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Gramsci And The U.S. Body Politic

By: Alberto Luzárraga


Why the interest in Gramsci? Certainly, he is not a household name for most people, but nonetheless he is relevant enough to be mentioned on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. In a recent piece (12/19/00) by George Melloan, the columnist refers to an article published by John Fonte in the Policy Review of the Hudson Institute.

According to the WSJ writer:

"[Fonte] defines the ideological split in America as a contest between present-day Tocquevillians and disciples of the 20th-century Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who drew on the ideas of Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx. The Tocquevillians incline toward individualism, religious belief and patriotism. The Gramscians see any society, including America, as an arena where the "marginalized" are necessarily at war with the privileged classes. Good old-fashioned class warfare, in other words."

As we know, political events do not happen in a vacuum. There are always causes. Ideas that were deemed a failure decades ago can be successfully implemented today. In the world of ideas, decades are often only an incubation period and today Gramsci's ideas are very much alive in the political arena.

Born at Ales, Italy on January 1891, Antonio Gramsci was the fourth son of Francesco Gramsci, a clerk in the local registrar's office. He suffered through a difficult childhood, eventually received a scholarship, and graduated from the University of Turin. In 1921 he became a founding member of the Italian Communist party. In 1922 he traveled to Moscow as a member of the Communist International and remained in Moscow for a year. It was the beginning of the Stalinist period.

Gramsci, a bright man, thought that Stalinist methods would not work in western societies. Violence and revolution, in his opinion, would generate a fatal reaction against the communist movement. He returned to Italy with more subtle and long term ideas and began to develop them. Shortly upon his return, Mussolini jailed Gramsci. The fascist regime saw his ideas as a danger to the State. It was from prison (where he died in 1937) that Gramsci wrote his 33 books. They contain very shrewd insights on how a "capitalist, bourgeois society" works and how it can be taken over peacefully and dominated through a systematic change of its ideas.

His methods became in fact, the "field manual" for the many that followed. If you understand Gramsci, you will understand the "peculiar" and "weird" theories that are in vogue today. And you will understand that they are not the work of "weird crazy people" but rather of calculating and quite intelligent operatives.

One word of caution however. Followers of the Gramscian doctrines are a mixed lot. It would be a service rendered to the socialists to call every Gramsci follower a full fledged socialist although many certainly are that. Socialists love absolute accusations in order to label people "extremist", one of their preferred epithets. Part of the methodology is to deviate attention by accusing others of what they are or do. We should not give them that chance. Moreover, although the Gramscian proposal demands from the common follower consent and acceptance of its ideas, this does not necessarily imply that all rank and file followers have a clear understanding of where they are going.

And then, many of the more adept Gramscian operators may not fully support his economic ideas. His relevance lies in the fact that for many ambitious and opportunistic political operatives Gramsci is seen as a modern Machiavelli with a good method to achieve power. And to them this is more important than a specific economic model. The important point to understand is the method. It is a road map that shows one of the favored strategies used by persons with an unlimited lust for power to climb and acquire notoriousness, while advancing their ideas.

So what is Gramsci all about? Well, let's start with his concept of "hegemony" a word frequently used by people not noted for their love of hundred dollar words. For Gramsci ,"hegemony" is not mere dominance by force. Rather, it is the set of ideas by which dominant groups in a society secure the consent of subordinate groups to their rule.

Note the emphasis on consent. A governing class must succeed in persuading the governed to accept the moral, political and cultural values suggested by those in power. Gramsci noted that this is the way "bourgeois societies" ruled. Extreme measures were only used when there was rebellion against the established mores.

Therefore his conclusion was: Let's do the same and capture the minds of the population, as well as the institutions of the bourgeoisie and do it with ideas that we will present as "common sense". The implementation will be through intellectuals and figures of influence gained to the cause by vanity, convenience or ambition and a by a new element, intellectual operatives that work with the people. All of it, coupled to constant use of the media. In his words:

"the mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence . . . but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organizer, "permanent persuader" and not just a simple orator . . ."

Gramsci understood what Marx did not understand: Economic crises by themselves would not subvert capitalism, because capitalism always managed to overcome the crises and emerged stronger. Another theory was necessary for a different reality. One that recognized the importance of culture and ideology, and methods that went beyond the coarser forms of Marxist class struggle. Methods that would be efficient in capturing power in a western society. Methods that would fit the use of mass media because they were subtle and persuasive. If you gain the minds you gain the bodies. Even a partial victory is useful, because it weakens and diminishes your opposition.

