A State of Flux: The Hegemonic Status of Ideas, Their Role In History and The Rebirth Of Populist Methodology

When we woke up over the last year or so and turned on the news, the stories were predominantly the same. Aside from the coronavirus pandemic there is another common trend. In the UK they were probably reporting on Brexit or the fallout from the Conservative austerity program. In the US it was most likely to be about Trump or the rise of the left in the Democrat party. In Germany, it was predominantly going to be about the AfD, the refugee crisis or the ongoing retreat of the centre ground – the SDP and the Christian Democrats. In France, almost certainly about the Jillets Jaunes and Macron. These wildly turbulent times are, firstly, cross-border and, secondly, covered 24/7 by both the traditional and social media. Politics seems, as portrayed in those same media, to have soured and fallen apart. The sense of turbulence, crisis and catastrophe is ripe among media narratives, which has partly seeped into the wider public political discourse. Public bewilderment at political events is prominent and trust in politicians is seemingly at an all time low. Many who are spectators of the current political theatre show are apathetic and, worse still, disenfranchised with the political system; partly because of the toxicity of the discourse but also because of the sterile character of politics that had become apparent throughout the last 30 to 40 years of ideological hegemony. Politics, a tool which can be used to great effect to empower people and transform communities, seems hopelessly lost down a deep, dark hole.  The discourse is not just becoming increasingly angrier but political behaviour is also becoming increasingly erratic and unpredictable – and for many it is not necessarily in a good way. For some it amounts to an impending doom which they have little control over, for others there are more pressing issues.

The chaotic nature of contemporary politics appears to have come from nowhere. Up until 2008 the economy was performing relatively well, it seemed that social issues of a racial, gender and sexual nature were being pushed towards greater freedom. Liberal utopia one might say. Issues such as the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the breakdown of the European ERM had exposed cracks but they were often swiftly dealt with by government. The Blair government called an inquiry into the Lawrence case and the EU moved towards the adoption of a single currency: the Euro. Little was seen of murmurings beneath the surface. A collection of social groupings who had been seemingly left behind were slowly exiting the political system and were choosing to ignore what they considered to be a group of rich, ignorant and lying bureaucrats in central government. This ‘forgotten’ group would never have thought that a decade or so later, they would become the most sought after vote in contemporary politics.

This explains nicely why this book will describe the current political predicaments the west faces not as a problem but as part of the natural progression of complex, political societies. That it is in fact revitalising the sterile, and fairly dystopian, democratic politics that had existed since the 1990s. Populism, social unrest, democratic volatility and widespread anger are both symptomatic of the problem created by sterile democratic politics and part of the remedy in order to save democracy from self-destruction. The key question then must be how did democratic politics – particularly in a western context – become so sterile? Answering this question means an intricate understanding of the meaning of politics.

The question of defining politics is a highly contested concept. For myself, the seductive charm of Machiavelli’s The Prince holds some answers about what politics is. The Prince, written during the post-Medici Florentine republic, is a handbook for politicians and their lust for power. As such, The Prince itself contains a paper trail to be followed that leads us to my preferred definition. Politics, therefore, is the art of gaining, retaining and executing power. This conception extends beyond the traditional walls of government and understands politics as a human relation, not just a school of thought practiced by career politicians and academics. It extends to the most basic of interactions: between parents where both a matriarch and a patriarch are established. It exists in social movements and collective action like those seen in the civil rights, feminist and trade union movements. It exists in all societies, including those within the animal kingdom where there is a social structure and a power relation between individuals and entities. “No realm of life is immune to relations of conflict and power”. Politics is more than dirty deals made in the halls of Congress, discussion about whether fox hunting should be banned or deciding whether to vote Christian Democrat or SDP. It is not even a process. It is a naturally occurring human behaviour and the interaction of these behaviours whilst observing a power complex. Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks, describes politics’ first element as a division between “rulers and ruled, leaders and led” and that politics as a concept is based on this “primordial…fact”. Politics is something people do and receive every day and therefore, in some weird yet wonderful way, everyone is a political student and, arguably, an expert in the art of politics.

Scholars and thinkers of various institutions will simply boil down politics and political thought to a social science, a subject to be learned and taught. Yet, how can one be taught if one is already in possession of a partially inherent human feature – the answer is they can’t. Politics is not a subject it is a behaviour and one which all humans are exposed to from birth and in certain aspects born with. Academia and academics simply expose historical exemplifications of political behaviour in the traditional political arenas (the arenas for which some reason political thought and behaviour has been, at least conceptually, confined to).

