EDITORIAL - The Relevance of Antonio Gramsci's Hegemony and 'Morbid Symptoms' For Zimbabwe’s Consciousness

by The Zimbabwe Sphere

If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e., is no longer “leading” but only “dominant,” exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc. ~ Antonio Gramsci.

A simple dictionary definition of the word hegemony will indicate something along the lines of “political or social dominance/leadership by one social group or state over another.” And that is fairly accurate.

Antonio Gramsci black and white pic in an article for Hegemony in Zimbabwe

Of course, Antonio Gramsci himself wouldn't wince at such a definition. For it aptly sums the prevailing state-of-affairs/status quo we are all enveloped under not only on a national scale but on a global one as well.

This time of the year – end of April – sees radicals, scholars, and all other people celebrating the life of renowned Italian Communist, activist, and  intellectual Antonio Gramsci, born on 22 January, 1891 and died on 27 April, 1937. Gramsci's enduring expansion of the revolutionary continuum of Marxism through his ideas on ideology, hegemony, and organic intellectuals have stood the test of time. 

Punished under Mussolini’s fascist reign of terror, Gramsci was subjected to a life of incarceration for his incendiary ideas in an Italy – and Europe – coming out of the ashes of a devastating war and forestalled proletariat revolution (the Soviet's Bolshevik revolution failed to gain the same momentum in the industrialized, liberal countries of Western Europe); and on the cusp of another major war that was to decimate millions and millions on an unprecedented level.

The ideas and writings of Antonio Gramsci – with the greater corpus of his intellectual discourses gleaned via the Prison Notebooks (late 1920s-early 1930s) – were produced in the historical context of the Great Depression, Europe's pre-World War II years, just when the far right, fascist reigns of Hitler and Mussolini were taking off, and when Italy's Communist Party (PCI) was riddled with internecine struggles failing to bring about an expected [ultra-left] working class revolution; as well as a Soviet Union under Stalin stuck in a bureaucratic maze that was fast monopolizing Marxism-Leninism for rather warped versions of state absolutism, while veering away from the holistic, democratic, and altruistic emancipation of workers and peasants.

But even though Gramsci developed his Marxian theories (the philosophy of praxis) in this historical epoch, such theories – Gramscian theories/Gramsci's Marxism – retain their indispensable salience in the contemporary context of the 21st century. 

With two decades into the century, against the backdrop of globalized neoliberalism (metamorphosing into techno-feudalism), rising right-wing populism in the global north, xenophobic sentiments, a global pandemic, surveillance capitalism, and a general dereliction of public duty by states (by outsourcing public social service provision to the ravenous and avaricious private sector), it is imperative to quickly revisit Antonio Gramsci’s ideas and apply them to present Zimbabwean and African contexts, putting emphasis on Africa's global placement in such a prevalent, urgent malaise.

How Marxism-Leninism Viewed Class Struggle in a Capitalist Political Economy

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were arguably the first philosophers in 19th century industrialized Europe to advance a scientific approach to the already-existing socialist strands of intellectual thought at great length. 

For Marx and Engels, the oppression of workers by bourgeois capital was to result in irreconcilable capitalist contradictions brought about by increased proletarianization and pauperization in which the ever-expanding mass of the working class – the proletariat – would rise up against the bourgeoisie to set up a socialist and communist society where state and law cease being the bourgeoisie’s instruments of class dominance. 

Instead, state and law in socialist and communist societies – a phenomenon arising out of capitalism's inherent contradictions (dialectics) – would be subordinated to the interests of the masses; the workers. And the peasants. With this, the protracted and intractable class struggle would have been put to rest.

This was hinged on the theories of epiphenomenalism and materialism (dialectical and historical materialism). These rested on class reductionism as well. Fervent disciples of Marxism such as Lenin and Trotsky would further develop these ideas by alluding to the phrase “the dictatorship of the proletariat”, arguing how liberal bourgeois parliamentary democracy was a tool for class dominance – “the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”. 

These latter expansions, now Marxism-Leninism, flowed from the Marxist terminology of “base”, “superstructure”, “productive forces”, and “relations of production” that Marx and Engels advanced, and were complemented epiphenomenalism and [dialectic and historical] materialism.

