posthegemony

The University of Minnesota Press asked me to write a brief entry that would be a sort of “introduction to Posthegemony” and that would ideally touch on current events. This should soon appear on the Press’s blog, too.

How do we explain the success of the “Tea Party” movement within the US Republican party?

Its supporters claim that it is very simple: the American people, they argue, are fed up with unwanted government intrusion in their lives and the slide to socialism (or something like it) under the presidency of Barack Obama. The “Tea Party Patriots”, for instance, address the “Citizens of our Nation” who “were disgusted that your government ignored your will so egregiously.”

Or in the words of of the founder of “Regular Folks United: The Bully Pulpit for Regular Folks” (whose contributors include the now iconic “Joe the Plumber”), he started the website

after many years of feeling like real people were getting lost in the shuffle of political battles. Republican talking points. Democrat talking points. What about Regular Folk talking points? I was tired of elitists (yes, they are on both sides of the aisle) pretending they were doing things to help “regular folks” while they were really, most often, trampling on regular folks’ freedoms and taking their money for some bloated inefficient government program.

In short, we see an almost classic case of populist insurgency: ordinary people rising up against the distortions and manipulations of “politics as usual.”

But there is nothing particularly simple about even classical populism. And as liberals are surely by now tired of pointing out, there is no shortage of distortion or manipulation on the part of the Tea Partiers: it is almost bewildering to realize, for example, how many still believe that Obama is a Moslem born outside of the United States. When there is such disagreement over the basic premises of the discussion, there seems little opportunity to have the kinds of debate usually associated with political discourse.

More significantly, many of those who are funding the movement are far from ordinary in any sense of the term. Jane Mayer in the New Yorker recently wrote a long piece about the reclusive billionaire Koch brothers who have piled millions into the cause. With friends like these, it is no wonder that the “regular folks” of the Tea Party find themselves campaigning to continue the Bush-era tax cuts on the very wealthy (those who earn above $250,000 a year). In other words, we also have a classic case of people fighting fervently for their own exploitation as though it were their liberation.

The theory of hegemony is designed to untangle such complications. It was the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who first elaborated the notion that capitalism’s survival relies on the fact that people willingly give their consent to political movements that work against their best interests. Social domination depends, he argued, upon consent as much, if not more, than upon brute force or coercion.

In the mid to late 1970s, Gramsci was rediscovered and hegemony theory was further refined by the Argentine Ernesto Laclau before it was taken up with great enthusiasm by British Cultural Studies. Soon “hegemony” became cultural studies’ core concept. It is not surprising, moreover, that the concept came into vogue during another moment at which populism seemed to rule the day: with Peronism in Argentina, and then Thatcher and Reagan in the UK and the USA.

Laclau’s motivation was to distinguish between a progressive populism of the left from a populism of the right. For surely the left could not give up on the self-declared “ordinary” people that were the focus of cultural studies’ own iconoclastic anti-elitism. (Recall that for Raymond Williams, the founding principle of the discipline is that “culture is ordinary.”) And yet ultimately hegemony theory fails in this task: most recently, with On Populist Reason, Laclau simply abandons the project by identifying populism with politics as a whole.

My argument in Posthegemony is that hegemony theory mirrors populism and is therefore unable fully to understand (let alone oppose) it. In parallel, I also show that civil society discourse has a similar relationship to the neoliberalism that it claims to critique. We therefore need some other way to think about politics, if these two foremost instances of progressive social theory are incapable of grasping the two major political movements of the past thirty years.

I call this new way to think about politics “posthegemony.”

Posthegemony turns from the Gramscian dichotomy between coercion and consent, to look instead at the subterranean influences of affect, habit, and the multitude that underlie all so-called hegemonic projects.

It should be obvious enough that the Tea Party has more to do with affect, that is with the order of bodies, and with habit, that is with their repetition and resonance, than with any attempt to win the consent of “hearts and minds.” And it should be equally clear that the notion of a “people” (of “regular folks” or the “Citizens of the Nation”) is a construction that enables interested parties (the Kochs or others) to appropriate the power of a multitude that would otherwise threaten them as much as it unsettles any representative of constituted power.

Posthegemony, then, is a novel form of political analysis (which draws on the work of theorists such as Gilles Deleuze, Pierre Bourdieu, Antonio Negri, as well as Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben). But it also perhaps points towards a new political project, whose aim would be to liberate the multitude from its own subjection to the popular.

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