Hegemony : Brian Meeks

Erin O'Keefe / Built Work
Erin O’Keefe / Built Work

Hegemony : Brian Meeks


Hegemony and the Trumpian Moment

I have been thinking about hegemony in the Caribbean for more than two decades,1 utilizing the Gramscian notion that social formations are structured in dominance, but that domination is often not primarily executed through force; rather, the social bloc in charge is able to produce and reproduce discourses and sets of ideas that give structure and shape to its apparent right to rule. Hegemony, in this sense, implies the weaving of a network of first, second, and third order ideas, beliefs, myths, gestures, and styles that come together to constitute a skein of commonsense that provides justification for domination and the rightness to rule, and lays the foundation for consent through the assumption that the Governmental project, its methods and effects, make sense.2 Some corollaries to this include, first, that the netting of consent is always unraveling, always in dire need of patching and repair; and, second, that it is permeable and light invariably escapes from its confines. Yet, to shift metaphors, as with a fisherman’s net, some fish escape, but the net still serves its purpose of retaining a significant part of the catch within its confines. Or, as Stuart Hall, in capturing the tentative, unfinished character along with the moral imperatives of the notion, suggests:

It follows that hegemony can only be conceived as a historical process, not a thing achieved. But on the other hand, it is not merely the ongoing maintenance of rule and domination. It has to be specified “empirically” if the power of the ruling class or dominant bloc is in fact a moment of hegemony. Additionally, because hegemony is the establishment of the leading position on a variety of sites of social and political struggle, it includes domains that are usually ignored by Marxists, like the discourses of morality. Anybody who wants to command the space of common sense or popular consciousness and practical reasoning, has to pay attention to the domain of the moral, since it is the language within which vast numbers of people actually set about their calculations.3

I moved to the US, to Brown University in the late summer of 2015. In the following summer of 2016, Donald Trump was selected by the Republican Party as its presidential candidate, and I noted this strong sense of familiarity in the dissonance, antagonisms, and often sheer bad behavior that accompanied his campaign and that reprised for me the social crisis of Jamaica as it approached what is often described as a near civil war situation before the 1980 general elections.4 I thought it worthwhile, therefore, to review the tools and methods that I have used to try to explain the recent history of Jamaica and to experiment with their applicability in what might be termed the Trumpian Moment, which has consolidated with his unanticipated electoral victory in November 2016.

In the Jamaican case, I used the notion of hegemony to suggest that the social pact—between, on the one hand, middle class politicians and their social base and, on the other, insurgent workers and the poor—that encrypted this particular structure in dominance operated within a very time-specific framework, bracketed by the popular labor riots of 1938 and their aftermath: of the bankruptcy of British colonialism coming out of World War II and the pressure on the United Kingdom—significantly greater after Suez (1956)—to relinquish her colonies; of the social democratic impulses for economic welfare that had grown after the rebellion and were intersecting with the post-War political ascendancy of Labour; of the ‘glorious thirty years’ of economic boom after the War, which provided, even in the constricted and distorted economic space of the post colonies, an opportunity for rapid growth and an accompanying, if limited, social welfare experiment. This social pact meant that in exchange for the subaltern classes granting their acquiescence and ceding political power and the direction of society to the middle classes, the two main political parties, together, initiated important social policies, including universal free basic and subsidized secondary education, improved though severely flawed social services and health services, and limited low income housing solutions. This pact took the country into independence with an ideology of creole nationalism effectively captured in the Jamaican national motto, “Out of Many One People.” This, on the surface, reflected an admirable notion of racial harmony, but on closer investigation, in a country with more than 90 percent of its population of African descent, seemed to obfuscate this essential reality and the long history of racial and colorist subordination of people of African descent, by veiling the country’s distinct character and history under the notion that the country was constituted of “Many People” of which the African majority was simply just one of no special significance.5 To the extent that the pact was successful, I suggest it was for a very brief moment, primarily in the immediate pre-independence decades from the 1940s until 1962, when the most favorable global economic conditions—including open migration to the UK and the growth of the new bauxite/alumina industry—provided the possibility of the dominant social bloc fulfilling, at least partially, some of its side of the bargain.

However, by independence things had already begun to fall apart. The closure of the safety valve of migration to the UK and the failure of the chosen strategy of ‘industrialization by invitation’ to generate sufficient employment alongside the continuation of some of the most egregious features of colonialism, in race and color barriers to employment and upward mobility, had, by the late sixties fostered deep social unrest. Accompanying this was the collapse of creole nationalism and its replacement among the young of counter-hegemonic tendencies that forged different worldviews and explanatory frameworks, of which the most evident were the Black Power Movement and closely allied to it Rastafarianism,6 which would acquire globally iconic status with the prominence of its musicians as vocalizers of what would become an international counter-hegemonic discourse in the 1970s and beyond.

The Democratic Socialist interregnum of Michael Manley from 1972–1980 witnessed a confluence of these new counter-hegemonic notions with a popular movement that surrounded and inhabited the institutional structure of the People’s National Party (PNP) one of the established, middle class-led parties. However, the new discourses departed in large measure from the conservative boundaries of the earlier social pact and gave wind to the sails of a movement that significantly undermined the laws, institutional structures, and social norms of colonial Jamaica. Manley’s PNP, however, was defeated in the 1980 elections by a combination of a new global economic situation that was unfavorable to small mineral exporting states and a determined resistance from the local wealthy, who feared their social and economic dominance was threatened and they were fully supported by the United States, as the global guardian of world capitalism.

Manley’s defeat in 1980, however, did not return the island to a new equilibrium. Instead, it has endured four decades of what I have suggested is “hegemonic dissolution,” in which counter-hegemonic discourses have continued to proliferate and in which the weakening of the state under pressure from neo-liberal structural adjustment policies has provided space for the emergence of novel, quasi-statal criminal/political fiefdoms, which, until recently, have grown in strength and morphed into new and unprecedented forms.7 Yet despite these threats to its survival the institutional framework of two party governance inherited from independence remains, though it has lost its gloss and ‘natural’ right to rule.

This impasse, underlined by the failure of the movement of the seventies and popular resentment from the poor over persistent economic stagnation, is manifest in cultural resistance and an unwillingness of the subaltern to live within the ‘decent,’ cultural markers of official society. But equally and critical in understanding the present moment in Jamaica, is to grasp the failure of the subaltern majority to forge a new project of social emancipation from below. It is at this juncture of social incapacity on both sides, and its implications for sclerosis and stasis that hegemonic dissolution is to be located.8

In summary, the post-War social pact, forged at the juncture of a favorable international moment, provided a period of relative stability, but its structure in dominance was threatened in the seventies by a popular insurgency which itself failed. The successor period of neo-liberal dominance which has lasted for close to four decades, has not been able to forge a new pact, but rather there has been a long hiatus of stagnation, anomie, limited economic growth, all punctuated by violence, uncertainty, and an unprecedented migration, especially of the skilled and the capable. I pause here to suggest a distinction between political crisis and hegemonic dissolution. We can imagine a political crisis emerging in the Jamaica of the late seventies as a coalition of urban and rural poor, gathered behind a small and fraying middle-class intellectual leadership to implement a popular and broadly democratic project of national ’progress.’ However, it confronted a powerful alliance of the local business and commercial strata, supported by a viable coalition of traditionally oriented popular support and a disenchanted majority of the middle class. This counter-revolutionary alliance gained significant backing from the local hegemon, the US and the radical project was decisively defeated in a bloody but legitimately accepted electoral exercise. It was the seemingly irresolvable face-off between these sharply divided social coalitions that defined the political crisis. Hegemonic dissolution, on the other hand, is the process that has meandered along since then, in which none of the existing coalitions (no new ones have emerged) has been able to decisively stamp its legitimacy on the national conversation and shape the agenda for social and political development.

Before suggesting how these insights might contribute to an appreciation of this Trumpian moment, it is perhaps worthwhile to think about how Stuart Hall sought to explain and understand an earlier British conjuncture that witnessed, parallel to Manley’s demise in Jamaica, the consolidation of Thatcherism and the breaking up of the Keynesian, welfarist consensus.9 First, in looking at the growth of Thatcherism, with its anti-union, anti-collectivist essence, Hall sought to avoid both economistic and historically flattened readings of the process. He attacked the notion that every economic crisis invariably led to the same set of responses and outcomes as occurred in previous crises. Thus, he argued, the stock response to the shift in Britain to the right, which proposed that Thatcherism was essentially fascism, was entirely misguided. History, he claimed, was not a “series of repeats.”10 Rather, he suggested that what was emerging as the far (Thatcherite) right’s response to the crisis of the seventies was an authoritarian populism, which, unlike classical fascism, “had retained most (though not all) of the formal representative institutions in place and which at the same time has been able to construct around itself a popular consent.”11 This popular consent, he suggests, was shaped out of existing commonsensical notions—values of ‘Englishness’ and the rights of the Englishman as an individual, as well as darker, racist notions of white, British superiority and the assumed ‘dangers’ of immigration. These, he argued, were now repurposed to weigh in against social welfare, socialized health, public education, and collectivism in general:

