Exodus and Counter-Economics, Part 3.2: From Class Theory to Hegemony


Bellum omnium contra omnes

In many models of the body politic, a threefold division of ‘domains’ often suggested as a means of parsing out the distinctive way that power operates in accordance with the different functions that mark post-Enlightenment society. These are, of course, the public sector (the apparatuses and agencies of government), the private sector (business), and civil society (the portions of society outside the public and private sector, consisting of organizations, associations, churches, unions, so on and so forth). In liberalism’s managerial discourse the social itself is approached in a manner akin to a ‘three-legged stool’, where each leg is one of these divisions; for liberals, equal strength in each form a sound and stable structure.

The process of stabilization pursued by the agents of power must push back constantly at a foaming sea of conflicts that rip through each of these domains. Tension is constant: we can tensions between elements in the public sector (examples ranging from the clash of political parties to the competition between agencies for funding), tensions between elements in the private sector (the ruthless competition between capitalists within and outside their given industries), and tensions between elements in civil society. The tensions, more often than not, cut across all through: we see alignments and alliances form between certain elements in the public and private sectors (such as Domhoff’s classic schema of different capitalist interests propping up different divisions within the state). Similarly, we see alignments and alliances between elements in the public sector and civil society (a Koch brother at the Cato Institute or a Soros at the Center for American Progress, for examples) and alliances between civil society and the public sector (the close-knit relationship between, say, a religious organization or a labor union between one party or another). Quite often even those mutual tensions will cut deeper across another still.

In other words, we’re left with a complex picture in which the public and private sectors and civil society descend into a battlefield of competing interests. This messes with the Rothbardian image of the state, which positions that state, encompassing both formal governance and special interests on one side, and free capitalism on the other. If we take the unfolding of relations to be operating in such a way and extrapolate Rothbard’s treatment, then the entity of the “state” encompasses a multitude of vectors, frequently with elements that are operating in contradiction to one another. Thus Rothbard’s state comes to merely mirror that of Marx: a plateau on which tension-wrecked relationships play themselves out. The durability of a Rothbardian analysis needs to equip itself with the real complexity that comes quickly into focus when analyzing the dynamics of power.

A more interesting thing to do would be to look at what promotes stability within what at first glance appears as a Hobbesian war of all against all. How does stability insert itself, despite the cascading factionless tearing through the corridors of power? More importantly, how does such a fragmented system maintain, despite its embattled nature, its basic form, and maintain the veneer of legitimacy over “truths” such as the sanctity of the state’s territorial claim, the ontological doctrine of capitalism, and the legal frameworks of private property rights? In other words, if the state is the tableau on which these relations play out, how does this tableau not simply disintegrate? To answer this, we can turn to the theory of hegemony, as posed by the Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci.


The term “hegemony” was commonly understood as the domination of one group by another – most specifically, the colonial domination of one state or region by an external power. Through Gramsci’s analysis, however, that common understanding shifted to the one with which we are more familiar with today: the pervasive and often imperceptible way in which consent is organized. The power of hegemony, writes Rebecca Fisher,

results from the ability to limit or repress the imagination of the possible or even conceivable, thereby facilitating the implementation of policies and systems which may otherwise be deeply unpopular, and the incorporation, recuperation, and neutralisation of forms of politics which might otherwise have remained fundamentally oppositional… collective internalisation of the ‘truth’ of the ‘democratic’ nature of capitalism and its destiny to engender the best possible life for all, can limit [anti-capitalist] struggles, and heavily circumscribe their political intent, when they do emerge. (Fisher, Managing Democracy, Managing Dissent: Capitalism, Democracy, and the Organisation of Consent, pgs. 4-5)

This articulation of “hegemony” first appeared in Gramsci’s so-called Prison Notebooks, written during an imprisonment by fascist forces in the 1920s. From his cell he looked out across the Atlantic, to America, where radical transformations were taking place inside the walls of the factory. During the 1910s Fordism had become the defining characteristic of production. The younger cousin of Taylorist ‘scientific management’, Fordism relied on a stark division of labor between intrusive shop-floor managers and radically de-skilled workers, whose labor was no longer one of interaction within general purpose tools ala craft production; it was now specialized tools to be wielded in a site-specific context – the context, of course, being a fixed point on the assembly line. Under Fordism production expanded rapidly, necessitating wider transformations in society itself: higher wages, advertising, certain regimes dedicated to the management of sexuality, indulgences and leisure by way of moralizing, psychoanalysis, so on and so forth.

On one hand, Fordism appears a new form of control and domination by the capitalist class. On the other hand, it aims to ‘manipulate and rationalize’ society itself (Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks, pg. 561). Fordism engenders a whole new approach to the world, seeking to collapse together the orientation of civil society with that of the dominant class, and by way of this veritable world-building secure consent for their activities.

