Questions about Gramsci: Carl, over to you

by johnmccreery

On OAC, a smart young scholar named Toby Locke has started a thread on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. Being no expert on Gramsci, but knowing we have one here, I reproduce his opening statement below, in the hope that Carl will offer some more informed answers than I am capable of.


I have been examining Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. There are a few areas of this idea that I am unsure of and would like to hear others opinions on the meaning of this concept and its physical manifestations. The below quote comes from Gramsci’s prison note books:

“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 “judicial” government. The functions in question are precisely organisational and connective. The intellectuals are the dominant group’s “deputies” exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government.”

Now, in referring to hegemony my understanding is that he is referring to the ideologies and morals of any given society; the ideas which are common most world views and thought patterns of individuals within a collective group. He appears to be implying that the hegemony is somehow a construction and tool of the ruling classes which enables the perpetuation of power over the masses. When this method fails judicial action is used. He also seems to be stating that the intellectual culture of the time is instrumental in the development and utilisation of hegemony.
Asides from the Marxist context, is there a distinct difference between hegemony and Durkheim’s collective consciousness?
Can something like hegemony, which to me would appear to have a cyclical relationship between itself and society, really be used as a tool of domination? Or is it beyond the control of the ruling classes? Obviously the advent of mass media changes the likely answer to this somewhat.
Are all intellectuals architects and actors of hegemony? Surely they are in the same cyclical relationship: hegemony influences and acts upon their work and visa versa.


18 Responses to “Questions about Gramsci: Carl, over to you”

  1. I don’t want to step on Carl’s reply, which I’m interested in, as well, but isn’t the concept of “hegemony” a kind of elaboration of and refinement upon the notions “ideology” and “ideology-critique”? I believe that the usefulness of hegemony is the way that it calls attention to the social process that helps to form individual, psychologistic attitudes, which is the step that something like Marx/Engels’ “German Ideology” omits. I think the difficulty in using the concept lies in the problem of squaring this kind of analysis with the perspectives of agents (say, teachers or priests) who would explain their actions with very different frameworks. But it seems to me that if we abandon the notion of hegemony altogether we end up taking intellectuals’ explanations of their motives at face value, no?

  2. Oops! Between laptop troubles and family visits I see I’ve missed a direct invocation. My apologies. Dave, thanks for stepping up, and I agree with you.

    Toby makes some good points, and I think he’s on the right track in general. The Durkheim-Gramsci-collective consciousness-hegemony (actually, ‘common sense’) connection is astute, if I do say so myself since I discuss it at some length in my Durkheim/Gramsci chapter. It’s a pretty straightforward homology but doesn’t get much attention because in the cubbyholes of partisan intellectual history Gramsci gets filed with the radicals (or ‘conflict theorists’ in sociology-speak) and Durkheim with the (conservative) functionalists. But what I like about Gramsci is precisely that he thinks you have to understand how things and thinks work if you hope to change how they work responsibly. This makes for a very significant zone of overlap with Durkheim, even if you don’t agree with those of us who don’t see D as a conservative shill at all and instead see him sharing virtue-republicanism with Marxists.

    Sometimes hegemony gets conceptually translated as ‘consent’, sometimes as ‘ideology’, sometimes as ‘soft power’ or ‘winning hearts and minds’. This points at a range of dynamics, all of which are what Gramsci meant sometimes. What they all have in common is that they’re all relations of power in which naked force is not (overtly) in play. In fact we might say that hegemony is the more successful the more it makes the application of naked force unnecessary. In Weber some of these same dynamics are analyzed as ‘legitimate authority’. Gramsci’s focus was ultimately exploitive class power, but most parents know it’s exhausting and often counterproductive to rule exclusively by the direct application of force; what you really want is to train the kiddos from birth in a worldview that makes the ‘right’ kind of orderly thought and conduct ‘second natural’. Here we can see the substantial overlap with Bourdieuian ‘habitus’, again often denied because Bourdieu didn’t draw revolutionary conclusions from (or, more accurately, import revolutionary premises to) the analysis.