It works on the ground of already constituted social practices and lived ideologies. It wins space there by constantly drawing on these elements which have secured over time a traditional resonance and left their traces in popular inventories. At the same time it changes the field of struggle by changing the place, position, the relative weight of the condensations within any one discourse and constructing them according to an alternative logic.12

Thus Hall concluded that it is through the massaging of multiple discourses that Thatcherism forged a new hegemonic initiative that strove to build and consolidate consensus around the unassailability and natural rightness of the marketplace and captured in the now, forty years later, well-battered but still, surprisingly, standing notion that “there is no alternative.”

In returning to the contemporary moment in the US, it is useful to reassert that there is never a single hegemony, with a single set of narratives and linguistic markers. Hegemony is sutured, sewn, and incomplete. Yet this leaves space for the lesser assertion that dominant hegemonies do exist for a time. There is also never a single insurgent counter hegemonic narrative, rather these are multiple, fractured, and require, precisely, significant suturing to present themselves as coherent, robust alternatives to their dominant protagonists.

What is the economic conjuncture that undergirds all of this? As Wolfgang Streeck suggests, there has not been one, but we should recall at least three crises, since the thirty years of the great Post-War boom: the crisis of global inflation of the seventies, closely followed by the explosion of public debt of the nineties, and most recently the crisis of private debt and the collapse of financial institutions in the great recession of 2008.13 Recovery from the Great Recession of 2008–2012 has been slow and, half a decade later, it is evident that generally jobs have not recovered and may never recover, with large swathes of the population mired in poverty and hopelessness. This, more than anything else, is the economic foundation for Trump’s white, rural, rustbelt, male support that was critical in his razor-thin victories in Pennsylvania and the Midwest and his 2016 Electoral College majority.

Explanations for this are well-rehearsed though worth repeating and are inevitably to be found in the dramatic restructuring of the World Economy. First and perhaps most profoundly is the sharp rise in the use of robots, which explains in part the present sluggishness in employment, but certainly will have greater impact in the mid to long term, with some estimates suggesting that as much as 38 percent of jobs in the US might be taken over by robots in 15 years.14 Second and more commonly understood, are the continuing effects of globalization, with jobs shifting from Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky south of the border (Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean) and the racing to the bottom of ever-cheaper labor markets (Vietnam, Bangladesh, China). Many of the new jobs emerging in this environment are in non-unionized service sectors, like fast food, retail, and self-employed urban transport, and carry none of the security and benefits of earlier unionized positions. Then, in turn, the crash of many of these lower paid jobs is already occurring, as large scale disruptive technologies utilizing social media and instant internet communication (Amazon in retail and Uber in transport) assume sectoral leaderships, requiring far fewer workers, even as they offer cheaper costs to the (often unemployed or underemployed) consumer.

Persistent and entrenched unemployment in redundant sectors contributes to a third factor, which is the growth of inequality. In 2016, inequality in America reached new extremes, with the top one percent controlling 38.6 percent of the wealth and the bottom 90 percent holding only 22.8 percent, down from close to a third, when tracking of these statistics first began by the Fed in 1989.15 A fourth consideration is the shift over the past twenty years to rapid product differentiation in financial markets and more recently their quantum digitization which has increased the flow and efficiency of trading, leading to vast new accumulations of wealth, harvested at the margins of financial transactions and fast-trading digital futures markets.

Streeck, employing some of these tendencies in his bleak prophecy for the future of capitalism, proposes that the present moment is defined by the compounding of intersecting crises. First, he proposes that growth is giving way to stagnation; second, in instances where there is economic “progress” it is less shared; third, the long interregnum of neo-liberalism has starved the public space, leading to damaged infrastructure across the board; fourth, corruption, held at the margins in the first post-war decades has now become rife; and fifth, the capitalist system, held together by the Cold War and US dominance in the West is now adrift with the potential for increasing anarchy.16 Streeck, in developing each of these themes, argues that capitalism as we presently understand it, will probably soon collapse but will not necessarily be replaced by something coherent (or better) for a long time. Further discussion around each of these themes before arriving at his precipitous conclusions is, of course, urgently necessary. What is apparent, though, is that the sense that it is not business as usual, that government is not serving its purpose and that the wealthy and powerful set the rules and run the system for themselves, is palpable and driving narratives across the political spectrum in what I suggest is the American equivalent of a moment of hegemonic dissolution.

