Study Guide

Antonio Gramsci Buzzwords

Hegemony

Say "hegemony" (that's he-JEH-muh-nee), and any theorist worth his or her salt will think "Antonio Gramsci." That's because I spent years spilling ink in prison to define this seemingly unpronounceable theoretical gem.

Why "gem"? Well, for starters, the concept of hegemony was—and still is—precious because it provides a way of understanding power as something not merely top-down.

In a fundamental sense, power is top-down—used by supposed superiors to put down inferiors (translation: the big guy at the top tells everybody else what to do). But in order to sustain itself, power needs more than just top-down functioning. In order for the ruling few to prevent themselves from being overthrown by the many whom they rule, there needs to be a little more going on.

What the rulers need to do is secure the tacit approval, if not the informed consent, of the ruled. That's where hegemony comes in: power is hegemonic when and where it persuades the many that the few have the right to rule. This isn't a throwback to the divine right of kings; hegemony is about a felt and shared sense—I call it "common sense"—that things are as they should be, and that it's best not to mess with the status quo... or try to overthrow the rulers.

Basically, it's hegemony if the ruled people believe that they should be ruled, and that the ruler has a right to rule them.

Intellectuals

Throughout my career I made it my mission—or rather, one of several missions—to define the function of intellectuals in society.

At this point you may be wondering: "Why? And what's the big deal?" Good questions. I'll answer them—patiently, as is my habit—one at a time.

(1) My understanding of hegemony made it necessary to develop a theory of how ideas were developed and spread as they were set to work in the service of the status quo, or to keep those in power from being overthrown.

Want me to back up again? I'll oblige. Since hegemony is all about how power's not just a matter of force but also a matter of ideas—opinions, beliefs, intuitions about how the world should and shouldn't be—the people who come up with and are responsible for spreading these ideas, those people known as intellectuals, aren't just lazing about, philosophizing from their armchairs into a vacuum.

These people—the intellectuals, I mean—are, whether they know it or not, playing a key role, if not always a direct one, in determining what people think, how power is distributed, how inequality is dealt with, and so on.

Hold up, you may be thinking—isn't that giving arm-patch-wearing tenured types way too much credit and power? That's a fair question. Here's the thing: I don't say that intellectuals are the rulers of the world; instead, I urge my readers to think about how intellectuals' ideas, filtered through all kinds of institutions—churches, schools, theaters, publishing houses, newspaper editorial boards, etc.—exert influence, for better and for worse.

My theory is about how power operates indirectly—we're talking hegemony here again—and intellectuals are key operators on this front. They're smooth operators, even, because they look so harmless; it seems like they're merely decorative, but really, they're more powerful than we tend to think.

(2) And that, folks, is why my work on intellectuals matters: because it gives theorists—intellectuals if ever there were intellectuals—a way of thinking about the social and political implications of their own work.

A lot of other people—including many Marxists who came before me—let critics off the hook, but I give them a key task: the task of engaging in what my disciple Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak calls "counter-hegemonic ideological production." That may sound like a mouthful, but really it means something pretty basic: that even if intellectuals don't make policy decisions or influence economics directly, they have a role in shaping people's thoughts, and thoughts are, at bottom, the stuff power is made of.

Intellectuals have always been recruited to serve the powers that be and to consolidate the status quo, and they still are recruited to do that. But my work calls on them to stop being polite and start getting real. And by "getting real," I mean actively contesting hegemony.

Organic Intellectuals

No, this phrase does not refer to vegan intellectuals who worship at the altar of Whole Foods. I have little patience for those elitists.

"Organic," in my vocabulary, isn't about farming or earthiness or crunchiness or even authenticity. It's about parts and wholes, and how these relate to each other. So when you're listening to me and hear the word "organic," don't think celery or spinach; think organ—or, better yet, organon.

Where was I? Oh, right, at organ and organon. I brought those words up in order to clarify that, for me, "organic" is value-neutral; it's a descriptive term, not an evaluative one. So to say somebody's an "organic intellectual" isn't to praise that person. Instead, it's to begin to say where he or she comes from: what whole he or she is a part of, and what he or she produces within that whole.

For this reason, I don't typically say somebody's an "organic intellectual" and leave it at that. My preference is always to specify: so-and-so's an organic intellectual of such-and-such class, or mode of production, or system of power.

Which brings me back to hegemony. (Surprise, surprise—right?) One way that power functions hegemonically—yep, that's a legit adjective—is by making sure intellectuals are organic to the ruling class. Translation: it's good for power if intellectuals are part of the ruling class. That means they'll defend the interests of the ruling class, and that means that those in power will get to stay in power.

