Activists caught in the Filter Bubble

How personalization helps activists find each other while losing society

Also published at Alternet.

Eli Pariser’s new book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You is a must-read for pretty much anyone who uses the Internet. Eli breaks down troubling trends emerging in the World Wide Web that threaten not only individual privacy but also the very idea of civic space.

Of key concern to Eli is “web personalization”: code that maps the algorithms of your individual web use and helps you more easily find the things that the code “thinks” will pique your interest. There’s a daunting amount of information out there, and sometimes it can feel overwhelming to even begin sorting through it. Personalization can help. For instance, I can find music that fits my tastes by using Pandora, or movies I like through Netflix. The services provided by companies like Pandora, Netflix, Amazon, et al are designed to study us&#151to get to know us rather intimately&#151to the point where Netflix can now predict the average customer’s rating of a given movie within half a star. Eli paints a picture of your computer monitor as “a kind of one-way mirror, reflecting your own interests while algorithmic observers watch what you click.”

Whatever the benefits, the intent of these services isn’t just to benevolently help us find the things we’re looking for. They’re also designed to help companies find unwitting customers. When you open your web browser to shop for a product&#151or really for any other reason&#151you yourself are a product whose personal information is literally being sold. Companies that you know, like Google and Facebook, and companies you’ve probably never heard of (e.g. Acxiom) are using increasingly sophisticated programs to map your personality.

And it’s not just creepiness and individual privacy that’s at issue here. Personalization is also adding to a civic crisis. It’s one thing for code to help us find music, movies and other consumer products we like. But what about when code also feeds us our preferred news and political opinions, shielding us from alternative viewpoints? Personalization now means that you and your Republican uncle will see dramatically different results when you run the same exact Google news search. You’re both likely to see results that come from news sources that you prefer &#151 sources that tend to reinforce your existing opinions. Maybe your search will pull articles from NPR and Huffington Post, while his will spotlight stories from FOX News. Both of you will have your biases and worldviews fed back to you &#151 typically without even being aware that your news feed has been personalized.

Web personalization is invisibly creating individual-tailored information universes. Each of us is increasingly surrounded by information that affirms&#151rather than challenges&#151our existing opinions, biases, worldviews, and identities.  

This filter bubble impacts everyone. And it poses big challenges for grassroots activists and organizers in particular.

Values reflected back: the illusion of doing something

If you’re an activist, then probably a lot of your Facebook friends are activists too. Your friend Susan has been posting all week about the public workers in Wisconsin. Jacob posted an insightful read about white privilege that’s at the top of your newsfeed &#151 50 of your friends “like” it. Sam is a climate activist, and her Facebook presence reflects it. And you just posted an article about an upcoming protest to end the U.S. occupation in Afghanistan.

When you log in on Facebook as an activist, it might feel like you’re part of a mass movement. Social justice issues are front and center &#151 as if that were the main thing people used Facebook for. That’s how web personalization works on Facebook. When you click on a lot of posts about gay marriage, you will start seeing more similar posts. When you check out certain people’s profiles, they’ll show up more often in your newsfeed. If these folks think a lot like you do, you’ll see a lot of stuff that reinforces your worldview.

It’s fun and validating to see a lot of stuff you agree with. But consider the implications. People who are opposed to gay marriage are seeing a lot of articles that reinforce their beliefs too. And, perhaps more important, folks who aren’t that interested in the issue probably won’t see anything about it at all. Maybe you fancy yourself an agitator with your Facebook posts, but the folks who might feel agitated&#151and the more persuadable folks in the middle&#151typically aren’t seeing those posts at all. Furthermore, even if you think you’re right about all your beliefs, how are you going to be equipped to persuade others if you’re not exposed to their views?

You can spend your whole day expressing your political identity on Facebook. You can also use it to mobilize the usual suspects to take some online action &#151 or maybe even to get some of them out to an “offline” political event. But to mistake this kind of thing for grassroots organizing is a big problem.

Grassroots organizing is a process that happens within&#151and within deep relationship to&#151already constituted social blocs. It’s a process of articulating demands in language that means something to the community and making those demands actionable. It is moving the community into action as a community &#151 not just fishing for a handful of radicals who come out as individuals. But most activist spaces today are spaces for self-selectors, where folks do enter as individuals. And to really enter these spaces, you often have to assimilate to an activist subculture, and check some aspects of your identity at the door.

