the application of typically Gramscian concepts to Indian history, - his more recent evolution in thought threatens to discredit any efforts to apply Gramscian concepts to political life in the subcontinent.

Distinct View Regarding the 'Superstructure'

The last decade of the 20th Century has heralded a new phase in the history ofMarxism, - a period in which the ideology of 'marxism-leninism' that guided the first period in the building of socialist societies (1917-1989) will see a powerful transformation. The Marxism of future generations, I expect, will be qualitatively richer in content than the Marxism which previous generations of humanity have known. Further, in opting for and advocating the enrichment of philosophical Marxism, we need to give importance to the specific theoretical contribution that was made by the Italian socialist politician and thinker, Antonio Gramsci. While he was imprisoned under fascism, after having briefly led the Communist Party of his country as General Secretary, Gramsci performed a vast work of historical and theoretical investigation, resulting in a unique conceptualisation of political processes in class society. While defenders of Gramsci, in decades when orthodoxy held sway in the international workers' movement, have stressed his loyalty towards leading theoreticians such as Lenin, - Gramsci's originality in thought was really large.

First, as wellknown, Karl Marx taught that all class societies consist of a 'base' and a 'superstructure'. The base consists of production relations, i.e the economic relations between exploiting and exploited classes, which relations are determinant 'in the ultimate analysis.' The superstructure that arises on the basis of these economic relations consists in the state's legal and political apparatus. This is erected by society's dominant class in order to ensure its control over the entire social life, and in order to provide guarantees for the economic exploitation by this class. Antonio Gramsci agreed with and used the framework of analysis laid down by Karl Marx, but he also carried Marx's work forward, by putting forward a distinct view regarding the superstructure of class societies. Here he emphasized the point that there exists an intermediate sphere between the state on the one hand, - and the economic base of society on the other. In Gramsci's view, the analysis of this intermediate sphere is essential, if we are to understand fully how class domination is maintained.

Now, in pursuing his analysis of the intermediate sphere, Gramsci employed two concepts which had been used by Marxist and non-Marxist teachers before him, but without the precise meaning which he attached to them. These two concepts are those of 'civil society' and of 'ideological hegemony'. Both concepts can be traced in classical Marxist literature, but it is nevertheless true that Gramsci employed them in a novel manner, - precisely in order to highlight the existence and functioning of an intermediate sphere in class society. Moreover, this intermediate level of society is not a vague or mystical entity, but is a sphere which is occupied by concrete human beings, i.e. by society's professional intellectuals. While Gramsci was aware of the fact that all intellectuals have a class position, that in one way or another they do form part and parcel of the economic base of society, he nevertheless insisted that intellectuals have a superstructural task: namely the building of consent, of public opinion among the diverse social classes and layers, in favour of society's dominant class. Hence, Gramsci taught us that (professional) intellectuals perform an autonomous social function, located between state repression - and the direct appropriation of labour's fruits by capitalist enterprises.


Gramsci's Use of the Term 'Civil Society'

Let's now try to delineate the meaning of each of Gramsci's concepts separately. The term civil society can be traced to the great 19th Century German philosophers. It was used both by Marx and by Hegel, from whom Marx borrowed (a part of) his method of analysis. Hegel had used the term civil society to refer to all pre-state relations, i.e. to all relations beyond the immediate sphere of the state. Thus, for Hegel, the term civil society included all economic relations. Further, Marx too had employed the term civil society in his writings, but contrary to Hegel had restricted it to refer only to the economic base of society. It can be very confusing to compare the definitions given by various philosophers for the same concept. Nevertheless, for a proper understanding of Gramsci's system of thought it is necessary to know that the definition of the term civil society has historically evolved, and that Gramsci transformed the meaning of the term to suit his own theoretical ends (3).

