Tea with Gramsci

Posted: 14 June 2010 in Uncategorized
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The right wing in the United States likes both its Tea Party and its Gramsci.

That’s certainly true for Lee Harris, who uses Gramsci’s ideas to extol the lack of ideas within the Tea Party movement. Harris may not always get Gramsci right but, like many right-wing thinkers, he finds Gramsci’s work useful for interpreting contemporary political events. And the lack of ideas is exactly what he likes about the Tea Party movement.

For Harris, the Tea Party is all about an attitude, a warning (like “Don’t tread on me!”), and he chides liberal intellectuals for underestimating the movement when they criticize the absence of new ideas. But, in Harris’s view, conservative intellectuals also have a problem:

As the Tea Party gains in momentum, conservative intellectuals are faced with a dilemma: to join the party or denounce it. If they join, they risk losing their status as respectable public intellectuals. If they denounce the party, they risk losing influence over the traditional Republican base.

I think that’s true. But what interests me is that Harris, like many right-wing intellectuals, finds the Marxist Gramsci useful for making sense of the world today. That’s because they understand, better than many left-wing intellectuals, the battle for hegemony—and that’s certainly one of the main ideas Gramsci contributed to Marxist thought.

As I wrote above, Harris often gets Gramsci wrong. For example, he refers to “cultural hegemony” and “new ruling class, which has a monopoly on the production and distribution of opinions.” Actually, Gramsci, the Marxist, wrote about capitalist hegemony, as the product of a combination of force and consent, and about the role of intellectuals in creating the ruling ideas whereby that hegemony would be achieved and reproduced over time.

So, in Gramscian terms, the Tea Party movement is not a revolutionary movement against the existing hegemony by “marginalized outsiders” (as Harris would like to see it) but, instead, a revolt by privileged insiders against a change in the existing order whereby they may be losing some of their privileges. That doesn’t make it uninteresting. On the contrary! It’s precisely the way the current Tea Party movement represents a continuation of the problem identified by Thomas Frank, in What’s the Matter with Kansas?—that people would vote against their economic interests as part of a movement that masqueraded as a revolt against the cultural elite—that makes it interesting.

The Tea Party movement is not a “revolt of common sense against privileged opinion makers” but a movement that reinforces the existing hegemony by favoring the privileged opinion makers of the Right over those of the Left. And that’s because left-wing intellectuals have failed to learn the lessons of Gramsci.

  1. Lee Harris says:

    I appreciated your comments on my article. But I would like to clarify a few points.

    You are correct that many “right-wingers” evoke Gramsci and his concept of cultural hegemony. But they universally look upon cultural hegemony as a program designed by Gramsci in order to bring about socialism through the back door, so to speak. But this isn’t at all what Gramsci meant.

    The concept of cultural hegemony was Gramsci’s attempt to explain the question that haunted Marxists at the beginning of the 20th century, namely, “Why hasn’t the revolution already happened?” Why couldn’t the working class see that it is in its true interests to overthrow the capitalist system?

    According to orthodox Marxism, the capitalist class promoted a self-serving ideology that masked its true purpose under the guise of abstract universal principles, such as classical liberalism. The Marxist critique of this ideology was intended to expose it as a fraud and a scam, and once this had been accomplished, then the working class would awaken to its true interests, and the socialist revolution could commence. Yet despite the Marxist exposure of the ideological fraud, no revolution had occurred. Why?

    Gramsci’s response was to argue that the capitalist class of his era had developed something much more powerful and effective than an ideology. They were able to dominate the entire culture of their society through a system of indoctrination that made the capitalist order seem right, inevitable, necessary, and just plain common sense. Mass education and mass culture were both utilized to achieve this end. Thus the task of the Marxist revolutionary required more than an intellectual critique of classical liberalism as an ideology. It faced a much greater challenge, namely, to shake up the very foundations of cultural hegemony. Gramsci did not seek to impose a new cultural hegemony, but to liberate human beings from any form of cultural hegemony.

