From the psychology of pint-buying to a political theory of hegemony
In the previous post, my curious discovery that I couldn’t say with certainty why I acted the way I did regarding buying drinks in pubs led me to question the nature and limits of knowledge and how that relates to our freedom. I suggested that anyone claiming absolute knowledge is demonstrating a politically, socially, economically, and ecologically dangerous hubris. I also equally suggested that those who claim that nothing is knowable are condemning us to political paralysis and acceptance of an unjust status quo. Thus, I argued that we can learn loads about our world and our selves and that we then have to use this knowledge to act in the world. This ongoing process of learning and acting is called a ‘praxis’ and that praxis is the only true way toward individual and collective freedom.
In this post, I want to build on these conclusions by bringing in another insight from my recognition of the limits of my self-understanding. I want to do this in order to share a theory of politics that, I believe, sheds a huge amount of light on what’s going on in the world today. This insight is this: If I do not fully know why I do what I do then how could I possibly judge others for their actions?
This insight generates two important conclusions. First, it highlights the sheer dehumanising toxicity of our contemporary model of doing politics. The practice of adversarial, conflictual party politics is one of daily accusation, besmirching, and scaremongering, a practice that unsurprisingly has led to ever increasing levels of public cynicism and disengagement from what we widely understand as ‘politics’.
Furthermore, one primary objective of our political, economic, and cultural leaders is to divide us by seeding fear, mistrust, and even hatred among us. They do it very well.
Fundamental to all this malignant political practice is the issue of judgment – judgments handed down by politicians and the media and the invitation to judge people and social groups we know very little about. This is a politics of negativity, of cynicism, of shame, of bitterness, of vengeance, guilt, and many other terrible emotions. This is an anti-democratic politics because it relies on a silencing – those to be judged must be marginalised and silenced in order to be most effectively demonised – and on a labelling – making those silenced wear identity labels not of their own choosing. It’s what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu powerfully called ‘symbolic violence’. Those who have ‘symbolic power’ – the power to make meaning in the world – wreak a symbolic violence on those they judge, silence, and label. This violence is invariably linked to very material, physical consequences too.
The antithesis and antidote to this is, of course, a truly democratic politics – a politics of dialogue, of empathy, of faith, of inclusion. An organisation I work with, My Life My Choice – an organisation run for and by people with learning disabilities – has a really powerful slogan relating to this: ‘Nothing about us without us!’
The second conclusion to be drawn is perhaps the most nuanced, but politically the most significant. If we recognise that we are never fully rational or self-aware, that we are ‘social individuals’, and that we are all constantly changing then we surely cannot accept a theory of politics that offers a narrow, fixed definition of what a human being or what society is. If we look back at ourselves ten years ago and see a very different person who would have defined themselves and the world very differently, how can we subscribe to a theory of politics that can’t accommodate this messy reality of personal and collective complexity and change? This is, I think, the argument that Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe make in their very influential book ‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy’. They criticise what they call the essentialism of most Marxist theory that posits human beings, first and foremost, as workers in an exploitative economic system and explores the most effective ways to analyse and overcome this system. Though Laclau and Mouffe (like myself) remain Marxists and socialists, they argue that human beings are many varied and changing things; that the struggles we face are not exclusively economic; and, crucially, that these struggles are not secondary to the class struggle. Unfortunately, we could too easily have a socialist society that remained patriarchal, homophobic, racist, disabilist, etc, i.e. fundamentally unjust and undemocratic.
Laclau and Mouffe’s central thesis is that politics is primarily a struggle fought over and with words and images. So, yes, while the fact that everything and everyone is changing means there can be no absolute, eternal truth, and that the world is full of torrential flows of words and images, it is clear that people and societies are stable enough for powerful groups to achieve a long-term closure by imposing a relatively fixed definition of key political issues and practices like ‘society’, ‘economy’, ‘work’, ‘money’, ‘value’, ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘family’, ‘sex’, ‘common sense’, ‘tradition’, ‘nation’, etc, etc. This ‘semiotic’ closure is a closure of our individual and collective hearts and minds and, consequently, a closure of what can be politically imagined, hoped for, and created. So, what this term ‘hegemony’ means is a political dominance that a social group achieves when they are able to dominate the production of meaning in a society and they are able to dominate it to such an extent as to make the contingent and political seem natural and inevitable. That’s real power!
