By Lauren Langman


The progressive social movements of 2011, followed by the rise of Left parties such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, can be best understood as what Herbert Marcuse called the Great Refusal: rejections and contestations of domination reflecting a variety of grievances stemming from the multiple legitimation crises of contemporary capitalism. As Jürgen Habermas argued, the multiple legitimation crises of the capitalist system migrate to lifeworld, the realms of subjectivity and motivation that evoke strong emotions such as anger, anxiety, and indignation that dispose social mobilizations.[1] What is especially evident as a goal of these movements is the quest for dignity as rooted in an emancipatory, philosophical, anthropological critique of alienation, domination, and suffering pioneered by the Frankfurt School—quite cogently argued in Marcuse’s analysis of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts.[2] But grievances and emotions do not lead to sustained social movements; there must be recruitment, organizing and organization building, leadership, strategy, tactics, and vision. The Frankfurt School’s critique of domination can be complemented by Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony in which “organic intellectuals” understand how the system operates (with due attention to the salience of the cultural barriers to change), while also proffering counterhegemonic narratives, organizing subalterns, and initiating “wars of position.” A critical perspective on contemporary social movements provides a politically informed critique with visions of utopian possibility in which membership in democratic, egalitarian, identity-granting/recognizing communities of meaning allows for, indeed fosters, community, agency, creative self-realization, and the dignity of all.

I. Ideology, Hegemony, and Domination

Why do the vast majority of people “willingly assent” to the domination by the few, despite vast economic inequalities, growing hardships, and the thwarting of the self? This has long been one of the central questions for the Frankfurt School’s critique of ideology and character structure in which authority becomes embedded within the self, making possible uncritical acceptance and conformity. These insights provide the rich understanding of the conditions of our age, especially of those that enable (or thwart) emancipatory social movements.

The grievances that result from the contradictions and adversities of neoliberal capitalism need to be articulated by intellectually informed, radical activists. Quite independently of the Frankfurt School, a parallel line of analysis and critique was developed by Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist theoretician and organizer who conceptualized “hegemony” as the ideological control of culture, which produces the “willing assent” to the domination of the “historic bloc” (the capitalists) and through which the “naturalization” of the historically arbitrary is presented as normal, natural, and in the best interests of all.[3] For Gramsci, the critique of hegemony and the development of counterhegemonic ideologies and organizational practices are the tasks of “organic intellectuals” who understand the role of culture in sustaining domination. They understand the ways in which the dominant culture thwarts political and social change, which in turn necessitates a cultural rebellion, mediated through the “wars of position” in which counterhegemonic discourses would overcome cultural barriers and the “normality” of social existing arrangements in order to achieve social transformation. One of the major tactics for such organization is so-called “popular education,” which enables people to understand how ruling class privileges are based on the exploitation of the masses. Gramsci’s analysis complements the Frankfurt School’s critiques, while his experiences as an activist provide insights and tools to envision and, indeed, make possible an alternative kind of society.

A. Critical Theory

1. The Psychological Foundations of Politics

The Frankfurt School brought psychoanalysis into the critique of domination. From Wilhelm Reich and Erich Fromm, they subsequently developed a political psychology in which authoritarianism, an aspect of character acquired in childhood, made possible the embrace of conservative, indeed reactionary politics.[4] The understanding of the superego as internalized authority, showed that people would passionately submit to “powerful,” authoritative leaders in order to gain their love and assuage feelings of anxiety, loneliness, powerlessness, and meaninglessness.[5] Thus, authoritarians are psychologically disposed to embrace the elite’s political agendas that stress toughness, determination, and power. Authoritarianism is typically coupled with a sadomasochistic need to dominate, denigrate, and feel contempt toward the weak and the helpless, and authoritarians typically project aggression toward the out-groups (paranoia).

The early Frankfurt School studies of authoritarianism showed how these authoritarian character structures resonated with fascist propaganda and ideology. In a number of books, papers and empirical studies of working-class Germans, and a large postwar study of Americans, authoritarianism was shown to be highly correlated with the conservative to reactionary political positions that glorified authority, denigrated subordinates, and projected anger and aggression toward the out-groups, especially racial minorities and Jews. Authoritarians are thus generally patriarchal, homophobic, and racist, in addition to being highly conventional, conformist, and maintaining a rigid, black–white, either–or, cognitive stance. The enduring significance of these studies can be seen in the contemporary work of Robert Altemeyer.[6] We might also note that, in many ways, these studies of authoritarianism anticipated some of the recent approaches in cognitive psychology and emotion research.

Nevertheless, while being a crucial aspect of political beliefs and actions, authoritarianism is only a part of the story of the internalization of various ideologies. Following what has been said, it is absolutely essential to underline the fact that people’s political beliefs are not shaped by rational considerations, logic, or evidence. Rather, the character structure and the patterning of various needs and desires shape the ways in which people perceive the world, evaluate events, and choose actions. For Gramsci, the ideological control of culture shaped the production of ideology to produce the “willing assent” to domination. But, without a theory of psychodynamics, he could not explain the motivation of people to assent to their own subordination. In 1930, Freud provides the first hint, claiming that the values, norms and laws of society that demand sexual repression and obedience to social dictates, are mediated through the identification with parents, and become sedimented within the superego.[7] People subsequently develop identities that have been ideologically crafted, but not under the circumstances of their own choosing. The identities of prior generations, shaped by earlier authority relationships, weigh down upon the individual to colonize his/her consciousness and desires in the way that the values of the ruling classes/hegemonic blocs become internalized as essential parts of the individual’s identity and values.[8] That this is not a rational process is also made evident by the studies of authoritarianism and anti-Semitism mentioned above.

