In last week’s column I introduced the concept of hegemony, or domination, and how it was developed by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci.
I will now look in more detail at how this idea can be applied in Britain today.
Gramsci believed that the ruling class in Western society exercised its hegemony by a combination of coercion and consent.
He called the mechanism used to maintain the day to day smooth running of society and keep order “civil society” – schools, the church, trade unions.
While it is true that under normal circumstances capitalism in a country like Britain is not under immediate threat, we should not dismiss the capacity of the state to use violence.
When pushed, the government will use the police and the army to defend power and privilege.
The police have been used to oppose working class resistance, from the Chartists in the 19th century. During the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike the police were used to break picket lines and intimidate mining communities.
More recently anti-poll tax protesters and anti-capitalists have been threatened.
The threat of state violence is something which many workers understand. It can play a role in influencing whether they go strike, take part in demonstrations or get involved in political activity.
However, we have to accept that, to a certain extent, many workers go along with the general idea that they live in a democracy and that our present society, whatever its limitations, cannot be bettered.
How then does capitalism maintain this hold on people’s ideas?
Here, we have to update Gramsci’s understanding of the part played by civil society.
The church in Britain no longer plays any great part in maintaining order and control.
Many on the left would identify the mass media as playing a much more important ideological role in keeping people tied to a belief that the world cannot be changed.
Undoubtedly, modern media empires have an enormous influence.
It has even been suggested that Rupert Murdoch effectively had an unofficial seat at Tony Blair’s cabinet table.
Certainly Murdoch has much more influence with the New Labour government than does any trade union leader.
What is less clear, however, is whether newspapers such as Murdoch’s Sun have the capacity to control and direct “public opinion”?
Take the issue of the Iraq war. The vast majority of the press in Britain, at least at the beginning of the war, more or less supported the aims of the invasion.
Yet most people in this country opposed the war from the start.
The existence of parliamentary democracy in the West and the fact that working class representation is something which has had to be fought for has led some to argue that there is “active consent” by the working class for this society.
This is a highly dubious concept. The attitude of most people in Britain is one of cynicism and scepticism towards the political process in Britain.
Fewer and fewer people in Britain bother to vote – this is particularly true of younger people.
The decision by MPs to vote for the Iraq war despite mass opposition is just one example of the lack of real democracy in Britain.
Institutions such as the media, the education system, the family and political parties all have a role in maintaining the consent of ordinary people for capitalist society.
Ideas such as nationalism, racism, sexism and homophobia still exist and play an important role in dividing workers and allowing our rulers to keep control.
But none of these institutions and ideas are fixed in a way that cannot be undermined.
To understand why workers do not challenge the system on a daily basis we have to look to the way production takes place under capitalism and the resulting alienation felt by the mass of people.
The lack of self-belief that many working people feel is underpinned by the loss of control of their lives as a result of the capitalist method of production.
This provides the ground on which the ideas of the ruling class take hold.
So ruling class hegemony is maintained by a combination of force, consent, cynicism and a lack of political self-worth by working people.
How we go about challenging this will be the subject of next week’s article.