Sunday, December 03, 2006
Although somewhat complicated, and somewhat debated, I like to put the concept of hegemony in a nutshell as “a dominant ideology in drag as a common sense.” It’s a very stripped-down way of putting it, but I think it suits our times. The concept is important precisely because it covers so much, and points to a common functionality across a wide range of topics and issues—the whole range of dominant ideology, and the opposing views it seeks to render as more or less “unthinkable,” as readily dismissable at the very least.
In this installment of my “Hegemony is the Enemy” series, I’ll delve a bit deeper into the concept to justify that description, while providing enough information to draw other conclusions as well. The most important figure in describing, defining and promoting the importance of hegemony is Antonio Gramsci, and it’s his concept that I, too, find most compelling. However, his thought is extremely complex, and wedded to a developmental perspective steeped in European history. I make no pretense to capturing that complexity in my definition. Indeed, the very act of stripping it down suits it for adopting an entirely new framework, as we’ll see in future instalments.
Wikipedia starts with a fairly broad definition:
Hegemony... is the dominance of one group over other groups, with or without the threat of force, to the extent that, for instance, the dominant party can dictate the terms of trade to its advantage; more broadly, cultural perspectives become skewed to favor the dominant group. The cultural control that hegemony asserts affects commonplace patterns of thought: hegemony controls the way new ideas are rejected or become naturalized in a process that subtly alters notions of common sense in a given society.
Hegemony results in the empowerment of certain cultural beliefs, values, and practices to the submersion and partial exclusion of others. Hegemony influences the perspective of mainstream history, as history is written by the victors for a congruent readership. The official history of Communism, re-writing history, erasing people's names and images from official state photos, provides a richly-exampled arena of cultural hegemony.
Note, this definition speaks of group dominance “with or without the threat of force.” Hegemony is most effective when no one even needs to think of force. Where there is no battle, nothing can be lost. Yet, when force is used, Gramsci makes the point that the greater the use of force, the greater the appeal to consent.
Theories of hegemony
Theories of hegemony attempt to explain how dominant groups or individuals (known as hegemons) can maintain their power -- the capacity of dominant classes to persuade subordinate ones to accept, adopt and internalize their values and norms. Antonio Gramsci devised one of the best-known accounts of hegemony. His theory defined the State by a mixture of coercion and hegemony, between which he drew distinctions; according to Gramsci, hegemony consists of political power that flows from intellectual and moral leadership, authority or consensus, as distinguished from mere armed force.
Recently, critical theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have re-defined the term "hegemony" as a discursive strategy of combining principles from different systems of thought into one coherent ideology.
I’ve already addressed the “combining principles from different systems” in the prelude post for this series. I will therefore concentrate on Gramsci.
This section can lead to a somewhat mistaken understanding of Gramsci’s concept, developed in his Prison Notebooks, written during his imprisonment by Mussolini (1926 till his death in 1937). (A great deal of his writings are available online here.) Coercion and hegemony are not entirely separate categories for Gramsci, nor is he exclusively concerned with defining the Sate. He speaks of state-forming processes, for example, as well as relations within and between classes.
A brief taste of the complexity of Gramsci’s thought can be found here [“14 Major Issues or Dimensions or Meanings of Hegemony”]. Without going into too much detail, I want to extract a few significant points. One is a passage from Gramsci that reads:
"The 'normal' exercise of hegemony on the now classical terrain of the parliamentary regime is characterised by the combination of force and consent, which balance each other reciprocally, without force predominating excessively over consent. Indeed, the attempt is always made to ensure that force will appear to be based on the consent of the majority....
The next major issue after that passage is titled “VI. Domination Without Intellectual and Moral Leadership is Not Hegemony” It reads in full:
Gramsci discusses the Piedmont situation in which social groups emerged that wanted to dominate, but not to lead; he says that this is not a situation of hegeomy (pp. 104=106): ie, "It is one of the cases in which these groups have the function of 'domination' without that of 'leadership': dictatorship without hegemony." (106).
Thus, the relationship to force is complex, and mere domination doesn’t equate with hegemony.
While there are certainly considerable subtleties not fully explored, the Wikipedia entry on Cultural Hegemony is largely correct in stating:
The analysis of hegemony (or "rule") was formulated by Antonio Gramsci to explain why predicted communist revolutions had not occurred where they were most expected, in industrialized Europe. Marx and his followers had advanced the theory that the rise of industrial capitalism would create a huge working class and cyclical economic recessions. These recessions and other contradictions of capitalism would lead the overwhelming masses of people, the workers, to develop organizations for self-defense, including labor unions and political parties. Further recessions and contradictions would then spark the working class to overthrow capitalism in a revolution, restructure the economic, political, and social institutions on rational socialist models, and begin the transition towards an eventual communist society. In Marxian terms, the dialectically changing economic base of society would determine the cultural and political superstructure. Although Marx and Engels had famously predicted this eschatological scenario in 1848, many decades later the workers of the industrialized core still had not carried out the mission.
Gramsci argued that the failure of the workers to make anti-capitalist revolution was due to the successful capture of the workers' ideology, self-understanding, and organizations by the hegemonic (ruling) culture. In other words, the perspective of the ruling class had been absorbed by the masses of workers. In "advanced" industrial societies hegemonic cultural innovations such as compulsory schooling, mass media, and popular culture had indoctrinated workers to a false consciousness. Instead of working towards a revolution that would truly serve their collective needs, workers in "advanced" societies were listening to the rhetoric of nationalist leaders, seeking consumer opportunities and middle-class status, embracing an individualist ethos of success through competition, and/or accepting the guidance of bourgeois religious leaders.
