Gramsci’s Hegemony Applied to Latinos in the USA

by Hergit "Coco" Llenas

             The judge who sentenced Antonio Gramsci to twenty years in prison accused him of conspiracy, inciting class hate and thus becoming an apologist for crime. In 1928, the prosecutor declared: “We must stop this brain from working for twenty years.” However, this attempt to block his ideas did not succeed. Consequently, Antonio Gramsci stands today as the “Father of Cultural Marxism.” Every movement of the twentieth century opposed to the globalization of capitalism as well as the feminist, Marxist, indigenous, ecologist, sexual minorities, students and agricultural movements owe a debt to Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. For Gramsci, these movements belong to the cultural realm as evidenced by his statement “culture was more important than economics or politics (Jacobs).”

            Like his predecessor Karl Marx, Gramsci proposed a vision of a different world where the dynamics of power needed to change and where the ruling class, namely the capitalist, would not dominate the many of the proletariat-. He believed that since capitalism is against the economic interest of the workers, and since the workers are much more numerous than their employers, a proletarian revolution should be both inevitable and successful (Norton Anthology of Criticism and Theory, 928). This vision did not materialize in Italy, his country of birth, where Mussolini’s fascist hegemony won the battle against communist ideology. This failure to bring power to the dominated class has been also a struggle for minority groups like the Latinos in the United States, where the forces of hegemony had maintained a vast population on the margins. 

            Hegemony is a term coined by Gramsci that describes what he called “manufactured consent.” This consent originates in the indoctrination of the people via three major institutions: education, religion, and media. The role of these institutions serves the interests of a dominant group or classes who imposed their will on another group/or class. 

            In order to disrupt the influence of the dominant class, Gramsci’s theory trusted that the intellectuals should produce a revolution by shifting the power to the working class while contesting issues such as gender, race, and sexual identity. In The Formation of the Intellectuals, the linguist formulates the characteristics, forms, and functions of the intellectuals’ relationship with the world of production. He identifies two types of intellectuals, traditional and organic. The traditional “administers established entities: military, school, political bureaucracies, judicial systems, etc.” The organic intellectuals come from classes/groups who stand in opposition to the establishment. According to Orthodox Marxists, this model presents a problem, since it seems antidemocratic to concentrate such large power on the intellectual class alone (928-929). 

            How could the collective populace transform the institutions and the social relationships of a society to reform the oppressive hegemonic culture? The answer lays in the formation of a revolutionary subject, which in turn experiences two types of conditions, one objective, one subjective. The first refers to the crisis of the capitalist system responsible for misery, unemployment, and displacement. The latter describes an agreement between parts that decide to find solutions for the problems affecting them as a community. As a result, the subjective condition should rebalance the hegemonic forces, giving birth to a counter-hegemony. However, western Marxists such as Gramsci understood too well that “many workers were indifferent and even hostile to worker’s movements and socialism.” Hence, the failure of the left to conquest/or the hearts and minds of the Italian people (Gramsci 928).

            Cesar Chavez’s activism on behalf of the farm workers exemplifies a successful example of counter-hegemony at play. The failure of North American society to give Latino children access to quality education, so they could become the equipped intellectuals needed to start a revolution that articulates the aspirations of this group, embodies the hegemony forces at its best. The Pew Research Center reported, “As of 2014, among Hispanics ages 25 to 29, just 15% of Hispanics have a bachelor’s degree or higher. By comparison, among the same age group, about 41% of whites have a bachelor’s degree or higher.” Following Gramsci’s text The Formation of Intellectuals, one finds that although all men exist as intellectually capable individuals, some could become a homo faber while others turn into a home sapiens.  The sapiens is an artist, philosopher and man of taste, while the other is a trained gorilla. In both cases, school “is the instrument through which intellectuals of various levels are elaborated (…) the more extensive the area covered by education and the more numerous the vertical levels of schooling, the more complex is the cultural, the civilization of a particular state (Gramsci 932).” Let’s use the State of Nevada as an example.

