Edward W. Said once stated that “what one feels is lacking in Foucault is something resembling Gramsci’s analysis of hegemony, of historical blocs and given relationships as a whole, constructed in accordance with the perspective of a politically active individual for whom the description of fascinating power mechanisms never becomes a substitute for the effort made to transform power relationships in society.” [E. W. Said: The World, the Text and the Critic, Cambridge (Mass) 1983].
If a reading of Gramsci in the light of current challenges is possible today, it is one that is able to relocate the general theory of the working class struggle to within a philosophical discussion of sovereignty and the paradigm of power in itself – the logic behind its construction and legitimisation, its sphere of influence and operation, and its complexity – and therefore in contrast with every reductionist theory of power as a mechanism of the dominant class according to the classical Marxist tradition. However, such a reading does not have to renounce the right to present itself an operational discourse, a theory to be used both for and in practice, one that does not limit itself to analysing and interpreting power, but works to change or negate it by means of political action.
In this sense, hegemony is one of the principal and most productive categories of Gramsci’s inheritance today, not only because of the central position it has assumed within the current phase of capitalist development, but also because of the new types of strategy and composition recent global resistance movements have displayed and continue to display. Thus, on the one hand the category of hegemony becomes an interpretative tool in the social field of postfordism, its determining trait being the reabsorption of the differences between pure intellectual activity, political action and work. On the other hand, the intermittent, network structure of the movements that began in Seattle – the irreducibility of their components to the membership of any specific social class, the role assumed by new means of communication within them and the way they claim autonomous spaces for action – necessarily invokes the concept of hegemony in the Gramscian sense. But above all it is the current identification of political struggle and cultural output that cannot do without Gramsci’s theoretical arsenal, which, in contrast to the traditions of Marxism, locates politics as a superstructural dimension in such a way that it has its own full and specific autonomy. How then should ‘hegemony’ be defined? What examples of power does it refer to? For which social classes is the term synonymous with supremacy? What are the paradigms required in order to discuss hegemony?
It is Gramsci who takes the concept of hegemony to an extreme degree of theoretically mature expression, and he extends it as much to the ruling class as to those who are ruled, without limiting it to any specific membership class. Gramsci’s point of departure, however, is Lenin’s definition of ‘proletarian hegemony’ as a plan for the ideological and political direction of Bolshevism, and the same term is used by Bucharin, Zinovev, Stalin etc. in many documents from the Second International. However, the systematic use of the concept and the central position it assumes in Prison Notebooks is anticipated in Notes on the Southern Question (1926). Although Lenin is still the direct reference here, the historical-political function of intellectuals and culture assumes considerable prominence within the hegemonic, bourgeois system and the class struggle. From this point on, Gramsci’s theory of hegemony has considerable autonomy compared with Lenin’s strategic conception, and for Gramsci, the problem of the cultural affirmation of the workers’ movement acquires a greater importance than for any other Marxist thinker. However, the intention is not to give more importance to the superstructure than to the structural, and even less to over-estimate superstructural elements. What is intended, rather, is to reduce them to the level of structure. That is to say that all those elements pertaining to the sphere of civil society – such as ideologies – acquire an “objective and operational” reality, and assume functions that orthodox Marxist thinking attributes to the economic structure. If it is true that the economic basis is the determining factor, the great material conflict only become politically relevant for Gramsci when they enter “the realm of ideologies”. [Prison Notebooks, p.1249].
In this sense the new area of conflict opens on cultural and ideological ground, which is where hegemony, as a form of power, is constructed. This is the source of the general theory of the relationship between the organic intellectual and social classes throughout the Prison Notebooks. In fact, “every social groups, – Gramsci writes – coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one more strata of intellectuals which give homogeneity and awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also on the social and political fields”.
But what form of power does hegemony exercise? What relationship does it define between the leaders and the led? Gramsci identifies two main forms of power where hegemony differs from dominance, which correspond to two different spheres: civil society, and political society with the State as its synthesis. If civil society is constructed from spontaneous rather than coercive affiliations, political society is formed from institutions whose function is connected to forms of dominance within society. Hegemony would be situated within civil society, which would establish itself as an area for constructing a political subjectivity that depended on consensus rather than coercion. Thus hegemony would operate as a de facto power whose popularity and persuasive capacity would depend on the strength of the ideas it represented. In this sense, for Gramsci, a society can only be profoundly changed if all the conditions are already in place for its takeover.
Therefore – through a redefinition of the revolutionary process – the proletariat has to become the hegemonic class before it becomes the ruling class, which is a logical consequence of hegemony. Gramsci’s concept is rooted in the analysis of ‘the historical bloc’ as the relationship between economic forces and ideology, in which the reciprocal influence of structure and superstructure is manifested. There can be no dominance without consensus, and consensus can only be gained from ideological and cultural struggle. Gramsci’s radical change of direction, even compared with Lenin, is exactly that of gaining consensus before the actual conquest of power. It is not by chance – as has been said – that for Gramsci, a social class “does not take State power, it becomes State”. [E. Laclau and C. Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, 1985]. “A social group can, and indeed has to be the directive one before seizing governmental power (indeed this is one of the primary conditions for the takeover of power). Afterwards, when exercising power, even if it holds it tightly in its fist, it becomes dominant, but it also has to continue to be directive (dirigente).” [Prison Notebooks, p. 2010-2011]. With regard to this objective, intellectuals, as the organisers of hegemony, must commit themselves to a long-term task that is firmly bound to prevailing historical conditions. Gramsci calls this “the war of position”, in that it is “the unprecedented concentration of hegemony” in contrast with “the war of movement”, the frontal attack of the Trotskyist matrix.
In the continual transformation of the composition and interrelationship between rulers and the ruled, another Gramscian category exhibits its extraordinary vitality today: the concept of subalternity. Such a category is, however, not solely the conceptual counterpoint to either hegemony or the ruling class. In fact, this category, inherited today from the Subaltern Studies project, is characterised by its focus on the territorial, spatial, and geographic basis of social life. If Gramsci originally coined the term ‘subaltern’ as a substitute for ‘proletariat’, the concept has since come to assume the wider Gramscian meaning of a revolutionary construct that transcends the urban working class – the sole subject of orthodox Marxism. To a greater degree than either Marx or Engels, Gramsci emphasizes the importance of cultural and spatial coordinates in the correlation between the tendency towards world unification and the political plan. To some extent we are dealing with the introduction of geo-social parameters within a general reflection on the subject of power. Space and territory burst forth from texts on the Gramscian analysis of the Southern question, the ‘agrarian bloc’, and the division of the world into North and South. Here too, one cannot fail to see a certain relationship between the subsequent Foucaultian discussion on geography, and ideologies and strategies concerning space, as well as with projects for the deconstruction of existential theories of culture. Despite great differences, and not only those linked to historical circumstances, that separate Gramsci as a representative of fordism (to which we owe the formulation, if not the introduction of the term itself) from the current situation, what characterizes the postfordist multitude is the direct link between structure and superstructure, between material development, social conflict and culture. In this sense, the Gramscian toolbox appears to be not only still useful but absolutely necessary in these times of the power of the Empire.
Marco Scotini (born 1964) is a curator and critic of contemporary art. He lives in Milan.