Annexing Hegemony: Culture, Libidinal Politics & American Populism

“Fascism is the purest form of the nation-state”

– Abdullah Ocalan

What does it look like when you combine the psychosis of a permanent war, perceived and real ideological and economic precarity, secularization, radicalization, accelerated individualism, ontological anxiety, and toss them into a culture driven, viscerally mobilized globalized capitalist system? There are endless possibilities to such a chaotic and destabilized concoction, however, several notable reactions involve the rise of far-right populist movements, ethnonationalism, culture wars, and the entrenchment of alienation. Europe, experiencing a mass migration subsequent and coinciding the with imperialist wars undertaken by Western powers, namely the military regime of the U.S., has in recent decades, seen sections of its population drawn to renationalize; to reassert a doctrine of ‘our country, for us, first.’ Threat under shifting social conditions and economic prospects prompt a reactionary and exclusionary mobilization of those seeking to capture previous ‘power’, or at the very least, order. Inevitably, the sentiments of far-right populist movements in Europe do not remain in Europe. In a globalized society, like anything else, the ideology and praxis of these movements are transposed and reconfigured in the United States. Exacerbated and pronounced by the disillusionment, absurdity and unstable political climate of the 2016 election year, anxious Americans have found their scapegoat, they have defined their cause and located their means to visibility; they couch themselves in the ‘Alt-Right’. Motivated, not just by political aims, but by entitlement to representation and domination over culture, the Alt-Right establishes itself with the intention to reclaim social order via reassertion of a hegemony produced through the fusion of traditional values and contemporary reform. With culture as a superstructure, alienation seems inevitable and the struggle for control of this superstructure seems imperative.

In writing about the emerging capitalist system transforming the global order of production and existence, Marx understood that capitalism, containing the seeds of its own demise, would be forced to continuously reinvent itself. He prophesied percolating economic and political features of past feudal societies, reconstructed as new forms of power in our capitalist society to demonstrate the power of hierarchical, stratified and seemingly secure order as prevailing organization of some over many. And yet, Marx himself may find the newest iterations of capitalism confounding as they involve the virtualization, abstraction and individualization of both the subject and the object (capital). Neofedual, financialized and corporatized global capitalism does not play by the rules of simplified class antagonisms. The mode of control, “divide and conquer”, deceives the dispossessed, declassed and amorphous masses and operates as a distraction from the concentration of power, materialized as a shrinking and mystified global capitalist class. The fragmentation of the former only strengthens the legitimacy of chaos, shifting the direction of blame to osssilate between factions of the discontented masses, all of whom experience dislocation in globalization, threatened existence and ontological insecurity.

For populism, the absence of a signifer allows the term to carry within it, different ideological trends. In Weberian terms, populist movements are charismatic, their appeal and legitimacy is based primarily in emotional considerations, rather than rationality. (Weber, 1978: 176) In this libidinal space, the will of the people is moved and directed via the politics of fear or the politics of care. Notions of “anti-establishment” political, economic and social aims exist on both sides of the sociopolitical spectrum. The left and the right can agree, the ruling class, the oligarchs operating the plutocracy of a post 9/11, post-fascism, post-gold-standard globalized political system, do not have the interests of the people in mind. In this sense, the hegemony of golden-era consumer capitalism has lost support, it has been overturned as vast superstition, mistrust of government and condemnation of power takes hold of the American public. Antonio Gramsci, Italian neo-Marxist and prisoner of Mussolini’s fascist regime, describes hegemony by stating, “hegemony supposes intellectual unity and ethic of conformity with a conception of reality that has gone beyond common sense to become a critical conception.” (210) What is most interesting about an emerging critical conception, the hegemonic distrust of the all encompassing “establishment” of a global political elite, is that it transcends conventional borders between social groups. When politics become visceral, reduced to its cultural elements, generalized anxiety towards clientelism, career politicians and abstracted notions of the ‘powerful elite’, sparks a call to action, extreme and unapologetic, on both sides.