I don’t know of any mass movement in the history of the world that was composed of all self-selecting individuals (at least no movement that lasted longer than a flash). Take the Civil Rights Movement. If Bob Moses, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks had been oriented toward the center of a small circle of self-selectors, they would not have been the leaders of a movement. (Picture them inspiring each other with status updates like, “No one should have to give up their bus seat because of the color of their skin. Please post as your status if you agree.”) It only became a movement when these and other good leaders helped to move whole communities&#151most notably black churches and schools&#151into action as communities. Membership in these communities came to imply movement participation. This is how movements become movements.

Self-selection on steroids

Web personalization shouldn’t be blamed for starting this pattern where people gravitate toward the things they “Like”™. Eli is quick to point out how Americans had been clustering into likeminded groups for a few decades before the web was even a big deal. We have literally been migrating into values-homogenous social spaces since the late 1960s. Discussing the ideas of Ron Inglehart, Bill Bishop, Robert Putnam, and others, Eli paints a picture of an increasingly fractured society.

For the past four decades or so we’ve been rearranging our lives to surround ourselves with people who think a lot like we do &#151 phasing out folks who don’t share our opinions and tastes.  We’ve chosen our neighborhoods, religious congregations, civic and political organizations, the cultural spaces we frequent, and our friendship circles so that we can experience our worldview reflected back to us and minimize dissonance. With or without web personalization, it makes sense that we would continue to follow the same pattern in our online communities.

Ron Inglehart’s explanation for the trend is based on Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”: once our basic survival and material needs are provided for, we then focus more attention on social networks and individual expression. This explains why dramatic outbursts of self-expressiveness hit every industrialized society in the world simultaneously in the late 1960s. According to Bill Bishop (in The Big Sort), a generation that “grew up in relative abundance” started to display “a politics of self-expression.” And apparently, self-expressive people prefer to express themselves in like-minded company.

So what’s the big deal? I like my friends and I’m glad they share my values. It’s affirming. It makes me feel good. I can relax in like-minded company. What’s the problem?

Eli discusses several problems with this trend. I want to discuss, for an activist audience, a political problem &#151 political in the sense of collective power. My friends and I may be satisfying our identity needs when we talk politics at the bar&#151or when we share political posts on each other’s Facebook walls&#151but what are we accomplishing? What can we accomplish? What do we, as a small, self-selecting, self-segregating group of folks have the capacity to accomplish &#151 if we’re not connecting with others?

See, if you love to play the online game World of Warcraft and&#151for reasons I can only guess at&#151you want to spend all your time doing that, then living in a bubble doesn’t pose much of a problem for you. By surrounding yourself with other folks who are equally obsessed with this admittedly pretty cool videogame, you can be an all-W.O.W.-all-the-time kind of person. Best to you.

If, on the other hand, you set out to stop global warming, you will absolutely fail if you only surround yourself with people just like you. You need a heck of a lot more people to get on board. The magnitude of your task demands that you break out of your activist ghetto and go beyond the boundaries of self-selection. If you want to build the kind of collective power needed to take on the fossil fuel industries&#151with all their money, power, and entrenched webs of influence&#151then you have to somehow infuse your goal into the identities of many, many sectors of society.

But are you, climate activist, up for this task? Or will you instead orient yourself toward the center of a small, insular climate activist subculture? Will you frame your message strategically to connect with people who live beyond the boundaries of your group? Or will you content yourself to signal only to your friends? The world may be going to hell in a hand basket, but at least you’re there taking a righteous stand, surrounded by other righteous eco-warriors, right?

As a grassroots organizer, one of things that troubles me most about the filter bubble is its potential to take the tendency of insularity among would-be social change agents and to inject it with steroids. I’ve seen some of the most committed social justice activists strangely resembling folks who are obsessed with World of Warcraft. They structure their lives around something that they’re really into. And no one else is paying attention.

The very concept of a group of activists speaks to this fragmentation. It’s as if activism has morphed into a specific identity that centers on a hobby&#151like being a skater or a “theater person”&#151rather than a civic responsibility that necessarily traverses groups and interests. In a way, the very label “activist”&#151its individualizing, identifying affects&#151excuses everyone else from civic responsibility. I may or may not have an opinion about a given issue, but I can’t be expected to do anything about it because “I’m not an activist,” or “I’m not really into politics.”

