Every human being and every society is what it is by virtue of the highest to which it looks up. The city, if it is healthy, looks up, not to the laws which it can unmake as it made them, but to the unwritten laws, the divine law, the gods of the city. The city must transcend itself. ...the most important consideration concerns that which transcends the city or which is higher than the city; it does not concern things which are simply subordinate to the city. ― Leo Strauss, The City and Man
During the 1990’s one of the most enthralling events was the amorphous culture war in America. There was a dialectic to define America and this struggle polarized both American culture and American Politics.
Abortion, funding for the arts, school choice, gun rights, court-packing–the list of controversies that divide America runs long and each one cuts deep. These issues are not isolated from one another but are, in fact, part of a fabric of conflict which constitutes nothing short of an exploration of what is America. Unlike the religious and cultural conflict that historically divided America, the contemporary culture war is fought along unfamiliar lines. Its foundation is a profound realignment in American culture which cuts across established moral and religious communities. Not since the Civil War has such fundamental disagreement over basic assumptions about truth, freedom, and American identity dominated public, political, and academic life.
As intellectual historians have often had occasion to observe, there are times in a nation’s history when certain ideas are just "in the air” and we are not referring to the Phil Collins song. Admittedly, this point seems to wane when applied to our particular historical moment. On the surface of American politics, as many have had cause to mention, it appears that the main trends predicted decades ago in Francis Fukuyama’s "The End of History?" have come to pass, that ideological strife has been suppressed; that there is a general consensus about the most important questions of the day - capitalism, not socialism; democracy, not authoritarianism; and that the contemporary controversies that do exist, while periodically momentous, are essentially banal, concerned with practical problem-solving, whether it is better to cast ballots in person or by mail rather than with great principles. In the end, the way one votes is insignificant, what is of vital significance is what influences a person to vote for one ideology over another.
Recurring philosophical concepts, in America have proved influential, at times decisive, in cultural and legal and moral arguments about the most important questions facing the nation. Indeed: Everyday appearances to the contrary, beneath the surface of American politics an intense ideological battle is being waged between two competing weltanschauung. The competing weltanschauung’s are "Gramscian" and "Tocquevillian" after the intellectuals who authored the warring ideas. The twentieth-century Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, and, of course, the nineteenth-century French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville. The bounty in the battle between the intellectual heirs of these two men are no less than what kind of country the United States will be in future generations.
These diametrically opposed views will carry forward to the metaverse as well. For the class struggle has already become apparent in the digital world. Who holds the keys? Will Ethereum gas fees price out the middle class? Should Decentraland guard against the strife associated with feudalism? Alas, I digress.
Refining class warfare
First, an overview of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). Gramsci was a Marxist intellectual and politician. Despite his enormous influence on today’s politics, he remains far less well-known to most Americans than does Tocqueville. This is a knock on Gramsci, Americans barely know of Tocqueville.
I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.
― Antonio Gramsci, Antonio Gramsci: Prison Letters
Gramsci’s legacy arises through his departures from orthodox Marxism. Like Marx, he argued that all societies in human history have been divided into two groups: the privileged and the marginalized, the oppressor and the oppressed, the dominant and the subordinate, the master and the slave. Gramsci expanded Marx’s ranks of the "oppressed" into categories that still endure.
As he wrote in his famous Prison Notebooks, "The marginalized groups of history include not only the economically oppressed, but also women, racial minorities and many ‘criminals.’" What Marx and his orthodox followers described as "the people," Gramsci describes as an "ensemble" of subordinate groups and classes in every society that has ever existed until now. This collection of oppressed and marginalized groups — "the people" — lack unity and, often, even consciousness of their own oppression. To reverse the correlation of power from the privileged to the "marginalized," then, was Gramsci’s declared goal. Gramsci was well aware of the fact that chaos is disorderly and that that disorder does not yield power.
Power, in Gramsci’s observation, is exercised by privileged groups or classes through domination, force, or coercion; and through "hegemony," which means the ideological supremacy of a system of values that supports the class or group interests of the predominant classes or groups. Think of the American hegemony - the most powerful nation on earth due to its military and cultural supremacy. Subordinate groups, he argued, are influenced to internalize the value systems and world views of the privileged groups and, thus, to consent to their own marginalization. The marginalized don’t recognize that they are marginalized. Perhaps the illusion is better than the reality?
