Understanding the Culture War:
Gramscians, Tocquevillians and Others
by Steven Yates
We start the new century and the new millennium with a problem of major proportions: the seemingly unstoppable march of political correctness through American institutions and life. A recent article in the journal Policy Review, published by the Heritage Foundation, is worth reading for its insights into how we have ended up in this predicament – and also for why we seem unable to figure a way out of it. The article is by John Fonte, of the Hudson Institute, and is entitled "Why There Is a Culture War." If this article is any indication, Fonte’s forthcoming book Building a Healthy Culture, of which the article is an excerpt, is likely also worth reading as a barometer of where we stand.
Fonte contrasts "two competing worldviews" that are currently struggling for dominance in America. It would be fair to say that the two really are at war: Fonte somewhat euphemistically calls the contest an "intense ideological struggle." One he calls "Gramscian"; the other, "Tocquevillian," after the intellectuals he credits with having authored the respective warring ideologies: the Italian neo-Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, author of Prison Notebooks and other works, and the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the influential Democracy in America.
It becomes clear that one cannot understand either the meteoric rise or apparent immunity of political correctness to attack without understanding Gramsci. Rarely would I recommend actually studying a Marxist social philosopher, but this guy merits our attention. Gramsci (1891-1937) agreed with Karl Marx that every society could be divided into "oppressor" and "oppressed" classes (e.g., Marx’s own "bourgeois" and "proletariat"), but for the first time, expanded the latter into an ensemble of subordinate, marginalized groups instead of a single, homogeneous group. Whereas Marx had spoken only of the proletariat, Gramsci spoke not just of propertyless workers but also of "woman, racial minorities and many ‘criminals.’" Fonte documents how Gramsci distinguished two ways the dominant group exercises control, whereas Marx had only written of one. First, there is direct domination through coercion or force – political might in service of the economic interests of the bourgeoisie. Second, there is what Gramsci calls hegemony, which means the pervasive and mostly tacit use of a system of values that supports and reinforces the interests of the dominant groups. The repressed groups may not even know they are repressed, in Gramsci’s view, because they have internalized the system of values that justifies their repression. They have internalized a "false consciousness" and become unwitting participants in their own domination.
Is this sounding familiar yet? Think of the radical feminist philosophy professors and law professors who speak of romantic candlelight dinners – a staple of ordinary American life – as a form of prostitution. They justify this seemingly outrageous claim on the grounds that American women exist in "false consciousness," the hegemonic product of male-dominated (and capitalistic) values. The sense of abhorrence felt by "ordinary" women at radical feminist claims is nothing more than this "false consciousness" asserting itself. Gramsci went on to argue that before there could be any "revolution" in Marx’s sense it would be necessary to build up a "counter-hegemony," or system of values favoring the repressed groups that would undermine or delegitimize the hegemony-created consciousness. And because hegemonic values permeate the whole of society and are embodied in the warp and woof of daily life, daily life becomes part of the ideological battleground. All the institutions we take for granted – schools, churches, the media, businesses, as well as art, literature, philosophy, and so on – become places where the "counter-hegemonic" values can be seeded and allowed to take root. They become domains to be infiltrated, and brought into the service of the movement. As the radical feminists put it, "the personal is the political." It is interesting how the latter have lifted this idea from a white male European philosopher mostly without credit. The point, however, is to create a new kind of "consciousness" free of the values that allow the dominant group(s) to repress the subordinate groups. Only this will throw off the shackles of "hegemony" and lead to true revolution.
Gramsci saw an important role in the transformation of society for those he called "organic" intellectuals (as opposed to "traditional" intellectuals). "Organic" intellectuals were to be intellectuals belonging to the repressed groups and making an effort to undermine the "hegemony" with the assistance of any "traditional" intellectuals they could persuade to defect from the dominant point of view. They will flourish as the roots of counter-hegemony grow. In other words, Gramsci was recommending recruiting radicalized women, members of minority groups, and others into the fold – affirmative action before that term was coined. Changing the minds of "traditional" intellectuals was particularly valuable, as they were already well positioned within the dominant educational institutions. The "long march through the institutions" – a phrase we also owe to Gramsci – began.
Antonio Gramsci’s name is not exactly a household word. Many people concerned about political correctness have no doubt never heard of him. To describe him as important, however, is probably the understatement of the new year. He sketched, in works such as Prison Notebooks, the basic outline of the agenda that would begin to be implemented in American colleges and universities, and then carried to the rest of society, in the final quarter of the 20th century. The efforts accelerating in the 1990s, no doubt helped along by having one of their own (perhaps it was two of their own) in the White House. Clearly, we find echoes of Gramsci’s notion of an "organic" intellectual in today’s calls for more and more "diversity" in all areas of society: universities, the workplace, etc. The mass conversion of "traditional" intellectuals to the Gramscian struggle helps explain why this diversity is a diversity of faces and not ideas. "Traditional" intellectuals have power, especially in education. The gatekeepers control who is admitted to the academic club, and the "traditional" intellectuals control the gatekeepers. Today, an outspoken conservative might as well not even apply for an academic appointment in a public university. But feminists of all stripes and colors (and sexual preferences and fetishes) are more than welcome!
