he·ge·mo·ny | 1.) preponderant influence or authority over others; 2.) the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group
Recently, it was the 85th anniversary of Italian Marxist philosopher and politician Antonio Gramsci’s death in fascist Italy. Starting from humble beginnings on Sardinia, Gramsci went from student to communist partisan in the streets of Turin and the Italian parliament. During the 1920’s he quickly became a thorn in the side of Benito Mussolini’s regime. In 1926, Mussolini had Gramsci arrested. At the show trial, the prosecution proclaimed, “For twenty years, we must stop this brain from functioning.” He spent most of the rest of his life in prison. But his time in prison transformed him into one of the most important political theorists of the 20th century.
During his time in prison Gramsci developed his theory of “cultural hegemony.” In it, he explains a much more sophisticated method of containing, as Arno Mayer called us, the “forces of movement.” The ruling class understands that the crises of capitalism require some attention but are only willing to slightly enact reform to keep their power. They do this through cultural institutions, ideology, and the promotion of “common sense” solutions to the crises. Gramsci described the process as a constant process of negotiation within “historical blocs,” i.e., the collection of groups determining the course of society. In modern day terms, these would be the corporate media, pop culture, political parties, religious institutions, banks, fossil fuel companies and tech companies.
The elites found this a more formidable method of maintaining the status quo than violence and coercion. Force, violence, and coercion can, in fact, be destabilizing to a political order. Military units chasing guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra and the Mekong Delta leads to a brutalized populace and government overthrow. Trump echoing Miami Police Chief Walter Hedley in 1967 by tweeting “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” leads to more clashes between protestors and police upsetting the established order.
In early 20th century Italy, the bourgeoisie would recruit certain members of the exploited class to their cause of maintaining power. This included the indoctrination — via institutions of higher education — of teachers, journalists, and bureaucrats. It included the consent of national opinion-makers in politics and the media. Those thought leaders would signal the need for slight reforms, but not push the revolutionary imagination.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because little has changed since then. Culture and “common sense” are used frequently to compel obedience and maintain consent for the forces of order. It normalizes a society to adhere to the ruling class’s values and culture.
Today’s ruling class, particularly in the Global North, recognize the current perils of our time (climate, crashing economics, pandemic, war in Europe and Asia, rise of the far right, etc.) and how the political economy is becoming increasingly unstable. Instability is bad for business. It leads to Capitol Riots and socialist politicians wanting accountability from the billionaire class.
It’s why you saw everyone from Wall Street CEOs like Chase’s Jamie Dimon to the anti-worker National Association of Manufacturers to the Wall St. Journal saying the 2020 election wasn’t stolen and denouncing the Capitol Riot. Public relations, liberal reform and integrating progressive movements into existing channels are a way for them to maintain their cultural hegemony.
The fire season calendar is getting longer and longer, but if last year is any indication, it’ll be another hot summer. 2021 saw devastating wildfires from the Mediterranean to the Amazon to the American West. Fires in Italy, Greece and Turkey cost lives, homes, and economic and environmental destruction to the Mediterranean region. This first fires broke out in Gramsci’s home province of Oristano Sardinia which burned tens of thousands of hectares causing a thousand people to evacuate and millions in damage.
In the Brazilian Amazon, 519,000 hectares — an area three and half times the size of the city London — burned on both illegally cleared lands and in standing rainforest. In North America, fires rages from northern Minnesota to British Columbia to California’s Sierras. Last year, the Dixie Fire burned nearly a million acres and is the largest recorded fire in California history.
For 2022, California declared a historic water emergency amidst severe droughts. This will only worsen the state’s wildfire season.
Near Las Vegas, like a scene out of a post-climate change version of “Casino,” Lake Meade is receding due to prolonged drought and revealing human remains.
Weather experts are also expecting a more active hurricane season in 2022.
In 2021, Hurricane Ida, a Category Four storm, made landfall on the Gulf Coast. Over a million people were without power and 16 were killed. The hurricane then moved up the east coast hitting New York and New Jersey with powerful winds and floods. At least 52 people are reported dead in the Northeast. Ida made landfall on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Katrina was a category 5 storm that caused over 1800 deaths and $125 billion in damage.
The question of the next Hurricane Ida is not “if” it’ll happen, but “when and where” it’ll happen.
Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a grave warning that the world has until 2025 to see a peak in greenhouse gas emission. The IPCC said we’re essentially headed towards a “now or never” moment on the climate crisis. The climate disruption will leave tens of millions dead and displaced. Yet, all levels of the public and private sectors are captured by the fossil fuel sector centered in the Global North.
In the face of the climate crisis and Global North elites looking to meet the challenge of global warming, but not give up on iota of their power and influence, Gramsci’s cultural hegemony makes a lot of sense. No one understands better than the ruling class that climate disruption represents a grave threat to humanity. They just don’t want to change the status quo of the capitalist political economy while doing something about it.
Instead, they employ climate hegemony to keep their wealth and influence.
First and foremost, this is done by making the fossil fuel sector appear to have “common sense” values. They did this by sowing doubt and confusion about climate science to the public, and by arguing fossil fuels are essential for modern society. Energy companies have protected the status quo through decades long multi-billion dollar advertising campaigns, electing, and lobbying sympathetic politicians, funding the climate denial complex and a small army of skeptics to undermine climate science and advocacy.
No historic bloc in the U.S. has been left untouched. In the 1980s, oil companies ran “advertorials” on the op-ed page of the New York Times to “emphasize uncertainty” on global warming with the Gray Lady’s chattering classes. Coal spoke to middle America with a popular advertising campaign that told us “Coal keeps the lights on.” In 2013, American Talent’s Jimmy Rose even had a country music song by the same name.
But, also, as the effects of climate change become harder and harder to deny, shifting the responsibility away from the energy sector. By 2004–2006, BP’s “carbon footprint” campaign subtly shifted responsibility from the oil majors to those making individual lifestyle choices and the “average household.” In the lead up to the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, Exxon spent millions on Facebook and Instagram speaking to new digital audiences.
Secondly, they’ve made sure that they are indoctrinating the necessity of fossil fuel companies through higher education and major media.
Fossil fuels has deep influence in academia. Harvard’s Kennedy School is funded by Shell and hosts events for the company. The University of Texas’ Energy Institute is funded by Exxon and Chevron. MIT’s Energy Initiative funders include Shell, Chevon and Exxon. The Global Climate & Energy Project at Stanford University was co-founded by Exxon and takes the majority of its funding from fossil fuels. I could go on.
In 2010, the Center for American Progress (CAP) analyzed 10 research collaborations between fossil fuel companies and U.S. universities, including Arizona State University, U.C. Berkeley,U.C. Davis, Iowa State University, and more. CAP’s report stated, “In a majority of the 10 contracts, the university gave up majority control over the governing body in charge of the university-industry research alliance, and in four cases actually ceded full control to the participating corporations.”
These are the institutions that are educating our future historical blocs. The groups of people that will determine the course of our society. Does it make sense that they are indoctrinated by oil companies if the future challenges are dominated by the climate crisis?
In the world of mainstream media, fossil fuels also spent $1.4 billion between 2008–2017 on advertising with major media. Two-thirds of it was spent on making the public believe that they have now switched to more and more green energy. While in 2018, the oil majors combined amount spent on wind and solar was about 1.8 % of their annual budgets. These are advertising dollars going to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and CNN, amongst others.
How are these institutions supposed to investigate and critique the perpetrators of ecological collapse when large amounts of advertising dollars pay fill their bank accounts?
Thirdly, the (false) solutions being proposed by liberal “climate hawks” and governments largely benefit the ruling class.
The pro-market politics of “good liberal” politicians too frequently view corporations as allies in the fight against climate change. They publicly applaud companies for creating “carbon principles” and hiring Chief Environmental Officers. They enter public partnerships with massive polluters. They create market-based systems, like “cap and trade,” to seemingly regulate emissions, but instead subsidize industry. They lobby for the government to invest in false schemes like carbon capture and sequestration.
For example, in 2017, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill extending California’s “cap and trade program” (AB398), he assured that the most high-profile piece of the state’s fight against climate change would persist for at least another decade. To guarantee the bill’s passage, a paragraph was added providing maximum compensation to companies for the “extra cost of doing business” in a state with the nation’s toughest emissions standards. The Bill made Brown and the State Assembly look eco-friendly, meanwhile guaranteeing what will likely result in benefits worth hundreds of millions of dollars for the Big Oil and Big Agriculture. Meanwhile, the primary purchaser of California carbon trading credits is the oil industry.
All of the false solutions to climate change, like carbon trading, nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration are all solutions proposed by, and benefiting corporations.
