Gramsci: Understanding the State and Civil SocietyJune 26, 2021
Gramsci’s idea of sovereignty (hegemony) is related to his concept of the capitalist state, arguing that it rules by force plus consent. The state should not be understood in the narrow sense of government; instead, it partitions between ‘political society’, the arena of political institutions and legal constitutional control, and ‘civil society’, which is often seen as a ‘private’ or ‘non-state’ sphere. The first is the realm of coercion and the second is consent. However, he emphasizes that the split is only conceptual and the two actually overlap most of the time.
Gramsci maintains economic control of the bourgeoisie under modern capitalism by allowing certain demands of trade unions and mass political parties within civil society to be met in the political arena. Thus, the bourgeoisie enters into the business of ‘passive revolution’, going beyond its immediate economic interests and allowing for the change of forms of domination. Gramsci positions these movements as reformism and fascism, as are Frederic Taylor and Henry Ford’s methods of ‘scientific management’ and ‘assembly tape’.
Quoting Machiavelli, he argues that the ‘Modern Prince’ (revolutionary party) is the force of the working class to produce organic intellectuals and to provide alternative domination (hegemony) within civil society. The complex nature of modern civil society means that ‘status war’ (similar to trench warfare) is the only tactic to overcome bourgeois domination and lead to socialism; The ‘war of action’ (or frontal attack) waged by the Bolsheviks was a more accurate strategy peculiar to the ‘starter’ civil society in Tsarist Russia.
Although he claims that the lines between the two can be blurred, Gramsci warns against the state-worship that results from identifying political society with civil society, as was done by the Jacobins and Fascists. He believes that the historical task of the proletariat is to create an ‘ordered society’ and defines ‘the disappearance of the state’ as the full development of civil society’s ability to regulate itself.