Femia on Gramsci and Hegemony

Femia notes the fact that little attention at coming up with an exact meaning of hegemony and that most uses are vague (23). Gramsci notes that a dominant class controls in two ways: “‘domination’ (dominio), or coercion, and ‘intellectual and moral leadership’ (direzione intellecttuale e morale). This latter type of supremacy constitutes hegemony” (24). “Domination” controls people through violence, physical force, or and threats, “through rewards and punishments,” but society also controls people “internally, by moulding personal convictions into a replica of prevailing norms. Such ‘internal control’ is based on hegemony, which refers to an order in which a comon social-moral language is spoken, in which one concept of reality is domant, informing with its spirit all modes of thought and behavior” (24). Hegemony depends upon consent rather than coercion.

Fernia also writes that “Hegemony is attained through the myriad ways in which the institutions of civil society operate to shape, directly or indirectly, the cognitive and affective structures whereby men perceive and evaluate problematic social reality. Moreover, this ideological superiority must have solid economic roots: ‘if hegemony is ethico-political, it must also be economic, it must also have its foundation in the decisive function that the leading group exercises in the decisive nucleus of economic activity'” (24).

Gramsci separates ‘political society (or dictatorship, or coercive apparatus, for the purpose of assimilating the popular masses to the type of production and economy of a given period)’ and ‘civil society (or hegemony of a social group over the entire national society exercised through so-called private organizations, such as the Church, the trade unions, the schools, etc.)’ (qtd by Fernia 25-26). According to Fernia, there was a glaring absense of a theory of superstructure in Marxist theory before Gramsci described civil society and political society (27). Fernia makes clear that this distinction is purely for analytical purposes, and that Gramsci readily “recognized an interpenetration between the two spheres” (27). To quote Gramsci: “the State, when it wants to initiate an unpopular action or policy, creates in advance a suitable, or appropriate, public opinion; that is, it organizes and centralizes certain elements of civil society” (qtd in 27).

In his notes, Fernia writes that there still isn’t a “fully developed superstructural analysis” for Marxist theory, but that Althusser has come the closest. However, Fernia seems suspect of Althusser’s denail “that the ideological superstructure enjoys any autonomy from the system of state power. In effect,” he continues, “the distinction between political society and civil society is obliterated” (258 note 17). Fernia recommends the following two critiques of Althusser:

Anderson, Perry. “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramschi.” pp. 35-36, which I think is in New Left Review, Nov. 1976-Jan. 1977
Miliband, Ralph. Marxism and Politics. Oxford UP, 1977, pp 54-7.

I might want to also check out Althusser, L., “Marxism is not a Historcism” in L. Althusser and E. Balibar, Reading Capital, translated by B. Brewster, London, New Left Books, 1970.

Gramsci has various definitions of the state (Fernia 28), and Fernia concludes, “For Gramsci, then, the critical superstructural distinction is not so much civil/political or private/public as hegemony/domination; and individual societies can be analysed in terms of the balance between, and specific manifestations of, these two types of social control” (29).

Femia, Joseph V. Gramsci’s Political Though: Hegemony, Consciousness, and the Revolutionary Process. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981.

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