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Part One: Introduction and understanding ‘hegemony’
The world is ablaze!! In Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Portugal, Pakistan, London, fires burn, destroying lives and fuelling the fires of righteous rage spreading across our entire planet.
The fire that burned down the high rise Grenfell Tower in West London two weeks ago killed dozens (hundreds?) of (overwhelming Muslim and non-white, immigrant) working class people. All people with love in their hearts feel grief and, yes, a burning anger.
In the glare of these fires, why would anyone call for social theory?! Why the hell should we think about theorising about the state of the world when we are called by the most excruciating anguish to act in it right now?! It sounds crazy, but I want to argue that we need theory right now to make sense of our situation so that we can act in the most effective ways. When I say that I want to talk about Italian political philosopher and activist Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony I fear I can almost see readers’ eyes rolling back in their heads, but, please, trust me, stick around. It matters. It matters so profoundly. I’ll try my best to convince you why and how.
In this series of articles, I will first set out Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and why understanding hegemony is vital to any process of personal journey towards, and collective struggle for, real freedom. Basically, I will argue that ruling groups cannot maintain power through violence alone, so the construction of a dominant culture, a dominant understand of ‘common sense’, and a naturalisation of an arbitrary, artificial, and unjust social order is required. In short, the construction of a hegemonic ideology is essential. Over the last thirty years, this ideology has been neo-liberalism. A hegemonic ideology requires underlying social and economic stability to be credible. An economic crisis gradually weakens its foundations. This is what has happened here and all around the world. Because of the 2008 crisis and continued falls in living standards, very few believe in the core mantras of neo-liberalism anymore – ‘free’ markets, privatisation, pure self-interest, financial markets, austerity. Neo-liberalism as functioning ideology is dead. This means that ruling groups have to rule ever more through violence – physical, yes, but also communicative, that is, the politics of hate and fear. It also means that there is an opening at last for a politics of hope – both ideological and material. That is, there is a space for groups to present a hopeful vision of and for humanity and a concrete programme of action to achieve it. This is what has happened recently with Labour’s resurgence in the recent election. This has transformed the ideological landscape, our collective understanding of ‘common sense’.
In the second article, I take us on a whistle-stop tour of the nature of the economic, social, and political crises affecting the UK right now. This establishes the foundations and context for the current hegemonic crisis.
In the third article, I offer evidence for both why neo-liberalism is clearly dead (as hegemonic ideology) and for this recent dramatic shift leftwards in in the ideological landscape.
In the fourth article, I take a bold step and offer a prediction of what will happen in the UK within the next 12-24 months. Usually, the optimism of my will trumps the pessimism of my intellect, but here, perhaps for the first time, my pessimistic (realistic) intellect wins out. I predict a very scary scenario in which the Tory government falls and a progressive government (Labour majority or coalition) is elected. That’s not the scary bit! The new government then faces the collective wrath of the state and capitalist factions (army, police, financiers, corporations, political class, and media) who do their utmost to bring down the government and the movements behind it. What I describe is the emergence of a real ‘war of manoeuvre’ in which opposing social forces take their struggle beyond the cultural terrain into direct economic and even physical confrontation. That’s the scary bit!
In the fifth and final article, I will set out a four-fold framework for winning this war through the democratisation of power and the empowerment of democracy. This framework is underpinned by the principles of radicalism and love. By radicalism, I mean a governmental strategy and policy approach that addresses the root causes of crisis and injustice and makes no reformist compromise to social forces systemically opposing our ambitions. It is people and planet against capital. There can be no compromise and history’s battlefield is littered with the corpses of failed revolutions sold out by reformism. By love, I mean a micro-political commitment, that is, a commitment in each of our local communities, families, workplaces, and our hearts to a democratic culture of love – non-judgment, non-violence, empathy, listening, dialogue, and, wherever possible, consensus.