And yet, there is little agreement between factions of the growing masses of critical and dispossessed cogs in the capitalist machine. Apart from their disorientation in global capitalism, situated conveniently in a time of expansive and incarcerating consumerism as distraction, groups existing within what Marx would define as the ‘proletariat’, are essentially more polarized than ever. The polarization of political factions, combined with again, the rapidly shifting social, demographic and cultural alterations to the familiar, breeds increasing extremism. In the case of the Alt-Right, it is culture that has been harnessed and weaponized by the new-Left and appropriated by the establishment as a means to silence and control them. Relatively new to the political landscape, America’s Alt-Right was popularized when it was denounced by Hillary Clinton, Democratic presidential candidate, in a speech where she characterized it as a fringe ideology tied to the support of her opponent, Donald Trump. Giving a name and visibility to the Alt-Right involves Hillary in the “verbal conception of the movement”, thus, she participates in its “constitution as a social group” so that “moral conduct and direction of will” can be crystallized. (Gramsci, 210)

Defined in the words of the demagogic Alt-Right ringleader himself, the “alternative right, more commonly known as the alt-right, is an amorphous movement. Some — mostly Establishment types — insist it’s little more than a vehicle for the worst dregs of human society: anti-Semites, white supremacists, and other members of the Stormfront set. They’re wrong. Previously an obscure subculture, the alt-right burst onto the national political scene in 2015. Although initially small in number, the alt-right has a youthful energy and jarring, taboo-defying rhetoric that have boosted its membership and made it impossible to ignore.”

And that’s just it. The alternative right is an alternative – a mastication of a culture rejected, a reaction to sensed censorship, a reclamation of the superstructure. Gramsci articulates the way in which ideological and political institutions collaborate and reinforce each other to produce a superstructure whereby hegemony ossifies as culture taken for granted and exerts power in both coercive and consensual measures. Gramsci is clear in that “critical understanding of self takes place through a struggle of political “hegemonies” and of opposing directions, first in the ethical field and then in that of politics proper, in order to arrive at working out a higher level of one’s own conception of reality.” (210) With the looming psychosocial disorder produced in the conditions of a destabilized, chaotic and hardly understood global capitalist system, a heightened sense of alienation and loss of identity becomes justification for nationalism to provide an anchor in an otherwise disembodied reality and self. Alienation is, as Marx conceives, a function of capitalism, resulting in a profound loss of reality. “With the increasing value of the world of things proceeds an indirect proportion the devaluation of the world of men.” (Marx, 29) As “labour becomes an object, an external existence outside his,” workers feel an ontological wound spilling over from this disassociation between the subject and the object.(Marx, 30) The lack of representation of the individual in what she produces hollows out her very understanding of self and of reality. Feeling unfulfilled through one’s “life-activity” (labour), it is understandable that culture be the comfort on which the alienated fall. As the lobotomy in creativity gets directed towards cultural production, the superstructure establishes a familiarity with which one can see oneself reflected in something larger than oneself. With social and cultural transformation and fragmentation and polarization in the West, the ability for dominant culture to satisfy the intuitive needs of each individual fails. Feeling reflected not in their work, not in their culture and not even to herself, the subject is produced constantly as ontologically anxious, existentially insecure and suspicious of the Other.

Opportunistically, the anxieties produced by capitalism can also be managed and directed by it. Previously unattached to any political figure, demagogue or strongman, the Alt-Right locates a depository for their aims and representation for their voice in capitalist entrepreneur turned “politician”, Donald Trump. In a sense, both the left and the right populist movements remain fixed on a personification of the critique of capitalism. Both Donald Trump and self-proclaimed democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders, embody accumulated tensions between the will of the people and perceived abuse of power. And yet, Trump exists as a synthesis of politics and business, ironically mirroring the merging of corporate and political interests present in late capitalism. In marrying politics with business, Trump is also culturally produced as a strongman, resembling the traditional unyielding Patriarch, someone to make decisions and give a voice to the insecurities felt by masses feeling threatened by the internationalization and various consequences of U.S. imperialism (i.e. migration and refugee crises). Resonating with latent cultural desires for a return to “make America great again”, the Alt-Right is motivated by sentiments of exclusion which resemble the resurgence of ethno nationalist movements in Europe. Reducing the political realm to a cultural expression of instinctual measures of approval, sees that disparate, incongruent and idealized wills can never reach agreement. Individualized and libidinal energy does not seek policy solutions dictated by the Reality principle, it moves through affect. (Marcuse, 329) Operating through either a rhetoric tied to the politics of fear or the politics of care, populist leaders don’t know what the people think, they know what they feel.

