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Political Theory

Gramsci and the Idea of Kulturkampf, Part 2

By
CJay Engel
|
February 12, 2020
He did not see himself as creating cultural hegemony, but as having discovered it, and decided that victory rested on its capture.
Political Theory

Gramsci and the Idea of Kulturkampf, Part 2

By

CJay Engel

|
February 12, 2020

He did not see himself as creating cultural hegemony, but as having discovered it, and decided that victory rested on its capture.

In the first part of this article, I set out some preliminaries that prepared the way for this overview of Antonio Gramsci’s most fundamental contribution to the idea of political strategy. Gramsci was born in Italy in the late nineteenth century and like many young intellectuals of his generation, became infatuated with the rational approach to politics and society under a framework of socialism. Gramsci and the PSI (the Italian Socialist Party) battled their cause in Italy, dealing with the power dynamics of Western Europe, motivated by the Lenin-led Bolsheviks that had successfully overcome the Tsarist government in the East (Russia) years before. Gramsci and his party made strides in Italy during the early 1920s, but they were ultimately overcome by the Italian fascists led, of course, by Mussolini.  

In part one, I noted that what we ought to understand about Antonio Gramsci was that his strategy of cultural hegemony was a result of his analysis of the dynamic of power relations under liberal democracy, as they actually existed within a Western cultural backdrop. His strategy was not conceived as an arbitrary conspiracy. Gramsci was able to reconstruct the idea of a socialist strategy on the basis of the weaknesses inherent within a liberal democratic order. He understood above all else that conventional politics in the west would yield results that bolstered the very systems that he despised. He was therefore a keen student of political realism: dealing with the political world as we find it without engaging in wishful thinking about the prospects of voting or even militant revolution.

This makes Gramsci useful to the student of world affairs in our time. The purpose of studying Gramsci is not to uncover a hidden Marxist agenda in the West, but to understand better the reason why our society is so monumentally decadent, why it seems like every aspect of our lives has become so eminently political, tense, and full of strife. Indeed, Gramsci’s goals were more classically Marxist in the sense that they were focused on economic dynamics and the exploitive relationship between wage-earner and capitalist; yet the Left has since Gramsci’s era shifted from economic conflict as a primary focus, to cultural conflict and racial/sexual/cultural class warfare. Thus, his method is important because they expose precisely where the cultural revolutionaries of our own time have penetrated, and why.

Gramsci, while imprisoned (1926-1937) as a member of an opposition party under the fascist regime in Italy, noted the following about the success of the Bolsheviks and the prospects for such a revolution in Western Europe:

In the East the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between State and civil society, and when the state tottered, a sturdy structure of civil society was immediately revealed. The State was just a forward trench; behind it stood a succession of sturdy fortresses and emplacements.
(Prison Notebooks, Volume 3)

Thus, Gramsci observed, the Bolshevik Revolution was successful precisely because, in Russia, the state encapsulated all of civil life and its capture would be the mere prerequisite to establishing a socialist regime. This was not so in the West. The West had a long established nexus of mediating institutions that stood between the individual and the state. Here, the state and the society were distinct and could be identified independent of the other. To capture the state alone would have put one in direct opposition of an intricate structure of culture, habits, norms, conventions, institutions, group interests, and lower political bodies that would swiftly overcome some socialist capture. That is, in the West, the institutions were more fundamental to social life than was the State.

Gramsci’s burden, then, was to grapple with the particular Western problem. The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, had succeeded. But a different path was needed in the West. In the West, things were a bit more diverse from nation to nation but there was an epochal shift underway in which the monarchies and absolute governments of the Middle Ages were faltering, giving way to the rising tide of Democracy, a value-neutral state that emphasizes the widespread participation of all social blocks and interests. It was the age of Democratic-Liberalism; democratic because the sovereignty was allegedly with “the people,” and liberal because the state would assume a position of absolute neutrality with regard to the moral, cultural, religious, and economic desires of the mass of individuals.