            In Nevada, almost 50% of all K-3 children are Latinos, yet as of fall 2012, the University Nevada Las Vegas/’/ enrollment was 23.5 percent Hispanic, the College of Southern Nevada (CSN) was at 24.7 percent, and the Nevada State College was at 20 percent (Amaro). However, the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) reported that in 2019, only 10% of Latino males, and 14% of Latino females graduated from CSN. Studying these numbers while considering that the local economy relies on an uneducated labor force dedicated to cleaning, cooking, serving food, and cleaning hotel rooms, and what could be considered a long list low- brow kind of jobs, one could argue that the dominant classes who owns property, govern, and legislate have little interest in developing a critical mass of people who had accumulated intellectual wealth.  This Hispanic mass, on the other hand, has not attempted a counter-hegemony despite decades of low education performance from the part of the institutions in charge.

            One of the characteristics of Gramsci’s version of Marxism stands on the notion of workers all being the same by virtue of their social position generates an environment extremely static. Two people may belong to the working class yet have different concerns, beliefs, and tendencies among them. When explaining Gramsci’s thoughts about this topic, The Norton Anthology’s introduction states that for Gramsci the traditional Marxist notion of ‘class’ is too inert if it leads us to believe that workers, by virtue of their social position, always belong to the same class and possess the same attitudes and interests (928). Unlike the workers Chavez organized who were all farmers and mostly Mexican, the Latino population in the United States does not constitute a homogenous mass. The Pew Research Center recognizes fifteen major nationalities of Latino origin coexisting inside the United States territory. 

            Latinos from Argentina behave in a Eurocentric manner, while in contrast, Dominicans behave in an Afrocentric way. They barely form a “historic bloc,” another phrase used by the Gramsci to describe a concept that implies unity between the structure and the superstructure.  Stephen Gill defines a historical bloc as a process initiated by a conscious social force which intends to establish a new hegemony[1] (58). For Sotiris, the historic bloc signifies the articulation of a strategy for a transition program or programs emanating from the collective struggle, ingenuity and experimentation of the subaltern classes, organizational forms, new political practices, and new political intellectuals. Based on these definitions, few places in the United States with a large concentration of Latinos fit the label of a historic block, with perhaps the exception of Florida, New York, Texas, and California[2] where they count with a cream of the crop selected group that have capital and an entrepreneurship spirit, both aspects of what Gramsci’s considers key to a high-level social elaboration. For him, the entrepreneur must be an organizer of masses of men; he must be an organizer of the “confidence” of investors in business, of the customers for his products. If not all entrepreneurs, at least an élite amongst them must have the capacity to be an organizer of society in general, including all its complex organism of services, right up to the state organism, because of the need to create the conditions most favorable to the expansion of their own class (Gramsci 930). In that vein, California served as the breaking ground for Mega Marchas, a protest against immigration laws considered as one of the most successful Latino-driven counter-hegemony movements (Gonzalez). Gonzalez argues that

The Mega Marchas were a counter-hegemonic moment because, for the first time, Latino migrants and US-born Latinos were able to wield moral and intellectual leadership on the issue of migration control in civil society in the spring of 2006. Evidence of this leadership can be found in the millions of migrants and their allies who took to the streets for the Mega Marchas to protest H.R. 4437 and in the consequent shift, albeit brief, in the national discourse and policy options around migration control. The national discourse on migration control briefly went from one of criminalizing migrants and considering enforcement-only legislation, to humanizing them and putting the legislation of twelve million undocumented workers on the negotiable table.

                  Nonetheless, beyond California’s Mega Marchas and the few states mentioned earlier, the lack of power, the scarcity of intellectual ideas, and the absence of an alliance towards a new hegemony remain minimal for the 60 million Hispanics living in the United States. 

