Monday, January 3, 2011

Dusting off Hegemony

In most European newspapers the word “hegemony” is used most often in connection with the dominance of American Imperialism. This is a rather flat view of political or classical hegemony, which we might have once learned about in our history class when studying ancient Greek city-states. And an interpretation that's used almost interchangeably (and incorrectly) with imperialism in general. I came across the word “hegemony” in a book I'm currently reading about postcolonialism, however, and it inspired me to blow the dust off the term and have a closer look at its true meaning. What I discovered showed me how an understanding of the historic use of the term “hegemony” could have a far-reaching impact for understanding and changing the contemporary hegemonies that we are entangled in.

The word “hegemony” had it's day of rebirth back in the early 1930's, when the Italian communist, Antonio Gramsci, gave it a whole new depth of meaning. He was locked away by the fascist regime in Italy, but managed to smuggle his ideas out past the prison guards in what is now referred to as his Prison Notebooks. He took the term “hegemony” and bent it beyond what we knew as the political hegemony of international relations and applied it to social classes. Within a social structure, a dominant class – in his argumentation, the bourgeois class – maintained its power through a hegemony over the subordinate class, i.e. the working class. This domination, however, was never achieved through force alone, rather through a combination of coercion and consent. And here the dynamic (Machiavellian) view of hegemony develops!

How could consent be attained from the subordinate class? How could a class actively consent to their subordinated status? This was done through the vessel of ideology. Leading-class ideologies are always, at least in part, willingly adopted by the subordinate class. Naturally, coercion is also used for the transference of ideologies, but consent makes a lack of power less obvious, easier to swallow.

A key means of gaining consent is through negotiation. By giving subordinate groups part of what they want, they are lulled into further accepting the hegemony and are less likely to develop a so-called counter-hegemony, which is a rival movement countering the dominant culture.

So far so good, and so much for communism. As you see, I'm already starting to drift from using the word “class” to using the word “culture.” Indeed Gramsci's concepts were adopted within other social studies, like that of colonialism, for example, which is were I ran across the term and why I'm now writing this essay. I'll try to broaden the use of “hegemony” further and just stick to the word “group” now (instead of “class” or “culture”) because the essence of what I'm attempting to communicate is neither about political dominance nor the class struggle. My key interest lies in the use of consent achieved through negotiation as a means of attaining and maintaining power.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this essay, I want to examine contemporary hegemonies. But I'm not going to talk about specific political hegemonies or specific power dominations. We can leave that to the specialists. I want to examine the contemporary hegemonies that we are entangled in. I want to broaden the usage of hegemony without loosing any of its dynamic meaning that Gramsci introduced.

I'll attempt this by introducing my idea that we all function within a “hegemonic spectrum.” We, as individuals, are members of both dominant and subordinate groups. Those groups can be small-scale, within a family or business, or large-scale, internationally or globally. And while my theory looses some strength when applied to the extremely dominant (a powerful C.E.O.) or the extremely subordinate (a resident of a third-world slum), it is nevertheless illuminating as a concept and quite applicable to the majority of readers of this essay.

First, again drawing initially on Gramsci's work and then expanding, I'll have to sadly debunk our ideas of freedom and individuality. We are products of ideologies. Rather, we exist in a continuum of ideologies, are the products of some and the producers of others. We are the products of dominant ideologies and of subordinate ideologies that gained acceptance through counter-hegemonies that managed to usurp a degree power (for example, the feminist movement). We're also the product of synthesized ideologies, although most ideologies tend to run parallel and can be fraught with contradictions. We can better navigate this stratosphere of ideologies if we superimpose it on a hegemonic spectrum.

If we examine where we are on the hegemonic spectrum we can question in what ways and to whom we are subordinate. I am subordinate to mass-marketing through coercion and consent. How am I “forced” to purchase certain consumer goods? How is this “force” most often disguised as “consent?” How is what I consume keeping me subordinate to corporate ideologies? What kind of “negotiating” are businesses doing with me? How are they giving me part of what I want? Can a pluralistic consumerism be achieved? Or will a counter-hegemony be needed to retaliate against corporate ideologies?

We can also examine, however, in what ways and over whom we are dominant. Let's stick to the subject of consumerism. How does my position in the western world serve to coerce people in developing countries into subordination? How do free trade agreements provide a primary economic profit for the capitalistic west? How does my meat consumption put me in a position of global dominion.

As you can see just by the example of consumerism, we are often positioned as both the oppressor and the oppressed on a given hegemonic spectrum. But other examples bring other spectrums and our position of power is variable. Power doesn't always converge in the same point. Hence, a person can be be stronger on one spectrum and weaker on another. Objectively, when we speak of “group” hegemony, however, the convergence points for various issues with their various hegemonic spectrums tend to be far on the dominant side.

By illuminating how we function in the hegemonic spectrum we have a better chance at understanding, questioning, and changing the ideologies that make up our being. And even if freedom is intrinsically an illusion, the “aspiration” to freedom is an ideology that I, personally, ascribe to. The more we understand how we are “letting” ourselves be manipulated, the more we understand how we are “choosing” to play a role in the manipulation of others, the more chance we have of distancing ourselves from these often subconscious behavioral patterns. The ensuing responsibility that we are confronted with, through having to make conscious choices in our actions will, I believe, empower us to redefine ourselves outside of a hegemonic structure. Once outside the structure we can become open to pluralistic self and world views, which are beyond traditional power structures.


In future essays I'll be discussing many of my questions about consumerism. I'll also touch on ideologies and how they coordinate with our modern reference systems. There's another Gramscian concept of “common sense” that I'll be incorporating, too. I'll also be getting back to my usage of “aspiration” and the relevance of aspiration to peace, aspiration to solidarity, and aspiration to freedom as a form of ethical inspiration. And of course, I'll be addressing “online hegemony” and examining just how “virtual” it is.


  1. YES Fay !!!!
    It is nice to be reminded of Gramsci, I need more reflection the dominate hegemonic culutre and its relation to poverty. In my work most of my clients seem to be stuck with the illusion that if only they had more money and material things they would be happy. Ofcourse I know this is not true seeing that I have "things" and still feel a lack. I am encouraged by your blog and look forward to reading more. I will send you a book title on Gramsci and Anthropology that is great!
    please don't mind the spelling mistakes I am on a broken key board.

  2. Thanks Maura. Looking forward to the reference.