Fordism is but one example of hegemony in action. The relations that produce hegemony are organic – for example, “Industrial technicians and managers are ‘organically’ bound to capitalist entrepreneurs.” (Peter Ives, Language and Hegemony in Gramsci, pg. 76) By want of the way production is organized in a certain stage of development, the existence of industrial technicians, managers, technocrats, whatever, is unavoidable. These figures in turn play the role of intellectuals, not in the sense they are bookish and inclined to philosophy, but because “they all organize ideas and present ways of understanding the world that are adopted by others.” Hegemony, thus, can take on the character of a sort of ‘common sense’, even if it is malleable, plastic, and the result of certain relations of power.

In Gramsci’s extrapolation, hegemony is what links the state and civil society through the web of tensions. Like Rothbard, Gramsci’s notion of the state extends past the mere structures of government itself – yet the theory is precisely the opposite of the libertarian, who as recounted earlier located the state in the junction of the state and certain private interests. The Gramscian state is the overlapping unity of two spheres: civil society and political society. We can relegate Rothbard’s understanding of the state to the Gramscian notion of political society, and in doing so open up “libertarian class theory” to a wider set of concerns and functions.

It is also clear that hegemonic shifts occur periodically, following in the wake of economic restructuring and with an implicit shifting of intellectual attitudes towards the system itself. The sort of managerial class that formed in the core of industrial production, for example, found its external compliment in the greater drive to manage society, particularly under the guise of “progressivism”. The so-called ‘New Class’ of progressive technocrats took on many forms, ranging from Thorstein Veblen’s “soviet of engineers” to President Herbert Hoover’s own emphasis on engineering to various intertwined social crusades that occurred throughout early 1900s, such as the “social hygiene”, “efficiency” and Taylorist movements. In the wake of World War 2, the archetype of the engineer morphed into that of the technician and was complimented by the social scientist and the policy scientist. During the Kennedy administration these aspects came together to fully shape the contours of domestic and international governing structures; everything from welfare programs to budgetary planning to the Vietnam War itself came dressed in the language of “systems analysis”, developed in the halls of the RAND Corporation and other think-tanks. (For an exploration of this turn in managerialism, S.M. Amadae’s Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism and Paul Edward’s The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America are both excellent and complimentary reads)

The hegemonic function engineer, the technician, the social scientist, and the policy scientist all underwent a transformation as the ‘developed world’ moved from the mass production paradigm to one of post-industrialization and (partial) de-industrialization. Daniel Bell, himself one of the most esteemed social scientists of the 1950s and 60s, was among the first to identify the changing identity of the New Class by looking towards the way that technological changes in the field of occupations led a transformation in the field of education. Writing as the radically left-wing students movements exploded across not only the United States but the world, Bell suggested that the university itself would come to take the position formerly occupied by the factory as the center of social relations. Taking their cue from theorists like Bell, later thinkers and actors operating in the Autonomist tradition would turn their focus to the university the same way that they had earlier approached the factory (see, for example, Gerald Raunig’s Factories of Knowledge, Industries of Creativity).

Hegemony and the Cycles of Struggle

The Autonomist’s presentation of the “cycle of struggles” fits quite snuggly into the Gramscian theory of hegemony, and can provide a good perspective on how hegemony is reconfigured as sweeping transformations in the productive sectors (and by extension, the social) take place from time to time. In their analysis, the workerists and Autonomists began to dissect the nuances of worker’s struggles. When organizing into a collectivity, the autonomous workers carry out a composition of class that was capable of challenging capitalism’s organizations of production and labor. Capitalism, in turn, must re-act by carrying out a process of decomposition: since it requires labor, the system “cannot entirely destroy its antagonist” and so it must put into play new organizational forms, new technologies, and new techniques that disrupt the possibilities of this composition. At the same time, these new organizations, technologies, and techniques open up new ‘possibility spaces’ for struggle, leading the worker’s movement to undergo recomposition and thus restart the process. This movement of composition to decomposition to recomposition and back again is the cycle of worker’s struggles – an ever-shifting borderland of autonomy and control.

A brilliant example of this is that stage of capitalist development already identified by Gramsci as embodying a certain hegemonic formation – Fordism. Prior to Fordism was the era of what the Autonomists referred to as the “professional worker”, that is, the era of craftsmen who generally controlled their means of production (even though this reality was shrinking away). In the United States the radical nature of the professional worker’s struggle through institutions like the Knights of Labor and later the Industrial Workers of the World led to a close relationship between labor unions and the Socialist Party, with the purpose of this unity being “built around the concept of the worker’s management of industrial production.” (Nick Dyer-Witherford Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High Technology Capitalism, pg. 147) Fordism, with its partial automation and the enclosing of the worker’s agency by a rote process overseen by Taylorist-style technocrats, amounted to a profound blockage to the organized strength of that particular class composition.

