One of the hallmarks of any hegemonic system such as we have in the UK, is a common world-view that acts to unify the bloc (i.e. all the various entities, actors and agents in the system). This world-view includes ideological elements from varying sources, but its unity stems from an articulating principle which always comes from the hegemonic class. Gramsci referred to the articulating principle as a hegemonic principle. Mouffe explains:
Thus the intellectual and moral direction exercised by a fundamental class in a hegemonic system consists in providing the articulating principle of the common world-view, the value system to which the ideological elements coming from other groups will be articulated in order to form a unified ideological system, that is to say an organic ideology. This will always be a complex ensemble whose contents can never be determined in advance since it depends on a whole series of historical and national factors and also on the relations of forces existing at a particular moment in the struggle for hegemony.’
The articulating (or hegemonic) principle of the system we have in the UK (and all other western style democracies as far as I can see) is now, and has been since the early 1980s, neoliberalism. This is what has – and still does (despite claims to the contrary) – provide the basis and underpinning of the common world-view and value system that informs, conditions, and shapes the social, economic and cultural relations of the world in which the vast majority of the people live.
It would seem that until the financial/economic crisis of 2008-10 the features and content of this ‘complex ensemble’ had been relatively stable and ordered and therefore there was not much evidence of a ‘struggle for hegemony’. Clearly from 2010 this changed with the increasing frequency and substance of attacks on the value system and hegemonic principle of neoliberalism. However, I would argue that the outcome was not a weakening of the principle but a strengthening of it (witness as one example the fate of the first Syriza government in Greece). Thus, while restrictions and controls were put in place for banks, new opposition groups formed and acted, and so on, space was also created for the forces that favoured a more extreme form of neoliberalism (no doubt its advocates would say “pure”) to articulate new/revised ‘ideological elements’ – specifically, the concept and subsequent practice of so called austerity economic and social policy.
Of course, this in itself is a ‘complex ensemble’ of ideas, many of which have subsequently found their way into a revised, post 2010 neoliberal world-view and value system (for example, where rent seeking seems to be accepted and promoted as the supreme form of capitalism by the hegemonic class). However, I want to detour here slightly while on the subject of austerity to pick up an important point that may otherwise get lost, but which austerity policies illustrate in spades. This is, as Gray (p.243) notes, that Gramsci emphasised that ‘any form of hegemony presupposes particular relations of coercion, and vice versa; effective domination depends on a workable combination of ‘voluntary’ and ‘coercive’ relations.’
Gray provides us with an example: the containment of the working-class opposition in the 1830-40s – a crucial feature of which was the ‘extremely discriminating use of legal repression, often with considerable care to ensure the prior political isolation of its victims.’ This is exactly what we saw with the treatment of the poor and those with a disability in the UK from 2010, of course. Political isolation through the creation of the “scrounger/benefit culture” narrative and worse, and repression through legislation and the resulting policies and practices (e.g. PIP, universal credit, etc).
I think it can be convincingly argued that by 2012 the updated (austerity) form of neoliberalism, with its revised hegemonic principle, world-view and value system, had all but replaced the previous version. Of course, this is not to claim that this “model” was – or is – the same in every country because these developments are subject to ‘a whole series of historical and national factors and also on the relations of forces existing at a particular moment’, as I noted above.
The contents of the ‘complex ensemble’ that constitutes austerity neoliberalism did not remain settled for long, however. 2016 signalled the rise of the wreakers as I prefer to label them, for reasons I explain below. In many cases these are historical and national factors and relations that predate 2016 but events in that year served to “launch” them into the mainstream. Specifically, in the case of the UK those associated with the Brexit campaign and the subsequent leadership of the Brexit “delivery” movement (and in the US, Trump and his acolytes, of course).
To be clear, these actors are not seeking to attack the fundamental neoliberal hegemonic principle. Far from it, as in most cases their form of neoliberal ideology is even more extreme than the austerity version. Nor are they seeking to undermine the hegemonic class: clearly the likes of Johnson, Rees-Moog, Gove and co are, and in many cases have always been, members of this class. But they are seeking to fundamentally alter some of the key elements of the post 2010 hegemonic principle and world-view and value system of their class, and thus – because we all live in and under a hegemonic system – profoundly alter the economic, social and cultural relations of the country in which we live.
As we advance through 2018 and approach the Brexit deadline we are seeing frequent and increasing examples of the struggles for the intellectual and moral direction (which I take to include political, economic, social, cultural, etc) of the hegemonic class: members of the business elite and the management of major corporations and economic sectors speak out about the dangers of Brexit; members of the political and governmental elite likewise; as do senior EU administrators and members of the political and economic elites of member states. All are members of the various groups that constitute the hegemonic class.
None of this cuts any ice with Brexiteers. Regardless of how it was done, they recognise that in the Brexit campaign they won what Gramsci referred to as ‘the organisation of consent’. Having done so they also recognise that this provides the force and legitimacy (albeit temporary) required to reformulate central elements of the hegemonic principle – neoliberalism for a post-Brexit UK (unfortunately I can’t think of anything snappier), which comes complete with a world-view and value system the features of which are clear from the many utterances of those who dominate this movement.
I refer to these actors as wreckers because their focus is first and foremost on the destruction of any elements or versions of the hegemonic principle that they cannot claim or accommodate into their own. Thus, the EU is an enemy not because it is not built on a neoliberal hegemonic principle but because elements of that version of the principle – and thus the world-view and value system that flow from it – act against the ideological desires and extremes Brexiteers want to put front and centre of their extreme version of neoliberalism (elsewhere and in common with others I’ve referred to this as akin to neofeudalism). This does not signify that the hegemonic system that we live in is in danger of collapse – far from it. But it does illustrate that the hegemonic class is far from homogenous and that we are at a point in time where elements of that class are willing to visit harm and suffering on the majority of the citizens of the UK – i.e. Brexit – because they have been presented with the opportunity to win an ideological battle and thus redefine a hegemonic system over which they now have power.
Gray, R. Bourgeois hegemony in Victorian Britain.
Mouffe, C. Hegemony and Ideology in Gramsci.
Both in Bennett, T. et al. Eds. (1981) Culture, Ideology and Social Process.