    Of course Marxists are given to interpreting all social order as an enabling structure for economic domination. Gramsci was on board with that project. But I like about him that he understood those linkages to be so heavily historical and intermediated that they could not be assumed to be directly effective in any particular real dynamic. So his theory of hegemony ends up looking a whole lot like a theory of culture, and his theory of revolution looks like a theory of painstaking cultural deconstruction and reconstruction. It’s not therefore that the intellectuals are in any direct sense ideological tools of class domination, but rather that they unreflectively reproduce cognitive structures that favor maintenance of existing class relations. In this sense Toby is quite right to see hegemony as a cyclical or dialectical process with its own logic.

  3. Dave, again I agree with you that the concept of ideology has tended to be coded with the further judgment of ‘false consciousness’, suggesting that there is a hidden truth about how the world works (class conflict) about which actors are either deceived or deceitful. This may mean that the clear-eyed vanguard needs to crack some heads to bring bursts of enlightenment. In Lenin, at least, the concept of hegemony didn’t get away from this hidden truth image, rather offering a way to talk about how ideology worked systematically to produce and reproduce regimes of domination. That usage is still there in Gramsci, but he was a good enough historian and ethnographer to take seriously the complex elaboration and relative autonomy of cultural forms, their imaginative scope and their pragmatic functionality sometimes far from direct class interest. So in Gramsci you don’t really get that kneejerk condescension toward the masses and j’accuse toward the elites you so often get with Marxists, and his theory of hegemony sometimes becomes as much a theory of individual and cultural formation as an account of class conflict.

  4. Carl, Dave, are either of you familiar with Terry Eagleton (1991) Ideology: An Introduction? Eagleton begins by noting that there is no single adequate definition of ideology. “This is not because workers in the field are remarkable for their low intelligence, but because the term ‘ideology’ has a whole range of useful meanings, not all of which are compatible with each other.”

    After listing sixteen current definitions, Eagleton goes on to write,

    If, for example, ideology means anyset of beliefs motivated by social interests, then it cannot simply signify the dominant forms of thought in a society. Others of these definitions may be mutually compatible, but with some interesting implications: if ideology is both illusion and the medium in which social actors make sense of their world, then this tells us something rather depressing about our routine modes of sense-making.Secondly, we may note that some of these formulations are pejorative, others ambiguously so, and some not pejorative at all. On several of these definitions, nobody would clam that their own thinking was ideological, just as nobody would habitually refer to themselves as Fatso….

    Thirdly, we can note that some of these formulations involve epistemological questions — questions concerned with our knowledge of the world — while others are silent on this score. Some of them involve a sense of not seeing reality properly, whereas a definition like ‘action-oriented sets of beliefs’ leaves this issue open.

    Eagleton, himself a British Marxist, notes that this difference is unresolved within the Marxist heritage, which straddles both options.

    Eagleton is, by the way, one of the few authors I know who writes about intellectual debates with a pointed but genuine sense of humor. Which brings me back to my question: have either of you read him?

  5. but most parents know it’s exhausting and often counterproductive to rule exclusively by the direct application of force; what you really want is to train the kiddos from birth in a worldview that makes the ‘right’ kind of orderly thought and conduct ‘second natural’.

    I had similar thoughts when I resorted to the amusing video linked to below to get my two-year-old daughter to brush her teeth. It worked quite well in motivating her, but there is something a trifle manipulative about it. It is not so much that I object to its message or what it accomplished. I don’t. I want my children to be able to successfully resist the ‘mind viruses’ promulgated by advertisers, politicians, and other interests, and somehow engaging in such conscious manipulation myself is therefore less than satisfying.

  6. Thank you very much for all of your commentary, Dave, Carl and John. This has really aided me in getting my head round the idea of hegemony; the links drawn to Bourdieu’s habitus by Carl particularly.

