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Hegemony Is Never Complete: Using Gramsci to Understand the Arab Uprisings

The ideas of the famous Italian Marxist can help us make sense of authoritarianism and building movements from below.

Tahrir Square, Egypt, taken on January 30, 2011.

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Nadim Mirshak: In this current period of post-uprising Egypt, civil society seems to be one of the few spaces left where hegemony is challenged in ways that are different from protests, sit-ins or violent demonstrations. In your book, Gramsci, Freire and Adult Education: Possibilities for Transformative Action (1999) you argue that civil society should not be romanticized. Can you explain what you mean?

Peter Mayo: Central to Gramsci’s notion of hegemony is that civil society is not always oppositional. Gramsci was looking at what the Germans call “bürgerliche gesellschaft,” bourgeois civil society. What he means is that if a transformation would take place within civil society and within the interstices of hegemony itself, or if a great revolution or intellectual and moral reform took place, maybe it would not remain a bourgeois civil society anymore. But it would still remain civil society nonetheless.

Nowhere in Gramsci’s writings does he use the term “counter-hegemony,” precisely because he wants to avoid this notion of binary, of being “counter” or “hegemonic.” The two are instead intertwined, dialectically if you like. One cannot be counter-hegemonic without participating within the hegemonic system. At the same time, the hegemonic system is never one hundred percent hegemonic because it is never complete.

Why was Gramsci influential for you, and particularly his ideas on education?

I heard a lot about Gramsci in the 1970s here in Malta because of our close cultural and geographical association with Italy. Gramsci was always there, he was always mentioned. I remember I was invited to the Communist Party’s General Conference, although I was not a member of the party. The General Secretary of the Communist Party opened with a statement by saying, “Truth is revolutionary, as Antonio Gramsci once said.” First of all, what he said is “To say the truth is revolutionary,” which is not the same as saying, “Truth is revolutionary.” I had been hearing these kinds of buzzwords from Gramsci, but buzzwords they were. [1]

Now there was something in particular about Gramsci which attracted me. I “found myself” in this. I “found Malta” in the famous interrupted document Gramsci was writing at the time he was arrested in 1926: Some Aspects of the Southern Question. Many write about education and the Unitarian School, others write about the organic intellectual, but very few people write about the Southern Question and education. It helped me better understand the current political, cultural and educational dynamics in the Mediterranean. I began to analyse how the cultural climate was shaped on this archipelago of islands, the role of intellectuals including subaltern intellectuals, the Catholic Church and its larger networks (Catholic Action, etc.) and agents of merchant capital in this context. [2]

Moreover, Gramsci’s notes on Italian history made me understand the situation in which my own country, an island as well, found itself. There were parallels with the missed revolution, the Neapolitan-French revolution [the Parthenopean Republic] which was considered to be a “passive revolution” by Gramsci as it was not rooted in popular consciousness. So, the Southern Question was originally at the back of my mind when I was attracted towards Gramsci. I found this affinity with the Mediterranean. I am sure that you coming from Egypt will also find this kind of affinity with Gramsci’s “Southern Question.”

Was it an Arab “Spring”?

In your book Hegemony and Education under Neoliberalism (2016), you mention that you wanted to avoid using the fashionable term “Arab Spring.” Can you explain?

“Spring” for me goes back to the Bratislava Spring. It was a spring in aspiration – the blooming of new flowers – a spring in vision, but in actual fact it ended tragically when the Russian tanks came in. I do not think Spring was right for 2011. Not only was it too early to suggest parallels with other movements, but it was too early to see where this was going. Was this a regeneration? It may have been a regeneration in the sense that Egyptian people who never thought it was possible, were out in the streets. A spring? Maybe a spring in the vision. You never know what the future holds. You know, spring is resurrection, reminiscent of that much exoticized aspect of Egypt –the ancient fertility deity rituals, especially the sprouting corn-god, Osiris.

In 2011 Linda Herrera and I wrote a piece when we were intrigued by what was happening as youth accessed the internet, an instrument of hegemony, to get people out on the streets. [3] One of the things we said was not to get ahead of ourselves. This was a spontaneous uprising, but then there was the Gramscian question: was there any conscious direction?

And then the searching question: if there was, where was it coming from?

