The Sociology of Hegemonic Politics


Sociological methodology, ordinarily fetishistically treated as productive of knowledge in its own right, actually has value in shaping critical analysis of power systems, repression, the pursuit of hegemony—provided it addresses the social system per se, and not peripheral matters. Treating events, practices, ideas in isolation—what we are habituated in doing, as part of the intended fragmentation of reality by which our lives, through long practice of the political culture, are governed so as to accommodate to the needs of ruling groups—obscures from consciousness their interrelated nature. We seem to abound in contradictions, when in reality one can speak meaningfully of a core of society, from which and through which the variegated strands of experience, the structure of institutions, the defining goals of the social order come to a focus, radiating from the center. This is a central insight of Marxian social analysis (although divorced from revolutionary action, which, as so much of Marx’s analytical writings can, and perhaps should, be, it makes good sense for all straightforward discussion of social systems in clarifying the nature of their ideologies, political economies, class dynamics and relationships).

Where am I coming from, and where, heading? More than fifty years ago , in Cambridge, I became a close friend of Fritz Pappenheim, a refugee scholar, interned in a Spanish concentration camp until Paul Tillich was able to intercede for him, and who published The Alienation of Modern Man (Monthly Review Press). Inspired by Marx’s Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Fritz wrote of the societal core of capitalism as rooted in the COMMODITY, in which exchange value trumps use value, and in which human beings relate to each other as commodities (what’s in it for me?) and in terms of their ownership of commodities (the act of ownership defining their very being). From this, much else follows: obviously such traits as possessiveness, using one another as objects of gain, and, although neither Marx nor Fritz mentioned, a fundamental ethnocentrism: the we/they dichotomy, which in turn leads to, and creates the opportunity for, an authoritarian structure, i.e., the hierarchical organization of classes and the prerogatives of wealth, translating into power, that follow as embedded throughout the institutional life of the society.

Yes, commodity structure, but that is almost too arcane in reasoning about current sociopolitical-economic-ideological-military dynamics (by my reasoning, themselves unified and integrated, stemming from the core), so permit me a substitution, still in the spirit of the analysis, in which commodity gives way in theory—but remains at the foundation virtually of everything, from epistemology to culture to psychology—to privatization, itself implemented through what I recently called in a CounterPunch article “hegemonic exceptionalism,” the exceptionalism-aspect carrying the full blossoming of ethnocentrism, America a nation apart, superior, practically the right arm of God. Hegemony is another matter, for whether integral to the core—capitalism as inherently hegemonic, necessary to its survival/expansion—or a means consciously adopted following out the logic of the system but capable of being subdued in order to promote and facilitate cooperation, unlikely given the historic importance of capitalist rivalries, can be left open as a cumulative policy-decision. In any case, for advanced capitalism, and for the US in particular, hegemony is such ingrained practice as to be no longer questioned. Whole frameworks of policy-making, domestic and foreign, dovetailing fiscal, monetary, trade, etc., and the allocation of priorities favoring what are deemed national-security protections and issues, then come into being to articulate the power of the State, today, at this moment, internally, massive surveillance, externally, a consecutive record of interventions, now, the Ukraine, as the most recent. In answer to the question, where am I heading with this, it is to keep the concept of interrelatedness in tow, as we look briefly at Ukraine.


I believe we are on the road to neo-fascism. No, this is not the road to Mandalay, or that of Bob, Bing, and Dorothy Lamour, to some tropical paradise, but one whose destination is the Corporate-Militarist State, better known by the euphemistic expression, the National Security State, to instill fear in the people that massive surveillance is permissible and recommended, and that only an even more massive “Defense” Establishment can ward off any and all dangers “Out There”: the militarization of America’s perspective on the world and its security, influence, and expansion within it. A globalization of US self-righteousness matches the globalization of its geopolitical assumptions and strategies, themselves in sync with trade policy, paramilitary objectives of regime change, and the use of international bodies (IMF, World Bank, etc.) for the generalized promotion and articulation of national power. This power, however, is not for ceremonial flag-raising, but subtended to serve in every way imaginable (in recent times, waterboarding and an exotic menu of torture through an official Agency of USG) the capitalist system as the efflorescence of the core.

