The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci believed the real struggle for emancipation did not lie in the control of the market or the state but in the sphere of "civil society" which for him was all the ideological and cultural relations in society.
He believed that the state (capitalists) continued to stay in power because of the "hegemonic consent" that they manufactured through the various ideological and cultural institutions in society rather than its "coercive force" applied through its state apparatus. For Gramsci, the only way the working classes in Italy could gain power was by taking control of these relations through counter-hegemony.
Over the years, we have seen the systematic use of various hegemonic tools such as the media, academic, religious and cultural institutions by the Malaysian government to manufacture consent and blind obedience to the state. In many ways, it has succeeded in producing many Malaysians who believe that the status quo is the only option for stability and progress.
Last Saturday, the demonstrations organised by Bersih , the coalition of civil society and opposition political parties for fair elections, I believe, is a crucial step towards building a counter-hegemonic force in Malaysia.
Prior to Saturday, we saw the government and the police calling the protests "illegal" because they did not have police permits. They claimed that demonstrations are very undemocratic and could ruin our country's image and drive away foreign investors.
We also saw the use of the mainstream media in Malaysia to send across the message that "demonstrations are not the right way to gain support from the public". Despite this we saw over 40,000 brave people turning up to call for election reforms. Seeing that obtaining hegemonic consent had failed, the government then deployed the police and FRU to use "coercive force" to clamp down on the demonstrators.
Then on Sunday we saw a virtual blackout of reporting on the protests by the submissive mainstream media. They claimed that only about 4,000 had turned up for the protests but we saw the real situation on the ground through images and video clips of the large demonstrations and police brutality broadcasted to the world, not just by Al-Jazeera but also by activists and concerned citizens via the internet on blogs, Malaysiakini, Youtube and so on.
Since then we have seen this event inciting discussions about elections reforms and human rights in various spaces across the country, both virtual and in homes and communities. I believe we are seeing the beginning of a new counter-hegemonic discourse fed up with blind consent. While the goal of the event was to deliver a memorandum to the King, it has created a momentum of its own.
At the same time, I believe the battle has just started. I think it is crucial that everyone seeking change in Malaysia continue to sustain this discourse leading up to the elections. Let us engage in discussions about the need for change with our families and friends in mosques, churches, temples, community associations, schools and workplace.
Let us use the Internet to send out the images and stories of Saturday so that it is not forgotten. All of us, I believe, can play a role in transforming this event into a strong counter-hegemonic force that will hopefully bring political and social change.