chapter  4
A Critique of Civil Society
Pages 21

In the most advanced states, Gramsci argues, civil society has become “a very complex structure that is very resistant to the catastrophic ‘irruptions’ of the immediate economic factor (crises, depressions, etc.): the superstructures of civil society resemble the trench system of modern warfare.” This means, therefore, that “one must conduct an in-depth study of those components of civil society that correspond to the defensive systems in a war of position” (Gramsci 2007, Q7 §10, 162-163). Note how in these passages civil society appears at once as a “structure,” a “superstructure” and a “defensive system” in a hegemonic war of position waged by ruling elites. Mapping this “object,” this phenomenon that can occupy multiple sites and operate at multiple levels at the same time, a “thing” that is simultaneously subject and substance or structure and superstructure at one and the same moment, is no easy feat. But it is to the mapping of civil society in these terms, Gramsci’s terms, that we now turn. In the context of the ensemble of structures and superstructures that Gramsci uses to map out the social terrain of modern liberal capitalist societies, what he calls “private associations” (e.g., Rotary Clubs, Freemasonry, intellectual associations, legal associations, and religious and worker associations) constitute the sphere of morality and “custom in general” that Gramsci designates as civil society (Gramsci 2007, Q6 §81, §84, 64, 69). In Notebook 6, though, Gramsci elaborates his conception of civil society and presents it as the sphere where people acquire the consciousness of “common sense,” without which neither the state nor the economy would be able to relax the coercive and blunt application of force and its expressions. It is in this precise context, therefore, that Gramsci articulates his most famous and often-quoted conception of the state as “political society + civil society” (Gramsci 2007, Q6 §88, 75).1 In conceiving of the state as the nexus of “political society + civil society,” Gramsci is not proposing to see the state in an “expanded” way, but nor is he proposing to view it as a “limited” formation. Gramsci’s view automatically rejects and, indeed, renders obsolete other conceptions of the state as “limited government” or as “night watchman” (Nachtwächterstaat), as was proposed by Ferdinand Lassalle in the wake of the defeat of the 1848 Revolution, in his famous speech “On the Essence of Constitutions” delivered in Berlin on

April 16, 1862.2 It must be remembered, Gramsci tells us, that behind this Lassallian conception of the liberal state after 1848 as limited government, we find a “dogmatic and non-dialectical” formulation precisely because it assumes that the minimal state can exercise coercion without hegemony.3 In Gramsci’s conception, by contrast, “hegemony” (as it is constructed in the sphere of common sense within civil society) must certainly be understood as being “protected by the armour of coercion” (the sphere of political society and the state), but not as relying on it for its successful production and reproduction. Hegemony must be forged a priori and outside the restricted sphere of political society. Once the private associations of modern liberal capitalist societies have developed, the internal, subjective or symbolic equilibrium of hegemony comes to play a greater role in regulating society before the armor of coercion has to be regularly or widely deployed.4 This is the situation that Gramsci designates as a “phase in which state is identified with civil society,” a formulation that represents a concept of civil society and the state that Gramsci thinks adequate to account not only for the social and historical situation of Italy in his time but for modern liberal capitalism as such. But it is only an initial formulation. On numerous occasions, Gramsci stressed how Hegel was the fundamental theorist of the “ethical state.”5 Gramsci himself frames the conceptual rise of the ethical state in Hegel’s thought as follows: “With the advent of Hegel, thinking in terms of castes and ‘states’ started to give way to thinking in terms of the ‘state’, and the aristocrats of the state are precisely the intellectuals. The ‘patrimonial’ conception of the state (that is, thinking in terms of ‘castes’) was what Hegel needed to destroy (disparaging and sarcastic polemics against von Haller) before anything else” (Gramsci 2007, Q8 §187, 343). But for Hegel, the possibility of thinking about the state requires thinking conceptually and historically about its presuppositions: hence Hegel’s conceptual organization of his Philosophy of Right, starting with the family, moving through civil society and reaching the crowning achievement of the state. This in no way entails the simplistic interpretation today that the phenomenological world of civil society is the “space” of nongovernmental organizations standing between economies and states. Although Gramsci frames his discussion of civil society by adopting the three phases of “ethical life” that Hegel distinguished in his Philosophy of Right, he is careful to designate them in new terms, namely, “The corporate phase, the phase of hegemony (or struggle for hegemony) in civil society, and the phase of state power,” with their corresponding forms of consciousness and “specific intellectual activities” (Gramsci 1996b, Q4 §46, 197). Thus, Gramsci makes it conclusively clear that his conception of civil society in no way implies a sphere independent from either economy or state or a site free of the process of hegemony. Quite the opposite is the case: civil society is the “phase of hegemony.” Gramsci accords particular significance to Hegel’s concept of “associationism” as emerging from his reaction to and reflections on the French

Revolution. In the first of his Notebooks, Gramsci is already able to write the following:

Hegel’s doctrine of parties and associations as the “private” fabric of the State. It ensued historically from the political experiences of the French Revolution and was to help give greater concreteness to constitutionalism. Government by consent of the governed, but an organized consent, not the vague and generic kind which is declared at the time of elections: the State has and demands consent, but it also “educates” this consent through political and trade-union associations which, however, are private organisms, left to the private initiative of the ruling class. Thus, in a certain sense, Hegel already goes beyond pure constitutionalism and theorizes the parliamentary state with its regime of parties. His conception of association cannot but be still vague and primitive, in between the political and the economic, in keeping with the historical experience of the times which was quite narrow and offered only one accomplished example of organization, the “corporative” one (politics embedded in the economy).