I wrote this review essay about the book Posthegemony by my friend and colleague Jon Beasley-Murray over three years ago, for the book launch we had at UBC. I then put it aside hoping to turn it, at some point, into a longer journal article. But, alas, I never found the time. It’s time to share it here.
Jon Beasley-Murray’s Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America is a bold, groundbreaking proposition to abandon the concept of hegemony that may allow us, ironically, to re-politicize our understanding of hegemony by redefining it as an affective formation. Some clues about this direction are on the book’s title, an intriguing one given that this is a work committed to philosophies of affirmation. Posthegemony, after all, is a term that seeks to move beyond, and thereby to negate, “hegemony.” Indeed, Beasley-Murray critically dissects the concept of hegemony in order to shows how its alleged rationalism, its transcendent connotations, and its emphasis on ideology and representation cannot account for the affective, non-representational, and habitual dimensions that are immanent to political forces. And he suggests that we abandon the concept altogether, for we live (always have) in post-hegemonic times. This negative gesture against hegemony is thus articulated as an affirmation of concepts such as affect, immanence, habit, and the multitude. Yet “hegemony” is still on the title. Preceded by the “post,” the concept that is so thoroughly negated in the book is still present, as if Beasley-Murray were drawn to it through a Hegelian sublation that can only (wish to) destroy a concept by preserving it. This oscillation between distancing and incorporation, destruction and appropriation, pervades the entire book and reveals, I propose here, that Posthegemony is, against itself, a call for an affective understanding of hegemony.
Beasley-Murray’s main argument is that we should leave behind transcendent notions of hegemony as limit, pressure, ideological representation, and negation, as something that a transcendent state imposes on “the people” from the distance. He advocates, rather, an immanent, affective, and affirmative approach to politics based on the corporality of multitudes that come together through resonance yet may also resist change through the force of habits. And Beasley-Murray elaborates this approach through a detailed engagement with multiple bodies of literature: cultural studies, civil society theorists, studies of populism, and the work of Baruch Spinoza, Gilles Deleuze, Antonio Negri, and Pierre Bourdieu, among others. More importantly, he grounds his argument on an intricate, impassionate examination of the political-affective terrains of twentieth-century Latin America: the affective resonances that made people support Juan Domingo Perón’s government in Argentina or join the FMLN guerrillas in El Salvador; the elusive, hard-to-represent nature of the Shinning Path guerrillas in Peru; the force of habituation in the resilience of attitudes forged in the Pinochet-era that lingered in post-dictatorship Chile. These historical, political, and conceptual dimensions make of Posthegemony a book of great originality and theoretical importance that is stimulating debates on multiple fronts.
Yet this is also a book that may reinvigorate the concept of hegemony by re-reading it through an affective lens. Beasley-Murray will certainly protest. It is clear that he does not want to revitalize the notion of hegemony at all. Yet in the pages that follow, I suggest that the notion of “affective hegemonies” may allow us to do this: i.e. to reveal the convergence between Beasley-Murray’s argument about affective politics and Gramsci’s understanding of hegemony as a field of contestation that involves, primarily, a struggle to define the contours of dominant forms of common sense.
This is why one of the most fascinating aspects of Posthegemony is Beasley-Murray’s masterful silencing of Gramsci. The book certainly begins by tackling Gramsci head on, naming the name that had to be named. The problem to be deconstructed in the rest of the book is clearly stated at the beginning of chapter one. Gramsci, we are told, says that no power can subsist on “coercion” alone, that domination needs “consensus,” that consensus is the bedrock of politics, and that power relies on violence only as supplement. Gramsci’s theory of hegemony is thereby presented by Beasley-Murray as a theory of “consensus” structured by a neat opposition between consent and coercion. And after being briefly presented in such a way, Gramsci disappears from the text, not to be engaged again in a book devoted to debunking the idea of hegemony once and for all.
As a result, as I was reading Posthegemony I kept looking for Gramsci and kept stumbling upon the cultural studies literature and the work of Ernesto Laclau, who in the text becomes Gramsci’s Argentine ventriloquist. Laclau is in Posthegemony the body through which the absent ghost of Gramsci seems to speak. But is this the voice of Gramsci? While reading the book, I was initially perplexed by this absence. Because Posthegemony is not just any book: it is a very ambitious intellectual project built upon a relentless, thorough, very careful reading of vast bodies of work. Every time Beasley-Murray engages with an author (be it Hall, Laclau, Bourdieu, or Deleuze), he dissects their ideas from the inside out. Gramsci, in contrast, is invoked briefly and in passing. Beasley-Murray read the cultural studies literature so thoroughly that the Gramsci he objects to is the one invoked, largely, in British and North American academia. Could it be that, in not confronting Gramsci, Beasley-Murray was paying oblique homage to the man who first thought about the very problems that Posthegemony seeks to understand?