Was there ever a coherent meta-narrative that has brought together significant sections of America under one net? While avoiding some imaginary, original moment we can suggest that perhaps in the post-War (1945–1974) context of unprecedented economic growth and accompanied by Cold War anti-communism, consolidating notions of American exceptionalism and unreconstructed masculinism, there was a framework that dominated among some sectors, and, for a while, particularly if we were to exclude from the picture much of the black population, particularly those in the segregated South.17 This somewhat coherent hegemony—white and male in its structuring of dominance—hasn’t existed for some time. Indeed, we can suggest that if we think about the impact of the counter-cultural movements of the sixties, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, and the Anti-War movements, their collapse has been evident in phases, associated with both the three major economic crises of the last thirty years and the popular movements that have grown in response to them and other factors.

A sufficiently thorough approach to understanding currents and counter-currents in the present conjuncture would have to necessarily explore numerous discursive records, the speeches of politicians, both during electoral exercises and while in office, a variety of carefully selected literature, both fiction and non-fiction, alongside popular cultural manifestations, including recorded music, art, theater, and styles in order to begin sifting, triangulating and assessing dominant cultural trends and emergent counter-cultural initiatives. A start, however, can be made by going straight to the ubiquitous polls that provide a short-cut to the ebb and flow of popular thinking.

A useful place to begin, particularly in light of the purported resurgence of the religious right in the ranks of the Republican Party and thus in the country’s decision-making structure, is the extent to which there is belief in religion. Pew’s 2017 poll, asking whether it was necessary to believe in God to be moral found that 56 percent felt it was not necessary, increasing by 7 percent from 2011 when some 49 percent in that poll felt the same way.18 On the attitude to same-sex marriage, in 2001 Americans opposed same sex marriage by 57 percent to 35 percent. In 2017 this had shifted significantly to support for same sex marriage by 62 percent in favor to 32 percent opposed.19

On the attitude as to whether interracial marriage was a good thing, in 2010, 24.5 percent of another Pew poll had signaled yes, it was, but by 2017 this had increased to 39 percent. On the other hand, as to whether it was a bad thing, in 2010, 13 percent thought so and by 2017 this had fallen by four points to 9 percent.20 On the central question of the nature of the economic system, a 2016 Harvard University poll asked whether there was support for capitalism and found that a slight majority of 51 percent of millennials did not support capitalism with only 42 percent supportive of it. When asked about favorability to socialism, the same poll found some 33 percent supportive of socialism. Only among the cohort of respondents more than fifty years old were the majority in favor of capitalism.21 The Washington Post in its report on the Harvard study, compares it with a 2011 Pew poll, which found a similar figure of 47 percent having negative views of capitalism, but that poll found that in relation to a positive perception of socialism, 49 percent held positive views while 42 percent were negative.22

On general questions of people’s attitudes to politics and the state of the country, seven in ten persons in a 2017 Washington Post poll concluded that politics had reached a dangerous new low point. The same poll found that there was deep and growing distrust for the political sphere. In 2017 only 14 percent of those polled felt that politicians were ethical and honest. In a 1987 poll that figure was 39 percent, declining to 25 percent in 1997. On the open-ended question as to what were the causes for dysfunction in the political system, the largest cohort, some 65 percent responded that it was the undue influence of money in politics; this was followed by 56 percent asserting that it was due to the influence of wealthy political donors, a similar percentile said it was because of the influence of people with extreme political views, while 51 percent concluded that it was due to one man, that man being Donald Trump. When asked as to whether divisions in the country were as bad as during the Vietnam War, a significant majority, 70 percent, concluded that it was at least as bad.23

What do these admittedly somewhat randomly selected polls tell us, when read through the lens of hegemony? First and self-evident to anyone who has lived through or observed the last two years of life in the United States, is that there is a sharply, perhaps irreconcilably divided polity. On the one hand, there is a large minority of entrenched adherents to the hoary constellation of white, masculinist hegemonic narratives. This central core of racist, homophobic, and xenophobic perspectives dominates among anywhere from a quarter to more than a third of the adult population.24 True adherents are more rural, older, white, and male, but any notion that they are therefore isolated in the American political landscape was dispelled with Trump’s election and the consolidation of Republican majorities in both Houses, brought about by, in different measures, gerrymandering, the natural biases of the electoral system to rural areas and less-populous states and the deeply undemocratic peculiarity of the Electoral College. Opposed to this, there is a growing counter hegemonic insurgency, which already constitutes a clear majority of the population. What is most striking, despite the schisms, fractures, degrees of commitment and tentativeness among many sectors of this majority, is the evident and quite dramatic growth of racial, sexual, and religious tolerance, which is amplified even further when broken down into age groups to show the swing and consolidating numbers in favor of openness, diversity, and inclusion among younger cohorts. There is finally, as a corollary of this, no consolidated social bloc, or consensual understanding among the dominant elements of American society on the way forward for either the short or medium term futures.

