Hegemony and survival

Print edition : February 07, 2014

Antonio Gramsci.

This collection of essays sets out to argue a new theoretical framework underpinned by a Gramscian point of view.

THE ideas of Antonio Gramsci as they evolved in the context of his position as one of the leading political thinkers and leaders of the Italian working-class movement and as they took shape during his long imprisonment led to a reappraisal of cultural, political and literary forces. The defence of democratic culture and the role of the peasantry are central to the understanding of his project of responding to imperial/fascist/capitalist histories. It is only the beginning, with one having proved nothing as yet; the hard realities confronting the postcolonial critic deserve hard answers.

The collection of essays in The Postcolonial Gramsci set out to argue a new theoretical framework underpinned by a Gramscian point of view in dealing with postcolonial studies from the Marxist and post-Marxist points of view. The contributors to the book situate the cultural and political logicof Gramsci’s notions of liberation and ideology and of the role of intellectuals and the working of hegemonic political economy within postcolonial studies in order to reconceptualise the nature of class, power and the conditions of existence in colonial and modern societies in Africa, China and India.

Gramscian notions of the civilising mission, for instance, are interesting in their disagreement with the idea of “natives” gaining through the projects of colonial education. Gramsci, instead, is of the view that natives learn, and thereby gain in their maturity, from their opposition to colonial strategies. Here it may be mentioned that the book underlines the importance of Gramsci borrowing his arguments on colonial exploitation from the workings of the internal colonisation of the southern peasantry by the industrial north in Italy, which becomes paradigmatic in any study of European interventions in the Third World.

These concerns are argued in Robert Young’s paper and in the paper by Paolo Capuzzo and Sandro Mezzadra, who not only take up the context of the Italian history of exploitation but also see the effects of the Gramscian model in the post-Second World War scenario in Italy. Gramsci’s theoretical concerns with positions of ideology and Marxist aesthetics within a historical context require a good deal of rethinking in the light of unprecedented historical developments unsettling the world around the two wars which become important for the understanding of cultural change in terms of colonialism and the notion of a single linear narrative for any natural trajectory of history. Gramsci, indeed, reconceptualises formidable historical events and their representation through the roles of what Renate Holub calls “critical specialist/non-specialist”.

Deep structures in the framework of the subaltern world are responsible for the revolutionary currents against globalised capital. The anti-globalisation movements spreading across the world have registered a deep resentment against the G8. Richard Day, in his book Gramsci is Dead, shows that the opposition to dissent by the authoritarian state apparatus under the control of the G8 is a “death blow to the most visible expression of resistance to neoliberalism in the global north”. Hierarchies, therefore, are central to neoliberal societies of control and oppression where domination cannot be evaluated outside capitalist exploitation. As Day puts it, “… neoliberal societies are divided according to multiple lies of inequality based on race, gender, sexuality, ability, age, region and the domination of nature”.

The overarching desire of neoliberalism is nothing but increased profits, which is contrived through the elimination of state interference or working-class resistance. Systems of control and management have always tried to kill any radical activism that attempts to construct alternatives to dominant structures and processes and aims for the total eradication of the root cause of various social and economic problems. For instance, within postcolonial politics, the problem is not only that of nationalism or issues of identity and self-expression but also that of the complete dismantling of neo-imperialism in all its manifestations.

Baidik Bhattacharya, one of the editors of The Postcolonial Gramsci, tries to connect movements of nationalism with Gramsci’s notion of secular humanism, raising pertinent issues of evolving a global culture that apparently is in consonance with the drive towards popular movements.

Here, the opposition to cultural hegemonies sets off anti-globalisation movements across the world, giving vent to the sentiments of nationalism and “secular humanism” as viewed by Edward Said. The complex question of the nation will surely persist in the wake of unbridled market economics, neoliberalism and the reign of individualism as opposed to community feeling, and it is difficult to argue for a movement that can transcend affiliations to the geographical. Stuart Hall points out, “It is from Gramsci that we learned to understand—and practise—the discipline imposed by an unswerving attention to the ‘peculiarities’ and unevenness of national-cultural development. It is Gramsci’s example which cautions us against the too-easy transfer of historical generalisations from one society or epoch to another, in the name of ‘Theory’.” Gramsci’s concerns about ideology and subaltern politics are therefore useful, as argued in the papers in this book, for the larger understanding of the postcolonial dynamics of power and knowledge. However, one will have to go beyond the Gramscian model and the Marxian concept of dialectical materialism that proposes a universal approach to issues of racism, caste or any other form of oppression and exploitation to reach a more situational or geographically located context to respond to such important concerns of postcoloniality. This is predominantly the view expressed in the chapter by Walter Mignolo.

