Part Five: There Is No “I” in Team America
“Tocquevillians favor the transmission of the American regime; Gramscians, its transformation.”
~ John Fonte, 2000
Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was an Italian political theorist. He founded the Communist Party of Italy in 1921 with Palmiro Togliatti. While Communist, he was evidently not a Fascist, considering that Benito Mussolini imprisoned him due to his outspoken criticisms. Most importantly, Gramsci was one of the more influential Marxist thinkers of the last century because of his theory concerning “cultural hegemony.”
The context for Gramsci’s life and thought was Marxism. In 1848, Karl Marx had predicted that the breakdown of capitalist economies would provoke the working class to revolt against capitalism. They would then overthrow capitalism and usher in communist ideas and practices.
But that never happened.
As the 20th century began, what Marx predicted never came true. Capitalism was still thriving. So Gramsci proposed that the transition from capitalism to communism was not something natural and thus inevitable. Capitalism did not maintain control simply through violence and coercion; rather, it maintained control through ideology. The capitalist ruling class had developed a culture that valued capitalism itself. This culture then propagated values and norms to the public so convincingly that these values and norms became “common sense.” The public identified these values and norms with themselves. Thus capitalism had developed a culture that appeared superior, or hegemonic.
Gramsci’s Cultural Hegemony
This is the idea of cultural hegemony — the idea of cultural superiority and that one culture (compared to another) appears natural and inevitable when in fact it is artificial and imposed:
“In Marxist philosophy, the term Cultural Hegemony describes the domination of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class, who manipulate the culture of the society — the beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values, and mores — so that their ruling-class Weltanschauung becomes the worldview that is imposed and accepted as the cultural norm; as the universally valid dominant ideology that justifies the social, political, and economic status quo as natural and inevitable, perpetual and beneficial for everyone, rather than as artificial social constructs that benefit only the ruling class.”
This is fundamentally important to understand. Key to Marxist cultural hegemony theory are the ideas that prevailing norms and values of any given society are (1) not natural and inevitable, but rather (2) artificially constructed and imposed by (3) the ruling class(es):
“Cultural hegemony proposes that the prevailing cultural norms of a society, which are imposed by the ruling class (bourgeois cultural hegemony), must not be perceived as natural and inevitable, but must be recognized as artificial social constructs (institutions, practices, beliefs, et cetera)…”
The reason why the norms and values are artificial, according to Gramsci, is because the ruling class — which previously was not dominant, i.e., previously a ruled class itself — engaged in a very long process of dialogue between groups to advance as superior its own understanding of the world. Gramsci called this long process of dialogue a “war of position.”
This war on position is important because the public is not naturally predisposed to revolutions.
For Gramsci, this made sense of why the traditional Marxist hope for a spontaneous revolution was never fulfilled. Gramsci perceived the average person to harbor “no desire for the destruction of the existing order,” even “where their lives were less than ideal.” The public could care less for all this talk about cultural hegemony. The fact is, “More meaningful to ordinary people than class solidarity and class warfare were such things as faith in God and love of family and country. These were foremost among their overriding allegiances.”
In order to create the change in his culture that he desired, Gramsci believed one would have to undermine the actual belief systems that the currently dominant culture was enforcing. Because, again, note that the current ruling class is being hegemonic. (Or ruling classes, since, in Gramsci’s view, “there is not in any sense a single dominant class, but, rather, a shifting and unstable alliance of different social classes.”) Gramsci has no problem with this. He would just prefer a different ruling class to be in power. So he desired to “create a ‘counter-hegemony’ (i.e., a new system of values for the subordinate groups).” And for this counter-hegemony to appeal to the public in general, he believed it needed to assume values that favored the non-ruling class, i.e., “repressed groups.”
How does one go about creating this counter-hegemony, or undermine the values of a dominant group in order to get a different set of values into dominance? Because Gramsci believed the currently dominant group was perpetuating its values in all aspects of life, subverting these values requires the same sort of comprehension. All aspects of life would have to become political:
“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.’ From this point, too, followed a corollary for which Gramsci should be known — that all life is ‘political.’ Thus, private life, the work place, religion, philosophy, art, and literature, and civil society, in general, are contested battlegrounds in the struggle to achieve societal transformation.”
