While apathy may reign supreme in the voting booth, some scholars and activists have been looking for resistance elsewhere: on the street corner, in the living room, or at the club, that is, in cultural expression. Matthew Arnold first articulated cultural resistance, but the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) framed the contemporary discussion.
Gramsci, writing from a Fascist jail in the 1920s and early 1930s, reflected on why the communist revolutions he labored for in the West had so far failed. Part of the reason, he concluded, was a serious underestimation of culture and civil society. Power does not just reside in institutions, but also in the ways people make sense of their world; hegemony is both a political and cultural process. Armed with culture instead of guns, one fights a different type of battle. Whereas traditional battles were "wars of maneuver," frontal assaults that seized the state, cultural battles were "wars of position," flanking maneuvers, commando raids, and infiltrations, staking out positions from which to attack and then reassemble civil society (pp. 229–239). Thus, part of the revolutionary project was to create counterhegemonic culture behind enemy lines. But if this culture was to have real power, and communist integrity, it could not—contra Arnold—be imposed from above; it must come out of the experiences and consciousness of people. Thus, the job of the revolutionary is to discover the progressive potentialities that reside within popular consciousness and from this material fashion a culture of resistance.
It was this implicitly politico-cultural mission that guided the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in the 1970s. The CCCS is best known for its subcultural studies, and it was within these mainly working-class subcultures that researchers found an inchoate politics of resistance. Mods one-upped their bosses with their snappy dress. Punks performed the decline of Britain with lyrics that warned: "We're your future, no future." Skinheads recreated a cohesive white, masculine working-class world that no longer existed. And Rastafarians turned the world upside down by rereading Christianity into a condemnation of white Babylon. It was through culture that young people contested and rearranged the ideological constructions—the systems of meaning—handed down to them by the dominant powers of postwar Britain.
For Stuart Hall (the influential director of the CCCS) and his colleagues, cultural resistance was politically ambiguous. Subcultures opened up spaces where dominant ideology was contested and counter hegemonic culture was created, however, these contestations and symbolic victories often remained locked in culture. "There is no 'subcultural solution'" to structural inequality write Hall and his colleagues in Resistance through Rituals (1976), "They 'solve,' but in an imaginary way, problems which at the concrete material level remain unresolved" (pp. 47–48). As W. H. Auden (1907–1973) came to lament, "Poetry makes nothing happen"—at least not by itself.