An essay by Ananthan Ajit
Education is among the primary spheres in which politics are internalized, produced, and reproduced (i.e. where politics are educated). The Italian Marxist theorist, educator, and prisoner of fascism Antonio Gramsci created the concept of cultural hegemony in his indispensible Prison Notebooks, and while he never explicitly defines it, the following quote by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels describes its effect: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” Hegemony is the means by which the dominant group in society creates consent in subordinate groups in order to avoid exerting armed state coercion or “direct domination”, because the method by which the ruling class is the most powerful and most unseen is through manufacturing the consent of its ruled masses. It is a means of domination enacted by the intellectuals of the economic ruling class materialized primarily through printed matter and further reproduced through all of their institutional, cultural, social, and political productions and reproductions. According to Grasmci, “every relationship of hegemony is necessarily an educational relationship…”. Any social or cultural production is intrinsically political, and these politics are transmitted through “educations”. This educative characteristic of hegemony is dangerous; it implies that institutions of education are institutions of a cultural hegemony, necessarily. The institution of the school performs on behalf of the elite, colluding with other civil society structures in order to form the “apparatus of the political and cultural hegemony of the ruling class.”
Hegemony as a system of assimilation into subordinacy, sanitization or silencing of revolutionary academia, and dominance of traditional, ruling intellectuals is seemingly all encompassing and utterly debilitating, but only to a certain extent. Gramsci also outlines a method of organic intellectual resistance, which is a saving grace for a structurally bleak situation. A key dialectic relationship is the interdependence and inter-constituency of intellectuals and the revolution. In the first place, Vladimir Lenin, as explicated in his seminal piece What is to be Done? and Gramsci agree “there is no organization without intellectuals, that is without organizers and leaders…”. In the words of Gramscist Diana Coben, marginalized classes must “produce [their] own organic intellectuals in order to perform the task of articulating and disseminating the hegemony of their class over society as a whole.” It seems then, that there is not solely the culturally dominant intellectual and their subservient spawn; in fact there is a distinction between traditional intellectuals and organic intellectuals, the intellectual oppressor and the intellectual oppressed. A key thing to remember is that dominant systems of hegemony (particularly institutions) are created to propagate the dominance of the oppressor and are diametrically opposed to the wants and needs of the oppressed; they will solely make concessions in their own interest to manufacture and maintain the consent of the masses.
The hegemony of systemic racism is prevalent and existent on campuses across the US, obviously, because the hegemony of racism is prevalent and existent in the US in its totality, since the well-documented history European colonization of the earth, and any of you who require explanation for that statement are the intellectual victims of hegemony. In the context of the Blackout-Bard phenomenon (by this I refer to the protests and walkouts organized in the winter of 2015 based on the series of racist incidents at Yale and Mizzou), the Students of Color list of demands were reformist; we were calling upon the institution of hegemony to represent us through actions that they have not responded to seriously and have no willingness to enact. The Bard Student Government event “Education, Diversity, Inclusion, and Bard” on Feb. 24th merely amounted to a series of bureaucratic and clerical motions; in other words, this meeting amounted to nothing. As a movement, our reliance on institutional action is both counterintuitive and ultimately a form of concession. In addition to Bard’s ineffectiveness, we also have not taken concrete steps to creating the environment we desire. I feel that it is fair to say that the actions taken by students were not taken seriously enough, not because of the organizers lack of seriousness, but because the actions taken were mild, temporary, and reactive to incidents, instead of based on the organic principles and objective of an organized movement. In order to actualize the demands of Blackout Bard, our activism and organization must be rethought to be less congruent with the act of capitulation or negotiation to or with the hegemonic institution, and instead, to be fully congruent with the terms of the activists, with more organization occurring within the student body.
The actual situation of our movement for change is that it has not been militant, organized, consolidated, or directed enough to actualize our demands. We must realize that WE ARE OUR OWN REPRESENTATIVES. I am calling for an end to participating in the dominant politics of respectability, pleading, and patience because all we will get are half-resolutions like “diversity” training. Do we truly believe that the institution has the intent to ending institutional racism, a construct of its own devising?