Gramsci therefore argued for a strategic distinction between a "war of position" and a "war of movement". The war of position is a culture war in which anti-capitalist elements seek to gain a dominant voice in mass media, mass organizations, and educational institutions to heighten class consciousness, teach revolutionary analysis and theory, and inspire revolutionary organization. Following the success of the war of position, communist leaders would be empowered to begin the war of movement, the actual insurrection against capitalism, with mass support....
Gramsci did not contend that hegemony was either monolithic or unified. Instead, hegemony was portrayed as a complex layering of social structures. Each of these structures have their own “mission” and internal logic that allows its members to behave in a way that is different from those in different structures. Yet, as with an army, each of these structures assumes the existence of other structures and by virtue of their differing missions, is able to coalesce and produce a larger structure that has a larger overall mission....
Influence of Gramsci
Although leftists may have been the primary users of this conceptual tool, the activities of organized conservative movements also draw upon the concept. This was seen, for instance, in evangelical Christian efforts to capture local school boards in the U.S. during the 1990s, and thus be able to dictate curriculum. Patrick Buchanan, in a widely discussed speech to the 1992 Republican Convention, used the term "culture war" to describe political and social struggle in the United States.
Clearly (as Pat Buchanan illustrates), one does not have to agree with Marx or Gramsci’s aims to see the broader sense in this analysis, and generalize it to other situations. One reason Marx or Gramsci’s thinking can seem alien is the distance we have come, partly because of the struggles they described and influenced. The impoverishment of 19th century workers is so remote from our experience, it is difficult to grasp. The very threat of revolution was one of the most powerful factors in changing that—a dialectical development in its own right. Yet, an echo of Gramsci’s analysis clearly seems to fit the way in which the largely Democratic, production-oriented, urban working class of the 1930s and before became the increasingly Republican, consumption-oriented suburban middle class of the 1950s and later.
Or, for a more striking example, during the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of poor whites rushed off to fight and die for the right of wealthy plantation-owners to own slaves—slaves whose material conditions and interests were much closer to their own than the plantation owners’ were. This is a clear example of hegemony, directly analogous to what motivated Gramsci’s original analysis. The same dynamic persists to this day, with the White South a bastion of working and middle-class support for elites they have little in common with materially, arrayed against blacks (and other, more recent additions) with whom they have a great deal in common.
Martin Luther King, Jr. touched on this phenomena in his speech, The Drum Major Instinct:
The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I'm in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem. And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong. So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking—calmly, because they wanted to talk about it. And then we got down one day to the point—that was the second or third day—to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, "Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. [laughter] You're just as poor as Negroes." And I said, "You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. (Yes) And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you're so poor you can't send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march."
Now that's a fact. That the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, (Make it plain) he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white—and can't hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out. (Amen)
Of course, things have changed since then. Those racist white jailers are all Republicans nowadays. And they aren’t all in the South. And isn’t always racism. But it’s always something. And that’s what What’s The Matter With Kansas is all about: hegemony, as opposed to people’s real material interests. The cause of it, and the countering of it both involve what Gramsci talked about, a “war of position,” a “culture war” in which each side “seek[s] to gain a dominant voice in mass media, mass organizations, and educational institutions to heighten” their particular type of consciousness, analysis and theory, and inspire (literally or figuratively, revolutionary) political organization.
Described in these terms, the past 30-40 years has seen a largely one-sided culture war, as conservative elites have created a vast network of their own institutions to gain a dominant voice: Think tanks to dominate political discourse; their own political media (as well as infiltrating and undermining the existing news media); their own anti-modernist mass organizations, continuously organized because their goals are never achieved, and—both by taking over school boards and by setting up their own schools, their own educational institutions. In place of the metropolitan capitalist class of the 1950s and 60s, which had accepted the welfare state, big labor and big government as facts of life, and adopted norms in which CEOs made no more than 20-30 times that of low-end workers, we have a far more rapacious capitalist class that never accepted the New Deal, the Progressive Era, or even, arguably, the Civil War, the Constitution or the Magna Charta. And while that new old capitalist class has been gaining power, the old one—and the political institutions fostered under it, even in opposition—has largely slept through the changes. Indeed, the more unmistakable the changes have become—since Clinton’s impeachment for a blowjob, Bush’s theft of the 2000 election, and our descent toward authoritarianism since 9/11—the more fiercely the old institutions and their inhabitants have clung to their last shreds of sleep. We hear it again in the attempts to deny the message of the last election, in calls for the Democrats to “move to the center” and above all, to be civil, and not rock the boat, as Senator-elect Webb seems to have done, simply by refusing to kiss Bush’s ring. Indeed, it is almost impossible to tell where the denial of the old order leaves off, and the denial of the new order begins.
The end of denial is waking to the fact of an ongoing culture war as a war of position. We need to build up our institutions, our counter-hegemonic institutions—both online and off. And so what if they attack them? Indeed, we should be quite worried if they do not. If sociopathic monsters think we are reasonable, we are in big, big trouble.
A Final Word
In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci wrote
"Undoubtedly the fact of hegemony presupposes that account be taken of the interests and the tendencies of the groups over which hegemony is to be exercised, and that a certain compromise equilibrium should be formed - in other words, that the leading group should make sacrifices of an economic- corporate kind. But there is also no doubt that such sacrifices and such a compromise cannot touch the essential..."
Such a notion seems downright quaint today. Hegemony as we’ve experienced under Bush makes no such compromises whatever. Did Enron give its stolen money back? Did Haliburton? I cite this quote to underscore, in another way, how much has changed since Gramsci wrote, how much there is a need to draw on his insight, but not be chained to its formulations. Which sets the stage for our next installment.
posted by Paul Rosenberg , firstname.lastname@example.org