It all goes back to the historical situation which repeats itself first as tragedy and rarely simply in farce, if I can be allowed to play around with Marx’s famous statement. You can have all the goodwill in the world when you go out on a spontaneous pouring of outrage about lack of jobs, lack of dignity, corruption, etc., and yet, if we do not have a revolutionary understanding behind this, and, more importantly, a revolutionary strategy (without guarantees), somebody else will. That somebody else can be organizing below the radar. And the uprising can take a different trajectory which is at the furthest remove from what many people had in mind – people involved in the streets and squares. So basically, there was an important issue to be tackled at the outset: direction.

Where was the direction coming from?

In the case of Egypt, what was the role of the Military and the Muslim Brotherhood? Gramsci’s discussion around the relationship between “spontaneità” and “direzione consapevole” is quite pertinent in these situations. I would say now with the advantage of hindsight, it was a false dawn. The whole history of the world has been full of these false dawns. When we look at when Marx wrote, he was looking at situations which really gave him hope, I mean, I cannot think of anything better than the Paris Commune. He and Engels derived great inspiration from the Commune and that only lasted around forty days or so.

Egypt and Critical Pedagogy

As an Egyptian I thought that Gramsci can help make lots of sense of what is happening in Egypt. There’s a growing body of work focusing on Gramsci in relation to Egypt. There’s a book by Brecht De Smet, Gramsci on Tahrir (2016) and Roberto Roccu’s The Political Economy of the Egyptian Revolution (2013) about the “failed hegemony” of Mubarak’s regime. His argument was that one of the reasons why Mubarak’s regime fell was because his neoliberal business cronies failed to gather enough consent for their project. Then there’s the older work of Peter Gran who deals with the Southern Question in relation to Upper Egypt in Beyond Eurocentrism (1996).

People were seeing that there was no building of hegemony by the Mubarak oligarchy. But then you have brutal force being exerted. What we have is a situation characterized by tangible evidence of a legitimization crisis. This in turn leads to recourse to the repressive apparatus of the state. Of course, there is always an attempt at ideological conditioning in these situations as distinctions between repression and consent are heuristic, though, in this situation, the process would be very much skewed towards repression as a result of the legitimization crisis. And I cannot of think of many more repressive forces than the Egyptian police or the Egyptian army.

Yes, that is definitely an issue because as an Egyptian scholar, I have lots of colleagues who are now in exile or have been arrested for taking critical stances. It is becoming more difficult to find ways to challenge the current situation. One of the things I did in my research, was to explore alternative ways to resist the Egyptian state. I focused on education. Organisations know that once you got overtly political or oppositional, there is a high chance of the Egyptian police and the state security services shutting you down. So, they started to superficially depoliticise their rhetoric. They took a more liberal tone by saying things like, “We are providing an education about democracy.”

For instance, one NGO would get kids aged from eight till fourteen or fifteen to build a cardboard city. The kids had to make decisions about how to run it, set up the economy, the system of voting, and system of accountability. When something goes wrong, who is to blame and so on. Through such games, the kids learned about economics, politics, democracy and human rights. The state cannot come and say, “What are you doing here? Why are you teaching kids about politics?” That’s what I was interested in: finding alternative means of bypassing the state’s restrictions.

Linda [Herrera] pointed out that there is also the ethical question of exposing activities that are under the radar through our research. They are under the radar for a reason. On the one hand, we want to recognise and share the important work people are doing, and on the other, allow people and groups time, space and privacy to stay below the surface until they are ready to go more public.

Of course, being academics who are trying to look at the world from a critical perspective, being able to read the word and the world, is something I also grappled with back home in Egypt doing my fieldwork. When I started talking about political education and raising consciousness, some people would say, “But we do not necessarily want [a raised consciousness]. All I want is to have a job, have money, be healthy, make sure my kids go to good schools. I do not want to be involved in politics, I just want to be left alone.” Other people said, “To be honest, I have never really thought about it. I do not want to look at the world from a different angle. I do not want to ruffle feathers or cause unnecessary problems. I just want to be left alone. So, for me, political education is not important.” This is something I still am thinking about.

Your point is very Freirean. I need to refer to Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire wrote one of the most important books regarding the issue you raised. For him, political education was more a question of how to read the world.

Have you experienced something similar in Malta?

It’s a different context. I’m not saying that there is no repression in Malta, but it is a different context than Egypt. Remember, we are talking about Paulo Freire here who wrote from a context of military dictatorships in Latin America but whose work has wider resonance. Obviously, you will have people who will tell you, and I do not blame them: “Listen, leave me alone, I want to live a tranquil life both for me and my children.” Of course, this is always going to occur, because people understand the military can be ruthless. However, indifference is encountered in many places. It was Gramsci who said “Odio gli indifferenti” (I hate the indifferent). There is always a danger when doing critical pedagogy; it is never a safe space. What is the price you are prepared to pay to do this? There is a price to be paid.