What Gramsci began to understand in his years imprisoned under Mussolini’s regime was that the Leninist communists had fallen for a certain narrative about the relationship between the political world (the state apparatus of coercion), and the civil world (the private sector of culture, economy, and intellectual life). Under the narrative and framing of the apologists for Democratic-Liberalism, Gramsci came to realize, the state was simply relegated to the political, to the coercive activities, and everything else existed outside the state and was therefore positively non-political. Thus, the communist assumption about the need to take over the government alone was a result of their accepting the misleading construction of the relation between the civil and political society. It worked in Russia accidentally; that is, only because, there, a civil society distinct from the state was nonexistent.  

And yet, Gramsci recognized that the theoretical construct of the liberal society was actually faulty. In reality, that is, in distinction with the narrative, the state was not constrained in its interests merely to those activities having to do with coercion. Rather, its power, as well as its character and activity, rested on its ability to organize consent outside its technical governing tasks. But this is not mere “two wolves and a sheep” kindergarten analysis of democratic mechanisms; it is an observation that the under the regime of Democratic Liberalism, those in Power exercised two forms of control: coercion (its formal power) and cultural hegemony (it’s informal power, the power that sits underneath shallow observation). That is to say, Gramsci concluded that cultural hegemony was already (especially in Europe) an operative aspect of the modern Democratic-Liberal political framework, it was not something that he made up as a method of strategy to achieve his socialist goals.

He did not see himself as creating cultural hegemony, but as having discovered it, and decided that victory rested on its capture.

Gramsci therefore is a pioneer in the subfield of political science that concentrates on the forgotten element of socio-political life: the character of civil society and its role in power-dynamics. Here, Gramsci realized that norms and customs, habits and ways of life, were not brought to society from freely-floating individuals rationalizing their way toward their beliefs; rather, they were the result of the social institutions and settings into which individual man was born, raised, educated, and molded. Individuals are a product of years of impression and cultural settings that, all across the European continent, extended back thousands of years. Churches, families, guilds, trades, land holdings, academies, and associations were the crafters and shapers of man’s ideas and basic suppositions about the world.

To bring forth the socialist ideal in this complex Western setting therefore required control of these institutions, rather than mere control of the political reins. The objective of the Gramscian strategist is not merely convince people to join the institutions, but rather to recognize that individuals by their very nature as social beings believed and behaved in accordance without how they were molded and developed by the institutions. To capture the institutions was to completely reorient society and change its very make up.

But just as importantly, Democratic-Liberalism as it developed in real time has no mechanism to prevent its own takeover by an ideology foreign to its historical backdrop, especially once that ideology had entered the general spirit of the institutions within its domain. The state was, after all neutral in its own essence; that is, it would be swayed in accordance with the desires and will of its own managers. No matter how large the Liberal state became, it was always necessarily weak, unable by definition to prevent its own takeover by those operating within the legitimate boundaries of its own creation.  Thus, the political-coercion apparatus of government is of secondary importance to securing the civil institutions. Once the institutions were captured, the state would begin to reflect this capture and could only then ensure that its coercion capabilities were leveraged to support and enhance the new spirit of the institutions.

The theorized Democratic-Liberal model was that there was a realm of coercion (state) on one hand and freedom (civil society) on the other. Gramsci sought to reinterpret the civil society as “hegemony,” not mere freedom. The cultural arena was the backbone and root of a giant system wherein the state was limited merely by what it could accomplish via force. As Joseph Buttigieg (yes, Mayor Pete’s father), a renown Gramsci scholar emphasized:

“civil society, in other words, far from being a threat to political society in a liberal democracy, reinforces it—this is the fundamental meaning of hegemony.”