In a society that is self-selecting into ever more specific micro-aggregations, it makes sense that “activism” itself could become one such little niche. But when it comes to challenging entrenched power, we need more than little niches. We need huge swaths of society bought in.

Bursting Bubbles

Reaching a broader audience is an indispensible task of social change agents. If we are to leverage the kind of collective power it takes to make the kind of change worth talking about, we need to construct broad alignments of heterogeneous social forces. This task becomes more challenging as the public information landscape becomes increasingly ghettoized. Here’s Eli:

…the Internet has unleashed the coordinated energy of a whole new generation of activists&#151it’s easier than ever to find people who share your political passions. But while it’s easier than ever to bring a group of people together, as personalization advances it’ll become harder for any given group to reach a broad audience. In some ways, personalization poses a threat to public life itself.

If we’re not intentional, the task of reaching a broader audience won’t just be harder; it’ll be hopeless. If activists are themselves ensnared in self-selecting, self-affirming&#151one might even say narcissistic&#151filter bubbles, they will lack even the inclination to attempt bridging beyond the boundaries of comfortable little clubs.

Political expression that doesn’t engage beyond self-selectors is essentially apolitical. There is no politics without friction. Civics is not easy or clean or pure or contained. It’s messy. Civic engagement requires us to break out of bubbles, to dive into the mess, and to lean into the friction.

The hopeful nugget here is that social change work has always started with a belief that reality is dynamic, not static. Things change all the time, even seemingly fixed structures. And we can step up and be self-conscious agents who influence the direction of change. The filter bubble, and all the constraints that come along with it, is another kind of structure we have to engage. Recognizing the structure is an important first step. To that end, Eli’s book is a great contribution. Then we’ve got to do some stuff that may make us feel uncomfortable.

Bob Moses wouldn’t have been a leader in the Civil Rights Movement if he had stayed in the north and only surrounded himself with other Harvard-educated young black academics and professionals. For the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to help catalyze a movement, he and others would have to enter some of the most dangerous segregated areas in the South and talk with some of the poorest, least educated, and most disenfranchised people in the entire country &#151 probably at times an altogether uncomfortable experience.

While Bob Moses sets a pretty high measure to compare ourselves with, perhaps we can at least take a little inspiration and conceptual wisdom from his approach. If he and other Civil Rights leaders could muster the courage to step so far out of their comfort zones, perhaps we can at least start consciously taking a few small steps in that direction.

Jonathan Matthew Smucker is a grassroots organizer, strategist and trainer. He serves as Director of Beyond the Choir.

Understanding Anti-Immigrant America: Mobilizing the Tea Party

A little more than a week ago, The New York Times published an article about John Tanton, the modern architect of the anti-immigrant movement in the US. Highly concerned with the environmental degradation that he was seeing around him, Tanton eventually pegged the problem on immigration. The Times writes,

From the resort town of Petoskey, Mich., Dr. Tanton helped start all three major national groups fighting to reduce immigration, legal and illegal, and molded one of the most powerful grass-roots forces in politics. The immigration-control movement surged to new influence in last fall’s elections and now holds near veto power over efforts to legalize any of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

The article goes on to document power and influence of the Tanton Network.  

One group that Dr. Tanton nurtured, Numbers USA, doomed President George W. Bush’s legalization plan four years ago by overwhelming Congress with protest calls. Another, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, helped draft the Arizona law last year to give the police new power to identify and detain illegal immigrants.

A third organization, the Center for Immigration Studies, joined the others in December in defeating the Dream Act, which sought to legalize some people brought to the United States illegally as children.

Collectively, these organizations are today known as the Tanton Network. Both

Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for New Community have done extensive research revealing the racist and eugenicist foundations of Tanton’s ideas and goals. Moreover, CNC has shown the broad reach of the Tanton Network by mapping out all its various organizations (some of which misleadingly portray themselves as independent and neutral), its sources of financial support and the various institutions with which it partners.