Gramsci perceived that in a western society, the bond between the ruler and the ruled was what kept it together and this bond was what created "hegemony." And where was that bond? How was it cemented?

In the classical institutions, and through them of course. The family, the church, the schools, the civil society and its organizations, none other than the building blocks of the State.

The revolutionaries who wished to break the "hegemony" had to build up a "counter hegemony" to that of the ruling class. It was necessary to change the minds, to change the popular consensus, to change the way institutions work. In sum, to make the people question the right of their leaders to rule in the accepted way.

Success would consist in permeating throughout society a whole new system of values, beliefs and morality. A system that would become accepted by all in a way that would appear to be the normal thing to do.

How is it done? Besides the traditional intellectuals (those who see themselves as such) there must exist the "organic intellectual", i.e. the one that grows with a social group, and becomes its thinking and organizing element. The role of informal "educators" in local communities becomes essential. The educator must not be seen as a distant "brainy" figure but as "one of us", one of the neighborhood, another one of the group.

The same applies to the schools which Gramsci sees as a means used by social groups "to perpetuate a function, [namely] to rule or to be subordinate". Ergo, schools and curriculums must be controlled either directly or indirectly.

Once organized these groups would engage in incessant political activity and use massive means of communication. No armed conspiracies, just unrelenting propaganda. The introduction of Gramscian methodology in society, produces a constant clash for supremacy of ideas and a patient but persistent subversion of the building blocks of that society. Subversion is a many faced endeavor played by different people with different objectives but the modern method has a substantial Gramscian content.

Take a case in point. Why it is that we must often suffer a way of thinking that attempts to coerce us intellectually? Look around. How many times have you heard: You must not be "judgmental" or "intolerant." What does that mean in Gramscian terms? It means: You must accept our values and not argue. If you do not you are out the mainstream. Remember the Gramscian objective of turning their ideas into "common sense"?

Do you now understand, why we have political correctness?

Why we have neighborhood groups that look more like agitation and propaganda entities than neighborhood associations?

Why we have schools that push a peculiar curriculum and ignore parents, school budgets that make available funds for incredible courses, and teachers unions that often do not appear to represent teachers' true interests?

Why we have churches that have become political discourse centers?

Why we have a myriad civil associations with goals that appear to be destructive and divisive?

Why we have mass media that often operate as propaganda machines rather than reporters of events?

The Wall Street Journal article continues:

"Mr. Fonte says the Gramscian view has special currency in higher intellectual circles, particularly on elite college campuses. The plight of women, minorities, gays and other victims of cultural hegemony is a favorite subject of student indoctrinations, not to mention speech and thought control, in such places. The federal Violence Against Women Act produced a Supreme Court case in which a 10-year-old boy was charged with harassing a fifth-grade female classmate. It is no accident that the Gramscian New York Times editorial page thought that the most important thing Al Gore said in his eloquent concession speech was that he would continue to fight for people "who need burdens lifted and barriers removed." How he might have conducted his fight if he had been elected has never been clear; certainly not by cutting their taxes."

The only way to gain absolute power in the United States is through long range Gramscian tactics. There is hope however, if we don't take for granted what we now enjoy and fight to maintain power divided. The true strength of the American Republic is the division of power. This is why the would be revolutionaries so hate the Electoral College, States Rights, local self government, etc. The system devised by the Founding Fathers complicates their life tremendously. As the quoted article notes:

"Over and above these structural features, there are the multiplicity of interests and interest groups, the immense diversity of American society and the excessive rhetoric that characterizes the conflict of those separated in fact by minor differences." Underlying it all, however, "is the sheer power of the idea of freedom an idea so powerful that not even those opposed to freedom condemn it . . . ."

The last sentence is crucial. Even those that seek to destroy the system must pay lip service, at least, to the idea of liberty. They must talk about the people's right to vote while they work against it and seek to discredit the process.

The Gramscians in the United States cannot wage a war of conquest. They must wage a war of attrition and position. If we understand their tactics we can stop them and win. But it won t happen by staying at home and watching the game. We must all become involved. In the same way they become involved. To use a Gramscian term, each one of us must become an "organic intellectual" of sorts, one that explains and convinces. Gramsci was right when he said that all men have intellectual concerns outside their field of activity. The problem is that most citizens are so busy with their lives that they do not have the time to think things through. They need help and those who understand must help, each in his own way.

We have in our favor truth and true common sense. If they succeed it is only because we allowed the party with the harmful product to sell it to an unsuspecting public.

© AL 2000

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