‘[One] might say that state = political society + civil society, in other words hegemony protected by the armour of coercion’ – Antonio Gramsci, State as Gendarme – Nightwatchman, etc.
I’ve written a canny bit on here about hegemony. We’ve covered quite a lot: I’ve told you that bourgeois hegemony is bad & even explained why, repeatedly. It might seem like overkill in order to describe what could be phrased as simply “everything we consume is shit & wants to kill us”. However, it is really, very important. Imagine if your fridge was about to stab you & I didn’t say anything? Exactly. You’d be pretty pissed off about missing the phantasmagoria, if nothing else.
Recently, I’ve realised that 1 could read my posts as a form of fatalism or determinism. You could even go so far as to say the bourgeois hegemony I write so much about is mythical, like fairy dust, or “compassionate Capitalism”. My dissatisfaction with what I’ve been writing so far doesn’t stem from any gross inaccuracies in the work. Rather, it comes from the fact that I’ve been writing about contemporary bourgeois hegemony in isolation – predominantly explored through the medium of art. To some extent, this is necessary in order to be accurate & understandable. However, it does miss out something rather important: more than 1 form of idea can exist. In other words, the real world is real.
So, let’s get this straight. The hegemonic ideas & values of a class, once it is possessed of state power, are immensely powerful. They can – & will, if not guarded against – condition 1’s entire attitude toward life. The state is in no sore need of avenues to perpetrate & perpetuate this ideological warfare. Every arm of the class in power will seek to do the same, unless they are irrevocably severed. The fundamental point is that, unless fought against (conscious & unconscious action, at this level of abstraction, hold no distinction), the ruling hegemony will, in fact, perpetuate itself: ‘Hegemony here is born in the factory and requires for its exercise only a minute quantity of professional, political and ideological intermediaries’ (Gramsci, Rationalization of the Demographic Composition of Europe). The Soviet writer Maxim Gorky frames what this means, how it manifests, beautifully in the opening chapter of his novel Mother. I quote a passage below to illustrate the point:
‘They cursed their children and beat them mercilessly, but the fighting and drinking of young people was taken as a matter of course; when the fathers had been young they too had fought and drunk, been thrashed in their turn by their mothers and fathers. Life had always been like that. It flowed on in a turbid stream, slowly and evenly, year after year, and everything was bound together by deep-rooted habits of thinking and doing the same thing day after day.’
It is at this point, however, that we need to understand hegemony as a concrete force. Ideas stem from given material conditions & belong to their historical context: human beings cannot think beyond this abstractly. Whilst this much is true, the hegemony of a class definitively corresponds to that class. The ideas perpetuated by the state – by whatever means of coercion, force or subtlety – are not eternal, nor omnipotent: they are human constructs, brought to life & given flesh by actual human beings. Without the action of human beings, hegemony ceases to exist as ideas cease to exist.
Further to this, & we come now to an important point, the actual human being is possessed of agency – that is, of conscious thought. Idealism seeks to simultaneously reject & accept this at every point, obscuring its true significance as a means of perpetuating its hegemonic grasp. The significance of agency is, in fact, very simple. No matter how strong the pull of a particular hegemony might be or become, human beings in their real & actual form can overcome it. In a word, you are responsible for yourself; you are the acting agent of your own existence.
To be blunt, this carries with it a consequence which must be obvious – it is highlighted by the phrase ‘you are responsible’. 1 cannot, in any circumstance, excuse 1’s actions based upon the decadence of a society; 1 cannot waive morality & then claim that a demon told them to. Yes, our society – its bourgeois hegemony – is sexist, is racist, is ableist, is reactionary to its core. Yes, every influence in our lives is, more or less, a corruption. This does not excuse us: it does not make reactionary politics acceptable, or inevitable. These ideologies can, & must, be fought at every turn. In some instances, we will fail, we will make mistakes. We must then recognise this. Whilst we cannot be considered perfect, we are conscious.
‘But whereas bourgeois discipline is mechanical and authoritarian, socialist discipline is autonomous and spontaneous. If you accept socialist discipline it means you are a socialist or you want to be so more fully, joining the youth movement if you are young. And whoever is a socialist or wants to become one does not obey: he commands himself, he imposes a rule of life on his impulses, on his disorderly aspirations. It would be strange if, while one too often obeys without a murmur a discipline that one does not understand and does not feel, we were not able to act according to a course of conduct that we ourselves have helped prescribe and keep rigidly consistent. For this is what autonomous disciplines are like: the very life, the very thought of the person who observes them’ (Gramsci, Discipline).