Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2150

Repression and consent

This article is over 15 years, 0 months old
Our rulers strike a delicate balance to keep us in line. Tom Walker looks at ‘hegemony’ and the role of state violence in modern capitalism
Issue 2150
Workers and soldiers joined forces during Portugal’s 1974 revolution
Workers and soldiers joined forces during Portugal’s 1974 revolution

Capitalism is in crisis, destroying jobs around the world, leaving millions hungry and taking people’s homes. And capitalism is threatening to destroy the globe by creating irreversible climate change.

Yet most people assume it is the only way to run society. They see no alternative to the daily grind of work, the struggle to put food on the table and pay bills.

Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, examined why workers accept a system that works against them. He took part in a workers’ upsurge between 1918 to 1921 that saw factories being occupied by workers who were inspired by the revolution which swept through Russia in 1917.

He saw first hand how workers who once accepted capitalism became radicalised and determined to change the system. The revolt was contained in 1922 and the fascist Mussolini came to power.

Gramsci was thrown into prison. Despite the appalling conditions, he started to study the way workers had been won to socialist ideas and why the revolution was successful in Russia and not Italy.

He rejected any “deterministic” approach to Marxism, which assumes that any major economic crises would automatically turn workers into revolutionaries.

Gramsci came up with the theory of cultural hegemony. This looked at how the ruling class convinces workers that capitalism is the best and only way to run society.


The theory of hegemony is particularly important in understanding how the ruling class maintains power in modern societies, such as Britain.

The German revolutionary Karl Marx said “the ruling ideas in every age are the ideas of the ruling class”.

Gramsci developed this idea to show how the ruling class maintained “intellectual and moral leadership” through the structures of civil society.

Gramsci described civil society as being made up of institutions like churches, schools, the media, political parties, and even trade unions.

Together, they act as “a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks” protecting capitalism. Ruling class ideas – the ideas that sustain capitalism – become “common sense”.

Claims that bosses rather than workers create wealth or that people forced to claim benefits are “lazy” become treated as common sense.

We are told that there is no alternative to capitalism except chaos or totalitarianism.

Governments use fear of terrorism to whip up fear and discrimination.

They have made Muslims into scapegoats to divert attention away from their own failures.

This has also allowed them to launch a concerted attack on civil liberties, culminating in torture, extraordinary rendition and detention without trial.

The state does this to divide us from one another and weaken people’s willingness and ability to fight back. Things that are incredibly unfair come to seem normal and unstoppable.

People come to believe that the system cannot be changed and we should just work hard and keep our heads down. They do not challenge the system, so the ruling class can claim to rule by consent.

In this way, ruling class hegemony allows governments and corporations to maintain their rule over the working class in an almost invisible way.

This does not mean capitalism no longer relies on violence. We are instead ruled with an iron fist in a velvet glove.

Gramsci pointed out that the “exercise of hegemony… is characterised by the combination of force and consent, which balance each other reciprocally”.

Capitalism still relies on an “armour of coercion” – although in Britain this can be very subtle.

You have to work to survive, however long the hours and low the pay. The bailiffs will arrive if you fail to pay bills for essentials like water and electricity.

The British state is not openly repressive from day to day. The government even allows revolutionary socialists to openly organise against it, with minimal harassment.

Those of us who point out the violent nature of the state are often accused of having over-active imaginations.

This is because it is only when our rulers feeling threatened that they turn to violence. When people do start to fight back, the ruling class turns to a more overt form of coercion – using the repressive institutions of the state.

If parliamentary democracy and civil liberties are the state’s “velvet glove”, then the police and the army constitute the “iron fist”.

One of the clearest examples of this in Britain was the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. The ruling class realised that the strike was a battle over much more than the coal mines.

It was a chance for it to take on and defeat the most powerful sections of the working class.

That is why it threw all its resources into the fight. The police violently attacked pickets and protected the strikebreakers. The mainstream media abused the miners, printed lies about their union leaders and sided with the “brave” police.

The courts confiscated the miners’ union funds, declaring the strike illegal.

The state apparatus is used against protesters today in the same way. Demonstrations against war, for action to prevent climate change and for jobs are seen by the government as a threat.

The state is worried the economic crisis will mean more people taking to the streets in protest.

The last year has seen the police act violently against anti-war protests.

They attacked demonstrators protesting against a visit by US president George Bush in July last year, and baton-charged protesters marching against Israel’s brutal war on Gaza in January.

Things came to a head at the G20 protests in April, when bystander Ian Tomlinson died after he was hit and shoved to the ground by a policeman in riot gear.

Police brutality against protests is not new. The state has always been ­willing to let its mask slip in front of such groups of radicals. But one key new factor at the G20 was the proliferation of camera phones that were used to expose state violence to a wider audience.

There is now growing outrage at the attacks on the G20 protests. The ruling class want to convince us that there are “a few bad apples” in the police.

However, history has shown that this is actually the capitalist state showing its true, repressive face.

The “iron fist” will come into play more often as capitalism goes through its worst crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

The ruling class is panicking and using force because people are questioning the “common sense” of capitalism.


Gramsci did not see it as inevitable that ruling class ideas would dominate society. The ideas forced on people by civil society are challenged when people start to fight back.

Every strike, occupation, protest and act of resistance quickly starts to raise questions about the nature of the system we live under.

Why should thousands lose their jobs while the rich sit on huge piles of money? Why should workplaces be shut down the moment they are not in profit? Why is the state more concerned with protecting property than people?

The process of struggle poses such questions sharply.

It starts to turn workers into leaders who can challenge the dominant ideas, creating an alternative working class culture from within the class.

People become “organic intellectuals” who are “organisers and leaders”, rather than ivory-tower academics. They can build mass working class organisations and institutions that start to create a socialist “counter-hegemony”.

Gramsci set out a strategy for revolutionaries in developed capitalist societies based on these lessons. He said that before we can start to fight a “war of manoeuvre” – a revolution – we must win the “war of position”.

The war of position is a battle of ideas in which socialists attempt to expose the real nature of the system and put forward our alternative – in the media, in the mass organisations of the working class such as trade unions, in schools, colleges and universities.

This is what socialists are trying to do when we produce our own publications, organise in the unions, run student groups and big educational events – and build a revolutionary party.

Some argue that we should forget this slow process, seize the day and fight the state forces on the streets.

This is the view of many anarchists, but it ignores the importance of hegemony.

Most workers currently believe the ruling class claim that the police and the military are there to protect us.

Provoking physical confrontations for their own sake achieves nothing and can turn people against us.

But when the state does show its true face by attacking protesters, it hands us a weapon in the battle of ideas – the battle that really matters right now.

The Miners’ Strike politicised and radicalised thousands of people as they realised the truth about the violent nature of the state. The same can happen at every picket or protest the police attack.

Socialists must stand in solidarity with every progressive struggle, talk to people who are starting to ask questions about the system, and argue that we can win if we educate ourselves about the nature of capitalism and organise.

It is only once workers begin to break the hegemony of the ruling class that millions will rise up and directly challenge capitalist class rule.

A Rebel’s Guide To Gramsci by Chris Bambery, is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Go to »

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance