Gramsci and positioning

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Tad Tietze (@dr_tad), a Sydney psychiatrist and blogger at Left-Flank, didn’t think much of my blog post about positioning. Tad is one of those lefties who joined the Greens political party for a few years, then left because they weren’t pure enough. He now has a little cottage industry of blogging at the Drum (for free) about the Greens party factions and Labor politics (a topic about which he has no personal experience).

I’ve crossed paths with Tad a few times before, most recently with a debate about whether the laid-off workers at the Toyota factory should go on strike (and which later devolved into Tad criticising unions for capitulating to neoliberalism during the Accord). Tad appears to have no personal experience working in unions or as a union delegate. (It is also clear that Tad has never read Crosby’s Power at Work.) I also had a debate with Tad about binding caucuses in the Greens party. (Of course, I’m happy to be corrected by Tad or someone else about his experiences. I only have his public profiles to go on.)

In any case, in my post about political positioning and the ALP, I made a reference to Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci was an Italian communist, intellectual, parliamentarian and political prisoner. His chief contribution to political theory was the concept of hegemony, which is a nuanced explanation of how power is exercised — through the creation of things like dominant values, coalitions of classes (blocs), and creation of consent. He argued that in order for a ruling power (or dominant groups) must be willing to be sufficiently flexible to respond to new circumstances and to the changing wishes of those it rules.

Gramsci rejected the notion that power is something that can be achieved once and for all: “Instead he conceives it as an ongoing process,  operative even at those moments when a ruling class or group can no longer generate consent. In the process, society becomes saturated with attempts to police the boundary between the desires of the dominant and the demands of the subjugated.”

Gramsci’s theory of hegemony is a useful framework for looking at electoral politics and critically assessing the political contest of ideas. Furthermore, his theory is grounded in the notion of praxis – the realisation of theory – the same preoccupation for the field of marketing in general. Hegemony is a useful framework to explain the dialectical tension that can exist in a contested political space (for example.

Specifically, hegemony gives us an analytical tool that lets us examine the role of political parties (even parties of the ruling classes), as a “dominant alliance” (or as Gramsci describes it, “historical bloc”), as well as the various coalitions and compromises that corporations, the judiciary, the media, unions, social groupings and radicals reach to accommodate various needs or demands. Gramsci’s The Modern Prince proposes for example, a collective agent who “organises and strategises counter-hegemonic challenges” — a role that, in the context of party vs party political conflict, can help us understand the political nature of their contestation.

On positioning, Gramsci used the terms “war of maneuver” and “war of position” to help explain how revolutionary movements succeeded or failed, particularly failed in the advanced Western countries. He argued that in the West, revolution could not happen because the western democracies had generated a complex array of political groups and institutions which would have to be disentangled from their relationship with bouregois society before any revolution could succeed. The trade unions and social democratic parties (Labo(u)r in Australia and the UK) were part of this entanglement. The fast-paced revolutions of Russia (or China or Cuba) were wars of maneuver. The superstructures were poorly developed and so there were few intermediaries between revolutionaries and the ruling classes.

The war of position is what happens in advanced western democracies. It is a struggle fought over many years within the superstructure, in which meanings and values become the object of the struggle. The ruling groups (capitalists) within these societies, understanding that there will be struggle against their rule, have developed a tightly woven network of practices, institutions and meanings which guard against any internal disintegration, making social upheaval a political and psychological impossibility.

The war of position decisively supersedes the full on frontal attack (i.e. armed resistance). Instead, Gramsci likened the war of position within civil society to trench warfare.

Gramsci also warned against “progressive projects” that appear intellectualised and abstract rather than concrete and grounded”. He called Marxism the “philosophy of praxis” — partly due to necessity after being imprisoned by the Fascists, and partly because it clearly expressed the idea that Marxism is an active, doing world-view that fundamentally is practical. He wrote about building a “common sense” which has an affective or emotional aspect, rather than just being abstract theorising: “The intellectual must combine the feelings that are prominent within good sense”. (He also argued that the intellectuals and leaders of a movement must be organic to those they educate and persuade!)

How does all this relate to my article about positioning as a political marketing concept?

Let me just take a brief break from the Marxist theory.

Marketing — that is, marketing as an approach to business, rather than a shorthand for advertising/sales — is about addressing the perceived needs of a customer. This contrasts to sales oriented business. Sales/production oriented business is geared around making a product or producing a service, then trying to convince people to buy the good or use the service. It “works” (that is, profitable) when demand outstrips supply (i.e. the post-WWII period). But today in most western democracies, we produce more than can be consumed.

In theory, the marketing-oriented companies instead of trying to convince, cajole or con people into buying the mass-produced goods they make, start from the reverse. What does the customer want/need? How can I deliver that to them? If their needs change, the company changes its production, services, support, communications, rather than continue to try to sell the same things.

Then, the whole hegemonic apparatus of the capitalist system provides tools for businesses to do so. Supply chains, market research, sales teams, factories, lobbyists and more.

Within the capitalist system, marketing-oriented companies tend to do better in building that consent that Gramsci was talking about, but within the superstructure and the hegemonic bloc, rather than between competing classes.

Lefties really don’t like the idea of marketing or applying the concepts of marketing theory to politics. Possibly this is a gut reaction to the term marketing (synonymous with advertising, poll-driven politics, and hollow men). Possibly because it seems to connote “running government like a business”. Perhaps because politics is such as serious thing, it is perceived to be debased when compared with something as base as commerce. Politics is not the same as selling brands of toothpaste! It’s about serious things, public policy, class struggle! (This isn’t helped by leading marketing theorist Philip Kotler saying that “Political contests remind us that candidates are marketed as well as soap”.)

Of course, political marketing is different from marketing goods or services; Andrew Lock and Phillip Harris from Manchester University go into this in depth. The marketing concepts for products/services cannot be directly translated across to politics. According to Lock and Harris, political marketing involves “facilitating exchanges between an organization and its environment.”

Marketing is as much about the process of planning and executing the conception, pricing, promotion and distribution of ideas — that is, brands.

What marketing can do is help progressive parties to help form a “common sense” — a counter-hegemony. The enormous amounts of money invested in marketing research, trying to find ways to influence peoples’ views, beliefs and values have given political activists, parties, tools to use. Just because they’re the tools of “class enemies” doesn’t mean they should be spurned. (The whole basis of Marxist guerrilla warfare argues for the capturing and use of enemy weapons and resources!)

Now think about political groups, and many progressive causes and organisations. Fundamentally, they are stuck in the production/sales mindset. “If we can just convince people that they need our cause, we’ll be ok.” “If only people knew about the benefits/worthiness of our politics, they’d join.” Progressives produce a product and spend all their time trying to convince people to buy it (conceptually that is).

The problem is, human minds don’t work the way progressives wishes it did. George Lakoff has written about this. Go and read his book now.

The consequence of this, as Tad might say, is that modern Australian political parties no longer represent social movements. Labor long ago stopped representing the working class in Australia. It now is largely autonomous of a social base, with some remnant links to the union movement leadership. The same can be said of the Liberal Party, and the Greens Party. They are now self-perpetuating machines that produce a political product and every three years, we’re all forced to buy one brand or another.

Because lefties see marketing as sales, they connect it to the most prominent clash of politics: elections. This links to their concepts of polling, market research and focus groups, and advertising. Electioneering is just one part of the political process (although it is the most obvious). For more on this, see Dominic Wring from Loughborough University’s journal article, here.

The entire marketing process, the exchange of value and values, with the goal of satisfying producer and customer, is conceptually similar (in many, not all regards) to the hegemonic relationship between ruling and subaltern groups.

Marketing theory is ultimately very practical. How to improve supply chains. How to increase profit. How to extend communications.

Gramsci’s philosophy of praxis is concerned with the practical implementation of Marxist politics. What needs to be done, on a concrete level, to raise the consciousness of the subaltern classes in society, build alliances and blocs, challenge the “common sense” of the ruling groups.

Tad rather mordantly said of my earlier blog: “If this is the best that the bright young things of the ALP Left have to offer, the party is in MUCH more trouble than I’d suspected.”

A few wags (including John Quiggin and Richard Denniss of the Australian Institute) chipped in with comments like:

David Rylance Yikes. And that totally contentless reference to Gramsci is like the dark crying out in the dark.

