Gramsci, Cultural Hegemony, and Why it’s So Vital for Our Liberation

Antonio Gramsci is one of the most influential Marxist thinkers of the twentieth-century (born Jan. 23, 1891, Ales, Sardinia, Italy—died April 27, 1937, Rome). Both an intellectual and a politician, he founded the Italian Communist Party. But after his party was outlawed by Benito Mussolini’s fascists, Gramsci was arrested and imprisoned (1926). At his trial the fascist prosecutor argued, “We must stop his brain from working for 20 years.” In prison, despite rigorous censorship, Gramsci carried out an extraordinary and wide-ranging historical and theoretical study of Italian society and possible strategies for change. Extracts of Gramsci’s prison writings were published for the first time in the mid-20th century; the complete Quaderni del carcere (Prison Notebooks) appeared in 1975.

Gramsci’s greatest contributionto the far-left theoretical tradition is his writings on hegemony, or, as laterdeemed, cultural hegemony. Though he did not label his concept under any onename at the time, his closest characterization of the idea was,

“…(T)he ‘spontaneous’consent given by the great masses of the population to the general directionimposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoysbecause of its position and function in the world of production.”

What that does all thatmean? With a further analysis of Gramsci’s work included, it means that thedominant group in society has been so instrumentally constructing a worldview intheir favor that it has become the ruling worldview, or culture, of our society.Those in charge have created a point-of-view that everyone perceives as the onlyway to see the world. And they have so accomplished this feat they have us believethat it is the natural order, not that it is just man-made. Therefore, we endup oppressing ourselves.

You could easily relate to a dominant hegemonic system like the “divine rights of kings” in which the people once believed that the aristocrats were in their position for God decided so. But that was the previous hegemonic culture. After the French Revolution and its spread of liberal ideals, the hegemonic culture became capitalism. That’s why Gramsci was so concerned with the concept: capitalism has engrained itself so deeply into our perception of reality, as created by the powerful, that the masses cannot think outside of it. People just believe that this is just how the world works and there are no options otherwise. Since the “divine right of kings” worldview is now replaced by a capitalist cultural hegemony, we perceive that period as incorrect. But it seemed just as valid during those times as capitalism does now.

The importance ofthe analysis of hegemony by Marxist theorists is that even though capitalism asinstilled into our every worldview, thereare alternatives, namely, radical leftism.  If we could just expose the people to adifferent, fairer, and the better ideology of socialism, communism, etc., wecan realize that another world is possible, and the hegemony of capitalism canbe discarded just as the divine rights of king was once discarded as false consciousness.

It will be very difficultfor the masses to ever think outside of the capitalist-created ideology withoutmuch hard work by activists and leaders. But let’s show the people thatcapitalism is not the world.

“Cultural Hegemony” in America

I just recently read The Antonio Gramsci Reader and found his political/sociological concept of “cultural hegemony” very important to the leftist movement.

Gramsci was an Italian Marxist theorist and cofounder of the Italian Communist Party who was imprisoned by Mussolini ‘s fascist regime. While in prison, he worked on the concept of “hegemony” present in a society’s culture and how it maintains the capitalist state.

Cultural hegemony is when one group of people (the capitalists in Gramsci’s analysis) does not only control the economic system but also defines those things that make up the society’s culture, i.e., norms, values, mores, general worldview. Now this “hegemony” is so strong that it is perceived by the other groups in society (the proletariat, in Gramsci’s view) as “natural;” as an inescapable truth, or just the way things are. Gramsci contends that this hegemony also leads to the other groups in society (the proletariat) to perceive the interests of the hegemonic group as their own.

In the United States today the capitalists are the hegemonic group just as they were in 1920’s Italy. The 1%ers control our means of production and define our culture for they are on top of the socio-economic ladder. This makes thinking outside of capitalism, and the interests of the very rich, difficult for the American people.

This is especially so because America, in its young history, has always been a capitalist country. We’ve been raised on Benjamin Franklin and Horatio Alger. We did not have the benefit of rising up from the feudal system like the countries of Europe did. The European societies have at least a historical touchstone that they can lend from that says that an economic/political /cultural system is not natural law. But America does not have that historical narrative to draw from

This problem in America even manifests itself when the hegemony of the capitalists is so strong that those on the right side of the political spectrum often vote against their own interests, e.g., poor, rural states traditionally vote for the GOP. They are often irrational actors.

So what to do?

We must educate, that is what we must do. The media (which is owned and controlled by the 1%ers and is fed to us by visible gatekeepers who do not even know that they are puppets), the schools, the general government, etc., must be refuted by the Left. We must get this kind of analysis to the masses and offer a clear alternative to the hegemonic culture of capitalism.