The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci developed the key concept of cultural hegemony during his imprisonment by the Italian state under Mussolini’s fascist rule. In his Prison Notebooks[1] (w. 1929-1935), he posited how dominant class ideology took shape and exerted its influence through the manufacture of consent. Gramsci based his ideas of hegemony on the Marxist theoretical concepts of Base and Superstructure. In the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy[2] (1859), Karl Marx wrote that “the economic structure of society” forms the “real basis” on which “rises a legal and political superstructure.” Crudely put, the ‘Base’ was defined by him as the forces and relations of production – to all the people involved in the production process, the relationships between them the roles that they play, and the materials and resources involved in producing the things needed by society. Marxist ideology believes that all the forces of production, which constitute the Base, inevitably advance and that this in turn leads to changes in society. Political and ideological struggle is then seen as playing no real role.[3] Human beings are products of their circumstances, and history proceeds completely independently of their will. The outcome of wars, revolutions, philosophical arguments or what-not is always determined in advance by the Base.  From the Base then, stems the ‘Superstructure’ which comprises all other aspects of society – culture, ideology, ethics and moralities, individual and collective identities, social institutions, the political structure and the state or political apparatus. Marx argued that the Superstructure grows out of the Base and reflects the dominant ideology or the interests of the ruling class that controls it.

Hegemonic ideas depicted in the artwork of Barbara Kruger

Gramsci furthered this concept of the Base and Superstructure by proposing that the Superstructure is split into two levels – the civil society (trade unions, political parties, schools and universities, religious institutions, media, NGOs and all other bodies indirectly associated with the State) and the political society (the State itself along with it functioning bodies). According to Gramsci, the ruling class exercises the “function of hegemony” through the civil society. Hegemony in this case means the worldview, reality, and beliefs of the dominant classes coming to be accepted by the subordinate classes as “common sense”. There is a general consensus that the view of the dominant class is the only sensible way of seeing the world. This was achieved through education, media propaganda as well as the fact that the ruling class owned the means of production. Any groups who present an alternative view are therefore marginalised. As critic John Storey[4] notes, “the supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways, as ‘domination’ and as ‘intellectual and moral leadership’” and “The ‘normal’ exercise of hegemony on the now classical terrain of the parliamentary regime is characterised by the combination of force and consent, which balance each other reciprocally, without force predominating excessively over consent.” As Storey points out, Gramsci believed that hegemony was exercised through consent. Hegemony of the ruling class was predicated on the “spontaneous consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.”[5] While the civil society exercises influence and control through consent by hegemonising a worldview, the political society exerts direct domination through “coercive power which ‘legally’ enforces discipline on those groups who do not ‘consent’ either actively or passively.”[6] French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, in his book Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses[7] (1970), further drew on Gramsci’s theories and put forward the concepts of Ideological State Apparatus to define and civil society and Repressive State Apparatus for political society.

Gramsci used the term hegemony to not only describe the activities of the ruling class but also the process by which social groups come to gain power to lead, how they expand their power and maintain it. A modern example would be the rise of the political party ‘Aam Aadmi Party’ in India. The party was formed by a group of intellectuals who hegemonised their views as the common Indian citizen’s worldview, thereby gaining support and rising to political power in the national capital. A new hegemony was developed by the Aam Aadmi Party to counter the leading political parties’ (BJP and INC) approach. Meticulous promotion and publicity lead to the Aam Aadmi Party coming to accepted as the new, revolutionary vanguard of the Indian society. The party endorsed beliefs and manners which “the powers that be” agree are true, or right, or logical, or moral. In this manner, society at large ‘consented’ to its domination by a class ideology. According to Gramsci, hegemony has a firm grip on society especially because ideas are transmitted through language. Words that people speak, read and write and constructed by social interactions through history Thus they are loaded with cultural meanings that condition us to think in particular ways, and to not be able to think very well in other ways.  For instance, the word “housewife” immediately brings up the idea of unpaid, unvalued, domestic labour which has no economic significance. Since the dominant capitalist ideology insists that every activity be assessed in terms of its monetary value, we see the wok of a housewife as menial and of zero worth. Gramsci’s point is that we have been conditioned by our language to think and feel in ways that serve the dominant ideology or hegemony. Even though one understands the physical and emotional labour involved in homemaking, we accept it as valueless.

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Nazi propaganda poster used for building a new hegemony

Hegemony, according to Gramsci, develops in three stages. The first stage is referred to as “economic-corporate” wherein self-interested individuals or corporatists affiliate together, recognising that they need the support of others to retain their own security, as in the case of trade unionism. However, there is real sense of solidarity between individuals at this stage. In the second stage, solidarity starts developing when individuals realise that there is a wide field of interests and that certain interests can be shared amongst individuals. Solidarity is still limited, however, to personal gain and shared economic interests. Hegemony is finally realised in the third stage when social group members become aware that their interests need to extend beyond their own class, and need to be accepted by other subordinate groups as their own. This was the technique employed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks while forming an alliance with the peasants. The Bolshevik Revolution would be impactful only if the peasantry could accept it as representing its own interests.[8] Gramsci was aware that at an ethical level, hegemony could not be forcibly imposed upon people. Progressive hegemony, according to him, is that which develops by democratically acquiring consent and popular support, and not through coercion and deceit.

A well-known example of capitalist hegemony is the promotion of the “American Dream” in the United States in the Twentieth Century. The American Dream advertised and sold the idea that the pursuit of happiness is available to all.  The ‘dream’ is that no matter what one’s origins, as long as one work hard, they could attain the white picket fences, a suburban home, two cars – the perfect life. It makes one believe that happiness and prosperity are in one’s own hands. But as reality or experience shows us, hard work or even unending toil doesn’t eradicate poverty in the least. Still, individuals accepted that capitalism would ensure equal opportunities of growth for all. Another example would be the linguistic hegemony of the colonial era. English was a hegemonic language in the colonial era. British colonisers tried to homogenise the linguistic diversity that they found in the Indian subcontinent. Their intention was to impose the English language over the vernacular languages. This process was achieved on the one hand with the Natives’ consent and the other through law, education and administration.  This was confirmed by Gauri Viswanathan in her book Masks of Conquest[9] (1989) when she argues that the linguistic diversity was homogenised through conscious language policy.

The American Dream, promising the perfect life with the highest standards of living – an example of capitalist hegemony

Gramsci’s theory thus delivers to us the awareness that the ruling classes are dominant in more than a purely economic sense. Not only do the classes at the top control vast amounts of wealth and the power of the state, but the ideas, theories and values that come to accepted by all as “normal”. Finally, he also claims that the social revolution that Marxists aim towards will only be fully realised and achieved by developing a counter hegemony to capitalism for which the proletariat will have to produce its own class of intellectuals to instigate the revolution.

 

[1] Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Ed. & Trans. Quentin Hoare & Geoffrey Nowell Smith). London: International Publishers, 1971.

[2] Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. London 1971.

[3] Harman, Chris. Base and Superstructure. International Socialism. 1986.

[4] Storey, John. An Introduction to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. New York: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997.

[5] Gramsci, Antonio. “The Formation of Intellectuals.” Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001.

[6] Ibid

[7] Althusser, Louis. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. 1970.

[8] Dwivedi, A. N. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Doaba Publications. 2014.

[9] Viswanathan, Gauri. Marks of Conquest. 1989.

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