No Simple Victory in a World Such as Ours, Research Time, 18/06/2018

Being a pretty active member – and occasional contractor – for the New Democratic Party in Toronto means I regularly have conversations with lots of different kinds of marxists.

That includes self-identified marxists, and folks who are only considered marxists according to the new popular conception of marxism. You know it – where people who think there should be a state-subsidized pharmacare plan are functionally indistinguishable from Josef Stalin.

The caption reads, "Study! Because we will need all your intelligence."
The painting is by the Italian artist SOLO. Its location is the entrance
to Antonio Gramsci Secondary School on Affogalasino Street in Rome.
See, I don’t really like to call myself a marxist because it always gets people ascribing philosophical views to me that I don’t actually hold. Telling someone that you’re a marxist tends to make a lot of folks think that all your ideas are just regurgitated from the Cliff’s Notes of Kapital. That’s true whether or not you actually want them to think this. Usually, you don’t, but it can’t be helped once you use the m-word.

But it’s a much more complicated tradition that folks in the popular media give it credit for. A lot of that is because of the nuanced analyses of political economy that you find in Marx’s own later works. I was reading about that Sunday morning on a pleasant deck in Riverdale.

Today, I want to go over some of my notes on Gilbert, his take on how Antonio Gramsci transformed the marxist tradition.

As you might remember from my last post, a major task for my district association’s policy work is figuring out the key differences in the drift of working class union folks from the New Democratic Party in Canada. It’s a shift that puts the lie to the Cliff’s Notes version of marxism – class is always the primary vector for social consciousness.

I’ve had self-identified marxists tell me this. They should know better. Don’t act like Antonio Gramsci didn’t exist. His influence remains strong today, in many parts of the world.

Gilbert focusses on what he takes to be a central transformation in how the term ‘hegemony’ was used, giving it an entirely new philosophical spin. He remixed and mangled this old concept from political science – the direct or indirect leadership of a privileged class (inside a state) or a military power (internationally).

The slogans of my own country's current
leading intellectuals aren't quite so
inspiring to me.
He turned this term into a concept that we could use in all vectors of activism that seeks cultural and economic transformation. For a group to have hegemony in a culture means that the group’s mainstream and accepted images, political frameworks, economic systems, moralities, and ethical principles pressure all other such cultural and economic elements around the globe to conform to its own structures.

In other words, the old 19th century political science concept of hegemony: imagine an American fleet pulling into your harbour and forcing you to open up a McDonald’s. Military power backs economic and cultural transformation.

Gramsci’s concept of hegemony: imagine an American businessman flying to your country, co-opting all your local businessmen to open McDonald’s franchises, and then the popularity of their menu causes people to drift away from their more traditional foods. Economic power backs cultural and moral transformation.

Then Gilbert flies through an account of how Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe updated Gramsci’s concepts. They brought research on how the global economy was changing from the era of Western stagflation onward. So from the 1970s.

Laclau and Mouffe – in their joint and solo books – described how cultural power can lead the way in a hegemonic transformation, not only military and economic power. Identity politics like nationalism bind communities together in movements for economic change and even military civil insurrection.

Any aspect of human existence can become the leading edge in a liberating or a revanchist social revolution. It could be violent or peaceful, or a mixture of all degrees of inspiration and blood. What matters is that circumstances align to bring one vector into a hegemonic intensity of influence.

What are those circumstances? How do we manage them? How do we understand them? Change them?

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