In our societal myopia (a political-structural induction of false consciousness through the introjection of ruling-groups’ policies and ideology, making for complicity and accommodation) we see such signs of the times as Obama’s personal authorization of drone assassination, the use of trade embargoes, espionage and subversion, and direct military pressure, with or without specific, announced intervention, and worse, shock-and-awe softening up operations, each as discrete, and therefore isolated signs, rather than as indications of a unified framework, itself the cumulative developmental process promoting their integration. In this framework one notes America’s obsession with social control and hierarchical class-ordering at home and counterrevolution and market penetration abroad, a formula quite as suggestive as the Junker “marriage of iron and rye” of having now embarked down the road to neo-fascism. The term “neo-fascism” is not histrionic, and rather quite precise in describing for America the preliminaries to that destination: the interpenetration of business and government, signifying statist underpinnings to capitalism resulting in its integrated militarization and monopolization, then connected with a foreign policy featuring their fusion as the foundation of national power, in which this emergent ideological-structural formation, a societal process still in-the-making and not yet fully realized, is predisposed to global hegemony and holding the cards to its achievement. Massive surveillance, undeniably fascistic, as is a CIA (POTUS applauding in the background) roaming the world at will—and the US, against its charter—despite the denials and cover-ups of liberals, are but two aces awaiting the third for gin.

We are dancing on the edge, my qualifier, NEO-fascism, being an act of charity, or simply a desire not to exaggerate—unnecessary to begin with, because the situation is bad enough. Ukraine is just one more mile marker on the road, an example of fastening on, after so-much grub work, the situation to activate the Cold War one decisive notch for higher stakes than usual. We are not talking terrorism here, we’re talking—in the best John Foster Dulles tradition—ROLLBACK, even dismemberment, destruction, or the relegation to the second tier, of Russia. As I’ve written, this is no longer a matter only of imperialism’s usual triad—markets, investments, raw materials—even though, at bottom, for various reasons Ukraine is suitable on that score for aggressive penetration (one being the enforcement of IMF ground-rules as an encroachment which would profit “friends and allies” as well, thus via their opportunities cementing further their economies, gratitude, and armies to our own). Beyond the economic, we have reached the point of believing our own publicized vision of the world as divided into two camps, subliminal anticommunism breaking the surface to meld with counterterrorism as a cross-current rendering the first an ever-present menace: the Second Coming of the Cold War, in which evil is all-pervasive and to be unmercifully opposed and fought.

From that mind-set to the utter demonization of Putin is water sliding off a duck’s back. The mills are churning out the propaganda, with hardly a dissenting voice in government or the media. Economic, always and eternal, but there is a perceptible shift in emphasis also taking placing, the economic giving way to the IDEOLOGICAL for its own sake as a motivating factor. Yes, markets, etc., but Ukraine as the staging area for confrontation with Russia becomes a self-fulfilling purpose: not IMF on the march, but NATO on the march, right up to the Russian border, missile installations, troops, possible NATO-membership for Ukraine, the whole militaristic ball-of-wax. The “advantages” of pulling-hauling-tugging Ukraine westward, especially if by doing so this simultaneously unifies the West and compels Putin to respond, setting up draconian policies to weaken and isolate Russia—the professed objectives from the start– then much that Washington devoutly wished will have been achieved. Perhaps nuclear war would be too much, even as a pre-emptive strike, to want or bargain for, but since the days of Herman Kahn and contemplation of such things (all options are on the table) the psychopathological thinking of our political-military leadership remains constant, and alive and well.

This hatred and contempt for Russia has been an American disease since 1945. As Henry Wallace found out, recommending the policy of peaceful trade with the Soviet Union, as a means of easing Cold War tensions while also benefiting American business, was denounced as communistic and destroyed his career. There are no Henry Wallace’s left; and instead, our barbarians at the gate (which in this case would be the Russian border), are screaming for blood. John McCain holds up the hand of a leading, proven fascist in Kiev. Obama, in true bipartisan fashion, cheers on Svoboda and Right Sector, their Nazi historical ties a plus, because their ultranationalism leaves no doubt on the country’s rightward direction and antipathy to Russia. Fascism is riding high in Ukraine, and our support feeds into the neo-fascist status of our own country.