The Tanton Network constitutes a web of organizations in civil society. Moreover, for the purposes of this essay, I will make the claim that they are the organic intellectuals of the capitalist class. Gramsci argued that advanced capitalism spawned intra-class specialization-a division of labor between “mental” and “manual” tasks. The contemporary capitalist class is composed not just of people directly involved in profit making, but also their organic intellectuals, whose function it is to organize the ideas of the class and represent them as in the interest of the general public. In so doing, the capitalist class can build popular support for their class-specific cause, and attract others to their hegemonic project, including other classes’ organic intellectuals.  

This of course begs the following question: why should we assume that this anti-immigrant network constitutes a section of the organic intellectuals of the capitalist class? After all, isn’t their ultimate aim to turn off the spigot of cheap labor by stopping undocumented immigration, deporting undocumented individuals who are already here, and in fact, returning legal immigration rates to the pre-1965 levels? Aren’t these goals in fact against the interests of capital because they reduce the supply of cheap labor?

I will argue that the Tanton Network, despite its racist goal to stop immigration and return to an imagined “Europeanized” past, is ultimately engaged in a project of criminalizing im/migrant workers. Criminalization of im/migrant workers, in the last instance, does serve the interests of capital. In other words, the Network’s “success” should not be judged on the basis of whether or not they ultimately create a US cleansed of brown people. This scenario is both economically unsustainable and politically unrealistic.

Rather the Network’s “success” should be measured by the extent to which they do their job building the ideological buffer around the capitalist class. For example, how widespread is the idea that im/migrants are undeserving and morally suspect? Or, how often does the tacit assumption about the acceptability of the movement of capital across borders and the unacceptability of a similar movement of labor appear in the media, in policy debates highest levels of government and in everyday conversations at the dinner table? These types of commonsensical ideas are the ideological basis for the continued criminalization of im/migrant workers. Those ideas serve as the justification of heightened immigration enforcement both at the border and, more importantly, within the US. How this criminalization of im/migrant workers ultimately serves capitalist interests is the subject of a future post. For the purposes of the current argument, what matters, then, is that we think of the Tanton Network as constituting a section of the organic intellectuals of the capitalist class.

What has the Tanton Network done?



Many on the political left have vigilantly documented the intentional efforts of the John Tanton Network to solicit the support of liberal groups for anti-immigrant causes. Whether it was by “the greening of hate”–exemplified by FAIR’s report that immigration is responsible for the environmental degradation of the Chesapeake Bay–or the promotion of a black-brown divide–by blaming structural poverty and unemployment in black communities to job competition created by immigrants–the Tanton Network is trying to build a wider coalition that includes groups historically associated with the left. But what the left tends to overlook is how the organized anti-immigrant movement is pursuing similar hegemonic projects with the political right–particularly among tea partiers.

This is not surprising. A 2010 New York Times poll showed that tea party supporters were more likely than other Americans to find undocumented immigration “a very serious threat.”  Images of tea party supporters waving signs supporting SB1070 dotted the news media last summer. In the minds of most leftists, the tea party movement was automatically associated with the various agenda items that define the exclusionary politics of the right, including support for anti-immigrant causes.  

However, receptivity to these ideas is not the same as actively mobilizing on behalf of these ideas. Given finite resources and capacity, local tea party organizations (just like progressive groups) have to choose from an array of topics on which to focus their energies. Indeed, in a climate where “Obamacare” has received a lot of the attention from tea partiers, why would “illegal immigration” and “the out-of-control border” solicit any organized anxiety?  

The answer to that question lies with the Tanton Network. (For the purposes of this article, the Tantonites also include local politicians who regularly draw on resources from the Network.) The signing of SB 1070 was a signal to the rest of the nation that Arizona was potential recruiting grounds for a revitalized anti-immigrant movement. But this was going to be a process. The Tea Party Patriots provide a case in point.

The Tea Party Patriots (TPP) is arguably the most grassroots of the six national factions that compose the tea party movement.  While the National Leadership Council of the TPP voted to have members wave signs supporting SB 1070, cofounder Jenny Beth Martin maintained that the organization does not take any official stances on the issue of immigration and the border.

But it was symbolically significant that the annual conference was held in Phoenix, AZ this year. And while the conference was dedicated to many other issues outside of immigration, it did provide a testing ground for ways in which the issue of immigration could be turned into a “tea party issue.”



