AKA: Why has Trump has got away with being an utter c*ckwomble while Clinton’s emails apparently stopped her from being President, EVEN THOUGH HER EMAILS BROKE NO RULES; why did Theresa May say Strong and Stable so much; and what does any of this have to do with Gramsci and cultural hegemony?
Who was Antonio Gramsci and what on earth is cultural hegemony when it’s at home? These are both very good questions and, I’ll be honest with you, ones I couldn’t have answered until last year. It was while studying an article in The Economist (Part of the Furniture, Charlemagne, 30th May 2015—in case you’re interested) with a student that I came across the phrase ‘Gramsci-wielding’ and thought, ‘Who? What? Where?’
So, I did what any self-respecting TEFL teacher does while their student is writing an essay, and I used the internet to do a little Googling. This is the result of said Googling.
The Who and the Where
Antonio Gramsci was born in Sardinia, where he witnessed the poverty of the peasant farmers and mining communities.
“Gramsci knew what all working class people know: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”
Gramsci was sympathetic to their nationalistic ambitions–Italy had not long been unified, and the Sardinian peasantry saw the wealth pouring into the North as it went through the process of industrialisation. They felt abandoned and neglected, as the focus was on the new technology being developed elsewhere, and they wanted independence. Their rebellion was put down with brutal force. The young Gramsci remembered this and sympathised with their plight, even after he had abandoned such nationalistic ideals himself.
In short, Gramsci grew up alongside poverty and knew what all working class and poor people know to this day: society works to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.
Gramsci’s main contribution to political theory was the aforementioned idea of cultural hegemony. When I looked it up on Wikipedia (I know, but I was in the middle of teaching and unable to get my hand on a copy of Gramsci’s Prison Diaries) it defined cultural hegemony as:
“the domination of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class, who manipulate the culture of that society… so that their imposed ruling-class worldview becomes the accepted norm; the universally valid dominant ideology, which justifies the social, political, and economic status quo as natural and inevitable, perpetual and beneficial for everyone, rather than an as artificial social constructs that benefit only the ruling class.”
In other words, cultural hegemony is the idea that a society’s culture, ideals, and opinions are defined and maintained by the ruling class, to the point where hoping for anything else seems futile.
So, Are We All Brainwashed?
Well, yes and no. When everyone and everything around you believes the same thing, it’s easy to start believing it yourself. But cultural hegemony isn’t just about believing what the powerful say—it’s about accepting that what the powerful says will always go.
After all, when you have schools, religious organisations, the political system, the military, the police and the judiciary, and the media all singing from the same hymn sheet—the hymn sheet that says that the current ruling class are the only ones who can really be trusted to govern, and that anyone else will wreak havoc–a certain fatalism can set in. You know the system isn’t fair to everyone, yet at the same time the possibility of doing anything to change it seems so remote that it seems pointless to even consider it.
“There’s a feeling among many voters that to vote against the Conservatives is just not worth it.”
This is where Theresa May’s harping on about Strong and Stable came in. It may have seemed a laughable and ludicrous phrase to a number of us given what we were seeing in front of our eyes, but the Conservative party has consistently positioned itself as the only one that can be trusted to run the country properly. What’s more, people seemed to believe it, despite all the blunders, sleaze, and, from May in particular, sheer incompetence–not to mention all the hardship that has been caused by austerity.
Despite it all, there’s a feeling among many voters that to vote against the Conservatives is just not worth it–either because they fatalistically believe the Tories will win no matter what, or because they somehow do believe that the Conservative party is still the best option, no matter what.
WHY is Society Apparently Unable to Break Free From This Cycle?
To put it simply, the human race likes continuity. Once upon a time, it was decided that rich (white) men were the strongest and most stable members of society, and so society likes to keep them (and the parties that support them) in power—even when it goes against society’s best interests.
Indeed, society has, rightly or wrongly, decided that it’s best not to rock the boat, because if we mess too much with who owns what; with the ability of the traditional bread-winners to go out and earn money, then society and everyone in it will suffer. Apparently.
“Theresa May rising to power didn’t suddenly make the U.K. a matriarchy.”
We see this logic every day in the courtroom. All too often, sentences are often more lenient if someone can show that they’re the sole wage-earner, or if a conviction would potentially ruin their career or stop them from attending university. It’s one reason why men get away with rape. Of course, the higher up the privilege tree you are, the more is at stake, and so the more you tend to get away with. And that’s if the case ever gets to court at all.
It’s not just rape cases, of course, and it’s not just the interactions between men and women that are affected by the dominance of one culture over another. Indeed, are any of us really surprised any more when unarmed black children are shot, while white men with guns are talked to gently and disarmed?
Will More Women and Minorities in Power Break This Cycle?
Sadly, no. After all, Theresa May rising to power didn’t suddenly make the U.K. a matriarchy. Electing Obama didn’t rid the U.S. of racism. If single instances of ‘progress’ dismantled systematic oppression, then Hilary Clinton would have won the U.S. election and Donald Trump would have been impeached before you could say ‘Fake News’.
“We don’t just need new leaders; we need entirely new societies.”
Cultural hegemony isn’t about one person—it’s about entire systems and structures of power. Until all governments contain more women and minorities, the old system is likely to retain control. Because until whole governments (whole societies, really) start singing from a new hymn sheet, Gramsci and his theory of cultural hegemony dictate that nothing will really change.
We don’t just need new leaders; we need entirely new societies.