In March 1994, media mogul Silvio Berlusconi became the Prime Minister of Italy. Against all odds, he could retain his ownership of several TV channels and other media. Berlusconi’s quasi-monopoly not only raises questions about pluralism in media and communication, it is also seen as alarming that he could possibly use his political power to influence the media output. By using the media he could namely make an application of the theory of hegemony which his compatriot Gramsci formulated about 65 years before Berlusconi’s election.
The aim of this essay is to clarify Gramsci’s concept of hegemony and to explain how a dominant group or a leader in society could use among others the media to obtain and retain a hegemonic position in society. Later, this concept will be linked to Berlusconi’s media ownership and how he could possibly use his powerful position in order to enforce hegemony in contemporary Italy. Introduction In March 1994, Silvio Berlusconi, charismatic figure, leader and creator of Forza Italia, became the Prime Minister of Italy.
Remarkably, he could retain his quasi-monopoly holding of national television and media resources (Statham, 1996, p. 87). This fact raises a lot of questions about the combination of political power and the media. It is mostly seen as a threat for democracy that the political leader of a country owns the biggest private television companies as well (Mancini, 2008, p. 107). The topic of Berlusconi and his striking relationship with the national media has already been discussed in several scientific papers (for example, Ginsborg, 2004; Mancini, 2008; Statham, 1996, Van Zoonen, 2004).
The aim of this essay however, is to link Silvio Berlusconi?s media ownership, to the concept of hegemony as described by Antonio Gramsci. Antonio Gramsci had in fact a specific view on how a dominant group in society (for example a political party) should maintain its power without repression or other coercive measures. According to Gramsci, there should be a ‘spontaneous consensus’ between the dominant, leading group in society and the other citizens. One can only enforce a status quo through ‘consensual control’ or hegemony, through church, school system… till media and culture, or ‘civil society’ as Gramsci names it (Biltereyst, 2009, p. 0). This essay will focus on how media can play a role in the achievement of this ‘spontaneous consensus’ and hegemony. At first, the concept of hegemony as defined by Antonio Gramsci will be discussed. Later, this concept will be linked to the potential use of media in achieving this hegemony and how Silvio Berlusconi could possibly use his media ownership to achieve a ‘spontaneous consensus’ and consequently hegemony in contemporary Italy. Hegemony according to Antonio Gramsci
Antonio Gramsci was an important political figure and, as a member and leader of the Communist Party of Italy, a victim of Mussolini’s regime in Fascist Italy. Gramsci himself has known a childhood in poverty and as a member of the working class, he soon withdrew the fate of his co-workers in the social struggle when he grew older. In 1911, he founded the Communist Party in Italy and later went off to Russia to have contact with, among others, Lenin. In 1924 he returned to Italy and became a member of the Italian Parliament where he emerged as a national figure and a rhetorically skilled opponent of Mussolini’s Fascism.
In 1926 he got imprisoned by Mussolini’s regime and during his eleven-year-period of imprisonment, he wrote his “Prison Notebooks”, for which he is still known and which, after they reached the outside world, strongly influenced the mindset of cultural studies (Biltereyst, 2009, p. 29). Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks contain more than 3000 pages of analysis and history. During his imprisonment, he analyzed the traces of Italian history and nationalism and developed a theory about how Fascism could become so popular in Italy and how Mussolini was able to maintain his leadership.
This analysis formed the basis of his theory of hegemony (Strinati, 1995, p. 162). Gramsci was a Marxist thinker, but he was concerned with the interpretation of Marxism. Like Louis Althusser, he rejected vulgar Marxism and emphasized the independence of ideology from economic determinism. The traditional Marxist theory and analysis was according to Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci too much focused on the role of economy and neglected the role of ideology. Therefore, Althusser and Gramsci reformulated traditional Marxism (Biltereyst, 2009, p. 30).
They both wanted to eradicate economic determinism from Marxist theory and saw Marxism as a tool for the emancipation of the working class (Strinati, 1995, p. 162). To Gramsci, Marxism is not just a theory, it is a political theory to emancipate the working class. It is a practical theory that takes place in a specific historical context (Biltereyst, 2009, p. 29). Gramsci stressed the importance of human agency in historical change and the fact that a Marxist theory of the social working class revolution should not neglect the role of ideas and culture in the making of a revolution (Bilteryst, 2009, p. 0). Gramsci attached great importance to this role of ideas and culture which he understood as hegemony (Strinati, 1995, p. 163). One of the basic premises of this theory of hegemony, is that the dominant groups in society should retain their dominant position in society by securing a spontaneous consensus, through the use of cultural and ideological means (Strinati, 1995, p. 165). In order to achieve this spontaneous consensus, the ruling class has to persuade the other classes of society to accept its own moral, political and cultural values and in this way their position in society.
