Marx & Engels The Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas
Society is ruled by the class which owns the means of material production in society. The class that has the means of material production also controls the means of mental production so it is also society's main intellectual force. Consequently the ruling ideals are the ideal expression of the dominant material relations. In other words the predominant ideas in a society reflect those of the ruling classes and it's interests. These interests are presented as the common and universal interests of all members of society in order to legitimize the hegemony of the ruling class.
This is done by giving these ideas an "independent existence" from the ruling class in the form of (canonical) history. This is done in three ways. First by separating the governing ideas from the material conditions they where produced in. Second by proving a mystical connection among the successive ideas and regarding them as "self-determined". Third by then removing the mystical connection and personifying the ideas in a series of persons, the thinkers and philosophers.
Gramsci on Hegemony
Gramsci expands Marx & Engels argument by positing that making histories is also a privilege of the ruling class.
The history of the ruling classes according to Gramsci is realized in the state and so the history of the ruling classes is the history of the state. Because the subaltern classes are not unified in a state they lack their own history, consequently their history is intertwined with the history of the ruling classes. That means that ideas of the ruling class are embedded within the ideas of the subaltern. Gramsci posits the subaltern takes ideas from ruling class in the form of common sense, which is heavily influenced by dominant ideology. This creates a 'false consciousness', the believe that the values of the 'common sense' are universal rather than function to support or justify the status-quo.
So the ruling class manifests itself both through domination (by force) of antagonistic groups but more importantly through showing 'intellectual and moral leadership'. The ruling class governs by making alliances and compromises to stay in power for it can not using only dominance.
Cultural hegemony in this sense is a 'soft power' used by the ruling classes.
Speculations about Cultural Hegemony in contemporary society
Ever since the internet has become available to the masses it has undoubtedly empowered people world wide. The distributed nature and ubiquity of the network allow individuals potentially unlimited access to information. Further more it allows for publishing texts or media directly to any user of the network world wide, circumventing the traditional hierarchies of publishing and it allows for easy global communication and commerce.
The big companies that emerged out of the internet have done so because they offered services and infrastructure that made it easier for people to empower themselves in this way. Therefore these companies naturally promote the values and beliefs that have lead to this empowerment. Think of the promotion of things like sharing, commenting, transparency, accessibility and interconnectedness to name a few.
We can think of cultural hegemony as being the beliefs, explanations and values that justify and normalize certain power relations in society. If we do so and look at the values promoted by some of the biggest internet companies certain questions arise.
The internet promised to change the traditional balance of powers, which indeed it did in a way but who benefited the most of this? Google who makes billions, or me who can upload his video to Youtube? Following the theory of culturally hegemony: The ability to share information seems universally empowering but we should ask who it has empowered more, the individual or the corporation?
On the 24th of Feb I attended a masterclass with Trevor Paglen at Sonic Acts festival. We discussed his recent works, his research methodology and the issues that arise when working on his topics. Notes here
The start of a text exploring four observations I have made on the seeming contradictions within the internet.
We think of the internet as a World Wide Web. Yet it is mostly American.
The narrative about the internet has always been on the global nature of the internet. While it is indeed the case that it's global and there seem to be no restrictions for me, other than language, to explore .ru, .cn or .fr. I hardly do so. This goes for a lot of people I know. While I have little experience on the 'other'internets. it came to my attention that while for example in other parts of the world Facebook might not be so dominant, services like Google's Orkut or Google+ are. It seems that the dominant services on the internet are American, also for the .ru and .fr audiences.
This makes sense if one looks at the Internet's (US military) history and the history of transatlantic communications. The nature of the infrastructure seems biased towards a western, predominantly American hegemony. So the question arises whether this is a bad thing or not. And whether the use of a global narrative for a an infrastructure that benefits mostly American companies is an example of cultural hegemony?
The contradiction of having these very positive and emancipatory notions about the internet while it's in essence a military infrastructure built in pursuit of geopolitical goals comes from the adaptation of the internet by the counterculture. The descendants of the counterculture saw in the internet the ultimate technology that embodied their ideas on how flat hierarchies and the free flow of information where key components towards individualization, independence and harmonic society. The idea is that as long as everyone can tap into the flow of information, and everyone can add to it people can learn and improve. The world wide nature in this is important because the counterculture has it's history in a number of small communes that where spread out around the US and it was deemed necessary to have the like minded people across the us in contact with each other.s.
The internet is supposed to be about communication and access to information but it's mostly used to feed an economy based on attention.
The internet is promoted as an agent of emancipation, individual empowerment and as a new public sphere. At the same time the majority of it is driven by an advertising economy that revolves around content to produce clicks rather than citizens.
It's cloud, wireless, neutral and emancipatory. Vs physical, cabled, political and controlling. On how the internet has been framed and it's nature presented in certain ways that, while maybe not completely untrue, give little attention of the alternative ways we could and should consider it.
What neo-liberalism does apparently is re-purposing terminology. So when a business or organization refers to a concept like freedom for example. you have all these specific (pre-neo-)liberal notions of freedom embedded in your mind. While in practice entirely different things are meant or acted out. So instead of philosophical or liberal ideas of freedom that are geared towards autonomy for individuals, a neoliberal concept of freedom should be more seen in the light of market economy. In that context freedom usually means the freedom for companies to have and expand markets and the freedom for individuals to consume the goods or services offered in these markets. So when Hillary Clinton makes a stance for internet freedom which notion of freedom is she referring to?
Dichotomy because precisely because Internet is a neo-liberal technology. The observed dichotomies exist because as a neo-liberal technology the internet is at the same time producing both the promises and showing the realities of itself.
What I find interesting is not to see the obscuring and contradictory narrative regarding the internet as a deliberate conspiracy of some sorts but rather as something that is not planned, develops organically, and is a bit out of control. It's not a deliberate process by a few parties against others, although the developments benefit some more than others.