A brief line in the book hints in that direction. In Chapter one, Beasley-Murray convincingly argues that in order to understand Laclau’s theory of hegemony and his views of populism it is crucial to take into account that he produced those ideas in the Argentina of the 1960s (p. 42). And Beasley-Murray adds in passing, before coming back to Laclau, that the same applies to Gramsci: that his theorization of hegemony was inseparable from his experience as a revolutionary leader and thinker in the fascist Italy of the 1920s and 1930s. This was a remarkable moment in the book, in which Gramsci is briefly evoked in the text to remind us of the political, geographical, and historical terrains that made him write about hegemony. Indeed, this historical and positioning is crucial to understanding Gramsci’s thinking on hegemony. As is well known, his Prison Notebooks were produced under extremely difficult conditions in a fascist prison cell, aggravated by his weak health. And these adverse conditions prompted Gramsci to articulate an affirmative theory of hegemony, evocatively embodied in his emphasis on an “optimism of the will” that could counter the “pessimism of the intellect.”
Gramsci’s primary goal as a revolutionary leader and thinker was to create a socialist hegemony in Italy. Hegemony was for him goal, affirmation, positivity: something to be fought for. The goal of the Italian Communist Party was to persuade the Italian multitudes that communism was the common sense of the subaltern classes through a confrontation that was as political-ideological as it was cultural and tied to what counts as “common sense.” Gramsci was particularly interested in analyzing the failure of the Italian bourgeoisie, relative to other national bourgeoisies in Europe, to create political hegemony in the whole space of the Italian peninsula, which prevented the consolidation of a unified nation-state until the late 1800s. In Gramsci, this expansive view of hegemony took precedence over his own view of hegemony as negation, limit, and constraint. Yet the historical and political conditions under which English-speaking scholars read Gramsci in North America and western Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, in a context of conservative restoration, made them prioritize the latter view of hegemony, as consensus and limit that erodes radical politics.
Beasley-Murray may counter-argue that Gramsci still advocated a conception of hegemony based on ideology and discourse, without looking at the affects and habits that make multitudes resonate (or not). And Beasley-Murray is here partly right. The strength of Posthegemony is its forceful call for an affective understanding of the non-representational forces that make ordinary men and women join certain causes or support particular governments. But I would argue that the rudiments of an affective theory of hegemony are already present in The Prison Notebooks.
First, Gramsci shares with Beasley-Murray a commitment to an immanent understanding of politics that is critical of transcendent reifications. He famously insisted that the philosophy of praxis should be conceived of as an “absolute historicism, the absolute earthliness of thought” and explicitly rejected metaphysical conceptions of materialism removed from historically-grounded, existing social actors (Gramsci 1971 [1929-35]:465, also 450). And while he did not embrace Spinozian notions of affect and the body, he did not reduce hegemony to ideology or to conceptual-discursive representations. For Gramsci, the struggle for hegemony involved contestations over popular culture and, more importantly, common sense. This interest in common sense is particularly important because for Gramsci the struggle for hegemony mobilized not only ideological disputes but also the non-ideological, subterranean, not-fully-conscious subjective terrains that interest Beasley-Murray. The starting point for the philosophy of praxis, wrote Gramsci, “must always be that common sense which is the spontaneous philosophy of the multitude…” (1971 [1929-35]:421). And common sense involved for him the “feeling-passion” that shapes the relationship between rulers and ruled as well as a naturalized view of the world that is “the immediate product of crude sensation” (1971 [1929-35]:418, 420, etc.). These ideas are underdeveloped and often under-theorized. But in arguing that the struggle for hegemony involves a common sense not reducible to consciousness, Gramsci anticipated some of the points made in Posthegemony about the political power of affects and everyday habits.
Additionally, it is important to note that Beasley-Murray’s argument for abandoning the notion of hegemony is very different from the position articulated by other authors who also reject the concept. Derek Sayer, for instance, criticized the idea of hegemony by arguing that people may not challenge the state not because they consent to it but because they are aware of its power to unleash violence and repression. Every state, he concludes, is ultimately founded not on hegemony but on violence (Sayer 1994). Another well-known critique is that of James Scott (1990), who argued that what we call “hegemony” is merely the superficial appearance of consent. For Scott, the oppressed pretend to consent in order to deceive the powerful, presenting a “public transcript” of acquiescence that hides a “hidden transcript” of dissent and critical awareness. Sayer and Scott, in other words, argue that the idea of hegemony is misleading because ordinary people are aware of their oppression and, deep inside, are free subjects. As Tim Mitchell (1990) has argued in his critique of Scott, this perspective assumes the existence of a mind-body dichotomy, in which the bodies that strategically bow down to the powerful are assumed to be autonomous, free-thinking subjects unaffected by domination.