Equally striking is the deep disillusionment with capitalism, perhaps the inevitable result of the 2008 recession and accompanying this, the growing attractiveness of alternatives, though we should be careful as to what is meant when people declare in favor of socialism in the polls. While, therefore, this is a period of what we can consider as the early phases of hegemonic dissolution, or a particular moment in which a clear majority—perhaps among the young an overwhelming majority—is open to a radically different image of American society and faced with a sclerotic economic system are questioning capitalism itself, they are confronted with a regime elected and supported by a minority of the voting population which is anti-immigrant; willing to impose Jim Crow-like measures to deprive voting rights and gerrymander electoral seats; is climate, science, and truth-denying, homophobic in both rhetoric and policy measures and willing to dismantle anything reeking of collective social responsibility, most notably the relatively conservative Obamacare health system.

Does the Trumpian Moment therefore herald the arrival of a new, virile insurgency in the way in which Thatcherism (while significantly different in social context, strategy and tactics) building on popular notions of individual freedom and wielding them to crush and sideline trade unions and a collectivist agenda, managed to negate and supersede state-led, Keynesianism in the nineteen eighties? While there were certainly gestures from both Trump’s campaign and the first year of governing that suggest that there was a recognition that perhaps new people needed to be won to the project, the evidence as a whole leans away from this being the primary objective.25 Thus, the campaign statements on a more national industrial policy and a revamping of national infrastructure, while fraught with huge fiscal and logistical roadblocks, suggested at least an impulse to win broader constituencies through employment and economic growth, if on a course of development built on narrow notions of nationalism, American greatness and exceptionalism.

What, however, seems to be the dominant trend since the January 2017 inauguration is a far darker three-pronged strategy, predicated, first, not on winning over new converts by skillfully undermining the intellectual foundations of the opposition, but rather by a determined attempt at consolidating base support among the entrenched minority of the mainly white voting population that is wedded to Trumpism.26 This is I think self-evident through his appeals to the worst racist and chauvinist tropes, even when the regime could have avoided alienating everybody else, as in Trump’s favorable, coddling response to the Charlottesville Alt-Right, neo-Nazi rally.27 The second, is to continue using the power of the executive and existent Republican majorities at the state level to rig the electoral system through a combination of gerrymandering and voter restriction, in order to ensure unassailable Republican majorities at both the state level and at the national/Presidential, via the Electoral College.28 Thirdly and perhaps the most effective measure for the mid-long term, is the policy to stack the judicial system with a raft of right-wing judges at all levels to assure the passage of supportive legislation and forestall any Democratic reversals of the system in the near future.29 This is a very different and far more insidious option than, in another era, the Thatcherite approach of populist authoritarianism, because it assumes that genuine populism is out of reach, that the majority is already lost to all reason.30 Its path to dominance, therefore, is underwritten by sleight of hand and ruse, and in boldest terms, it is the framework for a soft, judicial coup.

The critical factor here is that older, dominant hegemonic constructs are compromised. Clinton and Obama Liberalism—while it shouldn’t be forgotten that Hillary clearly won the popular national vote—is seen by many as wedded to Wall Street and ultimately to the frayed and largely discredited neo-liberal Washington consensus. Traditional Liberalism still has not been able to provide a credible explanation for the 2008 crisis that captures the predatory policies of the banks and financial institutions, leading to the housing market bubble that brought the cards tumbling down. Liberalism’s complicity is perhaps most evident in the failure of the Obama administration to convict any of the leading players. The counter-recessionary strategy of 2009–2011 worked to forestall collapse but was never followed by a long-term state-led strategy of economic restructuring, employment generation and environmentally sustainable policies that might have captured the popular imagination and short-stopped the rise of Trump. The alternative and contending narrative on the left, evident in the Bernie Sanders candidacy and the upsurge of popular support in his favor, alongside popular protest movements such as Black Lives Matter and the movement against the Dakota Pipeline, remains relatively vibrant and attracts significant attention through both traditional and social media, but has not yet gelled into a viable and believable framework.

