What is Hegemony? And the Risks of Dissent


(ed. Originally published Feb. 8, 2012 – here!)

Today we revisit the basic issue at hand in every post on this site: dissent within the movement. What are the risks of dissent within a movement already predicated on dissent? If the goal of the movement is to galvanize common complaints and common goals among the 99%, how can dissent be productive?

OLAASM has already effectively decried OLA’s “Solidarity” march through MacArthur Park ten days ago. The goal of that post was not to make people feel bad. The goal of that post was to raise the question of privilege, for the millionth time. Don’t get sick of this question. Every time you don’t raise it, it will be raised for you. This is because one of the major reeducations of the Occupy Movement MUST be an understanding of how marginalized groups of Americans were ALREADY SUFFERING before the economic “crisis” (as if it were somehow an act of God, and not orchestrated by corporate greed). We think most liberals can agree with this last sentence. What they can’t and won’t agree with is the method of using virulent criticism to get there. We call that solidarity march masturbatory. We call it ill-conceived. We call talking to the cops a betrayal not only of Oakland, but of radical and marginalized OLA comrades who are already targeted by law enforcement. We are suddenly the bad guys for this assessment.

We know why: the risks of dissent within a movement are alienation of movement members, and alienation of outsiders who are considering entering the movement. These risks get played loud on the megaphone of the liberal bloc. In many ways, the left take their lessons from history: radical feminism in the early 1970s suffered a split when “politicos” attempted to highlight class analysis over “cultural feminism.” Politicos were interested in an analysis of gender that included its intersections with class and race, among other labels. They wanted to radically rethink capitalism and its disproportionate impact on queer and poor and non-white people, especially those who were identified as female. Cultural feminists, while of course having sympathy for that project, believed the source of gender oppression could be located in the men themselves, and thus they attempted to shift systems by changing people. Politicos suffered because they couldn’t attract people who needed help TODAY. Cultural feminists suffered because they couldn’t address the deep-seated, long-standing, thorny questions of how race, class, ethnicity, nationality, gender identity, hetero-normativity, and capitalism functioned to privilege a certain group over another.

That split did not serve to focus the radical women in the feminist movement or strengthen their demands—it weakened the ranks and sowed mistrust among women who had been fighting alongside each other. Ultimately the cultural feminists caught on, and the women who wanted to do radical rewriting of gender in the U.S. (women of color, poor women, intellectuals writing Marxist critique, and queer women) watched as small gains and small victories for a codified group of privileged white women with identifiably feminine bodies was called The Feminist Movement. We are still fighting for the analysis and social change that addresses the needs of women of color, queer women, trans people, and so on.

The risks of dissent are great, and thus those liberals who want to see change in their lifetime have some fear of it, and worry that it will undermine their efforts. They are not wrong to fear this. But they are still wrong to try to stop dissent.

Let us try to explain: the risks of squashing dissent within a social movement are, for the radicals, much greater than the risks of dissenting. It is not only that we fear outright fascist totalitarian control—although that is on our minds. (See our critique of OLA Media…) However, an enemy much more insidious and powerful is hegemony.

Hegemony refers historically to the dominance of one nation over another. Hegemony in current usage describes total control—control of the mechanisms of daily life and consciousness. The holder of this power need not be a nation, per se.

As theorized by Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks, this notion of hegemony is a way to describe the processes by which people (especially modern Western citizens) consent to their own domination by ruling classes. Gramsci noted that one need not be living under a violent fascist regime to become a subject of a dominant class. One need simply accept current conditions as they are, accept that they are the natural and necessary conditions of life, and not resist in thought or deed. Every time an American watches television and doesn’t wonder why there aren’t more Asian, and especially Southeast Asian faces there, they are succumbing to hegemony. Every time an American wonders if a gay parent can be as “good” as a straight parent, they are thinking hegemonically.

What radical dissent does within a social movement is take the first impulse towards change, which is usually selfishly motivated by a privileged class of people who are new to the fight (I’m suffering, therefore something must be wrong in the world), and shift the focus toward more embedded systemic processes that are as yet invisible in culture. In concrete terms, this means: not applauding the MacArthur park march because people there may never have been on a march 4 months ago, but criticizing it because they didn’t consider the impact the march could have on people living in the community who were ALREADY suffering police repression. Radical dissent says: what you are doing is not enough, and will never be enough, and you must acknowledge this.

The undermining of hegemonic thinking is terribly difficult. We are mostly doomed to replicate hegemony, even as we struggle to resist it. Radicals are no stranger to this pain, and often criticize each other bitterly. However, we have a special vitriol reserved for the complacent and disorganized American “left,” because they do not, as of yet, demonstrate a praxis of self-analysis that is necessary for the digging into hegemonic thought.

It is a rabbit hole. It is a dizzying and painful process to become radicalized, because it usually involves a loss of some kind: loss of one’s freedom through incarceration, loss of a loved one through state violence, loss of innocence when justice is not served, loss of faith when someone in power betrays you, loss of one’s home to predatory bank action, loss of pleasure in old friends or diversions, and so on. Why should I hurt more than I already am? A liberal asks.

Because most people in the world already are hurting, the radicals say. Stay conscious of the pain, and you are one step further along the path to divesting yourself of hegemonic influence. This is why we must dissent when our comrades are blind to their own replication of oppressive systems. This is why we must keep trying to fight individuals who think they are more important as people than the movement is. This is why OLAASM supports Oakland. This is why we don’t claim authorship of these articles. This is why we don’t care that the OLA website has some shrill terror about what we are saying.

We believe in the long-term project of real social change, and it will take a wrenching, screaming, sad and difficult amount of dissent amongst even ourselves to get anywhere close.

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