Political Hegemony and Social Complexity Mechanisms of Power After Gramsci: An Interview with Alex Williams

Alex Williams is Lecturer in Politics at the University of East Anglia. He very kindly found some time in his diary to talk to us about his new book – Political Hegemony and Social Complexity: Mechanisms of Power After Gramsci. The book has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Q Alex, many congratulations indeed on the publication of your new book, and thanks for agreeing to speak to us! Could you begin by introducing our readers to the book’s background? What got you started on the project, and what convinced you that now was the time for this book?

I began the project as my PhD thesis, which started out more broadly focused than this book ended up. In 2011, when I started work on my PhD, I was interested in how politics, and our understanding of politics, can be distorted by features like complexity, abstraction, and scale. For example, when we think about a given way of doing politics, be that democratic elections or activist campaigning or any other form we might think of, we are usually conceiving of it as operating at a certain kind of scale (often the local or the national). In this sense we often end up misunderstanding how politics at different scales (particularly the very large) works.

Some of these concerns ended up forming the first part of my 2015 book (written with Nick Srnicek) Inventing the Future, in particular the parts critiquing locally focused activism for being weakened through ‘folk political’ thinking and action.

What the PhD project, and later the book, became increasingly focused on was the idea of social complexity and its relationship to power: how is it that we can live in times of such social complexity, of such dynamicity and diversity within modern capitalist societies, and yet relatively long-lasting modes of power can emerge and enable effective rule? How can complexity be ruled? The particular answer which I found was one which located a set of commonalities between the way social complexity works, and the properties of a form of power known as hegemony.

Q Your book offers a new engagement with the concept of hegemony. Could you give our readers a bit of background to this concept: where did it come from, and how has it traditionally been used?

Hegemony is a slippery concept to define entirely precisely, partly because it has a couple of different meanings within political theory, cultural studies, and international relations respectively. As a concept it has been in existence since at least ancient Greece, initially meaning a form of rule of one state over another. But the particular genus of hegemony theory I write about is that which comes out of the Marxist tradition, one which Lenin and especially Antonio Gramsci wrote about in the early Twentieth Century. For them, hegemony was a kind of leadership, where one social group (often a social class) is able to take leadership and influence a broader milieu. For Lenin this was identified as a way for the working class to come to power in Tsarist Russia, a strategic situation in which economic underdevelopment had left the working class far from the kind of ubiquity and mass-presence seemingly predicted by Marx. For Gramsci things were more complicated: his interest was in how complex democratic capitalist states could be ruled effectively. Or more specifically, how could you have democracy under an exploitative form of capitalism which did not result in its rapid replacement? It was here that hegemonic leadership appeared to be the answer- both to understand power as it existed and also how it might be intervened within and against. Now there have been a vast array of different writers interpreting Gramsci’s ideas of hegemony, and these have taken a number of different forms over time. My work seeks to relocate in the idea of hegemony something of Gramsci’s original conception, and it does this partially by formalising how we can understand social complexity, how can we understand in more detail the forces that hegemony seeks to govern and rule.

Q That’s really helpful: thank you! One of the things your book does is to reformulate those existing understandings of hegemony theory. Why is such a reformulation needed?

This is an interesting question. This reformulation is need partially because of the success, at least in terms of being widely known, of the 1980s post-Marxist reinterpretation of Gramsci put forward by Ernesto Laulau and Chantal Mouffe. They basically argued that hegemony needs to be rethought because of the emergence of things like new social movements not based purely in class (think of the black civil rights movement or feminism). In this they were quite correct. But in developing Gramsci’s idea, they ended up in quite an odd place, one which basically meant that power-as-hegemony was a matter of transforming fields of social meaning understood as a language-like network of elements. This turns out to be excellent at explaining some things (like how political movements use signs and symbols and rhetorical devices in their battle for power) but is next to useless in understanding hegemonic power in its other forms, like infrastructure, economics, technology, and so on.

At the same time, since the 2000s, there have emerged a number of theorists who have argued that hegemony is basically not useful anymore to understand the way power works. Particularly coming from anarchist backgrounds, these thinkers claimed that hegemony was simply out of date, but usually through radically misreading what it was.

So the book aims to correct both of these errors, as well as seeking to upgrade Gramsci’s insights for a very different time (more or less one hundred years on).  

Q And why did you turn to complexity theory for the resources for this reformulation?

Usually we talk about ‘complexity’ in a loose way within political science and theory. It often means something intractable or intricate. Yet emerging out of the natural sciences is a body of thought that tries to grapple with complexity in a more detailed way, which sees order and structure within it. Social complexity theory can broadly be understood as an attempt to understand certain properties of complex social systems. The most interesting of these properties they tend to display are emergence (how large-scale order arises from the interaction of different smaller-scaled elements within a social system), self-organisation (how systems are able to organise themselves over time), and complex dynamics (patterns displayed in the evolution of complex systems).

Complexity theory offers a lot of resources for thinking about some basic behaviours of social systems, and indeed much of social and political theory can be re-read as an attempt to grapple with these issues in different guises and seen through different conceptual vocabularies. In particular, once I started reading social complexity theory, much of what Gramsci was writing began to take on a different hue; in places it sounded as if he was reaching towards a similar kind of understanding to much later thinkers of social complexity. This then made the process of thinking about how power can exist in a complex world relatively straight-forward.

Q Having completed the book, how hopeful are you on the future(s) of neoliberalism?

The final chapter looks at how the major global hegemonic power formation (neoliberalism) managed to survive in the wake of its worst ever crisis (the 2007-8 financial crisis), and how since 2016 it has increasingly struggled to do so, all through the lens of the complex hegemony theory I have developed. I set out the ways in which hegemony isn’t merely reducible to cultural meaning, or conventional state political power, but is also constituted through increasingly non-human domains (technical infrastructures) or through long-lasting institutional design, what I collectively call ‘platform hegemony’. Because of this, even though consent in the global north is fast collapsing for conventional neoliberalism, it doesn’t mean that the system of power is gone or will disappear quickly. Much of its power comes not from human belief so much as nearly automatic, deeply embedded infrastructures of managerial bureaucracies, technical protocols, and financial architectures. These will be pressured, from both neosocialist left-wing movements and neonationalist authoritarian governments, but they will persist into the medium term. It will require long-term political projects to dismantle them entirely.

Q That’s interesting – thank you! Looking to the future, then, what is the next project on your own research agenda? Will you be building on these arguments going forward?

I have two major projects in development. One is a long book, written with Jeremy Gilbert, my former supervisor, entitled Hegemony Now: Power in the Twenty-First Century. It develops many of the arguments I make in the book to examine how power works today, with a particular view to the post-neoliberal strategic situation. A second project is one which looks to combine this new understanding of hegemony with a much broader exploration of our present conjuncture, in particular in the context of ecological and technological crisis. Both of these works will hopefully communicate some of the ideas in Political Hegemony & Social Complexity to broader audiences.

Q One final question, if we might? Now that Political Hegemony and Social Complexity has been published, what are your hopes for the book? What would you like readers to take away from it, and what impact would you like it to have on the world?

Much of the book is a technical argument about the nature of power. I would hope that readers are better able to understand the often seemingly confusing ways in which political power operates in the contemporary world, its paradoxes and mysteries. In particular, I hope that it gives them a much more complex understanding of where political power comes from, outside of much of what is usually considered ‘political’. Alex Williams, thank you very much indeed for your time. Political Hegemony and Social Complexity: Mechanisms of Power After Gramsci has now been published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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