One function of ideologies is to alleviate anxieties over uncertainties in this world and, perhaps, over getting into the next world. Moreover, the maintenance of group ties through conformity to group norms and values can be a source of powerful attachments as well as a basis for self-esteem, but this in turn leads to conformity, “groupthink,” and what Marcuse called “one-dimensional thought.” Thus, ideologies are not simply explanations of social reality or misrepresentations of social reality that both mystify and sustain the power of the ruling classes. Rather, ideologies and values are essential components of one’s identity, which has both conscious and unconscious components that are closely intertwined with powerful feelings and emotions. Assent to hegemonic ideologies and/or social arrangements rests upon emotional configurations. As Fromm put it:

The fact that ideas have an emotional matrix is of the utmost importance because it is the key to the understanding of the spirit of a culture. Different societies or classes within a society have a specific character, and on its basis different ideas develop and become powerful.[9]

Fromm continues:

Our analysis of Protestant and Calvinist doctrines has shown that those ideas were powerful forces within the adherents of the new religion, because they appealed to needs and anxieties that were present in the character structure of the people to whom they were addressed. In other words, ideas can become powerful forces, but only to the extent to which they are answers to specific human needs prominent in a given social character.

Not only thinking and feeling are determined by man’s character structure but also his actions…. The actions of a normal person appear to be determined only by rational considerations and the necessities of reality. However, with the new tools of observation that psychoanalysis offers, we can recognize that so-called rational behavior is largely determined by the character structure.[10]

Within Marx’s critique of alienation, there is an implicit social psychological theory of emotions and desire. More specifically, alienated labor estranges workers from their work and the products of that work, rendering people powerless, their lives meaningless, objectified, dehumanized, estranged from others as well as from their own potential creative self-realization (the inherent tendencies of what Marx called a “species being”).

In more modern parlance, alienation frustrates fundamental needs for: (1) attachments to others and communal belonging, (2) a sense of agency and empowerment, (3) social recognition, and (4) fulfillment of one’s potentials as a human being—aware of one’s capacity as a being that can anticipate and shape one’s own future. The various frustrations and deprivations of capitalism thwart fundamental human needs for respect, recognition, and dignity.[11] Alienated labor creates warped expressions of selfhood. The fundamental moral imperative of Marx revealed how capitalism truncated human capacities for community, freedom, and self-realization and how a postcapitalist social order could enable the self-realization and dignity of all.[12]

Political values, beliefs, and understandings are not based on evidence, logic, or rationality but on emotions, feelings, and identities. This important insight, part and parcel of the Frankfurt School’s understandings of fascism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism, has been rediscovered by various academic psychologists. People embrace various ideologies because such ideologies, much as Durkheim said about religion, provide people with a sense of solidarity and connection. Ideologies provide people with a sense of agency and empowerment. By incorporating a person into a valorized group, ideologies provide individuals with a sense of dignity and purpose. Thus, the legacy of Marx’s critique of alienation, refracted through a critical psychodynamic prism pioneered by the Frankfurt School, provides us with an understanding of the affinity between the character structure and the embrace of an ideology.

The recent work of George Lakoff has shown how different political orientations rest upon the notions of morality, which reflect the values, role models, and child-rearing practices of one’s early family life (seen as a model for society).[13] The “strict father” pattern fosters a morality based on a competitive orientation and in turn the necessity for strength, toughness, and independence in order to survive in a tough, dangerous world. There is an intolerant, if not punitive, orientation to those who appear to be weak and/or dependent. Conversely, the “nurturant parent” orientation fosters caring, sharing, compassion, and empathy, while creative self-fulfillment is its most important value. But political ideologies rest on more than the gratification of particular desires and, perhaps equally important, is that ideologies depend on restricting contradictory information, barring arguments, facts, evidence, and data that might undermine the given ideology. Insofar as an ideology is an essential part of one’s identity, people actively ward off challenges to it. Ideologies provide a variety of gratifications, not the least of which is to minimize anxiety by organizing reality and providing a sense of meaning to one’s life. Various defense mechanisms protect one’s identity and enable one to function in everyday life.

The first line of defense is denial, the flat-out rejection of evidence or values contrary to one’s ideology. Whether the issue is the single-payer healthcare system, global warming, racial and/or gender superiority, or heteronormativity, the denial of contravening evidence serves to protect one’s self-esteem and dignity, which, in turn, leads the person to reject and/or discredit any information inconsistent with one’s ideology and identity. Closely tied to denial is displacement- deflecting a challenge and/or directing it to an unworthy target. Finally, cognitive dissonance works to eliminate challenges or inconsistencies to one’s beliefs and values. Collectively, such defenses reinforce “one-dimensional thought” and in turn reproduce subjugation to the status quo.

2. Consumer Society: One-Dimensional Thought, New Sensibilities, and Great Refusals

In 1964, writing at a time of growing affluence, Marcuse noted that the working classes, especially better paid skilled workers, had internalized the “artificial needs” fostered by capitalism and satisfied through consumerism and were thereby incorporated into the consumer society, anchored through consumption-based identities and enjoying mass-mediated escapism provided by the culture industries, while embracing “one-dimensional thought,” devoid of critical reflection. Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man offered a comprehensive analysis of the postwar growth of the consumer society, which was aided and abetted by the promises of growing material abundance as providing the “good life,” which included good sex and promises of ever more prosperity.[14] For Marcuse, behind the goods and goodies of mass consumption was alienation, shallowness, the thwarting of creativity and self-fulfillment. No longer was alienation simply the product of wage labor, but an intrinsic aspect of consumer capitalism. While the writers and poets of the “beat generation” of the 1950s critiqued the complacency, conformity, banality, and superficiality of the dominant culture, Marcuse moved beyond that observation to locate the problem in the intertwining of consumer capitalism and “one-dimensional thought.” Moreover, he claimed that understanding the role of dialectics, contradiction, and negation—amidst conditions of oppression—fostered a “new sensibility” critical of capitalism in general and its many forms of domination, including its production of “artificial needs” that could never be satisfied.