Gramsci’s cultural criticism, in fact, rescued Marxist thinking from the determinism and economic reductionism to which it had fallen prey, enabling many critics to take up the Gramscian model for the writing of revisionist history where their foremost concern is the notion of the materiality of ideas, the theorising on political praxis and the concept of hegemony which had mainly one common underlying suggestion: the vitality of language as a dramatic and active social construction that plays a material role in creating the social history of the world. For Gramsci, as for other critics like Edward Said, history is not “preordained” as it can be influenced by ideas and not solely by the economic base as is maintained by orthodox Marxists. Here, universal ideas are not given any importance as all events and ideas are historicised and contextualised in time and place.

All counter-hegemonic battles have to ensure that a global economy works from below. The aim is to establish a welfare state where contemporary radical politics will work non-hegemonicly and not counter-hegemonicly. This goes against the conventional views on hegemony. Unlike the Marxist view, there is no desire to take over state power or reverse relations between the dominated and the dominators. The aspiration is towards having non-hegemonic independent media centres, affinity groups, social centres and transnational feminism and queer theory. For instance, postcolonial theory can give rise to new formulations within a post-structuralist mode, a drive to create alternatives to the state and the corporate world. Theory is really not about vague notions but is a struggle against power.

And this struggle, argues Neelam Srivastava in her essay on Franz Fanon, comes with the help of not only the educated elites but also the “intellectual bloc” that consists both of intellectuals and the masses, who need to understand the revolutionary message of resistance from the theories put forward by the intellectuals. Only then can the possibility of the rise of a national-popular movement come about. As is clear, this was the concern of both Gramsci and Fanon. Their focus was on an ideology whereby the public learns to stand up to the notion of hegemony as non-governmental groups constantly seek to recover a mutual approach that allows the existence of a world where coexistence is the hallmark of absolute welfare of the public and the conditions for social justice.

In the light of this argument, we can view literary texts and the historical accounts of the West as valuable representations of the ways in which hegemony is achieved. The use of a “deconstructive” analysis of different European texts is a way for Third-World critics to understand the possibility of the subaltern interpreting in Gramsci’s writings the methods used for oppression and their reproduction in literature and music. Ideas, thus, become sites of power relations and knowledge, working in tandem with the maintenance of power. This emphasises the need for intellectuals to react to any authoritarian practice and be aware of the strategies of the repressive myths of hegemony.

Notion of ‘common sense’

Gramsci’s influence on contemporary critical and sociocultural debates is significant in offering a theory of art, politics and cultural production. Political and sociological writings under his influence, such as the papers by Ian Chambers and Partha Chatterjee and the interview with Gayatri Spivak, have a continuing relevance at a time of widespread retreat from Marxist positions among those on the postmodern Left. The theory of cultural production and critique when applied to colonial history brings out the relevant issues of domination and the subversion that takes place continuously to resist any fixed notions of cultural behaviour, may it be religious or gendered. The Gramscian notion of “common sense”, which enables the West to create myths of power and dominance, is revealed in Western constructions of history. Common sense is purely a negative term in the Gramscian sense as it becomes the site of ideological construction and conflict or resistance. Criticism of this inculcation of common sense is the task of a “contrapuntal” critic who reveals the national-popular struggles and the nature of ideological resistance.

Hegemony has, according to Roger Simon in his book Gramsci’s Political Thought, a “national-popular dimension as well as a class dimension” and thus requires “the unification of a variety of different social forces into a broad alliance expressing a national-popular collective will”. Gramsci’s concepts of “civil society as the sphere of class and popular-democratic struggles, and of the contest of hegemony between the two fundamental classes has enabled many historians to give a new dimension to the study of imperialist historical accounts and cultural resistance to them to finally understand the theory of political power and of the revolutionary process in the making of history”.

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