Using Gramsci to Understand the Arab Uprisings

Nadim Mirshak: In this current period of post-uprising Egypt, civil society seems to be one of the few spaces left where hegemony is challenged in ways that are different from protests, sit-ins or violent demonstrations. In your book, Gramsci, Freire and Adult Education: Possibilities for Transformative Action (1999) you argue that civil society should not be romanticized. Can you explain what you mean?

Peter Mayo: Central to Gramsci’s notion of hegemony is that civil society is not always oppositional. Gramsci was looking at what the Germans call “bürgerliche gesellschaft,” bourgeois civil society. What he means is that if a transformation would take place within civil society and within the interstices of hegemony itself, or if a great revolution or intellectual and moral reform took place, maybe it would not remain a bourgeois civil society anymore. But it would still remain civil society nonetheless.

Nowhere in Gramsci’s writings does he use the term “counter-hegemony,” precisely because he wants to avoid this notion of binary, of being “counter” or “hegemonic.” The two are instead intertwined, dialectically if you like. One cannot be counter-hegemonic without participating within the hegemonic system. At the same time, the hegemonic system is never one hundred…

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