Why There Is A Culture War

By Fonte, John | Policy Review, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Why There Is A Culture War


Fonte, John, Policy Review


Gramsci and Tocqueville in America

AS INTELLECTUAL HISTORIANS have often had occasion to observe, there are times in a nation's history when certain ideas are just "in the air." Admittedly, this point seems to fizzle when applied to our particular historical moment. On the surface of American politics, as many have had cause to mention, it appears that the main trends predicted over a decade ago in Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History?" have come to pass -- that ideological (if not partisan) strife has been muted; that there is a general consensus about the most important questions of the day (capitalism, not socialism; democracy, not authoritarianism); and that the contemporary controversies that do exist, while occasionally momentous, are essentially mundane, concerned with practical problem-solving (whether it is better to count ballots by hand or by machine) rather than with great principles.

And yet, I would argue, all that is true only on the surface. For simultaneously in the United States of the past few decades, recurring philosophical concepts have not only remained "in the air," but have proved influential, at times decisive, in cultural and legal and moral arguments about the most important questions facing the nation. Indeed: Prosaic appearances to the contrary, beneath the surface of American politics an intense ideological struggle is being waged between two competing worldviews. I will call these "Gramscian" and "Tocquevillian" after the intellectuals who authored the warring ideas -- the twentieth-century Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, and, of course, the nineteenth-century French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville. The stakes in the battle between the intellectual heirs of these two men are no less than what kind of country the United States will be in decades to come.

Refining class warfare

WE'LL BEGIN WITH an overview of the thought of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), a Marxist intellectual and politician. Despite his enormous influence on today's politics, he remains far less well-known to most Americans than does Tocqueville.

Gramsci's main legacy arises through his departures from orthodox Marxism. Like Marx, he argued that all societies in human history have been divided into two basic groups: the privileged and the marginalized, the oppressor and the oppressed, the dominant and the subordinate. Gramsci expanded Marx's ranks of the "oppressed" into categories that still endure. As he wrote in his famous Prison Notebooks, "The marginalized groups of history include not only the economically oppressed, but also women, racial minorities and many 'criminals.'" What Marx and his orthodox followers described as "the people," Gramsci describes as an "ensemble" of subordinate groups and classes in every society that has ever existed until now. This collection of oppressed and marginalized groups -- "the people" -- lack unity and, often, even consciousness of their own oppression. To reverse the correlation of power from the privileged to the "marginalized," then, was Gramsci's declared goal.

Power, in Gramsci's observation, is exercised by privileged groups or classes in two ways: through domination, force, or coercion; and through something called "hegemony," which means the ideological supremacy of a system of values that supports the class or group interests of the predominant classes or groups. Subordinate groups, he argued, are influenced to internalize the value systems and world views of the privileged groups and, thus, to consent to their own marginalization.

Far from being content with a mere uprising, therefore, Gramsci believed that it was necessary first to delegitimize the dominant belief systems of the predominant groups and to create a counter-hegemony" (i.e., a new system of values for the subordinate groups) before the marginalized could be empowered. Moreover, because hegemonic values permeate all spheres of civil society -- schools, churches, the media, voluntary associations -- civil society itself, he argued, is the great battleground in the struggle for hegemony, the "war of position. …

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