Violence and coercion have driven the establishment and expansion of capitalism from its start, and continue to be an indispensable glue holding together what has become a world economic system. Yet no level of brutality can itself keep a system, or any ruling structure, in place for a long period of time, much less for centuries, unless there is some level of cooperation.
That cooperation must rest, at least partially, on belief. Why did so many people in the past believe that God picked one family to rule in perpetuity? Lack of education played no small part here but, whatever the reason, that peasants did believe helped keep monarchs on thrones. Today, with education so much more available, such a belief would be laughed at. Ideology accordingly must be much more sophisticated. There are no dynasties at the head of modern capitalist countries, nor even single political parties or groupings.
Black Lives Matter supporters inside Minneapolis City Hall on December 3, 2015, after an early morning raid and eviction of demonstrators occupying the space outside the Minneapolis Police Department’s 4th Precinct, following the police shooting death of Jamar Clark. (photo by Tony Webster)
But here we must distinguish between governing and ruling. Presidents, prime ministers and governors may govern for set periods of time, giving way to new officials, but these men and women do only that: govern. They manage the government on behalf of the dominant social forces within their borders, and those dominant social forces are in turn, depending where on the international capitalist pecking order the governed space lies, connected to and/or subordinate to more powerful social forces based elsewhere.
It is capitalists — industrialists and financiers — who actually rule. The more power capitalists can command, the more effectively they can bend government policy and legislation to their preferred outcomes. More aspects of human life are steadily put at the mercy of “market forces.” Those are not neutral, disinterested mechanisms sitting loftily above the clouds, as the corporate media incessantly promotes. Rather, market forces are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. Thus capitalist fundamentalism is telling us that a handful of exceedingly powerful industrialists and financiers should decide social and economic matters; that wealth automatically confers on them the right to dominate society.
Is this so different from feudal beliefs in monarchs? Without significant numbers of people believing that the rule of capitalists is just and as natural as the tides of the ocean, capitalism would not endure. When people ceased to believe in monarchs, that system of rule crumbled. Feudalism was of human construction. Everything of human construction comes to an end.
Capitalism, another human construction, is no different. But as a global downturn stretches into its eighth year with no end in sight, as the period of stagnation, and associated cuts to wages and mounting inequality, is now measured in decades, belief in capitalism is becoming more difficult to sustain. Even that old bogey word, “socialism,” is losing its talismanic ability to stifle thinking about alternatives; among young adults in particular socialism is gaining attraction.
Counterposing new ideas for old beliefs
But let us not indulge in wishful thinking. Capitalism is as strong as ever today. Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” looms large in the popular psyche. For countless millions, capitalism is indistinguishable from society; being without it would be like a fish trying to live outside water. That a furious and never-ending propaganda barrage is necessary to maintain this is not in dispute. That it is still commonly believed is what matters here. Capitalism is what people know and belief that anything else would be worse widespread. Until that belief is broken down — through persuasion and, most likely in bigger portion, an economic breakdown serious enough to compel people to confront their deteriorating living conditions — capitalism will be nearly impossible to dislodge.
Thus belief is a material force, if a sufficient number of people hold that belief. I recently had my attention drawn to an interesting article published on the Waging Nonviolence web site (tip of the hat to regular commenter Alcuin) that discussed a couple of seemingly unrelated events in Uganda. The article’s title, “Did grandmothers kill a government minister, nonviolently?,” asks a provocative question. The incidents in question here center on a group of grandmothers who stripped naked while blocking a road to prevent two government ministers and their convoys from seizing communal lands on behalf of an “investor.”
One of the two ministers died in a plane crash soon afterward. Was this an accident? Was it caused by the minister’s rumored falling out of favor with Uganda’s strong-willed president? Or, as the Waging Nonviolence article discusses, was it because of those grandmothers’ form of protest? The article’s author, Phil Wilmot, wrote, “the idea of a cultural omen or curse killing someone was hard to conceive.” He recounts his discussion of the death of the first minister, General Aronda Nyakairima, with a group of local activists:
“In November, I was participating in a training of activists in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. One young man was present who had organized [the grandmothers] and their community on that April day. Our group dialogue deviated from its intended path, and we found ourselves discussing the incident and its alleged relationship to Aronda’s death.
‘How many of you believe that Aronda died because he was poisoned by the government?’ I asked. A few hands rose.
‘How many of you believe that Aronda died because the women of Amuru stripped naked?’
‘Phil, we are Africans. Of course we believe that’s why he died,’ interjected activist Hamidah Nassimbwa, speaking on behalf of the mostly well-educated group. The majority of the room raised their hands to concur that Aronda’s fatality originated in Amuru in April.”
Beliefs in omens or curses are found in virtually every culture. The point isn’t where these believers are from or what culture they live in, but that these beliefs can have a material effect. The sight of the protesting grandmothers was enough to induce enough fear that high representatives of a government who could have easily used lethal force against them instead fled, and that the protestors’ action had further consequences in many minds. (The other minister subsequently lost his seat in the next election.) These are beliefs that likely arose organically in the distant past, and have survived into a time when science rather than magic or religious belief explains natural phenomenons or social interactions.
The hegemony of ideas that serve elites
How more powerful are beliefs that are intentionally inculcated by elites to maintain themselves in a position of power? Tsars and kings proclaimed they were representatives of God, and fear of divine wrath surely played a significant role in monarchal longevity, no matter how much violence was inflicted on those who stepped out of line. Belief works in the same way today, even if for a different ruling structure.
Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony” is useful to understand this concept. A definition found on the Marxist Archives web site provides this summation:
“Hegemony is a class alliance by means of which one, leading [hegemonic] class assumes a position of leadership over other classes, in return guaranteeing them certain benefits, so as to be able to secure public political power over society as a whole. … The term was … popularised by Antonio Gramsci who demonstrated that every nation state requires that some class is able to establish a hegemony capable of unifying the nation and resolving its historical problems. Gramsci posed the problem of the working class in Italy in terms of the need for the Italian workers, especially in the industrialised North, to understand the problems of the Southern peasantry and make the demands and aspirations of the Southern peasants their own, while refusing any corporatist bloc with the Northern industrial bourgeoisie.”
Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks, himself wrote:
“The capitalist entrepreneur creates alongside himself the industrial technician, the specialist in political economy, the organizer of a new culture, of a new legal system, etc. … If not all entrepreneurs, at least an elite amongst them must have the capacity to be an organizer of society in general, including all its complex organism of services, right up to the state organism, because of the need to create the conditions most favorable to the expansion of their own class; or at least they must possess the capacity to choose the deputies (specialized employees) to whom to entrust this activity of organizing the general system of relationships external to the business itself.”
A result of this “social hegemony” is:
“The ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.”
Capitalist ‘freedom’ can only be a formal freedom
Because in advanced capitalist countries there is formal democracy rather than an open dictatorship, it is easy to lose sight of where power derives and therefore the limits of formal democracy. In a series of lectures collected in his book The Unfinished Revolution: Russia, 1917-1967, the great historian Isaac Deutscher said:
“[I]n bourgeois society [freedom] can be a formal freedom only. Prevailing property relations render it so, for the possessing classes exercise an almost monopolistic control over nearly all the means of opinion formation. The working classes and their intellectual mouthpieces manage to get hold of, at best, marginal facilities for social and political self-expression. Society, being itself controlled by property, cannot effectively control the State. All the more generously is it allowed to indulge in the illusion that it does so. … Capitalism could afford to enfranchise the working classes, for it could rely on its economic mechanism to keep them in subjection; the bourgeoisie maintains its social preponderance even when it exercises no [direct] political power.” [page 106]
Even allowing for the rise of the Internet, and the better ability for dissenting news and viewpoints to be circulated (Deutscher wrote those words a half-century ago), it is indisputable the corporate media remains dominant and allows only a narrow range of perspectives to be given a hearing. The very competitive nature of mass media ownership helps dominant ideologies prevail — if so many different outlets report the same news item in a nearly identical way, that “spin” can easily gain wide acceptance. Or if stories are reported differently by competing media outlets, but with the same dominant set of presumptions underlying them, those dominant presumptions, products of ideologies widely propagated by elite institutions, similarly serve as ideological reinforcement.
Anti-war demonstrators in London, September 2002
(photo by William M. Connolley)
In a society where the state owns and controls the media, it is easy to disregard what is disseminated as all emanating from a single source, even when there is scope for differing opinions. In capitalist countries, the profusion of private ownership (even though increasingly concentrated into a few corporations) gives the appearance of competing multiple perspectives. Extremist, mad-dog outlets like Murdoch newspapers or Fox News do no more than provide reinforcement for maleducated holders of extremist viewpoints and conspiracy theories.
Public opinion is shaped by repetition, and not repetition in a handful of obviously biased publications or networks, but rather repetition of viewpoints, reporting angles and underlying themes and assumptions, across the entire corporate media.
An array of institutions to convey one basic message
There are a vast array of institutions, including corporations, “think tanks,” schools and armed forces, to suffice a society with the viewpoints of the dominant, which in a capitalist society are its industrialists and financiers. The admonishment that everything — including schools and especially government — should be “run like a business” is pervasive. This propaganda does not fall out of the sky; its seeming pervasiveness flows from the ability of capitalists to disseminate their viewpoints through a variety of institutions, those they directly set up and control, and those starved of funds that in an era of deepening austerity increasingly must accept corporate money to make up for the loss of state support.
Something as fundamental as who generates the wealth of society, and how wealth is generated, is obscured as part of this process of opinion formation. It can’t be otherwise, for this is the building block on which capitalist ideology rests. Incessant spin claims that profit is the result of the acumen of the capitalist and the capitalist’s magical ability to create profit out of thin air, when in actuality corporate profit comes from the difference between what an employee produces and what the employee is paid.
If the enterprise were a cooperative run by the workers, the product would be sold for the same price and thus the same profit would be achieved, but distributed equitably. Many people must be poor for one person to be rich, because the private profit of a few is taken from the underpayment of work to the many.
The modern working person has faced a lifetime of the most sophisticated propaganda, and the task of undoing it in ourselves and for others should not be under-estimated. Millions of people, nonetheless, have done it and more are doing it. The continuing stagnation, erosion of social protections, promise of more austerity and the looming environmental catastrophe of global warming are bound to open more eyes. Many more eyes will need to be opened, with a concomitant willingness to struggle and organize, if a better world is to be created. A “counter-hegemony” is necessary: We provide our own leaders or they won’t be provided at all.
Or, to put it another way, we have to believe that a better world is not only possible but can be created. Once a sufficient portion of society comes to believes in this, then belief in, or resignation to, capitalist exploitation goes the way of trembling at the feet of monarchs. A belief in ourselves, that cooperation rather than dog-eat-dog competition is the route to a stable economy with enough for all, becomes a new material force.