We’re living in a time of (hegemonic) crisis and opportunity
It’s hard to make sense of what’s going on around the world at present. We’re seeing the rise of the far right and figures such as Trump, Bolsonaro, and Modi leading some of the world’s most powerful countries. Here in the UK we have Boris Johnson now overseeing our own Brexit mess, and the major political parties fragmenting. At the same time, grassroots social movements for progressive change are building momentum and energy. It’s a time of great change and uncertainty.
But what is certain is this – the ‘common sense’ and power structures (or hegemony – as defined below) that have held neoliberal capitalism in place as the dominant global system are deeply fractured. It appears we are entering the twilight of Neoliberalism (global free market capitalism which was the strongly dominant global system from the 1980s until post 2008 financial crisis). I believe that what comes next is very much up to us.
To make sense of what is happening we need a new way to map power
In this blog, I explore Gramsci’s ideas about hegemony, and propose it as a new way to think about mapping and understanding power in campaigns and movements for social change. I’m not suggesting that these ideas are a perfect model – the map is not the territory – but rather that they can provoke some valuable thinking.
I was inspired to write this to accompany my second interview on The Advocacy Iceberg podcast – check it out if you haven’t listened before. I’m happy to chat about these ideas further and really welcome friendly disagreements – please comment at the end if you’d like to continue the conversation.
So to begin in 2016…
Three years ago (a year after I started this blog) I first appeared on the Advocacy Iceberg podcast to talk about the need to build powerful social movements from the ground up. I reflected that the professionalised approach of NGO campaigning was not working, and that while incremental battles were being won and celebrated, the whole playing field was moving further and further to the political right. We were winning battles but losing the war; I wanted to provoke a conversation about why this was happening, and what we might do differently.
Some change is happening
Since then I’m happy to say that lots of NGOs and grassroots groups are asking difficult questions and some are trying new approaches. There’s lots of talk about movement building and grassroots organising and some encouraging work being done. But too often these things are only being talked about, and misunderstood, rather than being well implemented. Progress is slow.
Meanwhile, we’re facing intensifying social polarisation. Marginalised groups in the global north are increasingly under threat (e.g. from the rise in racist, Islamophobic, homophobic and transphobic abuse and violence). The climate crisis and ecosystem breakdown are raining down disaster on people in the global south least responsible for causing these problems. It’s really important that we do our best to understand how power is manifesting in the world today, so that we can turn all this around. This is where I think an understanding of hegemonic power comes in…
What even is hegemony?
Hegemony is a theory about how power works developed by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. It means a system of alliances and power structures aligned around a strong narrative that make up and perpetuate “the status quo”. When I talk about ‘the system’ this is basically what I mean.
It has two components:
This story underpins the dominant power structures. It can be understood as the basis for ‘common sense’ or ‘the way things are’. When a hegemonic system is strongly in place, any criticism of it, or idea that things could be better organised another way, is marginalised in society. Another way of understanding hegemonic common sense is ‘the Overton window‘ – the range of acceptable ideas within which all mainstream discourse is conducted.
These are selective alliances based on perceived interests that together constitute the dominant power structures in a society. I’ll spend much of the rest of this blog exploring how these structures function, and why I think this is important for campaigners.
That’s a complicated diagram…
Lets break it down with a contemporary example – Neoliberal Capitalism, up until the financial crisis in 2008 (as I suggest it’s been slowly fracturing since then). I’ll go through the different groups and what they look like in this example.
Leading power holders
These are the people that are running the show – they control the money, the power and speak with authority. The leading factions in key states are in here, and in this example they’re joined by the leaders of multinational companies, the EU, the G7/G8/G20, financial institutions like the World Bank, leading economists etc.
Allied elite groups
These people are supporting the running of the show as they directly benefit from the way it’s being run. They’re not directly in charge, but they benefit significantly. In this example, we could include small and medium businesses, conservative professional organisations, senior military, police, judiciary, journalists, writers, academics and so on. These people could flip allegiance to another emergent system if the current one starts to look shaky.
Outsider groups whose top strata benefit
These outsider or subaltern groups are the social groups excluded and displaced from the socio-economic institutions of society, in order to deny their political voices. But while these groups are excluded, institutions or figures that represent them might win some concessions in an alliance which props up the system, in exchange for limited benefits to some of that group. Boardroom feminism is an example of this – where the discourse and focus centres getting (mostly white, middle class) women onto the boards of multinational corporations, while discussions of the gender pay gap at the level of unpaid care work are ignored. Similarly with green capitalism, or the ‘pink pound’, or celebrity figures like Oprah Winfrey. Many NGOs sit here.
Routinely coerced outsiders
These people are largely marginalised and ignored by the dominant system, and also very sadly are often those at the sharp end of state violence. In post-colonial northern societies, people of colour are often in this group – for example, the film 1500 And Counting, exploring deaths in UK police custody since 1990, shines a light on the nastiest end of this. Homeless people, those with mental health problems, irregular migrants, people on the margins of gender normativity etc also sit in this category. These people’s voices are marginalised in discourse, ignored by powerholders in the system, repressed and ultimately abused by instruments of the state (except limited numbers of the ‘top strata’ from these groups, who benefit from the current system – see category above).
