What is ‘hegemonic power’? One central element of hegemonic power is the power to make the root (systemic) causes of our problems invisible and largely unspeakable and unthinkable. Instead, all our debates are over ways to remedy or improve the symptoms of the disease (or even why the painful symptoms are good for us) rather than the disease itself.
An example of this from the UK is the current furore over tax credits. The Conservative government is removing working tax credits (though before the election it promised not to). These are state payments that supplement workers’ wages. Their removal will hurt very many poor people indeed. As this article from today’s Guardian shows, the government crows about the low unemployment rate, but says nothing or very little about the paltry sub-poverty wages so many of us get for that employment.
What are virtually absent from the debate are the questions any curious child would surely ask. These are:
(Q1) ‘Why do the companies we work for pay us so little money that we can’t afford the basic things to live a dignified life?’
(Q2) ‘If they pay us so little why do we have to work for them?’
(Q3) ‘Why should the state supplement their low wages with tax credits which is effectively payments from general taxation, which, in turn, is largely contributed to by working people through their work and consumption?
(Q4) ‘Can’t we create an economic system where everyone gets a decent human life? And if that does involve doing monotonous or stressful work can’t we make sure that those who do it get properly rewarded for it?’
Now, I would be surprised if you’ve never, ever asked those questions or similar ones to yourself before. The fact that you never hear them asked publicly or on your TV screens has probably made you think that they are stupid or naive, fantastical questions. They are not! They are intelligent, actually common-sensical, questions that need to be asked and deserved to be answered. These questions are the clothes that the Emperor doesn’t wear!
I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, but I think I have good ones and they all pretty much come from reading Karl Marx and Marxist literature. In short, my answers would be:
(1) Cos profit (what Marxists call ‘surplus value’) comes from our labour. This makes the class conflict, and the resulting balance of power, between workers and capitalists the fundamental political condition shaping capitalist societies. Today, that balance of power is very firmly skewed towards the capitalist class. They need to pay us what it takes for us to keep ourselves alive so that they still have a workforce, but beyond that the capitalist class will seek to minimize labour costs to maximize surplus value. But, it’s not just about economics. Work is political, capital is a social relation, and ‘the economy’ is not a force of nature. So, it’s not just about minimizing labour costs to maximize surplus-value. More fundamentally, it’s about repressing workers and our collective organizational power to ensure that the system continues. Poverty, debt, social atomization, and media BS are the main weapons here to keep us down, disillusioned, and divided. And these are weapons, and there are casualties (truth being the first) in this class war.
(2) Cos we have to work. This is what Marx called the ‘double freedom’ in capitalist society. We have the freedom to choose to work (and, to an increasingly limited extent, choose which work we do) and the freedom to choose to starve. We have to work and this makes us working class essentially. If all we have to sell is our labour-power we are working class. We are working class because many years ago, we were kicked off our land – the land that gave us a choice between subsistence and wage-labour – and forced into the towns and cities. Think you’re free? Stopping doing the job you hate...
(3) You’re right! The state shouldn’t do this. It shouldn’t have to do this. We have the collective, organisational potential to demand that our companies pay proper wages and give us far more security and safety in our jobs. Recent moves in this direction have come from popular action. But that will both hit already flagging corporate profits and turn the balance of political power towards us. So, that must be stopped at all costs.
(4) Yes! We can! I think capitalism is absolutely dying now. It can’t revive its profitability. Capital went global and financial in an attempt to crush our political power and revive its profitability. It largely succeeded (temporarily) in the first aim and only partially and temporarily succeeded in the second. Now, through money-printing, asset-inflation, austerity and debt, the capitalist class tries again to reboot the system, but can’t. At the same time, we now have the technology that enables us to share for free, co-operate rather than compete, do far, far less crappy work, and build a networked rather than hierarchical society all based on a commodity, information, that is infinitely abundant and so is incompatible with a market economy unless it’s a forced monopoly/oligopoly that represses the free exchange of information and ideas. See Paul Mason’s brilliant new book PostCapitalism on this. So, what those who dismiss exciting new political developments in the UK and many places beyond don’t see is that the world is already changing. We can totally create a new society based on a different, social value system, radically democratic in its configuration, and compatible with individual freedom, social peace, and environmental harmony. I really do think this it’s coming already.
If you’re sat there reading this stressed out by a job you hate or by the awful, endless pursuit of just trying to get a job you’ll hate, anxious about the mortgage or rental payments you struggle to make, or the consumer or student debt you’ll never ever pay back, you might be saying ‘Get real! Talk is cheap!’ and you’d be right! Talk is cheap. That’s why we still have capitalism, patriarchy, structural racism and other forms of intolerable injustice and oppression. But, it’s equally true to say the only way we begin to rid ourselves of these diseases is not bickering about the symptoms, but to see the root causes. And if it’s an economic or political issue, be it tax credits, the housing crisis, the privatisation of the NHS, or austerity, the symptoms differ, but the disease is the same – capitalism: the cancer on our body politic. When we think we might be sick we need that initial bravery to recognise the fact and to take ourselves off to the doctor. Well, I guess here I am that doctor and here’s the diagnosis. The only difference is that the disease is collective and the treatment is the responsiblity of all. Feel free to get a second opinion, but if you’re convinced then please get involved in the collective remedy. Though full recovery will take time, voicing these questions, and getting involved will help you feel loads better right away! Why? Because what you’ll feel is your own power and once that’s turned on it won’t turn off! Go for it!