Hegemony has gone global

Mr. Malay is a professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the Asian Center, University of the Philippines. This article was published in the Yellow Pad column of BusinessWorld, February 7, 2005 edition, p. 21.

As twin events, the one piggybacking on the other, Davos and Porto
Alegre grabbed the usual headlines last week. But the question “which
one grabbed more headlines,” is a no-brainer. It’s Davos, of course;
and not only because of the presence of Bill Gates and Sharon Stone in
that Swiss resort.

It’s because, to get straight to the point, mainstream Davos has the
hegemony, and left-wing Porto Alegre has – at most – the
counter-hegemony. The World Economic Forum (WEF) gets all the
mainstream media’s attention, while coverage of the World Social Forum
(WSF), it seems, is good only as fillers for late-night tv news.

When the media situation will have been reversed in favor of the
Brazilian city’s “ideology,” then we’ll be dealing with what social
scientists call a paradigm shift. But exactly when, and under what
circumstances, this historical reversal from the economic to the social
agenda will ever take place, is a question that the accredited experts
have trouble answering.

Well, at least they try. The day after the twin fora began in
Switzerland and in Brazil, an interesting discussion on hegemony and
the counter-hegemonic challenge was held at UP Diliman. Davos and Porto
Alegre were not brought up in that afternoon’s debate on “Gramsci,
Hegemony and Globalization,” but the themes dear to the WEF-WSF
discourse were always within shouting distance.

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), an Italian Marxist intellectual, is known
to the initiated as the theoretician of this whole hegemony business.
At the risk of oversimplifying the Gramscian idea, let’s say that it’s
something like a tautology: a given social class is dominant because it
is hegemonic, and it is hegemonic precisely because it is dominant.

And why does that class – or culture, or nation, take your pick – enjoy that privilege to begin with? Where does it come from?

Let’s take a look at Gramsci’s definition of the concept: hegemony, he
wrote, is the “spontaneous consent given by the great masses of the
population to the direction imprinted on social life by the fundamental
ruling class, a consent which comes into existence historically and
from the prestige (and hence from the trust) accruing to the ruling
class from its position and its function in the world of production.”

In other words, hegemony in today’s world has to do with the
uncontested claim of the ruling capitalist class to incarnate and
propagate the basic values, principles, and “worldview” that everybody
else shares and trusts, acquiesces to, or in any case has no serious
objections to. This proposition poses a major problem for the social
class which, in 19th-century Marxist theory, saw itself as being next
in line for the hegemonic position by virtue of the “laws of history.”

For the sake of argument, let us say that the working class, whether
considered as blue- or white-collar or as a fusion of both, has its own
culture – its own intrinsic values, principles and “worldview” which
have the potential to be hegemonic. If and when it overthrows the
capitalist class to at last become the ruling class, that culture will
have replaced that of the bourgeoisie. But will the latter really be
overthrown, as in a bloody revolution, or will it simply give up the

It will “give up,” as the nascent Russian bourgeoisie of the early 20th
century did, but only because of the absence or underdevelopment in
Russia of civil society (another concept made popular by Gramscian
theory). Even by Marxian standards it was not yet time for the
capitalist social order to bow out of the scene, but a radical reading
of Marx authorized Lenin and his Bolshevik followers to force the pace
of history, i.e. to make the Russian bourgeoisie abdicate, under
duress, its class rule without its having undergone the usual process
of degeneration and incapacity to rule as previous dominant classes had

The triumph, such as it was, of the 1917 revolution only meant that the
basic values, political culture, etc. of the fledgling ruling class
were so shallowly implanted in Russian society as to constitute no
defense at all of the state against the naked political force deployed
against it. Gramsci understood that perfectly well; hence his warning
in so many words that the game plan for “revolution” in Russia could
not necessarily be replicated in Western liberal democracies.

Stripped of all the jargon, Gramscian theory on hegemony and civil
society boils down to this uncomplicated idea: every given social order
comes in at its own proper time. That’s arguably very Marxist per se –
but the question of Leninism spoils everything. And yet, doesn’t
Lenin’s voluntarism (the over-emphasis on the capacity of the human
will to change the world) have its origins in Marx’s utopian vision as
well? Marx foresaw a world without social classes; his Russian
followers went right ahead and tried to achieve it. But Soviet hegemony
was an oxymoron in Gramscian terms: the Bolshevik system necessitated a
police state to enforce acceptance of the new culture.

The counter-hegemony that has the guts to face down Davos and its
dominant worldview already exists: it’s always there, every year, in
Porto Alegre. But when will it become the hegemony (i.e. the one and
only, on a global scale)? As of now there is a host of alternative
discourses which make up this counter-hegemony: socialist, gay
liberationist, environmentalist, anti-debt, anti-imperialist, pacifist,
anarchist, anti-genetically modified organisms, etc. “Another world is
possible” is their battle cry, and who is to argue against that?

On what ideological basis this highly diverse platform of -isms will
coalesce as a hegemonic force, however, can only be a matter of
conjecture. In the meantime, the Davos hegemon has not been sleeping on
its laurels. Its agenda this year included six issues which ordinarily
figure in the Porto Alegre discussions, namely poverty, “equitable
globalization,” climate change, education, the Middle East and global
governance. One would think that the Davosians would leave these issues
to the left-wing gadflies in Porto Alegre to pick on, and concentrate
on their usual business of exploiting the rest of the world.

But it could be that they are hegemonic precisely because they can
afford to coopt the other side’s agenda. When Davos starts discussing
strengthening of civil society, greater access to information
technology, etc., what’s the world coming to?

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