By Salman Tarik Kureshi
October 29, 2011
Inequity and injustice within a society is concealed and submerged within an all-encompassing narrative — usually evoking race, religion, nation or ethnicity
In common journalese, the word ‘hegemony’ is usually applied to international affairs. We speak of India’s ‘hegemonistic designs’ in the South Asian region. Or we refer to the US as the ‘international hegemon’ who wishes to control all energy resources, or is waging a war against Muslims, or is conspiring to break up Pakistan, or whatever. But the sense in which I wish to use it in today’s piece is in the hegemony of a dominant group or class ‘within’ a society to exercise domination over other groups or classes.
Now, the hegemony that nation states try to assert over one another is a shifting phenomenon, with sometimes one country economically or militarily on the ascendant and sometimes another. Anyhow, different national hegemons — or groups thereof — act as checks against one another. But the hegemony of a dominant group within a society can be opposed only by the oppressed or exploited members of that society, who may be more numerous than their hegemons but are, by definition, weaker. The point being made here is that they are also brainwashed into accepting, and even applauding, the injustices of the social order.
The dominant group exercises its control in two ways. First, it uses the power of the state — the midnight knocks, the police knout — to suppress any tendencies that threaten its dominance. Secondly, it uses the tool of propaganda to propagate an idea, a narrative, which conceals its hegemony. This is the case even in democratic societies.
Edward Bernays, an American thinker in the earlier part of the 20th century, wrote a famous book called Propaganda. Bernays argued that the manipulation of public opinion was a necessary part of democracy. He called this scientific technique of opinion-moulding the “engineering of consent”.
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country...We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of...In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons...who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
In Germany, the Nazi propaganda-meister Joseph Goebbels held that the truth or otherwise of a propaganda narrative is irrelevant. “Credibility alone,” he averred, “must determine whether propaganda output should be true or false.” His notorious dictum of the ‘Big Lie’, i.e. that a lie told often enough becomes the truth, follows from this.
It was the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci who most comprehensively developed the idea of cultural hegemony, the all-encompassing national narrative, as a tool for establishing and maintaining political dominance within a society. The dominant classes, Gramsci suggested, maintain control not just through violence and political and economic coercion, but also ideologically, through a hegemonic culture in which the values of the rulers became the common-sense values of all.
For Gramsci, hegemonic dominance ultimately relied on a consented coercion. This is also what we mean when we speak of obscurantism. Inequity and injustice within a society is concealed and submerged within an all-encompassing narrative — usually evoking race, religion, nation or ethnicity.
Now, it is not being suggested that this is necessarily and always evil. Nation states have national narratives that are successful to a greater or lesser extent in ensuring their stability and longevity in the present historical epoch. All nation-states comprise a geographically identifiable stretch of territory whose inhabitants — whether or not they share ethnic, linguistic or cultural characteristics — feel that their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are better served by belonging to the state than not doing so. Thus, a nation-state is frequently a historical accident in search of a destiny.
Now, once a nation state has appeared on the map, its purpose is to provide governance, promote economic activity, make available education and other social services to its citizens and ensure their freedom, their rights, justice and law and order. Since these processes can never be perfect, since there will always be one or the other dominant class or group, there is a need for a national narrative.
In Pakistan’s case, the complex sets of intentions of the nation’s founders became less-than-relevant after the achievement of independence. There is therefore no point in harping any more on issues like “Pakistan ka matlab kya?” (What is the meaning of Pakistan?) or the Quaid’s first address. The historical fact is that, beginning in the 1950s, there has been a piecemeal articulation of a narrative for the new state. The non-elected military-bureaucratic combine, which has in fact usually held the levers of power, based this narrative on a faux Islamic exclusivism. Conformity was imposed on political pluralism and a unitary state was sought to be created. In place of our diverse native heritage, cultural uniformity was imposed. Ideological formulations were trumpeted, dissent discouraged. To oppose the state or its functionaries was to oppose Islam itself!
But this pseudo-Islamic narrative proved insufficient to satisfy the inchoate yearnings of minority ethnicities like the Baloch, Pakhtuns, Sindhis or Muhajirs. Worse, it failed to unite the geographically divided country. Amid massive upheavals, disorder and bloodshed, the state of Pakistan fell apart in 1971. Following the populist-socialist Bhutto hiatus, the usurper Zia regime restored a version of the pseudo-Islamic ideological narrative, intensified and distorted to malignant proportions. The institutions he promoted and the retrograde educational systems he erected polluted the intellectual atmosphere of the land and gave birth to today’s bigoted, obscurantist political culture and its poisonous fallouts of violent insurgency, terrorism and cold-blooded mass murder. This most retrograde of dictators ruled virtually unshaken for over 11 years, challenged only by the repeatedly martyred Bhutto family and the women of this country.
Today, the spurious ‘national ideology’ promoted by the establishment to maintain an unconstitutional dominance has spiralled completely out of control and both the citizens and the state are in mortal peril. But no ideologically meaningful counter-narrative is being proposed, either by the political heirs to the Bhuttos, or by the culturally isolated remnants of the liberal-left.
The writer is a marketing consultant based in Karachi. He is also a poet
Source: The Daily Times, Lahore