chapter  3
The Process of Hegemony
Pages 31

Gramsci develops his critical idea of hegemony in order to capture and explain a historically unprecedented ethico-political dynamic that emerges from the gap between structures and superstructures. This process has as its most fundamental task the work of suturing the systemic contradictions of liberal capitalism and sublating the struggles for “moral and intellectual” refoundation from below. Gramsci presents this process in a way that creatively repeats Marx’s own discussion of the process of capital accumulation and the adjustments that capitalism needs to make to resolve the organic contradictions of capital and the self-destructive tendencies of its system of expanded and uneven reproduction and development. If the accumulation of capital constitutes the basis of capitalism but occurs in a largely invisible way, and if this process nevertheless requires large investments in order to realize profits, Gramsci, in fact, asserts something quite similar about the process of hegemony as well: it is largely invisible and requires what Gramsci calls large outlays of normative investment (a sort of investment of moral values in order to create a more “inclusive” moral universe) and massive “concentrations of power” (a sort of public works program that builds the “trenches and fortifications of the state”) in order to create a new form of common-sense “moral universalism” and thus secure the hegemonic process itself. As Rosa Luxemburg understood all too well, the process of capital accumulation is, at its heart, a question related to the systemic and expanded reproduction of capitalism, which is nonetheless rendered largely invisible and normalized by the ideological operations of the ruling elites (Luxemburg 1913). As I. I. Rubin was able to show at the time of Gramsci’s writing, at the heart of the process of capital accumulation there is an esoteric and mystifying process that Marx called the “fetishism of commodities” (Rubin 1928). Contrary to the usual interpretations, including Marxist ones, this is no mere effect of distorted perception, advertising campaigns or the unfettered circulation of exchange values in everexpanding markets. Nor is it an effect of Marx’s own extravagant and metaphorical language. Rather, this is something inscribed in the process of subject/commodity production and accumulation itself. At its heart, this is not a process that renders the “true” nature of use values, subjects/labor

or knowledge into “false” representations, identities or ideologies in the minds of those who only perceive them from the perspective of circulation, consumption and performance, or from that of the captivated audience in a spectacle. Instead, this is a process that inscribes animate properties into the life of the commodity, it inscribes the perspective of the viewer into the perceived object itself so that the object is what does the perceiving and the knowing, and it subsumes the audience into the spectacle itself, so that the totality of the spectacle becomes “reality” itself. In sum, this process transvaluates fantasy into reality and thus enables the commodity, the spectacle and the ideology to present themselves as the real social subject and moral universe of liberal capitalism. Only when liberal capitalism can thus normalize the subjects of subalternity and sublate them into this new form of moral universalism can the process of hegemony be said to be operating – in Gramsci’s words – at close to “100 percent.” But what is still missing in Marx and Luxemburg, and in more recent studies that identify ideology with mere deception or cover up, is an account of the process needed to render ideology actually binding from within subjectivity itself. What is needed is a notion that can help us explain what happens precisely if and when there is a lack or failure in the totalization of ideological domination and when renormalization must kick into high gear. The failure of revolutionary struggles in Italy, Germany and elsewhere to transform themselves into successful revolutions, and the failure of the factory council movement in Gramsci’s time, made this question all the more urgent. Gramsci’s critique of civil society and his concept of hegemony as a process, the notion of the subject as hegemony, is thus an attempt – even if still unfinished – to provide an answer. In general terms, Thomas captures the conceptual status and historical importance of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony quite well as “a moment of rupture with the conceptuality of the bourgeois epoch,” as a concept that “points to the possibility of breaking out of this conceptuality’s selfreferential and contradictory circularity, but it does not itself enact such a liberation; it remains prospective, tentative, exploratory.” In Thomas’s view, this concept is a rather “ ‘practico-indicative’ or ‘practical’ concept, emerging from within a Konstellation of concepts as a provisional solution to the problems posed within it” (Thomas 2009, 134).1 Although the concept of hegemony does render visible what the autopoietic selfreferentiality of bourgeois systems of thought and practice systematically conceals, this is only one of its goals. Another one is to critically engage with the discursive universe of Second International Marxism and its inability to inspire individual or collective acts of rebellion and revolution in the “advanced” Western countries of Europe, or its failure to lead towards a successful revolutionary outcome. Thus, Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is a formidable attempt to break with hegemonized Marxism, that is, with a Marxism that has uncritically adopted and deeply integrated an essentially bourgeois – instrumental, strategic and Realist – notion of hegemony and liberation into its own orthodoxy and then presented this

