Academics and the Reproduction of Cultural Hegemony

Much as Martin Center readers may disparage Marxism, there is one author who deserves our attention. Antonio Gramsci was an Italian Marxist who lived and wrote around the turn of the century, and his most important contribution was to a theory of cultural hegemony, one that explains why the academic Left is so up in arms about Trump’s election.

The idea of cultural hegemony is well known today, but used in such a vague and clichéd way that it deserves a fresh look. Gramsci’s point is that raw power only succeeds within a discourse that legitimizes it. That discourse doesn’t need to be logically or factually correct, but it needs to create a shared understanding that legitimizes the exercise of power. For example, since 9/11, rhetoric exaggerating the danger of terrorism has been used to justify curbing Americans’ civil liberties.

Since those already in power employ the intellectual class to justify their own positions, anyone seeking change must create space for an alternative discourse, one in which the marginalized can imagine that change is possible. Thus, the “counter-culture” was born. With slogans like “don’t trust anyone over thirty” and “question authority,” radicals in the 60s and 70s cracked open the previously dominant discourse and made it possible for others to believe in their vision for society.

The 70s ended a long time ago, but Gramsci’s heirs today dominate college faculties, social media, and newsrooms. In short, progressives now control cultural discourse. No matter how much academics cling to their fantasy that they are “speaking truth to power,” the counter-culture isn’t “counter” anymore—it’s the status quo.

Justified by that discourse is the concrete exercise of power: the monolithic left-wing attitudes of federal workers who make law in today’s administrative state. Directly or indirectly, the State now makes its presence felt in every corner of our lives, and progressive discourse rationalizes it all. The academic Left now provides an apologetic for State control over ever more of Americans’ daily lives, just like the medieval theologians that justified Church control.

Take the opposition to Betsy DeVos’s nomination for Secretary of Education, for example. She and her supporters understand her agenda as a reaction to the failure of public education—a system that traps those at the bottom in a cycle of poverty while protecting those in power, like school administrators and families who can afford to move out of underperforming districts.

Instead of confronting this argument directly, the Left stigmatizes anyone who challenges their position. Even prior to this election cycle, an article by Professor Terran Lane in the Chronicle of Higher Education referred to inadequate enthusiasm for spending tax dollars on public education as “…a terrifying trend in this country right now of attacking academe, specifically, and free thought and intellectualism, generally,” and one can find plenty of similar examples.

The crucial point here is how Professor Lane conflates two different things: education itself, and the interests of those whom the current system empowers. Labels like “anti-education” and “anti-intellectual” protect educators’ self-interest by delegitimizing alternatives they don’t dominate.

That way, speakers can render impossible debates about the best ways to educate 21st Century American children by preemptively asserting that alternative visions of education are, in this looking-glass world, actually schemes to prevent education.

No need to address critics’ arguments. No need to wonder whether more government spending is really the best answer. By excluding critics from acceptable discourse, one can prevent the American people from even imagining alternatives—exactly what Gramsci insisted those in power would always try to do.

The real problem with Betsy DeVos isn’t that she opposes education, but rather the unapologetic nature of her attack on the power structures in American education. That threatens those power structures in a way Gramsci would have understood.

And education is just one example of a widespread practice. A colleague of mine once told me that those (like me) who applauded Justice Scalia’s jurisprudence did so because we want a return to the racial politics of the 1780s.

Anyone familiar with the arguments for small government—some of which were old before Columbus sailed West—knows how silly such charges are, but Gramsci helps us understand why a left-wing professor might make them, and perhaps even believe them. If the racist label sticks, it prevents well-meaning individuals from even imagining a world in which the State returns power to citizens.

Again, notice how this protects the interests of those in power. Four of the five richest counties in the U.S. are now suburbs of D.C.—enriched by profiting off the government’s extensive control over the economy. How can this inequality be justified and protected? By calling critics racist, of course.

In fact, I think this explains much of why the professoriate is so inflamed over Trump’s election.

He is no radical conservative; he’s a former Democrat who once donated money to Hillary Clinton’s senate campaign. But by his—and his associates’—disregard for the limits the Left tries to set on permissible thought, he’s creating space for a new counter-culture. When Trump publicly shrugs at progressive shibboleths, it empowers others to imagine alternatives, just like the 60s slogans did.