These failed democratic revolutions were also cut down by bureaucratic statism. However, the first component of the framework is a temporary state socialism. I advocate a temporary and necessary state socialism to defend against and expropriate the forces of capital; to sustain the people in the midst of crisis; and to begin and support a far greater democratisation of political and economic power. This democratisation of political and economic power, the second component of the framework, must take the forms of municipalism and co-operativism. Municipalism means establishing local control of councils and neighbourhood assemblies for communities to control and run local resources. Co-operativism entails the democratisation of companies through worker takeovers and conversions to worker-run co-operatives. The third component of the framework requires the continued post-election mobilisation and organisation of citizens on community, regional, and national levels to defend the election victory and to push the government, lured by reformism or cowed by crisis, towards radicalism and democratisation. The fourth and final component entails the vital micro-politics of democratisation – the democratisation of our culture and our very selves through collective learning. Ultimately, only water can overcome fire; only love and hope can overcome hate and fear.
I conclude with a call to all of us to get informed, to get ‘shock-proof’ (as Naomi Klein puts it), to get involved locally and nationally, and to open ourselves to love.
What is Gramsci’s theory of hegemony? In order to secure stable rule, ruling groups use the cultural institutions of society (media, education, civil society) to create if not active, but at least passive consent around the status quo. You might not like the society you’re in, but, through your constant exposure to the papers, TV, films, schooling, etc, you come to accept the ‘reality’ you see as normal, inevitable, and even natural. Stable rule through passive consent requires the production of an ideology so profound that you don’t even know it’s there. It’s ‘hidden in plain view’. One central way of thinking about what hegemony produces is our collective ‘common sense’ – that which becomes so ingrained in us as to be instinctive and unconscious.
The hegemonic ideologies of neo-liberal capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and more, then, are constructed through cultural institutions and disseminated through the countless words and images we see. Indeed, we reproduce hegemony ourselves through our own language, signs, mannerisms, clothes, bodies each day.
Hegemony is never totally stable because there is always resistance. However, one thing that capitalism has been amazing at is colonising and co-opting this resistance and invariably commodifying it. A potential social threat ultimately becomes simultaneously a point of social catharsis and a money-making opportunity. Think, for example, of the punk movement of the 1970s and 1980s or rap/hip-hop in the 1980s and 1990s.
Hegemony is a vital, I would say, fundamental, social theory because it helps us to see how we (our supposed freedom, our ideology, our subjectivity, our very selves) are produced. Indeed, crucially, hegemony is not just a cultural theory; it is a political economic theory because it shows not just how we as pliant citizens, but also productive workers and desirous consumers (not to mention stereotypical gendered and racialised roles) are produced. In short, we need to understand hegemony – the conditions of our mental enslavement – if we then want to pursue and struggle for our genuine freedom. We also need to recognise that all the institutions of society are battlegrounds in a social war and that this war is going on not just out there in society, but in here – in our family homes, in our kitchens, our bedrooms, our hearts, our minds, our souls.
Hegemony and crisis
An emphasis on the material foundations of cultural hegemony is crucial because this emphasis then sheds light on the conditions that either help to concretise or destabilise hegemonic orders. However partial and jaundiced the ‘reality’ that is constructed through the media, there has to be some correspondence to the reality we actually experience for the foundations of a hegemonic order to stand strong. It is in periods, then, of profound and prolonged social and economic crisis (crises of capital) that the widespread passive social consent for a hegemonic order begins to collapse as the perception gap between these mediated and experienced realities grows. Consequently, as, for reasons spelled out eloquently by David Harvey here, crisis is inevitable in capitalism, so are corresponding crises in the underlying/overarching hegemonic order.
We are living in such a period of material (ecological and socio-economic) and hegemonic (ideological) crisis. The ‘Great Recession’ triggered by the 2008 Financial Crisis is almost a decade old and living standards in post-industrial Western societies continue to decline as inequality continues to grow. In the second of this series of five articles, then, I will lead us on a brief overview of the situation here in the UK by way of example to capture the depth of the economic, social, and political crisis we face. We can then move on to look for evidence of hegemonic crisis too. That’s the focus of the third article.
Thank you so much for reading.
Solidarity and love,