Everyday State Formation and Hegemony

Joseph, Gilbert and Daniel Nugent eds. Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico. Durham: Duke University Press. [Front Matter, Part I, Florencia Mallón, Part III]

This brilliant collection of essays edited by Gilbert Joseph and Daniel Nugent examine the complex everyday negotiations of resistance and rule in the periods straddling the process of the Mexican Revolution. Jim Scott poses the central question of the collection succinctly: “to what extent has the state’s hegemonic project itself been influenced by the force of popular experience and of mobilized popular expectations of the revolution?” (viii). Although he says the question is rarely posed in the book, my limited reading draws the opposite conclusion.

At the outset of my discussion, its important to specify what hegemony actual means and what it entails. I think William Roseberry’s essay is one of the most succinct and important essays on hegemony that I’ve read, so begin there. Another reason it’s worth beginning with hegemony is that the book is organized in dialogue with the works of James Scott and The Great Arch by Philip Corrigan and Derek Sayer, all authors who lodge important critiques of the analytic purchase of “hegemony” as a concept. But, as I’ve previously critiqued, the oversized emphasis on consent and ideology with regard to “hegemony” is usually what lies at the root of the misapprehension of the concept as its used by Gramsci

Roseberry: The Language of Contention

Roseberry sets out: “For one thing, Gramsci understood and emphasized, more clearly than did his interpreters, the complex unity of coercion and consent in situations of domination. Hegemony was a more material and political concept in Gramsci’s usage than it has since become” (358). Gramsci also understood its fragility, incompleteness, and its spatio-temporal dimensions and variability.

Using Gramsci’s Notebook entry on “Notes on Italian History” (about p. 52 in Selections from the Prison Notebooks), Roseberry lays out six important axes for understanding processes of hegemony. He concludes, “This is the way hegemony works. I propose we use the concept not to understand consent but to understand struggle…. What hegemony constructs, then, is not a shared ideology but a common material and meaningful framework for living through, talking about, and acting upon social orders characterized by domination” (361). And a final quote: “The concept’s value for Gramsci in this particular event [the failure of northern-led Italian state formation] lay in its illumination of lines of weakness and cleavage, of alliances unformed and class fractions unable to make their particular interests appear to be the interests of a wider collectivity” (365)

Seen through these lenses the critiques of Scott, Corrigan, and Sayer against the concept become much harder to sustain, particularly in light of the analyses offered in the volume’s essays on political processes surrounding the Mexican Revolution.

Sayer: Some Dissident Remarks on “Hegemony”

Sayer essay claims hegemony is far too abstract and intellectual a notion, and it even risks reproducing the abstractions through which power and rule are actually achieved and exercised, particularly in terms of the state (367, 371, 372, 373). I would offer that the making of power via abstraction is one of the reasons hegemony is so useful. His worry is that to talk about hegemony seems to reify some kind of coherent, totalizing elite power. But looking at Gramsci’s analyses, his actual accounts of how hegemony was processed in Italy precisely shows the ways in which hegemonic historical blocs formed (or didn’t) in incredibly concrete ways via historically and geographically situated messiness, negotiation, and alliances that were incredibly fragile and contested. Sayer echoes as much in his concluding remarks: “the hegemony of the state is also exactly what is most fragile about the state, precisely because it does depend on people living what they much of the time know to be a lie” (377).

The “lie” is where Sayer I think does hit some critical points against hegemony, or at least Gramsci’s broader conceptual apparatus. The “lie” is that there is no “the state.” Building from Philip Abrams, he notes the idea of the state is a “collective misrepresentation”—an ideological project not an agency with such projects—but that this does not mean there is no “politically organized subjection” (371). Both Abrams and, by extension, Corrigan and Sayer are particularly concerned with the individualization and formation of particular cultural/political subjects.

It’s not clear to me where Gramsci’s notion of an “integral state” (and his Leninist orientations on statehood) would stand on this idea of collective misrepresentation that “attempts to give unity, coherence, structure, and intentionality” to the rather motley attempts at domination (371).

Corrigan: State Formation

Corrigan’s brief contribution makes an analytic argument for studying state formation. In brief, he claims that state formation elides many of the clunky dualisms and conceptual blockages that often trips up certain critical research endeavors: “What a ‘state-formation’ approach promises is a way of overcoming (for the region of its focus) the antinomies (of both Marxist and bourgeois scholarship) between Constraint and Consensus; Force and Will; Body and Mind; Society and Self. In sum: the objective and subjective” (xviii).

