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Marxist Theories of Hegemony: Analysis of International Politics

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 3876 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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5. How do Marxian theories conceive of hegemony and how does this affect their analysis of international politics?

The word hegemony is derived from the Greek word hēgemonia, a synonym of leadership. Since the nineteenth century, its use has become widespread, mainly, among others, in the fields of philosophy, anthropology, social and political sciences, cultural studies, education, as well as in theories of social discourse. Hegemony is rooted in Marx’s German ideology, highlighting the domination of the interests of the ruling economic class, offering an interpretation of cultural dominance. However, building upon the Marxist model of dominance, other theories were developed having as a central theme the notion of hegemony but under different terms. In this paper, the Gramscian theory of hegemony, other reinterpretations of cultural dominance offered by other theorists (by Theodor Adorno and Mark Horkheimer specifically) as well as the notion of hegemony as being subjected to theories of gender and race are presented, to a large extent.

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Carl Marx, in German ideology, emphasizes the meaning of the word hegemony as being largely similar to that of domination. However, it is when provokes the fact that the dominance hierarchy is not solely a function of its material power, but because it also holds the means of intellectual production. However, Marx comes closer to the sense of hegemony, as we perceive it today: “The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness and therefore think. Insofar, therefore as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of a historical epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. For instance, in an age and in a country where royal power, aristocracy, and bourgeoisie are contending for domination and where therefore domination is shared the doctrine of the separation of powers proves to be the dominant idea and is expressed as an ‘internal law’ ” (Marx and Engels, 1845-46/1998, p. 67). 

In addition, in the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Carl Marx argues: “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of the product constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness”   (Marx, 1789, Preface).

Specifically, the German Ideology refers to legitimations whose function is to justify the interests of the ruling class by relaying them in a symbolic form and therefore to reproduce, other than by the effect of an explicit material force (military or police type), that is, class domination. This legitimation works by mobilizing transcendent norms, such as religion, morality, human rights, etc. It is an effect of structures, in the sense that it is by relating it to the fundamental structures of the domination, in the real process, that one can account for it.  Specifically, society is considered as a totality having a certain ontological autonomy articulating, on the one hand, a “base”  or an “infrastructure”  – essentially, the modes of production – and, on the other hand, a legal and political “superstructure”, including all “forms of consciousness”. The modes of production are defined as the combination, always historically determined, of a certain technical level of productive forces and a certain configuration of social relations of production. By the term “productive forces” it is implied whatever constitutes the process of collective work in a given society at a given moment, namely the objects that the work modifies, the means (especially the labor force) and the results of production. “Workers come to the view the capitalist mode of production as the only viable option, where they must sell their labor power to the capitalist in order to obtain commodities” (Stoddart, 2007, pp. 191-225). “Commodity fetishism refers to the way in which the objects produced by human labor are divorced from that productive labor and re-located in the economy of the exchange value within a capitalist mode of production” (Marx, 1977, p. 165). However, it can be considered that the analysis of the commodity fetishism is the analysis of a form of mystification whose effect is the naturalization of the social relations of production, and thus the legitimation and the reproduction of a certain social order. 

In this context, as the initial theoretical application of cultural dominance was found in German ideology, Antonio Gramsci’s work on the notion of hegemony “is seen as a turning point in cultural theories” (Stoddart, 2007, pp. 191-225). His theory departs from the Marxist notion of ideology but remains faithful to the Marxist framework offering an analysis of a greater depth of the cultural superstructure of capitalist societies. The notion of hegemony appears in a primitive stage in “Gramsci’s Notes on the Southern Question (1926). Specifically: “(..) the proletariat can become the leading and the dominant class to the extent that it succeeds in creating a system of alliances, which allows it to mobilize the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois State. In Italy, in the real class relations which exists there, this means to the extent that it succeeds in gaining the consent of the broad peasant masses” (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985, p.186). Later on, the notion of hegemony will receive prominent importance in Antonio Gramsci’s work on the role of intellectuals, a central element in his Prison Notebooks written in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Gramsci argues to think more specifically of the different modalities of the implicit adhesion of the ruling class. This implicit is a series of ideas, values, beliefs, behaviors that strengthen the political power of the elite and that contribute to the maintenance of their privileges and distinguish as “natural” the principles and values, which they are based on. This “naturalization” presents the established order as an a priori immutable and thus contributes to favoring the consent of the subaltern class, necessary to maintain the concept of domination. In this context, hegemony is precisely the implicit product produced by the civil society and to which it gives its consent by reproducing it.

