The very name of the seminar “Political Mindsets – Development of Political and Cultural Hegemony in Conjunction with the Crisis – New Challenges Posed to the Left”, which was held in Paris last September, invited us to think about “hegemony” and, more exactly to interpret the European elections (in Greece, Denmark, Spain, etc.) as confirming neoliberal hegemony.
This would assume that these elections themselves are a direct translation of the domination of these countries’ populations by neoliberal ideas, rather than representing, as I tend to think, a deformed and momentary refraction of the balance of power there.
I would like very briefly to question the pertinence of this notion of hegemony as applied to neoliberalism. To this end, I will distinguish between two meanings: one positive and one negative.
The positive meaning undoubtedly leads us to the idea forged by Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks. The essential merit of this notion was to counter a perfunctory notion of bourgeois class domination prevalent in the 1930s, even among Marxists, which reduced it to nothing other than the use of repression. For Gramsci, the bourgeoisie maintains its domination by exerting political leadership of those whom it dominates, which is expressed as “pure collaboration” – that is, “an active and free consent” of those dominated. Through this notion, Gramsci contributed to relaxing, if not completely overcoming, the alternative “consent or coercion” or even “freedom or domination”. Repression and coercion operate as complements to free consent and do not replace it, so that there is, simultaneously, both “consent and coercion”.
The negative meaning, although not much theorised, is no less widespread today in a more or less diffuse way in the left, in the broadest sense of the term. In what way is it negative? To the extent that it implies, first and foremost, the absence of an intellectual alternative to neoliberalism. Resorting to this concept then allows drawing the bitter conclusion of the persistence of neoliberal hegemony. The latter does not prevail due to the intrinsic superiority of its doctrines but because of the lack of an alternative ideology or counter-culture capable of exerting sufficient attraction on people’s minds and spirits to overthrow neoliberal hegemony.
If we favour the first meaning, we will conclude that, since at least the autumn of 2008, the date of the beginning of the “financial” crisis on a world scale, there has been an open crisis in neoliberal hegemony and we would interpret the results of these elections as confirmations of this diagnosis.
If, on the other hand, we accept the second meaning, we would then conclude that this hegemony’s perpetuation is due to the lack of a credible intellectual alternative. The two meanings are not, in principle, mutually exclusive. We could maintain that there is a crisis of neoliberal hegemony and that this is being prolonged by the absence of a credible alternative to neoliberalism. In this case, however, what happens to the notion of “an active and free consent”? The simple absence of an alternative doctrine is not enough to produce active consent or pure collaboration from those who are dominated. The notion of “hegemony” then loses any positivity and a major part of its critical point: dominant ideas would only dominate by default.
In any case, whether we stress the loss of credibility of neoliberal ideas or the absence of a credible intellectual alternative, we end up sharing the same presupposition: neoliberalism is, above all, a matter of domination by ideas, because it is, in itself, a doctrine or an ideology. Consequently, the struggle against it must be focused on the field of ideas. We are calling for the drafting of a new utopia, or the re-activation of old ones, either to create a new hegemony or to overthrow the existing one.
Neoliberalism is certainly an economic doctrine that recommends privatisation; it has also been, for the last thirty years, an economic policy that strove to translate such a doctrine into real facts. Still, it is above all a new manner of governing individuals, which emerges from a certain logic and from practices, and not just from the dominance of ideas: governing is not so much a matter of exerting pressure to impose one’s will on others as it is one of “indirect conduction”, of what Foucault called “the conduct of conduct”. This presupposes actively playing on the area of freedom left to individuals to get them to conform to certain standards of their own accord. In other words, it is no longer a matter of governing against freedom but rather through it and thanks to it, given that by “freedom” we do not mean “free will” but the fact that the actor can choose between several possibilities in a given situation.
The term “governance” has the advantage of meaning a new way of governing people, in no way to be confused with the action of government in the sense of the institution that governs the state – a way that standardises, from inside, individual “conduct”, both of those governing and the governed. What is essential is not the intellectual adhesion on the part of individuals to the norms, nor their active and voluntary consent, but the constraint on the choice of individuals due to situations deliberately built to produce this effect. It is thus easy to see that the “coercion-or-freedom” alternative is no longer adequate for describing neoliberal governance, any more than the “domination or consent” alternative – not because there is both domination and consent, as Gramsci would like us to see, but because there is a governance of individuals by putting them into a situation determined by the logic of competition.
If a crisis of neoliberal governance emerged in the autumn of 2008, this did not mean the “end of neoliberalism” as certain analysts somewhat hastily thought, falling into the trap of declarations on the recourse to “state guarantees”. On the contrary, we see that the crisis was exploited by the ruling classes to strengthen the disciplinary mechanisms after a period (from February to September 2009) when it seemed possible that the states would take control vis-à-vis the banks, such that we saw a radicalisation of neoliberalism. Within the space of just two years there has been an almost complete about turn: At first the crisis was invoked so as not to repeat the former shifting of responsability; after this it was used as a lever to reinforce neoliberal policies. This about turn and instrumentalisation did more than a little to open the eyes of many citizens.
The Greek example shows how debt blackmail has been turned into a method of governing. A state is placed in a situation of chronic indebtedness by lending money at a very low rate of interest to states which themselves lend money at a high rate of interest to the indebted state. The settling of these loans is increasingly made conditional on the implementation of plans that sink the country in a vicious circle of increasing indebtedness and recession that feed on each other so that voters are finally called on to vote for parties who are committed to austerity programmes or else they will be refused the financial aid that has been promised them. In other words, the citizens are urged to vote “responsibly” while warning them that they will no longer receive this aid if they vote “badly”. (We should remember the statements by Fabius before the June elections). In such conditions, the fact that people voted Conservative or PASOK so as to remain in the Eurozone did not as such imply their active consent or support for the austerity programme, not to mention neoliberal ideology.
The election results on a European scale, therefore, seem to me to express an imbalance between the increasingly broad awareness of the harmful character of the government in office, or even of capitalism as such, and the absence of a left political alternative in terms of concrete government action. The question therefore is: How can we overcome this distortion?
We must begin by listening to the question many voters address to the radical left: “if they get into office wouldn’t they behave exactly like all the others?” We have to deal with this question to the extent that it brings us up a weakness of the left, which is not mainly of an “ideological” sort, contrary to what one is given to understand when it is viewed in terms of “hegemony”.
This does not mean neglecting the field of the battle of ideas – far from it. It is a matter of linking this battle of ideas to the confrontation between actual practices, the better to have our intellectual contestation of neoliberalism proceed from a practical contestation. Let us take an example very much in the news: the controversy between the supporters of protectionism and the free-trade dogmatists. We have here a tired opposition that has been continually reactivated and replayed in various ways since the capitalist crisis of the 1890s. Because of the crisis, some people busy themselves today lending it a new relevance, in particular by appealing to feelings of “economic patriotism”. It would be disastrous for the radical left to adopt such a position for at least two reasons. First it would imply that neoliberalism is identical with free trade, which is an extreme simplification impeding us from showing the direct role of states in installing it and perpetuating it (starting with the liberalising of finance). Then it would be strengthening the traditional prerogative of the state as the locus of combat against neoliberalism, thus consecrating and intensifying the governing class’s monopoly of political initiative; instead of this we should be working to strike at the heart of this monopoly by encouraging new practices of self-government by the governed. However, this is only possible if we encourage such practices – right now and on an international scale. For this we need a “new internationalism”, capable of opposing emancipatory practices to those of neoliberal government.