Stuart Hall (Gramsci and Us)

Happy May Day!

March 4th protests in Berkeley 2010. "Fight Back: Today, May Day, Everyday"


Stuart Hall’s “Gramsci and Us” is a brilliant political document. I actually plowed through his rather stuffy (yet also important) “Culture, Media, and “Ideological Effect’” piece before remembering “Gramsci and Us,” which I think does a lot more explanatory work around hegemony. Still, I learned a lot from the Ideology article, but it’s the other one that really provides a short-hand for reading Gramsci’s work more broadly and the importance of hegemony in his conceptual universe.

Hall claims that Gramsci’s question was how fascism instead of revolution was what came out of the radical conjunctural moment of Europe in the1920s. In the process, Gramsci was radically attentive to changing historical conjunctures and the shape-shifting alliances that the right forged into a historical bloc enabling its power. As Gramsci saw it, historical blocs formed by the left and (more often and successfully) the right were composed of heterogeneous class fractions that did not coincide with its supposed “interests”—at least, as dictated by economistic Marxist interpretations. Indeed, “The notion of a ‘historical bloc’ is precisely different from that of a pacified, homogenous, ruling class,” as would be that of the left, too, presumably (20).

“Gramsci is one of the first modern Marxists to recognise that interests are not given but have to be politically and ideologically constructed” (20). Gramsci asked of fascism and Hal of Thatcherism: “What is the nature of this ideology which can inscribe such a vast range of different positions and interests in it” (19).

By showing the revolution in thought, in a conception of the world, that Thatcherism implied, Hall takes up Gramsci’s point about how common sense congeals into ideology:

“I mean the ideas of the people who simply, in ordinary every-day life, have to calculate how to survive, how to look after those who are closest to them. That is what is meant by saying that Thatcherism aimed for a reversal in ordinary common sense” (17). Crisis are pivotal moments in which openings occur in which new conceptions of the world can develop.

“Gramsci warns us that organic crises of this order erupt, not only in the political domain and the traditional areas of industrial and economic life, not simply in the class struggle, in the old sense; but in a wide series of polemics, debates about fundamental sexual, moral and intellectual questions, in a crisis in the relations of political representation and the parties – on a whole range of issues which do not necessarily, in the first instance, appear to be articulated with politics, in the narrow sense, at all. That is what Gramsci calls the crisis of authority, which is nothing but ‘the crisis of hegemony or general crisis of the state’” (20).

Contradictions are not necessarily seeds of destruction for this ideological, common sensical glue holding a historic bloc together, because: “in fact, the whole purpose of what Gramsci called an organic (i.e, historically-effective) ideology is that it articulates into a configuration, different subjects, different identities, different projects, different aspirations. It does not reflect, it constructs, a ‘unity’ out of difference” (19).

A few more choice quotes:

“It is possible for the Right to construct a politics which does speak to people’s experience, which does insert itself into what Gramsci called the necessarily fragmentary, contradictory nature of common sense, which does resonate with some of their ordinary aspirations, and which, in certain circumstances, can recoup them as subordinate subjects, into a historical project which ‘hegemonises’ what we used – erroneously – to think of as their ‘necessary class interests” (20).

“So one of the most important things that Gramsci has done for us is to give us a profoundly expanded conception of what politics itself is like, and thus also of power and authority” (20).

“Where Gramsci departs from classical versions of Marxism is that he does not think that politics is an arena which simply reflects already unified collective political identities, already constituted forms of struggle. Politics for him is not a dependent sphere. It is where forces and relations, in the economy, in society, in culture, have to be actively worked on to produce particular forms of power, forms of domination.

“This is the production of politics – politics as a production. This conception of politics is fundamentally contingent, fundamentally open ended” (20).

“It does not see that it is possible to connect with the ordinary feelings and experiences which people have in their everyday lives, and yet to articulate them progressively to a more advanced, modern form of social consciousness” (21).

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