disproportionate

A note added to a note…

In an entry entitled “Against my Better Judgment”, Adam Kotsko ends with the following aside:

I’d just like to note, in closing, that people generally seem to me to misunderstand the term “hegemonic.” They seem to take it as meaning “dominant” in some straightforward way, when in fact, the entire point of the concept of “hegemony” is that one exercises power to a degree that is disproportionate to one’s means. Thus, the United States is a “global hegemon” precisely insofar as it does not directly rule the world.

But for a purported clarification, this formulation is remarkably muddled.

Hegemony may be dominance through consent, rather than coercion, but how is that “disproportionate to one’s means”? Rather, the point is that hegemonic powers have means other than (“straightforward”) coercion at their disposal. But the fact that power is able to solicit consent to power does not make it any the less powerful; most people would argue that it makes it rather more so. And the fact that it has other means to secure its power does not imply that it is without means; rather the contrary.

(Of course, in fact the very distinction between consent and coercion is unhelpful, and perhaps only establishes the idea of “consent” itself as some kind of “other” of coercion; which is not to say that violence does not exist, that torture is not bad, or in sum to deny all the differentiations that such a distinction aims to establish. Rather, the point would be to suggest that “consent versus coercion” is not the best way to understand the differentiated field in and through which power is exercised.)

The question of “direct” versus “indirect” rule is rather more interesting, however, if not in the way that Kotsko probably intends. The essence of sovereignty is rule from a distance, I’d say. Certainly so, if we see sovereignty in terms of the establishment of transcendence. But that distance is only an effect, a type of illusion. Sovereignty, like all other claims to transcendence, is illegitimate. Just as Foucault criticizes the notion that power emanates from a centre, its posthegemonic critique emphasizes how power is always exercised directly, immanently (through affect and habit, for instance), but in such a manner as to posit some transcendent centre as quasi-cause.

Meanwhile, to argue that power is not in fact secured through hegemony (not what Kotsko is arguing, though he does suggest that hegemony is somehow not “really” as powerful as other forms of power) is not to say that one can simply ignore hegemony, declare the Emperor is naked, turn one’s back and hope it goes away. It means that one has to account for the effects that are ascribed to hegemony, but in terms of some other mechanism(s). A theory of posthegemony would not argue that so-called hegemons are in fact less powerful than they appear; it would argue rather that they are powerful in ways other than they appear to be.

To put this one more way: to say that constituted power derives from constituent power is not to say that constituted power is any the less powerful. I think many of Negri’s critics miss this point (and perhaps Negri does sometimes, too).

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