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Tackling our rulers’ ideas makes good sense

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The bosses want to hold people to ideas that keep the system as it is. But why do people accept things that are not in their interests? The work of revolutionary Antonio Gramsci helps us understand—and offers a guide as to how to change things
Issue 2823
Photos taken at Buckingham Palave. A view of Buckingham Palace from The Mall Picture: Gary Knight illustrating a story about why do people accept reactionary ideas?

Crowds gather at Buckingham Palace last week. Why do people accept reactionary ideas? (Picture: Gary Knight)

Politicians and the media drove the mourning for the queen. And those that dared to protest against the monarchy faced arrest. But nobody actually drove people on to the streets to join the long queues to view the queen’s coffin. And nobody lost their job if they failed to watch Monday’s ceremonies.

The ideology of national interest and of national symbols has got into people’s heads. How did that happen? In lots of ways, it’s a ­continuation of a much more general issue. Workers often think and behave in ways that ­socialists believe aren’t in their interest. Some vote for ­representatives of the bosses who will cut their wages while showering wealth on the rich. Some swallow racist myths that divide the working class and allow rulers to lord it over us more easily. As revolutionary Karl Marx said, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”

This doesn’t mean that ­workers can just be ­brainwashed. But it does mean that there are powerful forces that try to hide the true state of affairs from them. Capitalism rules by a ­combination of consent and coercion, of freedom and force. And the two are linked.

The apparent freedom to choose an employer and a job is in reality subordinated to the need to work or live in dire poverty. You are at liberty to put ­forward whatever politics you like—but the cops and the courts are there to shut you down if you are regarded as a threat to the state or the bosses.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote in the 1920s and 30s about the way classes achieved ­“hegemony” in society. Vladimir Lenin had used the same word to describe how the working class, by its ­collective action and fighting power, could give a lead to the ­peasantry and draw other classes behind it.

Gramsci meant more than that. He was interested in the way classes could achieve “cultural, moral and ideological” leadership both to build power in alliance with other groups and to rule over subordinates. It’s the how it wins the ­consent bit of the consent and coercion process. Capitalist rule is exercised by a minority in the interests of a minority. They can’t say that openly so they need to deceive us and break up our own class consciousness.

Gramsci said “civil society” played a powerful role. He pointed to the way that a dense network of people and institutions act to transmit ideas from the top to the masses. In his day the Catholic church was very important.

The pulpit’s use of god could spread ideas of that insisted lower orders bow down to the landowner and the factory owner. And a layer of people such as lawyers and doctors who had status could help to keep out revolutionary ideas.

Today we can point more to the role of the media and the education system as well as the enduring role of the family in transmitting the dominant ideas down through the generations.

The people at the top don’t leave this process to chance. They don’t just hope “the system” will produce backward ideas. They consciously produce a flow of pro-system, nationalist bilge. The Sun and the Mail newspapers are a factory for bad ideas. But so is the BBC, even if the tone is a bit different.

School curriculums shut out most voices of revolt and exclude most works by black people and woman. There is an authorised view of history that venerates the role of the British as liberators who fight only good wars—in which they are inevitably victorious. There is a continuous and conscious ideological war. This is expressed very well in the Rogers and Hammerstein ­musical South Pacific.

One of the songs’ words are, “You’ve got to be taught, To hate And fear, You’ve got to be taught, From year To year, It’s got to Be drummed in your dear little ear “You’ve got to be taught. Before it’s too late, Before you are six. Or seven, Or eight, To hate all the people Your ­relatives hate.”

Some analysts, particularly those who wanted to gut his work of revolutionary implications, suggest that Gramsci wholly separates the production of ideas from the economic structures of society. This is an attempt to dump the Marxist materialist ­understanding that how things are produced and the relations between people that flow from that. These shape the way people think. But Gramsci repeatedly insisted that there can be no hegemony without the “decisive nucleus of the economic”.

It is because our rulers own and control the factories and the land, the call centres and the energy multinationals, that they are in a good place to implement the head fixing. Gramsci also says that the state plays a vital role in establishing hegemony. He sees the state both as a ­“governmental‑coercive apparatus” and as a broader ­mechanism to pump out ideas.

The state is “the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules.” And at points, Gramsci says, hegemony “is protected by the armour of coercion”. But there are weaknesses in the ruling class’s control over us, and these open the way for the working class to achieve its own hegemony in society. The problem for the ­capitalists is that they are ­selling dodgy goods.

They tell us that this is the best way to run society. But their system produces war, recurrent economic crises, ­pandemics, deep poverty and environmental extinction. And the reality of class rule keeps breaking through. Our rulers can hope to fool people into thinking that they have more in common with king Charles III than they do with a worker in Brazil. But then the reality of wealth, sense of entitlement, racism and our rulers’ contempt for the majority keep coming  through.

There will be more than a few pro-royals who felt a bit uneasy when one of king Charles’s first acts was to sack 100 of his workers. The tension is greatest at times of mass struggle. When workers confront the bosses and the government they learn who are their allies and who are their enemies.

They see the media lie about their strike or their protest. They see that workers they have been taught are different to them are in fact the best at delivering solidarity. They can see that women and men, black and white, gay and straight can unite on the picket line.

But this requires constant argument about ideas as well as building strikes and campaigns. It also means we can’t neglect the development of new ideas and new theories to explain the world. Socialists have, Gramsci writes, to try to bring together those best elements emerging from struggle that unite them “with their fellow workers in the practical transformation of the real world”.

By doing this, they fasten onto a new view of the world that raises the possibility of self‑emancipation and drives out prejudices that bind people to existing society. There has to be a struggle to replace “common sense”—the reactionary ideas that flow from the way society is organised now—with “good sense”.

Good sense,” said Gramsci, is the consciousness that ­workers can develop during the course of struggle. This cannot happen without continual confrontation on the ideological as well as the ­practical plane. Not every person can be an expert in every aspect of society. But they can read and listen to people who counter the ­system’s arguments about economics, politics, science and much more.

It’s very important, for ­example, that there are ­socialists who can explain who makes money from the rail system. Who can tell the truth about the how much rail ­workers are paid, and who can unmask the Tories’ wider agenda. And those arguments need to link up with those that explain  the role of profit in damaging our planet. They need to dismantle and offer alternatives to the ­ideologies that try to deceive workers.

Chucking off the myths about the royals requires more struggle, but also organisation by revolutionary socialists to oppose the ideas pumped out by our enemies.

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