    Yet latent in the concept of cultural hegemony there is a challenge to orthodox Marxism. The capitalist class, taken in isolation, cannot hope to achieve cultural hegemony by its own resources. It needs intellectuals and experts, artists, philosophers, priests, preachers, writers, journalists, etc., to manage and control the apparatus of cultural indoctrination and manipulation. Needless to say, the capitalist class would prefer that those in charge of maintaining cultural hegemony would be content to follow its orders and do its bidding. But once it has become apparent that the real source of social power is the control and domination of public opinion, it is only a matter of time before the intellectual elite, with their high cultural prestige, will set their own agendas, and will begin to form a new elite aspiring for dominance, independently of, and even in opposition to, the capitalist class. This leads to the formation of an intelligentsia, who differ from court intellectuals because they yearn to exercise power and influence in their own right.

    Implicit in the concept of cultural hegemony is that power does not ultimately derive, as Marx argued, from the control of the means of the production and distribution of things, but from the production and distribution of opinions. Instead of the “base” determining the “superstructure”, the superstructure has become the dominant force in shaping and managing the society as a whole. This opens up an era that is post-capitalist, but certainly not a classless society—far from it. It means rule by elite intellectuals who will naturally think they are Plato’s philosopher kings, and who will set about establishing a utopia in which the Designers and Planners (the intellectuals) will exercise paternalistic control over their putative intellectual inferiors.

    Gramsci was himself aware of this danger. He criticized intellectuals who believed that their task was to impose Enlightenment second-hand on the masses. Hence Gramsci’s call for organic intellectuals, who respected and even revered many of the traditional values of peasants and working men, while simultaneously helping them to enlighten themselves, rather than simply indoctrinating them. Or, to put this in another way, before Gramsci asked the question “What is wrong with Kansas,” he might have taken the time to find out what was right with Kansas.

    One final point—a marginalized outsider does not need to be poor. For example, Jews were marginalized outsiders in much of Europe, despite the fact that they were often wealthier than their despisers. A marginalized outsider is a pariah, a outcast, someone everyone ridicules and despises. To see whether the Tea Partiers fit this profile, consider the contempt and ridicule that is heaped on them by our elite opinion-makers, both so called liberals and so called conservatives. A marginalized outsider is anyone who is considered a boor or buffoon by those in charge of allocating prestige and respect. That was the point I was making—and it was Gramsci’s point too. Many Italians who looked down on Sardinians were equally poor or poorer than the Sardinians. What made them marginalized outsiders was the way they were rejected for their supposed cultural inferiority, not their lack of material possessions.

    Thanks again.

  2. David Ruccio says:

    You raise many issues, more than I can treat in a short response. Permit me, though, to address a few points:

    1. Nowhere in Gramsci will you find the argument that intellectuals have or would become a separate class, with their own class interests. Either they are irrelevant intellectuals (engaged in scholasticism) or they are organic intellectuals (who produce and disseminate the ideas pertaining to a particular class, class perspective, or form of class rule).

    2. What follows from this is there is no such thing as the absence of or getting outside cultural hegemony. That’s why Gramsci argued that it was important both to challenge the existing capitalist hegemony and to form—in workers’ schools, in the factories, and elsewhere—an alternative hegemony. It’s the only way (in an advanced capitalist nation, with more or less democratic institutions, where armed revolution is not possible) a change in class rule might occur.

    3. I don’t think you can compare the people who lead, finance, and organize the Tea Party movement with the subaltern of Sardinia. The former are afraid of losing certain privileges while the subaltern never had those privileges. They (Sardinians, the folks from Kansas, workers, etc.) are subaltern precisely because they are excluded from and the victims of the existing hegemony. And they remain subaltern precisely their organic intellectuals have not succeeded in forming an alternative hegemony.

    Those, in my view, are some of the lessons Gramsci brings to an analysis of the contemporary Tea Party movement.

  3. Lee Harris says:

    Thanks for your response.

