History of Subaltern Classes, Antonio Gramsci

For my previous reading, I discussed how Marx and Engel argued that the ideology in place in a given society is dictated by the ruling class. In a selection of his Prison Notebooks, Marx theorist Antonio Gramsci continued to build upon the idea that ideology is a monopoly controlled by those in power. In class, we discussed how this played out in American politics, particularly the way corporate influence helps guide presidential campaigns.

However, this theory can be applied to many areas of the world. Depending on how you spin it, this can be either unsettling or a small comfort that we’re not the only ones doing it.

In a 2008 Journal of Economic and Social Policy, Drew Cottle and Joseph Collins use Gramsci’s idea of hegemony to analyze how the elite forces in Australia influence public policy. Their article WorkChoices: Ruling Class Mobilisation in Contemporary Australia examines the changing landscape of  business  in Australia in recent decades and how that has affected current legislation practices.

They first confirm that an Australian ruling class exists and is able to indirectly rule politically. This is something we already know from Marxist theory, but the researchers go beyond to see what consequences can arise from this type of behavior.

This idea, they say, has become more prominent since the European markets in the 1960s caused a quantitative shift in mobile capital, which in turn redirected influence from industrial capital to finance capital. In the years following this change, they argue that “economics became more technical and specialised, one might say, summarily, Americanised.”

One way to control this shift in ideological practice in the business sector was through the education system, both formal and informal.

“By virtue of their education people are fooled into believing they belong to a fictitious upper-middle class,” they say. “Resentment of the ruling class is curbed by inspiring false aspirations of social mobility. Thus, the hegemonic situation is maintained through education.”

In regard to business influence affecting public policy, Cottle and Collins point to the drafting of legislation as the tipping point. When a private firm has the resources to work closely with the government to help shape public policy, it leaves in comparison a public sector that can’t compete and is unequipped to function effectively on its own. Private firms must then fill public sectors, and with that, the objective of the firms to maximize profit brings about problems.

An example they use to show this process in action is the Business Council of Australia, a conglomerate of the chief executives from Australia’s 100 leading corporations. In February 2005, the BCA released a document called “BCA’s Workplace Relations Action Plan for Future Prosperity.” In it, they provide standards for greater flexibility for the private sector, reduction in barriers to job creation and increased efficiency of workplace regulation. By May, the Prime Minister and Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations unveiled their own drafted legislation with the same terms to be pushed through government. And of course by November, the legislation became law.

As Gramsci would say, this is a prime example of how privatized business with leverage to enact change on its own terms only serves to build and sustain itself. If, as Cottle and Collins say, people are well aware of the connection of corporations driving public policy, what’s keeping them from opposing the practices?

According to Gramsci, such a monopoly of ideas and practices are reenacted through daily life, especially through the media and what it chooses to portray or leave out of headlines. Time magazine (and Newsweek when it was still around) has been called out for making questionable decisions about what gets displayed as the cover story in the US edition, and what runs on international editions of the magazines. At a base level, media influences people by making them feel something. While sometimes it can be an interesting look at society and the human experience, other times it can be distasteful.

Another problem with leaving mass media to inform the public to be aware and self-governing is that media itself is a business, too. The display text you read on a magazine cover is  called a sell line because that’s literally what it’s intended to do — be so provocative or compelling or bold that you just might pick up a copy over its competitor. But when the majority of media is controlled by a small handful of the powerful elite, as the infographic below shows, what do they really have at stake?



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