Intellectual Hegemony of our times – Economics Paper
Now, this is not a conspiracy theory. I am not trying to suggest that the Big Brother is watching and observing, as well as sculpting and forming your thinking. I do not advice you to construct armadillo
helmets (to avoid the government from reading your thoughts), to remove all the fillings from your teeth (to prevent the secret radio messages directed to your brain at night), or even to go and seek for the Truth (which is Out There). What I am asking you to do however is that you think. As simple as that it is. After reading this essay you should be able to decide, whether you want to be intellectual in the traditional way or in the organic way. What do you think will be the answer? Is traditional a swear word to you (…too)?
As you would have guessed, to be able to understand present in terms of past theories, getting familiar with them is the first obvious step. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) is one of the most influential structuralists of the twentieth century, and I think it is interesting to see if his theories apply, since structuralism is not exactly that popular at the moment. Gramsci lived in a time of conflicts among nations and classes, just before the boiling point was reached and the First World War set off. Amongst else, he proposed that the dominant class in the society maintains its position through two different ways: coercion and consent. Coercion would be the obvious mechanism that applies economic and political power directly to keep the subordinate class in line. However, while coercion is a powerful tool, Gramsci suggests that ideas are even more powerful since they allow the rule of masses by their own consent.
This willingly accepted oppression (what a dream for a suppresser!) Gramsci names as intellectual hegemony. The idea behind the phrase is that “the dominant class produces and promulgates an ideology or worldview that supports and legitimizes its interests. These ideas permeate society through education and the communications media. Once the subordinate class accepts this worldview whether intentionally or by osmosis, its thoughts and actions are brought into line with the interests of the dominant class.” When this happens, the use of force is no longer necessary as the very idea of opposing to the dominant class is against the society’s behavioural norms, and if one opposes the dominant class one opposes the whole society.
When Gramsci was forming his theory, considering the times he was living in he probably had propaganda in mind. Propaganda has been used throughout the times as a tool by the government (or the ruling class) to ensure the obedience of the masses. Nowadays propaganda is viewed as a negative influence and it is condemned as a tool for underdeveloped systems. In a world of free market economy any attempts of trying to influence on what people are doing are widely condemned, and also with the internet age as the information has become so much more available, it is not even possible to try to feed people’s minds with one-sided messages while ignoring the other aspects. Or is it?
Propaganda is no longer directly used by the governments in most Westernised nations. However, the whole of the Westernised world (and even quite a few of the non-Western countries) share the same belief in the liberal free-market economy and everything that goes with it. Is it simply because the messages are so appealing that a majority of us seem to agree on the idea of global trade? Well certainly the idea that for example everybody is free and has access to all the opportunities in the world is appealing but it really does not seem that logical when you come to think about it. There will always be limits (no matter what the Americans say) in the form of legality, borders, social norms, morals, etc – the list goes on. So how is it that we are all so very absorbed in thinking alike?
According to Gramsci’s definition of the Intellectual hegemony, there is a “prominent class” out there who creates an ideology that becomes acceptable to a big audience. This worldview is supported by education and media, and is spread through the whole society creating behavioural and thinking norms that are acceptable, no matter how weighted the perspective might be. Somehow this sounds familiar. If majority of people are accepting the theory of global trade, international mega-companies, and immensely uneven distribution of assets as a good thing for themselves as individuals, it kind of sounds like we are all somehow at some point been assured that this is the “right” approach.
George Orwell (1903-1950) was the first to bring up the idea of the all-seeing “Big Brother” in his book “Nineteen Eightly-Four” (Secker and Warburg, 1949) where Big Brother was on the top of the social pyramid that describes the value of population within the world the book’s happenings take place in. The idea of the Big Brother is very similar to the idea of Gramsci’s prominent class – it is on top, watching, and controlling.. Information is only distributed to lower classes (that are the majority of population) through top-led and top-designed education and media. Naturally today this extremity does not exist but there still is an apparent consensus of thought among big masses. So is there a “Big Brother” out there who has access to education as well as media, and who is able to dominate the thoughts of billions?
Let us have a look now at the forces that could be nominated as potential Big Brothers in our time. The usual suspects covered in this discussion are The Media, The Tycoon, The Government, and The Hybrid.