Thus we end up with the “all life is political” idea, with the result being that “daily life becomes part of the ideological battleground.”
Abraham Kuyper was the Original Gramsci
This is the Gramscian theory of cultural hegemony. You probably notice all sorts of similarities between this theory and what both Jack Crabtree and Angelo Codevilla argued. They are perceiving sociopolitical movements and struggles as class struggles between ruling classes and ruled classes, as a battle of ideological wills — where values and norms are not natural but rather artificial and imposed.
You will also probably notice all sorts of similarities between this description of class war and much of the “culture war” talk you see today.
In fact, some people — like John Fonte at the Hoover Institution — believe the current “culture wars” can be reduced to a Gramscian class battle: on the one hand are Gramscians and on the other hand are so-called “Tocquevillians.” Fonte argues that “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.”
The funny thing being that, insofar as Fonte — as a self-described Tocquevillian — is saying the battle between Gramscians and Tocquevillians is a battle between classes, he is already beginning with a Gramscian framework. That is like heading into combat with “I Surrender” posters as your weapons. What do you intend to do? Give your enemy paper cuts?
Fonte does have a curious insight, however, in thinking about the culture wars as a sort of Gramscian struggle. Because the fact is, the Gramscian idea of “all life is political” is almost identical to the “cultural mandate” ideas advanced by Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), who was born almost fifty years prior to Gramsci. Kuyper was the first to advance the philosophical idea that Christianity should be consciously established “in the home, in the school, and in the State for the good of the people” in order to “redeem society and culture.” Christians have a mandate to take back, or over, the culture — hence “cultural mandate.” This is a key aspect of Neocalvinism, Dominionism, and Christian Reconstructionism.
In the same way that Gramsci would say “all life is political,” Kuyper had already declared that all life is religious:
“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all does not cry: ‘Mine!'”
In the same way that Gramsci argues for cultural hegemony, Kuyper’s goal was “the transformation of all of culture.” In the same way that Gramsci sees an ongoing war between class systems, Kuyper sees “‘two life systems are wrestling with one another, in mortal combat. This is the struggle in Europe, this is the struggle in America…’ To Kuyper, these two systems were modernism and Christianity.”
And in the same way that Jack Crabtree argues for a new counterculture, Kuyper argued for “alternative social subcultures”:
“Following Kuypers’ suggestions, orthodox Calvinists, who were followed by Catholics, went on to form alternative social subulcutres to the modernist national project pursued by the liberal establishment. This was the beginning of what is nowadays known as Dutch social pillarization.”
And how successful was that? Well,
“Over time, the pillars isolated their members from the rest of society and led to strengthening the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mindset.”
And considering that Kuyper was influential on apartheid in South Africa, it is not surprising that this pillarization in his own country led to “social exclusiveness and an in-group mentality.”
Cultural Hegemony and the Religious Right
Kuyper is widely acknowledged as the father of the Worldview Studies Movement that so many evangelical Christians adore. He directly inspired Francis Schaeffer and consequently the modern Religious Right.
There are many similarities and connections that one can make between a Gramscian worldview and the Christian Worldview Studies Movement (and I would not be the first to make these connections). And yes, I am arguing that Francis Schaeffer’s thought as well as the Worldview Studies Movement are grounded in ideas resembling Marxist and materialistic ideas.
But here is the funny thing: Kuyper was certainly the first to advance this philosophical idea. But he was by no means the first person to put it into practice. He was a Dutch Calvinist. Calvinism has a long and rich history of imposing its values and norms via governments and social institutions — in fact, that applies beyond Calvinism to many other Protestant movements. So if, as John Fonte argues, “Gramscians” are those who desire “transformation” of culture —
“Tocquevillians favor the transmission of the American regime; Gramscians, its transformation.”