However, to understand the notion of hegemony, one must first highlight Gramsci’s understanding of power and the state. “We are still on the terrain of the identification of the State and government – an identification which is precisely a representation of the economic-corporate form, in other words of the confusion between civil society and political society. For it should be remarked that the general notion of State includes elements which need to be referred back to the notion of civil society (in the sense that one might say State = political society + civil society, in other words, hegemony protected by the armor of coercion) ” (Gramsci, 2000, p. 235). Nevertheless, the idea of this conceptual framework is the following: a political order is reproduced due to the interaction between coercion (Dominio) and the spontaneous consensus (Direzione) of the populations subjected to this order. These two mechanisms are assured, as coercion, on one hand, is exercised by the political society, that is to say the State, the bureaucracy, the military and on the other hand, by the civil society (exercised by the church, schools, etc.) that produces and reproduces spontaneous consensus, proof of its hegemony over the political order. Hegemony, in other terms, is a concept that refers to the ideological aspect of creating and maintaining the passive subordination of one group to another.

In further depth, the notion of hegemony as presented by Antonio Gramsci offers the possibility to reinvigorate deeply the understanding of the relationship between art and society, both in complexifying the world while preserving their political dimension and yet not reducing the scope of the artistic/aesthetic dimension of cultural practices. “Writing about the emergence of Fordist production in the United States, Gramsci describes an American hegemony that is born in the factory” (Gramsci, 1971, p. 169). Fordism represents the highest point of this long adaptation of subordinates to labor. For him, “The press is the most dynamic part of the ideological structure, but not the only one. Everything that directly or indirectly influences or could influence public opinion belongs to it: libraries, schools, associations and clubs of various kinds, even architecture, the layout of streets and their names” (Gramsci, 1971, p. 53). Gramsci dissociates Cultural Revolution by the avant-garde and political revolution and seeks to take into account the role played by culture in the very process of establishing hegemony, an eminently historical process, both in its long-term development and in the progressive “intransigence ” that places it in the social fabric. Moreover, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, members of the Frankfurt School, introduced the theory of cultural industry (Kulturindustrie) in their work Dialectic of Enlightenment in 1944. Specifically, inspired by Marx, they argue that the cultural industry (films, radio, and print media) is the application of the Fordist productive model to culture, which since the beginning of the 20th century has ruthlessly dominated the world. “Culture industry does not sublimate, it suppresses (Horkheimer and Adorno, p. 111) “The whole world is passed through the filter of the culture industry”, (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p. 99) whereas the “element of its totality is repetition” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p. 108). As Williams notes: The main purpose of the media is to broadcast instructions, ideas, and rules of the hegemonic class (Williams, 1977, p. 121). When social relations take the form of as exchanging goods, individuals cannot escape from alienation. Consumers are forced to become non-subordinates but products as this system act as a “homogenizing force that renders people more alike, while “promoting a false sense of individuality” (Stoddart, 2007, pp. 191-225).”The products of the Culture industry did not come from the people, were not an expression of the life-process of individuals or communities but were manufactured and disseminated under conditions that reflected the interests of the producers and the exigencies of the market, both of which demanded the domination and manipulation of mass consciousness” (Witkin, 2004, p. 2). “Anyone who resists can survive only by being incorporated” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002, p.104). However, “The premises of the new literature cannot but be historical, political and popular. It must aim at elaborating that which already is, whether polemically or in some other way does not matter. What does it matter is that it sinks its roots into the humus of popular culture as it is, with its tastes, and tendencies and with its moral and intellectual world even if it is backward and conventional” (Gramsci, 1977, p. 397).

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Thinking of gender in terms of hegemony allows both, dominant groups and dominant ideas to reflect on the differential positions of subordinate groups in relation to the order of gender and the complex articulation between different social relationships. The shift of the notion of hegemony to gender studies is mainly through the development of the concept of “hegemonic masculinity”, whose main author is Raewyn Connell. The concept of hegemony allows thinking about the social order in terms of historical transformation rather than in terms of social reproduction. This leads to a non-essentialist and dynamic conception of power relations. The study of “hegemonic masculinity” consists conversely of studying the process of the institutionalization of certain practices and representations of masculinity. For example, why do we think of men as being bankers and boxers? If Gramsci had developed the notion of hegemony to analyze advanced Western European capitalist societies, where coercion is always accompanied by an effort of persuasion and consensus building, Connell shows that this theory of power is not mechanically applied to the “others” of Western Modernity. She focuses on the presupposition of a stabilization of the gender order shared by the majority of analyzes in terms of “hegemonic masculinity” produced in the countries of the North. This approach makes it possible to no longer consider male violence towards women as an expression of a local culture of male domination, but rather to think of them in relation to the perpetual destabilization imposed by imperialism and neoliberal reforms. Far from reducing or subordinating gender to class or culture to economics – in a “neo-conservative” Marxist approach (Butler, 2001, p. 183) – the concept of hegemony allows one to consider gender both in its relative autonomy and in its intertwining with other modes of social stratification and domination. In Butler, the concept of hegemony makes it possible to counter the “neo-conservatism of the left” which subordinates gender or sexuality to class or economics. It is this “refusal to be […] subordinated to a unity […] that domesticates the difference” that “forced the left to make an alliance with post-structuralism” (Butler, 2001, p. 183). However, Foucault proposed an emancipatory horizon to his own analysis of sexuality and confinement: “Since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the human body has, at the same time, been used, crisscrossed, encircled, and encored as a means of the workforce. This policy consisted in extracting the maximum usable forces for the work, and the maximum usable time for the production. Will we be able to recover our own body, and the bodies of others – with all the relationships that this implies – for something other than this use of the Workforce? It is this struggle for the body that makes sexuality a political problem. (Foucault, 1974). 