Proletariat revolution (Marx and Engels did not put the role of peasants in vogue) in the view of Marx, Engels, Lenin and other Marxian iconoclasts and demagogues was the panacea for class struggle and emancipation of the masses, with Trotsky becoming a fierce proponent of exporting the revolution beyond the borders of the Soviet Union.  This was Marxism in its technical sense for the Second and Third International.

But perhaps the intellectual who gave a new holistic meaning to Marxian intellectual narratives on empowering the masses by subduing the elite/ruling bourgeoisie, and making Marxism malleable to changing historical events (there was frustration among leftists in Western Europe for having failed to emulate the Bolshevik revolution in their respective countries, and frustration with the trajectory of revolution in Stalin's USSR) was Antonio Gramsci from Italy. 

Gramsci made a fundamental observation marking a key permutation from the orthodoxies of Marxist theoreticians and the rigid ultraleft position of the Comintern [Communist International] – that leadership exercised by the bourgeois ruling elite largely bordered on consent and not domination via mere coercion alone. Succinctly, this is hegemony.

Whereas traditional Marxian theoreticians of the time dwelled on class reductionism and capitalism's own failings due to its contradictions as the only portents of proletarian revolution and social change, Gramsci noted that what was really at play was the dominance of ideology exercised through the superstructure in which elites no longer retained  coercion/force but simply had to rely on the consent of the masses (of all classes) – even though this largely rested on the ultimate deference of force in times of crisis/when necessary.  

What is Hegemony Then, According to Gramsci?

So, generally, hegemony in Gramsci's context can be understood as a reference to the moral, cultural, and intellectual leadership exercised by the ruling bourgeois elite over subaltern/subordinated classes where the classes dominated by the elite give their consent to this leadership – they consent to their own subjugation by the ruling class without being forced or compelled into such an inferior position. And Gramsci applied this understanding of hegemony to post-1870 industrialized Western Europe.  

This interpretation of the bourgeois political economy directly stemmed from Marxist terminology. Gramsci used the same Marxian concepts of the “class”, “superstructure”, “communism”, “base”, and “bourgeoisie”. Being locked up in a Fascist prison for Communist intellectual discourses, he had to self-censor; as also his works were read by a Fascist censor.

For instance, he supplants “class” with “fundamental group”, and does the same to “communism” with “waves of materialism” (because Communists were the “owners” of materialism theories in their revolutionary discourse). What it shows is that he expanded his theories from where Marx and other disciples left off into a new understanding of the pressing contexts of his day. 

Hegemony – encompassing moral, religious, cultural, and ideological supremacy by the ruling elite which the lower classes consent to – is deployed at the level of the “superstructure”.  

Superstructure according to Karl Marx generally denotes a totality of the laws and politics legitimizing existing relations of productions, the consciousness of a particular class on the world, and the social processes by which humans are privy to their “economic conflict and fight it out”.  

Gramsci did not concern himself with the effect of the “base” (social order for the control of means of production) on influencing levels of this “given consent” as earlier Marxists had done. Gramsci expanded Marx’s superstructure as the level at which the hegemony is materialized – for this to resonate, Gramsci divided the superstructure into the “State” (or political society) and “civil society”.  

Hegemony – State, Civil Society, and the Integral State

Civil society encompasses institutions that include churches, schools, trade unions, social clubs, the press, language, security apparatuses, law, and other non-governmental institutions. It is through these socializing processes that the bourgeois state imprints its own ideologies and belief systems, thus giving cultural direction to the inferior classes. The inferior classes give their consent through these socializing mechanisms.  

Marx contended social change is precipitated by violent inescapable schisms/antagonisms at the “base” but Gramsci observed class domination through hegemony. Gramsci noted how the base would remain intact even in times of great crises, and how despite such crises workers and peasants could not bring about revolution as earlier Marxist thinking had asserted. The Great Depression came, devastated livelihoods, but it not give rise to any mass, popular proletarian or even peasant revolution. The same can be said about the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany – these failed to bring about a communist revolution.  

The base will not fall away easily – hegemony through spiritual and intellectual supremacy elicits legitimacy for the elite state to rule without much reliance on domination by force.