Far from being content with a mere uprising, therefore, Gramsci believed that it was necessary first to delegitimize the dominant belief systems of the predominant groups and to create a "counter-hegemony" (i.e., a new system of values for the subordinate groups that begins in parallel to the dominant groups system) before the marginalized could be empowered. Moreover, because hegemonic values permeate all spheres of civil society -- schools, churches, the media, voluntary associations -- civil society itself, he argued, is the great battleground in the struggle for hegemony, the "war of position." From this point, too, followed a corollary for which Gramsci should be known (and which is echoed in the feminist slogan) — that all life is "political." Thus, private life, the work place, religion, philosophy, art, literature, and civil society, in general, are contested battlegrounds in the struggle to achieve societal transformation.
All political action is aimed at either preservation or change. - Leo Strauss
It is perhaps here that one sees Gramsci’s most important reexamination of Marxism. Classical Marxists implied that a revolutionary consciousness would simply develop from the objective (and oppressive) material conditions of working class life. Gramsci disagreed, noting that "there have always been exploiters and exploited" — but very few revolutions per se. In his analysis, this was because subordinate groups usually lack the "clear theoretical consciousness" necessary to convert the "structure of repression into one of rebellion and social reconstruction." Revolutionary "consciousness" is crucial. Unfortunately, the subordinate groups possess "false consciousness," that is to say, they accept the conventional assumptions and values of the dominant groups, as "legitimate." But real change, he continued to believe, can only come about through the transformation of consciousness. There needs to be unity and order to bring about a shift in power.
Just as Gramsci’s analysis of consciousness is more nuanced than Marx’s, so too is his understanding of the role of intellectuals in that process. Marx had argued that for revolutionary social transformation to be successful, the world views of the predominant groups must first be unmasked as instruments of domination. In classical Marxism, this crucial task of demystifying and delegitimizing the ideological hegemony of the dominant groups is performed by intellectuals. Gramsci, more subtly, distinguishes between two types of intellectuals: "traditional" and "organic." What subordinate groups need, Gramsci maintains, are their own "organic intellectuals." However, the defection of "traditional" intellectuals from the dominant groups to the subordinate groups, he held, is also important, because traditional intellectuals who have "changed sides" are well positioned within established institutions. One can see that it may only be possible to cultivate organic intellectuals by first persuading traditional intellectuals to defect.
The metaphysics, or lack thereof, behind this Gramscian worldview are familiar enough. Gramsci describes his position as "absolute historicism," meaning that morals, values, truths, standards and human nature itself are products of different historical epochs. There are no absolute moral standards that are universally true for all human beings outside of a particular historical context; rather, morality is "socially constructed."
Temporality temporalizes as a future which makes present in the process of having been. ― Martin Heidegger, Being and Time
Historically, Antonio Gramsci’s thought shares features with other writers who are classified as "Hegelian Marxists" — the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs, the German thinker Karl Korsch, and members of the "Frankfurt School" (e.g., Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse), a group of theorists associated with the Institute for Social Research founded in Frankfurt, Germany in the 1920s, some of whom attempted to synthesize the thinking of Marx and Freud.
All emphasized that the decisive struggle to overthrow the bourgeois regime (that is, middle-class liberal democracy) would be fought at the level of consciousness. That is, the old order had to be rejected by its citizens intellectually and morally before any real transfer of power to the subordinate groups could be achieved. Critical race theory is the offspring of this thought process.
Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves. ― Herbert Marcuse
The relation of these musings to the scaffolding of American politics is quite direct. Gramsci’s most ingenious ideas - for example, that dominant and subordinate groups based on race, ethnicity, and gender are engaged in conflict over power; that the "personal is political"; and that all knowledge and morality are social constructions - are assumptions and presuppositions at the center of today’s politics. So, too is the crux of the Gramscian-Hegelian world view — group-based morality, or the idea that what is moral is what serves the interests of "oppressed" or "marginalized" ethnic, racial, and gender groups. In short, those with power cannot be moral, cannot determine what is moral.