Joseph & Nugent: Popular Culture and State Formation

The authors lay out the central analytical goals of the volume best summarized through “the basic assumption throughout is that popular culture and state formation can only be understood in relational terms” (15). The approach they lay out seeks to be both “top-down” and “bottom-up”; that is, how the revolutionary state made its imprint on peasant struggles and how peasant struggle made an imprint on the revolutionary (and post-revolutionary) state in all its regional and scalar heterogeneity.

They define popular culture as “the term to designate the symbols and meanings embedded in the day-to-day practices of subordinate groups,” not as some autonomous, pure cultural artifact, but one that is fluid, contested, and changed by various relations (economic/class, religious, ethnic, etc etc.). They don’t see popular culture as somehow nested in a subordinate way to the state (or vice-versa). “Rather, it postulates the articulation of state formation and popular culture, with each connected to, as well as expressed in, the other” (22).

Knight: Weapons and Arches

Alan Knight lays out the main conceptual duel between Scott’s work and Corrigan and Sayer’s as analytical cues for the volume. Knight suggests that hegemony is a necessary compliment to Scott’s “moral economy” and “weapons of the weak” theses. Knight bases his claim on the fact that the two poles of peasant resistance—revolt or quiet resignation—do not allow for a third possibility, which was present in much of Mexico even during the Revolution: the absence of protest. The absence, says Knight, was neither a product of a resigned compliance, even of the foot-shuffling kind, nor was it a product of coercion or a material-economic calculation. And an important point is the way that hegemony itself is reconfigured (redefined) through that same process of struggle (or lack thereof. A quote from Knight I liked that seems to work in both directions: “Or, in Scott’s own terminology, revolutions can not only reveal hidden transcripts but help write new ones” (38)

Knight seems to make a much less critical reading of The Great Arch (part of this undoubtedly stems from Scott’s more numerous corpus), but allows that their cultural politics argument applies much more to the postrevolutionary scenario then what came before, which makes sense since Corrigan and Sayer describe the revolution as a cultural revolution.

Mallón: Reflections on the Ruins

Florencia Mallón shows how the Mexican revolution and state formation ended up wiring itself into social, political, and economic conditions, operating at various scales, laid by revolutionary Liberal movements of the 1850s. Her somewhat contradictory definition of hegemony notwithstanding—a contested political process but also “an actual end point”—her essay’s is incredibly insightful in the way it examines the way hegemony is built at various, interacting scales.

She specifically shows how dynamics of and struggles over agrarian reform, education, and local government introduced during the Liberal period became recast and rearticulated during the revolutionary period by both (forgive the false distinction) “state-makers” and the peasants themselves. This is an important point about hegemony: It is never built on a clean slate, and the power of its effectiveness stems in large part from (paraphrasing James Clifford) “meeting people where they are, rather than where you want them to be.” For instance, with regard to land she concludes: “The genius of land reform during these years [1920-1930s] was to resuscitate popular discourses and aspirations in place since the 1860s” (81).

In terms of local government, the process was even more far reaching: “Once again through the analysis of parallel processes in the nineteenth century, …state makers in the twentieth century succeeded because they tied into the preexisting debates over power, legitimacy, and justice that had made up village politics since the colonial period” (90).

She describes the process in the highlands of Puebla as the building of communal hegemony, which was in turn based on patriarchal democracy. Communal hegemony was stitched through longstanding networks of conflict and cooperation at the village-level and between villages across ethnic, gender, family, and generational lines: “It is the mutually reinforcing relationship between family and community, and in the reciprocal obligations that tied different community and family members to each other, that we find the basis for communal hegemony” (93). These relations were structured internally as well as outwardly in dealing with governmental and other actors operating at the regional, state, or national scales. These processes formed an important basis for later revolutionary demands about municipal autonomy—a rallying cry of the revolution.

This entry was posted in Antonio Gramsci, Everyday Life, Hegemony, Historical-Geographies, Insurgency/Counterinsurgency, Nation/Nationalism, Power, Scale, The State, Violence. Bookmark the permalink.

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