Marcuse’s critique resonated with and was informed young college students and marginalized youth activists in or from the ghettos of racialized minorities. The times called for the Great Refusal—rejections of the system of capitalist domination, white supremacy, patriarchy, inequality, and social injustice that characterized the 1960s. Marcuse’s formulations connected with the civil rights and antiwar movements, feminism, anticolonialism, as well as struggles for sexual freedom, environmental protection, and gay liberation. Meanwhile, hippie movements rejected repressive asceticism and publicly articulated their critique by extolling drugs and sex and rock ’n roll. Marcuse was deemed the guru of these movements and considered especially dangerous by the reactionary forces. Like Socrates, he was accused of corrupting youth; but instead of taking hemlock, he became the intellectual inspiration for progressive scholars and young activists—an influence that endures to the present.

3. Legitimation Crises

How do we move from the critique of the present and the visions of the possible to social mobilizations? Habermas offered a systematic theory of legitimation crises that occur when there are failures in the objective “steering mechanisms” of the systems of advanced capitalist societies.[15] There may be crises of: (1) the economy that produces and distributes goods and services, (2) the political system that sustains the legitimacy of the whole, and (3) social integration secured by ideology and the state. System integration depends on the mechanisms of domination (e.g., the state and the mass media). Social integration and solidarity, as parts of the lifeworld, depend on normative structures—value systems that express norms and identity as well as secure loyalty and cohesion. Each form of integration possesses distinct logics and, in turn, a different kind of rationality. Social integration comes through socialization and the creation of meaningful “lifeworlds,” namely a culture/ideology that legitimates the social system and provides individuals with personal meaning. In contemporary societies, the logic of the state and the market has "migrated" into the subjective and "colonized the lifeworld.” Thus legitimation has subjective consequences in the “lifeworlds” where social and political identities are experienced and performed.

Social movements emerge at the intersections of the system and the lifeworld. Demands for justice and emotional reactions, often in the form of moral shocks, are responses to crises; anger, anxiety, and/or indignation become the triggers that impel and propel social movements.[16] But emotional reactions do not lead to social movements per se. The crisis-engendered collective emotions must be interpreted within the existing frames, or the emergent new frames, that resonate with the actor’s social location, networks, identity, character structure, and values to impel joining or creating the organizations of actors where alternative understandings, visions, and even identities can be negotiated whilst actors engage in collective struggles toward social change. This can be seen as an attempt to retain or recreate meaningful, gratifying identities and lifestyles at the levels of social integration rather than redistribution.

a. The Economic Aspect: The recent crises must be understood as structural crises in which the “steering mechanisms" of capitalism failed. Neoliberalism, with its disdain for state controls and regulations, celebrating the “freedom of the marketplace,” led to the 2007-2008 collapse of financial markets. The dreams of short-term profits based on speculation turned into nightmares. When the subprime mortgage crisis hit, the financial bubble burst, and the stock market plummeted. This was followed by a wave of bankruptcies and, in turn, devastating layoffs and unemployment for many workers, especially the vulnerable “precariat.” The monetary value of many pension funds evaporated. Economic stagnation followed. The meltdown led many ordinary people to question the very legitimacy of neoliberal capitalism. Although, according to many statistical measures, the economy has “recovered,” stock markets are up, construction is up as well as new car sales, a closer inspection reveals that income growth has been stagnant and that the majority of new jobs are at lower levels of skill and pay. With affordable housing on the decline and student loans escalating, approximately one-third of college students now live at home with their parents.[17]

b. The Political Aspect: The political system attempts to regulate the economic system in order to make possible the profit-making of the elites and the legitimacy of global capital, while minimizing the negative trends that may lead to discontent, protest, and domestic disturbances and/or upheavals. Capitalist states face a twofold problem of maintaining the profitability of the monopoly sector and the low-wage competitive sector while sustaining the legitimacy of the system by providing citizens with infrastructure and entitlements that maintain both economic growth (profits) and promote social peace and harmony. These two main functions are often contradictory insofar as the state must appear “neutral.”[18] The modern state serves to control markets in such a way as to minimize volatility and secure the general conditions of capital accumulation, but, at the same time, it needs to tax the citizenry to provide functioning infrastructure and social benefits. Moreover, in the time of financial crisis, the state is the only institution with the resources to deal with its consequences.

The legitimacy of the US state, and many others across the world, was challenged by the meltdown and subsequent bailouts that helped the elites who had rigged the system. In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters chanted, “The banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” While the economy was stabilized at great cost to the vast majority of people, the result was a “global slump,” with high unemployment, especially for the young. The state was seen as boosting the profits of “the 1%”—the epithet for the wealthy elite and powerful during OWS. The protests in the squares, streets, and other public sites were directed against the governments and challenged their legitimacy. More often than not, they were met with ruthless violence that quelled the protests for the time being, but, at the same time, also inspired future mobilizations. Nevertheless, it should be noted that in some cases, as evidenced, for example, in the rise of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, organic intellectuals can organize discontent, fashion political movements, and gain political power.[19] Perhaps the same discontent, progressive mobilization, and hope have found their expression in the strong support for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign by many in the US, notwithstanding the very low historical odds for a left-wing outsider to get a presidential nomination, let alone win the election.