How, then, should the institutions be captured? Buttigieg recognizes that for Gramsci, radicals needed to step back and rethink their rhetoric and temperament. Buttigieg writes:

"one should refrain from facile rhetoric about direct attacks against the State and concentrate instead on the difficult and immensely complicated tasks that a 'war of position' within civil society entails”

This “war of position” was how Gramsci distinguished between subversion as a strategy and the Leninist tactic of “war of maneuver.” The meta complex of society and government, the “superstructure” was always and necessarily to be interpreted as a battlefield. Sometimes, a war of maneuver (defined as the effort to physically overwhelm the state) is required, as in the French Revolution; but in other socio-political settings, a war of position is needed. The world is different, Gramsci argued, than it was in 1776 or 1789. Culture, under this model, must be weaponized; the Progressivist Capitalist regime was so focused on domination of the coercive apparatus that it would neglect the civil realm. The radical socialist, therefore, needed to shift its resources elsewhere to subversively and under the radar play the long game.

Gramsci therefore perceived the dominating class as having hegemony in the culture, convictions, and attitudes of the world at large. This hegemony needed to be met with a counter-hegemony. This counter-hegemony needed to capture the press, the education system, and the arts. By implication, the Gramscian methodology would need to capture Hollywood, the churches, the music industry, technology, etc. Everywhere the political consciousness of the masses once sat in dormant darkness, there needed to be an awakening. All of life was to become political because all of life was an aspect of the superstructure under a Democratic-Liberal order.

What is being observed here is not that there is a secret cabal of Gramsci-survivors who have, originating in the prisons of Italy, infiltrated society; rather, what is being observed is that Gramsci exposed the weakness of the Democratic-Liberal socio-political structure and identified where, precisely, the true Achilles’ heel was to be found. Gramsci realized the very same thing that the legal theorist on the Old German Right, Carl Schmitt, once realized: the open society, neutral government, mass participation, and a state without the means to prevent legitimate takeover, would be a temporary situation in the grand development of meta-history.

If Schmitt saw the liberal order as the temporary moment between the absolute state and the “total state,” Gramsci saw it as a mechanism by which a new hegemony could be built up to replace the old. And thus, the Democratic-Liberal order had ingrained within it the means of its own capture.

While Gramsci’s insights on the need for a permanent culture war originated from the fringe of the Western world, the methodology itself eventually came to the awareness of those already in power in the West. If the radical Left was to take up a war of position to overcome the Democratic-Liberal establishment, this establishment would as well need to confront the radicals on their own turf. Culture therefore became a battlefield of competing degradation, a race to the decadent and decayed bottom. Does this not explain why the crony-capitalist class that operates at the behest of the almighty state has suddenly jumped into the culture war on the side of the Left? They are smoking out the Left's economic radicals!

Everything has been thrown into the mix: sexual licentiousness and a praise of pleasure above all else, expressed via the controlled mediums of entertainment (music, sports, movies, art); takeover of the English language and the crafting of rhetoric to suit the narratives of the time (“racism,” “bigotry,” “human rights,” “hate”); ideologies in the classroom and in the churches; food and medicine; family structure. Everything that once made the West good and beautiful was to be held in moral suspicion and undermined as long-established obstacles on the human quest toward Utopia.

After the grotesque Super Bowl halftime show that once again (and predictably) portrayed the glories of sexual degradation, well crafted cultural-conflict narratives, and an overall spirit of civilizational primitivity, it was amusing to see the number of people who approached complaints with a “don’t like it, don’t watch it” mood. Or similarly, this one was common as well: “it’s a distraction! Politics is the real issue.” These reactions expose the continued belief that the modern world is separated into a political sphere and a civil sphere. But this is a lie; under Democratic-Liberalism, under this framework of the socio-political system that characterizes the modern age, all of life becomes political. Everything has to do with power and politics. We have collapsed into an all-against-all struggle within the superstructure.

In part three, I hope to develop this and consider further examples and elaboration. As well, I want to ask “what,” in the words of Lenin, “is to be done?”

About the author

C.Jay Engel is the founder and publisher of Bastion Magazine. He has written for Mises.org, LRC, David Stockman, and related. He owns several consulting business, actively works on the magazine, and lives in Northern CA.

from the editor's blog