Gramsci, we ought also to note, described himself as an "absolute historicist," whose views derive from the philosopher Hegel. All systems of value, all moral codes, etc., are entirely the products of the historical epoch and culture which gave rise to them. There is no such thing as an "absolute" or an "objective" morality. There are only systems of value that represent either the (mainly economic) interests of those in power or of those not in power; and one of the jobs of "organic" intellectuals is to develop systems of value that will undermine the former. Capturing control over language, especially the language of morality, has a major role to play in this because of the doors it opens to psychological control over the masses. Most people will reject ideas and institutions if they become convinced of their basic immorality; most people, too, lack the kind of training that will equip them to untangle the thicket of logical fallacies that might be involved. This all helps pave the way for the Gramscian transformation of society.
Clearly, political correctness in all its manifestations, from academic schools of radical feminism, "critical race theory," gay and lesbian "queer theory," etc., to the preoccupation with "diversity" as an end in itself, is the direct descendent of Gramsci, and the chief arm of enforcement of the ongoing Gramscian transformation of American society. Consider efforts to transform our understanding of the law. Fonte observes: "Critical legal studies posits that the law grows out of unequal relations of power and therefore serves the interests of and legitimizes the rule of dominant groups." The academic movement known as "deconstruction," however one defines it, is a systematic effort to destroy the legitimacy of the values of "dominant groups": straight white Christian males of (non-Marxist) European descent. The values to be destroyed: truth as the goal of inquiry, transcendent morality as the guide to human conduct, freedom and independence as political ideals, hiring and contracting based on merit. All are rationalizing myths of the dominant consciousness, in the Gramscian scheme of things.
The transformation is now very much underway, as Gramscian footsoldiers have captured not just the major institutions in the English-speaking world (Ivy League universities) but also huge tax-exempt foundations (Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and so on) that have been bankrolling Gramscian projects for decades. Fonte cites author after author to document the millions that have flowed to academic feminist endeavors, diversity-engineering projects in universities and sensitivity-training re-education programs in corporations. The plain truth is, we can no longer trust large corporations. Fortune 500 companies have become as reliable footsoldiers in the creation of a politically correct America as universities. Even Bill Gates of Microsoft has gotten on the official bandwagon, with his creation of minority-only scholarships last year. With the money now behind it, small wonder political correctness has become so difficult to oppose!
But there is an opposition force. Fonte describes the opposition to the avalanche of money and resources flowing into the creation of a Gramscian world as the "Tocquevillian counterattack." The key idea here 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. Fonte articulates a "trinity of American exceptionalism" that defined our unique development: (1) dynamism (support for entrepreneurship and economic progress, including the changes economic progress yields, and support for equality of opportunity for all individuals to participate in this process); (2) religiosity (the idea that freedom is only possible to a moral citizenry, that moral values have their origins with God, that character development should be an important component of education, and that social problems should be addressed at the local level through the voluntary associations of men and women of good will and character); (3) patriotism (love of country, and support for Constitutionally limited self-government and the rule of law). It is easy to see the roots of these ideas in the works of the political and economic philosophers of the English-speaking world the Gramscians abhor. These include Adam Smith, John Locke, and especially Edmund Burke, among others leading up to and including the Framers.
Fonte also discusses a "third" set of views which oppose the creation of a Gramscian world but are not, in his view, Tocquevillians because they do not accept all three components of the above. They might emphasize one at the expense of the others. For example, libertarian author Virginia Postrel emphasizes the first in her book The Future and Its Enemies which distinguishes "dynamists" from "stasists." Most Libertarians seem to want to have nothing to do with the second, believing with the philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand that morality originates from the necessities of sustaining human existence (the exercise of reason in responding to knowable circumstances in an objective world) rather than from God. There are, finally, members of the pro-South movement afoot today who mistrust the first, and who believe the third can be carried forth only through a new secession effort – which would end America as we know it.
Those Fonte identifies include "libertarians, paleoconservatives, secular patriots, Catholic social democrats, [and] disaffected religious-right intellectuals"; he doubts that they "will mount an effective resistance to the continuing Gramscian assault. Only the Tocquevillians appear to have the strength – in terms of intellectual firepower, infrastructure, funding, media attention and a comprehensive philosophy that taps into core American principles – to challenge the Gramscians with any chance of success."
In some cases, this seems clear. Many Libertarians will not succeed – if by success we mean actually gaining political office or sufficient influence to make a difference – the primary reason being their bullheaded atheism. A people, over 90 percent of whom believe in a personal God, simply will not support a political movement that tries to marry individual liberties and natural rights with the idea that there is no God. For intellectuals there are, or should be, too many problems with the idea that a moral view of the universe can be built up on the materialistic foundation that represents, for many of us, the dark side of the Enlightenment. Materialism, after all, also gave rise to Marxism and the Gramscian movement, and is far more compatible with the idea that in the physical universe, superior might is what gets the last word.