A Musical Performance at Tea Party Conference, February 2011

Using commonplace tea party rhetoric, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer thanked the conference attendees for choosing Phoenix to host their event: “You didn’t have to choose our home, you could have gone somewhere else…I know you are here because we share a common cause in taking back our country. We want our borders secured. We want the federal government out of our daily lives. We want liberty returned to the people, to the states…”



Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s Welcome Message, February 2011

Joe Arpaio, Maricopa’s infamous sheriff and State Senator Russell Pearce, a sponsor of SB1070, were the conference’s first speakers. Both cast themselves as upholding the law and their oaths to office. For them, DC was a different story. Pearce, feigning to speak to the Obama Administration, exclaimed

You wanna remove that disdain that we have, maybe you oughta keep your oath of office[…] Maybe you oughta secure the border. Maybe when you say you’re going to enforce the law, you enforce it. […]It’s all about cheap labor, cheap votes, while they invade and damage this country. I for one do not apologize for defending the principles of this Republic.



State Senator Russell Pearce Speaking at a Conference Session, February 2011

Speakers aligned popular tea party images and concepts-such as constitutionality, lawfulness, and American exceptionalism-with a nativist framing of immigration and the border. Thus, ICE-police collaboration was construed as simply enforcing the existing laws in service of protecting “the greatest country in the world.” Participants also had opportunities to articulate similar conceptual alignments in other parts of the summit.  During a panel entitled Immigration and Border Security, a middle aged man from Scottsdale, AZ put it very concisely: “1070, like Obamacare, is really a states’ rights battle more than anything else. We apparently don’t have a right to protect citizens of the state of Arizona.” Immigration was also a tea party issue, because it too involved the federal government’s encroachment on state’s rights.

Later, I overheard him telling a woman seated next to him that NumbersUSA was a trustworthy resource if she wanted to learn more.

But this was not an uncontested process. While Pearce spoke, energetic Ron Paul supporters distributed leaflets arguing against SB1070 and measures changing birthright citizenship.



Ron Paul speaking, Feburary 2011

“Internal enforcement is suboptimal and creates costs and regulatory burden for American citizens…contrary to ‘Reagan Republicanism’ which intended to REDUCE government costs and burdens.”  The rest of the leaflet enumerated how the measures would expand intrusion of the Department of Homeland Security, a federal agency, into people’s lives. “Real conservatives don’t yield state powers and put them into the hands of the federal executive.” In a conversation with a representative from the Ayn Rand Institute, I was told that “free markets require that there are no borders.” Later, while waiting in line to purchase a mid-afternoon coffee, a well-dressed man from New York standing next to me confided his discomfort with Pearce’s heavy presence at the conference. For him, scapegoating immigrants was “stupid.” “I wish they’d just focus on the economic issues,” he concluded.  

Chip Berlet asked the left to “[take] the tea partiers seriously.” “With no one appearing to champion their cause, they line up with the anti-Obama crowd, and they stir in some of their social worries about gay marriage and abortion, dark-skinned immigrants, and a black man in the White House.”  The Tantonites are indeed drawing the battle lines. But we have to remember that the pursuit of hegemony is a contested, multivalent process–both on the left and the right.

Tune into future posts that continue to explore the Tantonites, the Tea Party, and hegemonic projects. (This is part three of a series. You can read part one here, and part two here.)

Understanding Anti-Immigrant America: Developing a Gramscian Framework, part II

part two in a 3-part series. Click here to read part one.

Gramsci opened up the Marxist framework to consider the role of civil society in stabilizing advanced capitalism. The presence of a civil society, he argued, complicates the process of social change. An economic crisis is not enough to shake up a social system. Civil society, as the terrain in which hegemony is exercised, serves as a veritable “earthworks” that prevents such structural opportunities from automatically dissolving into massive social change.

But who are the important characters in this story?

For Marx, a class was the important unit of analysis. A class was determined by its relation to the means of production. So under capitalism, do you work for wages? That is, do you only make enough to take care of yourself and your children? OR do you own a factory? Do you make profit that you could reinvest in your factory and eventually open up a second one? In the classical Marxist framework, social change happens through class struggle between the haves and the have-nots as the disparity in wealth inequality becomes more and more acute.  

Gramsci also thought class and class struggle were important. But, just as the superstructure had become more complex under advanced capitalism, so too had the composition of classes. The modern capitalist class is made up of both the factory owners and the group that organizes their ideas.  

