There is, at times, an onanistic debate on the Right over whether politics is downstream of culture or culture is downstream of politics. To concede the former is to tip the hat at Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist theoretician from whose mind sprang the concept of cultural hegemony.
Gramsci broke with his contemporaries, like Lenin, who viewed capturing the state as the only means to securing political power in Western Europe and the United States. Why had revolution not materialized in the West as it had in Russia?
“In the East,” Gramsci observed, “the state was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between state and civil society, and when the state trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed.” The state in the West, he concluded, “was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks.”
The “fortresses and earthworks” are composed of religion, linguistics, education, symbols, popular opinions, manners, and customs; the totality of ways society sees and thinks and speaks about “reality”—what Gramsci defined as cultural hegemony, and characterized as the “spontaneous” consent that gives power to ruling elites.
Though it appears to the ruled as simple common-sense “reality,” spontaneous consent, Gramsci wrote, is “the consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of Production.” Hegemony protects the state, and the state enforces hegemony through coercion veiled behind manufactured consent, allowing the ruling class largely to avoid violent confrontations with the ruled.
Seizing and exercising political power without cultural hegemony would almost necessarily result in the kind of state repression that occurred under Stalin. Real, lasting power rests on hegemony, not violence. It would therefore be necessary, according to Gramsci, for the Left in places like America to create a counterculture to discredit, deconstruct, and discard the existing cultural hegemony that legitimated and protected the power of the state. Gramsci’s American disciples took this theory to heart and successfully seized control of institutions capable of creating a new cultural hegemony conducive to their ends while deconstructing the old.
The basic narrative of this story is familiar to most people on the Right: the Left took over the institutions that create taste, thought, and opinion. Some of those same institutions, like academia, also train award credentials to the elites who go on to influence other institutions, like media, industry, and government.
Nevertheless, some on the Right, perhaps resenting the total victory of Gramscianism, insist that culture is downstream of politics: legislation changes culture. It’s certainly true that laws can habituate us to live a certain way—this forms the basis of the Aristotelian view of ethical development, in which laws inculcate virtue or unleash vice. In this sense, they are on better footing than their counterparts, who insist it is either impossible or undesirable to “legislate morality.”
But take, for example, the legislative efforts to ban critical race theory. The basic narrative of critical race theory about American original sin and white guilt already pervades every tissue of every organ of American life. Journalist Christopher Rufo recently revealed that cultural titan Walt Disney Corporation claims that America was founded on “systemic racism,” encourages employees to complete a “white privilege checklist,” and separates minorities into racially segregated “affinity groups.”
The political skirmishes against critical race theory are noble and laudable, but ultimately they will be swallowed up in the cultural gullet of the regime unless a different grand strategy comes into view. Gramsci himself acknowledged a circular interaction between culture and political power; the two reinforce one another.
Therefore, there is the possibility of using political power to change cultural institutions. But where the Right must go now requires abandoning preconceived principles and rules of engagement, leaving its old self behind to fight a new kind of war, more akin to Leninism than the senescent republican ideology that cannot, under its own limited government terms, enter the fray properly.
Rather than dismantling the National Endowment for the Humanities—which supports research, education, preservation, and public programs in the humanities—the post-Right should aim to take control of the institution to construct a cultural hegemony supportive of its political ends. Abolishing tax exemptions, subsidies, and federal contracts for academic and professional institutions that provide the ideological lifeblood of the prevailing cultural hegemony is an imperative and practical step.
What’s more, it should seek to ban NGOs like the Ford Foundation because virtually all of them are associated with and supportive of the incumbent cultural-political regime and spare no legal or political instrument in reining in or dismantling similarly aligned corporations. Instead of complaining about dirty Democratic political machines and crying to courts about unfair elections, the post-Right must learn to fight dirty and build political machines to serve its own interests.
A precondition to all this is distinguishing between friend and enemy, something that we so far seem incapable of doing properly, in part because the Right has deluded itself with “big tent” thinking. A recent study found political appointees in the Trump Administration were only about 50 percent Republican, compared to more than 80 percent Democratic appointees under Presidents Clinton and Obama. The post-Right must disabuse itself of tolerance as a principle—as the Left has—if it intends to do more than lose with grace and grit.
Thus, the real division is not over which way the river of power really flows, but between reformists and revolutionaries; those who want to merely take over cocktail parties, and those who want to assault, discredit, and replace the culture and the ruling class and the regime it sustains.