Hegemony is a key concept in the writing of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, a key figure in the inter-war Italian Communist Party who was imprisoned by Mussolini, eventually dying in prison in 1937. Hegemony is the theory of how a dominant class can govern by consent and without the overt use of force. It explains that classes do not govern by simply controlling the levers of state power. Rather they develop their dominance through the institutions of civil society which impose a value consensus even across opposing sides. The terms of political and economic debate become determined by the values of the dominant class, creating a window of acceptable discourse (the “Overton Window“). Policy dictated by the interests of the dominant class becomes seen as common sense – “there is no alternative“.
How then can the left realistically make the case for change, when the debate can only take place within terms dictated by the dominant class? The trajectory of modern social democratic parties in the west across the last 30 years charts their failure to effectively answer this question.
In their book “Inventing the Future” (which I reviewed recently), Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams use the concept of hegemony to explain how neoliberalism came to dominate western governments during the 1980’s and 1990’s. They describe neoliberalism as a specific project pursued across the decades from the 1930’s onwards through think tanks, journalism, and economics departments slowly building to a position where it became viewed as the only possible set of policies which could be pursued by any government, no matter what it’s affiliation. Neoliberalism became hegemonic.
If the left is to be successful in the future, Srnicek and Williams use Gramscian language to suggest that it must construct a similar long term project, based around a number of key points. First that of reclaiming progress. After the collapse of Soviet communism visions of the future became dominated by the inevitability of some form of capitalism. Supplanting capitalism is they believe impossible from a defensive posture.
Progress is a matter of political struggle, following no pre-plotted trajectory or natural tendency… any form of progressive politics must set out to construct the new.
This developed image of the future must be universal if it is to compete with capitalism’s all encompassing and expansionary fabric.
Anything less than a competing universal will end up being smothered by an all-embracing series of capitalist relations.
Finally the left should pursue ‘synthetic’ freedom. The freedom offered by capitalism is negative, it is freedom from interference by the state. It is entirely compatible mass poverty, starvation, homelessness, unemployment, and inequality. The left must pursue a freedom which is capable of being realised.
‘Synthetic’ freedom recognises that a formal right without a material capacity is worthless.
Taken together these point towards what the authors call a ‘counter-hegemonic’ project to pull the left out of it’s current localist and defensive posture, a strategy which demonstrates a practical application in thought of Gramsci’s theory as part of an approach to rebuilding the modern left.