Tuesday, November 23, 2010


The University of Minnesota Press asked me to write a brief entry that would be a sort of "introduction to Posthegemony" and that would ideally touch on current events. This should soon appear on the Press's blog, too.

How do we explain the success of the "Tea Party" movement within the US Republican party?

Its supporters claim that it is very simple: the American people, they argue, are fed up with unwanted government intrusion in their lives and the slide to socialism (or something like it) under the presidency of Barack Obama. The "Tea Party Patriots", for instance, address the "Citizens of our Nation" who "were disgusted that your government ignored your will so egregiously."

Or in the words of of the founder of "Regular Folks United: The Bully Pulpit for Regular Folks" (whose contributors include the now iconic "Joe the Plumber"), he started the website
after many years of feeling like real people were getting lost in the shuffle of political battles. Republican talking points. Democrat talking points. What about Regular Folk talking points? I was tired of elitists (yes, they are on both sides of the aisle) pretending they were doing things to help “regular folks” while they were really, most often, trampling on regular folks’ freedoms and taking their money for some bloated inefficient government program.
In short, we see an almost classic case of populist insurgency: ordinary people rising up against the distortions and manipulations of "politics as usual."

But there is nothing particularly simple about even classical populism. And as liberals are surely by now tired of pointing out, there is no shortage of distortion or manipulation on the part of the Tea Partiers: it is almost bewildering to realize, for example, how many still believe that Obama is a Moslem born outside of the United States. When there is such disagreement over the basic premises of the discussion, there seems little opportunity to have the kinds of debate usually associated with political discourse.

More significantly, many of those who are funding the movement are far from ordinary in any sense of the term. Jane Mayer in the New Yorker recently wrote a long piece about the reclusive billionaire Koch brothers who have piled millions into the cause. With friends like these, it is no wonder that the "regular folks" of the Tea Party find themselves campaigning to continue the Bush-era tax cuts on the very wealthy (those who earn above $250,000 a year). In other words, we also have a classic case of people fighting fervently for their own exploitation as though it were their liberation.

The theory of hegemony is designed to untangle such complications. It was the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who first elaborated the notion that capitalism's survival relies on the fact that people willingly give their consent to political movements that work against their best interests. Social domination depends, he argued, upon consent as much, if not more, than upon brute force or coercion.

In the mid to late 1970s, Gramsci was rediscovered and hegemony theory was further refined by the Argentine Ernesto Laclau before it was taken up with great enthusiasm by British Cultural Studies. Soon "hegemony" became cultural studies' core concept. It is not surprising, moreover, that the concept came into vogue during another moment at which populism seemed to rule the day: with Peronism in Argentina, and then Thatcher and Reagan in the UK and the USA.

Laclau's motivation was to distinguish between a progressive populism of the left from a populism of the right. For surely the left could not give up on the self-declared "ordinary" people that were the focus of cultural studies' own iconoclastic anti-elitism. (Recall that for Raymond Williams, the founding principle of the discipline is that "culture is ordinary.") And yet ultimately hegemony theory fails in this task: most recently, with On Populist Reason, Laclau simply abandons the project by identifying populism with politics as a whole.

My argument in Posthegemony is that hegemony theory mirrors populism and is therefore unable fully to understand (let alone oppose) it. In parallel, I also show that civil society discourse has a similar relationship to the neoliberalism that it claims to critique. We therefore need some other way to think about politics, if these two foremost instances of progressive social theory are incapable of grasping the two major political movements of the past thirty years.

I call this new way to think about politics "posthegemony."

Posthegemony turns from the Gramscian dichotomy between coercion and consent, to look instead at the subterranean influences of affect, habit, and the multitude that underlie all so-called hegemonic projects.