c. The Cultural Aspect: The cultural system of meanings, values, norms and interpretations of reality express the identity of the society, regulate conduct and maintain cohesion and integration. The values of every society are shaped by the ruling classes to sustain their power. But today we see questions about the cultural values that underpin enormous wealth for the elites. Today, large numbers of youth, perhaps as many as 50 percent, have become much more sympathetic to socialism, especially since the equation of socialism with the long past eras of Stalin or Mao falls upon deaf ears. The protests and mobilizations seek more than economic redress, millions of youth seek a major social/cultural transformation informed by the visions of an alternative system based upon human needs, democratic communities, and careers that provide individual self-realization, creativity and dignity.

d. The Utopian Aspect: Movements depend on the shared interpretations of reality and the frameworks which explain the causes and consequences of adversities as well as the goals to be attained and the strategies to attain them. Marx generally rejected “Utopian socialism” as such, but emancipatory possibilities came with the transcendence of private property, namely the cultivation of artistry, caring, creativity, curiosity, empathy, faith, honor, humor, love, sensitivity, and other virtues celebrated by healthy, life-appreciating people everywhere.[20] Utopian values contain the critique of the contradictions of capitalism, which thwarts their realization, since promoting human good would cut profits. As Jacoby pointed out there is a vital legacy of “messianic utopianism” in critical theory that envisions more than a just, egalitarian, democratic version of contemporary society, but a radical transformation of society into the post capitalist forms in which private property is longer the defining feature.[21] The utopianism found in Martin Buber, Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse, is imperative for understanding contemporary movements. But this Utopia is not so much spelled out, but is rather a critique of domination, anchored within the character structure, embodied within the state institutions, and valorized by hegemonic ideologies. When moving from necessity to freedom, human fulfillment can take place in various forms which cannot be specified nor predicted in advance. Utopian goals require locating the desirable within the dialectic of the undesirable, namely, within the conditions created by existing political/hegemonic ideologies which entail their own negation. The overcoming of alienation and domination would transform work from being the necessity for bare survival to being the expression of human creativity and fulfillment that would enable the free development of each and the free development of all.

B. Hegemony

Following Marcuse’s notions of “one-dimensional thought”, “new sensibilities” and “great refusals” and Habermas’ theory of legitimation crises, Gramsci’s theory of hegemony complements the critical theory tradition in explaining how hegemony, in the mode of the ideological control of culture, fosters the willing assent to the power and domination of the given historic bloc. Today, neoliberalism as an ideology valorizes and celebrates the financial, political, and intellectual elites. Hegemony normalizes the historically arbitrary, renders domination natural, normal, and in the “best interests of all”, and thereby sustains the political/economic power of particular historic blocs. It is just “common sense,” as opposed to that which, for Gramsci, is the "folklore" of philosophy and may assume countless different forms, but, for the most part, is fragmentary, incoherent, and inconsequential. On the other hand, hegemonic ideologies serve to buttress power and prevent critical thought/action and thereby sustain domination.

Intellectuals, teachers, professors, journalists, novelists, artists, religious leaders, and others, drawn from the coalitions of groups that share the common interest in holding on to power, generally collude in creating and articulating a more or less integrated hegemonic ideology. This begins with the “expert” advice over child-rearing values and practices, school curricula, religion, mass media, especially the news and popular culture, as well as the high culture that collectively and systematically produces worldviews and understandings that legitimate existing class relations and political leadership. “National themes” in collective celebrations and rituals affirm and augment the current society, glorifying its governance and its leaders past and present. Dissenters are marginalized as traitors and pathological characters, as deviant and bizarre. Gramsci’s analysis enables us to bridge critique and alternative visions with praxis as philosophically informed political activity. This is why he called his work “the philosophy of praxis.”

But how and why do people assent to values, worldviews, and understandings that are the basis of their domination and subjugation? While Gramsci was a Communist organizer, he was however quite critical of the economism of the Party. He placed more emphasis on the subjectivity of the worker and the collective will of the masses, which unfortunately had been colonized and corrupted by hegemonic ideologies. These ideologies impacted the structures and processes of socialization to produce general worldviews, values, and understandings that masked the ways in which the system operates. To understand the willing part of the “willing assent,” the Frankfurt School provided a critical social psychology of emotions, explaining how ideologies were actively internalized and incorporated within the individual character, self, and identity. They provided the motivational basis for: (1) the “willing assent” to domination based on the colonized feelings, emotions, and desires that became the intrinsic components of character structure, and (2) the cognitive processes that led to the active denial of the validity of alternative claims and the denigration of the claimants.

In other words, people employ what has been called “motivated reasoning” to accept certain “information” or “evidence” that is consistent with their own values and colonized identities, while rejecting and denying what is inconsistent  with their beliefs and self-images. Thus, identity acts as either a facilitator or a barrier to particular worldviews, cognitive frameworks and understandings which in turn motivate both reasoning and action. The shaping of the character structure generally serves the political and economic interests of the elites, but it also engenders human suffering which in turn may foster resistance and contestation. Capitalist domination alienates and frustrates basic human needs for community, agency, recognition, and self-fulfillment. This contradiction between the demands of the system and the thwarting of human fulfillment, experienced in the times of crises, becomes the opening for counterhegemonic mobilization.

C. Counterhegemony

How do we mediate between critique and action? Domination fosters resistance, but how does resistance get organized and channeled to foster social change? “Organic intellectuals” from subordinated classes, often themselves the victims of the adversities of capital, find themselves in strategically significant positions for organizing resistance. By bent of character, experience, and formal or informal education or training, they become aware of the contradictions in the system, particularly the chasm between the hegemonic ideology crafted by the elites and the actual life conditions for the subalterns who “willingly assent” to being dominated.