    I wonder if there may also be some links to be drawn to the works of Foucault. From my limited and developing understanding of hegemony it would appear that the institutions under investigation by Foucault: the hospital, surveillance, the prison, sexuality etc.. are prime examples of it’s architects. Do you consider these to be appropriate demonstrations of the construction of hegemony? I guess one could also look at the academy as a reproducer of hegemony, particularly if we consider it in the same context as Deleuze does in his ‘postscript on societies of control’. Are these the kinds of institutions Gramsci saw as constructing hegemonic discourses?

  7. Ahhhh! This is my idea of a good time. So just to keep the bibliography straight, so far we have Gramsci, Durkheim, Marx/Engels, Weber, Bourdieu, Lenin, Eagleton, Foucault, Deleuze, and Chomsky (implied). This would be a splitter’s paradise; fortunately we’re all lumpers here…. Just for the record, John, I’ve read pretty much all of Gramsci, most of Durkheim and Weber, lots of Marx/Engels, Lenin, Bourdieu and Foucault, a little Eagleton, and almost no Deleuze or Chomsky. The exact configuration of timings and settings of those and other readings in relation to my biography further particularizes me as an idiosyncratic trajectory within a field of currently-possible micro-discursive positions. We might as well call this the postmodern condition; as usual it will be a wonder if we manage to communicate.

    So anyway yeah, I’m glad to hear Eagleton did that number on ideology. It’s a bit of a floating signifier in Marxist discourse, a catchall insult that is, as you say, never the case for me/us. Which doesn’t mean it can’t do a lot of work in particular applications. Hegemony is pretty much the same way; Perry Anderson’s analytical survey “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci” is commonly recommended; see also Raymond Williams, e.g. Keywords. There’s a decent survey of the surveys here. I also like what Mannheim does with ‘ideology’ in Ideology and Utopia, (roughly) using it to distinguish status-quo thinking (including quality reflexive analysis) from change thinking. Mannheim was also one of the first Marx-influenced sociologists of knowledge (although the point can be found in Marx and is at least implicit throughout socialist practice) to argue that the way intellectual capital works means that intellectuals have a distinct and mixed class position, so their interests and practices do not automatically and seamlessly align with the dominant class. This point was picked up and developed by Alvin Gouldner, Berger and Luckmann, and plenty of others during the middle of the last century, which made it hot stuff when I was in school in the 80’s taking classes with people who still thought ’68 was a really big deal. I believe I’m officially rambling now.

    Jacob, there’s a very interesting book on Gramsci’s theory of education by a guy named Entwistle called Conservative Schooling for Radical Politics. It’s been misread or ignored by the folks (e.g. Giroux) who want Gramsci to be a shining beacon of liberation for the oppressed kiddies, but I think he’s right in arguing that for Gramsci, education had to start with a coercive process of disciplining the mind to work in orderly ways; only on that foundation could responsible creative thought be built. For this reason Gramsci was a fan of instruction in dead languages. “In the first phase the aim is to discipline, hence also to level out — to obtain a certain kind of ‘conformism’ which may be called ‘dynamic’. In the creative phase, on the basis that has been achieved of ‘collectivisation’ of the social type, the aim is to expand the personality — by now autonomous and responsible, but with a solid and homogeneous moral and social conscience” (Selections from Prison Notebooks 33). In a letter to his wife about the education of their children, Gramsci rejected the notion that the purpose of education is to draw out qualities that are latent and spontaneous in the child. “I instead think that man as a whole is an historical formation, obtained by coercion (understood not only in its sense of brutality and external violence) and I think only this: for otherwise I would fall into a form of transcendentalism or immanentism (Letters from Prison I, 302). (I’m taking this stuff out of the chapter linked above.)

    In my view Gramsci had a bit of a discipline fetish, which would make an in-depth comparison with Foucault pretty interesting, TAL. I think his image of liberation was very much not the more (vulgar) anarchist elimination of discipline and authority, much more the reflexive and self-controlled appropriation of effective institutions.

