Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Gramsci and Critical Race Theory

Antonio Gramsci--a Marxist philosopher writing in the early 20th century--developed the idea of cultural hegemony as a means of explaining how the ruling class maintained its power within a framework that was supposedly open to change. To put it another way, Gramsci sought to explain why there had yet to be a full-scale proletarian revolution. The reason? The cultural hegemony imposed by the bourgeoisie ruling class.

The basic idea of cultural hegemony is that social, political, and economic activities are constrained by institutions presented as cultural norms, as consequences of development over time and therefore as natural, by the ruling class when--in fact--they are artificial constructs designed to control the remainder of society. For instance, from a Gramscian perspective the idea of economic mobility is an illusion: people are intrinsically limited by various structures and despite the occasional exception are effectively prohibited from moving up economic class.

Now, there is some truth here. For the most part, circumstance of birth imposes different costs on the individual, thus making a transition to a higher class--so to speak--increasingly more difficult for lower starting points. To put it simply, it is far more difficult for an individual born into poverty as a member of a minority to become filthy rich than it is for an individual born into the middle class as a member of the majority. And it is more difficult for the last than it is for an individual born into great wealth as a member of the majority. And that truth has always been a truth, since the inception of civil society.

But for Marx and his intellectual proponents, the advent of capitalism changed the previous order insofar as it created distinctive classes related to that process: the bourgeoisie (capitalists) and the proletariat (workers). Prior to this moment in history--according to Marx--there were various distinct social classes often engaged in conflict, but none on par with the now (from the Communist Manifesto):
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations.

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.
This, of course, was why Marx postulated an "end to history," because this final conflict was the final conflict. The oppression of the proletariat was, well, the most oppressive in all of history. The bourgeoisie had a more absolute control over resources than any previous ruling class and was engaged in progressively more dehumanizing methods of control over the proletariat.

Note that Marx's vision was a product of his times: the deplorable conditions of factories in the 19th century, the lack of basic care for workers, and their dependence on what was often subsistence wages, even as various means of self-provisioning were curtailed or eliminated by those in power. For an excellent discussion of this, see Michael Perelman's book, The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation.

Yet, by the first decades of the 20th century, things were not happening in the way Marx had envisioned, at all. The Russian Revolution had seemed to herald change, but the rest of the West refused to follow suit, even though much of it was far more industrialized--with a more complete bourgeoisie/proletariat split--than had been the case in Russia, prior to the Revolution. And this was a major problem--from a theoretical perspective--for Marxism. The most industrialized nations should have been on the cusp of the proletariat revolution, not on the trailing edge.

Gramsci's idea was that the ruling class in these nations had successfully imposed a cultural hegemony, wherein the proletariat was essentially tricked into accepting the status quo via constructs that were designed to limit and control it, but appeared to simply be the result of cultural norms. Things were--in other words--the way they were because success was a product of individual industry and skill (along with a little luck).

Gramsci's ideas have been very influential over the years, but James C. Scott in Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts effectively demonstrates that the basis of Gramsci's theory--that oppressed groups have consented to dominance via the imposed cultural hegemony--is simply incorrect, though this has not stopped many academics from asserting that Gramsci is correct. In Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society, Lila Abu-Lughod provides similar evidence, albeit from a very different perspective (a great book, by the way, if somewhat heavy).

Regardless, the idea of cultural hegemony remains and nowhere is it--and Gramsci--more relevant than in disciplines like Critical Race Theory, currently a hot-button issue because of Obama's link to one of its chief proponents and the response to that by members of the media.

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is really nothing more than Gramscisan theory limited to race; the basic idea of CRT is that the racism is institutionalized via power structures and the cultural norms of society which are wholly a product of the dominant race. To that end, CRT theorists eschew analytical approaches to racial issues, favoring instead more narrative-oriented approaches that serve to create counter-hegemonies for the marginalized race, exactly in line with Gramsci's thinking.

The point that must not be lost here is the end-game of Gramsci, which is the same as the end-game of Marx: revolution. The problem with CRT is that such an end-game is--at best--counter productive, for it would merely be the imposition of a new cultural hegemony, as espoused by a new dominant race. CRT solutions are sold as idealistic in the extreme, somehow supposing that there could be various sets of cultural norms specific to race, all existing in harmony with none being dominant, in direct contrast to the intellectual and ideological foundations (Marx and Gramsci) of the discipline.

Worst of all, CRT perpetuates the lines of demarcation between so-called races, thus perpetuating stereotypes and the resulting racism from such. It is, in my opinion, foolishness.

Cheers, all.

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