By Riley McGowan, student
When capitalism is implemented in society, stark class divisions are often the result. The divide between the lower and middle classes represents the separation between poverty and the working class, while the upper class is representative of society’s elite. As Karen Ho describes in her essay, “Biographies of Hegemony,” the elite upper class exert their hegemonic influence upon the lower classes through their perception of grandeur and sophistication by their lavish parties and high-income Wall Street financial jobs. In other cases, the hegemonic elites use their power to elicit revenue from the lower classes, as demonstrated in Ethan Watters’ “The Mega-Marketing of Depression in Japan,” when the vast corporate pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline attempts to “fix” depression in Japan in a way that does not uphold the Japanese cultural values. In the modern, protesting spirit of the current American political climate, it is reasonable to assume that the disparity of power between the classes is being addressed, however, David Harvey presents evidence to the contrary in his paper, “Neo-Liberalism as Creative Destruction.” Harvey evaluates how the neoliberal agenda actually accentuates the class divide and greatly benefits the elites. Through all of these hegemonic techniques, the elite gain more power, and in doing so, they prevent the lower classes from climbing the social ladder and contributing their ideas and values to society. As long as the lower classes remain incapable of bettering themselves, they will remain incapable of bettering society, and therefore the repression by the hegemonic elites will stagnate the development of society as a whole.
“For any system of thought to become hegemonic requires the articulation of fundamental concepts that become so deeply embedded in common-sense understandings that they become taken for granted and beyond question”
One way in which hegemonic elitism stagnates the development of society is through the overt accentuation of the elitist power. The luxury and extravagance that surrounds the elites transfixes the lower classes in a way that makes them wonder what, other than money, is their dividing factor. Elites use this transfixion with wealth to their advantage by showing off their grandeur in order to hegemonically instill the innate differences between the elites and the non-elites. Harvey clarifies, “For any system of thought to become hegemonic requires the articulation of fundamental concepts that become so deeply embedded in common-sense understandings that they become taken for granted and beyond question” (Harvey 146). Therefore in Harvey’s terms, by flaunting their wealth to the lower classes, the elites hegemonically enforce the idea of their superiority through riches in such a way that non-elites cannot deny that wealth is equivalent to power.
However, the accentuation of class disparity can also occur through the definition of concepts such as “smartness.” Karen Ho describes, “On Wall Street, ‘smartness’ means much more than individual intelligence; it conveys a naturalized and generic sense of ‘impressiveness,’ of elite, pinnacle status and expertise… to be implicated in a web of situated practices and ideologies… [that] contribute to the sector’s vast influence” (Ho 167). According to Ho, the very definition of Wall Street’s idea of intelligence requires an individual to be elite. When looking at Ivy League Universities, there is a clear correlation between acceptance rates and high—or elite—socioeconomic status. Even accepting the assumption that admissions operate under a “need-blind” system, the elite with more money have more educational opportunities to further their test scores and pursue internships that contribute to impressive resumes.
Therefore, it makes sense for Wall Street to heavily recruit from Ivy League institutions if they are looking for those who embody “impressiveness” and “smartness.” However, even disregarding the heavy Ivy League recruitment by Wall Street, someone not a member of the upper class elite has no chance of making a career as a stock broker, because the concept of “smartness” limits the non-elite’s capability to be employed by Wall Street and therefore contribute their ideas to the global financial sector. Meanwhile, the world is transfixed by how “smart” these Wall Street stock brokers are, while in fact many people of lower socioeconomic status could be more intelligent than the chosen elite and could therefore offer more to societal development—yet they are unable to because they lack the elite component of “smartness.” Therefore by flaunting their riches and their “smartness,” the elite limit the capability of lower class individuals to have careers in—and present ideas to—high-profile industries that contribute to the development of society.
Additionally, the informal limitation of free thought by hegemonic elites prevents the spread of new ideas, and therefore stagnates the development of society. In order to keep themselves in power, the elite attempt to limit the dispersal of information or ideas that do not support their ideology while they use their influence to spread the information or ideas that do. When the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline sought to sell anti-depressant drugs to Japan, they found that the perception of depression in Japan was different from that of the United States. Watters wrote, “Someone with a melancholic personality possessed a highly developed sense of orderliness … Typus melancholicus mirrored a particularly respected personality style in Japan: those who were serious, diligent, and thoughtful and expressed great concern for the welfare of other individuals and the society as a whole” (Watters 520). In Japan, qualities that are present in a depressed person are revered and not viewed as something that needs modification.
Regardless, GlaxoSmithKline attempted to find ways to alter the Japanese culture in order to impose the Western perception of depression and to ultimately make a profit. The hegemonic elites also seek to limit conflicting ideologies through political platforms, particularly those of neoliberal politicians. Harvey describes, “The founding figures of neoliberal thought took political ideals of individual liberty and freedom as sacrosanct, as ‘the central values of civilization’... appeals to freedom and liberty surround us rhetorically at every turn and populate all manner of contemporary political manifestos” (Harvey 146). In this instance, the neoliberal elites make it difficult for individuals to oppose their policies and ideologies, because they run their platform on the universally appealing ideals of freedom and liberty. Therefore, the neoliberals can argue that anyone who disagrees with them, does not want people to have freedom and liberty, therefore rendering their opposing arguments invalid. These one-dimensional repressive elements on freedom of thought limits the expression of non-elitist ideas that have the potential to progress society. Therefore through the manipulation of cultural perceptions of issues such as depression and the oversimplification of political platforms to represent fundamental political values, the hegemonic elite limit the power of their dissenters’ voices, ultimately limiting the diversity of thought that leads to innovation.
The way the hegemonic elites exert their influence onto the masses, limits the voice conflicting ideologies have and the scope of their influence. Whether its changing the definition of “smartness” and therefore “success” as described by Ho, or running political platforms based on undeniable human values like Harvey explains in reference to the neoliberal party, or forcing treatment for something not culturally viewed as a problem as discovered by Watters, hegemonic elitism limits expression in society. Without the ability to share ideas freely, society is limited to one-dimensional concepts of discourse and is unable to socially, or scientifically adapt to the needs of the times. If, for instance, the field of science is only influenced by the elitist way of thinking, there is no way for scientists to influence each others’ work through varying perspectives, limiting scientific collaboration, which is essential for ground-breaking discoveries and innovations. The hegemony of elitist principles therefore limits the expansion of knowledge, and without gaining more knowledge about the world, it is impossible to develop society into a more progressive state.