Author Ahsya Ahmad - -

Gramsci's life was dramatically affected by the forces he tried all his life to oppose. Born in Italy of working class parents in 1891, he dropped out of school in sixth grade to help his family after his father was arrested for opposing a local political figure's bid for re-election.

As a child, he worked ten-hour days, though he was often ill and in pain. He had been dropped down a flight of stairs when he was six, and his body was so twisted by this accident that as an adult he appeared a dwarf-like hunchback. 

After some years spent carrying around accounting ledgers that weighed more than he did, Gramsci returned to school and then went on to college on a scholarship reserved for "peasantry of promise." Later, he worked as a journalist for a number of radical newspapers, got involved in workers' political education, and helped to found the Italian Communist Party. While Gramsci was traveling in Russia, the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy. By now, Gramsci was well-known for his writing and political activity, and Mussolini commented that he had "an unquestionably powerful brain." But intellect and ideas are threatening to dictators, so in 1928 Gramsci was sent off to prison with the words of the public prosecutor echoing in his ears: "For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning." Nevertheless, thinking was Gramsci's only solace in prison, and until he died in 1937, he spent his time working out his most valuable ideas in thirty-two notebooks - 2842 pages of tiny handwriting -- which later became his most famous work.

One of Gramsci's ideas was the concept of "hegemony," or ideological domination. When one ideology, or world view, dominates, it suppresses or stamps out, often cruelly, any other ways of explaining reality. Actually, hegemony can contain a variety of ideologies. Some are artificial -- theoretical explanations created by academics or political activists or philosophers. Other ideologies are "organic," which means they come from the common people's lived experience. These consist of a culture's way of seeing and believing, and the institutions that uphold these beliefs, like religion, education, family, and the media.

Through these beliefs and institutions, society endorses the ethical beliefs and manners which "the powers that be" agree are true, or right, or logical, or moral. The institutions and beliefs that the dominant culture support are so powerful, and get hold of people when they are so young, that alternative ways of envisioning reality are very hard to imagine. This is how hegemony is created and maintained. According to Gramsci, hegemony locks up a society even more tightly because of the way ideas are transmitted by language. The words we use to speak and write have been constructed by social interactions through history and shaped by the dominant ideology of the times. Thus they are loaded with cultural meanings that condition us to think in particular ways, and to not be able to think very well in other ways. 

For a modern, U.S. example, consider the word "welfare." What feelings and images come to mind? Someone who is poor. Unhappy, perhaps. Passive. Irresponsible. Overloaded with children.Struggling to go to school. Ashamed. Maybe out to cheat the system. A drain on the taxpayers. A bureaucratic institution that needs continual attention and reform. All negative images, evoking anger or pity. Think about it. We have had no word to describe this system of government payments that carries a positive connotation. No word that evokes images of dignity and family pride or of a nation's debt to those it cannot or will not furnish with the opportunity for meaningful work and a relevant education. Gramsci's point is that we have been conditioned by our language to think -- and feel about that thinking -- in ways that serve the dominant ideology. And if that dominant ideology insists that poverty is the fault of the individual while systematically keeping certain groups or classes of people poor, that hegemony must be dislodged by substantive, revolutionary change. 

Gramsci added another dimension to the definition of hegemony: domination by consent. It seems impossible that anyone would consent to be oppressed, or that we ourselves might be consenting to oppress others. But no matter how outraged we are at the poverty that exists in the richest country in the world, all most of us do to fight it is tinker with the system. We know that the rich are getting richer while the poor and the middle class are feeling less and less secure. We know, but we accept. "What can one person do?" we say. "The poor have always been with us." It's a fatalistic feeling we have, but Gramsci doesn't blame us for it. "Indeed," he says, "fatalism is nothing other than the clothing worn by real and active will when in a weak position."

(1) Gramsci believed that everyone, no matter what their occupation, their interests, or their education, is able to work out their own coherent ideas of how the world really works. Despite his description of hegemony as society's brainwashing, he had great faith in people's ability to go beyond the mere acceptance of the ideas they grew up with and become critical thinkers. "To criticize one's own conception of the world means to make it a coherent unity and to raise it to the level reached by the most advanced thought in the world," Gramsci wrote from his prison cell. "The starting-point of critical elaboration is the product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory."

(2) In other words, critical thinking about our own thinking process can move us toward our own coherent philosophy when we begin to trace the origins of our most deeply held beliefs. "What do I really think about this difficult teenager I'm tutoring?" "Where did these beliefs come from?" "What people and what institutions taught me to think this way?" "And where did their beliefs come from?" Gramsci's fate might lead us to think of ways people in our own country with disturbing ideas have been silenced -- by censorship, by rumor mongering, by lynching, by incarceration. If you volunteer for a prison education project you may be surprised by the number of creative, deeply intelligent men and women who are thinking, discussing, writing and growing as human beings in much the same way Gramsci did -- despite the sometimes cruel and retaliatory conditions of their incarceration.

(1) Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from The Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. NY: International Publishers, 1995 [copyright 1971]. p. 337
(2) ibid. p. 324

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