Beyond Counterhegemony (Short Version)

Methodologically individualist theories forbid giving independent epistemic status to social systems, and so cannot theorize social-systemic change. Struggles against oppression and for equality appear as voluntary, hence Sisyphean, struggles to redistribute social goods.

Single-dialectical theories such as counterhegemonic theory can conceptualize systemic change but suffer from their own problems.

Extrinsic Problem: Theories of cultural hegemony and counterhegemony employ a sociological idealism. This idealism fails to address nonintentional social dynamics. No amount of ideological or discursive critique can provide the practical tools to construct an egalitarian society.

First intrinsic problem:  Pure (single) dialectical epistemic strategies require the reduction of all forms of oppression and social struggle to a single underlying contradiction. But which one? There is no way to evaluate the competing claims of those who insist on the primacy of class vs. gender vs. race and so on, without employing a different epistemic strategy. Intersectionality theory offers a resolution of these conflicts but the most prevalent attempts at intersectionality theory employ a methodologically individualist epistemic strategy.

Second intrinsic problem: Conceptualizing social struggle in terms of a single contradictory relation downplays or discounts forms of oppression not immediately assimilable to that contradiction. If A is the primary contradiction and B, C, D, etc. are other forms of oppression, crude dialectical theories ignore B et al.  Sophisticated dialectical theories address B et. al. as secondary subsystems of A while also insisting that they are reducible to A, at least in principle. The former are empirically falsifiable, while the latter are often ineffective as praxis.

Third intrinsic problem: Crude single-dialectic theories encourage fallacies of division and ecological fallacies, apparent as de facto essentialisms about members of the oppressor and oppressed groups.  Sophisticated single-dialectic theories avoid these by theorizing the contradiction in terms of social forces and relations to which concrete individual people have a somewhat contingent relationship. But this conceptual rigour tends to disappear in the heat of public political contestation.

Fourth intrinsic problem: Single-dialectic theories entail an epistemic uncertainty regarding who is or is not a revolutionary subject.  This uncertainty encourages a political polarization involving intense boundary work separating revolutionaries from counterrevolutionaries. This boundary work fosters bad epistemic habits, including:

  • hostility to criticism,
  • investment in unfalsifiable claims, and
  • failure to distinguish true enemies from neutral bystanders or potential allies.

In a word, single-dialectic theories have trouble with difference.  The boundary-work done to fend off this problem keeps movements alive in the face of adversity but prevents them from articulating a practical systemic alternative to the status quo.

Conclusion: Methodologically individualist (MI) theories can resolve these problems more easily than single-dialectic theories. This may explain why liberalism, which tends to employ theories grounded in MI or compositionist epistemic strategies, is the default political mode of mainstream political parties in countries with robust electoral democracies. However, as mentioned, MI theories cannot conceptualize, let alone theorize, the transformation of social systems necessary to develop an egalitarian society.

Tangled-systems theories may provide an effective third option. Such theories remain undeveloped and untested, however. More work is required.

[NB: This is a condensed version of a post I put out yesterday. For the more detailed, reader-friendly, 2000-word version, click here.]

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