Antonio Gramsci wrote his “Prison Notebooks” at a time not dissimilar to our own. The political parties led by the liberal class, because they had detached themselves from the working class, were weak or irrelevant. The radical left had been neutered and had failed to articulate a coherent alternative vision to capitalism. There was a “crisis of authority.” Fascism was ascendant and state repression was becoming steadily more severe and totalitarian.
Benito Mussolini’s regime claimed, like our corporate state, to be implementing a government based on efficiency, meritocracy, the management of society by experts and specialists and the elimination of class conflict through mediation. It too celebrated “heroic” military values, traditionalism and a mythical past that stretched back, in the case of fascist Italy, to ancient Rome. It also rewarded conformism and loyalty, denigrated the humanities and culture in favor of vocational and technical training, spectacle and patriotic kitsch. It preached a relentless positivism, ridiculed the concept of the public good by trumpeting a hyper-individualism and defanged the press. Dissent and criticism were condemned as treason. Gramsci when he was arrested in 1926 and imprisoned technically had parliamentary immunity, but by then the rule of law was meaningless. From this bleak political landscape we get the [Gramsci] dictum you have all heard, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”
Gramsci, like Leon Trotsky, was an intellectual but also a journalist. And it was Trotsky who lamented that by the time Gramsci set out to build the Italian Communist Party, the business elites, allied with the fascists, had put into place such draconian forms of repression that effective organizing was all but impossible.
Gramsci deviated from the Marxist belief that the inherent contradictions of capitalism would of themselves usher in socialism. He was opposed to the iron control of a Leninist revolutionary vanguard. Revolution, he wrote, would only be achieved when the masses had gained enough consciousness to exert personal autonomy and see through the mores, stereotypes and narratives disseminated by the dominant culture. Revolutionary change required the intellectual ability to understand reality.
Hegemony, for Gramsci, refers to how ruling elites, through the organs of mass culture, manipulate our understanding of reality to promote their interests. The passive consumers of mass culture see the world not as it is but as it is interpreted for them. Mass culture, including the press, schools and systems of entertainment, demonizes all those the ruling elites scapegoat and fear—in our case people of color, the poor, Muslims, undocumented workers, anti-capitalists, labor unions, intellectuals, liberals and dissidents. The corporate elites use mass culture to transform legitimate economic and social grievances into psychological and emotional problems—hence the drumbeat throughout our consumer society to believe in ourselves, work hard, be obedient, heed positive psychologists and self-help gurus, get an education, focus on excellence and believe in our dreams. This mantra, which in essence assures us that reality is never an impediment to what we desire, is accompanied by the fostering of a false camaraderie with the so-called corporate family, if we work for a corporation, or a hypernationalism.
Gramsci presciently saw that the capitalist manager was not only tasked with maximizing profit and reducing the cost of labor. The manager had to build mechanisms of indoctrination to ensure social integration and communal solidarity in service to capitalism, hence the constant evaluations, promotions and demotions along with the gathering of employees at meetings to instill groupthink. Along with this indoctrination come mini security and surveillance states in our workplaces where every movement and every word spoken are taped or filmed in the name of customer service. Corporations function as tiny totalitarian states, models for the larger corporate state.
Gramsci saw mass culture as the primary tool for submission. The more mass culture infects the thinking and attitudes of the population the less the state has to use harsher forms of coercion for domination. Gramsci described mass culture, or civil society, as the trenches and permanent fortifications that defend the core interests of the elites. Revolutionary change will occur only after a prolonged series of attacks, what Gramsci called a “war of position,” on these outer ideological defenses. It was, in his eyes, a type of siege warfare that requires “patience and inventiveness.” Once the ruling ideology loses credibility, once mass culture is no longer effective, its institutional structures collapse. A counter-hegemony, in short, comes before power.
“Every revolution,” he wrote, “has been preceded by an intense labor of criticism, by the diffusion of culture and the spread of ideas. ... The same phenomenon is being repeated today in the case of socialism. It was through a critique of capitalist civilization that the unified consciousness of the proletariat was or is still being formed, and a critique implies culture, not simply a spontaneous and naturalistic evolution. … To know oneself means to be oneself, to be master of oneself. … And we cannot be successful in this unless we also know others, their history, the successful efforts they have made to be what they are, to create the civilization they have created and which we seek to replace with our own.”
Revolutions were first and foremost a battle of ideas.
“A main obstacle to change is the reproduction by the dominating forces of elements of their hegemonic ideology,” Gramsci wrote. “It’s an important and urgent task to develop alternative interpretations of reality”.
