What does "Hegemony" mean, anyways?
This past week saw the anniversary of the death of the Italian Communist theorist Antonio Gramsci, who perished in fascist custody on April 27, 1936. He was 46 years old. While in prison, he penned his famous Prison Notebooks: 30 volumes filled with 3,000 pages of reflection on political theory, history, and philosophy, written under harrowing conditions as his health declined. A major part of his effort was an attempt to understand the fascist rise to power that lead to the shattering of political party and his imprisonment.
You’ve undoubtedly heard some egghead or another talk about “hegemony” or sometimes “cultural hegemony,” making reference to Gramsci’s most famous theory, but perhaps are unclear exactly what it means in that context. Well, I recently went through a phase of obsessively reading Gramsci and about Gramsci and I’ll try to share here what sense I can make of his ideas. I think with the background of the “culture wars” and the fragmented and polarized political terrain of the contemporary United States he provides some particularly useful and revealing concepts. Even figures on the Right claim to find inspiration for the culture war offensives from Gramsci’s writings, while also sometimes viewing him as outlining the master-plan of a devious left-wing plot to take over the country and impose communism before the American people can even understand what’s going on. Sometimes, particularly among his right-wing interpreters, Gramsci is associated with the idea that “politics is downstream from culture,” but in a way, what he suggests is the opposite.
Hegemony is often used in political discourse as a dirty-word, a cognate to something like “domination” or “repression.” Whatever it is, it’s bad. But it’s clear that Gramsci intended it as a neutral, even scientific, descriptor of a certain political phenomenon, not as a polemical term of abuse. And it also means something like the opposite of pure domination through force: hegemony is always associated in Gramsci’s writing with the concepts of “leadership” and “consent.” An idea Americans might be familiar with is that of a political coalition: the theory of hegemony is intended to give an account of how political coalitions between different classes and interests in society, are forged and led, and on a larger scale, how nations are unified. When a politician says something like, “I can bring the country together,” they are bragging in a way, “I can achieve hegemony.”
This coalition is based on a kind of deal, that both contains a unified ideological and moral picture of national purpose and a distribution of resources that answers the material needs of the different classes in society:
Undoubtedly the fact of hegemony presupposes that account be taken of the interests and the tendencies of the groups over which hegemony is to be exercised, and that a certain com promise equilibrium should be formed-in other words, that the leading group should make sacrifices of an economic-corporate kind. But there is also no doubt that such sacrifices and such a compromise cannot touch the essential ; for though hegemony is ethical-political, it must also be economic, must necessarily be based on the decisive function exercised by the leading group in the decisive nucleus of economic activity.
So the hegemonic group always makes some concessions to the subordinate ones, but in order to be in the position to make such a deal, it’s got to be in charge of the economy in some way. In American history, the New Deal order can be understood as a kind of hegemonic bloc, a unification of the country that contains both a purely economic side and an ideological and moral conception of national purpose.
I mentioned above a politician who claims to be able to “unite the nation” as a kind of boast of accomplishing hegemony, but Gramsci makes clear that this kind of boast is always hollow when coming from a “charismatic individual:” the “I alone can fix it” attitude is a sign of a serious crisis of hegemony (or “crisis of authority,” Gramsci says they are the same thing)—a lack of national direction and unity—that occasions “morbid symptoms” like fascism, or other related “Caesarist” or “Bonapartist” movements. To this “forcing” of political unity, he contrasts the more “organic” process of hegemony:
The passage of the troops of many different parties under the banner of a single party, which better represents and resumes the needs of the entire class, is an organic and normal phenomenon, even if its rhythm is very swift indeed almost like lightning in comparison with periods of calm. It represents the fusion of an entire social class under a single leadership, which alone is held to be capable of solving an over riding problem of its existence and of fending off a mortal danger. When the crisis does not find this organic solution, but that of the charismatic leader, it means that a static equilibrium exists (whose factors may be disparate, but in which the decisive one is the immaturity of the progressive forces) ; it means that no group, neither the conservatives nor the progressives, has the strength for victory, and that even the conservative group needs a master.
I think you can meaningfully re-interpret all the notions generated by America’s current situation—the collapse of consensus, “post-truth” politics, polarization, themes of disinformation and misinformation the nostalgic pining for the old comity and collaboration between parties, etc.—as indicating a crisis of hegemony. There is no class or class-fraction willing or able to lead and unite the country, to breakthrough the impasse—we are in the state Gramsci calls the “war of position,” the slow, grinding effort to gain advantage over one’s opponents rather than the lightning victories and assaults of the “war of maneuver”—or maybe in the even more static “siege warfare” he describes:
In politics, in other words, the war of maneuver subsists so long as it is a question of winning positions which are not decisive, so that all the resources of the State's hegemony cannot be mobilised. But when, for one reason or another, these positions have lost their value and only the decisive positions are at stake, then one passes over to siege warfare; this is concentrated, difficult, and requires exceptional qualities of patience and inventiveness. In politics, the siege is a reciprocal one, despite all appearances, and the mere fact that the ruler has to muster all his resources demonstrates how seriously he takes his adversary.
This notion of a “reciprocal siege” sounds like a pretty decent characterization of the “culture war” state of American politics, where both sides feel perpetually besieged by their opponents.
I said earlier that the concept of hegemony was sort of the opposite of violent repression, but the introduction of military metaphors, which Gramsci uses constantly and to powerful effect, requires some qualification of that. First of all, “Hegemony” is precisely the sort of moral leadership required in warfare: the belief in the cause and victory that keeps the army coherent. One of the key sources of the concept is the Jacobins, who successfully lead the Republic in the French Revolutionary wars. Second, as a student of Hegel and Marx, Gramsci’s concepts are all dialectical: they are not simply static categories where you can just say “this belongs in this bin and that belongs in that bin,” rather they imply that things that are relative and interrelated, have different and changing intensities of quality and quantity. The co-existence of consent and domination, the presence or absence of hegemony are all parts of analyzing a concrete political situation. Hegemony may also imply consent, but that consent can be closer to conformity than real conscious choice. In a certain sense, domination is always creeping back into hegemony, as it edges towards relentlessly pushing a set of ideas or as it collapses and degenerates and requires the use of force and violence to shore up and repair its leaks.
Gramsci’s war-talk is not merely metaphorical: he understands war and politics are phenomena on a kind of continuum, that can transform into each other, and require each other’s institutional forms and ideals: war always a political dimension and politics often requires a kind of martial spirit and system of organization, not for nothing do we speak of “campaigns.” Gramsci’s generation lived through World War I, and the experience of trench warfare had a deep effect on him: civil society and the state for him often appear like a great battlefield covered with complex networks of communication lines, fortifications and defenses. This can seem perhaps both fanciful and a little grim, but I think it can also be extremely clarifying about what’s happening in political contestation. But there’s another level of confusion in the absence of hegemony: the combat units—the classes, factions, and interest-groups— occupying these fortifications or sallying forth to attack one another are not necessarily united on two great sides, they are constantly forging more-or-less temporary and provisional alliances, which can breakdown when their perceptions of their political needs change. So then the state of politics is then even more baroque: a kind of permanent condition of trench warfare and siege combined with the chaos of a feudal war, with many fragmented participants ultimately out for themselves, unincorporated into a greater class or national project.
This is not at all an adequate treatment of Gramsci’s thought and there are interpretations that differ from the one given here, but I hope this will be interesting enough to encourage readers to learn more about perhaps the most brilliant political thinker of the modern era.