What, for example, lies behind the concept of jury nullification, a notion which now enjoys the support of law professors at leading universities? Building on the Hegelian-Marxist concepts of group power and group-based morality, jury nullification advocates argue that minorities serving on juries should use their "power" as jurors to refuse to convict minority defendants regardless of the evidence presented in court, because the minority defendants have been "powerless," lifelong victims of an oppressive system that is skewed in favor of dominant groups.
When the state is most corrupt, then laws are most multiplied. - Tacitus
Certainly, critical theory - a direct descendant of Gramscian and Hegelian-Marxist thinking - is widely influential in both law and education. Critical legal studies postulates that the law grows out of unequal relations of power and therefore serves the interests of and legitimizes the rule of dominant groups. Its subcategories include critical race theory and feminist legal theory. The critical legal studies movement could hardly be more Gramscian; it seeks to deconstruct materialistic legal ideas that serve as instruments of power for the dominant groups and reconstruct them to serve the interests of the subordinate groups. It’s always about power, power never leaves - it simply changes hands.
American social policy has come to be based not on Judeo-Christian precepts nor on Kantian-Enlightenment ethics, but on Gramscian and Hegelian-Marxist concepts of group power.
Gramscian and Hegelian-Marxist ideas are also prominent in three other major sectors of American civil society: foundations, universities, and corporations.
Major foundations — particularly Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and MacArthur — have for decades spent billions of dollars promoting cutting edge projects on racial, ethnic, and gender issues. Foundations have crowned diversity the pinnacle of American campuses. For example, the Ford Foundation launched a Campus Diversity Initiative that funded programs in about 250 colleges and universities. The Ford initiative promotes what seems like a Gramscian’s group-rights dream - the establishment of racial, ethnic, and sex-specific programs and academic departments, group preferences in student admissions, group preferences in staff and faculty hiring, sensitivity training for students and staff, and campus-wide convocations to raise consciousness about the need for such programs. This was in 1990 - over three decades ago, is anyone surprised by the proliferation of certain ideas today?
The Ivey league is amongst the biggest pushers of critical theory. The Ford and other foundation diversity grants are put to use in "Thought Reform 101" at almost all Ivey campuses, some form of moral and political re-education has been built into freshmen orientation. A central goal of these programs is to uproot internalized oppression, a crucial concept in the diversity education planning documents of most universities. The concept of internalized oppression is the same as the Hegelian-Marxist notion of false consciousness, in which people in the subordinate groups "internalize" the values and ways of thinking of their oppressors in the dominant groups. No one stopped to ask why the dominant group carries the views that they do. Perhaps they are superior…
At an academic conference sponsored by the University of Nebraska, the attendees articulated the view that "White students desperately need formal ‘training’ in racial and cultural awareness. The moral goal of such training should override white notions of privacy and individualism." The attendees also gave their meaning of "white privilege" and internalized oppression. They also explained the concept of an "ally," as an individual from the dominant group who rejects his unmerited privilege and becomes an advocate for the position of the subordinate groups. This concept of the "ally," of course, is Gramscian to the core; it is exactly representative of the notion that subordinate groups struggling for power must try to conquer ideologically the traditional intellectuals or activist cadres normally associated with the dominant group. The traditionalists of the old regime become the organic educators of the new regime.
The employees of America’s major corporations take many of the same sensitivity training programs as America’s college students, often from the same diversity facilitators. Diversity training is widespread among American companies. Even more significantly, on issues of group preferences vs. individual opportunity, major corporate leaders tend to put their money and influence behind group rights instead of individual rights. This is not an American concept at its core. This shift in corporate ideology was an economic calculation, or an opportunistic attempt to appear progressive, they typify American businesses’ response to the culture war.
What unhappy beings men are! They constantly waver between false hopes and silly fears, and instead of relying on reason they create monsters to frighten themselves with, and phantoms which lead them astray. - Charles-Louis de Secondat, de la Brède et de Montesquieu, Persian Letters
The main intransigence to the advance of Gramscian ideas comes from an opposing corner - contemporary Tocquevillianism. Its adherents take Alexis de Tocqueville’s empirical description of American exceptionalism and celebrate the traits of this exceptionalism as values to be embraced. As Tocqueville noted in the 1830s, Americans are different from Europeans in several crucial respects. Americans today, just as in Tocqueville’s time, are much more individualistic, religious, and patriotic than the people of any other comparably advanced nation.
