Kill Your Idols XI: Seeing Only the Conspiracy, Research Time, 23/08/2017

What have I figured out from the last two weeks of speculations, drafts, dry-runs, reflections, and meta-reflections?

I’ve been looking at a fateful decision point in the development of revolutionary philosophical thinking – Europe’s anti-communist crackdowns of the 1920s – to see what lessons this very different moment may have for us. It’s a lesson about the sources of power, violence, and stability in human society.

Thinking of freedom all too often involves philosophies that began
in prison cells.
Gramsci’s moment – holed up in a prison cell, wondering with powerful philosophical rigour where it all went so wrong – illuminates a common mistake in a lot of political activism, no matter its ideology. All too often, you misunderstand the nature of political agency.

Gramsci’s fellow revolutionaries of industrial Europe after the First World War made a curious version of that mistake. They absorbed a strange necessitarianism from their twisty intellectual heritage.

They were dedicated communists whose goal was a political revolution to build a more fair and equal society. That was their heritage from Karl Marx himself, both in his most popular works like Capital and in his work as a political organizer.

But they also believed that transformation of the entire industrialized West was inevitable once one revolution succeeded. That was their heritage from the metaphysics of conservative Hegelianism that no one admitted had influenced them.

When Antonio Gramsci was writing his Prison Notebooks, he was figuring out what about the world was different from their expectations. Not just the contingency of real political developments, but why those contingencies led to such a decisive defeat.

Chomsky's propaganda model of communication has functioned until
recently as the Western left's primary way to interpret the world. I'd
venture it was an important cause of how ineffectual the left was
until the millennial wave of feminism and the post-Ferguson civil
rights movement.
The concept he used to understand those key differences between Russia and Western Europe was hegemony. He adapted it from the vocab of studies of international political jockeying, where it described a regional power’s military and diplomatic influence.

Applied to a domestic sphere, hegemony was a matter of popular morality. A hegemonic ideology is the predominant public morality of social and political relations, where that morality is predominantly that of a dominant class in a country. A hegemonic ideology’s rules, principles, and ideals are those of that most powerful class – whether aristocrats, bourgeois, oligarchs, or maybe even workers.

The key thing about hegemony in this sense is that it’s domination without a will to dominate. There’s no central organizing power directing the expressions of hegemonic morality. Instead, there are networks of relationships throughout a society, and the moralities of particular people or groups have a higher prestige and influence on the thinking and behaviour of others.

I think I’ll pick up Henri Bergson’s Two Sources later this year. It would make a good source of ideas for a framework of how more rigorous concepts of non-intentional causality work in social and political investigations.

The problem with thinking in terms of hegemony is that it can really easily drift into conspiratorial thinking. That’s about what I think Noam Chomsky has inspired in the activist left. He analyzed a complex network of relationships between multiple private institutions, governments, multiple classes of business leaders.

He called it the propaganda model of communication. The one term that evokes a shadowy cabal of masterminds controlling the world – Goebbels for neoliberalism.

Hegemony is about systematic, non-intentional causality. Even the elites are dupes of the system, self-deluded donkeys laughing as they fall into their own graves. We have to understand this if we want to understand reality.

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