Beasley-Murray’s critique of hegemony, however, does not follow this path. His argument, in fact, is hostile to utilitarian views of political action such as Sayer’s and to the type of neat dualism between “public” and “hidden” transcripts proposed by Scott. Even if he often flirts with the idea that people are, indeed, free and conscious (as we shall see), Beasley-Murray is well aware that subaltern actors are bodily, affectively, and subjectively constituted by formations of power. Unlike Sayer and Scott, and very much like Gramsci, Beasley-Murray is interested in the problem of the creation of political legitimacy or, in his words, the reproduction of “social order”: the subjective constellations that make bodies willingly rally behind a leader, a political cause, or a government. And this is, at heart, what the Gramscian theory of hegemony is all about, even if we may debate the role of discourse, the body, ideology, affect, the working class, or the multitude in it. Beasley-Murray, tellingly, never questions that Peronism was hegemonic in the Argentina of the late 1940s and early 1950s. What he takes issue with are the attempts to explain this hegemony through rationalized, transcendent concepts (ideology, representation, consciousness) that miss the affective nature of this hegemony: the fact that millions of men and women willingly supported President Perón and his wife Evita at an often hard-to-articulate, affective, intuitive, yet powerful level. This is why Beasley-Murray proposes, if against himself, an affective theory of hegemony.
Beasley-Murray may still object that the concept of hegemony is too full of representational baggage to be redefined this way. But I think we still need a concept of this kind to articulate this problem, which is one of the most fundamental in politics. The alternative proposed by Beasley-Murray, post-hegemony, is still very close, a hyphen away, to the term he tries to conjure away. Why not just skip the post and rethink the problem of hegemony along more affective, immanent, non-representational lines?
The reason we still need a variation of the Gramscian idea of hegemony is that, contra Sayer and Scott, throughout history ordinary people have on many occasions willingly and enthusiastically supported the political conditions that kept them dominated. This is the same problem that concerned Spinoza, who famously asked why people would fight for their servitude as if they were fighting for their freedom (2007 :6). Spinoza’s answer was that “men are led more by passion than by reason” and that affects such as fear and hope can, indeed, make people desire the conditions that reproduce their own domination (Spinoza 2000:64). Making explicit their debt to Spinoza, this was the question that Deleuze and Guattari identified in Anti-Oedipus “as the most fundamental problem of political philosophy” and that they tackled in their analysis of fascism. “No, the masses were not deceived, they desired fascism, and this is what has to be explained” (Deleuze and Guattari 1983 :29, 257, my emphasis). In short, Spinoza and Deleuze and Guattari anticipated the concerns articulated in Posthegemony about the affective dimensions of politics but without downplaying the fact that affects fueled by fear can become hegemonic and naturalized as common sense.
Paradoxically, Beasley-Murray draws heavily on Spinoza and Deleuze to develop his argument yet, at the same time, downplays their commitment to examining why social actors may support the actors that oppress them. This positioning is clearly articulated in the very first paragraph of Posthegemony, where Beasley-Murray writes: “There is no hegemony and never has been. We live in cynical, post-hegemonic times: nobody is very much persuaded by ideologies that once seemed fundamental to securing social order. Everybody knows, for instance, that work is exploitation and that politics is deceit” (2010:ix). Beasley-Murray mentions the last phrase (“everybody knows…”) several times in the book. But what is it exactly that people “know” and why would such an “awareness” undermine an affective view of hegemony? Most people in North America, for instance, may know that they are exploited in their alienating jobs and that politicians lie. But many of them also believe that capitalism is the best way of organizing production and that they are free subjects who live in democratic societies. In other words, people may “know” that work is exploitation and politics is deceit but this cynical awareness does not mean that they may not naturalize or support the status quo and thereby contribute to the reproduction of hegemonic dispositions.
Likewise, the fact that “everybody knows that politics is deceit” did not prevent George W. Bush from securing unparallel levels of political legitimacy and support in the United States after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The narrative of the “war on terror” amplified by a powerful media machine indeed became hegemonic, accepted as common sense by millions of Americans. But this was a profoundly affective hegemony, based on the memory of the attacks on 9/11 and the inculcation of fears modulated by the media-state complex (Massumi 2005). The affective, visceral power of this hegemony, in fact, explains its political resilience, and the fact that the American Left failed to undermine it through rational, factual discourses alone: for instance, by arguing that Bin Laden had been supported by the CIA in the 1980s or that the terror attacks were a response to US imperialism in the middle-East. This hegemonic modulation of collective affects certainly lives on under Obama. The fact that in the name of fighting “terrorism” Obama legalized the policy of assassination of US citizens without due process and that this move enjoyed popular support is a case in point. As Glenn Greenwald put it: “From an authoritarian perspective, that’s the genius of America’s political culture. It not only finds ways to obliterate the most basic individual liberties designed to safeguard citizens from consummate abuses of power (such as extinguishing the lives of citizens without due process). It actually gets its citizens to stand up and clap and even celebrate the destruction of those safeguards.” It is precisely to account for attitudes such as this that the notion of hegemony remains crucial.
