- 1: the act of subverting : the state of being subverted; especially : a systematic attempt to overthrow or undermine a government or political system by persons working secretly from within
- 2: obsolete : a cause of overthrow or destruction
Subversion refers to an attempt to transform the established social order, its structures of power, authority, exploitation, servitude, and hierarchy; examples of such structures include the state. It is an overturning or uprooting. A subversive is something or someone carrying the potential for some degree of subversion.
The word is present in all languages of Latin origin, originally applying to such events as the military defeat of a city. As early as the 14th century, it was being used in the English language with reference to laws, and in the 15th century came to be used with respect to the realm. The term has taken over from ‘sedition’ as the name for illicit rebellion, though the connotations of the two words are rather different, sedition suggesting overt attacks on institutions, subversion something much more surreptitious, such as eroding the basis of belief in the status quo or setting people against each other.
Recent writers, in the post-modern and post-structuralist traditions (including, particularly, feminist writers) have prescribed a very broad form of subversion. It is not, directly, the governing realm which should be subverted in their view, but the predominant cultural forces, such as patriarchy, individualism, and scientism. This broadening of the target of subversion owes much to the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, who stressed that communist revolution required the erosion of the particular form of ‘cultural hegemony’ in any society.
Theodor Adorno argued that the culture industry and its shallow entertainment was a system by which society was controlled through a top-down creation of standardized culture that intensified the commodification of artistic expression; in 1938 he said that capitalism has colonized every aspect of life so much that "every pleasure which emancipates itself from the exchange-value takes on subversive features".
In the 1970s, Deleuze and Guattari remarked the subversive nature of sexual drives:
If desire is repressed, it is because every position of desire, no matter how small, is capable of calling into question the established order of a society: not that desire is asocial, on the contrary. But it is explosive; there is no desiring-machine capable of being assembled without demolishing entire social sectors. Despite what some revolutionaries think about this, desire is revolutionary in its essence — desire, not left-wing holidays! — and no society can tolerate a position of real desire without its structures of exploitation, servitude, and hierarchy being compromised.