But even were this all, a combined market-and-power play, there conceivably might be counteractive forces at work, Ukraine becoming Poland, Hungary, or the Czech Republic through means of the long-term normalization of trade—but that is not what the US wants. Ukraine, in America’s eyes, has the honor of being irrelevant in and of itself (except, again, for the imperialist triadic desideratum), for its real value lies in setting a precedent. If all succeeds by US-EU-IMF-NATO lights, Ukraine becomes the poster boy for globalized interventionism on behalf of market fundamentalism, itself continually being revised as the US ups the ante, now including, beyond raising privatization to a moral absolute, a whole range of counterrevolutionary policies, strategies, and enforcement-mechanisms designed to remove all restrictions on the unimpeded march of American global hegemony. Russia is the obvious candidate for power-reduction; that it no longer rests on socialist foundations means nothing. Here rigid ideological thinking is determining: how be sure Putin is not resurrecting Stalin, and besides, cannot it be said that Hitler (or his present Ukrainian surrogates) opposed Soviet communism? Neither Putin nor Russia can reverse deeply-entrenched fears long antedating the Cold War. Nevertheless, the US’s appetite for hegemonic power and glory could still be appeased/satisfied if the global system were somewhat stationary, circa 1945 and possibly later, when America had a commanding lead as acting unilaterally in world affairs.

That is no longer true. Here I suggest the primal or underlying significance of Ukraine, keeping constant its vista for America and Europe as an open-market area, and militarily, its positioning such that an array of forces could be placed adjacent to Russia, is creating the precedent, indeed, virtually as reproduction insofar as economic-military planning is concerned, for isolating, containing, and drastically reducing the power of, CHINA, America’s real designated-enemy. For Obama, China supersedes Russia as obstruction number one in America’s place in the great-chain-of- (capitalist) being. Failure in Ukraine is unthinkable; the Cold War purportedly is all about a test of wills, whom blinks first (!), and if the US is unable to stare down Russia, what chance does it have in the re-making, or at least neutralizing and ultimately crippling China? When I say, America’s unilateral dominance in the world “is no longer true,” this may in fact be the key to providing the background for US involvement with, and interest in, Ukraine.

In the international system, the movement from a unipolar to a multipolar structure of power has been, from America’s perspective, traumatic, if not catastrophic—hence its inability, bordering on irrationality, of letting go of Cold War dogma. Whether the morbidity of obsessive behavior attracted to both capital accumulation without end and the manifestations of wealth and power energizing and legitimizing that drive, or the simple pursuit of realpolitik based on competing, expanding political economies, has been responsible for freezing into place the dedication to this dogma, its result has been the formulation and execution of policies internally repressive, externally aggressive. Being number one is, as if to say, the US demands respect consistent with its power, all challenges real and imagined to be met with force or suasion, in either case through war preparation and military supremacy. This attitude, toughness as a moral virtue, had been frozen into place instantly with the conclusion of World War II, and adequate to the needs of opposing Russia while also getting the jump on capitalist rivals for market penetration and lucrative foreign investment. In both endeavors, America appreciated the value of international solutions to ratifying its pre-eminence, from Bretton Woods through the IMF, WTO, and beyond.

However, history, despite all efforts at stabilization and counterrevolution, cannot be held back, the result being the rise of new power-centers, so that unilateral action was neither feasible or accepted, a world then where emerging nations industrialized to their own benefit, and looming as potential threats to America, we see foremost China, followed by the EU, India, Brazil, a never-ending procession of development, the formation of blocs, in sum, the growing decentralization of world power, to America, the worst thing that could possibly happen. It is in this context that we can view Ukraine, for in consecutive order, it is about the government on the ground, sufficiently fascist-tinctured to afford the abidance with IMF principles and potential NATO membership, at the same time occupying a forward position in the containment of Russia; next, Russia itself, minimally, the removal of Putin, but as far as the imagination can wander, up to and including a modified scorched-earth policy as pay-back for presumably Russian harm to America and world capitalism; and still, the American vision, once-for-all, taking on China, already put in motion through the delineation of military priorities directed to the task (the “pivot,” shifting naval forces to the Pacific, along with joint-military exercises, encouragement of Japanese rearmament, and beefing up military alliances) in tandem with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, all designed to keep China somehow thwarted in the mistaken hope that it will crumble from its dead weight.

And where is Ukraine in this paradigm of global hegemony? The precedent of standing up to Russia, basically, the reason for US support for the coup, and prior subsidizing of opposition forces, has equal application to China, a golden rope of regime change to restore the world to its US-led innocence and splendor, this at the expense, perhaps before the face-off with China ever comes about, of a horrendous war that America, in its moral-spiritual vacuum, unconsciously wants. Better to have left Ukraine to its own devices, rather than stir the cauldron.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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