    I agree with your first point. My argument was that inherent in the concept of cultural hegemony was an idea that clashed with Marxist orthodoxy, not that Gramsci ever recognized the internal contradiction himself. His position in this respect was similiar to Althusser’s reformulation of the concept of ideology via Lacan. Neither was prepared to recognize that they had developed concepts that undermined orthodox Marxism–but this is my interpretation, not theirs. You are free to agree or disagree with it, but my discussion of cultural hegemony was intended as a dialectical drawing out of the implications of the concept of cultural hegemony, one of which (as I see it) is that the intellectuals can and do act as a separate class–though I would prefer to use elite here–in the struggle for political power.

    On your second point, I disagree. It would evolve imposing a new cultural hegemony on the masses. This interpretation of Gramsci, I would argue, is precisely the one that would naturally appeal to the autonomous intellectual elite in their struggle for dominance. The people’s idea cannot be taken seriously. Therefore, we must re-educate them to believe whatever we want them to believe. (Or more correctly, whatever we think it is best for them to believe.)

    Third, your interpretation of the Tea Party is again an example of how an autonomous intellectual elite would regard their intellectual inferiors. They are merely dupes, with no minds of their own. Therefore, they need to have “our” superior ideas imposed on them–what you call an alternative hegemony.

    Oddly enough, you appear to championing the mistaken reading of Gramsci that is common to most right-wingers, such as Rush Limbaugh. After all, who is going to be working to achieve the new hegemony? Well, enlightened socialist intellectuals–not the working class itself. They will remain cognitive subalterns, indoctrinated by the new socialist elite, as occurred in both the USSR and Communist China. The docile will learn their lessons, while the stiff-necked will be sent to re-education camps and Gulags.

    In the wake of the horrors of socialism under the guidance of an independent intelligentsia, it is strange that you would deny the possibility that intellectuals could actually be in charge of a society. They have been, and millions were enslaved by their “alternative” cultural hegemony–not to mention the millions murdered at their behest.

  4. David Ruccio says:

    Just a few quick comments/questions:

    1. You seem to want to argue, in celebrating the no-nothing Tea Party movement, that there are countries in which what you call the independent intelligentsia are or have been in charge and have murdered millions. It would be helpful to know what countries, in which periods, you have in mind. If it’s Stalin’s USSR (I’m just guessing), then we’re talking about state capitalism, and a group of intellectuals who didn’t exercise power but did help to create a state capitalist hegemony (as well as other intellectuals who attempted, then as now, to create an alternative hegemony).

    2. Hegemonies are never simply imposed. Remember, hegemony operates through coercion and consent. This is especially true of the alternative hegemony Gramsci was involved in producing. Yes, intellectuals have a special role to play but the workers themselves were, in Gramsci’s view, capable of articulating a worldview different from the existing hegemony. The whole point was (and remains) that the workers would have to engage in a long process of producing such a hegemony, involving complex ideas, languages, and so on. That’s certainly not what the Tea Party movement is about.

    3. I thought you were the one championing the idea of Tea Party movement without ideas of its own. My own analysis is that the Tea Party does have a set of ideas, mostly articulated by a well-financed elite organization and agenda, which represents a way of capitalizing on a fear of losing certain privileges as well as an idea of whom to blame for the loss. It may constitute a challenge to mainstream conservatism, which has certainly lost its own ability to rule, but it doesn’t represent an alternative hegemony.

    I’m actually quite sympathetic with one idea in the Tea Party movement, which is that the government often sides with the elite rather than the majority of the population. The problem, of course, is that idea can go in a number of different directions. The current direction of the Tea Party movement is certainly not one with which Gramsci would have sympathized. . .

  5. […] consider its funding and history, it’s certainly not a historically novel movement of “marginalized outsiders,” as members and advocates would have us […]

  6. […] by billionaires and promotes policies that safeguard their wealth (as I have pointed out before, here and here). All it needed was someone to step in to “camouflage a billionaires’ coup as a […]

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