In short, he directly attacks professors’ (and the media’s) usefulness to those holding real power.

That makes 2017 an exciting time for conservatives, especially in academia. I imagine this is what the 60s radicals felt like, knowing that by our lives and our teaching we open others’ eyes to alternatives that those in power try to stamp out.

I don’t know what policies Trump will pursue as president, but his campaign and election have already accomplished something important by empowering a new counter-culture. The academic Left will bring out their tired old smears and attack the ethics and motives of their opponents, but the election suggests that more and more Americans see those insults for the self-serving rhetoric they are.

For the sake of our students’ education, let’s make the most of this chance.

  • DrOfnothing

    If this is true “For example, since 9/11, rhetoric exaggerating the danger of terrorism has been used to justify curbing Americans’ civil liberties.”

    . . . then this cannot also be the case, “but Gramsci’s heirs today dominate college faculties, social media, and newsrooms. In short, progressives now control cultural discourse,” since those on the left generally oppose the curbing of Civil Liberties for the sake of alleged security issues (that’s a right/GOP stance).

    Also, Betsy DeVos was opposed not because she was attacking entrenched structures, but rather because she was completely ignorant about them to begin with. Except accidentally, you can neither oppose nor support something which you do not actually comprehend–the same is true, for example, of Donald Trump and the US Constitution. The only counter-culture he is empowering is that of the xenophobic, ethnic-nationalist right, which no sane person would support, as it is antithetical to fundamental American values (on this, both traditional Conservatives and Liberals agree). The professoriate, the judiciary, and much of the electorate is inflamed over Trump not because he is empowering a coherent and valid counter-culture, but because he is impulsive, reckless, and either ignorant or completely disregards the very idea of objective truth.

    • Stagester

      “. . . then this cannot also be the case, “but Gramsci’s heirs today dominate college faculties, social media, and newsrooms. In short, progressives now control cultural discourse,” since those on the left generally oppose the curbing of civil liberties for the sake of alleged security issues (that’s a right/GOP stance).”

      1. The GOP is no longer a conservative movement it is more of a corporatist philosophy that is very much in step with the left. The fact that curtailment of civil rights started with the corporatists and then was continued and in fact made worse by the ultra-left who had control for the last 8 years.

      2. Betsy DeVos was mainly opposed because she was anti-union. She has spent the last 20 odd years trying to reform education in Michigan. The fact that she disagrees with how education can be better done doesn’t mean she is ignorant. You prove the point of the entire article, trying to shut off rational discourse by claiming her ignorance. The same as the left in Congress have done.

      3. Again you try to cut of discourse with invective. You clearly didn’t understand the article and it’s focus.

      • DrOfnothing

        1. I see you argument about Republicans and Democrats meeting in the middle on Neoliberalism, but I think you are ignoring the profoundly Conservative social philosophy of the former. This also does not address the contrast between the Left and the Right on the personal liberty vs. invasion of privacy in the name of national security .

        2. No, Betsy DeVos is genuinely ignorant about educational issues. There was nothing in her testimony before Congress that contradicted that. She doesn’t just oppose unions, she actually opposed public education full stop. Like many other Trump appointees, she is a long-time opponent of the core mission of the department she now heads.

        3. No one is cutting off discourse, and I didn’t use invective. I am a strong opponent of this administration, but I oppose it on grounds that I think both Republicans and Democrats would appreciate (i.e. the lack of respect for individual liberty along with a basic lack of competency and absence of rational, realistic policy aims). It is an administration of extremists at a time when we need consensus and moderation.

        4. Considering how much of the last 8 years that Congress was controlled by the GOP, to even say that “the Left” was in charge is inaccurate. “Ultra-left” would be hardcore Marxist-Leninists, of which there were none at all.

        • Stagester

          1. So you mean them following the US Chamber of Commerce on open boarders or Trump keeping the LBGQT executive order for government or the GOP wanting to keep most of Obamacare. They even have voiced concerns for the law in NC and soon in Texas that would forbid all men from women’s restrooms. Where is the social conservatism? The socially conservatism in the party has been sidelined for quite sometime. Yeah every so often the party will throw them a bone but that’s only when they get boisterous never is it a program to conserve social morals.