This persuasion has to be achieved without using ‘coercive control’ or, in other words, without violence and repression. Instead, ‘consensual control’, where citizens voluntarily accept their position and the ruling class’ position, has to arise in order to allow the dominant group to be hegemonic and to maintain their leadership. To obtain this ‘consensual control’, leaders should not only invest in what Gramsci calls the political society, which is formed by the police, the army, the legal system and laws, which dominates directly and coercively.
They should also attach great importance to the civil society. This civil society is formed by the family, the education system and so on, where leadership is constituted through ideology or by means of consent. This civil society plays a very important role in persuading people that the society in which they live is how it should be and that the position of their leader should not be questioned. A dominant group in society will never be able to retain its position by merely using violence, because the citizens will never accept this and will sooner or later revolt (Ransome, 1992, p, 150).
As a concrete example, Gramsci analyzed Mussolini’s success and the success of Fascism as a continuation of capitalism, where a dominant class not only uses repressive instruments to suppress the class antagonisms, but also uses the symbolic dimension. Mussolini attempted to bridge class contradictions by using a common past and by responding to nationalistic and patriotic feelings amongst the Italian citizens. He used stories, myths and symbols from the rich Italian or Roman past to legitimize his regime (Biltereyst, 2009, p. 30).
Hegemony is proactive, but Gramsci stresses that it must also take into account the values and ideas of other classes. Hegemony refers to a ‘contested shift of ideas’. It is not consistent, but is open to negotiation and refers to a kind of symbolic struggle. So, therefore, in order to emancipate the working class they should not only fight a structural struggle, but should also establish a counter-hegemony and must develop its own ideology. In order to achieve this, Gramsci stresses the role intellectuals can play in establishing this counter-hegemony (Biltereyst 2009, p. 30).
With intellectuals, Gramsci means those who will carry the revolution and are charged with ‘the production and dissemination of ideas and knowledge in general’ (Strinati, 1995, p. 171). Intellectuals are all those who are working with ideas in some way and are ‘concerned with hegemony and the role of the respective institutions in civil society’ (Strinati, 1995, p. 171). So, the same goes for the working class as for the current leaders, in order to obtain and retain a hegemonic position in society, violence or coercive control is not enough, consensual control through the civil society should be achieved (Biltereyst, 2009, p. 0). Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, ideas and concepts can still be very useful in a contemporary society as we will try to make clear in the following paragraphs. Generally, we can state that Gramsci’s theory has led to an appreciation of culture as a field of negotiation and symbolic struggle (Biltereyst, 2009, p. 31). Media and ‘spontaneous consensus’ In a state of hegemony, the dominant class in society is able to bond the interests of the subordinate classes with her own interests, by using moral and cultural means instead of using brute coercion (De Meyer, 1994, p. 35). In this respect, media can play an important role in supporting the dominant class in maintaining her dominant position in society. Media can help enforcing a status quo or ‘spontaneous consensus’ by using ‘consensual control’ or hegemony. So, culture and media aren’t merely entertainment for the people, but play an important role in society and are useful and functional regarding the social order (Biltereyst, 2009, p. 30).
As in Gramsci’s days Mussolini used stories and myths from the rich Italian past, nowadays, media can play an important role in achieving a hegemonic position and in promoting contemporary dominant power structures such as government, patriarchy and capitalism. According to Artz (2003, p. 16), ‘Leaderships only become hegemonic because they convince others to become allies through persuasive political and cultural practices, which necessarily require normalized interpretations best communicated to the masses via the media. So, in order for a dominant group to maintain its hegemonic position, nowadays media hegemony is (amongst other things) required. By using media, it is possible to ‘recruit, tame and popularize interpretations, information and cultural behavior,’ complementary to the ideology of the ruling group in society. So, in our contemporary capitalist and globalised society, media can be used to promote commercialization, deregulation and privatization and make these central concepts in our contemporary society seem natural (Artz, 2003, p. 17).
So, Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is seen today as a political account of legitimation and media as a very important instrument that rulers can use to obtain, maintain and legitimize their power. In the following paragraph, we will analyze the concrete example of Silvio Berlusconi, the current leader of Italy and how he could possibly use his media ownership to legitimize his power by applying the theory of his compatriot Antonio Gramsci. Possible use of Gramsci’s hegemony theory in contemporary Italy Since March 1994 up until now, Silvio Berlusconi, leader and creator of Forza Italia, is the Prime Minister of Italy.
Because of several reasons, including controversial statements and ‘jokes’ about immigrants, the Islam or Barack Obama for example, alleged links to the mafia, corruption scandals, his interest in female beauty and even prostitution, Berlusconi’s position as the leader of Italy is very often questioned (“Profile: Silvio Berlusconi, Italian Prime Minister”, 2011, 15 February). The most controversial fact however, is that Berlusconi remarkably could retain his ownership of several media-institutions after his election (Statham, 1996, p. 87). It wasn’t the first time that major public or private media groups served the ambitions of politician, but it was the first time that a politician was the owner of the mass media (Van Zoonen, 2004, p. 55). Van Zoonen (2004, p. 55) even states that Berlusconi used his media-empire to start his political career and Krempl (1996) suggests that Berlusconi’s successful seizure of power in 1994 was carried by the activities of his media empire: his advertising agency Publitalia ’80 created a campaign strategy based on extensive market research that was mainly expressed through the programs and commercials of his own three commercial channels (Krempl, 1996).