Noam Chomsky boils this down to “Tell the truth.”
And as Gramsci seconded, “To tell the truth is revolutionary.”
The core of neoliberalism is the absurd idea that the living standards of the global working class will rise by deforming societies to slavishly serve the dictates of the market.
We have reached a moment in human history when the reigning ideology has lost its credibility. All of neoliberalism’s promises have proven false. The abolishment of national residency requirements for corporations has been used to legalize corporate tax boycotts. The middle class—the bedrock of any capitalist democracy—is withering away and has been replaced by an angry, disenfranchised working poor. Workers are forced into two or three jobs and 70-hour workweeks to stay solvent. Medical bills, student loans, subprime mortgages and credit card debt trigger crippling bankruptcies. The corporate managerial class, meanwhile, collects billions in bonuses and compensation and uses its money and lobbyists to destroy democratic institutions. It has cemented into place a system the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism.”
As these lies become transparent we are thrown into what Gramsci calls an interregnum—a time when the reigning ideology has lost efficacy but has yet to be replaced by a new one. “The crisis consists,” Gramsci wrote, “precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born, [and] in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Hence political mutations such as Donald Trump, or in Gramsci’s time Mussolini.
The acceleration of deindustrialization by the 1970s created a crisis that forced the ruling elites to create a new political paradigm, as Stuart Hall [with co-writers] explains in his book “Policing the Crisis.” This paradigm, trumpeted by a compliant media, shifted its focus from the common good to race, crime and law and order. It told those undergoing profound economic and political change that their suffering stemmed not from corporate greed but from a threat to national integrity. The old consensus that buttressed the programs of the New Deal and the welfare state was attacked as enabling criminal black youth, welfare queens and social parasites. The parasites were to blame. This opened the door to an authoritarian populism, begun by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, which supposedly championed family values, traditional morality, individual autonomy, law and order, the Christian faith and the return to a mythical past, at least for white Americans.
Mass culture is a potent and dangerous counterrevolutionary force. It creates a herd mentality. It banishes independent and autonomous thought. It destroys our self-confidence. It marginalizes and discredits nonconformists. It depoliticizes the citizenry. It instills a sense of collective futility and impotence by presenting the ruling ideology as a revealed, unassailable truth, an inevitable and inexorable force that alone makes human progress possible.
Mass culture is an assault that, as Gramsci wrote, results in a “confused and fragmentary” consciousness or what Marx called “false consciousness.” It is designed to impart the belief to the proletariat that its “true” interests are aligned with those of the ruling class, in our case global corporatism.
We are a product not of nature, Gramsci wrote, but of our history and our culture. If we do not know our history and our culture, and accept the false history and culture manufactured for us, we will never surmount the forces of oppression. The recovery of memory and culture in the 1960s by radical movements terrified the elites. It gave people an understanding of their own power and agency. It articulated and celebrated the struggles of working men and women and the oppressed rather than the mythical beneficence of the oppressors. It exposed the exploitation and mendacity of the ruling class. And that is why corporatists spent billions to crush and marginalize these movements and their histories in schools, the culture, the press and in our systems of entertainment.
“Not only does the people have no precise consciousness of its own historical identity,” Gramsci lamented under fascism, “it is not even conscious of the historical identity or the exact limits of its adversary.”
If we do not know our history we have no point of comparison. We cannot name the forces that control us or see the long continuity of capitalist oppression and resistance. Once a democracy fails, as Plato warned, it creates the conditions for tyranny based on popular support. This is what happened in fascist Italy. It is what happened with the election of Trump. When a right-wing populism or fascism takes power, the goal is not, as Gramsci said, to rouse “the civic consciousness of the nation” but to nurture and re-create a civic consciousness that has been lost. This is where we are historically. And it was where Gramsci was when he wrote his voluminous “Prison Notebooks.”
Democracy throughout most of the history of the West was an anomaly. After the collapse of Athenian democracy in 322 B.C.—and this democracy was only for men and excluded slaves—it was 2,000 years before another democratic government came into existence. It has only been in the later part of the 20th century that democratic governments, now under assault from protofascist movements, were able to flourish, however imperfectly. Our own system of government, if one takes into consideration the exclusion of African-Americans, Native Americans, men without property and women, could not be defined as a full democracy until the middle of the last century. And we, like fascist Italy, are rolling back towards a more familiar despotism.
There is a reason the capitalist state seeks to keep workers unconscious. No worker will ever receive the full benefit of his or her labor under a capitalist system since this would destroy capitalism itself. And any worker who truly grasped his or her interests would be dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism.