— does this not mean that White Protestants, rather than Marxists, started the whole Gramscian project themselves? (It’s like the Protestant cover of the Early Christian hit song, “Constantinianism.”) After all, think about what it means, that Tocquevillians favor the transmission of a regime. It means that they want to perpetuate their own values and norms, and those norms — whether you like them or not — are indisputably the norms of white people and Protestant people. That is, after all, what so-called Gramscians are against and want to undermine: “the legitimacy of the values of ‘dominant groups’: straight white Christian males of (non-Marxist) European descent.” This is also why, to oppose Gramscians, the so-called Tocquevillians explicitly defend their own dominant values and norms: “the opposition to…the creation of a Gramscian world…is American exceptionalism – the idea that there are normative values to be embraced that are not mere historical products, that these values have been embodied in America, and are what makes America a special place.”
This is also why to defend against Gramscian influence so often looks like creating a counterculture (and notice that “create a counterculture” is just another way of saying “counter-hegemony”), because it gives a sense of having “the power to shield themselves from these influences and especially to shield their young.” And just like Jack argued for abandoning the public schools, and Codevilla argued for homeschooling, the Tocquevillians argue for classical religious education:
“They will better be able to retain civilized values and maintain healthy minds if they are encouraged to learn to love their cultural inheritance through great literature, poetry, music, and art. Parents must demand from their children the upholding of the morals, manners, and standards of their ancestors. In school, the young must be required to adhere to high standards of scholarship. Most importantly, traditional religion must be an integral part of daily living.”
At this point, you should be struck by how similar these narratives and assumptions are — from Jack Crabtree to Angelo Codevilla to Antonio Gramsci to Abraham Kuyper to John Fonte.
All of these people are arguing for the exact same narrative, albeit from different sides of the same coin. They are all perceiving sociopolitical movements as a struggle between a superior/ruling/dominant/modernist/Gramscian class and a inferior/country/oppressed/Christian/Tocquevillian class. It is a class warfare (and usually only two-class) narrative. And key to that narrative is forcing every aspect of life into the political and religious square for the purpose of war between these classes. (In Jack’s case, he is arguing for retreating. But an argument for retreating still presupposes a war.)
Whether it is by Contrabiblicism, Kulturekampf, cultural hegemony, or culture war, all of these individuals believe the inferior/country/oppressed/Christian/Tocquevillian class is being picked on by the superior/ruling/dominant/modernist/Gramscian class.
Cultural Materialism and Human Freedom
Everyone’s narratives are begging the same questions: Since when is the phenomena of life reducible to class warfare, not to mention an only two-class system? Since when are values and norms artificial and imposed rather than natural and self-assumed?
See, the most significant problem I have against all of these perspectives is that they all rely on some species of materialism.
They all rely on the assumption that a ruling class is responsible for what people believe. Jack, for example, believes that the superior class is making Christianity uncool by making LGBT people seem cool (and thereby cleverly and insidiously undermining Christianity’s credibility). In making this assumption, and donning Gramscian robes, Jack is shutting down the possibility that the movement towards the acceptance of LGBT people has to do with a real, necessary, and natural movement in humanity.
This is a denial of human freedom.
He is also seeing this as a technique or strategy on the part of this vast, well-oiled leftist machine, which means he is excused from taking the stories and testimonies of actual LGBT people seriously.
This is a valuation of an ideology imposed on phenomena over and against a common sense approach to phenomena. Common sense dictates that when phenomena contradicts your ideology, you need to reassess your ideology. This is the very approach to phenomena that I respected Jack for, because he previously held both his religious ideas as well as his philosophical ideas to the same standards of common sense and rationality.
By reducing values and norms to the conditions from which they rise, Jack is advancing a very common form of materialism. In fact, the idea that conditions are the primary influence on society is the very definition of Marx’s theory of historical materialism. In this case, Jack’s argument is perhaps cultural materialism.
I have the same sort of problem with this materialist perspective when advanced by Marxists.
