Guha: Dominance Without Hegemony?

Guha, Ranajit. 1997. Dominance Without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [Intro & Ch. 1]

Intuitively, it’s odd that the Subaltern Studies crowd has drawn so heavily on Gramsci, since he had surprisingly little to say about violence—odd, since his work tried so hard to grapple with the rise of fascism. Indeed, how do the subalternists reconcile Gramsci’s silences with the utter brutality and force that colonialism entailed? While flying the banner of Subaltern Studies by centering “the politics of the people,” Guha’s book provides one answer.

At the outset, however, it’s necessary to foreground Guha’s definition of hegemony far more on the consent side of Gramsci’s understanding of the concept—or as Guha prefers to call it “persuasion.” He’s conscious that Gramsci saw coercion as an innate part of hegemony: “As used in this work, hegemony stands for a condition of Dominance (D), such that, in the organic composition of D, Persuasion (P) outweighs Coercion (C)…. In short, hegemony, deduced thus from Dominance, offers us the double advantage of pre-empting a slide towards a liberal-utopian conceptualization of the state and of representing power as a concrete historical relation informed necessarily and irreducibly both by force and by consent” (23).

Rather than uncritically repeating the history of colonialism as utter domination or pose resistance as somehow outside of those relations, Guha displays a much more nuanced historiography. Yet, he maintains that the inability of Indians to fashion an autonomous historiography was instilled by an inability of stepping outside of the universalist, liberal discourses configured by colonialism—often times, the discourses were themselves turned against the British authorities themselves. In a very Gramscian move, he shows how these discourses were not implanted by colonialism, but rather weaved and articulated with local cultural and religious traditions. Both rule and resistance to this rule remained inextricably bounded to both native and foreign cultures.

This presented a profound paradox: “Whatever is indigenous in that culture is mostly borrowed from the past, whatever is foreign is mostly contemporary. The element of the past, though moribund, is not defunct; the contemporary element, so vigorous in its native metropolitan soil, finds it difficult to strike roots as a graft and remains shallow and restricted in its penetration of the new site” (62)

Exercising Gramscian analytics, Guha positions “dominance without hegemony” squarely within a framework of the integral state, but in its peculiar and disjunctive colonial form: “In other words, the alienation which, in the career of a noncolonial state, comes after its emergence from civil society and is expressed in its separation from that society in order to stand above it, was already there—a foreign intrusion into the indigenous society—at the very inception of the British-Indian colonial state. The latter was thus doubly alienated—in becoming as well as in being” (64). The state itself was always seen as a foreign body, though one that could perhaps be nationalized within the limits of liberal strictures.

The story is really reminiscent of the dialectical blockage traced by both CLR James and Frantz Fanon: The dialectic is blocked by the bondsman’s gaze transfixed on the master, rather than a focus on the object (basically, an alternative nationhood). All these post-colonial thinkers are keyed into how hard it is for the collective colonial subject of achieving being-in-itself for-itself.

On page 67, Guha takes a good whack at EP Thompson’s claim that the “rule of law” was a “singular achievement of universal significance.” How, Guha asks, could the English be so two-faced about the supposed rule of law at home and the obvious un-rule of law as colonial masters? “The answer, I think, lies in the pervasive power of the ideology of law in English political thought. It derives from the somewhat older standing of the British legal system and its proven superiority to all other historically evolved systems of the same order up to the age of capital. ‘Rule of law’ is the name given by the common sense of politics to that ideology. As an amalgam of the institutional and conceptual aspects of that system, it has come to acquire the prestige of a code mediating all perceptions of civil conflict” (67). Again, he’s drawing on Gramsci (common sense), but also on Marx and Engels in the German Ideology.

This entry was posted in Antonio Gramsci, Critique, Hegemony, Historical-Geographies, Law, Nation/Nationalism, Post-Colonial, Power, The State, Violence. Bookmark the permalink.