  8. Hi everyone, glad to see the party’s started.

    The Durkheim/Gramsci affiliation had never occurred to me before this post, which is why I enjoyed reading the questions and then Carl’s response. The Eagleton and especially Raymond Williams accounts of ideology are very familiar for anyone who did lit studies grad school in the 90s as I did. Much of this period’s lit crit is heavily indebted to Gramsci via Said, but oddly enough not Weber or Durkheim. I was doing a lot of religious writing in my 18th century studies diss and found myself reading a lot of Weber. Jeff Browitt did an excellent little volume called Contemporary Cultural Theory (Routledge 2003) that covers much of this ground, including the sociology of knowledge and Bourdieu, which I think is a much better, and certainly more accurate survey of this material than Eagleton’s stuff, which is accessible but sometimes annoying. Zizek, of all people, did a really good anthology on Ideology for Routledge a while back, which contains a lot of the standard discussions of the concept out of the Marxist tradition, along with a nice intro by SZ.

    The Foucault question is a good one, but to answer it would entail talking about his complicated relations with marxism in the French post-war context. A lot of these objections are aired around the time of the Order of Things, but MF always seems more interested in discursive practices than in what may or may not be in people’s heads. I suppose one of the names we could invoke here would be Althusser’s distinction between ideological state apparatuses and repressive state apparatuses, with schools and churches and their personnel famously working on behalf of the ISAs. But to return to Carl’s initial point, I think the real value of hegemony is that to some extent it is focused on power relations, though not in too direct a way; it permits a certain amount of indeterminacy in thinking about power relations, or lateral thinking, a little like MF’s power networks in the History of Sexuality; and it also permits us to talk about culture in a less deterministic, more multivalent way than we find in a lot of other left discourse. It’s not surprising that literary scholars like such a slip-slidey concept, or that it leads in one way or another to a rather deracinated “cultural studies.” But that’s for another post.

  9. Dave, I think that’s all right, and you’ve put your finger on one of the things that ends up bothering me the most about the Marxist tradition, which is that totalizing hidden-God kind of assumption that modern life is fundamentally corrupt and the state is at the root of all that corruption. I find this kind of pseudo-theology neither intellectually appealing nor empirically plausible. (Lots of fuzzy-brained utopians think this stuff, which I goofed on recently as ‘the iron laws of anarchism‘.) So even though hegemony is indeed a slippy-slidey concept, it at least has the merit just as you say of at least beginning to mediate the analysis of power relations; in Gramsci, so much so that it becomes very difficult to actually reconstruct a nefarious purpose behind the assemblages and networks. I end up thinking Foucault is similarly an improvement on the more vulgar Marxisms, but still disappointing insofar as there’s still a lurking ubiquitous corruption that needs to be sniffed out.

  10. This discussion made me think of one of the subtlest, most effective expositions of hegemony I’ve seen, E.P. Thompson’s Customs in Common, which is about patricians and plebs in 18c England, which another historian summarizes it as follows: “Where [the canons of paternalism and deference] were broadly adhered to, or at least not broadly abused, [paternalism] could be an effective technique of rule. It could transmute disparities of rank into a bond of personal identification between inferior and superior, even ‘inhibit the growth of alternative horizons and expectations’ on the part of the subordinate.” (Wrightson, “Class,” British Atlantic World, 149-50). This to me seems like a plausible account of how the stratifications and inequalities of the 18c world could be made more or less intelligible and therefore acceptable by the behavior of elites. I don’t think conspiratorial discourse is necessary here, but my students often need explanations of how these conditions could be taken for granted by people of the past. And I have to remind them of what we take for granted without being quite aware of it. I think blindness is a necessary element in this kind of explanatory scheme for hegemony, but then interpreters have to be able to fess up to their own limitations of self-knowledge.

  11. Yes, that’s a great reference. Eugene Genovese did the same kind of number on American slavery in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, much to the enduring dismay of those who want to jump straight to how slavery was bad. And you’ll occasionally see folks with a more ethnographic bent suspending their belief in equality as a fundamental value long enough to appreciate not just the constraints but the affordances of Confucian social order; and for ‘paternalism’ you could substitute ‘patriarchy’, which is a move Eugene’s wife Elizabeth made and without which Sarah Palin makes no sense. Much more to say on this, but as you suggested I’m starting another post!

