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Chris Hedges on Antonio Gramsci and Fascism

Antonio Gramsci and the Battle Against Fascism 

Posted on Jun 4, 2017
By Chris Hedges

Mr. Fish / Truthdig
Chris Hedges gave this talk Friday at the Left Forum in New York City. Click here to see a video of the address; the introduction of Hedges begins at the 7:30 mark.
Antonio Gramsci wrote his “Prison Notebooks” at a time not dissimilar to our own. The political parties led by the liberal class, because they had detached themselves from the working class, were weak or irrelevant. The radical left had been neutered and had failed to articulate a coherent alternative vision to capitalism. There was a “crisis of authority.” Fascism was ascendant and state repression was becoming steadily more severe and totalitarian.
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. Gramsci when he was arrested in 1926 and imprisoned technically had parliamentary immunity, but by then the rule of law was meaningless. From this bleak political landscape we get the [Gramsci] dictum you have all heard, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”
Gramsci, like Leon Trotsky, was an intellectual but also a journalist. And it was Trotsky who lamented that by the time Gramsci set out to build the Italian Communist Party, the business elites, allied with the fascists, had put into place such draconian forms of repression that effective organizing was all but impossible.

Gramsci deviated from the Marxist belief that the inherent contradictions of capitalism would of themselves usher in socialism. He was opposed to the iron control of a Leninist revolutionary vanguard. Revolution, he wrote, would only be achieved when the masses had gained enough consciousness to exert personal autonomy and see through the mores, stereotypes and narratives disseminated by the dominant culture. Revolutionary change required the intellectual ability to understand reality. 
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.
“Every revolution,” he wrote, “has been preceded by an intense labor of criticism, by the diffusion of culture and the spread of ideas. ... The same phenomenon is being repeated today in the case of socialism. It was through a critique of capitalist civilization that the unified consciousness of the proletariat was or is still being formed, and a critique implies culture, not simply a spontaneous and naturalistic evolution. … To know oneself means to be oneself, to be master of oneself. … And we cannot be successful in this unless we also know others, their history, the successful efforts they have made to be what they are, to create the civilization they have created and which we seek to replace with our own.”
Revolutions were first and foremost a battle of ideas.
“A main obstacle to change is the reproduction by the dominating forces of elements of their hegemonic ideology,” Gramsci wrote. “It’s an important and urgent task to develop alternative interpretations of reality”
Noam Chomsky boils this down to “Tell the truth.”
And as Gramsci seconded, “To tell the truth is revolutionary.”
The core of neoliberalism is the absurd idea that the living standards of the global working class will rise by deforming societies to slavishly serve the dictates of the market.
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. It has cemented into place a system the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism.”
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.” Hence political mutations such as Donald Trump, or in Gramsci’s time Mussolini.
The acceleration of deindustrialization by the 1970s created a crisis that forced the ruling elites to create a new political paradigm, as Stuart Hall [with co-writers] explains in his book “Policing the Crisis.” This paradigm, trumpeted by a compliant media, shifted its focus from the common good to race, crime and law and order. It told those undergoing profound economic and political change that their suffering stemmed not from corporate greed but from a threat to national integrity. The old consensus that buttressed the programs of the New Deal and the welfare state was attacked as enabling criminal black youth, welfare queens and social parasites. The parasites were to blame. This opened the door to an authoritarian populism, begun by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, which supposedly championed family values, traditional morality, individual autonomy, law and order, the Christian faith and the return to a mythical past, at least for white Americans.
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.
Mass culture is an assault that, as Gramsci wrote, results in a “confused and fragmentary” consciousness or what Marx called “false consciousness.” It is designed to impart the belief to the proletariat that its “true” interests are aligned with those of the ruling class, in our case global corporatism.
We are a product not of nature, Gramsci wrote, but of our history and our culture. If we do not know our history and our culture, and accept the false history and culture manufactured for us, we will never surmount the forces of oppression. The recovery of memory and culture in the 1960s by radical movements terrified the elites. It gave people an understanding of their own power and agency. It articulated and celebrated the struggles of working men and women and the oppressed rather than the mythical beneficence of the oppressors. It exposed the exploitation and mendacity of the ruling class. And that is why corporatists spent billions to crush and marginalize these movements and their histories in schools, the culture, the press and in our systems of entertainment. 
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