“Counter-hegemony” and Left Ambivalence Toward Power

I’m reading Cihan Tuğal’s Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism. I’m still working my way through it, but so far I’ve found it very insightful. There are so many things in the book that I’m looking forward to digging into, so I feel a little bad that I’m about to start with the one thing that I’m ambivalent about: Tuğal’s use of the term counter-hegemony. I’m not usually one to nitpick about terms—especially esoteric terms like counter-hegemony—but here I go…

Dr. Tuğal did not invent the term, of course. Moreover, I suspect that because I agree so much with his descriptions and assessments (of patterns of political engagement, in the case of Islamist movements in Turkey), it stands out all the more when I do take issue with something. His book has got me thinking more specifically about what I don’t like about the term generally. To be clear, I introduce his work here as a jumping off point for this blog post, rather than as the object of my critique.

Here’s my problem with the term counter-hegemony: it is unclear whether (1) it implies an opposition to the idea of hegemony itself, or (2) it notes an opposition to a particular hegemony — opposition by a challenger force (i.e. an alternative, aspiring hegemony). I want to be careful to not put words in his mouth, but I suspect that Dr. Tuğal intends something closer to the latter interpretation of counter-hegemony. I had the pleasure of meeting him this past weekend at the UC Berkeley sociology open house. At the end of one of our conversations, we briefly discussed my ambivalence about the term. This ambivalence was reinforced later that same day by a discussion with another person who subscribed to the first interpretation, i.e., that to be counter-hegemonic is—and should be—to be against all hegemony.

This is how I define hegemony only some of the time.

To me, particular actors and political alignments maintain particular hegemonies. Their political challengers are not counter-hegemonic—insofar as the term may imply being against the idea of hegemony itself—but are themselves aspiring hegemonies. They want their ideas to win.

My concern is about power and the US Left’s ambivalence toward it. Rather than framing a conversation about how a Left might build and wield power, the term counter-hegemony may suggest inherent opposition to—or at least confusion about—power itself. The “counter” part reinforces our eternal outsider status and casts doubt on whether we even want power. It’s similar to how the term counter-culture suggests the creation of sideshow alternative subcultures, rather than a seizure of the main stage — i.e., a contestation of the meanings, symbols, narratives, and institutions of the popular culture. Continue reading

on the 10-year anniversary of the bombing & invasion of Iraq

I was struggling to find words to convey my sorrow on this day, the ten-year anniversary of the US bombing and invasion of Iraq. Then I saw these words from Leslie Cagan:

Ten years ago this evening I was out walking the dog. I ran into the Washington Post reporter based in NYC who was writing about the pending war in Iraq and the anti-war movement in this country. He said, “Have you heard?” I hadn’t. He said, “The bombing has begun.” And then he asked how I felt about it.

It was not a surprise, but it was devastating. We all knew what we were up against….the overwhelming power wielded by the U.S government…but the massive world-wide outpouring of sentiment against going to war in Iraq had given us a small measure of hope. Maybe this time it could be different. Maybe there are enough people in every corner of the planet saying no that the mad-men in Washington would be forced to take another course. Maybe we could prevent a war.

Of course, we couldn’t. And now, ten years later, there is still no peace in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Palestine, in so many places in the world. And we are so very far from anything we might call justice!! Today is a sad, sad day as we note the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war…the war that never should have happened. And it’s a day to reflect on how much work there is ahead, to recommit ourselves — in whatever ways we can — to the struggle for a just peace, and a peaceful justice.

I feel overwhelmingly sad today. Sad and powerless. Powerless within the most powerful nation the world has ever known. Powerless as a drop of water trying to stop a waterfall. I take no solace in history vindicating my—and the antiwar movement’s—position and our actions to try to stop this criminal war that has devastated so many lives.

Over the past ten years, I have met many whose lives have been uprooted by this war of choice; people who have lost family members, friends, homes, limbs, and sanity. Meeting them and working beside them for a better world is the only solace I take on this sad day. These friends and comrades are too many to name. But you know who you are. Much love to you on this day.


grad school update #1 ~ UCSB

Becca (my partner) and I spent the weekend in beautiful Santa Barbara — to check out UCSB and the surrounding area. The thought of spending five or six years here is really not so terrible.


Seriously, this place is a paradise. The natural beauty is definitely no small selling point. And there are a lot of fantastic professors I could see myself working with. I was able to meet with Dick Flacks, John Foran, George Lipsitz, Geoff Raymond, Verta Taylor, and Howard Winant. (I’m currently reading Dick Flacks’ must-read Making History: The American Left and the American Mind and Howard Winant and Michael Omi’s—also must-read—Racial Formation in the United States.) I was able to have rich conversations with other faculty and with a number of current PhD sociology students. I was also excited about the incoming admitted cohort. Many of them are also interested in social movements, politics, and society. All in all, UCSB is full of great folks and I think this is an excellent option for me.

No decision yet though! Tomorrow I check out UC Irvine and then University of Wisconsin on Friday on the way back east. More updates to follow.