  12. Well, the historiography of slavery is a limit case for these kinds of ethical issues, because alongside the complex texture of social and affective life in the past and present, you may very well have genocidal levels of violence and exploitation (cf. Trevor Burnard’s Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire for one model of rendering this kind of dissociation). And so how do we render both at once? The state of VA (my home state, incidentally) just discovered that its textbooks were teaching children the factoid that slaves sometimes fought alongside their masters in the civil war (this is the ultimate paternalist fantasy). When asked about the documentation for this anecdote, the textbook’s author (not a professional historian) claimed she’d seen it on the internet. So the desire to render that kind of complexity can also become complicit with the hierarchies and exclusions of the past. That’s what Thompson is so astute about in his critiques of historians’ identification with the gentry. But there’s no recipe to avoid this problem in one’s historiography.

  13. Yup, well said. At one level you’ve got a question of fact: did any slaves fight alongside their masters? If so, how many, how, and why? We can discard as hopelessly ‘ideological’ any investigative/interpretive practice that can’t cope with the answers to those questions. If “complicity with the hierarchies and exclusions of the past” means accurately reporting that some slaves fought with their masters, I’m not sure I see the problem. We’d also need to look at how many didn’t, why and so on to understand what was happening; although I’m on record that if we could effectively rewrite the past to actually improve the present I’d be for it. Short of that, we then get into interpretive quandaries like, how many slaves fighting alongside masters would it take to say something meaningful about slavery? If it turns out there were none, does that say something meaningful about slavery? Then there are the metaquestions, in which we note that reactionaries, conservatives, liberals and radicals are inclined to do different things with the same ‘clean’ data based on different cognitive and ethical frameworks. Would slaves fighting with masters complicate or reinforce the domination metanarrative? At which point we can take up positions on those battle lines, or just try to figure out what was going on and be accused of deracination from all sides.

    I don’t find I have to explain to students that slavery was bad. They’d all write that paper without prompting if I let them. Olaudah-Equiano-kidnapped-chained-degraded-and-beaten n+1. What they don’t want to think about is how slavery made a lot of sense to people with morals much like their own, and contributed to the primitive accumulation of capital that made the industrial revolution and ultimately their own modern conveniences possible. So the reciprocal problem to identifying with the gentry is simply recycling canned liberal homilies with a side of human misery porn. I agree there’s no historiographical recipe that will get us consistently to something more Thompsonish, but I would say that the hermeneutics of suspicion has to be an equal-opportunity procedure, or perhaps we could even think about not playing the moral high ground gotcha game at all.

  14. I don’t think we disagree about this, Carl. The goal here is to bring students’ understandings to materials they haven’t considered before, and have them develop a certain kind of critical awareness about the existing accounts, how they were put together, the sources used, the interests served, etc. etc. If I could do that consistently, day in and day out, with the full range of students I encounter, I’d rejoice. So I don’t think either of us is interested in students whose moral reactions are simply expressed without any further reflection, analysis, or information-gathering. But I do try to point out that even something as self-evidently bad as enslavement has inspired a full range of historiographical positions and debates about its practices and its implications. All this is to say that any scholar is going to operate with a certain ensemble of identifications and disidentifications that will come into play as she does the interpretive work (what Said calls “the inventory”), and that her ethical and professional responsibility is to put those under sufficient pressure that she can speak about them rather than be spoken through them. In my opinion, though, the difference between a Thompson and your PC cliched leftist historian is not the presence or absence of moral outrage, but in the quality of the historical research and thinking that went into producing it. In my view, the problem with the gotcha game is not the use of a moral vocabulary but the unreflectiveness of the analysis and the failure to recognize one’s own historical relation to the question at hand, as you suggest in your Equiano example. That’s how I can appreciate both Foucault and Thompson, who write very differently about the period that I study.

  15. Dave, if we agreed any more we’d have to start matching our outfits. I especially like your formulation of putting the ‘inventory’ under sufficient pressure to speak about it rather than be spoken through it. I know we’re not breaking any ground here, but it’s pleasant to talk around a common project nonetheless.

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