Hegemony 2: the rise of the wreckers

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.

References

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.

Comments

  1. Sean Danaher -

    Ivan

    many thanks for this. Very nicely put. It is certainly true I thing that the ultra-neoliberals and libertarians of ERG, Legatum, Policy Exchange etc. very much see this vision, but need to get there by stealth.

    Their vision as far as I can tell is indeed a neofudal Britain with the added benefit of chaos and vulture capatalism. Farage’s cronies made hundred of millions on the night after the Brexit referendum.

    I’m feeling very pessimistic at present. One of my “must reads” is Chris Grey’s Brexit blog his most recent one http://chrisgreybrexitblog.blogspot.com/2018/06/two-years-into-brexit-disaster.html is possibly the grimmest yet.

    It is now two years since Britain, in a catastrophic and historically unprecedented act of national self-harm, voted to leave the EU. Since then we have seen the installation of a new Prime Minister who, when she had the strength to do otherwise, endorsed not just Brexit but a hard and divisive form of it. Of her own volition, albeit urged on by the Brexiters, she started the Article 50 process with no idea about how to undertake it – perhaps the biggest strategic error in modern British history. She then called and failed to win outright a General Election – perhaps the biggest political error in modern British history.”

    1. Ivan Horrocks -

      I’ve just read the piece you link to, Sean. One of the most withering and powerful I’ve read. To be honest – and following the logic of my blog combined with all the points Chris Grey makes – I honestly believe that we’re heading for a hard Brexit. I simply do not see any force from any direction – and sadly not at all from Corbyn’s Labour – that can or will act to stop this. I suppose, again as mentioned in Chris’s piece, that it might be possible that the EU recognising that we’re about to create a basket-case of a country just off the coast of mainland Europe agrees to endless transitional arrangement to help us out. But as the Brexit Ultras could not accept that (being wreakers) and they are in the accent (effectively having taken over the Tory party and also it has to be said, Parliament) I just don’t that happening. Who would have believed it would come to this. But this is where extreme cowardise on the part of our political leaders combined with the pursuit of power and control of government at any cost gets us.

      1. Sean Danaher -

        Ivan

        I agree. Chris Grey is normally very much on the money, but I think he is clutching at straws.

        I have started to listen to podcasts also and Chris Kendall and Steve Bullock of CakeWatch think any form of EEA agreement will be unstable and eventually lead to a hard Brexit. I had thought pre-Brexit referendum (a few months before the actual referendum) that a Norway like solution was the most likely, but now have come to the conclusion, unusually, that the outcome is binary – either hard Brexit or no Brexit at all.

        The Irish border situation is still unresolved. Everything I read indicates Ireland and the EU will not back down. I anything trust is gone and Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany ( three of the hardest hit countries), are preparing for a train crash.

        Trump of course is probably an even more major worry, but brain overload here!

      2. Charles Adams -

        What will happen at the Irish border in the no deal scenario? Given that everyone supports an open border, is it possible that there is no agreement but still everything carries on as before?

        In other areas, including science, it is likely that no deal will cause enormous disruption.

      3. Sean Danaher -

        Wow Charles
        a really big question. I will be in Dublin (at the annual UCD Physics alumni bash next week) and will take soundings. Ceartainly Leo is hopeful, and May doesn’t want a hard border either, but it will be the external border of the EU given no deal.

        QUB is very well respected and seen as similar to UCD and Trinity in Ireland and we absolutely want to put nothing in place which would cause any friction. Needless to say I couldn’t care less if good academics are Irish, British, Russian and one I worked with recently from Burkina Faso who was exceptional.

        No deal might well be a nightmare. My prediction is still as soft as possible an Irish sea border with as light a toutch as possible; but maybe an Iron Curtain like situation if all goes badly.

  2. Geoff -

    Interesting and thought provoking as usual Ivan,
    I think modern feudalism is an apt term for what seems clearly to be happening and not just in the UK.
    Since the Thatcher sell off of council property, where working class families purchased their home, debt has risen sharply within this group. Like a ponzi scheme the first people involved benefited most. They experienced profit when they came to sell, subsequent buyers have had to take out normal mortgages where the majority equity of the home is owned by the lender/bank. So just like the peasant class of old are obliged to pay for the right to live on that land and where the current generation cannot afford to buy.
    The next logical step up from enslaving the masses through debt and fear of losing the means to pay off that debt was to enslave nations. The IMF world bank and the ECB have been successful in achieving this through loans followed by austerity, in a simplistic sense, Nations which are not serfs of the international banks, such as Libya, Iran, and Russia, become “enemies” and are attacked or threatened.
    I well remember my own family and every other family we knew only buying the things they needed by saving and paying cash for them in cash, with the possible exception of a family car. Money for rent, the butcher, the milk man and so on was carefully placed in full view on mantle pieces throughout homes the UK in reediness for payment day. Debt was discouraged, it was a shame on an individual or family to be in debt.
    It seems the greatest sin of today is not to be in debt as witnessed by the invasion of countries who were free from this form of hegemony. Is it time for a new, modern day Magna Carta.

    1. Andy Crow -

      “The next logical step up from enslaving the masses through debt and fear of losing the means to pay off that debt was to enslave nations. ”

      An interesting point in view of the Growth Commission Report on the prospects of an independent Scotland. If ever there was a proposal guaranteed to enslave a nation that is it. The suggestion that an independent currency could be added to the mix somewhere down the line is for the birds.