Take, for instance, the reemergence of socialism as an increasingly popular vision, as reflected in some of the polls mentioned above. The disastrous collapse of “really existing socialism” in the nineties and the detritus of racist and xenophobic ideas, movements, and states that have been left in its wake, should by any estimate, have led to the death of socialism as a viable notion of liberation for a generation or more. Yet, despite all of this and against the overwhelming odds, socialism has re-emerged as an idea with significant support. But what is it really? Does it have power that say, Thatcherite neo-liberalism possessed in the early phases of its brief but influential life? My assessment would be that it doesn’t, at least not yet,31 and this is due in part to the shabby legacy of ‘really existing socialism’ but also to the fact that there has been a failure to elaborate a convincing set of rigorously argued ideas which might then be popularized into commonsensical notions of its rightness (a twenty-first-century socialist vision) that would rival, for instance, the 1980s commonsense certitudes of TINA, that there is no alternative to market-led capitalism.

Socialism has at least six hurdles to cross before it might begin to approach that moment. The first would have to be to work towards an approach that breaks the assumption—rooted in twentieth century history—that social solidarity is inevitably wedded to state domination over the individual. The second would be to elaborate a theory of social freedom that extends beyond the liberal assertion of minimal negative freedom, but yet incorporates it as an essential part of its platform.32 The third would be to abandon the notion that markets are welded to capitalism and begin to imagine the possibility of functioning markets beyond the boundaries of capitalism. For, if there is any notion that history has discarded, it is that a centralized command state can assume control of an entire economy without doing severe damage to both people’s economic lives and any expansive notion of freedom.33 The fourth would be to continue and develop the critical debates surrounding the limits to economic growth and to think through its policy implications for consumption, energy, and, more broadly speaking, the purposes of living. The fifth would have to be a new internationalism, conscious of the inevitability of migration in an increasingly mobile world and willing to recognize the historical responsibility in the North for social, economic and political crises in the South that both in the long and short frames are the catalysts for mass movement. The sixth would be that socialist theorists must recognize that white racism is not a secondary phenomenon of capitalism but deeply embedded in its history and contemporary structure, and any strategy of economic socialism that does not at the same time exorcise in its policy and praxis institutional racism, will end up falling short and probably losing the support of Black people and other people of color, even before it is able to attain national prominence.34 All of these conversations need to be moved out of the stifling, often arcane halls of academia and brought into the popular domain, where they can be subjected to critique, modified, discarded in some instances, and re-presented as new articulations of common sense —a vibrant, new, hegemonic project for a moment of social transformation.

Trumpian racism, chauvinism, and revanchism is institutionally in charge, but has no program nor interest in winning over a working majority of the population. The liberal center, while equivocating at best on the distinct struggles of important movements in the majority coalition, has very little that is new to offer as a broad platform for addressing imminent economic disruption and its social implications. Radical alternatives from the left, meanwhile, remain fragmented, are often at the margins of debate, and have yet to devise a concerted strategy for the near future.

Gramsci describes this moment, in which old hegemonies are on the retreat and new ones are still in infancy and there is at the same time no consolidated (if always temporary) hegemonic narrative (what we refer to here as hegemonic dissolution), as a dangerous one:

At a certain point in their historical life, social groups detach themselves from their traditional parties in that given organizational form, when the men who constitute, represent and lead them, are no longer recognized as the proper representation of their class or fraction of a class. When these crises occur the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, since the field is open to solutions of force, to the activity of obscure powers represented by ‘men of destiny’ or ‘divine men.’35

Sadly, there are precedents for times like this in relatively recent
world history. Thus it might be useful to refer at length to Hannah Arendt, who in The Origins of Totalitarianism, reflects on the critical importance of a battle for ideas in winning the public away from potential totalitarian leaders:

Under conditions of constitutional government and freedom of opinion, totalitarian movements struggling for power can use terror to a limited extent only and share with other parties the necessity of winning adherents and of appearing plausible to a public which is as yet not rigorously isolated from all other sources of opinion. Only the Mob and the elite can be attracted by the moment of Totalitarianism itself. The masses have to be won by Propaganda.36

It is the methods of totalitarians-in-waiting, however, which is cause for closer scrutiny. Thus, Arendt points to their propensity for the “re-writing of history,”37 the need to give the “appearance of infallibility (never admitting to wrongdoings),”38 the fact that their propaganda is “. . . marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such,”39 and poignantly, in light of prior discussion in this paper that “Totalitarian propaganda can outrageously insult common sense only where common sense has lost its validity.”40 Or even more ominously, her warning of

the possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition.41

Totalitarianism arises, she suggests, not in a moment of the dominance of the intellectual notions of the potential totalitarian party, but at the juncture of a battle for ideas, in which the deeply untrue arguments are, at first, dismissed as bombastic and laughable, yet, unwaveringly persist to be amplified, steadfast in the face of facts, until a crisis allows for power to be consolidated, at which point they are asserted by force as the only, unassailable truth.