          2. So if she disagrees with the current thought on public education that means she’s ignorant of it. No, it means she opposes it. Again you fail to see the whole premise of this article. That you cut off debate by simply declaring ignorance. Its the same tactic used by the left on everything from education to global warming.

          3. “The only “counter-culture” he is “empowering” is that of the xenophobic, ethnic-nationalist right, which no sensible citizen would support, as it is antithetical to fundamental American values (on this, both traditional Conservatives and Liberals agree). Law professors, political scientists, the judiciary, and much of the electorate is inflamed over Trump not because he is empowering a coherent and valid counter-culture, but because he is impulsive, reckless, vindictive, disrespectful towards our most cherished institutions of governance (e.g. an independent court system), and dismissive of the very idea of objective truth (e.g. with “alternative facts”).”

          Where has Trump been xenophobic? (Are you suggesting that his ban of terrorist hotspots as xenophobic?) Another term for xenophobic is bigoted. How is that not uttering an invective? I could go through your post and find others but that is the most egregious IMO. What happens when you call someone a bigot? It cuts off dialogue. That was the whole premise of the article.

          • DrOfnothing

            1. I honestly can’t untangle that mess of a first sentence. The US has never had “open borders,” so I’m not sure what you are getting at there. What is the “LGBTQ order” for government? No, the social conservatism has not been in the least sidelined. The GOP is done tilting at windmills with the LGBTQ rights, because they know that a.) the majority of the US population supports the idea and b.) its hard to discriminate without running afoul of either mass popular protest or that nice document, the Constitution. It doesn’t stop the GOP from opposing a woman’s right to choose, trying to restrict the black franchise, advocating the centrality of Christian values, and a vast array of other conservative social causes. If the GOP is not conservative enough for you, that makes _you_ the radical in the room.

            2.) Please, enlighten me with DeVos’s vast knowledge of educational affairs that she gained from her extensive experience in the sector. Really, I’d like to hear it. Don’t bring in global warming, if you want to argue that science is is not scientific, find a scientist who agrees with you.

            3.) Is this a joke? Are you ignoring completely what Trump has said about foreign powers in general? The wall on the Mexican border? Advocating a “Muslim ban?” His anti-Chinese rhetoric? Hell, the only foreign country he does like is the one that tried to hack our election, bizarrely. Also, xenophobic means “fear of foreigners,” which he clearly demonstrates and cultivates in his supporters. “Bigoted” denotes an active hostility and denigration for other ethnicities, but I did not use that term, since it is hard to find it directly reflected in policy (so far). A xenophobic president would try to close the border and expel foreign residents (which Trump has). A bigoted president would try to persecute certain ethnic groups regardless of their legal status, which he has not . . .yet.

            4.) A de facto dictator, really? Please, name one time that Obama willingly and intentionally violated the Constitution (as Trump might have, in spirit if not in law, with the muslim ban), denigrated the judiciary (as Trump has), or expressed scorn for rule of law, ONE TIME. I double-dog-dare you. Also find a time when he ignored a Supreme Court ruling.

            None of what you claim has any basis in objective reality. Among the many places where your tenuous grasp on the basic facts about law, governance, history and politics is most evident is the whole “Marxist/Leninist/Stalinist President bit.” You obviously don’t know what any of these terms mean, since Leninism and Stalinism, while both Communist ideologies, were otherwise DIRECTLY OPPOSED TO ONE ANOTHER (which is why Lenin had to, you know, die before Stalin could put his policies into effect).

            I urge you to obtain and read a basic textbook on history and politics before joining any more discussions on a policy website.

        • jandr0

          [She doesn’t just oppose unions, she actually opposed public education full stop.]

          IF what you claim is actually true, then that is even better. Unions I can live with (provided they are voluntary and receive no special privileges from the state), but public education I oppose.

          • DrOfnothing

            Fair enough. If you truly oppose public education, then Devos is on your side. But you also must acknowledge that this is not the majority view.

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        Agree with (1), but disagree with (2). It’s her lack of exposure to higher education and postsecondary policy that bothers me.