What was particularly exceptional for Tocqueville was the singular American path to modernity. Unlike other modernists, Americans combined strong religious and patriotic beliefs with dynamic, relentless entrepreneurial energy that emphasized equality of individual opportunity and renounced hierarchical and ascriptive group affiliations.
The trinity of American exceptionalism:
Dynamism: support for equality of individual opportunity, entrepreneurship, and economic progress
Religiosity: emphasis on character development, mores, and voluntary cultural associations that works to contain the excessive individual egoism that dynamism sometimes fosters
Patriotism: love of country, self-government, and support for constitutional limits
Among today’s Tocquevillians we could include Straussians, Neoconservatives, traditional conservatives, and some centrist Democrats. All are Tocquevillian in their emphasis on America’s special path to modernity that combines aspects of the pre-modern (emphasis on religion, objective truth, and transcendence) with the modern (self-government, constitutional liberalism, entrepreneurial enterprise).
Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude. ― Alexis de Tocqueville
Neoconservatives try to clarify this American path to modernity. Like scholars before them, they make a sharp distinction between the moderate (and positive) Enlightenment (of Locke, Montesquieu, and Adam Smith) that gave birth to the American Revolution and the radical (and negative) Enlightenment (Condorcet and the philosophes) that gave birth to the Revolution in France. The former gave birth to American capitalism, the latter gave birth to European socialism.
Like their ideological opposites, Tocquevillians are also represented in business and government. In the foundation world, prevailing Gramscian ideas have been challenged by Tocquevillian funded scholars. For example, supporting associations and individuals that foster moral and religious underpinnings to self-help and civic action. A call "On Self-Government" for challenging the "political hegemony" of the service providers and "scientific managers" who run the "therapeutic state" that Tocqueville feared would result in "an immense and tutelary" power that threatened liberty. As for the political world, all have supported Tocquevillian initiatives and employed Tocquevillian language in endorsing education and welfare measures that emphasize the positive contributions of faith and responsibility.
What could be called a partial Tocquevillian position of some conservative intellectuals and activists could be contrasted with the work of American Catholic Whigs — for example, the American Enterprise Institute has argued, in essence, that America’s founding principles are sound and that the three elements of the Tocquevillian synthesis (entrepreneurial dynamism, religion, and patriotism) are at the heart of the American experience and of America’s exceptional contribution to the idea of ordered liberty.
However, it is unlikely that the libertarians, paleoconservatives, secular patriots, Catholic social democrats, or disaffected religious right intellectuals 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.
The task of cultural renewal is a form of applied Tocquevillianism. Tocqueville writes in Democracy in America that "mores" are central to the "Maintenance of a Democratic Republic in the United States. He defines "mores" as not only "the habits of the heart," but also the "different notions possessed by men, the various opinions current among them, and the sum of ideas that shape mental habits" — in short, he declares, "the whole moral and intellectual state of a people."
Civic truths of the American regime are those of Western constitutionalism, rooted in both classical understandings of natural law and natural right and in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. The moral truths that make possible our experiment in self-government are in large part biblical and religious, informed by the classical natural law tradition and the ideas of the Enlightenment. The most impassioned expressions of these truths are found in the Declaration of Independence, Washington’s Farewell Address, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address, and King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail.
Tocquevillians emphasize renewing and rediscovering American mores, suggesting that there is a healthy civic and moral core to the American regime that needs to be brought back to life. Moreover, if the first task is cultural renewal, the second task is cultural transmission. The central task of every generation is moral transmission. Religion, in particular, has probably been the primary force that transmits from one generation to another the moral understandings that are essential to liberal democratic institutions. Moreover, our houses of worship foster values that are essential to human flourishing and democratic civil society: personal responsibility, respect for moral law, and neighbor-love or concern for others. In addition, there is a basic responsibility of the school system in cultural transmission, particularly a knowledge of the country’s constitutional heritage, an understanding of what constitutes good citizenship, and an appreciation of American society’s common civic faith and shared moral philosophy. It’s not hard to see that the transmission of American exceptionalism is decaying due to weakening family structures, dwindling religious engagement, and failing school systems.