Individuals cannot be taught inherent and already understood behaviours in educational institutions, that much has been determined. Why then do these institutions teach politics? These intuitions can’t teach politics, but they can enhance the extent to which a person is adept at performing the art of politics. How else are the rulers of society to be formed? Politics is commonly understood, but people are better or worse at performing the artform and as such are purportedly better at running state institutions and distributing resources.

The acquisition and retention of power lead, inevitably, to the execution of power. As such, for those who are skilled in the art of politics, it has been identified that to succeed, political hegemony must be achieved. Hegemony of a political idea is the end game. Not only is it a lasting legacy of one’s ideas, there is also the chance that this may be, as Fukuyama put it, “the end of history” – though history often proves otherwise.

Hegemony defined is quite simply near total and utter domination. Hegemony is a concept which can be transplanted into a multitude of scenarios and schools of thought: the dynasty of a monarch, the concentration of power in the hands of a collective of people or, as this book seeks to explain, the totality of ideas. In the political sense, nobody explains the significance and meaning of the term hegemony better than Gramsci – “man is not ruled by force alone, but also by ideas”; it is an explanation that “few would disagree” with. The domination of ideas over the process of governing, the institutions of the state, the thinking of politicians and the population at large is what could be described as near total and utter domination. Hegemony for many in the political arena is the desired outcome of one’s endeavours – to have a legacy that lasts for what may be an eternity.

If hegemony is the goal, then what better to designate this status to than ideas? Ideas are immortal, unlike humans, and they can be immovable, unlike a totalitarian dynasty. Ideas live on long after their inception and can remain hegemonic for as long as there are those to defend it. Not only do ideas live on, but they confine opponents. Future generations who would have otherwise disagreed with the idea are suddenly born into a world governed by the very principles of that same idea. For the vast majority of society it is hard to look beyond what you have always known (i.e. it is hard to think or espouse an alternative idea). Ideas “are more powerful than is commonly understood” and “the world is ruled by little else”; those “who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves” of those who crafted the idea long ago.

Hegemony of ideas is not just part of history but is the narrative of history. Hegemony of ideas is the determinant of who rules, what they enact and how the social framework runs. Prior to the mid-feudal period the basis of power in society rested solely on the principle of divinity. In this sense the term theocracy can be ascribed to the system of governance found in this period. “Priests…used their positions to monopolise control” and “impose their authority on the rest of society”. Though many were dictators and monarchs, their legitimacy rested near solely on the divine right to rule. If the state religion conscripted to a ruler’s legitimacy then the authority of the ruler was seldom questioned – who, without the privilege of scientific knowledge, can challenge a deity’s choice of ruler? This question itself was answered mid-way through the medieval period – with the enacting of the magna carta in Britain there was a shift in the basis of power from divinity to land; those who held the land, owned the people and subsequently were the rulers of society – this is the feudal system of governance. Since its loss of kingmaker status, religion has been in constant decline, catalysed by the enlightenment, and land remained the hegemonic basis of power right up until the industrial revolution instigated by the growing British Empire. At this point the basis of power shifted from land to capital – the people who had accrued the most wealth would govern society. How would this wealth be accumulated? Through the exploitation of the surplus value of labour. This system, known as capitalism, was born out of the Liberal framework formed by John Locke and Adam Smith and has remained largely domineering over public policy and government behaviour for the last 300 years. Part of capitalism’s success is that it has managed to adopt democracy – literally translated from the Greek ‘demos-kratos’ meaning people power – but maintain the value of capital over the value of the ballot despite constant advances from the Left. Liberalism, and in particular liberal societies which place a strong value on capital, have and never will be compatible with democracy.

The term liberal democracy is, in itself, a juxtaposition of the two terms. Liberalism is the idea that the rights of the individual is central to social governance and that tolerance of other viewpoints is considered central to the values of democracy. Yet, there is a clear disagreement on social governance, political behaviour and the view of human nature between democracy and liberalism. Democracy is the belief that collective action, primarily at the ballot box but also through protest and other forms of participation, can produce an inclusive and diverse means of deciding how society is governed; contrast this with the individualistic principles incorporated into the liberal worldview. Prominent liberals have long advocated rights and their sanctity above any sort of popular engagement and though J.S. Mill advocated women rights of suffrage, he was against working class participation in the political process and even pursued universities receiving an extra MP. This form of elitism, social exclusion and capital orientated politics is synonymous with liberalism but antonymous with democracy. This is part of why the world’s democracies are now seeing open revolt from both the left and the right – the dominant idea of our time isn’t compatible with how the clear majority of the west’s population conceptualises the legitimacy of power. In this sense ideas govern the way we live, who we are and the world we live in. It is therefore essential as people that there is an understanding of how ideas come to be hegemonic and how their hegemony ends.

