Kill Your Idols VI: Needing to Get It Right, Research Time, 14/08/2017

I find it sadly fitting that I’ve spent the last week talking about the complex connections between state violence and fascist militias, then we get hit with an actual fucking Nazi riot. The fascist revolution of America appears to be here.

See, all these thoughts in my all-over-the-place analysis of patriotism’s psychology all had a central point. I’m drifting around a really curious concept of hegemony that Antonio Gramsci develops.

This weekend makes me wonder if the United States of America has
reached a turning point, whether it's no longer possible for extremist
white nationalists and multicultural pluralist democrats to live in the
same country and live loyally to the same institutions. It could be
either the beginning of the end of the American experiment, or the
threshold of a new era of freedom and justice. Or it could end up
being just one more flare-up in a long and terrifying history of
American racist violence.
There’s been a ton written on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony in the last several decades of academic political philosophy. So I don’t want to get into a discussion over whether it was really Gramsci’s, or whether Anderson’s books got it right. Because I’ve been thinking this while reading some of Perry Anderson’s books on Gramsci and the Western left-wing tradition.

He’s a brilliant historian of ideas. The only thing that frustrates me about his work is that he’s such an accurate historian that I have no clue what his own philosophical ideas are. At least not in that abstract sphere of pure concepts.

I read his book on the politics and philosophies of the Indian nationalist movement against British rule, and he had plenty of his own ideas. But those were about political stances – the Hindu-centric nationalism of the Congress Party caused disasters, ethnic cleansing, and immense suffering among Indian Muslims and Dalits.

Anderson is, as you’d expect, not cool with that. His ideas are in the insight of his moral stances in his writing. But when it comes to philosophical concepts, he’s a very meticulous mapper of others’ territory. He doesn’t build his own worlds.

So his map of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is very insightful. In his long essay The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci, Anderson was very faithful to Gramsci’s ideas as they are in the text. He even describes them as paradoxical and contradictory because Gramsci developed a very slippery conception of hegemony.

Sometimes, he spoke of hegemony as if it were about state control and influence of other states through the military. Domestically, sometimes he thought of it as state violence. Sometimes, it was the soft power of the state through cultural institutions. Sometimes, hegemony was ideological. Sometimes, it was just a matter of sanctioned gun violence.

It was rather difficult for me to find a good picture of Perry
Anderson where he didn't look kind of depressed. These days, I can
understand where he's coming from.
If the meaning of a term seems to contradict itself, then it can’t be valid. Fine for a historian, but it’s a rule that makes for terrible philosophy. Oddly enough, Anderson's big history book on the Western Marxist tradition more generally tends to give Gramsci more slack on this hegemony concept. Maybe because his focus is on how the concept changed over time and place.

Look again at all those definitions of hegemony that occur across the Prison Notebooks. What do they have in common? The projection of power as the ability to control and influence. There’s always a hub to that projection, a centre of power.

That power centre is sometimes very blunt, and its projection simple and direct. Think about the Russian Revolution of 1917. It could succeed relatively easily (once it got super-lucky) because there was only one vector of power – from the Czar to the masses through the aristocracy and military elite.

Power centres can also be dispersed. Think about a country and society like the contemporary United States. Institutions and networks of influence all over the country spread a morality of patriotism, love of country and the institutions of the state.

Americans don’t believe in this simply as a matter of following orders – schools, television networks, cultural industries of all sorts spread the moralities of American patriotism, America as an ideology. That ideology itself can come in contradictory forms – racists and pluralists can exist in the same country. They have for centuries.

They’re loyal to the same institutions – American democracy, just as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison described in the Federalist Papers. Even though they believe in radically different moral visions of what those institutions should do.

But it’s always a network of control and influence with a hub, the state institutions themselves. That’s the most philosophically tantalizing take I can find, figure out, or think of for Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. It’s the one that I’ll use in my own work.

Hegemony as the dominant projection of loyalty to a state.

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