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What do you understand by the term ‘hegemony’?

| February 8, 2017

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This essay will consider the meaning of the term ‘hegemony’. It will weave personal interpretation with the academic literature, concentrating on Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony. Hegemony arguably originated with the Ancient Greek conception of political and military dominance (hēgemonía means ‘leadership’ and ‘rule’) (Chernow and Vallasi 1994: 1215). According to the traditional conception of hegemony the ‘ruler’ (hegemon) imposes its will upon subordinate states through the exercise or threat of military power, which is then translated into political dominance (Antoniades 2008). In the modern world, this kind of hegemony has largely disappeared. The mechanisms of control now operate in civil society in more subtle forms, such as politics, ideology, and the media. This essay will discuss some interpretation of hegemony and how they relate to contemporary capitalist society.
Some scholars and political commentators, such as the former French Minister of Foreign Affairs Hubert Védrine, believe that the United States is currently a global hegemon due to its widespread influence in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. However, as realist scholars such as Mearsheimer and Nye point out, the United States has never established a system of governance in these regions (Nye 1993).
This political and military hegemony has largely disappeared. In its place one might say that there is a kind of ‘cultural hegemony’. This concept was theorised in the early 19th century by the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who argued that the capitalist state was divided into two spheres, the ‘political society’, which rules through the use of force, and the ‘civil society’, which rules through popular consent. The latter is the public realm in which people, groups, trade unions and political parties interact. In this sphere, the ruling elite reproduce their ideology in popular culture and thus ‘manufacture consent’ for the bourgeois domination of the proletariat (Simon 1990). Domination is not imposed by force, but rather is adopted unwittingly and under the pretense of ordinary cultural development (Simon 1990; Bullock and Trombley 1999). This theory was adapted from Marx’s analysis of the socio-economic class system (another example of a hegemonic theory), and in a sense is part of a larger set of theories hypothesising that culture, ethics, and norms arise through what Bernard Mandeville called ‘the artifice of politicians’, although Gramsci placed greater emphasis on intellectuals. Indeed, it might be fitting to suggest that scholars such as Anderson and Hobsbawm, who spoke of ‘imagined communities’ and ‘invented traditions’, respectively, are also working within an intellectual framework of cultural hegemony. However, it is important to note that these theories do not describe an exploitative, alienating relationship in the same way as cultural hegemony does.
Both Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony and the modernist theories of nation are accurate in their analysis. Whether in the form of informal social and moral traditions transmitted from parent to child, or more structured systems conveyed through instruments such religion and law, culture is a means for the elite to control and manipulate the masses. As modernist anthropologists argue, patriotism is a particularly potent hegemonic force. Created in its present form in the 18th century by the state, today it provides justification for the foreign conflicts of the bourgeoisie. George Bush’s rhetoric related to the Iraq War (2003 – 2011) employed subjective concepts of the ‘enemy’, as well as identity terms such as ‘them’ and ‘us’, linguistic and cultural constructs designed to win over the American population.
Contemporary democracy is one of the clearest forms of cultural and political hegemony. It is an idealised political type, inculcated in the civil domain since the enlightenment, and now ‘perfected’ through universal suffrage. In Britain, politicians are almost exclusively from the middle class (usually educated at Oxford or Cambridge). Western liberal democracy is presented by the bourgeois state, operating in the civil realm, as the only viable political system. Thus the entire population willing participates in a game in which the middle class is demonstrably dominant.
Cultural hegemony can be seen with more clarity by looking at contemporary capitalist media. In many cases, the International News Agencies, such as Thomson Reuters, the Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse, control the information consumed by the public from start to finish. For example, in the coverage of the Egyptian Revolution, they commissioned the citizen-journalists who captured the news and then edited the copy that was distributed to clients, all of whom operated under contracts (Macgregor 2013). As Macgregor (2013: 35) argues, the coverage of ‘any major incident in the world originates as often than not in the words, photos, audio, and raw film footage coming from three main international agencies’. The American ‘televangelist’ movement, which is broadcast on channels such as the Trinity Broadcasting Network and The God Channel (featuring popular sensations like Joel Osteen), have been effective in propagating the religious ideals of a select few to a wider population. In this way, the state can feed the population the kind of information that supports its own cultural agenda. The best examples of this, of course, come from the pages of history, as in when the Nazi regime launched a calculated propaganda campaign through posters, the development of the ‘Hitler Youth’, and other devices to convince the people of Germany to support the persecution of the Jews.
It can be argued that in postmodern society, which is somewhat apathetic and cynical with regard to bourgeois cultural grade narratives, hegemony is less dominant. However, even here hegemonic capitalist consumerism has taken hold. The products produced by firms such as Google, Apple, and Nike provide the cultural pabulum for the people, who are controlled to an extent by corporations.
The meaning of the term hegemony is really a matter of interpretation. Cultural hegemony of the Gramscian type can clearly be seen in contemporary society. Some of it manifestations are centuries old, such as patriotism and religion, while others, such as consumerism, are relatively (but not entirely) unique to modern capitalism. Ultimately, hegemony has a variety of meanings, perhaps even one for every set of social, political and cultural instruments of control.

Reference list:

Antoniades, A (2008) From ‘Theories of Hegemony’ to ‘Hegemony Analysis’ in International Relations

Bullock, A. and Trombley, S. (1999) The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (3rd ed.)

Chernow, B. A. and Vallasi, G. A. eds. (1994) The Columbia Encyclopedia (Fifth ed.). New York: Columbia University Press
Simon, R. (1990) Gramsci’s Political Thought: An Introduction, London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd
Macgregor, P. (2013) International News Agencies: Global eyes that never blink, chapter in Journalism: New Challenges (ed. Fowler-Watt, K. and Allan, S.) Centre for Journalism & Communication Research, Bournemouth University: pp. 35-63 [Retrieved 21/02/2014]
Nye, J. S. (1993) Understanding International Conflicts: An introduction to Theory and History. New York: HarperCollins

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Category: Essay & Dissertation Samples, International Relations, Social Science