It should be obvious enough that the Tea Party has more to do with affect, that is with the order of bodies, and with habit, that is with their repetition and resonance, than with any attempt to win the consent of "hearts and minds." And it should be equally clear that the notion of a "people" (of "regular folks" or the "Citizens of the Nation") is a construction that enables interested parties (the Kochs or others) to appropriate the power of a multitude that would otherwise threaten them as much as it unsettles any representative of constituted power.

Posthegemony, then, is a novel form of political analysis (which draws on the work of theorists such as Gilles Deleuze, Pierre Bourdieu, Antonio Negri, as well as Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben). But it also perhaps points towards a new political project, whose aim would be to liberate the multitude from its own subjection to the popular.


Bob Neubauer said...

<span>Hi Jon  
It's Bob, your old student at UBC.  
Interesting post, but I find this statement problematic:  
'It should be obvious enough that the Tea Party has more to do with affect, that is with the order of bodies, and with habit, that is with their repetition and resonance, than with any attempt to win the consent of "hearts and minds."'  
I don't understand how you square this claim with the fact that so many Tea Partiers seem to be parroting, in layman's terms, the basic ideological tenets of neoliberalism and neo-conservatism. Both of these ideas seemed to have been discursively spread throughout the consciousness of the US body politic through what is by now an exhaustively documented process of ideological dissemination related to a 40-year class project (the funding of Hayek's MPS; the massive disinvestment from Keynesian policy-planning networks following economic crisis in the 1970s and subsequent re-investment in a lavishly funded and exquisitely organized 'information infrastructure' made up of think-tanks, advocacy groups, etc; the normalization of this discourse through the painstakingly planned and organized colonization of university departments, the political discourse of the Reagan/Thatcher administrations, corporate media, and 'civil society' organizations, etc.)  
Although affect and habit are doubtlessly important, it doesn't seem as though either of these aspects of hegemony (or post-hegemony, I'm not picky) would have manifested themselves in the way that they have (ie. the tea party mentality) without the ideological warfare carried out by a loose coalition of economic and intellectual elites over the past 40 years. Indeed, given that you admit the importance of the Koch brothers in manipulating the tea party movement, your opposition to the importance of the 'war of ideas' seems particularly puzzling to me (given that said 'war of ideas' has been the central operating principle of the Koch family ever since they helped launch Cato and the Heritage Foundation in the 1970s. What other impact they could have had that you seem to allude to I’m afraid I do not see).  
Simply put, the wholesale rejection of the Gramscian emphasis on the propagation of an 'ideological front' by intellectuals, 'civil society' organizations, and their economic backers seems incompatible with any explanation of the Tea Party, given that such a 'front' seems to serve much of the raw material for the ideational components of their 'habitus'. It is difficult to imagine the formation of the Tea Party without taking into account the 40 year political project which seems to begin with the MPS and the Heritage Foundation and culminate in Fox News and Glenn Beck.  
That said, I am arguing from ignorance here, not having read your book. I look forward to rectifying that error at the earliest possible opportunity. Consider my interest piqued!  
Oh yah, and congratulations on the book!</span>

posthegemony said...

Hey Bob, thanks for this.  (And I hope all's well...  I look forward to updates on what you're up to these days.)

Here, in this post at least, my point is very simple. 

I don't deny the presence of ideological statements.  As you point out, there are plenty of them in the Tea Party discourse, and you can indeed trace their origins through a whole series of Cold War figures; there was another interesting article in the New Yorker about that, recently.

Its volubility, incidentally, is one way in which populism is very different from neoliberalism: whereas populism is almost hyper-political, and hyper-articulate, neoliberalism tends to operate almost by stealth and to present its proposals as technical (technocratic) "corrections" that are not put up for debate.

But my point here is that the ideological statements typical of the Tea Party (and populism more generally) do not function the way ideology is typically thought to function. 

Above all, there's a fundamental incoherence to the ideological discourse put forward by the Tea Party.  One instance is the way in which a movement claiming to come from "regular folks" ends up supporting tax cuts for the rich.  Another is the phenomenon of the "birthers" or similar articles of faith apparently immune to dissuasion.