notion as a true and faithful representation of Marxism itself. This means, as Gramsci writes already at the outset of Notebook 4 (Gramsci 1996b, Q4 §14, 156), that “while historical materialism is not subjected to hegemonies [in itself], it has itself started to exercise a hegemony over the old intellectual world [supplying it with more effective weapons and drawing from it as well]. This happens in reciprocal ways, naturally, but that is precisely what needs to be thwarted.” As is widely known, Gramsci attributes the “starting point” of his idea of hegemony to Lenin (Gramsci 1996b, Q4 §38, 187; Gramsci 2007, Q7 §33, 183). In doing so, Gramsci presupposes that we have an understanding of how Lenin – and, indeed, Marxism more broadly – constructed the concept of hegemony until then. And it just so happens that there are at least two closely related but nevertheless significantly distinct notions of hegemony found in the work of Lenin alone. The first one is a notion of hegemony developed from within the trenches of clandestine revolutionary struggle just before 1905. The second one is developed on the eve of 1917 or after, as the question of what an actual Soviet government would look like and the tasks of actually governing become a priority. Let’s explore this development for a moment. First, there is a broad concept of hegemony as a political and ideological dynamic developed by Lenin as part of his critique of economism before 1905. Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, written in 1902, is an example par excellence of this first and broad notion of hegemony. This work does not represent yet another reiteration of the standard critique of “economism” and “spontaneism” being the wrong strategy for the working class because of its short-sightedness. Lenin does highlight “the fundamental political tendency of ‘Economism’ ” as being “let the workers carry on the economic struggle (it would be more correct to say the trade-unionist struggle, because the latter also embraces specifically working-class politics) and let the Marxist intelligentsia merge with the liberals for the political ‘struggle’ ” (Lenin 1902). But Lenin goes beyond this to develop the insightful perception that “spontaneism” is not only a theoretical approach among the economists but can, under certain conditions, also be a form of bourgeois ideology, influencing workers and their intellectuals from behind their backs. First, it can understandably grow out of their immediate needs and interests as a form of independent response. But, second, it can also become a theoretical justification of pure trade unionism as an expression of the necessary laws of capitalist development and, thus, as standing in need of further or more disciplined organizing because of the system’s inherent tendency to self-destruct. Clearly, therefore, this critique is directed not at the spontaneous autonomy of the working class but, rather, at short-termist activism and at the likely cooptation of such a strategy by dominant ideology.2 In other words, just as workers organize and express themselves in the most representative form of association that the liberal capitalist order makes possible for them, just as they exercise their “freedom” to organize and assert their rights as workers and demand

better working conditions within the liberal capitalist order, in doing so, they in fact “strengthen the influence of bourgeois ideology” and the hegemonic argument that practically any incremental change is possible within the current system of power. Lenin is, of course, not rejecting the autonomous form of trade unions in itself, for trade unionism is, in fact, an organizational invention and conquest of the working class. But he is calling our attention to the fundamental ideological dynamic at work already within the workers’ movement and those intellectuals of economism, the “followers of Bernstein.” It is precisely in the internal relationship between theory and practice under conditions of liberal capitalism and its incipient culture industry that Lenin locates the influential dynamic of bourgeois ideology over the autonomous organizing of the working class. This dynamic is what Lenin’s first notion of hegemony as an ideological and political influence over the working class attempts to capture, and does so, in fact, quite well. Until 1905, Lenin still considers Karl Kautsky to be essentially correct in his own ruthless critique of the ideology of economism (Lenin 1902). But if Kautsky is correct that “socialist consciousness” is not “a necessary and direct result of the proletarian class struggle,” if “socialism and the class struggle arise side by side and not one out of the other,” and if modern socialist consciousness originates “only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge” in – at least in the nineteenth century – the minds of bourgeois intellectuals, and it is they who communicate it to “the more intellectually developed proletarians,” then Lenin is here unequivocally endorsing the autonomy of the political. But that is not where Lenin’s idea of hegemony is rooted. It is rooted, instead, in his endorsement of Kautsky’s reversion of the Austrian Social Democratic Party position to the effect that the more capitalist development increases the numbers of the proletariat, the more the proletariat is in fact compelled and, indeed, rendered fit to live – happily, peacefully and normally – under liberal capitalism. When the “gravediggers of capitalism” have in fact become its key allies and ideological defenders, therefore, socialist consciousness is something that can only be introduced into the proletarian class struggle from outside, and not without subjective resistance and objective struggle by the working class. Although not the first to do so, Lars Lih has nevertheless emphasized quite correctly how much Lenin, in fact, drew from Kautsky, and how much he owed to him despite his later “break” from the old “renegade” master. But Lih has also puzzlingly concluded in his otherwise excellent Lenin Rediscovered that What Is To Be Done? is “not a good place to get Lenin’s theoretical or programmatic outlook,” partly because “it has been used in this way” and “it has led to such distortions by figures both on the far left and in the academy” (Lih 2010). The problem with this argument about the consequences of reading What Is To Be Done?, rather than about the conceptual structure of the work itself, is that Lenin himself regarded What Is To Be Done? as the work in which he was able to offer

his most systematic theory of the party and its program, at least to the extent that he was able to articulate these ideas before 1905. It is certainly the case that many of Lenin’s theoretical and programmatic points in this pamphlet are rendered obscure by some of the polemical exaggerations that Lenin himself performs against his most bitter and immediate adversaries within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). But beyond questions of party, program and Lenin’s own rhetorical expressions of indignation, this work clearly contains a number of very substantive theoretical suggestions on the meaning and implications of hegemony that need to be explored with some care.3