The site of hegemony is civil society; in other words, civil society is the arena wherein the ruling class extends and reinforces its power by non-violent means. Hence, in the prison notebooks, the close scrutiny of civil society and the study of hegemony are virtually one and the same thing, and the former serves to reaffirm the concrete reality of the latter. From a note that, interestingly enough, does not explicitly employ the terms hegemony and civil society, one can see how, for Gramsci, the study of one goes hand in hand with the other. The note, entitled “Cultural topics. Ideological material” (Notebook 3, ?49), opens with what, in effect, is a description of the overarching research project that englobes most of the fragmentary contents of the notebooks: “A study of how the ideological structure of a ruling class is actually organized: that is, the material organization meant to preserve, defend, and develop the theoretical or ideological ‘front.’ ” What Gramsci is proposing here is nothing less than a study of hegemony; he then proceeds immediately to list the components of the material organization of the ideological structure that need to be studied. The list is remarkable for its detail and testifies to Gramsci’s unwavering attention to the material particularity, the importance he attaches to the molecular aspects, so to speak, of civil society. On the top of the list, he places “the most dynamic part of the ideological structure,” by which he means the press, or, more accurately, the entire publishing industry and every form of publication, including the most humble: “publishing houses (which have an implicit and explicit program and which support a particular current), political newspapers, reviews of every kind, scientific, literary, philological, popular, etc., various periodicals including even parish bulletins.” The other things he lists range from the obvious, such as libraries, schools, associations and clubs of all kinds, and the pervasive activities of the Catholic Church, to the seemingly innocuous, such as architecture, the layout of streets and their names. All of these things constitute the “formidable complex of trenches and fortifications of the ruling class.” The serious study of this “material structure of ideology” would entail a task of colossal proportions, and, yet, it is important for Gramsci because “in addition to providing a living historical model of such a structure, it would inculcate the habit of assessing the forces of agency in society with greater caution and precision.”
Hegemony is non-coercive power, but it is power nonetheless; indeed, the flexible, and often camouflaged, apparatuses of hegemony provide the dominant groups in society with the most effective protection against a successful frontal attack from the subaltern classes. Once a par- ticular social group or grouping becomes hegemonic, it means that it has not only acquired control of the politico-juridical apparatus of the state but also permeated the institutions of civil society-in Gramsci’s sense of the terms, it has assumed leadership (direzione) in the cultural sphere.
What Gramsci has shown is that although the history of civil society may be the history of the acquisition of certain basic individual rights and of the growth of free enterprise economies, it is not the history of freedom tout court, for until now the history of civil society has also been the history of the dominance of one social group over others, the history of groups that remain fragmented, subordinated, and excluded from power. Civil society can only be the site of universal freedom when it extends to the point of becoming the state, that is, when the need for political society is obviated.