All populist discourse is incoherent in one way and another, but I'd say, incidentally, that the Tea Party's is particularly incoherent, in part because it is relatively decentered; no single populist leader has yet arisen to try to organize and make sense of the very disparate and often contradictory statements that it contains.

And yet the Tea Party can become a mass movement, and be felt as such by its participants, by the fact that it generates an enormous amoung of resonance and intensity among those who take part in its protests.

So what I'm saying is that these ideological statements, present as you point out in such numbers and articulated with such vociferousness, function more to organize bodies (and so affects) and align habits than to persuade or seek some kind of consent.

It seems to me to be a mistake to counterpose some kind of leftist conspiracy theory that traces the provenance of Tea Party ideologemes in the John Birch society (or wherever) to the right-wing conspiracy theories peddled by elements of the Tea Party itself.

The point is not so much a war of ideas as the way in which (as I say) the Kochs and others have succeeded in appropriating the energies of a fundamentally anti-institutional movement... and institutionalize it, however precariously.

In other words, what's at stake is never so much what is said as how what is said helps to organize or disorganize forces that are really only contingently attached to the ideological statements that they happen to be parrotting.

Serg said...

Yes, yes, yes...the only thing that seems to be pending is to know if affects, habits and multitude are really beyond the political anthropology founding the theory of hegemony, which, as a vulgar representation of the political, is indeed populist (populism).

posthegemony said...

Ah, Sergio, it sounds as though you are doubtful...  Say more!

Serg said...

I will, Jon, not because I am doubtful, rather because I am engaged with the scope and topics of the book. I am just putting together some thoughts in a proper way, but I could not resist speaking out after reading your own remarks. On the other hand, the Gramscian problem still needs to be differentiated from the Laclaudian appropriation of it. Gramsci's problem, as you know, never was a theoretical investigation in political philosophy, it rather emerged from a very practical question, How to organize the working class in the poor southern region of Italy? as Deleuze would have put it, his problem was a matter of organization....as today, our problem is not much the critique of populism as a philosophical issue, rather, organization...it seems that your move from traditional political philosophy to the problem of affects, habits and multitude goes in this direction, but as I told you, I will be clearest in few weeks....I cannot wait to see, though, your own taking on Negri's elaboration...cheers!  

posthegemony said...

Sergio, thanks for this, and I very much look forward to your longer reflections.

In fact, as should be clear from the book, I'm rather ambivalent about posthegemony as project: "perhaps," I say, in an echo of Gareth Williams.

But I agree that the problem is organization.  My difference from Negri (and Hardt) is that one cannot simply champion the multitude.  There is no simple (or single, universal) answer to the question "What is to be done?"

fiona said...

I don't see it on the publisher's blog yet.

Babacar FAYE said...

Hello all,
I recently read Posthegemony as a required reading of one of my graduate seminars and I found the book really interesting, especially the chapter related on Deleuze. I am an international student and something revolutionary is happening in my homecountry (Senegal). A sort of embryonic social revolution is taking place as a 85 year old dude wants to run for a third term. What is interesting in the social movement, is that I see a similar situation where people, the masses, need a better organization and strategies for the revolution to be fruitful. A youth movement, called YEN A MARRE (literally meaning We Are Fed Up with the system) has rised up and the oppostion parties joined the fight, and so on , and so on. Am writing my Master thesis on this case study, departing from Fanonion theoretical framework with the Wretched of the Earth, while having in mind Deleuze and Guattari on Affect and Schizophrenia, if not Hardt and Negri and and their notion of the "common" in Commonwealth. The notion of the "multitude" is very useful and I am trying to applying that in the Senegalese case study where the opposition parties, the intellectuals, the civil society alongside youth mouvements seem to lack a sense of organization and strategies in the very process of the ongoing "revolution"

Jon said...

Faye, thanks for the comment.  I'm glad the book was useful.  The situation in Senegal sounds fascinating.