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Antonio Gramsci and the Arab predicament Open in fullscreen

Shawqi Ben Hassan

Antonio Gramsci and the Arab predicament

Gramsci's ideas often transcend their original Marxist influences [AFP]

Date of publication: 21 May, 2015

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Culture: The Italian Marxist's ideas of breaking cultural hegemony can give us insight into the challenges faced today by the Arab world, says Shawqi Ben Hassan.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Italy was a marginal country as far as the European socialist movement was concerned, partly because of its late industrial development and because the Italian intelligentsia was mostly focused on internal issues.

One Marxist, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), was part of this cultural scene, however.

The issues he explored were different from those discussed by other leftist thinkers, and he developed concepts according to different criteria.

Where much of Marxist literature attacked bourgeois intellectuals, in order for leftist intellectuals to emerge as leaders, Gramsci distanced himself from this. The concepts he created went beyond leadership and ideology.

One of his ideas was that of the "organic intellectual".

Gramsci's concepts can be separated from their original Marxist context. They help us to understand the current Arab situation, where change has been frustrated and counter-revolutions have been victorious.

While every revolution may be met by a counter-revolution, every power structure is also met by an alternate power structure, and Gramsci's thought describes the apparatus of such an alternative.
     According to Gramsci, history is created by the people, not by the intelligentsia


In Gramsci's native Sardinia, the ruling classes and traditional intellectuals - considered by Gramsci "the hired guns of the bourgeois" - had control of education.

Gramsci aimed to take away this control. He studied the cultural dimension of this dominion and came up with the concept of "cultural hegemony", which consisted of the state's means to subordinate the economy and society.

Gramsci believed that "the state leads society by repression whenever it cannot lead by consent", which meant that cultural hegemony was the ultimate source of authority. This led him to a definition which essentially stated that "the state is hegemony protected by repression".

With these ideas, he proved that the activities of institutions such as schools, the church, and the press were as much based on repression as the police, the army and the judiciary. This repression was also present in other activities, such as town planning and the division of labour.

However, this was not to say that there was no way out of this hegemony.

Gramsci imagined the conflict between elites as a conflict for "hegemonic position" and developed the concept of "political strategy with an invisible dimension" or what he called "praxis philosopy", which was the tool of "organic intellectuals" to win the "war of positions".

Gramsci's concepts had a great deal of analytical power and this was because he believed his thought free of ideology.

He believed ideology created false consciousness and attempted to turn free thought into reality. "The aim of the political party is hegemony," he said, added that the function of the state was hegemony.

Recognising this reality was the key to understanding the state, he argued. Discussion of hegemony was not a critique of the state, but rather an incentive to break free from its repressive hegemony and an opportunity to explore ways to reject uniformity of authority in all available spaces of action.

The Arab world today lives under a complex cultural hegemony; the hegemony of the state over society (as described by Gramsci) as well as the hegemony of the international system over states.

The latter cannot be separated from the former. Hegemony has evolved as its technology has evolved and the strategies of both kinds of hegemony have also developed.

In his book, Communication and Cultural Domination, Herbert Schiller says that there is an international structure of power which has forced nearly all societies into the current global system. This takes place through the selection of a class which is then given privileges - financial facilities, connections with international networks, better education etc.

This class is then pressured in an organised way in order to create an internal cultural hegemony consistent with that of the global system.

Even though he described social mechanisms specific to Italy in the first half of the 20th century, Gramsci's thought is applicable to the current situation in what is commonly known as the "Third World", when the global system is added as a factor. 

"The state always aims to create new capitalists. It encourages old forms of parasitical savings accumulation," Gramsci wrote in his Prison Notebooks.

If we take any Arab country as an example, we find that it protects these new capitalists, who form a parasitical economic elite who simply act as agents of the global system.

When we consider the cultural hegemony issue, we have to ask why the state remains able to impose such uniformity. The imposition of hegemony is the greatest challenge of the state and it does this in two ways.
     The pessimism of the mind can only be countered by the optimism of the will.
- Antonio Gramsci, political philosopher


First, it develops and complicates cultural hegemony, through knowledge, ideas, arts etc. Second, it freezes conflict and prevents its outbreak.

If we try to apply this question to the Arab world, we have to alter it a little. How can the state impose its hegemony without developing the means of hegemony? In other words, how can hegemony continue by traditional means which the people have now become aware of?

The situation created by the Arab uprisings falls within the framework of this question.

In Egypt, the application of brute force indicates that there has been a failure to develop the means of cultural hegemony. In Tunisia, democracy was used as a cover to bring back the old system of cultural hegemony as it was before the revolution, despite its bankruptcy, because no alternative has arisen.

In other words, the remnants of the mechanisms of cultural hegemony have been used to convince the people that there is no alternative to the old cultural hegemony. 

In both Tunisia and Egypt, it is impossible to explain the apparent success of the state in the imposition of its hegemony without taking into account the approval of the international system and the importation of Western expertise in cultural hegemony.

The governing elite in the Arab world is finding it difficult to impose its cultural hegemony - but it still has the capacity to freeze conflict.

The only way out of this is the long and drawn out "war of positions", which Gramsci theorised about.

Analytical tools are present in the Arab world which can be used to expose the situation. According to Gramsci, history is created by the people, not by the intelligentsia, even though conflict over hegemony takes place between members of the intelligentsia.

But change, according to Gramsci's praxis philosophy cannot take place until obstacles to progress are identified and thought, vision, and methods of action are developed.

In order for a common popular will to develop, the necessary conditions have to be identified. Gramsci reassures us that "the will always finds the right tool to bring about change".

Before change happens, however, society has to accept the appropriate concepts. This is what is lacking in the Arab world. In order for these concepts to develop, there should be internal conflict among the guardians of the status quo. Unfortunately, this has not yet happened. This "war of positions" takes place without much cost to society.

Gramsci used to say "the pessimism of the mind can only be countered by the optimism of the will".

What the Arab world needs is a serious passion and a strong will to create a refined vision of the world and bring about change.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

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