The unravelling of neo-liberal hegemony
What light can this theory of politics shed on contemporary events? A great deal, I believe. For over three decades, we have experienced the paralysing and economically, socially, and ecologically destructive hegemony of neo-liberalism. What I understand neo-liberalism to be is a reactionary political project, beginning in the 1970s, first to reassert and then to extend and intensify capitalist social relations and the hegemony of capital worldwide. Thus we see not just more and more areas of human life ‘commodified’, i.e. turned into areas of profit-making exchange, we see the logic of the market penetrate ever deeper into all our psyches and relationships. Though an extreme free-market ideology fronts it, if the interests and needs of capital diverge from free-market dogma, it is dispensed with. That’s why it’s best, I believe, to think of neo-liberalism as a material political project and not just as an ideology. The hegemony of neo-liberalism is best summarised in the term ‘There Is No Alternative’, otherwise known as the ‘TINA doctrine’, credited to Margaret Thatcher.
What I believe we are now seeing is the accelerated unravelling of the TINA doctrine, of neo-liberal hegemony. This post-neo-liberal (post-capitalist perhaps) era began, fittingly, where neo-liberalism itself first broke through – in South America – where we have seen the rise of many powerful left wing governments and social movements. We now have Syriza, a left wing party/social movement, in power in Greece, and powerful parties and social movements like Podemos in Spain and Left Bloc in Portugal are rapidly emerging across Europe, primarily in Southern Europe. And then suddenly, in perhaps the unlikeliest of places, we have a socialist, Jeremy Corbyn MP, catapulted into the media limelight as clear frontrunner in the leadership election of the British Labour Party.
Regardless of whether Corbyn wins or not, this seems a development of immense significance. In the negative politics of judgment and fear upon which neo-liberal hegemony depends, it has been easy to demonise the ideas and the people of the left because they are rarely seen or heard. By being obliged to give considerable airtime to these same ideas and their proponents, the TV channels, despite their best efforts, can’t help revealing that these ideas are far from ‘loony’ or ‘evil’, but are eminently sensible and morally appealing, and that those proposing them are not crazed fools, but sober, intelligent, likeable, and (unlike most politicians these days) principled people. Suddenly, the unthinkable becomes thinkable, the unimaginable becomes imaginable. Suddenly, the closed is reopened. Suddenly, hegemony is destabilised. The reaction is both shocking and unsurprising. We have seen pathetic levels of fury, vitriol, name-calling, scaremongering not just from the right wing press, but even from those self-appointed left wing patrician guardians of our morality. Now I know why The Guardian is so called!
One final thing to emphasise here is that I believe that this crisis of hegemony is directly related to a material crisis of capitalism. Capital’s inability to revive itself, to generate decent lives for now most people not just in poor countries but in rich ones too, its generation of extreme inequality and global ecological destruction make the articulation of alternatives possible and, of course, acutely necessary.
The overall conclusion to draw is not so much that ‘times they are a-changing’, but that we who desire to create a new just and free society out of the old finally can now see new, exciting opportunities to pursue. For those in their 50s or older, it has been a long wait! But it is up to us to seize, create, and take those opportunities. At moments of crisis like these, in conditions of civic illiteracy, the fascist Sirens call out. This time around, we cannot hold religiously and dogmatically to any essentialist truth. We need to use theory, for sure. But we need to apply those theories flexibly and contextually, and we need to create movements that combine the power of our collective organisation, imaginations, and energy with the flexible autonomy for individuals and separate groups to pursue their own struggles and dreams. This is the lesson that scholar/activists like Laclau and Mouffe offer us and, I think, this lesson is reflected in the new more horizontal, networked forms of organisation we see emerging throughout the world right now.
Phew! All that from an initial thought about buying pints in pubs! I’ll drink to that! Cheers!