Gramsci’s War of Position and the 2006 Election

Published online 12 February 2007.

This post-2006-election period may be an ideal time to rehabilitate Antonio Gramsci’s concept of a “war of position.”  Until last year’s election, arguably, the “war of position” in American politics was the property of the Right, whose plans for extending what Gramsci called “hegemony” were well-organized.  The Left, on the other hand, felt obliged as a group to line up behind politicians who appealed to the “swing vote,” thus conceding the war of position in order to gain political office.  After last-year’s election, I argue, a space within American politics has been opened for the Left to re-enter the “war of position.”  Through Carl Davidson and Jerry Harris’ piece on “Globalization, Theocracy, and the New Fascism” in Race & Class, I summarize Gramsci’s position on how politics builds upward from philosophy and culture.  We ought to be following this strategy, I argue.

Who, you might ask, was Antonio Gramsci?

Well, Rush Limbaugh knew about Antonio Gramsci; in fact, Gramsci merited discussion in a couple of pages in Limbaugh’s (1994) book See, I Told You So.

Rush, of course, spins a fable about Gramsci; we are told that

…the name Gramsci is certainly not a household name, even among the most enlightened people on Earth – my readers.  But trust me when I tell you that his name and theories are well known and understood through intellectual leftist circles.  Leftist think tanks worship at Gramsci’s altar.

Gramsci succeeded in defining a strategy for waging cultural warfare – a tactic that has been adopted by the modern left, and which remains the last great hope for chronic America-bashers. (Limbaugh 98)

Of course, Limbaugh despises Gramsci as an “obscure Italian communist,” so his theory is for “chronic America-bashers.”  But in the end, he (Limbaugh) adopts Gramsci for the Right: “Why don’t we simply get in the game and start competing for control of those key cultural institutions?”

In Carl Davidson and Jerry Harris’ Globalization, Theocracy, and the New Fascism: Taking the Right’s Rise to Power Seriously (to whom my interpretation of Limbaugh is indebted), the New Right’s strategy of “cultural warfare” is outlined.  It comes in seven parts: 1) identify the main enemy, which Davidson and Harris identify as “corporate ‘liberalism’” and the 1960s New Left, 2) build counter-theory, through right-wing think tanks, 3) build mass communications networks, such as the Christian Broadcasting Network (and FOX News, I might add), 4) build base communities, which in their case would center around the grassroots churches of the Christian Right, 5) build the counter-hegemonic bloc (the Christian Coalition, the Contract (on) With America), 6) take power in government (by taking over the GOP and purging the party of moderates, and 7) radically reconstructing society in the New Right’s image of it. (53-54)

Now, when Limbaugh refers to “cultural warfare,” he’s appropriating what Gramsci called the “war of position.”  To outline Gramsci’s full meaning here, I want to say a few things about who he was.

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was an economically poor resident of Sardinia, rather short, with chronic health problems.  He nevertheless became one of the leading lights of the Italian Communist Party during the period of Mussolini’s rise to power.  Was arrested and imprisoned for what amounted to the rest of his life, during which he wrote the “Quaderni del Carcere” (Prison Notebooks).

Gramsci, then, was witness to one important war of position: the cultural struggle which aided Mussolini in his rise to power as Fascist dictator of Italy.  Davidson and Harris summarize Gramsci’s narrative of this rise as follows:

First, Gramsci speaks of fascism’s coming to power in what he terms a “passive revolution,” meaning that it can happen in fits and starts over a long period; it can happen through a quick seizure of power, but he stresses its “war of position,” of gradually accumulating forces in a counter-hegemonic bloc against the liberal bourgeoisie and the left.  At the final moment, it shifts to the “war of maneuver,” or frontal assault, when its adversaries are weak and divided, rather than united and insurgent.  He also stresses the fascism as a social movement with allies in related social movements.  Finally, he advocates the reverse of this process for the left: the war of position to build up progressive strength and allies, growing counter-hegemonic institutions and centers of independent power, the formation of the multiclass historic bloc of all forces preparing to fight the fascist hegemony, break up its power and destroy its influence.  (10)

The above should give the reader an understanding of what the “war of position” is about.  The war of position is a war over “hegemony,” the ideological formation that maintains the power of the few over the many.  The “passive revolution” is the worst of outcomes: in Gramsci’s circumstances, that meant Mussolini and Fascism; in ours, George W. and endless war on the world.  Gramsci thought that everyone was a philosopher (Prison Notebooks, 324), and that everyone’s philosophy (what we call “common sense”) counted; but that the relative social power of those who were politically organized would determine how “common sense” expressed itself ideologically.