Most of the daily newspapers in Finland have the same headlines. One could argue that same things happen around the world, so it is not possible for papers to differentiate since the same bombing/attack/kidnapping is happening and interesting to the public no matter what. Well, actually it is the editor who decides what is interesting, and he bases on his ideas on what people in general are interested in a.k.a. what they are already thinking. The viewpoints and selections of the stories also are pretty much the same all over our media here, e.g. the bombing in Käkkäräjärvi getting full coverage and the mass murder in Pakistan a paragraph. Or the Finnish prime minister’s new girlfriend getting four pages, while the new watering system of the whole of Kenya gets a four-liner. As you would expect I took these examples into extreme, but really when you start to think about any country and/or are like Europe, apart from local differences are there really not that much diversification within the most popular Medias. Thus, intentionally or unintentionally, the media coverage actually is quite one-sided the reason being that a media that brings other types of ideas is not commercially profitable. This brings us to the next suspects who are the big shots in business.
Profitability rules the world. Businesses run on profit and businesses need to make more profit to be able to grow and keep their profitableness profitable. Business tycoons prefer free market trade, free selling of goods, and especially free consuming of any good. Tycoons own companies, and Media companies are also companies owned by tycoons that are in the Media business to create profit. The editor chooses the stories to the papers according to the company’s business idea as well as any employee of any company would comply with the basic principles that dictate their job function. The current trends in the environment also reflect on and systems and the revision and altering of these education plans is done by the governments.
According to our trusted friend the Wikipedia, “Soft power is a term used in international relations theory to describe the ability of a political body, such as a state, to indirectly influence the behaviour or interests of other political bodies through cultural or ideological means.” Making people want what you want is very cost-effective, efficient and influential in the long-term. From training point of view it is easiest to start from early on, and that is where education kicks in. Education is existing for the purpose of raising functional citizens that can work for businesses, create own businesses or work for the government. The other function of education is to try to broaden the views of citizens and encourage to individual thinking. Which side is dominant and which side guides which one is unclear, but education and government power are interrelated.
The hybrid combines the two last subjects. There are countless of examples on how business and government co-operate but for this essay I will use an example from the US to illustrate one of them. In the messy elections of 2000 the television news channel Fox was the first network to call Florida for Bush. Before that, some other networks had called Florida for Gore, and they changed after Fox called it for Bush. As it appears, Fox was in a way functioning as an opinion leader in a race that still is not clear if it was totally legal. And who was there in charge of the decision desk at Fox on election night? Bush’s first cousin, John Ellis. In other words one of the main channels in one of the biggest countries in the world was promoting bias or non-legitimate information and that decision was administered by a strong connection to the government and viewed (as truth?) by millions thus creating intellectual hegemony in a hegemony.
With everything you have read in mind, consider the following: “Structural tensions”, according to Gramsci, “are not limited to the areas of international trade and finance. Rather they are built into our daily lives through the forces that condition what we think and don’t think about the societies in which we live.” So, is something going on? There are definitely some attempts to influence but whether it is only the human mind willing others around it to agree by nature, or a systematic attempt to manipulate, still remains as an issue.
In Gramsci’s view of the intellectual hegemony, the key players are traditional intellectuals and organic intellectuals. Organic intellectuals are the ones who are brought up within the system and their actions and ideas are infused with the ideology of the prominent class. Organic intellectuals reinforce the state of intellectual hegemony without even realising that they are doing so. “Their ideas expressed in songs, newspapers cartoons and editorials, political slogans, and coffee shop debates, are a strong medium of social organisation because they legitimise the dominant class and their beliefs.” These guys are opposed by the traditional intellectuals who think for themselves, question, and formulate their own opinions outside the conventional boundaries.
What do you think? Is commercialising the Big Brother -idea to a multinational TV-format an attempt to distract the masses from seeing what is really going by putting it right in front of their noses or just harmless entertainment in the form of a reality TV-show? As an objective researcher I would say that it is a bit of both but in the spirit of Orwell’s “Animal Farm” I would say that maybe it is a little more of the other. And by the way regarding this matter, for the first time in my life I am hoping to grow to a traditionalist.