Whatever you are doing, how does that enable you to read the situation you are in? You also need to be realistic and negotiate the agendas involved in the learning setting, as people have their own agendas which need to be understood and respected. You can be as political as much as you want, but I can imagine someone saying: you can have all the emancipatory ideas that you like, but I want to learn mathematics… I want to learn coding because they are important. Now, how to do this? Michael Young talks about ‘powerful knowledge’. Critical pedagogues ignore it at their peril and much to the detriment of the learners concerned.

This issue of powerful knowledge is important for former colonial countries that you and I grew up in. Here in Malta, you need to know English even though we have a national language, very much a national-popular language, in Gramsci’s terms. We learn English in a technical way, but we do not learn that we are second-class citizens if we do not know the language [within a global hierarchy of English knowledge production]. English is powerful knowledge over here and elsewhere. Every context has its powerful knowledge. If you lived in the Middle Ages in Europe, Theology would have been powerful knowledge, Latin would have been powerful knowledge. But if we lived in Europe post-18th century, Science would have been powerful knowledge and you cannot do away with that.

The struggle lies in how one learns this powerful knowledge. How did English come into the livelihoods of our people and communities? How was its historical condition linked to British colonialism [and later the ascendency of the US]? Today, what kind of social stratification does it create? I am talking about how you teach English critically, from a Freirean perspective if you will. Teaching English also requires teaching its political role, and that is where Freire comes in. You are reading the world. You are reading how imperialism has risen and how it conditions our lives, and how one appropriates critically elements brought about by colonialism – a very complex multifaceted phenomenon – that enable us to survive and act politically on a large scale.

It is the same in Egypt. If you don’t speak English in Egypt [you will be at a real disadvantage]. However, people from my generation who went to international schools and learned English are making efforts to always write in Arabic, especially on social media. We need to write in Arabic in order to reach as many people as possible.

Our situation in Malta is more complex because Arabic is a large language, an important political language, and a language of a major world religion. It is an achievement for a foreigner to learn Arabic. In Malta, for instance, if we have a class at a university and there are one or two foreigners present, we speak English and the discussion could be very cerebral. Once those two people leave the room and the discussion switches to Maltese, you can feel how rich the discussion becomes. It is no longer simply cerebral, but it is also emotional. Everything comes together: emotion, imagination, whatever connects with people’s framework of relevance and zones of being.

Education and Counter-Hegemony

You have argued in a positive way that education can help develop counter hegemonic ideas that go against the dominant ideology. But being counter-hegemonic is not in itself a virtue. These ideas carry undesirable effects at times. What are your views on this point?

I am very tentative here, always groping and tentative. Transforming hegemony, or what I call the renegotiation of relations of hegemony – recall that counter-hegemony is a term Gramsci never used – is pedagogical. It is pedagogical in the sense that there is a consensus element involved here. I am learning to be open towards changing my position.

First of all, a fundamental ABC of the Sociology of Education and the first thing I learned, was not to give education powers that it does not have. Education is not going to bring change on its own, but it can contribute to change. However, if you really want to change things, and a group has political power to change things and wants to transform society, it needs education because you will have to bring most people consensually on board. Hegemony is educational. Ideally the change must be rooted in popular consciousness and not be imposed from above in what would, once again, be a passive revolution.

Gramsci’s contributions to education can be found not just in his writings on the Common School, in his journalistic or cultural writings or those concerning the factory councils. His contribution is all pervasive. Education is central to the workings of hegemony. Every relationship of hegemony is an educational relationship, so we are talking about education within its broader contexts. The educator is not just the teacher, adult educator or university professor. The educator is anybody who can influence other people’s opinions. As with any kind of politics, there are no guarantees. It is ‘bread on the waters’ to adopt the title of John Fisher’s book on trade union education in what was then the T&G. You do not know which fish are going to pick it up. That is what education is.

We come from former colonies, we know this. How much have our countries invested in education without any take off? Can you explain why? Why is it that people from Malta or Egypt have been sent abroad, and end up serving the country that colonised them in the first place? The receiving country offers the right infrastructure for people to be able to operate. You then come back to your country and do not find those structures. Of course, there are other factors that contribute to this, a change in political climate in the colony or former colony with a new regime/ruling group at the helm which freezes you out. Too much investment in education from a technical perspective without investment in other sectors in the economy is basically another form of education for export because basically you will have overqualified people. There will be a push and pull factor. Either people are going to leave, or they will become frustrated. The same applies to political action for change; education in one place must ally itself with what is happening in other spaces, parties, movements forms of mobilisation etc. There are so many factors that can prevent education from contributing to social change. It cannot bring about social change on its own.

