Benito Mussolini’s regime claimed, like our corporate state, to be implementing a government based on efficiency, meritocracy, the management of society by experts and specialists and the elimination of class conflict through mediation. It too celebrated “heroic” military values, traditionalism and a mythical past that stretched back, in the case of fascist Italy, to ancient Rome. It also rewarded conformism and loyalty, denigrated the humanities and culture in favor of vocational and technical training, spectacle and patriotic kitsch. It preached a relentless positivism, ridiculed the concept of the public good by trumpeting a hyper-individualism and defanged the press. Dissent and criticism were condemned as treason.
Hegemony, for Gramsci, refers to how ruling elites, through the organs of mass culture, manipulate our understanding of reality to promote their interests. The passive consumers of mass culture see the world not as it is but as it is interpreted for them. Mass culture, including the press, schools and systems of entertainment, demonizes all those the ruling elites scapegoat and fear—in our case people of color, the poor, Muslims, undocumented workers, anti-capitalists, labor unions, intellectuals, liberals and dissidents. The corporate elites use mass culture to transform legitimate economic and social grievances into psychological and emotional problems—hence the drumbeat throughout our consumer society to believe in ourselves, work hard, be obedient, heed positive psychologists and self-help gurus, get an education, focus on excellence and believe in our dreams. This mantra, which in essence assures us that reality is never an impediment to what we desire, is accompanied by the fostering of a false camaraderie with the so-called corporate family, if we work for a corporation, or a hypernationalism.
Gramsci presciently saw that the capitalist manager was not only tasked with maximizing profit and reducing the cost of labor. The manager had to build mechanisms of indoctrination to ensure social integration and communal solidarity in service to capitalism, hence the constant evaluations, promotions and demotions along with the gathering of employees at meetings to instill groupthink. Along with this indoctrination come mini security and surveillance states in our workplaces where every movement and every word spoken are taped or filmed in the name of customer service. Corporations function as tiny totalitarian states, models for the larger corporate state.
Gramsci saw mass culture as the primary tool for submission. The more mass culture infects the thinking and attitudes of the population the less the state has to use harsher forms of coercion for domination. Gramsci described mass culture, or civil society, as the trenches and permanent fortifications that defend the core interests of the elites. Revolutionary change will occur only after a prolonged series of attacks, what Gramsci called a “war of position,” on these outer ideological defenses. It was, in his eyes, a type of siege warfare that requires “patience and inventiveness.” Once the ruling ideology loses credibility, once mass culture is no longer effective, its institutional structures collapse. A counter-hegemony, in short, comes before power.
We have reached a moment in human history when the reigning ideology has lost its credibility. All of neoliberalism’s promises have proven false. The abolishment of national residency requirements for corporations has been used to legalize corporate tax boycotts. The middle class—the bedrock of any capitalist democracy—is withering away and has been replaced by an angry, disenfranchised working poor. Workers are forced into two or three jobs and 70-hour workweeks to stay solvent. Medical bills, student loans, subprime mortgages and credit card debt trigger crippling bankruptcies. The corporate managerial class, meanwhile, collects billions in bonuses and compensation and uses its money and lobbyists to destroy democratic institutions.
As these lies become transparent we are thrown into what Gramsci calls an interregnum—a time when the reigning ideology has lost efficacy but has yet to be replaced by a new one. “The crisis consists,” Gramsci wrote, “precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born, [and] in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Mass culture is a potent and dangerous counterrevolutionary force. It creates a herd mentality. It banishes independent and autonomous thought. It destroys our self-confidence. It marginalizes and discredits nonconformists. It depoliticizes the citizenry. It instills a sense of collective futility and impotence by presenting the ruling ideology as a revealed, unassailable truth, an inevitable and inexorable force that alone makes human progress possible.
Democracy throughout most of the history of the West was an anomaly. After the collapse of Athenian democracy in 322 B.C.—and this democracy was only for men and excluded slaves—it was 2,000 years before another democratic government came into existence. It has only been in the later part of the 20th century that democratic governments, now under assault from protofascist movements, were able to flourish, however imperfectly. Our own system of government, if one takes into consideration the exclusion of African-Americans, Native Americans, men without property and women, could not be defined as a full democracy until the middle of the last century. And we, like fascist Italy, are rolling back towards a more familiar despotism.
Revolutionary policy for Gramsci did not come from above but from below. It was organic. And the failure, in his eyes, of revolutionary elites is that they were often as dictatorial and disconnected from workers as capitalist elites. The masses had to be integrated into the structures of power to create a new form of mass politics—hence his insistence that all people are intellectuals capable of autonomous and independent thought. A democracy is only possible when all of its citizens understand the machinery of power and have a role in the exercising of power.
Revolt, however, without an alternative political vision, Gramsci knew, was doomed. Workers are as easily mobilized around anti-democratic ideologies such as fascism and racism. If they lack consciousness, they can become a dark force in the body politic, as we have seen at Trump rallies and with the rise of hate crimes.
“But is it enough that a revolution be carried out by proletarians for it to be a proletarian revolution?” he asked. “War too is made by proletarians, but it is not, for this reason alone, a proletarian event. For it to be so, other, spiritual factors must be present. There must be more to the revolution than the question of power: there must be the question of morality, of a way of life.”