To repeat for the sake of clarity, what has been briefly stated in the section above: Antonio Gramsci, contrary to Hegel and Marx, used the term civil society exclusively to describe and conceptualise the superstructure, and in particular those institutions of the superstructure which do not (or not officially) form a part of the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state. They include church institutions; the educational establishments, ranging from primary schools to the academia; the media such as newspapers, journals and the radio; trade unions and political parties; and all other intermediate institutions that play a distinct role in the intellectual and moral life of society. In short, the term civil society covers all the institutions located in the intermediate sphere of class society. Gramsci realised perhaps more sharply than other theoreticians of the workers' movement in his time, that the 'weight', the influence, of these

Hegemony

The idea of a ‘third face of power’, or ‘invisible power’ has its roots partly, in Marxist thinking about the pervasive power of ideology, values and beliefs in reproducing class relations and concealing contradictions (Heywood, 1994: 100).  Marx recognised that economic exploitation was not the only driver behind capitalism, and that the system was reinforced by a dominance of ruling class ideas and values – leading to Engels’s famous concern that ‘false consciousness’ would keep the working class from recognising and rejecting their oppression (Heywood, 1994: 85).
False consciousness, in relation to invisible power, is itself a ‘theory of power’ in the Marxist tradition. It is particularly evident in the thinking of Lenin, who ‘argued that the power of ‘bourgeois ideology’ was such that, left to its own devices, the proletariat would only be able to achieve ‘trade union consciousness’, the desire to improve their material conditions but within the capitalist system’ (Heywood 1994: 85).
The Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, imprisoned for much of his life by Mussolini, took these idea further in his Prison Notebooks with his widely influential notions of ‘hegemony’ and the ‘manufacture of consent’ (Gramsci 1971).  Gramsci saw the capitalist state as being made up of two overlapping spheres, a ‘political society’ (which rules through force) and a ‘civil society’ (which rules through consent). This is a different meaning of civil society from the ‘associational’ view common today, which defines civil society as a ‘sector’ of voluntary organisations and NGOs. Gramsci saw civil society as the public sphere where trade unions and political parties gained concessions from the bourgeois state, and the sphere in which ideas and beliefs were shaped, where bourgeois ‘hegemony’ was reproduced in cultural life through the media, universities and religious institutions to ‘manufacture consent’ and legitimacy (Heywood 1994: 100-101).
The political and practical implications of Gramsci’s ideas were far-reaching because he warned of the limited possibilities of direct revolutionary struggle for control of the means of production; this ‘war of attack’ could only succeed with a prior ‘war of position’ in the form of struggle over ideas and beliefs, to create a new hegemony (Gramsci 1971).  This idea of a ‘counter-hegemonic’ struggle – advancing alternatives to dominant ideas of what is normal and legitimate – has had broad appeal in social and political movements. It has also contributed to the idea that ‘knowledge’ is a social construct that serves to legitimate social structures (Heywood 1994: 101).
In practical terms, Gramsci’s insights about how power is constituted in the realm of ideas and knowledge – expressed through consent rather than force – have inspired the use of explicit strategies to contest hegemonic norms of legitimacy. Gramsci’s ideas have influenced popular education practices, including the adult literacy and consciousness-raising methods of Paulo Freire in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), liberation theology, methods of participatory action research (PAR), and many approaches to popular media, communication and cultural action.
The idea of power as ‘hegemony’ has also influenced debates about civil society. Critics of the way civil society is narrowly conceived in liberal democratic thought – reduced to an ‘associational’ domain in contrast to the state and market – have used Gramsci’s definition to remind us that civil society can also be a public sphere of political struggle and contestation over ideas and norms. The goal of ‘civil society strengthening’ in development policy can thus be pursued either in a neo-liberal sense of building civic institutions to complement (or hold to account) states and markets, or in a Gramscian sense of building civic capacities to think differently, to challenge assumptions and norms, and to articulate new ideas and visions.


Hegemony is for Gramsci a political concept developed to explain… the absence of socialist revolutions in the Western capitalist democracies. The concept of hegemony is used by Gramsci to refer to a condition in process in which a dominant class…does not merely rule a society but leads it through the exercise of ‘intellectual and moral leadership’. Hegemony involves a specific kind of consensus: a social group seeks to present its own particular interests as the general interests of the society as a whole
It is the concept of the dominant class trying to lead a culture to a means but having it adapted to the general interests of society as a whole.