According to Gramsci, the “organic intellectual” acquires the type of critical education typically reserved for the elites. Moreover, having roots and ties to the subordinate classes, he or she is aware of the experienced, if not articulated, ambivalence of subaltern classes and, in turn, the extent to which they may be open to, or resistant toward, counterhegemonic discourses. As Chris Hedges put it:

No revolt can succeed without professional revolutionists who live outside the formal structures of society. They are financially insecure. They dedicate their lives to fomenting radical change. They do not invest energy in appealing to power to reform. They are prepared to break the law. They, more than others, recognize the fragility of the structures of authority. They are embraced by a vision that makes compromise impossible. Revolution is their full-time occupation. And no revolution is possible without them, largely unseen by the wider society, they have severed themselves from the formal structures of power. They have formed collectives and nascent organizations dedicated to overthrowing the corporate state. All revolutionary upheavals are built by these entities.[22]

Few academics have the background, the required experience, organizational skills, and/or available time for the nitty-gritty of social organization and mobilization. Nevertheless, the analyses and critiques of political and economic domination, and the deconstruction of hegemonic ideologies are extremely important tasks and become absolutely necessary antecedents for developing counterhegemonic narratives. Scholars as varied as Georg Simmel, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Frantz Fanon have talked about the “dual consciousness,” the ability to navigate between different, often contradictory, worldviews and social networks. The realms of critique and political activism come together in fashioning counterhegemonic discourses, alternative visions, and the critical understandings of the nature of social reality as well as engaging in the ideological struggles that make actual political transformation possible.

Typically, intellectuals, especially those trained formally or informally in critical theorizing, may understand the world in far more complex ways than many ordinary people. The “organic intellectual,” coming from the subaltern classes, is in a different position to influence subalterns than is the elite scholar. He or she better understands the lifeworld of the workers and knows how to encourage them to comprehend their situation and envision the alternatives. He or she also has a legitimacy in their eyes that an outsider would have to work hard to earn. For Gramsci, every person is an implicit intellectual, a “naïve” philosopher, who tries to make sense out of his or her world. Moreover, at some level, most people become aware of the gap between the dominant culture (ideology) and the actual conditions of their lives. That dissonance creates openings for contestation, especially when crises render the legitimacy of the system problematic. Organic intellectuals understand that the political struggles must begin with the demystification of the dominant ideology. This is why the most significant part of their work consists of organizing so-called “wars of position” in which hegemonic ideologies are challenged through “popular education” that offers not only critique but also a counterhegemonic discourse. Organic intellectuals, as the bearers of counterhegemonic visions, illuminate the contradictions of class, power, and dominant ideologies and articulate alternatives that have the potential of transforming mass consciousness deadened by the sirens’ song of capitalist consumerism.

Contradictions are especially evident during times of crisis when people become more receptive to critique and alternative visions. During crises, people may withdraw their loyalty from the existing social order, creating spaces for alternative views, values, understandings, and even identities. They may become more receptive to organic intellectuals who enable people to see through the contradictions, illusions, and distortions of hegemonic ideologies and better understand their own circumstances.

As Gramsci found out, due to the passivity and fatalism of the Italian workers and their embrace of Catholicism, there were major cultural barriers to the embrace of communism. “Social transformation is a function of the creative role of the masses and of the political ability to articulate a revolutionary consciousness.”[23] From this point of view, the role of organic intellectuals becomes crucial, as the subjective barriers for the development of radical subjectivity among the mass of workers are immense. As Gramsci writes, “Every revolution has been preceded by an intense labor of criticism, by the diffusion of culture and the spread of ideas amongst masses of men.”[24] As Fabio de Nardis and Loris Caruso well summarize, “The basic themes of his writings, therefore, concern the clear rejection of mechanistic and economistic interpretations of Marx’s doctrine and the adherence to a fully historicist and humanist form of Marxism. Marxism is for Gramsci not only an economic science, but first and foremost a worldview that points to an intellectual and moral reform of society.”[25]

Social transformation then depends on a prior cultural transformation of consciousness that overcomes the existing ideology of the status quo in order to enable a different kind of political economy and social organization.

If the revolution is primarily a process of cultural reform, then both intellectuals and the party, interacting with the popular masses, must work toward the development of a political consciousness and a collective will, corresponding to the elaboration of a historically rooted ideology of transformation. If the aim is the revolutionary seizure of power, it is also true that the subaltern classes, in order to be successful, must work towards creating the conditions for transformation, aiming to be an ideologically hegemonic class well before becoming the dominant social group.[26]

According to Gramsci, culture is the terrain for revolutionary struggle, where the “wars of position” are necessary before the “wars of maneuver.” A “war of position” is a process which “slowly builds up the strength of the social foundations of a new state” by “creating alternative institutions or alternative intellectual resources within existing society.”[27] Organic intellectuals, understanding the salience of the dominant culture, are essential for organizing workers, and organic intellectuals must be in a dialectical relationship with the mass of workers. “How classes live” determines how people view their worlds, act within them, and perhaps, most importantly, “shapes their ability to imagine how [the world] can be changed, and whether they can see such changes as feasible or desirable.”[28]

Thus instead of offering workers economics or history lessons, organic intellectuals provide alternative cultural understandings that undermine and erode the received understandings (e.g., “common sense”) that sustains the system. They open possibilities for imagining alternatives by showing what people’s lives might be like in a more equitable, democratic, and just society and contrasting that with the existing society where everyday life is a struggle and is without the possibilities of genuine freedom, transcendence, and self-fulfillment, in addition to being torn asunder by episodic crises.

“Organic intellectuals” understand the underlying resentment that workers may have about the system, but which they are reluctant to articulate due to the fear of being ostracized by others and the anxiety that might come from an uncertain future. The key repressive strength of religion qua hegemonic ideology is that it sustains solidarity and assuages anxiety and hence acts as a barrier against social change. This is why the initial task of "organic intellectuals" is the formulation of counterhegemonic discourses that not only critique the existing hegemonic frameworks, but also suggest other, more fulfilling alternatives. Organizing successful resistance requires a long and difficult struggle because the focus of the struggle are centuries-old cultural frameworks.