It is unclear, however, what Fonte finds lacking in paleoconservatives. The only person he mentions by name is Samuel Francis, a Buchananite writer who rejects the entire Enlightenment as misguided. But there are different strains of paleoconservatism just like there are different strains of everything else. Some tend towards Buchananism; others don’t. Fonte does not discuss these differing strains, so we are left in the dark whether paleoconservatives are, for example, lacking in (1) above because some are Buchananites or simply agrarians, or in (3) because some favor secession. There can be no doubt that agrarian life has its healthy side – as opposed to our present urban nightmares of traffic, crime, stress and, of course, bureaucracy. And if one believes in the Declaration of Independence than one believes that secession is sometimes legitimate – period – even if it takes wars for independence to make it stick.
It is clear, however, who Fonte’s favorite Tocquevillians are. He lists them. They include William Bennett, Michael Novak, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Marvin Olasky, Norman Podhoretz – also scholars such as Williams Galston, Wilfred McClay, Harvey Mansfield and Walter McDougall. Writers such as Irving Kristol and Charles Kesler also get favorable mention. There are, to say the least, more than a few neocons represented in this group, and all are closely associated with what could be called the Republican Establishment’s intellectual wing, associated with the Republican Party – Heritage Foundation – National Review axis.
There is "intellectual firepower" in this group; no doubt about it. But only one observation need be made: thus far, this group – for whatever reason – has not stemmed the Gramscian tide. It has not even come close. Perhaps it is unable to. It has its foundations, too – Bradley, Olin, Scaife, and select others. However, none of these even begins to match the bottomless pit of resources available to leftists from the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. Perhaps there are other reasons, unstated, why this group has not seized the moral high ground despite all its "intellectual firepower." (For whatever it is worth, the home page of the Hudson Institute’s website openly embraces "A Global Perspective." The Gramscians are also globalmaniacs, but they want to extend political correctness and welfarism worldwide instead of liberty and technology.)
Whatever the reason, the Republican Establishment has not stopped the advance of political correctness – the war against the political and economic philosophy, and the moral and religious values that built this country. Here is one theory: Fonte’s favorite intellectuals are simply too close to the forces of centralization on which the Gramscian advance is riding to resist its advance effectively. Both groups, that is, are benefiting massively from the increased centralization of society (and the Western world generally) that is taking us into the New World Order. How far, for example, is loyalty to (3) supposed to go? Does "patriotism" mean loyalty to a set of ideals on which a country was founded, or merely blind obedience to those currently running it? Do we impose our brand of "patriotism" on other nations, and then, if they resist, use force? One reason many of us do not trust neocons is that they have been all too willing to favor military interventionism around the globe in the name of "democracy" – as if having forgotten that free institutions require a longstanding philosophical tradition that developed mainly in the English-speaking world and nowhere else. In major respects, the neocons claim to support Constitutionally limited government, but many accept the centralized mega-state that began to grow with Lincoln, took quantum steps with the Wilson and Roosevelt administrations – and then took its biggest quantum leap during the Johnson-Nixon era. Many neocons, let us also remember, are former socialists who came to reject socialism itself but not one of its first premises, which is the efficacy of centralization in getting things done. You cannot mount an effective strategy against an opponent if you share that opponent’s key premises; those premises will be turned and used against you.
Assuming that sincere efforts among those with influence are underway to stop the Gramscian march to the center of power in American society, one thing is clear: they need all the help they can get! That would include infusions of new ideas from paleoconservatives, pro-South types and others routinely dismissed as "out on the fringes." Republicans, it is easy to show just by looking at Bush Jr.’s cabinet nominees so far (with a few exceptions such as John Ashcroft), have been largely co-opted; the rest just do not have the backbone to stand up to the Gramscian assault. Moreover, the Gramscian element that long ago co-opted the Democratic Party expresses its agenda using moral language. Result: left-liberal Democrats who have the courage of their convictions are acceptable, because their agenda advances "social justice"; conservative Republicans who have the courage of their convictions are not acceptable because their agenda is "unjust" or "immoral." Republicans at the center of influence have failed to respond to such insinuations effectively.
If any neocons are perchance reading this, I would implore them to stop being so elitist. Pay attention to all those "red states" on the now-infamous map, and realize there is activity going on out in the Midwestern hinterlands, in the Far West, and, of course, down here in the South. Not just in the Washington – New York City – Boston corridor which (along with the West Coast) has also been the major hotbed of Gramscian activism. Those at the center of influence ought to seek out some new blood, both because they need all the allies they can get and because we are all running out of time.
Steven Yates has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (ICS Press, 1994). He is at work on two manuscripts tentatively entitled View From the Gallery and The Paradox of Liberty, and also lectures occasionally. He lives, freelance writes, and is available for occasional lectures in Columbia, South Carolina.