In Italy, this has been especially true, and this is how I arrived at my notion of hegemony in the first place—you know, by looking closely at Italian history, foreign invasion after foreign invasion and failed revolution after failed revolution. Had there been a group of intellectuals organic to the subaltern classes (those are the lower classes), the revolutions might not have failed—or at least they might have mixed failure with some measure of success, instead of failing spectacularly.

You can see, now, why I made it my ultimate goal to produce a class of intellectuals organic to the subaltern classes. Those who keep the Gramscian dream alive are still working at this. I say: more power to them.

(P.S. You'll find followers of mine who act like my version of "organic" means "authentic" or just plain "good." Ignore these people, please, and send them back to basics without passing "Go." They need to retake Philosophy 101. You heard it here first, straight from Toni G's mouth!)

Common Sense

Okay, first of all, I'm not talking about common sense. This term isn't about intuitive, inborn knowledge, and it's not about what most people find obvious.

When I use the term "common sense," I'm talking about the way ideas filter down to people. I'm talking about beliefs that become part of the vernacular, or notions that are so widespread that they form part of people's basic experience of the world.

Think, for example, of the fact that after Columbus, everyone with even a partial elementary school education now knows that the world is round. That knowledge is now common sense.

But notice that this isn't something people can immediately, intuitively grasp; there was a time, the story goes, before Columbus, when people didn't know that the world was round; they thought it was flat.

So, the fact of the world's roundness entered common sense gradually, through a process of diffusion (which means it spread slowly): the discovery was widely publicized, and eventually it became so well known that it was a baseline or background for most people, something that they could take for granted and regard as a fact beyond dispute.

Before me, theorists thought that turning discoveries and private knowledge into common sense was way beneath them. Many still do. They either want to dwell with Kant in the realm of timeless truths, or with Hegel and company in the midst of capital-H History's forward march. I situate my work between these two poles, taking up the question of how historically determined and datable phenomena come to look like natural things, facts beyond dispute.

Subaltern

This word refers in military-speak to someone "of inferior rank or status; [or] subordinate" (source). But I use it to mean something more specific: someone left out of official history and incapable of writing his or her way in.

How's that? Here's how: until now, history has been written by intellectuals, who have tended to attach themselves like parasites to powerful people.

Simply put, the subaltern is by definition the person whose experience either has been stricken from the record or has never been entered into that record in the first place. That's because the record has been kept—and monopolized—by the intellectuals aligned with, and serving, elites.

One of my main goals—in fact, the most important of all—was to produce a group of intellectuals that would belong to (or be "organic" to) the subaltern classes. This was a lofty goal, and it still is. And until it is realized, the underlings will remain invisible.

For Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's spin on this keyword of mine, see here.

National-Popular

I never forgot where I came from, so my work always emerged from specifically Italian situations, even when my thinking had much broader implications. "National-popular," a phrase I coined, is a case in point.

This term is related to the idea of the organic intellectual, but whereas that idea is value-neutral, "national-popular" has a positive flavor in my work. By "national," I'm referring to a nation (like Italy); by "popular," I'm referring to the people as a whole.

Here's what I mean: according to me, a national-popular will is what Italian society had been missing since its late entry into the game of nation-states. Italy wasn't unified as a nation until 1861, long after many Northern European nations had become, well, nations. This left Italians with a complex, and it also left them with some serious state-building to do.

This also made it necessary for Italians to focus on national politics and culture; we couldn't just rush to internationalize, as many Marxists thought we should do. More specifically, I argued that forging a collective will that connected elites to the people was the way to go. This was particularly crucial in Italy, where intellectuals' efforts had always been shaped by elite interests and for that reason had always been cut off from the people.

War of Position

This refers to the kind of war that is not waged on a front, as a "war of maneuver" would be, but rather to the kind of war that is waged indirectly and slowly. A war of position is one waged through acts of "resistance to domination with culture, rather than physical might, as its foundation," as I wrote (source).

So a war of position is the kind of war that is fought in contexts where the state can't be forcefully overthrown, because it's already too highly developed and too hegemonic. If you were going to fight a war in Western Europe these days, it would have to be a war of position.

Now, don't get me wrong. In my view, the replacement of one kind of state with another—such as an unjust one with a just one—is still the goal toward which we should all work. But unlike many of my contemporaries, I thought it wouldn't do to sit around calling for massive, violent revolution, like the kind that happened in Russia in 1917.

If your resources pale in comparison with the resources of the state, then a head-on strategy (what I call a war of maneuver) is senseless. It's necessary, instead, to slow down and take stock of the resources you do have so that you can put those to good use.

By this point, you won't be surprised to learn that I thought the resources we have are often cultural, rather than military. That means that we're better off trying to change minds rather than trying to change political structures outright. It's time, in other words, to build a better future one student, one reader, one audience member, one mind at a time.