            Beyond politics, “the category of ecclesiastics” as Gramsci refers to the church, plays its part as an already established monopoly characterized for its hold on important services such as religious ideology, philosophy, morality, justice, and charity. These intellectuals emerge into history from tradition and are bound to the established aristocracy. They represent an historical continuity uninterrupted even by the most complicated and radical changes in political and social forms (Gramsci 931). In modern days, the ecclesiastics advise their followers, mostly composed by Mexicans and Central Americans, in favor of large families. Their congregation consents in perpetuating the manufactured “blessing” of more children even when the socio-economic conditions place all odds against that bet. Some evidence published by the the Pew Research Center suggests that 66% of young Latino did not enroll in college due to financial difficulties, choosing instead to enter the job market or the military immediately after high school (Krogstad). Presumably, this youth is predestined to become an under-educated, underpaid mass of adults. Could Latinos ignite a cultural revolution derived from a counter-hegemony ideology to overthrow the monopoly of an institution so powerful that Gramsci equates it to the aristocracy itself? According to Gramsci, this possibility depends on the ability of any group to conquer the ideology of the traditional intellectuals[3], which entails the elaboration of its own and new organic group of intellectuals. How? By getting a proper education given that “School is the instrument through which intellectual of various levels are elaborated (Gramsci 934).” 

            As referenced before, less than twenty percent of children of Hispanic origin achieve a post-secondary education. Are they destined to a cage of misery, unemployment, and displacement of the capitalist crisis? Likely so. Gramsci compares countries with intellectuals, stating that the country enjoying the highest level of civilization is a country best equipped with a production system capable to create machines with which to produce machines, and capable of manufacturing complex instruments in the technical-industrial field. “The same applies to the preparation of intellectuals and to the schools dedicated to this preparation.” In order to belong to the dominant civil society or the political society, getting a high-level education is a must (934-35).                        

            Media has also played an important part in defining the Latino identity. Through the depiction of violent gang member to the rapist accusations pronounced by former President Donald Trump, the Hispanic population endures unfavorably depictions. From the episodes of the television series Cops to the role as helpers, gangster, drug-lords, and sexy bombshells, the Latino are relegated to the narrow field of sexed-up, servile, dangerous, worthless people manifested in media to represent just that. Television and films have portrayed Latinos as the nannies, the housekeepers, “the narco,” the violent-tattooed-new-feared Guido. Sofia Bergara is depicted as the sex bomb, simpleminded wife of Modern Family, a light piece of entertainment otherwise intended to be conscious about gay folks. The print and broadcast news speaks of the country of Mexico as a place filled with dismembered bodies, bacteria-infused water, and cartel shootings. Cops showed regularly thieves, drunks, and bums of cinnamon color.

            Is media stifling the historic bloc, just like Fascist hegemony did in Gramsci’s Italy among the workers? Gramsci’s meditations on intellectuals do include such cultural consideration. Moreover, Gramsci’s ideas point out that must exist an opposition formed by organic intellectuals who articulates the struggle of the underrepresented members of their society. This opposition is formed not by writers, performers, or academics working inside established institutions, which might only repeat the same old discourse, but by a new set of influential people capable to express the hopes of disenfranchised communities still unrecognized inside the official circles of power (930).

          In the aftermath of the Mega Marchas, the Latino Historic Bloc began to disintegrate rapidly, as Gonzales explains it:

Although the Mega Marchas constitute a counter-hegemonic moment, they cannot be confused with a sustainable and successful counter-hegemonic project that could completely defeat anti-migrant forces in the state and in civil society. Rather, the Latino Historic Bloc disintegrated almost as quickly as it congealed, because of a familiar set of internal and external contradictions: divisions over the substantive content of the legislative proposals being considered in Congress, internal class and ideological contradictions, cooptation by Hispanic Democrats, lack of political clarity, lack of resources and good-old fashion caciquismo, all of which led to its disintegration (33). 

Thus, the moment never became a movement.

            Latinos separate themselves by nationality, class, race, and other descriptors of their cultural backgrounds, which results in a complex populace with no monolithic hierarchy of its own, which challenges the notion of a historic bloc, as proposed by Gramsci. In the event these differences could be bridged, Latinos can position themselves as a group able to generate a counter-hegemonic movement. Until then, they remain subjected to the forces, depictions, and arbitrations pushed by the dominant class. The potential success of a counter-hegemony strategy, as explained by Gramsci’s theory, is possible thanks to the coordinated efforts of the organic intellectuals. These individuals must infiltrate the press, the political parties, the world of advertising, and think tanks in order to produce a different manufactured consent with the intention of changing and influencing culture, morality and political agendas (O’Neil 67).