Gramsci also developed “social hegemony”, implying “the spontaneous consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life” by the ruling bourgeois; a consent historically arising through the “prestige” that the ruling class enjoys because of its perceived “position and function in the world of production”. He also alluded to “political government” - the “apparatus of state coercive power” which disciplines groups that do not consent either “passively or actively”. Such state machinery of coercive power is ultimately needed when mass consent fails or in times of huge crises. 

This leads to the “Integral State” that conflates all these conceptions of superstructure and hegemonic power - “State is the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules.”

The Salience of Gramsci's Theories – A Faithful Marxist Disciple Who Expanded Marxism

States do not necessarily have to rely on force when they can get the consent of the masses via the superstructure as outline above. With the institutions of a modern economy facilitating smooth economy where the individual has the “illusion of freedom” by conforming to such set standards by the ruling class, the state “entrenches” its political dominance (the war of position).  

By understanding hegemony, Gramsci tells the world that the overthrow of capitalist relations of production will not be brought about by capitalism’s own contradictions and failures, as earlier Marxists understood it to be (epiphenomenalism). 

Hegemony however allows the masses to be critical of the ways in which their freedom is curtailed by the existing institutions at the superstructure level.  Understanding hegemony paves way for ideological consciousness and class alliances; especially if organic intellectuals are in communion with the masses.

Economic crises do not necessarily imply the fall of oppressive capitalist modes of production – if anything, capitalism rebrands itself spectacularly. Gramsci tells the world that overthrowing the bourgeois ruling class is not simply a matter of smashing the state and taking power militarily – it is a protracted ideological battle that has to be fundamentally won at the superstructure. 

Perhaps this reflects Gramsci’s “the old is dying but the new cannot be born.” It was a statement challenging hegemony – the “morbid symptoms”. 

Education is one of the primary centres where hegemony plays out itself. By putting education into such a focal point, hegemony mirrors how "educative pressure [is] applied to single individuals so as to obtain their consent and their collaboration, turning necessity and coercion into 'freedom'".

Education makes the individual malleable to the caprices of the ruling classes without fierce contestations, or with immense apathy. Education mirrors the illusion of freedom. It is where the ideology of the ruling class is inculcated in the great masses, often cemented by religious/spiritual supremacy of the ruling class.  

What Does This Mean For Us? 

Now, one may wonder where all this is leading to. In our Zimbabwean post-settler context – one where neoliberalism has almost become a religion in itself – the concept of hegemony is applicable with greater relevance and urgency. The ruling establishment has sought to position itself as the champions of liberal democracy although this is thwarted regularly by innumerable contradictions that do not warrant explanation here, as of now. The ruling establishment has been on a frenzied attempt to gain the consent of the great masses – and even if it attempts to put on a veil of intellectual supremacy, the regular reliance on the state coercive apparatuses, the police and military, should tell us a thing or two. 

The frenetic efforts of the ruling establishment in Zimbabwe towards maintaining a hegemonic order premised on neoliberal capitalism is evident through its “re-engagement” agenda aimed towards ameliorating its pariah status in the international community; and all this is done to court foreign [private] financialized capital.

Zimbabwe’s bourgeois elite employs language that betrays this (hegemonic) attempt aimed at eliciting the consent of the middle class, working class, and rural peasantry; that everyone must express unwavering acquiescence to this capitalist order – one that perpetuates excruciating poverty and inequality, a cesspool of angst and individualistic materialist envy/desire. Alienation. And of course, crass consumerism/hedonism. Unbridled.

Language of this nature includes terms like “middle class economy by 2030”, “foreign investment”, “ease of doing business”, “business-friendly environment”, “Zimbabwe is open for business”; or Harare City Council's rather vapid “world class city status by 2025”. The latter becomes tragically ridiculous and regrettable given that the city already grapples with the provision of inalienable basic public services such as clean and safe water.