Finally, even acts of climate resistance are co-opted by the ruling class into a capitalist frame.
The most obvious way has been to bring climate activists into the workings of the corporate bureaucratic process. Shareholder resolutions are one way. Rooted in the fossil fuel divestment movement of the last decade, the original goal was to strip the social license of the industry. But as the work progressed, it was turned by market actors and their friends in the non-profit sector into “polite engagement” and “corporate social responsibility.”
At this year’s annual shareholder meetings, shareholder resolutions to stop funding fossil fuel expansion at the big banks failed hugely. This year, shareholder resolutions at Wells Fargo, Citibank, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs got about 10% of the shareholders’ votes. In 2021, those banks financed fossil fuels with $137 billion.
Despite their rhetoric, the banks remained entwined with oil and gas.
Writer Kim Stanley Robinson said, it’s “easier to destroy the world than to change capitalism even one little bit.” The manufacturing of consent for fossil fuels have reaped the capitalist class billions over the years.
Those Pesky Activists: Challenging the Ruling Classes’ Hegemony
Despite all of this, people still fight back. With goals of disruption and delay targeting oil and gas infrastructure, whether it be actual construction or the flow of money, the fossil resistance has continued to resist the ruling classes’ hegemony around fossil fuels.
In Appalachia, there has been a fierce campaign against the Mountain Valley Pipeline since 2018. This campaign has included targeting politicians, banks funding the project and lots of intervention at the point of destruction. From tree-sits that have lasted years to protests at construction sites, pipeline disruption has been effective. Recently, the pipeline project has had some bad court decisions and the price of doing business has been costlier and costlier putting its future in jeopardy.
Last summer in Minnesota, a multi-year Indigenous women led campaign against Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline culminated in relentless action where hundreds were arrested, brutalized, and faced escalated charges. In the forests of British Columbia, the largest civil disobedience in Canadian history occurred at the Fairy Creek Blockade on Vancouver Island. In Atlanta, a campaign to stop clear cutting of the Atlanta Forest to build “Cop City” has led to tree-sits, home demos, targeting of banks funding the project and, at least, one construction contractor pulling out.
While we know the “inside game” plays a little too much into the hands of the capitalist class, it’s important to remember that lots of people are acting outside the banks to disrupt and shift the message away from capitalist solutions. In the “Banking on Climate Chaos” report put out by Rainforest Action Network, Indigenous Environmental Network, Oil Change International and other group, Wells Fargo, Citibank and Bank of America were all named as major financiers of oil and gas.
April and May are when the billionaires at the banks report give updates to shareholders and the public at large on the status of the year’s work of pillage and destruction for profit. In response, direct actions took place have been taking place across the financial world.
In San Francisco, at Wells Fargo’s world headquarters, 19 climate defenders were arrested chained to the company’s historic stagecoach. The bank financed the fossil fuel sector with $46 billion and was the top funder of companies involved in fracking.
In New York, 17 were arrested blocking the entrances of Citibank’s headquarters. Citibank financed the fossil fuel sector with $41 billion in 2021 and is the largest funder of oil companies operating in the Amazon.
Activists also disrupted a panel with Citibank and JPMorgan Chase executives talking about “sustainable financing.” A cultural hegemonic event if there ever was one.
In Charlotte, NC, climate defenders visited the homes of three Bank of America executives to confront them about the bank’s financing of the climate crisis. Bank of America provided $232 billion to fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement.
In taking on strategy to subvert the cultural institutions responsible for the spreading of widespread misinformation about the climate crisis (as well as taking lots of fossil fuel advertising dollars), climate defenders blockaded the printing plant for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post.
There’s a lot of smarter distributed organizing and direct action happening targeting the pillars of support for the fossil fuel sector. They are working to undermine and co-opt that organizing, but the bolder we become, the less compromised we allow them to be. Our only goal should be to meet the scale and urgency of the crises of both climate and capitalism with our actions.
Gramsci said, “the old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.” In some cases, these monsters use violent coercion to oppress us, that’s the more blatant method. The more insidious method is the cultural hegemony, or climate hegemony, that subverts and co-opts our movements. It’s the method that allows for compromise and caution. Abolitionist John Brown once said, “Caution, Sir! I am eternally tired of hearing that word caution. It is nothing but the word of cowardice!” Our movement’s role should be to throw caution to wind and take bolder steps to confront these crises.