Antonio Gramsci, Cultural Hegemony theorist and political prisoner, died 75 years ago today

“My study . . . leads to certain definitions of the concept of the state that is usually understood as a political society (or dictatorship, or coercive apparatus meant to mould the popular mass in accordance with the type of production and economy at a given moment) and not as a balance between the political society and the civil society (or the hegemony of a social group over the entire national society, exercised through the so-called private organisations, such as the church, the unions, the schools, etc.).”

This may sound like Noam Chomsky, but it is actually the writing of the early 20th century Marxist thinker and Italian politician Antonio Gramsci. A man who was later imprisoned by Benito Mussolini’s fascist forces on account of his political and cultural philosophy.

Gramsci, who had a nimble and rather romantic mind, is credited with having laid the foundations for Cultural Hegemony theory—that is, the idea that the ruling class superimposes its values (economic, political, religious, etc.) on the lower classes, thereby getting the latter to buy into the status quo against their better interests.

The Catholic Church would be a classic example of Cultural Hegemony, but more recently we could look to the American form of capitalism as the prime example. The ruling elites—investors, banks, politicians, etc—have through careful conditioning in schools, the media, religion, and so forth, convinced the majority that the system, while flawed, is the best. Gramsci was also quick to emphasize that people are willing to follow the ruling elite because of the perceived prestige emanating from the group. Imagine it as a type of mass, collective awe that disrupts analytical thinking.

Gramsci recognized this artful, monolithic con and attempted to analyze it in his writings, particularly “The Prison Papers.”

Such was his influence that the Italian fascist state prosecutor stated at Gramsci’s trial, “For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning.” The cultural hegemony then was fascism or, in Mussolin’s words, “corporatism… the merger of state and corporate power.” Gramsci kept on thinking and writing, but ultimately he succumbed to the malnutrition and poor healthcare that was his lot as a political prisoner.

Gramsci’s writings, along with those of Marx, are there for anyone attempting to understand the forces at work in the 20th and 21st centuries. And he is proof that if one gets too close to the truth behind the veil of the status quo, the cultural hegemon will find a way to marginalize and silence the dissidence.