However, among others, Stuart Hall played a major role in promoting the concept of hegemony to study race as a structure of oppression. This movement sought to emancipate itself from certain reductionist Marxist readings, which tended to grant racialization, the simple role of forming class fractions without abandoning the assumptions of historical materialism, the role of capitalism and that of social classes in the formation of hegemony. In this way, attention is decisively focused on places of power and practices of power and not on a disembodied vision of the economic system and its endogenous dynamics. Among others, in Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance, Hall, argues that the Gramscian position illuminates how racist ideologies and social practices are articulated to systems of economic stratification in distinct ways. For him, “One must start, then from the concrete historical work which racism accomplishes under specific historical conditions as a set of economic, political and ideological practices … Though the economic aspects are critical, as a way of beginning this form of hegemony cannot be understood as operating purely through economic coercion” (Hall, 1980, p. 338). Hall seems to suggest a Marxist notion of classes as a priori historical actors, while “races” appear as ideological social constructions. Moreover, the work of Edward Said, “provides a point of entry into a more cultural approach to questions of racialization and power” (Hall, 1980, p. 216). “Said’s work is useful for illuminating how cultural discourses construct an Orient that can be subjected to Western political and economic domination. Specifically, he backgrounds an analysis of economic structures and state coercion as primary forms of social control, though he does allude to their importance as ” stabilizing influences” in the process of colonization (Said, 1979, p. 201). For Franz Fanon, “Looking at the immediacies of the colonial context, it is clear that what divides the world is first and foremost what species, what race one belongs to. In the colonies, the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is the effect: You are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich (Fanon, 2004, p. 5)

However, some authors claiming that either neo-Gramscian theories or other variants of Marxism have insisted over the last twenty years that the characteristic of contemporary times is the emergence of a “transnational capitalist class” and a “global imperial state” made up of the main international organizations (WTO, IMF, World Bank) and the lex mercatoria (merchant law), that could impose a neoliberal agenda on the states. In other words, hegemony is understood only under the scope of a “transnational historic block “. In this context, hegemony, in such a case, is that of classes, spread over through different national territories, sharing interests on several issues while being divided over others and, above all, each one counting on their national state to defend those interests. In this perspective, hegemony would be that of a transnational capitalist class but supported by different states, all united on most issues, but struggling on issues on which their respective bourgeoisies have divergent interests. From a heuristic point of view, this interpretation  allows one to consider the role of the transnational capitalist class, without detracting from the sometimes marked differences between the capitalist states on issues such as the policies to be adopted for the conduct of international economic affairs or geostrategic issues, divergences, which are directly related to the defense of the dominant groups within these states.

In conclusion, hegemony is, according to the interpretations to which one adheres, whether it is as coercive as the spontaneous consent or is part of the process of maintaining social order related to consent. However, an essential aspect of hegemony is the process by which subordinates, whether considered as states, social classes, or others, adhere to the system that maintains them in a relationship of subordination. Many consider Gramsci’s work on hegemony, to be the foundation of different theoretical and critical currents that will mark the second half of the twentieth century. Many scholars have introduced theories in which gender and race are placed in the heart of ideology-discourse continuum, without abandoning the assumptions of historical materialism, the role of capitalism and social classes in the formation of hegemony, but having a “more decisive break from the Marxist framework” (Stoddart, pp. 191-225). However, if hegemony and its criticism signal towards an emancipatory horizon, this horizon is inseparable from the foundation of a new hegemony and, consequently, of a new order – this horizon is thus linked to the question of the State.   


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