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.
Source: Post-colonial Studies The Key Concepts Second edition Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, Routledge 2007.
Further reading: Bharucha 1997; Gramsci 1988, 1991; Olson and Worsham 1999; San Juan 1995; Viswanathan 1989.