Hegemony is never simply power imposed from above: it is always the result of ‘negotiations’ between dominant and subordinate groups, a process marked by both ‘resistance’ and ‘incorporation’…As Gramsci makes clear, they can never be allowed to challenge the economic fundamentals of class power…when moral and intellectual leadership is not enough to secure continued authority, the processes of hegemony are replaced, temporarily, by the coercive power of the ‘repressive state apparatus’. (Storey 83) 
(Popular culture: )what Gramsci calls ‘a compromise equilibrium’. The commercially provided culture of the culture industries is redefined, reshaped and redirected in strategic acts of selective consumption and productive acts of reading and articulation, often in ways not intended or even foreseen by its producers

The word ‘hegemony’ is obtained from the Greek terminology hegemonia meaning leadership. An extensively used specialized concept in matters of international relations theory, hegemony is habitually used to imply the predominant position of the most powerful state in the international arena or the commanding state in a particular given region

The idea of a ‘third face of power’, or ‘invisible power’ has its roots partly, in Marxist thinking about the pervasive power of ideology, values and beliefs in reproducing class relations and concealing contradictions (Heywood, 1994: 100).  Marx recognised that economic exploitation was not the only driver behind capitalism, and that the system was reinforced by a dominance of ruling class ideas and values – leading to Engels’s famous concern that ‘false consciousness’ would keep the working class from recognising and rejecting their oppression (Heywood, 1994: 85).

False consciousness, in relation to invisible power, is itself a ‘theory of power’ in the Marxist tradition. It is particularly evident in the thinking of Lenin, who ‘argued that the power of ‘bourgeois ideology’ was such that, left to its own devices, the proletariat would only be able to achieve ‘trade union consciousness’, the desire to improve their material conditions but within the capitalist system’ (Heywood 1994: 85). A famous analogy is made to workers accepting crumbs that fall off the table (or indeed are handed out to keep them quiet) rather than claiming a rightful place at the table.

The Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, imprisoned for much of his life by Mussolini, took these idea further in his Prison Notebooks with his widely influential notions of ‘hegemony’ and the ‘manufacture of consent’ (Gramsci 1971).  Gramsci saw the capitalist state as being made up of two overlapping spheres, a ‘political society’ (which rules through force) and a ‘civil society’ (which rules through consent). This is a different meaning of civil society from the ‘associational’ view common today, which defines civil society as a ‘sector’ of voluntary organisations and NGOs. Gramsci saw civil society as the public sphere where trade unions and political parties gained concessions from the bourgeois state, and the sphere in which ideas and beliefs were shaped, where bourgeois ‘hegemony’ was reproduced in cultural life through the media, universities and religious institutions to ‘manufacture consent’ and legitimacy (Heywood 1994: 100-101).

The political and practical implications of Gramsci’s ideas were far-reaching because he warned of the limited possibilities of direct revolutionary struggle for control of the means of production; this ‘war of attack’ could only succeed with a prior ‘war of position’ in the form of struggle over ideas and beliefs, to create a new hegemony (Gramsci 1971).  This idea of a ‘counter-hegemonic’ struggle – advancing alternatives to dominant ideas of what is normal and legitimate – has had broad appeal in social and political movements. It has also contributed to the idea that ‘knowledge’ is a social construct that serves to legitimate social structures (Heywood 1994: 101).

In practical terms, Gramsci’s insights about how power is constituted in the realm of ideas and knowledge – expressed through consent rather than force – have inspired the use of explicit strategies to contest hegemonic norms of legitimacy. Gramsci’s ideas have influenced popular education practices, including the adult literacy and consciousness-raising methods of Paulo Freire in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), liberation theology, methods of participatory action research (PAR), and many approaches to popular media, communication and cultural action.

The idea of power as ‘hegemony’ has also influenced debates about civil society. Critics of the way civil society is narrowly conceived in liberal democratic thought – reduced to an ‘associational’ domain in contrast to the state and market – have used Gramsci’s definition to remind us that civil society can also be a public sphere of political struggle and contestation over ideas and norms. The goal of ‘civil society strengthening’ in development policy can thus be pursued either in a neo-liberal sense of building civic institutions to complement (or hold to account) states and markets, or in a Gramscian sense of building civic capacities to think differently, to challenge assumptions and norms, and to articulate new ideas and visions.

Refernces for futher reading

Freire, Paulo (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York, Herder & Herder.
Gramsci, Antonio (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, New York, International Publishers.
Heywood, Andrew (1994) Political Ideas and Concepts: An Introduction, London, Macmillan.




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