“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