Critical Media Literacy and Reading the World

One of the very interesting ideas you talked about in your book was Critical Media Literacy. You write, “critical media literacy becomes an important feature of critical engagement within either the interstices of state involvement or social movements” [4]. Is having media literacy a form of this powerful knowledge that we need to have at the moment?

“Critical” here is how to understand the media and how to read the world, or the construction of the world through the media. It is this very construction of ‘reality’ by the media that constitutes the basis for much common sense these days.

Earlier you were talking about how in 2011 people used Facebook and Twitter as a way to gain critical ideas, communicate and develop networks. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult because the regime has learnt its lesson. Authoritarianism learns and has adapted to that threat. Can we think of ways to develop critical media literacy under the current repressive contexts in Egypt, Turkey or Tunisia for example?

Well, you got me there because I do not know those contexts well enough. You are probably more capable of answering than I am. We have got to look at tactical elements now. So, that depends on the knowledge of the context itself. How should we do that? Below the radar, as you were saying, because of surveillance. But I will never underestimate the intelligence apparatus, certainly not in Turkey or Egypt, ever so vigilant to ferret out those operating clandestinely.

The “Travelling” Gramsci

NM: My concern is how Gramsci is used and abused at times. I agree that we need to consider the contexts, but when thinking about Gramsci in the Arab World and the Middle East, he has been used so many times that in the process he has been misinterpreted.

I have to say Gramsci wrote copiously on the contributions of Arab, Muslim and other cultures to the development of aspects of what we call “Western Civilisation.” As the scholar Abdesselam Cheddadi has noted, Gramsci holds a good deal of relevance for the Arab world. I should point out, however, that Derek Boothman’s writing on this topic suggests a slippage in Gramsci, often conflating Muslim with Arab. This is amazing for a man of his intellect. This slippage notwithstanding, there is a lot in Gramsci concerning the Arab world. [5]

I remember reading Edward Said’s The World, The Text and the Critic (1984) and he was talking about the Travelling Theory. How theories travel, how they change. Yet when they do change and become adapted to other contexts, they do not necessarily lose their power or their analytical rigor. This is something that fascinated me in terms of using Gramsci to make sense of Egypt. I avoided using him as a framework that can be perfectly applied to Egypt as others have, it just does not work.

It is interesting that you mention Said who considered himself to be Gramscian like Stuart Hall. Said wrote about a transformation that takes place when texts are read from the perspective of a specific society, say an English text studied by Palestinian students at Bir Zeit. The same applies to theories. You know, we were talking about the Modern Prince and the Party in Gramsci, and yet Said fell short on saying that it has to be the party at the heart of the struggle in Palestine, etc. He probably feared that his role as an intellectual would be compromised through adherence to a party or, more appropriately, any party in the Palestinian context. I recall his stating something to this effect in the Reith Lectures on representations of the Intellectual. What was very interesting about Said was that he was fascinated by the Southern Question in Gramsci. I am just thinking aloud here, but I find the point about Said and Party a classic example of how contexts work to condition our analysis and positions. I never use the word “determines” but “conditions.”

The Modern Prince(s) and Alliances

You said something very interesting about conscious direction, which leads to a question that relates to Gramsci’s Modern Prince. Do you think the idea of a strong Communist Party is still applicable now?

That depends on the context. In Gramsci’s Italian view, it was the Communist Party. In certain contexts, the pivotal agency can rest with a social movement which captures the rest of the country’s imagination, connecting with the aspirations for greater social justice of various groups and harmonising these desires, interests and struggles. Historically, the biggest movement I can think of in the US was the Civil Rights movement. But, in Brazil or Italy with their party system, which Gramsci and later Freire wrote about, the party was seen by both figures as the means of giving political viability to these various struggles, although in both cases they were relatively new parties at the time.

In another place the main agency could be a movement or network of movements. I want to steer clear of trying to prescribe a rigid form this agency can take; that would be too prescriptive. Gramsci was influenced by Machiavelli’s The Prince, a prince who would unify the country. Gramsci was in favour of a national-popular unity, not Piedmontese domination over the rest of Italy which was brutal.