Much of Gramsci’s work refers to workers, trade unions, and factory councils at the time when production was predominantly Fordist. Conditions changed. For Marcuse, writing three decades later, the stimulating agents of progressive change are more likely to be the young people, students, and marginalized minorities. And, at this time, another fifty years later, it appears that the growing precariat, which includes the same marginalized groups mentioned by Marcuse, can spearhead social and political change. By their very existence, the members of the precariat question the legitimacy of the system as well as the legitimacy of political leaders who are either indifferent to popular concerns, or openly hostile, repressive, and violent.

During the recent mobilizations, some activist groups called themselves the “indignant ones.” This is why some scholars claimed that the quest and demand for recognition and dignity is more significant for the occupiers/activists than material gain.[29] The struggles in the cultural and ideological realm are more salient for the rebels of today than the purely material issues.

II. Contesting Domination

A. From Grievances to Action

Hierarchical societies generate dissatisfaction and discontent. One of the functions of hegemonic ideologies is to suppress, normalize, and mollify the alienated masses. This has been seen in the functioning of religion as an “opiate.” Unlike the premodern modes of production, capitalism, as Marx has shown, requires a constant change, the so-called “creative destruction” to gain ever greater profits; however, the constant change in production, transportation, communication, finance, entertainment, and leisure generates dysfunctions and crises. The Fordist mode of production created vast wealth and, eventually, organized resistance articulated by trade union movements brought into existence the relatively affluent working class; however, as Marcuse noted in One-Dimensional Man, the working class was increasingly diverted from radicalism by the consumerist ideology of mass culture, which eroded its class consciousness and revolutionary potential.

Due to the processes of globalization and the emergence of digital technologies, with post-Fordist flexible production based on the “just in time” arrival of components, automation, and/or import substitution, many jobs—on the basis of which the working class built its affluence— disappeared. At the same time, the anti-union campaigns were successful, leading to the erosion of living standards for most workers who either became unemployed or were forced to take low-paying jobs. This generated a great deal of anger and resentment, and dominant, hegemonic intellectuals attempted to shift the blame on the victims of the system, such as racial minorities and undocumented workers as well as on supposedly liberal government policies. This was soon followed by the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the wave of repressive austerity and retrenchment policies, which gave rise to the 2011 progressive mobilizations across the world. Millions took to the streets and protested, but there has been very little immediate structural change of significance, though change may come.[30]

B. The Party—Organize or Perish

In the 1930s, when Gramsci wrote his major works, the Communist Party was the only significant political organization dedicated to the fundamental transformation of capitalism. While communist or socialist parties were not the major actors in the various uprisings in recent years, in some cases they did play important roles, especially in the 2010-2011 Tunisian uprising and the election of a secular government in December 2014. Why was that the case? Tunisia, a former French colony, was a relatively secular country and had a vibrant civil society with a number of progressive nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and social movement organizations (SMOs), especially labor unions and women’s organizations. Its universities were secular and included extensive liberal arts programs, quite unlike the universities of many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), in which education is either largely technical or, more often, religious.[31]

Thus, in Tunisia, after many years of stagnation, ever growing inequality, hardships and dissatisfaction with the government, compounded by the WikiLeaks’ revelations of corruption of the ruling Ben Ali family, the self-immolation of a fruit peddler became the catalyst for massive demonstrations in Tunisia and then elsewhere. The bulk of the demonstrators were the young people. Broad coalitions quickly formed thanks in large part to the existing networks of progressive organizations and the widespread use of the Internet. From this example, we can conclude that a social movement requires not only "organic intellectuals" and counterhegemonic discourses, but also social organizations with dedicated, professional revolutionaries fully committed to long-term struggles to achieve social and political change. Absent such organizations and leadership, we have the passions of Occupy as well as its brief history.

C. Virtual Public Spheres

Organizing social movements today is both more difficult as well as easier than in the past. The potential actors of today—college students, minorities, and certain members of the precariat—have much more diverse class positions and are generally more geographically dispersed. Today’s college students who take liberal arts and social science classes are likely to be exposed to a variety of critical perspectives, even in those cases when the professors are not especially radical.

Moreover, the importance of the Internet should be stressed, especially in so far as the Internet enables the proliferation of a number of “virtual public spheres,” providing a great deal of critical, up-to-date information as well as the space for various debates.[32] The Internet made possible the formation of the variety of transnational activist networks and “internetworked social movements.”[33] In the 2011 uprisings, for instance, computers, cell phones, tablets, and social media played important roles in organizing and directing the mobilizations and occupations in real-time: activists received information about where to gather and what routes to avoid, and they were able to act in concert even if they numbered tens of thousands. While it is true that the movements in each country had some unique features, the Internet was able to keep millions informed and connected across the globe.

D. Digital Memory

Even though the uprisings of 2010-2011 have waned and receded from public attention, it is evident that these mobilizations are far from being forgotten. There now exist online thousands of blogs, websites, and YouTube videos in which the critiques and analyses by various progressive and radical intellectuals remain accessible. There are also many websites that present well-informed, cogent, radical critiques of the capitalist status quo.[34] Moreover, the ongoing critical analyses provided by radical public intellectuals, such as Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Chris Hedges, Richard Wolff, and Naomi Klein, are only a mouse click or app button away. These analyses and critiques, unlike the mass media reports of the civil rights, feminist, and antiwar movements of the 1960s, are relatively free of corporate control and censorship.