However, the formation of such an intellectual class becomes almost an impossibility because the dominant class maintains its narrative through media, education and traditional institutions like the church that diminishes the perception of Latinos, keeps them trapped in an environment that lacks access to a of high-level education, which in turn makes it very difficult for this population to evolve into an orchestrated group of organic intellectuals with a cohesive agenda, namely a new stratum of revolutionary subjects coming together to stand in opposition to the establishment by shifting judicial, political, and civic powers and reclaiming their voices, resolving issues of perception, representation, access, and power.

 Works Cited

            Amaro, Yesenia. “Nevada colleges work to pump up Hispanic Enrollment.” Las Vegas Review Journal. May 27, 2013. Online, https://www.reviewjournal.com/local/education/nevada-colleges-work-to-pump-up-hispanic-enrollment/

            Bustamante, Luis, Mario Hugo Lopez & Jens Manuel Krogstad. “US Hispanic Population Surpassed 60 Million in 2019, But Growth Has Slowed.” Pew Research Center, Jul. 7, 2020. Online, https://pewrsr.ch/30oRezf

            Eaton, George. “Why Antonio Gramsci is the Marxist thinker for our time.” The NewStateman, Feb. 5, 2018. Online,  https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/observations/2018/02/why-antonio-gramsci-marxist-thinker-our-times

            Gill, Stephen. Power and Resistance in the New World Order, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2002.

            Gonzalez, Alfonzo. “The 2006 Mega Marchas in Greater Los Angeles: Counter-Hegemonic Moment and the Future of El Migrante Struggle.” Latin Studies Vol. 7 (2009) 30-59. Online, https://doi.org/10.1057/lst.2009.2

            Gramsci, Antonio. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Robert S. Levine, 3rd ed., W. W. Norton, (2001) 927-935.

            Heywood, Andrew. Political Ideas and Concepts: An Introduction, London, Macmillan, 1994.

            Jacobs, Sam. “Cultural Marxism’s Origins: How the Disciple of an Obscure Italian Linguist Subverted America.” The Legalreader, Nov.16, 2020. Online, https://www.legalreader.com/cultural-marxisms-origins-how-the-disciples-of-an-obscure-italian-linguist-subverted-america/

            Krogstad, Jens Manuel. “5 facts about Latinos and Education.” Pew Research Center, July 18, 2016. Online, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/07/28/5-facts-about-latinos-and-education

             “NSHE Graduation Rates.” Institutional Research, Jan 6, 2121. Online, https://ir.nevada.edu/dashboard.php?d=graduation_rates

            O’Neill, Deirdre & Mike WayneConsidering Class, Theory, Culture and the Media in the 21st Century. Boston: Leiden, 2018. 

            Sotiris, Panagiotis. “Gramsci & the Challenges of the Left: The Historical Blok as a Strategic Concept.” Science & Society, Vol. 82, (2018) 94-119. Online, https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/pdf/10.1521/siso.2018.82.1.94


[1] The concept of historical block refers to a social class or political party that seeks to organize themselves -and others- to take part in a broader political and financial alliance. Gramsci argues that in that process the organic intellectual play an important role in elaborating the new ideas aimed to gain hegemony.

[2] Source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/259850/hispanic-population-of-the-us-by-state/

[3] For O’Neill & Wayne, the term traditional intellectuals refers to the way intellectuals associated with one mode of production need to be assimilated by the intellectuals associated with a rising class and a new mode of production. So /that/ for example, the intellectuals of the feudal mode of production (clerics, scholars, artists) had to be integrated and re-functioned according to the new practices and needs of the capitalist mode of production. Likewise, the intellectuals developed within capitalism would become the ‘traditional’ intellectuals vis-à-vis the development of a socialist mode of production, and again would need to be assimilated into new social priorities and needs.