Liz Ross Hopeless – white noise indeed

Tad Tietze He’s been debating me on Twitter & elsewhere. Thinks the main barrier to union growth today is unions not asking people to join, and that debates over the Accord are “stuck in the 1980s”.

John Quiggin Perhaps if the ALP actually had some positions ….

Richard Denniss ‎’A marketing-oriented organisation is values driven’….oh dear

This kind of attitude is precisely the intellectualised and abstract sniping that Gramsci warned progressives to be wary of. It is comment divorced from reality, analysis (or critique) without substance.

At this time, a discussion of political positioning is apt. Using marketing theories to do so can help throw a different, unexpected light on an intractable problem or issue — e.g. why the ALP is in such dire straights. Political positioning is about the contestation of meanings, symbols, values.

While Tad’s analysis of Labor’s woes may be interesting as an intellectual exercise, it is fundamentally disconnected from the concrete. He is not writing from experience, and many of his throw-away lines demonstrate little substantial knowledge of what he writes about. That is, it is arm-chair stuff. Interesting thought pieces; ethereal and conceptually perfect, but ultimately useless if you want to get your hands dirty and change things.

4 responses to “Gramsci and positioning”

  1. John Quiggin Avatar
    John Quiggin

    My comment may have been snarky, but it was intended seriously. Do you really think Labor’s big problem is inadequate marketing of a good product? In Qld, they marketed their asset sales policy with every trick in the book (a brazenly dishonest leaflet delivered to every households, bogus Treasury analysis, celebrity endorsements, a special purpose website and so on). I’m confident that the voters understood the values of the organization they were being asked to endorse, and they gave their answer at the ballot box.

    1. Alex Avatar

      Hi John,

      Thanks for your comment. Bit distracted at the moment because I’m watching the SBS doco on “Before the Big Bang”. I’d just say a few things.

      I think you’re equating marketing with advertising. Advertising is not enough. If you have a rubbish product, no amount of advertising will solve that. You can’t use advertising to change peoples’ minds when they’re made up. In QLD, peoples’ minds were made up about Anna Bligh and Labor. They’re made up about Gillard. No amount of marketing trickery can change peoples’ minds.
      The values I was referring to relates to brand theory. Labor has trashed its brand. Brands have values that offer a promise to people. People form relationships with those brands. Marketing is about making a brand live up to those promises. Labor’s values have been systematically let down over the last few decades by various leaders/factions/etc. A marketing approach to running the ALP would (in my view) helped ensure Labor lived up to its values — i.e. social democratic values and policies, rather than Liberal-lite economic rationalist ones.
      My various points about marketing really are to reiterate the first two points. Marketing is not just advertising and focus groups. Too many people in the ALP (and the left in general) equate marketing with those things, which causes problems.

      To solve the QLD and national ALP problem, Labor needs to go back to its promise and live them, and demonstrate them. I.e. jettison the neo-liberal economic policies and conservative social policies (e.g. opposition to same-sex marriage).

      Here’s some thoughts:

      Thoughts from Afar on the QLD election
      Beyond Preoccupations

    2. Shayne O Avatar
      Shayne O

      I honestly have no idea what labors values are anymore, and I honestly suspect neither does labor.

      Thats the thing with the torys. Even if you detest them, you can easily predict their positions on things. Likewise on the other end of the scale with the greens. They are well defined “brands” that are relatively consistent. But labor have been so all over the place that a vote for them seems risky. I mean atheist left-backgrounded gillard in the minority that opposes gay marriage? I cant even compute that. But you could give me almost any given topic, and most people could make an accurate guess as to where rabbit or brown stand on it. Thus the torys (or greens) almost dont need to push their message, since folks already know it.

      1. Alex Avatar

        Shayne, I take your point but I think the problem lies in the top echelons of Labor. There are plenty of good people working very hard to do good within Labor.

        Also, Tony Abbott and the Liberals’ positions have been all over the place in the last three years. Abbott and Hockey oppose handouts to people, although they support the private health rebate and want to pay for nannies for rich people. They oppose tax increases, but want to raise company tax to pay for maternity leave. Ad infinitum. The Tories get a free pass from the media while there are scandals besetting the government.

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