History shows that there are recurrent periods in which “the old [ideology] is dying and the new cannot be born”. Periods of supposed chaos and unpredictability. When the arena for the battle of ideas is opened. These will be termed flux periods. These points in history – which are recurrent – are the relatively short periods between ideological hegemony where in the wake of the end of the old ideology, there is a battle between two new ones, where the victor will supplant the predecessor. The victor will achieve hegemonic status and will form the foundations from which a new political consensus – the centre ground – can be forged.

The most intense and polarised flux period in recent times is that which existed from the end of the first world war in 1918 right up until the end of the second world war in 1945. This was a period characterised by financial crises, mass deprivation and the breakdown in democracy. Italy was the first to succumb to the fascist wave in 1922 when, after marching on Rome, Benito Mussolini became Italy’s prime minister. Britain itself experienced the growth of fascism with Oswald Mosley establishing the New Party in 1931 – it did not succeed electorally. In Germany the fascists, led by Adolf Hitler, and the communist movement were in an ideological battle with one another – eventually leading to the Nazi party creating a totalitarian government in 1934. With the support of both the Italian and German fascist governments, Spain as well became a dictatorship in 1939 with the nationalist victory in the Spanish Civil War and the installation of Francisco Franco as Caudillo – leader – of Spain. France, after invasion by the militaristic Nazi Germany, adopted fascism under Marshal Petain in 1940.

Meanwhile, in Russia, the implementation of communism through a dictatorship of the proletariat (the working classes) was well underway after the October revolution in 1917. By 1945, the Soviet form of communism had spread to much of eastern Europe – including half of Germany – as well as presiding over some Asian nations such as modern-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Though not adopting communism, the USA did begin its New Deal in 1933; a major diversion from the liberal, federalism established by the nation’s founding fathers. Under the New Deal – which would be similarly implemented in Britain in 1945 – there was an expansion of the federal government with   Between 1918 and 1945, in most western countries there was a battle within the political arena between two polarised ideas.

The first was that of fascism. Fascism is a belief in several things but primarily it is rooted in a form of ultranationalism born out of the belief in a superior race and a craving for strong leaders – hence the trend of fascist states being ruled by dictators. It believes that there is a role for a strong state just like communism and socialism; however, it views this strong state as performing the role of ethnic cleansing, enforcement of radical conservative social policy and also of suppressing opposition to its reign through the creation of a police state where speech, knowledge and, subsequently, opposition is censored in order to create a controlled environment in which opposing ideas struggle to gain momentum – violently enforced hegemony.

The alternative to fascism, a subtler form of socialism which came to be known as social democracy, was in the period of 1945 – 1970 specifically referred to as Keynesian social democracy after the economist John Maynard Keynes. It believes that the state has an important role to play in society – primarily ensuring that the inherent slumps created by the aftermath of capitalist booms can be, at worst softened in magnitude and damage, at best prevented. Essentially, an attempt to use that state to remedy the ill-effects of capitalism whilst keeping the benefits of a market economy. It was much later into the battle than fascism was – by 1940 fascism dominated, through democratic and violent means, most of Europe and North Africa. Social democracy gained its intellectual foundations in 1936 and its adoption in the United States signified a shift in policy of the west. The UK Labour Party adopted Keynesian ideas in the early 1940s, with their vision being emboldened by the Beveridge Report of 1944 which advocated a system of welfare and social security that would be pioneered by the state. With the war won in 1945, the US and UK, who had recently elected the Labour Party, began to consolidate the social democratic victory over fascism with the establishment of the Bretton Woods system of monetary management as well was the initiation of the Marshall Plan to rebuild post-war Europe. From this point forward, the nations of continental Europe – backed by the financial muscle of the American state – began a process of social democratisation in which European states began to introduce state welfare, social security and mass-nationalisation.

