Gramsci was an Italian marxist who engaged in serious political struggle with Mussolini and the fascists in Italy in the 1930s and 1940s. Mussolini won, and Gramsci died in jail. He became famous for attempting to apply marxist criticisms to the modern Italian state, and realised early on that it was not enough just to wait for the industrial working class to rise up and impose communism. Nor would it be possible for a small Communist Party to seize power and impose communism, as had happened in the Soviet Union.

Instead, more conventional political alliances had to be formed. The industrial working class had to be persuaded to join various coalitions, including the peasantry. The agricultural southern part of Italy had to be united with the industrial northern part. The trick was to develop a series of policies that would not only unite these different fractions, but also persuade them to sweep away the old system altogether and impose their own socialist political system.

The struggle had to cover culture as well, trying to persuade people that revolutionary change was possible and desirable. A new socialist or communist culture could not simply be imposed, however. Instead, the Communist Party had to offer some cultural leadership. It should build on the existing trade union militancy of the car workers in the Fiat plant, and explain that only revolutionary change meet their demands. The party, and party intellectuals, had to explain that it had a superior vision, a better explanation, a more exciting and fulfilling culture. It had to take on board some of the existing concerns, including religious belief, and try to tweak it in such a way that it supported Communist Party policy -- for example, that once the Communists took power, there would be a new era of religious freedom, but that the need for religion would gradually disappear.

The problem was that this is what the fascists were doing as well. They could cheerfully promise that all kinds of interests would be followed if people supported them. They could simply make things up as they went along, unlike the Communists. They were successful. They were able to exert considerable political and cultural leadership of their own. Enough of the population were persuaded of the fascist vision to support Mussolini, at least until military disaster and economic collapse.

There is a particular term used to explain this sort of political cultural struggle for leadership -- the struggle for hegemony. Hegemony has an ordinary common sense meaning as usual, referring to the indirect or what we would now call 'soft' power of one country over another. Thus when Britain colonised India, the British managed to rule not just by military force but by political and cultural colonisation as well. The British introduced their own institutions such parliaments and a Civil Service, law courts, industrial enterprises, markets and trade. They persuaded Indians to adopt a British way of life as superior.

Getting back to Italian politics, the aim of the rival political parties was to do something similar, to persuade the Italian people to adopt the communist or fascist way of life. Had either party been completely successful, their particular way of life and political system would have seemed 'natural'. The full attainment of hegemony actually makes any alternative unthinkable. In practice, such full attainment is rare, and in most cases there is some struggle going on towards attaining hegemony on the one hand, and resisting it on the other.

This idea of hegemonic struggle has been applied to much of the work of the state in Britain as well. The state -- meaning not just government but the Civil Service, quangos, the state run broadcasting services, the education system, and the welfare system -- is in the business of trying to persuade us that there is no alternative to the present political and economic system. Of course, there are alternatives and choices within it. You can vote for one party or another, spend your money on one thing or another, give private companies are smaller or a greater role in providing recreation -- but the overall system is rendered as the only one. This attempt to develop full hegemony may not be possible, and there might be signs of a struggle -- rival interpretations of new events, ranging from sporting festivals to wars. One the group will be arguing that these new events can be easily incorporated inside the existing political and economic system, while rival groups might be suggesting that new events signal a crisis in the whole system.

Britain in the 21st century is not Italy in 1940. There is no well-organised rival party to challenge the rule of the dominant group. There are no agitators going into factories and standing on street corners having arguments and trying to persuade people wear their best interests lie. There is no substantial social unrest  (although there was, arguably, in the 1960s and 1970s). The only ones likely to be interested in challenging any push towards full hegemony are going to be intellectuals, very often University intellectuals.

In these circumstances, you might be able to predict what I'm going to suggest. That we take the technical aspects of the argument and tried to set to one side the political implications.

Our basic critical question will be to ask to what extent government policy operates with a set of hegemonic assumptions that effectively forbid any alternative conception. Again, I suspect this is going to be quite an easy target to hit. Of course government policy will want to work within the framework of parliamentary democracy and civil society, with all that that implies, including a role for commercial interests. Of course you will find government policy spokespersons dismissing as irrelevant any radical alternatives. If there are to be any alternatives, it will be non affiliated intellectuals who will be coming up with them. You might just be able to detect signs of hegemonic struggle between policy spokespersons and their intellectual critics, if there are any in this particular field.

Finally, you might want to try to think of some really radical alternatives to existing policies for yourself. After all, we are all often urged to 'think outside of the box'. How easy is it to think radically? If you can't do this very well is that because you really do not think there are any real alternatives -- or is it that your beliefs and practices have been produced out of a hegemonic struggle?

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