It is the same notion that drove violent and bloody revolutions with the assumption that people actually wanted that. Gramsci’s brilliant observation there was that, no, people really do not care about hegemony and the ruling class; they care about the simple things, about God, marriage, and family. If anything, “the public’s desire for God, marriage, and family” (which shouldn’t Jack argue is “natural” and not “artificial”?) is actually what is driving the movement towards LGBT rights. You see this every day when a conservative Christian family that has long opposed LGBT rights suddenly finds out that their son or daughter is gay. Their worldview comes crashing down because they have to feel personally the implications of their worldview when it impacts people they love. And they will not throw that worldview away merely because of a “ruling class” or its “hegemonic values.” In fact, they have probably already resisted doing so for decades. The only reason they would throw that worldview away is when it contradicts what is truly important to them — again, God, marriage, and family.
This can also be extended to why a conservative Christian individual is conservative and Christian. We do a disservice to that individual’s humanity and journey if we merely dismiss his or her conservatism or Christianity as the result of some species of hegemony. As Lana Hope has so well explained, “People don’t necessarily go into fundamentalism because they are crazy. Many fundamentalists are seekers.” Fundamentalism offers a “kind of community.” So in the same way that we ought to take the stories and testimonies of LGBT people seriously, we also ought to take the stories and testimonies of conservative Christians seriously.
Life is not some grand Manichaean chessboard where we are all pawns of dueling classes. We do not live in Star Wars or The Matrix. People are active participants in how reality unfolds, not passive cogs in a two-class cultural machine.
To see human beings as active participants in reality is to affirm human freedom.
Orphans of the Culture Wars
The Gramscian (and Kuyperian) narrative of class warfare, cultural values, and how to both inculcate and invert what a country considers important is truly fascinating and revolutionary. It provides us with a powerful tool to engage in sociopolitical analysis and identify trends. To an extent it also plays a significant role in how we perceive reality.
But I fundamentally reject it as all-encompassing and binding because it does not account for empirical reality.
It does not account for changes in norms and values that are not artificial and imposed. Can changes in norms and values be influenced by artificial and imposed factors? To some extent (sometimes to a significant extent), absolutely. That is the undeniable reality of marketing and propaganda. But marketing and propaganda never encompass the whole story — or even the most important parts of the story. You cannot, therefore, reduce reality into just two classes or render all values and norms a result of class warfare and its techniques, whether that warfare be economic or cultural.
By engaging in this reductionism, the Gramscian/Kuyperian narratives do a disservice to empirical reality by creating a myth grounded in radical simplification and dehumanization:
The myth of the either/or, the “for us or against us” trope.
As Sarah Jones brilliantly observes, “It’s a stifling and dehumanizing process, this project of establishing cultural hegemony.”
This, then, is my second objection to these narratives: they are assuming some “side” in a “war” should “defeat” the other side or sides (or in Jack’s case, one “side” should “retreat” from the “war.”) But all this war talk — whether it is talk of fighting or retreating — only reinforces the idea that we must fight, that working towards a pluralistic society is automatically off the table.
I do not see the Bible saying to create alternative subcultures to the world. I also do not see religion as inherently dehumanizing. So all these culture war shenanigans are — in my mind — perpetuating nothing more than a myth.
This myth has been perpetuated in all sorts of ways by all sorts of people. And the most interesting perpetuation in the last century has been by the so-called leftists via Gramsci and the rightists via Kuyper. They have each accused the other of the exact same thing for the exact same reasons and yet their critiques are grounded in the exact same basic narrative. In my mind, this has led to the very culture wars that have ravaged our country.
These culture wars have truly left orphans in its wake. Toby Johnston’s response to Jack Crabtree’s paper, in its conjuring up of an image of “orphans of the culture wars,” is very apt. You can see the truth of this image in the rise of the Nones among Millennials, the rise of “people refusing any identification at all.” Millennials may be leaving churches, but they are reticent to join anything else.
I think people are getting tired.
They are tired of everything being political. They are tired of everything being religious. They are tired because both the transmission of American superiority and the transformation of American superiority have led to the same results — the valuing of ideology and cultural hegemony over people.
“It’s the inevitable consequence of waging culture war. The religious fundamentalists started it and too many people responded with fundamentalist atheism. When you prioritize movement politics over people, and ideology over intellectual nuance, you’re a fundamentalist, whether or not you believe in God.”
To be continued.