We are therefore back at the problem that Spinoza, Deleuze and Guattari, and Gramsci identified as constitutive of politics. The sections of Posthegemony that emphasize the “cynical awareness” that allegedly defines mainstream subjectivities seem unable to explain these willing, non-cynical forms of support for state power and domination. Yet in other sections of the book, Beasley-Murray moves in a different direction, acknowledging the forces that constrain people’s willingness to support radical change and, therefore, the type of problems that made Gramsci write about hegemony.
One of the most original contributions of Posthegemony to an affective theory of hegemony is Beasley-Murray’s re-conceptualization of Bourdieu’s notion of habit. And in contrast to other parts of the book, the sections on habit reveal that Beasley-Murray is well aware that relations of power constitute social subjects and that these subjects may contribute to reproducing their own domination over time. And he turns to Bourdieu to try to explain this attitude, arguing that not-fully-conscious forms of bodily habits (“affects at a standstill”) make people resist abrupt changes. “Old habits die hard” (p. 178). This analysis is developed in the chapter on Chile, in which Beasley-Murray examines how the transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1990s was notably measured and conservative in contrast to other countries in Latin America, with the military (including the senator-for-life Augusto Pinochet) retaining key positions of power. Beasley-Murray’s examination of habitual forces in the reproduction of political legitimacy provides us with an insightful and in fact fundamental theoretical tool to examine affective hegemonies; but it also reveals something that Beasley-Murray disavows: the labor of the negative. The Chilean case, in this regard, reveals that the force of habits can, indeed, constrain and negate the possibility of radical political change.
Affective hegemonies, in this regard, not only produce subjectivities but also limit the possibility of imagining alternative futures. Affirmative notions of hegemony, in other words, also need to account for the negativity that is immanent to politics and collective struggles. As Benjamin Noys (2010) has argued, the recent popularity of theories of affirmation in the humanities (of which Posthegemony is a major expression) has led to an unfortunate dismissal of notions of negativity that are fundamental to account for the destructive-constraining power of capital and the state as well as for the negation of the status quo by critical and potentially revolutionary action. An affirmative theory of hegemony, in other words, should account for the negativity of politics, not as abstract negation or as reactive force but as a moment in the creative-disruptive generativity that is constitutive of fields of confrontation (see also Coole 2000).
And the same way that an affective theory of hegemony needs to avoid a dualism between affirmation and negation, it also requires overcoming a rigid counterpoint between affect and consciously articulated discourses. While Posthegemony puts forth a compelling, persuasive argument about the political power of affects, it often seems to suggest that the latter are divorced from discourse, representation, and conscious forms of ideology. In one of the many moments in which Beasley-Murray presents this dichotomy, for instance, he writes, “Peronism shows that populist politics are structured by habit, rather than belief” (2010: 63). But why should habit exclude belief? The history of Peronism in Argentina, in fact, reveals that the two dimensions have been entangled, and that for millions of men and women their conscious endorsement of Peronist social reforms and ideological slogans (i.e. their “belief” in particular narratives about the nation, the state, and “the people”) was inseparable from their affective, visceral, intuitive, habitual support for Perón’s and Evita’s legacy. While notions of ideology as false consciousness or utilitarian manipulation are certainly too crude, “ideology” is still a heuristically important concept to examine the legitimizing power of certain conceptual and affective formations. Another example is the narrative on “the war on terror” in the United States, which while engaging the public at affective, not-fully-conscious levels has ideological dimensions linked to the legitimization of imperial violence overseas and of increasing surveillance at home. In short, the power of an affective notion of hegemony lies precisely in its capacity to examine how affect, habit, and ideological narratives come together to legitimize and naturalize particular relations of power.
There is much more that could be said about Posthegemony, a book that in its conceptual, political, and historical breadth defies summary. But there is no doubt that Beasley-Murray has written a groundbreaking book that will survive academic fashions and shape debates in years to come, for it persuasively and originally challenges us to re-think older paradigms through a new conceptual lens. In Posthegemony, this exercise in critical thinking is not just a theoretical gesture but a bold call to reinvent radical politics through an affective and immanent examination, despite the book’s declared goals, of the ongoing political salience of Gramsci’s explorations of “hegemony.”
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