Dominance and disruption: power is won by consent, and resisted through understanding

On the history of hegemony: an informed sense of how power has been understood can only cultivate a much stronger sense of how it operates today. Book review.

David Beer
6 July 2017

Gramsci. Riccardo Cuppini/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Hegemony is a hot concept. The recent political upheavals have had the effect of pushing it towards centre stage. In the pursuit of a terminology for describing what is happening, hegemony is taking quite a bit of weight on its shoulders. It is a concept designed to explain how the powerful exert control and maintain their dominance; this means that it is also useful for understanding how power can be be disrupted or upset. Popular in the present moment, the concept of ‘hegemony’ describes a kind of all consuming power but also crops up where dominant ideas are dented or challenged.

Power can be won through consent rather than force – although force is always in reserve when needed.

Most commonly, hegemony is understood to be based around the idea that certain ideologies – ideas and beliefs about the way the world is – come to dominate. These ideologies become embedded in our culture and shape how we see the world. The result is that power can be won through consent rather than force – although force is always in reserve when needed. This is power through assent or agreement. The reduced need for physical force means that hegemonic power can be achieved and maintained efficiently. The battles over truth, knowledge and media mean that there are few words that evoke the politics of our times more acutely than hegemony.

Perry Anderson’s richly layered new book The H-Word (Verso, 2017) – a history of the concept of hegemony – shows how this interest in the relation between power and consent is not isolated to the current moment. This is a concept with baggage. Hegemony, Anderson reveals, is a concept that has surfaced and resurfaced across time and geography. He notes, though, that it has gained most traction in the last 50 years – he details the rapid escalation in the use of the concept since 1961.

Hegemony has become a kind of shorthand in these recent times – especially as it has found a new popularity through contemporary readings of Antonio Gramsci’s work. Hegemony stands for the ideological battles of the post-crash, post-truth, post-liberal visions of politics today. Anderson points out that, despite its roots running right back into ancient Greece, it wasn’t until Gramsci drew on the Bolshevik use of the term at the end of the 1920s and into the 1930s that a systematic theory began to emerge. One of the many crucial developments Anderson points to here is that consent could not be detached from coercion. In concluding Anderson argues that:

“If hegemony were either just cultural authority or coercive power, the concept would be superfluous…It’s persistence as a term is due to its combining of them, and the range of possible ways it can do so”

Anderson’s book shows the range of ways in which these two features can be combined for the concept of hegemony to mean quite different things.

Hegemony stands for the ideological battles of the post-crash, post-truth, post-liberal visions of politics today.

As might be expected, Gramsci has a leading – though not dominant – role. But the constellations of hegemony captured by Anderson book might cause us to pause before dropping it into our own political explanations of the way the world is. Beyond Gramsci we also hear of the concept as it was formed in a range of texts. Following Gramsci, to pick out one of many examples, we find that Heinrich Triepel, a German legal theorist, developed a wide-ranging but far less well-known 1938 study and theoretical work expounding a theory hegemony.

For Triepel hegemony existed somewhere in the continuum between the strength of domination and the looseness of influence. Triepel’s politics could not have been much more different from Gramsci’s – illustrating how widely political investments in this concept can vary, and can be embedded in securing power as well as resisting it. The use of this term can slip between official- and state-based communications of leadership, such as in China, to resistant and subversive accounts of power. They agreed on the ‘cultural leadership’ required by hegemony but not about how it was used to enforce class division.

The lack of purchase of the concept prior to the 1960s is revealed where hegemony is converted into either ‘leadership’ of ‘predominance’ in the English translation of Ludwig Dehio’s work of the 1930s. Gaps are recovered by Anderson’s careful eye. Elsewhere, in relation to Robert Cox’s 1987 book Production, Power and World Order, the notion of ‘global hegemony’ is discussed to reflect wider contemporaneous concerns with globalisation. This focus on Cox adds a further detail: that structures of power always need “material capabilities, ideas and institutions”. Cox’s position reshapes hegemony alongside the national imperial focuses of some earlier incarnations.

The book does as much to disturb as to refine a definition of hegemony.

By comparing and contrasting the different uses of the concept over time, we see in detail how ’hegemony’ is embedded in the social and political issues of these different times. The concept is fleshed out in these comparisons. Anderson’s approach draws out  subtleties and forces us to think more carefully about what it might allow us to illuminate. The journey that the concept has been on meansit needs care. Deeply connected with empire and filtered through various political agendas, hegemony is a concept which  seems simple but has, Anderson shows, hidden depths and complexities:taking hold then dying off – serving its use but then falling into disrepair. The book does as much to disturb as to refine a definition of hegemony.

There are moments when it isn’t clear if we are moving into a more general history, with the concept seemingly and only momentarily left behind. In the original film version of H.G.Well’s novel The Time Machine (1960), we see Rod Taylor racing through history. The background is a blur with fleeting moments in which we can make out some key historical event or era. Reading this book is a similar experience. Sometimes I wanted the world that Anderson was reconstructing to spin a little slower. We speed across time, leaping between moments in which the details only solidify to capture the instances when a theorist takes hegemony out of the mothballs. This punchiness works to reveal how conceptual trends lurch and break, with hegemony coming to the surface in different moments to achieve differing objectives and to suit different agendas. This is a book about a concept, but it is also a book about how an idea of power can itself be part of the story of power and resistance.

An informed sense of how power has been understood in the past can only cultivate a much stronger sense of how it operates today.

The history of a concept like hegemony might, on the surface, seem like a task for some cloistered thinkers engaged in esoteric and worthy semantics. Yet pursuing this history not only shows us what that concept might be used for, with much sharper precision, it also allows us to reflect on the terminology we use to understand what is happening right now. Ideas are a part of how we approach the world and how we understand our place within it. We need ideas, sometimes we might need to renew old ideas, to understand and shine a light on what is happening and why. This is what is at stake with a history of ideas, especially when those ideas are themselves concerned with understanding power.

An informed sense of how power has been understood in the past can only cultivate a much stronger sense of how it operates today. The limitations of hegemony and the baggage it carries mean that we will need to use other ideas alongside it to really get to grips with the current shifts, but this concept and this book will fuel that kind of thinking. Here Anderson sharpens what can sometimes be quite a blunt concept, and offers a resource for understanding how hegemony has been dented by the events of recent months, perhaps even for understanding what happens next.

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