E. Cohort Flow

As one surveys the political landscape of the US and beyond, the conditions for a sustained political rebellion from the Left appear almost nonexistent. As Gramsci said, these are times that bring the “pessimism of the intellect,” but demand the “optimism of the will.” The reactionary forces of the populist Right, coupled with the fundamentalist evangelicals and neoliberal technocratic elites, seem formidable. Throughout the European Union, various right-wing, if not openly fascist, organizations are growing. Where the Left has gained strength, for example in Latin America and in Southern Europe, it is presently being challenged and disciplined by austerity and reaction.

The wealth and seeming influence of global capital and the near invisibility of strong radical organizations can no doubt give rise to pessimism. Because such pessimism itself precludes the possibilities of change, current conditions require a more critical examination. For Gramsci, the old system is dying, but the new cannot yet be born. This is why we have to move beyond the prevailing pessimism and envision utopian alternatives in the tradition of Marx, Fromm, and Marcuse. The growing inequality and the rising precariat, together with the speculative essence of finance capital, are the harbingers of further crises. Young people and minority communities have borne the brunt of the adverse consequences of neoliberalism in general and the subsequent economic implosion during and in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 crisis. In many European countries, youth unemployment is nearly 50 percent. Approximately 30 percent of college students move back home after finishing their studies, unable to afford rent, college loans, and the essentials of what is considered a “normal” lifestyle.[35] As has been noted by scholars such as Marcuse and Habermas, such youth are the primary agents for social and political change.

What is to be done? The critique of domination is the essential task for “organic intellectuals” who mediate between critical theories and political praxis. They critique the cultural realms such as religion, education, liberal-democratic ideology and media, which mask the domination of capital and sustain hegemony. They organize and wage “wars of position” where an emancipatory critique articulates hope and the vision of a society where caring and sharing displace greed and indifference; where love and community trump anger, hatred, and exclusion; where creative self-fulfillment displaces banal conformity; and, where people find dignity, instead of humiliation.

But how does this happen? We should consider the importance of generational change, observed by Mannheim almost a century ago.[36] The social, political, and economic context of every generation shapes its worldview and endures as each cohort ages, matures, and becomes the mainstream of society. While each generation may itself be exposed to very different conditions, what is especially evident today is how the younger generations seem to be notably more progressive as evidenced by their support for government intervention into the economy. Half of American youth support socialism. Contemporary youth have become racially tolerant, open to differences of gender and sexual orientation, and embrace diverse lifestyles ranging from gay marriage to cohabitation to puffing weed.

Moreover, some of these values are responses to the fundamental changes in the character structure fostered by new social realities. Growing numbers of young people are not simply aware of the adverse conditions of their lives, but are especially receptive to the arguments and analyses of various progressive “organic intellectuals.” Many have given up on the existing political system in favor of an amorphous, but democratic anarchism.[37] This is a good starting point, because it exposes youth to counterhegemonic critiques and alternatives, and encourages them to enter various activist communities.

Conclusion: Whither Mobilization?

As Marx revealed, capitalism rests upon inherent contradictions of ownership and ever changing market factors resulting in inevitable crises. Yet class reproduction over time, notwithstanding crises, is maintained by the combination of ideological justifications, character structures, and emotional dispositions to consent. Nevertheless, amidst crises, we often see various kinds of resistance from sabotage to retreatist forms of cultural escapism; moreover, longstanding grievances may erupt, fostering progressive social movements from below seeking ameliorative social changes ranging from reforms to uprisings and revolutions.

The recent cycle of mobilizations—generated in the wake of the 2007-2008 financial crisis—confirms the historical pattern: (1) when existing class relationships and elite leadership prove dysfunctional, corrupt, or both, and/or (2) when their legitimating ideologies (promising inclusion and a “glorious” future) are in conflict with actual realities of fragmentation and conflict and/or declining wealth and power, then mobilizations may ensue.

Current conditions (e.g., rising inequality, austerity, bleak job prospects for youth) are fostering fundamental changes in the character structure, subjective values, and aspirations. Much like in the 1960’s, many young people today feel alienated from the capitalist system and its dehumanizing culture of competition, shallow consumerism, endless war, and inordinate waste. Unlike the 1960’s, however, we now face economic stagnation and, for most people, the first genuine encounter with “inverted totalitarianism.”[38] These factors give rise to widespread anger and indignation, which in turn may lead to openness to change and receptivity for the traditions of dialectical critique, including the critical insights of Marx and Marcuse.

The primary task for contemporary “organic intellectuals” is to keep the critical tradition alive and adapt it to our times. Progressive change must begin with the multidimensional critique that is as much concerned with the critique of the prevailing domination as with offering imaginative visions of alternative futures. Such a change will require many dedicated “organic intellectuals” to organize and mobilize the “wars of position” in order to transform the capitalist culture of greed, selfish profit-making, blatant inequality, discrimination, and environmental destruction. The winds of change are blowing, though, admittedly, progressive mobilizations are still weak relative to the power of economic and political opposition. What is certain, however, is that the Frankfurt School’s critical approach to capitalist hegemony, focusing as much on the cultural and psychological aspects as on the political and economic, as elaborated in the works of Fromm and Marcuse, and when brought together with the activist counterhegemonic analysis and strategies of Gramsci, provide us with the needed “optimism of the will.”


[1] See Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975; Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action: Lifeworld and System (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985).

[2] Herbert Marcuse “The Foundations of Historical Materialism” in The Essential Marcuse: Selected Writings of Philosopher and Social Critic Herbert Marcuse, ed. Andrew Feenberg and William Leiss (1932; Boston: Beacon Press, 2007). See Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, ed. Dick J. Struik, trans. Martin Milligan (1844; New York: International Publishers, 1964).

[3] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971).

[4] While lacking a theory developmental psychology, Gramsci did note the importance of early childhood as the period in which cultural values were learned.

