Hegemony by Foster Stuart
The term, “hegemony” is used in at least two main ways: 1) as a more or less neutral term describing a geo-political state of affairs and 2) as a more loaded term, referring to the domination of democratic-capitalism in the twentieth-century. This latter way is associated with neo-Marxism and especially Antonio Gramsci who used the concept of “cultural hegemony” to explore the wide-spread power and influence of democratic-capitalism. From a geo-political stance, hegemony is the particular hold that one group of people have on the surrounding territory. Hegemony is said to exist when there is a relatively stable political centre to administer and protect the flow of capital within a defined territory.
Almost all hegemonies involve a hierarchy with those who make up the political centre receiving the most benefit from the hegemony. That is most of the capital flows into the centre. Despite this inequality, hegemonies tend to be relatively stable, at least for a time. The existence of hegemony is easier to understand when we begin with the household, which in most of history has existed as a mini-hegemony.
The preferential treatment of our parents, spouse, progeny, other kin, and friends is a ubiquitous part of the human condition. Hegemony begins here. Hegemony is not about the acquisition of power and resources for oneself, rather it is about acquiring power and resources to guarantee the preferential treatment of one’s favorites.
When a group of people has enough power and influence over others, they can require that others give up some preferential treatment of their own for the preferential treatment of the ones in power. This tends to happen through some combination of exchange of capital (economic, social, or cultural) along with some level of coercion and exploitation. Those who comply with the hegemon (the political centre or inner court) are rewarded in a kind of giant Ponzi scheme, with the exploited and coerced being like the last in, receiving little or no tangible benefit for their contribution to the scheme.
A hegemony is limited geographically by the territory that can be controlled by the hegemon. Such control includes both the extension of benefit from the “Ponzi scheme” and the policing and protection of those who are part of the scheme.
When benefit of belonging to a hegemony is indirect and institutionalized it is called "privilege." Privilege is something that is drawn upon as needed. Classes (or castes) are the distinctions between arbitrary sets of people who derive different levels of capital, power and privilege from the hegemonic "arrangement." The upper-class receives the most benefit and in “return” they are expected to 1) administer/rule the hegemony and 2) produce cultural capital to the benefit of all within the hegemony. As a hegemony becomes more powerful, its upperclass is able to put more effort and time into producing cultural capital. This cultural capital further helps to protect and even extend the established hegemony. Three common forms of cultural capital are edifices, education, and entertainment and their significance and influence can extend beyond the actual borders of the hegemony. When this happens we are very close to what Gramsci called “cultural hegemony.”
Cultural capital becomes part of the “Ponzi scheme” and it results in the upper-class being able to simultaneously “pay-out” the other classes even as they hold on to the actual property. Further, cultural capital becomes part of the repression process, with the oppressed and exploited being denied participation in the cultural capital (even if they are instrumental in its production).
Those who do not take part in this "scheme" are a threat to the system and are treated with suspicion and hatred. This is one of the origins of race. Race can be considered as a group of people outside of one's own hegemony or preferential people group. This could mean another hegemony (distant, competing, or conquered/conquering hegemony) or a cluster of outsiders (nomads or other outsiders sharing similar physiognomy or "habits"). For a number of reasons, race started to take on a more “objective” meaning in the nineteenth century.
All hegemonies can be perceived to have some kind of uneven distribution of power, privilege, and capital. And this is another place hatred shows up. Hatred is not only for outsiders but is also found between and in classes when someone or some group seems to be deriving benefit not according to the arrangement or when the arrangement is deemed to be so unfair that it creates resentment among the underclasses.
In this light, an enemy is anyone who threatens power, privilege, or capital that you think is your due. Further, a criminal is anyone who threatens the power, privilege, or capital of the hegemon. In this sense, a slave or other repressed subordinate may not consider their master their enemy because they have become convinced that freedom is not their privilege. This is one of the functions of cultural capital; to legitimize the uneven distribution not just between masters and slaves but between all dominants and subordinates.
In a hegemony then, justice is relative to the hegemonic jurisdiction. Justice is the weighing out of the appropriate compensation due a person according to her or his place in the hierarchical scheme. As such, justice is always weighted towards those who already have capital, power, or privilege. However when any person threatens the hegemony, her or his property, freedom, and even life may be forfeit.
Usually a single ruler is understood to embody the hegemon, but in some cases a ruler can be construed as a threat to the hegemony. The assassinations of rulers like Caesar Augustus and Charles I of England would have been justified in part because they represented a threat to the hegemony. The Reign of Terror in France was quite another matter and represents a watershed movement in the history of hegemony. The French Revolution and its aftermath can be seen as an attempt to “prove” that a nation could organize itself without using hegemonic principles.
Even before the French Revolution people were beginning to question the legitimacy of hegemony, and much of what we call the Enlightenment can be seen as an attempt to figure out how to operate without hegemony (or at least the most disruptive aspects of it).
Over the last several centuries, hegemonies have become increasingly delegitimized on the world stage. Reason and science are meant to supplant force as a way for settling disputes between and within hegemonies; consequently practices like duels become ritualized and inconsequential (professional sports). This also helps to explain how slavery came to be abolished and why nepotism has become unacceptable amongst “legitimate” nations.
With the undoing of hegemony all sort of other changes take place. Communism, socialism, and capitalism are all supposed to be ways to distribute wealth more equitably (usually through the dissolution of class barriers if not class itself). Democracy, offers the opportunity to replace those in political power without violent revolution. Justice become blind and is defined in relation to the rule of law, constitutions, and human rights rather than according to a particular hegemonic jurisdiction. Various forms of punishment on the body are banned. In the twentieth century, the “world” has acted collectively against countries that would use force to expand (or even maintain) their borders or to acquire material capital.
At the same time, all modern nation-states are a confused mixture of hegemony and anti-hegemony. Take the Dominion of Canada. Beginning with the peaceful and negotiated union of three hegemonic regions, its capital city was chosen as a compromise between the main hegemonies in Upper and Lower Canada. Its expansion into the prairies was hegemonic (why else the North West Mounted Police) but when met with resistance by Riel and others, it alternated between hegemonic persecution and the negotiation and compromise of modern nation-states. Canada’s union with British Columbia was decidedly modern, but much of the history of the Prairie Provinces is still hegemonic.
As a settler country, Canada cannot avoid a hegemonic relation between the dominant late-comers and the subordinated First Nations. Sporadically practicing repression, assimilation, apartheid, accommodation, negotiation, and veneration; there has been no agreement on what justice looks like in this in-between space. Desiring desperately not to be hegemonic, Canada is stuck with competing land-claims, broken treaties, unfulfilled promises, incongruent legislation, and a history of practices and policies that offer little guidance for a different kind of future.
Does the Bible give the Christian any guidance on how to define justice in our current hegemonic confusion? Although our relation to Jesus will disrupt our relation to our family, as a whole, scripture encourages the preferential treatment of parents, spouse, progeny, kin, and friends even as it calls on God’s people to give up hatred, coercion, and exploitation. The Bible condemns partiality and commends the wise and good ruler as well as those who are humble and poor. It would be helpful to read the stories of Moses, the Judges, and the Kings in relation to general hegemonic practices. We should think about Israel’s own hegemonic practices and the way the prophets condemned and condoned them.
Jesus was born in a time when there were three overlapping hegemonies at play: the Roman rulers; the Hellenic governors, and the Jewish religious leaders. His own trial and execution was played out in their various courts. He was put to death because he was supposed to be a threat to the hegemony. How do we hear and obey his teachings about justice, goodness, and love in light of the opportunities and challenges of living in these times of supposed universal justice, goodness, and love?