Identity and Hegemony: The Implicit Social Psychology of Gramsci

Lauren Langman


As an activist, Gramsci had little occasion to read Freud. As a prisoner of Mussolini, he neither had access to an analyst nor Freud’s books. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest, that insofar as hegemony, fosters willing assent, it becomes necessary to interrogate why that assent is willing, and why in the course of assenting to domination, individuals reproduce the conditions of their life that reproduce the essential domination of capitalist society. Gramsci well understood, the importance of experience in disposing the embrace of hegemonic ideologies. What he did not incorporate however was the psychological basis of collective identities, shaped by hegemonic ideologies, that were based upon internalization, especially internalization of values that necessarily and inevitably dispose people to subjugation and in the process thwarted their own self-fulfillment, the realization of community, realms of creative agency, and their unique human characteristics – what Marx called “species being”. If however we were to go back to Marx’s 1844 Paris manuscripts, we might duly note that within those manuscripts is an implicit theory of human nature, albeit denied, in which Marx rested his critique of alienation upon a philosophical anthropology replete with a theory of desire beginning of course with an implicit theory of identity based upon the most basic of human desires – attachments to others. But so too does Marx suggest people need realms of agency, recognition, and meaning. Thus within Marx there is a vague understanding of what later psychoanalysts such as Eric Fromm, David Winnicott and John Bowlby would develop into comprehensive theories of character and desire. By considering such perspectives, it becomes evident how people choose to embrace hegemonic ideologies and willingly assent to a ruling classes deem “common sense.” Not only are such values internalized as part and parcel of early socialization processes of identity form largely acquired through family, schools, church, and mass media, but so too is the fear of the psychological consequences of dissent from ruling class ideologies. Thus for Gramsci was clear that when the priests warned workers and/or peasants that joining the party and/or the union would result in excommunication, what was triggered, was not so much fear of spending eternity in hell, but separation anxiety, eg the withdrawal of friends and family leaving people all alone, without connection, without recognition and without the tolerable ways of self-fulfillment. The insights of Gramsci, when joined with an understanding of the formation and functions of identity-undergirded by powerful desires as well as defenses, for example motivated reasoning and denial help us understand the politics of today shaped by neoliberalism. Conservatives, facing economic strains, also find their identities being thwarted undermined and disdained and like cornered animals, fight to maintain a sense of dignity in the face of marginalized others- and participation in various right wing movements does just that. Radicals however, whose identities are more shaped by hope and vision seek to transform a society that provides greater inclusion, democracy, realms of fulfillment and meaning.

Affect - Critical theory - Identity - Gramsci