[5] Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1941).

[6] Robert Altemeyer, “The Authoritarians” (unpublished manuscript, 2006),


[7] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents (1930; New York: W. W. Norton, 2005).

[8] The superego and authority relations were central in the work of Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno.

[9] Fromm, Escape from Freedom, 277-78.

[10] Ibid., 279-80 (emphasis in original).

[11] Lauren Langman, “Political Economy and the Normative: Marx on Human Nature and the Quest for Dignity,” in Constructing Marxist Ethics, ed. Michael Thompson (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 43-65.; Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb,  Hidden Injuries of Class (New York: Knopf, 1972).

[12] Langman, “Political Economy and the Normative.”

[13] George Lakoff, The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (White River Junction, VT: Charles Green Publishing, 2014).

[14] Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964).

[15] Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975).

[16] James Jaspers, The Art of Moral Protest: Culture, Biography, and Creativity in Social Movements (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

[17] “In 2012, 36% of the nation’s young adults ages 18 to 31—the so-called Millennial generation—were living in their parents’ home, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. This is the highest share in at least four decades and represents a slow but steady increase over the 32% of their same-aged counterparts who were living at home prior to the Great Recession in 2007 and the 34% doing so when it officially ended in 2009. A record total of 21.6 million Millennials lived in their parents’ home in 2012, up from 18.5 million of their same aged counterparts in 2007.” Richard Fry, “A Rising Share of Young Adults Live in Their Parents’ Home: A Record 21.6 Million in 2012,” Social and Demographic Trends, Pew Research Center, August 1, 2013, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/08/01/a-rising-share-of-young-adults-live-in-their-parents-home/. “In fact, the nation’s 18- to 34-year-olds are less likely to be living independently of their families and establishing their own households today than they were in the depths of the Great Recession.” Richard Fry, “More Millennials Living With Family Despite Improved Job Market,” Social and Demographic Trends, Pew Research Center, July 29, 2015, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/07/29/more-millennials-living-with-family-despite-improved-job-market/.

[18] James O’Connor, The Fiscal Crisis of the State (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1973).

[19] It remains an open question as to how effective Syriza has been in so far as the terms of the Greek bailout are still dictated by the Troika and the long-run consequences impossible to predict from this vantage point.

[20] Arthur Shostak, interview by Lane Jennings and Cindy Wagner, “The Futurist Interviews Arthur Shostak,” Future Times, posted on November 28, 2001, http://www.wfs.org/node/350.

[21] Russell Jacoby, Picture Imperfect (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

[22] Chris Hedges, “Why We Need Professional Revolutionists,” Truthdig, November 24, 2014, http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/why_we_need_professional_revolutionists_20141123.

[23] Fabio de Nardis and Loris Caruso, “Political Crisis and Social Transformation in Antonio Gramsci. Elements for a Sociology of Political Praxis,” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science 1, no. 6 (June 2011): 14.

[24] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings, 1910-1920 (New York: International Publishers, 1977), 12.

[25] De Nardis and Caruso, “Political Crisis and Social Transformation in Antonio Gramsci,” 14.

[26] Ibid., 14.

[27] Robert Cox, “Gramsci, Hegemony and International Relations: An Essay in Method,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 12, no. 2 (1983): 162-75.

[28] Kate Crehan, Gramsci, Culture and Anthropology (London: Pluto, 2002), 71.

[29] Tova Benski and Lauren Langman, eds., “From Indignation to Occupation: A New Wave of Global Mobilization,” Current Sociology 61, no. 4, monograph 2 (July 2013); Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2012).

[30] In Tunisia, there was democratization of governance, but not the economy. In Chile and Québec, tuition hikes were rescinded, without any fundamental changes in the nature of governance. Syriza, as we noted, came to power in Greece in January 2015, when its party chairman Alexis Tsipras became Prime Minister, but Syriza has not radically changed economic policies. Nevertheless its Spanish cousin, Podemos, is likely to win the 2015 election in Spain.

[31] Neither the US nor the EU will intervene to defend freedom and democracy in any country unless that country possesses geopolitically important raw materials and resources. Tunisia is the case in point.

[32] Lauren Langman, “From Virtual Public Spheres to Global Justice: A Critical Theory of Internetworked Social Movements,” Sociological Theory 23, no. 1 (2005): 42–74.

[33] Ibid.

[34] See, for example, AlterNet, http://www.alternet.org/; Democracy Now!, http://www.democracynow.org/; Occupy Wall Street, occupy.org; Popular Resistance, https://www.popularresistance.org/; Real News Network, http://therealnews.com/t2/; Truthdig, http://www.truthdig.com/; Truthout, http://www.truth-out.org/.

[35] See note 17.

[36] Karl Mannheim, “The Problem of Generations,” in Essays in the Sociology of Knowledge (1926; London: Routledge, 1952), 276-322.

[37] At the time of this writing, in late 2015, large numbers of youth are flocking to support US Senator Bernie Sanders in his campaign to become the Democratic presidential nominee. His critiques of the injustices of the capitalist system seem to have hit some very responsive chords, and his rallies have attracted tens of thousands of people. Whether he will succeed in gaining the nomination is far from certain, but the enthusiasm and size of the crowds supporting him do suggest that more and more people in the US support fundamental political and social changes; however, whether such transformation can be achieved through the Democratic Party remains very questionable.

[38] The basic contradiction of capitalism is the class-based ownership of private property and competing interests between labor and capital; however, there are also other contradictions: ideologies of freedom, equality, and brotherhood mask domination, inequality, and antagonisms between classes. Capital extolls democracy while actual power is wielded by the financial elites that control the State—what Wolin has called “inverted totalitarianism.” Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

Category : Hegemony / Intellectuals / Organizing

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