Hegemony, initially a term referring to the dominance of one state within a confederation, is now generally understood to mean domination by consent. This broader meaning was coined and popularized in the 1930s by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who investigated why the ruling class was so successful in promoting its own interests in society. Fundamentally, hegemony is the power of the ruling class to convince other classes that their interests are the interests of all. Domination is thus exerted not by force, nor even necessarily by active persuasion, but by a more subtle and inclusive power over the economy, and over state apparatuses such as education and the media, by which the ruling class’s interest is presented as the common interest and thus comes to be taken for granted.
The term is useful for describing the success of imperial power over a colonized people who may far outnumber any occupying military force, but whose desire for self-determination has been suppressed by a hegemonic notion of the greater good, often couched in terms of social order, stability and advancement, all of which are defined by the colonizing power. Hegemony is important because the capacity to influence the thought of the colonized is by far the most sustained and potent operation of imperial power in colonized regions. Indeed, an ‘empire’ is distinct from a collection of subject states forcibly controlled by a central power by virtue of the effectiveness of its cultural hegemony. Consent is achieved by the interpellation of the colonized subject by imperial discourse so that Euro-centric values, assumptions, beliefs and attitudes are accepted as a matter of course as the most natural or valuable. The inevitable consequence of such interpellation is that the colonized subject understands itself as peripheral to those Euro-centric values, while at the same time accepting their centrality.
A classic example of the operation of hegemonic control is given by Gauri Viswanathan, who shows how ‘the humanistic functions traditionally associated with the study of literature – for example, the shaping of character or the development of the aesthetic sense or the disciplines of ethical thinking – can be vital in the process of sociopolitical control’ (1987: 2). Such control was maintained by the British government when it took responsibility for education in India after the Charter Act of 1813. Searching for a method of communicating the values of Western civilization to Indians which avoided offending their Hindu sensibilities, the administration discovered the power of English literature as a vehicle for imperial authority. ‘The strategy of locating authority in these texts all but effaced the sordid history of colonialist expropriation, material exploitation, and class and race oppression behind European world dominance . . . the English literary text functioned as a surrogate Englishman in his highest and most perfect state’ (Viswanathan 1987: 23). This Englishman was, at the same time, the embodiment of universal human values. As Viswanathan puts it, the ‘split between the material and the discursive practices of colonialism is nowhere sharper than in the progressive refraction of the rapacious, exploitative and ruthless actor of history into the reflective subject of literature’ (22–23). This refraction is a precise demonstration of one mode of hegemonic control. It proved a particularly effective one because the discourse of English literature was disseminated with its attendant spiritual values, cultural assumptions, social discriminations, racial prejudices and humanistic values more or less intact.
HEGEMONY IN CULTURAL STUDIES
The concept of hegemony played a significant part in the development of cultural studies and was a core concept of the field during the 1970s and 1980s. According to this theory, there is a strand of meanings within any given culture that can be called governing or ascendant. The process of making, maintaining and reproducing this authoritative set of meanings, ideologies and practices has been called hegemony.
For Gramsci, from whom cultural studies appropriated the term, hegemony implies a situation where a ‘historical bloc’ of ruling class factions exercises social authority and leadership over the subordinate classes through a combination of force and, more importantly, consent. Gramscian concepts proved to be of longlasting significance within cultural studies because of the central importance given to popular culture as a site of ideological struggle. In effect, Gramsci makes ideological struggle and conflict within civil society the central arena of cultural politics, with hegemonic analysis the mode of gauging the relevant balance of forces.
Within Gramscian analysis, a hegemonic bloc never consists of a single socioeconomic category but is formed through a series of alliances in which one group takes on a position of leadership. Ideology plays a crucial part in allowing this alliance of groups (originally conceived in class terms) to overcome narrow economic-corporate interest in favour of ‘National-Popular’ dominance. Thus, ‘a cultural–social unity’ is achieved through which a multiplicity of dispersed wills and heterogeneous aims are welded together to form a common conception of the world. The building, maintenance or subversion of a common conception of the world is an aspect of ideological struggle involving a transformation of understanding through criticism of the existing popular ideologies.
Hegemony can be understood in terms of the strategies by which the worldviews and power of ascendant social groups are maintained. However, this has to be seen in relational terms and as inherently unstable since hegemony is a temporary settlement and series of alliances between social groups that is won and not given. Further, it needs to be constantly re-won and re-negotiated so that culture is a terrain of conflict and struggle over meanings. Hegemony is not a static entity but is constituted by a series of changing discourses and practices that are intrinsically bound up with social power. Since hegemony has to be constantly re-made and rewon, it opens up the possibility of a challenge to it; that is, the making of a counterhegemonic bloc of subordinate groups and classes.
Neo-Gramscian hegemony theory has been challenged on the grounds that Western culture no longer has a dominant centre either in terms of production ormeaning. Rather, culture is heterogeneous both in terms of the different kinds of texts produced and the different meanings that compete within texts. Right across the Western world, it is argued, we have been witnessing the end of anything remotely resembling a ‘common culture’. In particular, the past thirty years have seen the fragmentation of lifestyle cultures through the impact of migration, the ‘reemergence’ of ethnicity, the rise and segmentation of youth cultures and the impact of gender politics. Above all, the restructuring of global capitalism, niche marketing and the aestheticization of daily life through the creation of an array of lifestyles centred on the consumption of aesthetic objects and signs has fragmented the cultures of class blocs.
In their post-Marxist revision of the concept of hegemony Laclau and Mouffe put aside the final determination of social and cultural relations by class, which for them does not determine cultural meanings. That is, ideology has no ‘classbelonging’. They stress that history has no prime agents of social change and a social formation has no one central point of antagonism. Instead, hegemonic and counter-hegemonic blocs are formed through temporary and strategic alliances of a range of discursively constructed subjects and groups of interest. Here, the ‘social’ is not understood to be an object but rather a field of contestation in which multiple descriptions of the self and others compete for ascendancy. For Laclau and Mouffe, it is the role of hegemonic practices to try to fix difference, to put closure around the unstable meanings of signifiers in the discursive field.