This is a flux period: a battle between two political ideas – advanced by collective and individual interests in order to achieve political hegemony and sustained public policy which mirrors the ideological framework which emerges victorious from the flux period. In the 1920s, 30s and early 40s, this flux period was characterised by fascism and social democracy. Between 1970 and 1990, it was characterised by democratic socialist ideas and neoliberalism as envisaged by Fredrich von Hayek. Since 2008 our flux period has seen a battle between radical neo-conservatism and a leftist coalition of, primarily, environmentalists and socialists.

Whilst reading this it is easy to think that what is happening has been explained. Hopefully the book has, so far, amply explained why flux periods happen, why the hegemony of ideas is so coveted by those embroiled in the political struggle and why winning them is so essential to preserving a beneficial society – that is unless you like the idea of a fascist state which one would hope not many readers do. Surely now your attention must be turned to why they happen as opposed to what is happening. To answer, both are intrinsically linked. What is happening is a symptom of why flux periods occur. Earlier it was mentioned that flux periods are a process of revitalisation for the political arena. They are a remedy to remove stagnation within politics and to address the imbalance that occurs in supremacy periods (those periods of hegemony). How? The logic by which parties wins votes changes. Populism comes to dominate the political now in what many are dubbing as ‘the populist moment’.

Populism is often used by those who are of the hegemonic ideology to delegitimise its opponents. Though often its opponents are populists it is not truth to suggest that all opposition to the hegemonic ideology is populist in nature. Populism is not something to be afraid of or to be used as a method of delegitimization. It is actually something that is intrinsic to the restoration of the democratic process and the social fabric. Populism is a political logic, not an ideology. It is transferrable amongst ideologies but certainly it cannot be considered a coherent ideology. Rather it is a methodology for gaining power. Just like during the 1990s many centre-left parties moved to the neoliberal centre ground to win votes, which is a political logic, populism too is a method for gaining votes. It creates a conflict between the people and what is determined to be the elites. This conflict that is constructed taps into a consciousness of anger and exploitation within the elector who then votes for the populist party. Populism, as a methodology, has peaks and troughs in its uptake by parties. Often during supremacy periods populist logic is rarely pursued, but during flux periods, this logic is vindicated by multiple election successes.

Populism can seem scary, but it is in fact a positive thing in the long-term. It realigns democracy in a way that centrism just simply can’t. Populism’s positive influence on the democratic process is reliant on a particular conception of democracy which is being intellectually pioneered by the leftist thinker Chantal Mouffe. Her argument firstly rests on the premise that the current distinction in party politics “is not structured by an antagonism but signals a mere difference in position”. In essence, to the average elector, and one may even suggest to political enthusiasts, the two main parties look identical in politics and personnel. She argues that “politics is by nature partisan” and “it is vital to acknowledge” this fact. By extension democracy must contain an element of rivalry, both in politics and policy, to avoid its own demise in what essentially would become a “confrontation between non-negotiable moral values or essentialist forms of identification”. As such, Mouffe describes a healthy and functioning democracy as an ‘agonistic’ democracy in which there is “a confrontation of democratic political positions” but that opponents are “perceived as legitimate”. This conception of democracy is key to understanding why we live in the ‘populist moment’.

When, in the wake of the neoliberal-democratic socialism flux period, the dominant parties in much of Western Europe and the United States of America adopted the fundamental principles of neoliberalism. The domination of the western party-political system by neoliberal politics and policy led to a race to the ‘centre’ by parties historically of the left and the right. The subsequent abandonment of constituent concerns, traditional values and previous ideological preferences has led to a sense of powerlessness and voicelessness amongst vast swathes of the population – particularly the white, working-class town dwellers and young, metropolitan radicals. This popular sentiment amongst groups of citizens has led to a shift towards what would traditionally be termed as the polarities of politics – the left and the right. The self-same political positions abandoned by dominant parties to win elections. This movement by parties to the ideological centre is consistent with all supremacy periods and is what then generates flux periods and the populism that fixes the democratic process.

In a democratic system, if electors feel like their values or their worldview is not represented by any of the dominant parties they become disenfranchised and apathetic. If this sentiment is sustained for too long, then the populist logic becomes more and more appealing to politicians and parties of the polarities. They can harness this sentiment and utilise it as propulsion to win elections and execute their ideology through their popular mandate. This is the driving force of a flux period, the disenfranchisement created by a stale democracy – brought about by the consensus politics found in supremacy periods – is harnessed by the polarities through the populist logic and catalysed by catastrophe.