Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist imprisoned under Mussolini, focused his work on the concept of hegemony, the web of consciousness which a ruling class imposes upon society. It includes values, perceptions, world views, cultural norms and formal ideological belief. These become to be considered ‘common sense’. In feudal times, hegemony was imposed through both physical oppression and religion, e.g. the belief in the divine right of kings. But in modern societies, with mass education and mass media, hegemony is created daily as an internal construct, without need of violence except in times of extremity. We get up and turn on the radio or television or google Stuff, buy a paper on the way to work, the ads line the roadside – on it goes through the day.
I am old enough to have experienced the creating of the neo-liberal hegemony and its underlying belief system: the market is advocate, judge and jury; the state is hopeless when it comes to running things (and therefore socialism was a disaster); everyone can achieve their goals if they set them; the rags to riches story is the only story; globalisation is good; every organisation must have its vision, mission, and its KPIs; human beings are genetically selfish and greedy; everything is a commodity and life is consumption; and there is no alternative. All of the above has achieved the status of ‘common sense’.
But are we, with the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders and the anti- austerity parties in Europe, seeing a rupture in the neo-liberal hegemony? Are we about to experience something equivalent to the 1960s rupture now known generally as the counter-cultural movement? Corbyn remarked that his supporters are either under thirty or over sixty; either those who can remember the time before and been suffering neo-liberalism as a worrisome lie, or disenchanted young people.
It is easy to see why the young are disenchanted: they have seen the financial system create a global crisis then get bailed out with tax payer money, they begin adult life in huge debt thanks to student loans(and there’s no bail out in sight), their jobs are precarious, home ownership (the previous hook into the capitalist system) recedes as a possibility, they view the obscene statistics (64 individual rich people owning more than the bottom half of the world’s population), they are under surveillance like never before, and the planet is going down the tube.
If someone with some mana comes along, even if an old man, and starts telling some simple truths: there should be free education and free health for all and the rich can pay for it/submarines costing billions of dollars and carrying nuclear weapons don’t protect anything… they listen.
Nevertheless, hegemonic change doesn’t occur without long and painful struggle –after all, the counter-culture did not ultimately succeed other than to gift organising methods to the struggles of identity politics. I was reminded of this at a recent town meeting to discuss how to take advantage of an economic opportunity. There were multiple strands of the neo-liberal hegemony evident: the small business mindset based on debt anxiety and a threatening world of competitors, the arrogance of the managerial, the confusion of ‘common sense’ from ‘the ordinary folk’. I suspect we have a way to go before a counter movement really takes hold. But at least there is hope, plus the awareness, that under modern conditions, where hegemony is internalised, change can happen remarkably quickly. If the internal belief system changes, the system is overthrown, often without particular violence.
NZ incorporated, run by accountants anxiously fiddling the books, muddles along at the bottom of the Pacific. Labour is faced with the contradiction that it has become detached from its traditional social class, but as well, that traditional social class, under the influence of the neo-liberal hegemony, has become fragmented and demoralised. But if the shit hits the fan, we’ll be another Ireland or Greece, ready for the rupture to occur.