Gramsci edited the paper in Turin, Ordine Nuovo (The New Order), during the labor uprisings in 1919 that saw workers take over factory floors and form workers councils. He and the other writers on the paper—who inexplicably ceased publication at the height of the unrest to devote themselves to organizing—did not advocate positions until they had canvassed and spoken at length to the workers councils. These councils, Gramsci wrote, not only gave workers power over their work lives but broke down the wall barricading the private citizen from participation in political life.
Revolutionary policy for Gramsci did not come from above but from below. It was organic. And the failure, in his eyes, of revolutionary elites is that they were often as dictatorial and disconnected from workers as capitalist elites. The masses had to be integrated into the structures of power to create a new form of mass politics—hence his insistence that all people are intellectuals capable of autonomous and independent thought. A democracy is only possible when all of its citizens understand the machinery of power and have a role in the exercising of power.
Gramsci [1891-1937] would have despaired of the divide in the United States between our anemic left and the working class. The ridiculing of Trump supporters, the failure to listen to and heed the legitimate suffering of the working poor, including the white working poor, ensures that any revolt will be stillborn. Those of us who seek to overthrow the corporate state will have to begin locally. This means advocating issues such as raising the minimum wage, fighting for clean water, universal health care and good public education, including free university education, that speak directly to the improvement of the lives of the working class. It does not mean lecturing the working class, and especially the white working class, about multiculturalism and identity politics.
Revolt, however, without an alternative political vision, Gramsci knew, was doomed. Workers are as easily mobilized around anti-democratic ideologies such as fascism and racism. If they lack consciousness, they can become a dark force in the body politic, as we have seen at Trump rallies and with the rise of hate crimes.
“But is it enough that a revolution be carried out by proletarians for it to be a proletarian revolution?” he asked. “War too is made by proletarians, but it is not, for this reason alone, a proletarian event. For it to be so, other, spiritual factors must be present. There must be more to the revolution than the question of power: there must be the question of morality, of a way of life.”
This insistence on a vision of a new order set Gramsci against the anarchists and the labor unions. The state could deal with unrest, even revolt, he knew, as long as it was sporadic and localized and did not articulate a program to replace the structures that kept the ruling elites in power. “The socialist state cannot be embodied in the institutions of the capitalist state… ,” he wrote. “The socialist state must be a fundamentally new creation. The institutions of the capitalist State are organized in such a way as to facilitate free competition: merely to change the personnel in these institutions is hardly going to change the direction of their activity.”
Gramsci, a sickly child who, after being dropped by a servant down some stairs at the age of 4, developed a hunchback and was as an adult 4 foot 6 inches tall, grew up in Sardinia, an impoverished island in the south. He lived in extreme pain most of his life and, when his father was imprisoned on corruption charges, poverty. He was, physically, temperamentally and geographically, an outcast. This gave him a natural sympathy for the marginalized and the forgotten. He was disturbed by the schism between the [Italian] agrarian and underdeveloped south and the industrialized regions in the north, especially in Turin, where he attended university.
The Italian elites promoted, like many during this era, the idea of the biological inferiority of certain races. The peasants in the south were poor not because they were treated little better than serfs by the large landowners but because they were genetically handicapped. This racism, which seeped into the thinking of the left, infuriated Gramsci. His writings on the divisions between the industrial north and the agrarian south were seminal for Edward Said when he wrote “Orientalism.” Said, like Gramsci, saw how the racist stereotypes disseminated by the global north were used to justify the policies of exploitation and oppression in the global south.
“The entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to obtain the active consent of the governed” has to be made clear to the public, Gramsci wrote.
Gramsci’s understanding of how ruling elites manufacture consent separated Gramsci from Marx. Marx saw critical theory as preliminary to the construction of an egalitarian and just society. In the just society, critical theory, like the state, would, however, wither away. Gramsci knew that the elites would continually reproduce conditions and ideologies to maintain or take control. This required the constant vigilance of the critical, revolutionary theorist. There would be a never-ending battle of ideas, those spun out by the elites to justify their privileges and the radical theorists who would expose the ideas as tools of repression and hold up a socialist alternative.
Gramsci held up human agency—breaking again with Marx—as essential. History is made, he said, by human will. It is not predetermined. How we gain consciousness and how we achieve revolution cannot be understood by solely examining the means of production. We cannot, he warned, predict the course of history. We can go backwards as well as forwards. We must, therefore, create a vibrant counterculture that ultimately makes revolution possible. This makes Gramsci, as we too recoil from the onslaught of corporate fascism, our contemporary.