Every social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields. The capitalist entrepreneur creates alongside himself the industrial technician, the specialist in political economy, the organizers of a new culture, of a new legal system, etc (5).

Arguably, for example, the Heritage Foundation houses the organic intellectuals of the capitalist class. As a public policy think tank started under the Nixon Administration, they promote neoliberal ideas about the importance of deregulation and the free market as well as a strong emphasis on national security in the realm of international relations. They regularly publish their research, lobby politicians and work to mold the next generation of conservative thinkers through internship programs. Squarely rooted in civil society, these organic intellectuals articulate the interests of the American capitalist class. But they represent capital’s interests as a general interest, by for example, appealing to vague but powerful concepts such as “freedom, opportunity, [and] prosperity.”

Organic intellectuals aren’t the only intellectuals out there. There are also what Gramsci called the traditional intellectuals, a group that imagines itself to be autonomous and separate from the class struggle driving the historical process. While traditional intellectuals do not see themselves as directly linked to a class, they are in fact allied with the ruling class and its ideas. Examples of traditional intellectuals may include professors, the clergy, artists, and others who think of themselves as “endowed with a character of their own” (8). Organic intellectuals, by contrast, recognize their relationship to the dominant group, and orient their activity to disseminating the ruling class’s ideology.

For Gramsci, then, these intellectuals positioned in the various institutions of civil society, are key to the process of social stability and social change. Marx imagined that the development of capitalism would spawn a certain societal simplicity: people would polarize into one of two classes-the proletariat or the capitalist. Eventually, that disparity would create the momentum for political mobilization and struggle. But Gramsci saw advanced capitalism as creating societal complexity. Rather than class polarization, each class experienced massive specialization within itself. Intellectuals were the product of that intra-class specialization.

Social change, therefore, has to involve these intellectuals.  In Gramsci’s own words,


One of the most important characteristics of any group that is developing towards dominance is its struggle to assimilate and to conquer ‘ideologically’ the traditional intellectuals, but this assimilation and conquest is made quicker and more efficacious the more the group in question succeeds in simultaneously elaborating its own organic intellectuals (10).

Both maintaining social stability and fomenting social change requires the pursuit of hegemony in the institutions of civil society. Organic intellectuals of the dominant group are always in the process of trying to bring traditional intellectuals into their circle as well as the organic intellectuals of non-dominant groups. It is an ideological battle, or what Gramsci called a war of position.

At the same time, subordinate groups try to create their own organic intellectuals to push an alternative narrative or set of ideas about what society is and can be. That war of position–the work of building an alternative hegemony through class consciousness-raising and an evaluation of society and history through a revolutionary theoretical lens–has to precede a war of movement, or armed insurrection. Agents of social change need popular backing from the sectors of civil society first. But so do the agents of social stability.

Given Gramsci’s theoretical framework, how can we start to analyze contemporary anti-immigrant sentiment in US? The next post will combine preliminary bits of ethnographic insight with this theoretical framework to begin to understand how anti-immigrant sentiment is perpetuated today.  

Understanding Anti-Immigrant America: Developing a Gramscian Framework, part I

“For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning.” These were the words of the prosecutor who presided at the trial of Antonio Gramsci in 1926. Mussolini had just finished consolidating fascist control over the government and police apparatus. Gramsci, rapidly rising in the socialist party ranks, was a thorn on fascist Italy’s side. An authoritarian solution to the problem was to silence him.

The irony of history was that imprisonment did anything but silence him. Despite his decade-long detention until right before his death, and despite his deteriorating health, Gramsci poured his creative intellect into the production of a dense collection of essays and reflections, heavily lined with coded language to evade the prison censor. Today they are referred to as “The Prison Notebooks.” This manuscript became an important contribution to the Marxist oeuvre in particular, and to the tools we have to understand and change society, in general.

What did “this brain” bring to the table? This article and the next one will explain some of Gramsci’s main contributions. Using this theoretical framework, the third article in this series will use Gramsci’s concepts to analyze the anti-immigrant movement and specifically, its relationship to the tea party.  

As a European political revolutionary living in the first third of the twentieth century, Gramsci was puzzled by the following: why had massive social change occurred in Russia while similar events had failed to transpire in Western Europe? In the Prison Notebooks, he argued that the answer lay with civil society. In a word, the “west” had a developed civil society while the “east” did not. Civil society makes a society more resilient to revolutionary change.

