by Erez Ben-Akiva
In political theory, soft power refers to a state’s ability to persuade another state or body through cultural or economic influence. It exists in contrast to hard power, which is a state’s ability to persuade through physical, often violent coercion. Soft power is closely linked to ideology, as ideology is usually the driving force behind soft power. Karl Marx, for example, termed ideology as a set of “ruling ideas,” and “thus an expression of social power as well as a way of defending social power by soft, nonviolent means” (Ryan). Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser echoes a similar point in differentiating between soft and hard power via the idea of apparatuses utilized by the state. Hard power, according to Althusser, is the “Repressive State Apparatus” whereas soft power, so reliant on nonviolent persuasion, is the “Ideological State Apparatus” (Buchanan). As Althusser sees it, whereas hard power is enforced by a state’s military, police force, and justice/prison system, soft power is enforced by a “loose coalition of largely private or nongovernmental entities such as churches, schools, universities, trade unions, the media, and even the family” (Buchanan).
Additionally, soft power serves a synonym for the concept of hegemony, a term first coined by the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. As Gramsci put it, hegemony was a type of power held by a state that perpetuates its authority without requiring violent coercion. According to Gramsci then, hegemony/soft power indicated that culture (or ideology as other scholars refer to it) was just as valuable of a political tool for maintaining power as military force. Also, the soft power of a state is not limited to external, foreign relationships but can be utilized internally too. For example, Marxist scholar Benedict Anderson has identified soft power as the foundation of nationhood, as it is hegemony that creates “a sense of bonded coherence amongst a large group of people who could not possibly know each other” (Buchanan).
Althusser, Louis, and Ben Brewster. Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays. Monthly Review Press, 2001.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso, 1983.
Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. Verso, 2014.
Buchanan, Ian. “Hegemony.” A Dictionary of Critical Theory, Oxford University Press, 2010. ProQuest.
Buchanan, Ian. “Ideological State Apparatus (ISA).” A Dictionary of Critical Theory, Oxford University Press, 2010. ProQuest.
Ryan, Michael. "Ideology." The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory, edited by Michael Ryan, Wiley, 1st edition, 2011. Credo Reference, http://libproxy.union.edu/login?auth=shibboleth&url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/wileylitcul/ideology/0?institutionId=5120. Accessed 24 Mar. 2021.