      A bankers prescription for the benefit of bankers which would be as effective as the loan sharks who ply their trade amongst the poor.

      I do hope the SNP can see this elephant trap for what it is. I hear a lot of comments that the illusion of continuity will be the easiest way to slip into independence and I utterly reject the strategy.

      I think this battle has to be won and the case for independence made properly or it risks being independence in name only. There is no likelihood of being able to develop a national economy under the constraints of a parsimonious Westminster chancellor, and the predatory instincts of the financial market players.

    1. Ivan Horrocks -

      Geoff, I agree entirely with Fintan. I make a habit of watching Lawrence O’Donnell’s and Rachel Maddow’s current affairs shows on MSNBC and the latter in particular reports on a whole load of Trump related stuff that we never hear of in the UK. All of it appaling. The challenge will be whether the mid-terms deliver majorities in the house and senate for democrats. But even then getting rid of Trump will not be easy as I stongly suspect he will call it a ‘deep state’ coup and call on his supporters to resist and it will snowball from there. Incidentally, he too is a wreaker in the context of my blog – and far more dangerous than our Brexit horrors.

    2. Sean Danaher -

      Geoff
      Fintan is excellent, very perceptive here, and I was delighted he won the Orwell Journalism prize last year. Carole Cadwalladr is this year’s winner and another absolutely deserving winner. She may not have the sparkling prose of Fintan, but her investigative journalism of CA, and AIQ etc. has been heroic.

      As I have said many times before my dad was in Berlin from ’37 to ’39 and has left me with an eternal vigilance regarding fascism.

      These are worrying times!

      1. Geoff -

        I agree Sean. It was the aspect of “testing” the waters of public opinion in a move towards fascism that most impressed me. The idea that Trump and his ilk are using events as shock tactics, allowing previously unthinkable, inhuman actions to normalise and encourage cruelty, especially towards children is a new low.

        It reminded me of the Iraq invasion and the accompanying 24 hr live coverage on TV. It was used to desensitise the viewer by keeping us informed. Shouting at the TV or posting memes on facebook is the new armchair protest movement. We need more and deserve better.

  3. Tony_B -

    Ivan, Two great articles that I enjoyed reading, they are the right length to finish over a cup of tea. What strikes me with the current hegemony is the sheer waste and inefficiencies they create compared to rational evidence based policy making for government. I also fully agree the strangle hold they have on all our institutions. But not content the Govt hands out punishment wherever it can, consider recently i) it renegaded on the much promised electrification of railways, ii) chose not to provide support for the Swansea tidal lagoon, a Labour stronghold. Both projects would pay for themselves.

    How do they hold such a hegemony together? For ordinary waged people I think of it as a carrot and stick model. Today the carrot means you get to hold on to your job, the stick is everything else you get thrown. This clearly explains the behaviour of workers e.g. why BBC “journalists” asymmetrically report news in favour of the Establishment view, they get to hold on to a career or even a sinecure, with a multinational.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Tony
      I was very disappointed about the Swansea tidal lagoon, great for not only Wales but an excellent technological prototype where the UK could become a world leader. Instead we get Heathrow expansion announced on the same day.

      1. Ivan Horrocks -

        You obviously don’t follow the coverage in Private Eye, Sean. If they are even half correct about various aspects of the ownership and related stuff of the scheme I’m not surprised the government didn’t touch it.

      2. Sean Danaher -

        You are right. It had always been an aspiration but I never seem to get the time!

      3. Tony_B -

        True Ivan. We tried to work out the business finances in 2014/15 but it led to questions not being answered by the lagoon’s press officer. This is the madness of such a ‘public’ scheme, the private sector is not transparent and is looking for a sweet deal. If an EU bank loan funded the scheme it would be a small repayment cost, but the other extreme – a contract of difference over 90 (?) years at a strike price close to nuclear, it would have been a huge burden on consumers.

        But this is just an organisational matter and should not violate a prototype being funded by Govt and built, leading to future larger green schemes.

    2. Ivan Horrocks -

      Gramsci and subsequently people like Mouffe, who I cited in blog, have written a good deal on why ordinary people (i.e. not the hegemonic class) go along with this. It could be the subject of another blog, but they’re not the easiest to write as I have to go back to stuff I learnt years ago and then distill it down. Nevertheless, as you, Geoff, and others enjoyed these perhaps I can go for Hegemony 3!

      1. Graham -

        Yes, please do. Gramsci was a name mentioned at uni in the 70’s, but I knew (and know) little about him. Always interesting arguments on here.

      2. Sean Danaher -

        Can I second Graham here. Very interesting to understand more about what is going on.

      3. Geoff -

        My own background is in Social Science and Psychology and I retain a keen interest in most areas to do with society, you’re absolutely right, on an intellectual level I’m fascinated to read about the journey and how we got to where we are today, on an emotional level I find it very disturbing largely because we seem to be losing every battle in the current war on class, I hate seeing the loss of hard won gains for working people and the ignorance and apathy in the country.

        Having lived through these changing times it’s interesting to follow the process of change, the social policy and the attached marketing/psychological methods commonly and frequently used by the establishment to bring about damaging alterations, that are detrimental to the mass of people, but which, so far, have become accepted and even defend by those most oppressed by them.

        Look forward to No 3 Ivan.

      4. Charles Adams -

        I vote for part 3 too!

      5. Ivan Horrocks -

        Thanks Charles (and Geoff). ‘Hegemony 3: the silence of the masses’ coming early next week.

Comments are closed.