Classical Marxism had not taken the concept of “civil society” very seriously. According to Marx, there is the state-the superstructure consisting of political and ideological practice-and then there is the economic base-the technical division of labor and the social relations people entered into in order to produce what is needed to live and reproduce. But for Gramsci, civil society needed to be conceptually distinguished from these two things. Civil society is, however, still part of the “superstructure” along with the state:

What we can do, for the moment, is to fix two major superstructural ‘levels’: the one that can be called ‘civil society,’ that is the ensemble of organisms commonly called ‘private,’ and that of ‘political society’ or ‘the State’ (12, , all page citations refer to Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. by Q. Hoare and G. Nowell Smith).

Within the superstructure, there is the state consisting of the police, the army and other instruments of violence, and there is civil society, composed of voluntary associations, the media, unions, private educational institutions, political parties, religious institutions and other private entities. The language of the state is coercion; the language of civil society is ideas. The presence of a civil society complicates a society and fortifies it against change. Gramsci’s own military metaphors illustrate this conceptualization best:  

In Russia 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 was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks (238).

What happens when there is a civil society–this “system of fortresses and earthworks”–and there is a crisis, such as an economic recession?

The superstructures of civil society are like the trench-systems of modern warfare. In war it would sometimes happen that a fierce artillery attack seemed to have destroyed the enemy’s entire defensive system, whereas in fact it had only destroyed the outer perimeter…the same thing happens in politics, during the great economic crisis. A crisis cannot give the attacking forces the ability to organize with lightening speed in time and space; still less can it endow them with fighting spirit. Similarly, the defenders are not demoralized, nor do they lose faith in their own strength or their own future (235)

A developed civil society makes a society more complicated and less vulnerable to the cycles of crisis inherent in capitalism. Moreover, such a society necessitates a particular type of political strategy of rule. The dominant class exercises power


[…] in two ways, as ‘domination’ and as ‘intellectual and moral leadership.’ A social group dominates antagonistic groups, which it tends to ‘liquidate’ or to subjugate perhaps even by armed force; it leads kindred and allied groups. A social group can, indeed, must already exercise ‘leadership’ before winning governmental power…it subsequently becomes dominant when it exercises power, but even if it holds it firmly in its grasp, it must continue to ‘lead’ as well (57-8).

According to Gramsci, intellectual and moral leadership is separate from but just as necessary for a social group to rule as coercion. He referred to this “leadership” as “hegemony,” and a group that exercised it as a “hegemonic” group. More concretely, hegemony is the ability to articulate a specific (class) interest as the interest of the whole, and in that way, win the consent of other groups.

For example, hospital workers who want to protest their workload could frame their message in many ways. They could simply say that they want reduced workloads or improved working conditions. Or they could make their message appeal to a broader audience outside of their particular workplace, and even their line of work. They may frame their message as wanting to improve the quality of patient care in order to create healthier communities. Such a message takes a specific purpose and generalizes it.

Examples of capital pursuing hegemony are more extensive. One important battle corporations constantly engage in is the fight against taxes. Their messages try to show that what’s good for the corporation is good for the community by arguing that the corporation is a job creator. From that claim, they may successfully make the case that tax breaks on corporations contribute to a community’s vibrancy by creating jobs and improving people’s standards of living.

But hegemony is not just about ideas. Dominant groups, to ensure consent to their class rule, must also grant economic and political concessions to subordinate groups.  A corporation that is draining a community of its resources may occasionally create scholarships or sponsor other community-targeted programs in order to improve relations with subordinate groups.

In sum, hegemony is a political strategy required by the presence of a civil society. Bourgeois class rule in contemporary capitalist society requires the exercise of repression (through the state) but also winning the consent of subordinate groups. Gramsci realized that western European societies, by contrast to Tsarist Russia, were not vulnerable to the same type of direct overthrow of government. That is, it wasn’t enough to disassemble the repressive apparatus of the state. Massive social change in the west would require a prolonged battle for hegemony in the institutions of civil society. It would require a dismantling of the existing intellectual-moral leadership, through the creation of an alternative one.

In the next two posts I will continue to sketch out the Gramscian framework and then use it to illuminate the methods of the contemporary anti-immigrant movement in the US.