Kill Your Idols VIII: The Best Raw Deal, Research Time, 17/08/2017

Here is the sort of political activism you need when you understand how complex the relationship between society, culture, and state is.

Your activism has to aim for hegemony. This is more than just control of the state. In fact, hegemony means a lot of different things. The term ‘hegemony’ whose meaning is continuous with present use, began in international relations theory in the 19th century.

Boys at war.
Essentially, the theory that sees all relations between nations and peoples as states at war. Whether by military or some other means. Conquest, dominance, hostility, suspicion, mistrust, fear, and hatred.

The language of what’s called realist IR theory is dispassionate, almost meditative. They talk in terms of interests, calculations of different risks and their mutual impacts, game theory. But I’ve long heard a whisper, an implication in a little too much of this talk, which sounds like little boys in a park playing at war.

Hegemony here is the dominant power – the state at the centre of military and economic power for an entire region or the world. The state to whom every other government pays loyalty if they know what’s good for them.

Antonio Gramsci’s innovation was to adapt the term to a domestic political context. He was thinking of states, cliques of oligarchs or aristocrats, and classes. Hegemony here means the power of a ruling class through the state to force obedience through violence, or else seduce them into it.

This is where those institutions come into play. Most of them – especially in Gramsci’s own time and place, early 20th century Europe – were organs of the state. The different military and police bureaus could force you to obey. One important reason (among many) why Gramsci’s revolution in Italy failed was because the Italian Communist Party thought those violent institutions were all that mattered.

Nothing phallic about this at all.
Consent of the governed is a much more powerful force. Many people who were desperately and inescapably poor under the current way of doing things in 1920s Italy – factory workers, farmers, labourers – simply weren’t up for revolution. They were okay with the way things were.

There are a lot of people who, in situations of terrible injustice, are still okay with things. They can see the real circumstances of wretchedness that the status quo results in, and they’ll just make excuses, or simply act as though it doesn’t matter.

You want an example? Introduce yourself to a middle-class white Canadian from a reasonably affluent suburban community. Ask him about the number of Indigenous rural communities don’t have access to a clean water source.

He’ll be filled with excuses, half of them blaming Indigenous people themselves for not having a basic government service we take for granted everywhere else in the country.

Now why would he believe that? These are ideas that proliferate culturally – in conversations and mass media, whether some media platform or channel is state-run or private. They’re the conversations that condition public morality.

Yeah, I'm going there. At least for a little while.
Powerful institutions, organizations, and sometimes even individuals can control channels and platforms. Effective political activism has to work on all these forces at once. Agitating against unjust government actions isn't enough.

Maybe it’s through direct ownership – the state runs the CBC, Facebook is a company that shapes our online life, several oligarchs become think tank funders or outright buy media companies. Maybe it’s through influence, building a profile in these media or influencing people in states and private organizations.

Together – say it with me now – all these forces manufacture our consent.

So is Noam Chomsky just warmed-over Antonio Gramsci? Pretty much, and not even as interesting. But I think I’ll go into more detail why tomorrow.

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