The alarming reality today is that a regime, reflecting many of these traits in its daily praxis is already in charge of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world, with its soft power through policy and diplomatic channels and unrivalled array of weapons of mass destruction that could lead to the end of life as we know it. The failure of the liberal and left majority of the American people to elaborate and consolidate a vibrant new set of ideas, redefining the possibilities for social change that would address the sharp and growing inequalities of financial capitalism, the seemingly irresolvable likelihood of systemic unemployment in a robotic/cybernetic future, and the demands for popular inclusion from a multi-racial, multi ethnic society, leave the field open for the domination of dangerous men with messianic messages. The time for a new conversation and the patient building of new persuasive discourses around what I have elsewhere referred to as ‘social living’ is now, and is urgently necessary.42


Brian Meeks is Professor and Chair of the Africana Studies Department at Brown University.


Published on December 4, 2018

1. See for instance, Brian Meeks, “The Political Moment in Jamaica: The Dimensions of Hegemonic Dissolution,” in Dispatches from the Ebony Tower, ed., Manning Marable (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), pp. 32–52, Brian Meeks, Envisioning Caribbean Futures: Jamaican Perspectives (Kingston: The University of the West Indies Press, 2007) and Brian Meeks, Critical Interventions in Caribbean Politics and Theory (Jackson: The University Press of Mississippi, 2014).

2. Gramsci’s approach to Marxian analysis is often seen as the moment of a qualitative break with a certain mode of Marxism that sees immediate and evident causalities between the material base of social life (the economic and classes that emerge within it) and the so-called superstructural realm of ideas, culture and other “secondary” effects. There is, however, evidence in Marx’s own work of a far less schematically driven approach to understanding political moments and many traditions beyond Gramsci that erode or sever the tenuous connections to “the economic” that he, in the last instance, maintains. See for instance, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (New York: Verso, 1989); from a very different foundation, Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (London: Zed Books, 1983); and Ranajit Guha, Dominance Without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1997). The late Jamaican/British scholar Stuart Hall, whose work is referenced extensively here, charts a tortuous middle ground which argues for the autonomy of the cultural sphere, but not an abandonment of the Marxian notion of more than vestigial linkages to the sphere of the economic. See Stuart Hall, “The Toad in the Garden: Thatcherism Among the Theorists,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 35–57. And Perry Anderson, in his short, critical survey of the notion, is consistent in searching for the hidden and often ignored connections between hegemony used in reference to dominance within a state and between states in the international sphere. If nothing else, Anderson concludes that the discussion of one without the other is inadequate, as is his assertion that hegemony, while suggesting acceptance and acquiescence, is inevitably tied on a sliding scale to coercion or its threat. See Perry Anderson, The H-Word: the Peripeteia of Hegemony (New York: Verso, 2017).

3. Stuart Hall, Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History, eds. Jennifer Darryl Slack and Lawrence Grossberg, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), p. 173.

4. In October 1980, the democratic socialist government of Michael Manley, which forged close ties with Fidel Castro’s Cuba and supported the principles of the Non-Aligned Movement, was defeated by the pro-free market, pro-Ronald Reagan Jamaica Labour Party, led by Edward Seaga. The figure of 800 deaths in the internecine fighting leading up to the elections is now generally considered as conservative, but nonetheless supports the case for a pre-civil war moment.

5. See Meeks, Critical Interventions in Caribbean Politics and Theory, p. 192.

6. See Meeks, Critical Interventions in Caribbean Politics and Theory, pp. 75–85; and Horace Campbell, Rasta and Resistance: from Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney (Trenton: Africa World Press, 1987); and Deborah Thomas, Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transitional Jamaica (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

7. See Meeks, Critical Interventions in Caribbean Politics and Theory, pp. 169–182.

8. I am conscious here of James Scott’s notion developed in Domination and the Arts of Resistance and elsewhere that there is never a hermetic hegemony and that there is in a sense always rebellion among the subaltern, however the danger in this formulation is that in elevating all forms of resistance to incipient rebellion it becomes difficult to predict and distinguish open, confrontational, and intensely articulated rebellion, and the ongoing, undeclared, and hardly articulated rebellion of the subalterns that never goes away. See James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

9. See Stuart Hall, “The Great Moving Right Show,” in Stuart Hall, Selected Political Writings, eds. Sally Davison, David Featherstone, Michael Rustin, and Bill Schwarz (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), pp. 172–186.