Resigned/ de-mobilised / deferential outsiders
This is a group of people outside of the current system who don’t benefit, but avoid overt coercion. Many were mobilised once but have been defeated and are resigned. The working class in the UK post Thatcher for example. Under neoliberalism conservative religions also sit here, as do small farmers and many more.
Fitted together, the Neoliberal example looks like this:
A ‘time of monsters’
Gramsci called times of hegemonic crisis a ‘time of monsters’ – I don’t think it’s hard to argue we’re currently living in such a time. The example I gave above was up until the 2008 global financial crisis; it took until 2011 to see the global ‘Occupy’ movement emerge in protest. Popular discourse says that movement failed (although I would contest that, I think it had some impact, but that’s material enough for another blog), and that ‘business as usual’ has continued.
But has it really? I think we’re seeing increasing fracture and crumbling of alliances. Populism on the left and right is on the rise, sharing a distrust of ‘elites’. New alliances are emerging and it isn’t clear yet which will win out and create a new stability. The de-mobilised are starting to re-mobilise. The outsiders are starting to self organise and revolt. New players are reshaping the board and movements are displacing / shaking up civil society structures.
There’s a possibility for systems change
It is always possible to change the system – and now with it being deeply fractured and unstable, the possibility is even more significant. The way any hegemony operates is to make us think that ‘this is just the way things are’ and that they can’t change. But from a historical perspective, such systems rise and fall pretty quickly.
When the world was a web of empires, no-one knew that what would come next were nation states. Now nation states seem so fixed we can’t imagine anything else – but they’re actually pretty young. Believing that another world is possible is radical – and its true.
“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
What does all this mean for campaigning NGOs?
It is a time of mess, peril and opportunity. Most NGOs I work with are aware that we’re living in ‘interesting times’ and are working to re-think their strategy appropriately, but the best developed work on this is mostly still at an early stage.
Some key questions I think NGO campaigners should be asking:
- What new actors are re-shaping the board? What can you learn from them?
- Are emerging grassroots actors getting greater engagement and more impact than you?
- What movement or movements does your cause sit within? How can you strengthen them and support a diversity of the other actors involved?
- What does effective insider advocacy look like when political leadership, and the balance of power, is so fragile and uncertain?
- Can your issue be solved inside the neo-liberal capitalist system? If not, is there an emergent alternative you can back? If not what can you do to help create one?
- Essentially, which alliances are really going to help build the power you need to affect the change you want?
What does all this mean for grassroots campaigns and social movements?
It’s also a time of mess, peril (in a more immediate way than that facing professional campaigners) and opportunity. Grassroots campaigners immediately affected by the issues they’re campaigning on will need a strong community of peer support and some solid self care practice to avoid burnout. But the opportunities are there – movements are on the rise and yours could have some serious long term impact, if you’re ready to respond to the changing context, and if you can remain resilient.
Some key questions for grassroots players and those interested in broader social social movements:
- Look at the history of your movement and its roots. What patterns emerge?
- Map your movement. What does it look like? Who are the actors in it and how do they interact?
- What could you do from where you are to strengthen it? Are particular roles or tactics missing? Or are key relationships between actors not there?
- How can you build and sustain hope that there is an opportunity to really win?
- How can you remain open to adapt to the rapidly changing context?
- How can your group collectively take care of each other, and your community?
- How can you take care of yourself so you’re able to sustain your work in social change for the long haul?
I should also say many questions could be applied to both groups.
Lets talk about Extinction Rebellion, again…
I’m going to mention XR here because I think it illustrates something important. The hegemonic crisis makes Extinction Rebellion possible – people who had previously been ‘elite’ within the system no longer have their needs met by it (e.g. white middle class highly educated folks) because of the threat from the unfolding climate collapse to everyone. They’re switching their allegiance to rebel against this system, and the police don’t know how to respond because these are not people from groups they can routinely coerce.
As I explored in my previous blog, Extinction Rebellion has attracted a lot of criticism. If it had started from a full hegemonic analysis of power, it’s strategy, messaging and actions may have looked very different. XR might have managed to really put climate justice at it’s heart, in a way so articulately called for by the incredible Wretched of the Earth.
Or the Rebellion might not be asking for the support of the advertising industry, who I suggest are fundamentally complicit in driving consumption and causing climate breakdown, to “tell the truth about the climate emergency” and “use its power for good”. For me, this is a basic strategic fail without a solid analysis of how to bring about the systemic change XR says its aiming for.
Where do we go from here?
The question I think anyone interested in social change should be asking right now, is how can we construct a diverse enough collective sense of ‘we’, to build a big enough political actor, to combat the rise of the right and win the systemic change we need. I’ve long thought that so many causes are deeply intertwined – environmental, racial and social injustices can be solved at the root together. I don’t have any magic bullet suggestions, but for me the practice and value is in asking the question, trying things, seeking collaboration and thinking big.
Continuing to develop this thinking
I’d like to give credit for development of these thoughts to the incredible team of my Ecology of Social Movements summer camp at Ulex (Dr Laurence Cox, Maria Llanos del Corral and Guhyapati), as well as Jeroen Robbe from Labo and Holly Hammond from Plan to Win – who helped to develop our hegemony workshop over the last year.
We’re exploring what to do next and considering developing a training handbook for this material, as well as further events and possible workshops. Please get in touch if you’re interested in hearing more or if you have any suggestions.