Gramsci and hegemony

Raul Leon 015The idea of a ‘third face of power’, or ‘invisible power’ has its roots partly, in Marxist thinking about the pervasive power of ideology, values and beliefs in reproducing class relations and concealing contradictions (Heywood, 1994: 100).  Marx recognised that economic exploitation was not the only driver behind capitalism, and that the system was reinforced by a dominance of ruling class ideas and values – leading to Engels’s famous concern that ‘false consciousness’ would keep the working class from recognising and rejecting their oppression (Heywood, 1994: 85).

False consciousness, in relation to invisible power, is itself a ‘theory of power’ in the Marxist tradition. It is particularly evident in the thinking of Lenin, who ‘argued that the power of ‘bourgeois ideology’ was such that, left to its own devices, the proletariat would only be able to achieve ‘trade union consciousness’, the desire to improve their material conditions but within the capitalist system’ (Heywood 1994: 85). A famous analogy is made to workers accepting crumbs that fall off the table (or indeed are handed out to keep them quiet) rather than claiming a rightful place at the table.

The Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, imprisoned for much of his life by Mussolini, took these idea further in his Prison Notebooks with his widely influential notions of ‘hegemony’ and the ‘manufacture of consent’ (Gramsci 1971).  Gramsci saw the capitalist state as being made up of two overlapping spheres, a ‘political society’ (which rules through force) and a ‘civil society’ (which rules through consent). This is a different meaning of civil society from the ‘associational’ view common today, which defines civil society as a ‘sector’ of voluntary organisations and NGOs. Gramsci saw civil society as the public sphere where trade unions and political parties gained concessions from the bourgeois state, and the sphere in which ideas and beliefs were shaped, where bourgeois ‘hegemony’ was reproduced in cultural life through the media, universities and religious institutions to ‘manufacture consent’ and legitimacy (Heywood 1994: 100-101).

The political and practical implications of Gramsci’s ideas were far-reaching because he warned of the limited possibilities of direct revolutionary struggle for control of the means of production; this ‘war of attack’ could only succeed with a prior ‘war of position’ in the form of struggle over ideas and beliefs, to create a new hegemony (Gramsci 1971).  This idea of a ‘counter-hegemonic’ struggle – advancing alternatives to dominant ideas of what is normal and legitimate – has had broad appeal in social and political movements. It has also contributed to the idea that ‘knowledge’ is a social construct that serves to legitimate social structures (Heywood 1994: 101).

In practical terms, Gramsci’s insights about how power is constituted in the realm of ideas and knowledge – expressed through consent rather than force – have inspired the use of explicit strategies to contest hegemonic norms of legitimacy. Gramsci’s ideas have influenced popular education practices, including the adult literacy and consciousness-raising methods of Paulo Freire in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), liberation theology, methods of participatory action research (PAR), and many approaches to popular media, communication and cultural action.

The idea of power as ‘hegemony’ has also influenced debates about civil society. Critics of the way civil society is narrowly conceived in liberal democratic thought – reduced to an ‘associational’ domain in contrast to the state and market – have used Gramsci’s definition to remind us that civil society can also be a public sphere of political struggle and contestation over ideas and norms. The goal of ‘civil society strengthening’ in development policy can thus be pursued either in a neo-liberal sense of building civic institutions to complement (or hold to account) states and markets, or in a Gramscian sense of building civic capacities to think differently, to challenge assumptions and norms, and to articulate new ideas and visions.

Refernces for futher reading

Freire, Paulo (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York, Herder & Herder.

Gramsci, Antonio (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, New York, International Publishers.

Heywood, Andrew (1994) Political Ideas and Concepts: An Introduction, London, Macmillan.

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