        Betsy DeVos has never had to worry about tuition and fees; she’s never had to apply for financial aid, or a federally-guaranteed student loan, and she doesn’t have to worry about her student loan debt, or the debt of anyone in her family for that matter. She never attended a public college or university. Her situation is ‘special’ that way, but it also means that during her past 20 years in public education she has no personal experience with Title IV, Higher Education Act, and this lack of practical knowledge renders her ignorant about what to do when outstanding student loan debt reaches $2 trillion in a couple years. What will she propose then? And, how will someone so clueless be able to lead HEA reauthorization? No past secretary has been this isolated.

        Nor has she had to deal with spiraling credential inflation that is pushing students into unneeded graduate degree programs, forcing them to forestall having children, marrying, and preventing them from starting careers at the same point in their lives as their parents did when they were the same age.

        The idea that the Trump victory has empowered “a new counter-culture” is contradicted by the facts. According to Burdett Loomis, Univ of Kansas, “Structurally, there’s nothing the Trump could have done to encourage more people making money off lobbying than to disrupt health care, financial services and energy all at once. It’s a full employment act for lobbyists.” Promises to also “disrupt” public and higher education will have the same effect in that sector as well. Influence peddling and corruption are not conservative values worth defending, nor are they part of “a new counter-culture.”

        I am certain that future higher education headlines will tell us about the surge of lobbyists to the Capital, as is already occurring in other sectors.

        Nor is it possible to view “disruption” for its own sake as a conservative value; quite the reverse, conservatism seeks to defend positive values that are part of this country’s political heritage, not revolution for the sake of revolution. Here is where neo-liberalism differs most markedly from true-blue conservatism.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    It’s difficult to see the connection between Gramsci’s hegemony and our most recent political controversies. The political shock — unmet expectations, the offensive demeanor and behavior of the winning presidential candidate, the ridiculousness of his ideas (a Wall? really?) — appears **designed** to enhance and continue controversy at the expense of debate and reasoned reflection.

    Gramsci argued for intellectuals (those aligned with the people, and not the ruling elites) to consistently occupy and inhabit the limited autonomous space afforded them in civil society; in other words, in the schools, trade unions, political parties, associations and clubs, and the family — here is where counter-hegemonic intellectuals should be found, challenging (among other things) taken-for-grantedness in all its forms. Domination by coercive institutions — those run by the state, the government, the police and the army, invite opposition and engender generational contention.

    But libertarians should be especially wary of inviting Gramsci into their intellectual living rooms because he emphasizes the out-sided roles that institutions play in the life of society — an inexcusable blind spot shared by all anarcho-libertarians, in my view. His observation that “popular beliefs and similar ideas are themselves material forces” (1971, p. 165) upends rational choice theory and challenges us in ways that no libertarian can tolerate.

    Presaging the work of sociologists and anthropologists, Gramsci well understood that what people think is in large measure dictated by their institutions, and that changing the former means first changing the latter. Having abstracted human cognition to the point of meaninglessness, libertarians have lost the ability to change anything. Neo-institutional economists have worked to correct these kinds of errors, providing alternative approaches to economic problems.

    • Barefoot

      That’s an interesting point about libertarianism. Referring to ideas/beliefs as literal “material forces” seems like an artifact of his Marxism, but I think his point that institutions and ideas do channel behavior (like NIE says) seem common-sensical enough that if libertarianism can’t handle that, than libertarians have some thinking to do. Personally, I’m not sure its “intolerable” for libertarians, but it’s worth considering.

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        Thanks — sadly, I have not yet met a libertarian that could theorize meaningfully about institutions — their RCT focus excludes it by definition. Unlike NIE. This makes me doubly appreciative of your comment; there must be a theorist of consequence that can approach the issue, I’m just not aware of them.

    • Mitchell langbert

      There’s no conflict between institutionalism or the neoinstitutionalism of Oliver Williamson and libertarianism. The focus of libertarian (Austrian) economics is on market processes, while institutionalism focuses on the evolution and habituation of institutions. Thinking in terms of transaction costs and the effects of institutions on human choices leads to or can lead to the recognition that voluntary, noncoercive choice is not only more moral but also more efficient than the policy preferences of statists.

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        Libertarianism is not Austrian economics. The conflict that I am referring to resides at the philosophical level, i.e., at the level of a proposed ontology of the self. Put simply, epistemology precedes ontology for the institutionalists (neo- and social constructivists), but the libertarians push ontology into the foreground.