10. Hall, “The Great Moving Right Show,” p. 173. This also prompts the reminder that the Thatcherite/Reaganite/Hayekian project of the limited state and the deregulated economy is markedly different in significant ways from that of Trumpian economic nationalism and nativism, though, it should be added that both anchor their projects in police and military expansionism.

11. Hall, “The Great Moving Right Show,” p. 174.

12. Hall, “The Great Moving Right Show,” p. 186.

13. See Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End? (London: Verso, 2016).

14. Samantha Masumaga, “Robots could take over 38% of US jobs within about 15 years,” Los Angeles Times, March 24, 2017; and Darrell M. West, “What happens if Robots take the jobs? The impact of emerging technologies on employment and public policy,” Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings, October, 26, 2015.

15. Matt Egan, “Record Inequality: The top 1% controls 38.6% of America’s wealth,” CNN, September 27, 2017.

16. Streeck, How Will Capitalism End?, p. 72.

17. I am sensitive here to W.E.B. Du Bois’s insightful use of “double consciousness” as recognition of an entire black subaltern space of resistance occupied by Black people who have never fully bought into the dominant framework of power and of American exceptionalism. See W.E.B. Dubois, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” in W.E.B. Dubois: A Reader, ed. David Levering Lewis (New York, Henry Holt, 1995), p. 29.

18. Gregory A. Smith, “A Growing share of Americans say it’s not necessary to believe in God to be moral,” October 16, 2017.

19. Pew Research Center, “Changing Attitudes on Gay Marriage,” June 26, 2017.

20. Gretchen Livingston and Anna Brown “Public views on intermarriage,” May 18, 2017.

21. Max Ehrenfreund, “A majority of millennials now reject capitalism poll shows,” The Washington Post, April 26, 2016.

22. Ehrenfreund, “A majority of millennials now reject capitalism poll shows.”

23. John Wagner and Scott Clement, “It’s just messed up’: Most think political divisions as bad as Vietnam era, new poll shows,” The Washington Post, October 29, 2017.

24. See, for instance, Adam Serwer, “The Nationalist’s Delusion,” The Atlantic, November 20, 2017.

25. See for instance, Henry Olsen, “Whatever Happened to Trump’s Populist Agenda?,” The New York Times, November 20, 2017.

26. Shamus Khan defines this, I think accurately, as an “Unholy Alliance” between elite interests and white nationalist sentiments, between billionaires and the “left behind” white working class population. It requires, he suggests, a countermovement that can forge egalitarian, class-based messages that breach the racial appeal of Trump and the Alt-Right. See Shamus Khan, “The Big Picture: Unholy Alliances,” Public Books, November 3, 2017.

27. See for instance, Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman, “Trump Defends Initial remarks on Charlottesville: Again Blames ‘Both Sides,’The New York Times, August 15, 2017, accessed November, 2017.

28. Drew Desilver, “Trump’s victory another example of how Electoral College wins are bigger than popular vote ones,” Pew Research Center, December 20, 2016.

29. See Jeffrey Toobin, “Trump’s Real Personnel Victory: More conservative Judges,” The New Yorker, August 2, 2017.

30. See for comparison, Kenneth Surin, “Authoritarian Populism: Viewing Trump, Reviewing Thatcher,” Counterpunch, February 7, 2017.

31. Though in recent decades there have been important contributors to such a conversation. See especially, Alec Nove, The Economics of Feasible Socialism (London: Unwin Hyman, 1983); Michael Albert, Parecon: Life after Capitalism: Participatory Economics (London: Verso, 2003); and Eric Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias (London: Verso, 2010).

32. See Axel Honneth, The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal (Cambridge UK: Polity Press, 2017).

33. Janos Kornai, The Socialist System: the Political Economy of Communism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

34. I have elsewhere used the notion of “Social Living” to refer generally to a hybrid approach that moves beyond the economic parameters of twentieth-century socialism, exorcises eurocentrism, and incorporates popular social thinking and praxis in its framework, while retaining the central concern for community and the social. See Meeks, Envisioning Caribbean Futures.

35. Antonio Gramsci, The Modern Prince and other Writings (New York, International, 1970), p. 124.

36. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1976), p. 341.

37. Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 341.

38. Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 348.

39. Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 350.

40. Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 352.

41. Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 333.

42. See Meeks, Envisioning Caribbean Futures.