One of the most fascinating political writers of the early 20th century was Antonio Francesco Gramsci. Gramsci was born in 1891 in the beautiful Mediterranean island of Sardinia, and died at only 46 in Rome in 1937. During such a short life, he was able to formulate possibly the most influential philosophy of our times – rule brought about not by violent force but by consent of the subjugated class. Some call Gramsci’s philosophy Neo-Marxism, since it aims to achieve similar results without the extreme authoritarianism of Traditional Marxism. Gramsci himself does not appear to have called his philosophy anything; he simply described and emphasized the plan’s components: hegemony, praxis, and civil society.
Gramsci’s writings, mostly essays, are divided into pre-prison time and prison time. Prison time, courtesy of Benito Mussolini’s anti-Marxist Fascist Italy, lasted six years, 1929-1935. According to those who study Gramsci’s work, the pre-prison essays (1910-1926) lean towards the politically specific, while the latter woks are more historical and theoretical. Interestingly, Gramsci’s socio-political theories provide insight into common strategies used by both capitalists and Marxists. Concepts of hegemony, praxis, and civil society are entirely adaptable.
The bourgeoisie, in Gramsci’s view, develops a hegemonic culture using ideology rather than violence, economic force, or coercion. Hegemonic culture propagates its own values and norms so that they become the “common sense” values of all and thus maintain the status quo. Hegemonic power is therefore used to maintain consent to the capitalist order, rather than coercive power using force to maintain order. This cultural hegemony is produced and reproduced by the dominant class through the institutions that form the superstructure. Wikipedia, Antonio Gramsci
The bourgeoisie indeed ruled, until it was officially challenged in the 1960s by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. During the last 50 years, the U.S. has experienced a gradual and relatively peaceful normalization of the socialist order. The newly- socialist-bent institutions of the superstructure (courts, universities, news media) provide support to the superstructure itself (today popularly alternately called the military-industrial complex, the deep state, or the central banks). Meanwhile “the capitalist order” has assumed the full mantle of crony capitalism and is busy normalizing its own crony newspeak (bailouts, affordable housing, industry tax breaks). Hegemony brought about by the consent of the subjugated (taxpayers, the working-poor dependent on public assistance, the priced out renter) is totally fungible.
Praxis is the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, or realized. Praxis may also refer to the act of engaging, applying, exercising, realizing, or practicing ideas … It has meaning in the political, educational, spiritual and medical realms. Wikipedia, Praxis
In other words, praxis is the end result of observation, study, and thinking. It is doing. It can be action oriented towards changing societal norms and values. Or it can be action to defend the status quo against factions desiring change. Endless discussions on the virtues of capitalism vs. socialism are fine, but movement towards or against one or the other can only come about via mobilization of armies of volunteers, financial supporters, and strategists. Praxis is exemplified by mobilizers such as the Tea Party or MoveOn and the Koch brothers or George Soros.
What we can do, for the moment, is to fix two major superstructural “levels”: the one that can be called “civil society”, that is the ensemble of organisms commonly called “private”, and that of “political society” or “the State”. These two levels correspond on the one hand to the function of “hegemony” which the dominant group exercises throughout society and on the other hand to that of “direct domination” or command exercised through the State and “juridical” government. The functions in question are precisely organisational and connective. The intellectuals are the dominant group’s “deputies” exercising the sub-altern functions of social hegemony and political government. Archive.org, Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks
In summary, civil society lives by consent, while the State ensures by force the continuation of consent. Intellectuals function as the principal manufacturers of consent. Academics are the foot soldiers that help either preserve the status quo or generate fresh value systems from which new hegemony arises. Civil society is the battleground that gives rise to hegemony.
The International Gramsci Society, until recently presided by the late literary scholar Joseph Buttigieg (father of Rhodes-scholar and Mayor of South Bend, Peter Buttigieg, a presidential candidate in the 2020 U.S. elections), is one of many societies developing the socialist/Marxist consensual hegemony within today’s civil society.
Pictured lecturer: Marcus E. Green, Phd, Pasadena City College, author of several Gramsci-related essays and secretary of the International Gramsci Society.
Gramsci’s Other Concepts
Antonio Gramsci discussed several other important concepts, many of which we can clearly see playing out today. Here are three:
Organic intellectuals: Scholars, artists, and functionaries (administrators, bureaucrats, industrial managers, and politicians) that identify with the economic structure of their society more than traditional intellectuals. Thus, organic intellectuals are more able to spread organic ideology, since their communication is with structures they identify as their own. Our representatives in the U.S. Congress are good examples of organic intellectuals; they identify with today’s penchant for kicking the can of the obviously unsustainable national debt down the road, and their ideological hegemony persists.
War of Position: Struggle against the existing hegemonic system is necessary for the establishment of a new system. The war to establish a dominant position must be waged on all three levels of society – economic, political and cultural. The current thrashing about between the administrative and legislative arms of our federal government should go down in history as a quintessential war of position.
Organic Crisis: Differs from ordinary financial, economic, or political crises. It encompasses an entire system that is no longer able to generate social consensus because the system’s ruling classes are unable to resolve conflicts. Organic crisis appears when, as Antonio Gramsci describes in his Prison Notebooks, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” Has the U.S. reached that point yet?