It is indeed difficult to imagine how men who have entirely renounced the habit of managing their own affairs could be successful in choosing those who ought to lead them. It is impossible to believe that a liberal, energetic, and wise government can ever emerge from the ballots of a nation of servants. ― Alexis de Tocqueville
Gramscian concepts have been on the march through Congress for decades, meeting in at least some cases Tocquevillian resistance and counterattack. For example, the intellectual underpinning for the Gender Equity in Education Act of 1993 (and most gender equity legislation going back to the seminal Women’s Educational Equity Act, or WEEA, of the 1970s) is the essentially Gramscian and Hegelian-Marxist concept of "systemic" or "institutionalized oppression." In this view, the mainstream institutions of society, including the schools, enforce an "oppressive" system (in this case, a "patriarchy") at the expense of a subordinate group (i.e., women and girls).
In 1991, the Congress passed a civil rights bill that altered a Supreme Court decision restricting racial and gender group remedies. The new bill strengthened the concept of "disparate impact"; which is a group-based notion that employment practices are discriminatory if they result in fewer members of "protected classes" (minorities and women) being hired than their percentage of the local workforce would presumably warrant.
Nine years later, in June 2000, the U.S. Senate passed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which would expand the category of hate crimes to include crimes motivated by hatred of women, gays, and the disabled (such crimes would receive stiffer sentences than crimes that were not motivated by hatred based on gender, sexual orientation, or disability status). In supporting the bill, Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon declared, "I have come to realize that hate crimes are different" because although they are "visited upon one person" they "are really directed at an entire community" (for example, the disabled community or the gay community). Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts supported the legislation because, he insisted, "standing law has proven inadequate in the protection of many victimized groups."
In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Dorothy Rabinowitz penned a Tocquevillian objection to this Gramscian legislation. Rabinowitz argued that hate crimes legislation undermined the traditional notion of equality under the law by "promulgating the fantastic argument that one act of violence is more significant than another because of the feelings that motivated the criminal." Using egalitarian and antihierarchical (that is, Tocquevillian) rhetoric, Rabinowitz declared that Americans "don’t require two sets of laws — one for crimes against government-designated victims, the other for the rest of America."
The steady advance of Gramscian and Hegelian-Marxist ideas through the major institutions of American democracy, including the Congress, courts, and executive branch, suggests that there are two different levels of political activity in twenty-first century America. On the surface, politicians seem increasingly inclined to converge on the center. Beneath, however, lies a deeper conflict that is ideological in the most profound sense of the term and that will surely continue in decades to come. What matters is what has been transmitted, the dominant ideology being transmitted is Gramascian.
As we have seen, Tocquevillians and Gramscians clash on almost everything that matters. Tocquevillians believe that there are objective moral truths applicable to all people at all times. Gramscians believe that moral "truths" are subjective and depend upon historical circumstances. Tocquevillans believe that these civic and moral truths must be revitalized in order to remoralize society. Gramscians believe that civic and moral "truths" must be socially constructed by subordinate groups in order to achieve political and cultural liberation. Tocquevillians believe that functionaries like teachers and police officers represent legitimate authority. Gramscians believe that teachers (less so in recent years) and police officers "objectively" represent power, not legitimacy. Tocquevillians believe in personal responsibility. Gramscians believe that "the personal is political." In the final analysis, Tocquevillians favor the transmission of the American regime; Gramscians, its transformation.
Thus, while economic Marxism appears to be dead, the Hegelian variety articulated by Gramsci and others has not only survived the fall of the Soviet Union, but also gone on to challenge the American republic at the level of its most cherished ideas. For more than two centuries America has been an "exceptional" nation, one whose relentless entrepreneurial dynamism has been tempered by patriotism and a strong religious-cultural core.
The triumph of Gramscianism would mean the end of this very "exceptionalism." America would at last become Europeanized: statist, thoroughly secular, post-patriotic, and concerned with group hierarchies and group rights in which the idea of equality before the law as traditionally understood by Americans would finally be abandoned. Beneath the surface of our seemingly placid times, the ideological, political, and historical stakes are enormous. Dynamism, religiosity, and patriotism are three pillars in which Americans can realign with to ensure exceptionalism is not lost. American exceptionalism is not perfect - nothing is, but it is better than forced equality and tyranny. As Americans and America teeter on the edge of hegemony and subservience, the stakes could not be higher. American Exceptionalism is the path. No one wants their life controlled by an external regime that values oppression over freedom.