How Zimbabwe's Elite Suffer From Legitimacy Crises – Struggle for Hegemony

In the case of Harare City Council and all other urban councils/municipalities, the vainglorious belief that neoliberal standards planning and service provision – which are wholly exclusionary and only serve to widen inequalities – is based on getting the consent of urban inhabitants. Such neoliberal standards are preferred by the authorities that be, regardless of political party affiliation, because they are in line with the global north's so-called international standards. Yet they are not applicable to Zimbabwean contexts because provision of basic services such as water, power, food security, education, transport, land, and housing is already a gargantuan task.

So when there is no consent in creating a “clean, international” city without vendors, beggars, homeless people, and unregulated transport (mshika-shika) the next reasonable step is to use force.  Because hegemony (dominance by consent) ultimately rests on force from the state's coercive apparatuses. That is why in Harare police are in endless battles with the poor bearing the brunt of neoliberalism's failure both from central and local governments (because regardless of party difference, the petty and comprador bourgeoisie ultimately share the same interests) – the poor cannot consent to neoliberalism in fighting for their precarious livelihoods: vendors, the homeless, mshika-shika operators and their passengers frustrated by ZUPCO's inadequacies.

This obtains because the elite seek the citizenry's consent to their disastrous capitalist ideologies simply because they do not properly understand their global placement (that the global north and lately the global east feed Africa with globalization propaganda only for the purposes of further exploiting the continent).

The elite's frenzied overtures to prominent religious leaders (for instance, Mnangagwa's Easter appearance at Emmanuel Makandiwa's UFIC behemoth in Chitungwiza) show hegemony at play in Zimbabwe. It is all about legitimizing the elite’s entrenched hegemonic supremacy – and religion is effective, for in Zimbabwe religion now largely serves as a purveyor of neoliberal capitalism, evidenced through the gospel of prosperity predicated on individualism, promises of material wealth and upmarket consumerism, and plain superstition to mimic the lifestyles of the rich. Even where this is unattainable.

The same goes for the state's  alliances with prominent (and often unscrupulous) media personalities, celebrities, influencers, and business-people. Consent. Hegemony. The word “mbinga” tells it all. Even all the madness on Zimbabwe's crazed social media spaces mirror competing interests towards achieving hegemonic supremacy by one elite group over the other.

Even Zimbabwe's tertiary education betrays attempts to make students conformist, apathetic, and individualistic – an education that wrests class consciousness (counter-hegemonic intellectual discourses) from students so that they are alienated and polarized; too weak to form class alliances with the proletariat and rural peasantry. The unemployment graduates are met with in the shrinking and competitive labour market (formal employment), with their skills degraded, is not enough for a counter-hegemonic uprising. “Morbid symptoms” in the “interregnum”. The new needs to be born.

 The force that was used in August 2018 in the wake of disputed elections (two opponents wearing ego on their sleeves, who both worship neoliberalism, and locked in fierce popularity contests without any class consciousness and resolve for alleviating the lives of the workers, the unemployed, the disabled, the homeless and rural peasantry) proved catastrophic to hegemonic ambitions. Hence all these overtures as outlined above. However, there is no guarantee whatsoever that this force won't be deployed in 2023. The ruling party is desperate for the youth's consent – the demographic group that happens to be disempowered the most.  As does the opposition. Consent via populism. 

The Way To Go?

Gramsci proved that class struggle, and importantly the struggle to better our material living conditions, is primarily an ideological struggle that reflects a battle for hegemonic supremacy. 

All political and economic struggle essentially mirrors a fight for legitimacy; and such legitimacy, even where power is seized militarily with the subsequent smashing of current state and law, is to be gained by consent – hegemony.

The task for the working class and the peasantry is to  unite through effective community  organizing and mobilizing premised on class consciousness and ideological awareness. Political struggle in Zimbabwe must be counter-hegemonic. This is to say it must preach altruistic democratic values that are people-centred, egalitarian, participatory, and bottom-up in nature.

Counter-hegemonic narratives must advocate for an equal society where provision of public social services is universal and reliable regardless of race, class, ethnicity, sex, gender, or religious inclinations – a country that understands its global placement, opposing privatization, austerity, war, while advocating global human solidarity.

 And continuously learning from history while aware of our internal contradictions. 

Perhaps this suffices. It is not a walk in the park. It is an arduous, protracted, and thorny journey but one that is inevitable. A simple answer, just not an easy one. But, still, history shows us that this can be done.


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