As an intersectional, multi-organizational student movement to end institutional oppression, our calls for diversification are not enough. Despite that Bard’s faculty, staff, security, and student body is cumulatively homogenous in demographic, it is relatively easy to hire teachers, workers, and accept students that can look like us while preaching the same canon that leads people into reproducing hegemonic ideologies. How do we negotiate our want for representation with the reality that this is not enough to reshape the educative properties of dominance and hegemony? We must stop speaking the language of diversity, because this is a reform that Bard administration can meet us halfway on and wash their hands of. Diversity is merely a matter of shifting the color of the gears that churn out the neoliberal, broad abstraction of oppression in the academy. Diversity is a quota of tokens that the school can easily spend on us to meet our demands and keep us satiated, while really not addressing the pedagogical tools used to produce and reproduce systems of oppression. This also applies to our begging for diversity in the FYSEM curriculum, because this is a quota that can be filled by utterly irrelevant thinkers and writers of color. Also, much like FYSEM does Marx (has his presence in the canon made Bard treat its workers any better, be any less classist, be any less demographically wealthy?), the ideas of radicals and revolutionaries can be sanitized, abstracted, and examined merely as subject matter in a plurality of subjects to look at and forget about. Also, what better methods of co-optation of justice and dispelling accusations of racism could the school have besides diversification? In this regard, I think that institutional reform is less important than another type of organization that is more revolutionary in nature.
In this vein, I think that a self-determining organization of marginalized-identifying students and their allies can meet the goals outlined by the Blackout Bard Students of Color, and more. By this I am invoking a strictly student-based organization for education in the hegemony of our own class. We must study oppression, resistance, and solidarity in extra-cirrcular class environments: something Bard cannot and would not capitulate to. We must design our own canon in the tradition of radical, revolutionary Difference with no top-down mediation or facilitation, solely the will and pedagogy of the activist intellectuals. This way we can avoid sanitization, avoid abstraction, avoid whitewashing, and avoid ineffectual educators. In order to fight exclusion and institutional oppression we must build our own networks of community by taking action through community building, support sessions, and protesting administrators, security guards, teachers, or students culpable for the offenses. Thus there will be no more closed-door review boards in which the institution determines the offense of the person responsible. We will create a sense of accountability to us as students, on our terms! We must not just teach justice abstractly by modifying distribution credits and giving more revolutionary writers for Bard to reverse and interpolate to fit their ideals, but actualize social justice through the practice of resistance through protests, walkouts, and exposure as loudly and powerfully as we can as long as instances of injustice occur. There will be no need for an education in social justice from the academy if we are autonomously and are practically that education. We must initiate dialogue with campus faculty/staff/security and officials in Red Hook and Tivoli through ourselves without institutional interference, because we have had too many racist incidents occur with the employees of the school and government to trust the hegemony to educate itself. We must create relationships and dialogues with staff and faculty to establish our existence and educate them in resistance, rather than vice versa. We must produce literature and other social and cultural productions to produce and reproduce our hegemony; to keep the dialogue rolling; to keep ourselves relevant and intellectually stimulated and productive. Lastly, we must not settle for a list of demands: we must constantly be demanding because the methodologies and subjects of oppression change as time does. In short, I demand that we take the responsibility of eliminating institutional oppression into our own hands, instead of trusting the hegemony to operate even remotely in our interests. We need to be militantly anti-oppression, whether the structure is capitalism, classism, racism, sexism, homo/transphobia, gender binarism, et cetera, et cetera. Marginalized peoples have needed and always will need an organic intellectual hegemony for their revolutionary, organizational activity. In Gramsci’s own words: “consciousness of being part of a particular counter-hegemonic force (that is to say, political consciousness) is the first stage towards a further progressive self-consciousness in which theory and practice will finally be one.” Based on how far we are willing to take our praxis, we can be those leaders.