        Libertarianism (Latin: liber, “free”) is a not a collection of economic theories, but is a collection of political philosophies that uphold liberty as a core principle. Libertarians seek to maximize political freedom and autonomy, emphasizing freedom of choice, voluntary association, self-ownership, and the rule of law. (per Wiki)

        Oliver Williamson, and Ronald Coase before him, followed by James March, Herbert Simon, etc., all pioneered complex decision theory, creating an opening for the cognitive dimensions of the sociology of organizations, especially the European sociology of knowledge, which was foundational for neo-institutionalism.

        This is where Gramsci fits in comfortably, and it is exactly why libertarians should avoid him: Gramsci’s understanding of culture as hegemony is a Trojan Horse that defeats libertarian philosophy and individualism.

        I am especially fond of Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think, which is a full-bore critique of Oliver Williamson, for all the reasons just mentioned.

        • mitchelllangbert

          Actually, Glenn, Murray Rothbard, a student of von Mises, coined the term “libertarian” as you’re using it. The concept was economic in inspiration, and Rothbard realized that tactically civil liberties and economic liberties could be packaged. The Libertarian Party was founded in 1971 largely in response to economic concerns. The term wasn’t used in the precise way until then. I don’t see the relevance of the philosophical jargon to either institutionalists or libertarians. Institutionalist economics was founded by Veblen and Commons. It had nothing to do with ontology, the study of the structure of being, or with epistemology, the study of the structure of knowledge. Rather, institutionalist economics was the American version of the German historical school, which emphasized mimesis and habituation as against profits and incentives in motivating human action.

          • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

            Rothbard is certainly a colorful figure, but it is hard to imagine him coining the term.

            According to Mises Institute, “the word “libertarian” was used first in 1789, but in the philosophical “free will” sense, as opposed to the more “liberalism” political sense used in the 1802 text noted above. It also indicates the first explicit proposal to use the term for modern free market liberals was Dean Russell, writing in the May 1955 issue of Leonard Read’s FEE journal The Freeman.”

            More on the origins here:

  • Jane S. Shaw

    A terrific article, George. IIt really resonates now that I have been introduced (in a graduate history class) to Foucault and his concepts of discourse, knowledge, and power.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    Nothing new about Trump, just like The Sopranos.

  • Mitchell langbert

    Thanks for a fine article. It is ironic that suppressive authoritarians like American academics claim that there is such a thing as academic freedom and that they, of all people, exercise it or recognize it. The tired arguments of the backward-looking left, for example that their policies are less “reactionary” or “progressive” have been so thoroughly debunked that I almost feel sorry for the intellectually starved Professor Lane and the Chronicle of Higher Education. As Henry Hazlitt mentioned in the 1940s, mercantilism and progressivism are of the same coin, and Smith was a response to the failure of today’s “progressivism,” including the invention of its chief institution, the central bank, in the 16th and 17th centuries.

  • David Ashton

    An interested researcher could use Britain as a case-study of the Gramsci-Marcuse-Stuart Hall incremental subversion and “progressive” control of our institutions using the debatable themes of “race, gender, class”. From small beginnings in the exploitation of Caribbean immigration in the late 1950s – through local government, state education, journalist unions, expanding anti-“discrimination” and “hate speech” ratchets, quango and charity criteria, and much more – the movement has now reached the stage of a government “equality and diversity” pseudo-ideology, imposed downwards on “society” by law and indoctrination,with, for example, a forthcoming “equality oath” imposed on everyone on a public payroll, with especial recent targeting of religious “bigotry” and “transphobia”.

    The cunning methods used in what its activists called “nationwide agenda-networking” are as instructive as the stupidity and complacency of their “conservative” victims.

  • Jay Iyer

    I went to UCSC and saw the epitome of this hypocrisy. The “cultural understanding” department is just a communist mouthpiece. During my freshman intro class my professor said “People think that college is just communist indoctrination” as an ice breaker. Within the week we were learning about Gramsci and how horrible cultural hegemony is. Right. its hypocritical bullshit really, all that department did was create their own status qou or cultural hegemony for leftist safe space hogwash. I had my grades sacked because I didnt agree with some of the setiments.