Now, before the 2006 election, the strategy of the Right was to extend its political hegemony over American politics.  The limitation of this approach is in the basic incompatibility of right-wing ideology with the “common sense” realities of America today.  The Right pontificated against the cultural revolution of the 1960s a whole lot, in books such as Roger Kimball’s The Long March: but many of the gains of that earlier cultural revolution persist today because they have been solidly incorporated into “common sense.”  The “War on Drugs” has not persuaded America that casual marijuana-smoking is harmful; abstinence-only sex education hasn’t achieved its goals; abortion is still legal in America; and environmentalism and gay rights did not “go away” like the Right wanted them to do.  The Right has, however, achieved political preeminence in America behind its deluded agendas.

The Left was consigned to a role in support of candidates who were “courting the swing vote.”  To court the swing vote means, in Gramscian terms, making a series of concessions to the hegemonic power of one’s political opponent for the sake of getting elected.  This strategy hasn’t worked either; the “progressive wing” of the Democratic Party from the ‘70s onward has produced a trajectory from the 1972 nomination of George McGovern and the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter to Dennis Kucinich’s 2% showing in the 2004 Presidential primaries.

All of this seemingly changed in 2006.  The Left has gone from discussions of electing anybody but Bush to discussions of impeaching Bush.  Ideas of a better world have gotten back into public circulation.

But if these ideas are to stay in circulation, the Left must continue to organize, politically, socially, and culturally, behind the implementation of its actual beliefs.  We will need leaders who do not “sell out” our agendas.  (We may support politicians who do so; they can’t, however, be our leaders.)  The idea of the “war of position” is to proclaim, and organize politically, behind one’s own political position, not someone else’s.

We need to subject our micro-institutions to scrutiny by setting up support groups for their victims.  Our public schools are little more than warehouses, teaching children conformity and prison etiquette while the teachers engage a futile attempt to save their careers under NCLB.  Our medical institutions are places for denying people health care.  Our financial system is so overburdened by debt (and locked into place by the new bankruptcy laws) that we can expect whole generations of Americans to work and live as permanent debt peons.  Our ecosystems are in catastrophic dieback.  We are divided against each other through systems that accord us unequal privileges by race, class, gender: women are victimized by sexism, brown-skinned people targeted as “illegal aliens” and “terrorists,” the poor characterized as “welfare bums” and “trailer trash.”

We can have a “big tent” political party — but if the “big tent” means acquiescence in the rule of high-status employees of the transnational capitalist class, then we need other organizations specifically for the “war of position.”  “Build(ing) up progressive strength and allies,” in Davidson and Harris’ terms, means preparing for a “radical reconstruction of society.”

I have argued in a previous diary that the “radical reconstruction of society” that needs to happen involves the transition away from “capitalist discipline” and toward “ecological discipline.”  The fourth report of the IPCC should have made it clear that human beings have already precipitated a vast transformation of the global ecosystem, and that survival in this transformed world will be problematic.  But I’m not sure that this previous diary of mine impressed upon people the full extent of what “capitalist discipline” has made of them.

“Hegemony,” in Gramsci’s terms, is a “world view whose effect is to congeal the dominance of one economic class over another into cultural permanence” (quote taken from Robert Bocock’s book Hegemony, p. 7) Capitalist discipline is a form of hegemony.  It keeps the capitalist class in power by molding us into good owners (or good slaves), good workers, and good consumers.  Our task for the future involves something unlike all that: we will all have to be part of an ecosystem with some degree of stability to it, and to do that we will have to learn what an ecosystem is and what our role within its workings can be.

Anyone who has studied the last six years of politics can tell you that America is quite close to being a dictatorship with rigged elections and a muzzled press —  or, given the hegemonic aims of those in power, a dictatorship of Jim Jones in our own nationwide Jonestown.  Kool-aid is on the menu.  The “war of position” awaits.


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