Herbert Marcuse writes, “desublimation practiced from a “position of strength” on the part of society, which can afford to grant more than before because its interests have become the innermost drives of its citizens and because the joysd which it grants promote social cohesion and contentment.” (329) Marcuse is describing the process by which culture and social reality coalesce into a single dimension; an absorption of the Reality principle by the Pleasure principle. (329) This happens by way of incorporating higher culture, arguably matters dealing with the soul and spirit, into the material culture. (Marcuse, 328) Consequentially, the single dimensional reality, the desublimated society determines the ideals and wills of the people, despite losing the truths available in higher culture. The blending of mass communications, religion, politics, art, commercials and philosophy ultimately brings all of these realms of culture to their common denominator: the commodity form. (Marcuse, 328) In this reality, a mass culture suppressing the nuances of every internal dimension in order to express a socially cohesive mode of interpretation, exchange value is privileged over truth value. (Marcuse, 328) All of this is to indicate that the transformation of instinctual energy, the life force within each individual, is rendered less distinct, less able to articulate a critical and rational response, more inclined to grasp at the familiar and libidinal hegemony. With culture in itself existing as a commodity form, the subjects who act and respond to culture, themselves also commodified, narrowly recognize meaning outside of  ‘exchange value’. (Marx, 30) Meaning can only be derived when it is expressed in the context of propaganda, business, discipline and relaxation. (Marcuse, 328) This, Marcuse explains, is why it is so powerful for words of freedom and fulfillment pronounced by campaigning leaders and politicians to be framed in terms of culture, to be transmitted with evocative language, appealing to the instinctual energy of the subject. (328)

Operating with instinctual energy in a political economy captured and carried by culture, a version of culture which finds ideological glory in the transformation of higher into popular culture and intensified commodification, the conditions for measured, meaningful choice get reduced. (Marcuse, 329) The conditions for establishing a social contract are precarious as anxieties rise and traditional order is disrupted. Weber, Simmel and Marx all describe populism as emerging in reaction to urban modernization, leading to ontological anxiety and confusion in the political process, feeling a loss of autonomy and likely to respond to emotional depictions of a society ultimately separated into two antagonistic groups: the “people” versus “the corrupt elite.” With culture flattened and hegemonized, the will of the people is reasserted into the political realm as an expression of diluted and chaotic idealization. Annexing culture becomes a goal worthy of violence, demonization, scapegoating and exclusion. America’s alternative right in various ways parallels the emergence of a radical right during the McCarthyism era. Extending and collaborating with the increasingly popular far-right populist movements in Europe, America’s Alt Right movement understands that if hegemony is defined by culture, controlling that culture becomes strategically necessary. As it stands, the U.S. two-party system represents opposite sides, intrinsically antagonistic towards each other: establishment and anti-establishment. Apart from this convenient dichotomy, the nuances of policy and personality get submerged in the dominant narrative. As Sebastian Haffner reveals, “real ideas must, as a rule, be simplified to the level of a child’s understanding if they are to rouse the masses to historical action.” (2000: 278) The libidinal experience of political action harnesses the existential angst seething within those locked into globalized late capitalism. Individuals, fear-driven and reacting to their perceived loss of autonomy, severe alienation and forecasted dismal future find solace in ethno nationalist, traditionalist and a “return” to sacralized free market capitalism. Identity, whether it be a political identity or national identity, in this sense, becomes an anxiety-controlling mechanism. The first step to establishing an identity is defining one. As Gramsci highlights, “a human mass does not distinguish itself without organizing itself.” (210)

Gramsci, Antonio (1971) Intellectuals and Hegemony, The Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, London. Social Theory: The Multicultural, Global, and Classical Readings, Sixth Edition, Charles Lemert, Westview Press

Marcuse, Herbert (1964) Repressive Desublimation of One-Dimensional Man. Social Theory: The Multicultural, Global, and Classical Readings, Sixth Edition, Charles Lemert, Westview Press

Marx, Karl (1844) Estranged Labor, Economics and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, The Marx-Engels Reader. Social Theory: The Multicultural, Global, and Classical Readings, Sixth Edition, Charles Lemert, Westview Press

Haffner, Sebastian (2000) Defying Hitler: A Memoir, New York:Picador



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