Berlusconi started the building of his media empire in the 1980’s. In 1981 he founded Canale 5 and a few years later, he owned the largest competitors of his first television channel, namely Italia 1 and Rete 4. At the end of the 1980’s, he owned the newspaper Il Giornale and he acquired a controlling share of the Mondaori group of companies. The real source of Berlusconi’s media profits however was Publitalia ’80, Berlusconi’s advertising agency which aided in this process of concentration of mediapower (Mazzoleni, 2000, p. 59). Nowadays, he still owns three of the four private national television stations and since the public national television channel RAI is state-owned, Berlusconi has an indirect influence on that channel as well (Statham, 2011, p. 511). Berlusconi’s ownerships itself should not be a problem – although it poses questions about pluralism in communication and information – if it wasn’t for the fact that Italy doesn’t know the same media regulation as most European liberal democracies.
In most European countries, established regulation and institutional codes of conduct protect the media and make sure the media can operate in an objective way, independent from political interests. This is however not the case for Italy, ‘where disputes over the political balance of media content, control of media resources and the conflict between private commercial interests and the pursuit of public office, have intensified ever since media mogul Silvio Berlusconi entered politics and became Prime Minister in March 1994’ (Statham, 2011, p. 12). In most European countries, media function as a ‘watchdog’ and reflect in an objective way the different interests in society. Constitutional norms have to prevent that politicians use their power to influence the media content and make sure that all political actors have the same accessibility to the media and are reflected in an objective way. There are also normative limits for political communication, especially in the days before elections (Statham, 2011, p. 513). The notion of ‘press freedom’ is thus tied to the ideal of constituting a civic culture and public sphere, which is both a duty of the media and a prerequisite for the legitimacy of politics’ (Statham, 2011, p. 513). If Italy would have this tradition, there would not be a serious problem with Berlusconi owning a big part of the Italian media. The regulation system would then make sure that Berlusconi would not be tempted to use his influence to control the media output and benefit from its media ownership.
In other words, the media would then be able to fulfill its ‘watchdog’ function, without fearing the influence Berlusconi has as the owner of the media company and as the employer of the journalists who work for the media companies (Statham, 2011). Although it has already been discussed in worldwide media for several times (f. e. Owen, 2010, 27 May; “Berlusconi: “Gedrag Italiaanse media verwerpelijk en crimineel””, 2010, 26 November), it is never proven that Berlusconi actually uses his power as media owner, but it is alarming that he has the possibility to do this.
Berlusconi’s media ownership in combination with his political function, poses many questions about potential conflicts of interest. Berlusconi can potentially have an impact on the media output. This fact can be linked to the hegemony theory Berlusconi’s compatriot Gramsci has formulated in his Prison Notebooks sixty five years before Berlusconi was elected (Ekers et al. , 2009). As discussed in the previous paragraphs, media is a powerful instrument that plays an important role in obtaining a ‘spontaneous consensus’ and in enforcing hegemony (Biltereyst, 2009, p. 0). By using media, Berlusconi could – since he is the owner of several important media canals – possibly influence the opinion of the Italian citizens and use his ownership to maintain his position as a Prime Minister and his hegemonic position. Without using violence or ‘coercive control’ as Gramsci would name it, Berlusconi could maintain his leadership by controlling the media and in this way, make a contemporary application of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony (Biltereyst, 2009).
Conclusion From this essay, we can conclude that Gramsci’s theory of hegemony is still of great value and that although it was written during the Fascist regime of Mussolini, the basic premises can still be applied to contemporary society. An application has been made of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony by linking it to contemporary Italy, Berlusconi’s regime and media ownership. It is a fact that Berlusconi owns an important part of the Italian media.
This fact not only poses many questions about pluralism in communication and information, it can also be seen as a threat to objective news reporting, since the rules about political interference in the media aren’t so severe in Italy as in most European countries. Therefore, Berlusconi could use his media ownership to influence the news reporting and put himself forward as a good leader, just as Benito Mussolini did by using stories, myths and symbols from the rich Roman past to legitimize his regime in the time Gramsci wrote his Prison Notebooks.
Of course it is never proven that Berlusconi uses his power as the owner of several media and consequently as the employer of many journalists, but the fact that he could possibly do so is alarming and raises a lot of questions about regulation and press freedom. In this sense, the Berlusconi-case can be seen as a contemporary example of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony.
According to Gramsci, media can function as a very important instrument that rulers can use to obtain, maintain and legitimize their power. If Berlusconi would use this tool that is at his disposal, Berlusconi would be the perfect example of a practical, contemporary use of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. Generally, we can conclude that until today Gramsci remains a central figure in cultural studies and his insights and especially his concept of hegemony can still be used to study contemporary phenomena.