The Gramscian Escape Route

(The Origin of Principles, 25 Mar 2013)

Dylan Harris ·

Think about democracy. Think about alternatives to democracy. What comes to mind?

Socialism, Communism, some more –isms, and anarchy. Of course there are some shades in between, but really that’s about it. When you ask even a harsh critic of democracy why we keep pushing its wheel up the proverbial hill, the response is usually something like, “Well, it’s not perfect, but it’s all we have”. Really?

When you start to think of actual alternatives to democracy, aside from the few other alternatives ensconced in a slew of manifestos, we have a hard time thinking of something better.

Why? It seems asinine that humans cannot think their way out of this conundrum – the same humans that created Surrealism, Prog-Rock, and microscopic robots. We seem capable of stretching our imagination beyond any former limitation, but have been recycling the same basic governing system since it was philosophized by a few Greek guys centuries ago.

True, democracy works. Kind of. It has its ups and downs. This piece is not meant to discount democracy (entirely) so much as it is meant to really get us ponder on the question as to why we think it has been the admittedly-imperfect-but-the-best-option-nonetheless name of the game for so long. Why has communism always failed? Why is anarchism considered such an elusive idea? Why hasn’t the revolution happened? Furthermore, why can’t we think of other alternatives?

Many people would argue (and have argued) that it is because of the way we are. Our nature, our inherent state of being, dictates failure for us before we even have a chance to prove it wrong.

Democracy is purported as the best way of governing ourselves because of our nature, but does our nature also prevent us from going further than democracy? Is this it? Why can’t we think outside of a democratic framework? It really is absurd to think that we only have a few options out there, but it is even more absurd that it seems nearly impossible to think of a new one. Are there really no more boundaries to push?

This is a speculative piece meant to draw connections between very large and nebulous ideas, namely human nature and what I will call democracy culture. Democracy culture, for the sake of this short piece, can be understood as the way of life that gave rise to democracy and sustains its global presence. Democracy culture is the culture that suggests there is no better option (mostly because of our prescribed “nature”).

Let’s do an experiment:

Start with human nature, or whatever you perceive human nature to be. The way we are ‘supposed’ to act. Have been told to act. The way we do act. The way we treat each other, and the way we are treated. Then, think about our institutions. Economic, political, and social. Think about how our supposed inherent nature – our apparent greed especially – has influenced the formation of these institutions.

Really think about. Try to remove human nature from the equation. Start to look at the institutions that surround you and understand how our “nature” went into their development. Capitalism, for example, is based on the notion that – in nature – humans inherently want more. There is no ideal stasis, no cooperation, in nature. Then, think about our three-branch system here in the U.S#. Checks and balances. Each branch wants more power, so each branch has the power to monitor the others. This balance of power was written into our legal constitution because it is an inherent part of our human constitution. You start to see how many suppositions were made on your behalf, because of your nature, without any of your input.

Is it, however, part of everyone’s constitution or just the commoner’s constitution? The normal Joe. Let’s look at representative democracy. Centuries ago, a few Greek guys decided what was best for the way we live our lives today. The commoners aren’t smart enough or don’t have enough time to make their own decisions. We need to elect and elite group of representatives to take care of business and to best represent our concerns. The basic framework of the U.S. governing system is built upon the foundational knowledge that we are not smart enough, good enough, or concerned enough to make our own decisions. Why? Does human nature make us less smart? Or does that apply to just some of us?

In conversations, when I have asked people why they think representative democracy is a good idea, I get a similar response to the same question I have about democracy: “It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we got… There’s no way to get everyone’s opinion. It would take too long.” In response to this critique, there are other kinds of democracy. It has been synchronized time and time again and currently exists in various formats.

In Bolivia, under the guidance of indigenous leader Evo Morales, it has taken an interesting turn, granting rights to Mother Earth and purporting an overt socialist platform. However, no matter how far democracy is stretched, it is still democracy.

Centuries ago, a few Greek guys created the basis for a governing system that has persisted until now. What about the rest of the world’s population at the time? Why didn’t the governing systems of ancient India or the Pacific carry over? Why did the West (and now through globalization – the world) stick with the Greek plan? And now, why can we not think of an alternative? Is it because they pinned down human nature? We’re wild and need to be controlled, and democracy is the best way to do it?

It seems like we are stuck on democracy. We can’t seem to think outside of it. We’re locked into this idea, which has created an entire lifestyle, a culture. We’re so entrenched we can’t think of the next step.

Antonio Gramsci (philosopher, political theorist, and all-around polymath) referred to this as hegemony. Although today the word is usually used in a negative context, the original Gramscian concept was more or less a tool. It is the “way” we are, because it is ingrained into us. We can’t think outside of it because it defines us.

With looming crises on nearly every horizon, it is high time to reevaluate our existence here. In order to move forward, according to Gramsci, we have to create a counter-hegemony, an entirely new way of seeing and understanding the world and ultimately ourselves.

How?

Who knows for sure, but let’s continue the thought experiment:

Perhaps human nature does not exist at all, undercutting the apparent need for democracy. Sure, we may need some type of governing system, but maybe it’s time to search for alternative ideas.

This is not some anachronistic plea to return to the ways of the past. There are more than 7 billion people on the planet now. We can’t hunt and gather. Nor is this a call to drop our current modes of existence entirely. It is more of a call to see the shades in between then and now, them and us. Rather than studying these alternative existences from a curious distance, we should immerse ourselves entirely in their potential validity. In doing so, we may create something completely beyond our current imagination.

We should strive to expand our critical capacity to create a counter-hegemony. To get out of our skin a little. Perhaps this search should not be limited solely to other ways of governance. In my own work, I have encountered Buddhist coping mechanisms among Tibetan former political prisoners in India, talked with ghosts in Indonesia, spent time in Freegan and anarchist communes across Europe, studied traditional human-nature relationships in Northern Bolivia, and have recently started to study communal living in Depression-era Mississippi (tracing my roots I suppose).

For me, all of these seemingly disparate topics coalesce under the effort of trying to understand alternative existences, different ways of being. While they do not exactly correlate with governing systems, this same type of exploration is necessary to color in the gray areas between democracy, communism, socialism, and anarchism.

Again, it seems absurd that we are unable to divine some new and better system. In order to remove the hegemonic blinders, we need to stretch our perceptions of what life can be like as far as possible, taking advantage of the beautiful diversity that we have had, still have, and could have on this planet.

This is not to accept alternative existences as being absolutely true for everyone (no more manifestos!), but to accept these existences as being absolutely true for someone at some point in time. Try to see how and why a certain idea may work.

If we can’t find some something different somewhere, at least these alternative existences provide an existential foil for our current mode of existence, expanding our views beyond our current way of life and giving us the critical capacity to create the necessary counter-hegemony to break out of our democracy culture.