The “Early Fordist” decomposition, of course, led directly to a recomposition – that of the “mass worker”, capable of disrupting the mass production process and organizing in large-scale unions such as the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and the United Auto Workers (UAW). This new composition revealed its power with events like the Flint, Michigan sit-down strikes of 1936-1937 – but the resultant forces of restructuring ushered in the “Late Fordist” hegemon, exemplified by the New Deal “class compact” between labor and management. This is the form that would persist until the crises of the late 60s and the polymorphous forms of revolt and insurrection they engendered, themselves setting the stage for the global restructuring under the neoliberal paradigm.

Processes similar to the cycle of struggles can be traced through ideological lens that blur the division between the state and the university. Take “modernization theory”, that framework for global development that appeared in the 1950s and 60s as the mirror-image of the preoccupations of Late Fordism. Modernization theory posed that if one was to set into motion certain variables in a given society, that society would experience a ‘take-off’ resulting in an evolution towards a Westernized affluent society. Developed by the technocratic social and political scientists in the halls of the universities and think-tanks linked to the Cold War establishment, modernization theory became the justification for neo-colonialism spanning the globe, from interventions in Latin and South America and the military excursions in Southeast Asia.

As the New Left pushed back against the Cold War establishment in the 1960s and 70s, modernization theory came under fire from radicals in the universities. Inspired by elements in Marxism and anti-colonial struggles, this assault came under the guise of “dependency theory”, which itself can be divided into two strands:

The first is the American-Marxist tradition developed by Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy, and André Gunder Frank, with important ramifications in the works of Theotônio Dos Santos, Marini, Anibal Quijano, and Bambirra. The second dependency tradition is the Latin American structuralist school that builds on the work of Raúl Prebisch, Celso Furtado, and Anibal Pinto at the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC,or CEPAL), and also on Marxist historian ssuch as Sergio Bagú and Caio Prado Júnior; this structuralist approach is best represented by Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Enzo Faletto, Maria da Conceição Tavares, José Serra,J. M. Cardoso de Mello, Osvaldo Sunkel, and Francisco Oliveira. One should note that the American-Marxist and Latin-American-structuralist dichotomy does not mean that only American Marxists contributed to the former because, as it is clear, Latin Americans did as well, or that only Latin American structuralists contributed to the latter because Marxists also participated. (Matias Vernegro “Technology, Finance, and Dependency Theory: Latin American Radical Political Economy in Retrospect”)

Unpacking the differences between each strand is beyond our focus here, but it is important to note that each set emphasized the “core” and “periphery” relationship in the world system, highlighting in tow the way that the developed world systematically exploits the underdeveloped world. This exploitation can be traced out in movements of elements in this system: technology and capitalist developmental paradigms flow from the developed world to the underdeveloped, for example, while capital (or in the more Marxian register, surplus value) flows back to developed world. Under colonial, neo-colonial, and modernization-based practices and discourses, the core and periphery relationship becomes a permanently uneven playing field; if development occurs, it is simply ‘the development of underdevelopment’.

Nicholas Guilhot has demonstrated how dependency theory, during the great period of global restructuring that was the 1970s, came to be recuperated by former adherents to modernization theory. A picture-perfect example of this capture was the Ford Foundation administrator who insisted that by funding and working with scholars who are “socialist in their political orientation”, Washington bureaucrats might be able to “diagnose what went wrong with reforms grounded in the liberal worldview, a perspective that by definition avoids recognition of power and conflict and is thus unable to explain its failure.” (Quoted in Guilhot The Democracy Makers: Human Rights and the Politics of Global Order, pg. 126) The result was the study of ‘democratic transitions’ and a corollary ‘democratic peace theory’, which unlike modernization theory, opened up a way towards political and economic intervention that appeared as egalitarian and humanitarian.

For scholars like William Robinson, this transition from modernization to democracy marks a shift in how control operates on the transnational stage. Just as how Gramsci’s theory of hegemony emphasized how linkages would be formed between actors in different positions of power to provide a ‘concrete’ model for consent, Robinson has suggested that the foreign policy of “democracy promotion” is, in fact, the promotion of “polyarchy” – the fostering of elite rule by way of democratic mechanisms in the targeted country. Linkages between these domestic elites and those on the international stage would, in turn, produce a harmonious set of relations equitable to the expansion of capital. To quote Robinson:

In the past, the US state promoted authoritarianism as the political system judged most appropriate for the free operation of international capital, and in this way functioned as what sociologists James Petras and Morris Morley refer to as the “imperial state”, promoting and protecting the expansion of capital across state boundaries by the multi-national corporate community. Under globalization the “imperial state” still plays the same role of promoting and protecting the activity of transnational capital, but globalizing pressures have inverted the positive correlation between the investment climate and authoritarianism. Now, a country’s investment climate is positively related to the maintenance of a “democratic” order, and the “imperial state” promotes polyarchy in place of authoritarianism. But this shift required a corresponding reconceptualization of the principle target in intervened countries, from political to civil society, as the site of social control. (Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony, pg. 68)