If it is a party it must be one which converges with networks, networks of agencies struggling for greater social and ecological justice. In Freire’s words, the party should do so without trying to take them over – this is key. Networks can converge in terms of forming alliances, but these can be ephemeral, because we have several cases of alliances that disintegrated once a major contradiction comes to the fore. What Gramsci spoke of was something more deeply rooted than an alliance – an historical bloc. Alliances can possibly lead to an historical bloc. The latter can take a long time to happen because it has to be firmly entrenched, probably over a number of years. If you belong to a movement that is part of a network, you feel that it is almost natural to act in sync with the other movements in the network having a strong affinity with yours. There is a common interest in doing this. For Gramsci, the main bloc in Italy is that involving the Northern industrial bourgeoisie and the landowning class in the South. In Freire’s Brazil, it is the landowning class in the Nord-Este and the bourgeois class in the South East.

What I find interesting here, and I have had problems with people who try to downplay this, is the World Social Forum where you have different interests coming together. The focus of their conversations is on global capitalism with its neoliberal ideology. Global capitalism is a structuring force that exacerbates different forms of oppression. The oppressed become represented by different social-justice oriented movements with differentiated exploitation becoming their point of focus. This is what the World Social Forum has been trying to do. However, there are no guarantees in these things. I am not going to start being doctrinaire and say capitalism will end if you do x, y, and z.

Exactly, which is something Gramsci himself avoided.

I believe in Socialism, but without guarantees, to quote Stuart Hall. You never know what will transpire, especially in the long term.

Globalization From Below

You emphasize in many of your writings that we need to develop a globalization from below as an alternative to neoliberal globalization. How could we foster stronger links between movements in the Global North and the Global South?

I believe that there are many initiatives in this regard. I have faith in these movements. I still think that the idea of the state diminishing in importance is a big myth, a neoliberal myth. Just look at the current issues surrounding migration. It is an international issue which is however accorded national solutions – at the level of nation-states. However, social movements have taught us the importance of internationalisation and that collaboration has to extend beyond borders, regional, national, continental, etc.

We have to recognise that what happens here in Europe has ramifications elsewhere outside Europe. If Europe subsidises its farmers, like the United States does, to the tune of billions, how are farmers in Africa and other places going to provide food on the table for their children? To be international one has to be global. How could a policy that aims to provide social cohesion or social justice here, within this region, impact livelihoods outside?

This is crucial for the Global South, because there is Social Europe “from above,” in the form of say a Social Charter, but then there is possibly, and hopefully, a social world “from below” which basically involves networking at the grassroots. People may be availing themselves of funds from the EU and there is a lot of “NGOisation” going on in many areas such as Migration, Lifelong Learning etc. Some NGOs are of course genuinely involved, but others are there to benefit from the gravy train. So, let’s not tar everyone with the same brush. It is the more genuinely involved NGOs and social-justice oriented movements who are important players in the process of working towards a social world that fosters a stronger solidarity between movements in the Global North and Global South.

It is important to wrap up on a positive note. There is hope that we can change things and there are ways in which we can collaborate and build this social world from below. When I think about Egypt, at the moment it is very repressive and the window of opportunity we had from 2011 to 2013 is not going to happen again in sometime. Yet, and like you said earlier, hegemony is never complete, it is never all-encompassing all the time. It is always contested, always challenged. There is hope. I still think, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” I know this was not Gramsci’s own term, he took it from the French novelist Romain Roland.

Yes, and it was written below the masthead for the L’Ordine Nuovo periodical (1919). Hope springs eternal, I keep telling myself.

[1] “To tell the truth is revolutionary” though attributed to Gramsci, is actually by Ferdinand Lassalle. It was reproduced in the first issue of L’Ordine Nuovo. Hegemony Is Never Complete: Using Gramsci to Understand the Arab Uprisings

[2] Carmel Borg and Mayo explore some of these themes in a chapter in their book Learning and Social Difference. Challenges for Public Education and Critical Pedagogy, originally produced in 2006 by Paradigm and now by Routledge.

[3] See Herrera, L. & Mayo, P. (2012). The Arab spring, digital youth, and the challenges of education and work. In Holy Land Studies, 11(1), 71-78, alsoCounterpunch op ed version.

[4] Mayo, Peter. (2016). Hegemony and Education Under Neoliberalism: Insights from Gramsci. Abingdon: Routledge, 35.

[5] Boothman, D. (2012). Islam in Gramsci’s Journalism and Prison Notebooks: The Shifting Patterns of Hegemony. In Historical Materialism, 20(4), 115-140.

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