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Antonio Gramsci's Theory of Hegemony

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 1860 words Published: 3rd Jul 2018

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Hegemony is the processes by which dominant culture maintains its dominant position: for example, the use of institutions to formalize power; the employment of a bureaucracy to make power seem abstract (and, therefore, not attached to any one individual); the inculcation of the populace in the ideals of the hegomonic group through education, advertising, publication, etc.; the mobilization of a police force as well as military personnel to subdue opposition.

In international relations, there is a consolidated tradition that associates hegemony and world order. Nevertheless, the relation between the two variables, their interpretation, and the direction of the causal link between them, is still a matter of scholarly debate.

The definition of hegemony and an empire has been hotly debated over the past few decades. Some believe hegemony is a tactic to avoid the word empire and the negative connotations that are associated with it. Others believe that a hegemony is a more technical, well thought out form of an empire. Some believe it is a lesser form of imperialism. Although one thing that is not disputed is the fact that hegemony very well is a form of dominance over a smaller, weaker nation, and no matter what one may call it, or how it may be approached, dominance will continue to flourish through the ages. Referring to the organization of the international system after the Second World War, Kindleberger argued that ‘stensibly, the system was’ organized by rules and international institutions. In reality, it was led by the United States”

In this essay, Antonio Gramsci’s hegemony approach will be deeply analysed and examined and also compared and contrasted with the other’s approaches.


In order to understand Gramsci and the concept of hegemony, one has to look briefly at the work of Karl Marx. Marxism viewed everything in life as determined by capital. (Williams, R. 1977) The flow of money affects our relations with other people and the world surrounding us. Marx stated that everything around us, our activities and way of life is determined by economic content. According to Marxism, men find themselves born in a process independent of their will, they cannot control it, they can seek only to understand it and guide their actions accordingly. (Williams, R. 1977)

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The class struggle was an important part of Marxism. Marxism stated that society can only be understood in terms of a system where the dominant ideas are formulated by the ruling class to secure its control over the working class. (Williams, R. 1977) Due to exploitation, the working class will eventually try and change this situation through revolution producing its own ideas as well as its own industrial and political organization.

Marx’s work is highly influenced by economic reasoning. He divides this economic reasoning into two levels, being the base and superstructure. The base is composed by the material production, money, objects, the relations of production and the stage of development of productive forces. (Williams, R. 1977) The superstructure is where we find the political and ideological institutions, our social relations, set of ideas; our cultures, hopes, dreams and spirit. (Williams, R. 1977) Both the base and superstructure are shaped by capital.

While one could say that Marx was primarily concerned with the base and economic issues, Gramsci’s work seeks to focus on the superstructure and ideologies. For Gramsci, the class struggle must always involve ideas and ideologies. These ideas would lead to a revolution and to change. Gramsci tried to build a theory which recognized the autonomy, independence and importance of culture and ideology. (Ransome, P. 1992) Gramsci took the superstructure a step further when he divided it into institutions that were coercive and those that were not. The coercive ones, were basically the public institutions such as the government, police, armed forces and the legal system which he regarded as the state or political society and the non-coercive ones were the others such as the churches, the schools, trade unions, political parties, cultural associations, clubs and family, which he regarded as civil society. (Boggs, C. 1976) So for Gramsci, society was made up of the relations of production as well as the state or political society and civil society.

Gramsci accepted the analysis of capitalism put forward by Marx and accepted that the struggle between the ruling class and the subordinate working class was the driving force that moved society forward. (Boggs, C. 1976) Gramsci did not agree with the notion put forward by Marx that the ruling class stayed in power solely because they had economic power. He thus introduced his own concept using ideology. Ideology is the shared ideas or beliefs which serve to justify the interests of dominant groups. (Boggs, C. 1976) Gramsci felt that ideological power kept the ruling class in power because it allowed them to brainwash and manipulate the rest of society.

Ideology is the cohesive force which binds people together. Ideology, like hegemony must not only express the class interests of the capitalist or working class. Gramsci insists that ideology has a material nature in the social lives of individuals, as ideologies are embedded in communal modes of living and acting. (R. Simon, 1992) This means that ideologies are embodied in the social practices of individuals and in the institutions and organizations within which these social practices take place. Ideology provides people with the rules of practical conduct and moral behavior. Ideological power stems from norms or shared understandings of how people should act morally in their relations with each other. (R. Simon, 1992) Those who monopolize ideological power have authority over others.

Subordinate groups tend to accept the ideas and values of the dominant group without physical or mental influence because they know no better or there are not other alternatives. (Ransome, P. 1992) From Gramsci’s view, the bourgeoisie gained and maintained power due to economic domination and intellectual and moral leadership. Here, Gramsci introduced a new concept which he called hegemony. Hegemony is a set of ideas by means of which dominant groups strive to secure the consent of subordinate groups to their leadership. (Ransome, P. 1992) It occurs when dominant classes in society maintain their dominance persuading the other classes of society to accept their moral, political and cultural values. This means that the majority in a population give consent to policies and ideologies implemented by those in power. One must not assume that this consent is always willing. Those in power may combine physical force or coercion with intellectual, moral and cultural persuasion. (Ransome, P. 1992) The dominant ideology is thus accepted, practiced and spread. Hegemony emerges out of social and class struggles and serves to shape and influence people.

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According to Gramsci, hegemony never disappears but is constantly changed. He describes two forms of social control. The first type is coercive control which is achieved through the use of direct force or threat of force. (Simon, R. 1992) The second type is consensual control which arises when individuals voluntarily adopt the worldview of the dominant group. (Simon, R. 1992)

Gramsci says that within civil society, the dominant group exercises hegemony which is intellectual domination over the subordinate group or consensual control, whereas in political society, domination is exercised through state or juridical government or coercive control. (Gramsci, A. 1971) These functions are very much interlinked in the sense that intellectual domination is usually preceded by political domination. Social hegemony and political government are enforced historically in which the dominant group enjoys its position because of its function in the world of production and legally by state coercive power which enforces discipline on groups that do not consent. (Gramsci, A. 1971) This gives rise to a division of labor or specialization and to a whole hierarchy of qualifications.

Gramsci stated that the only way the working class can achieve hegemony is if it takes into account the interests of other groups and social forces and finds ways of combining them with its own interests. (Ransome, P. 1992) In other words, the working class will need to build alliances with social minorities, taking into account their struggles against the capital class, thus strengthening the position of the working class. The labour process was at the center of the class struggle but it was the ideological struggle that had to be addressed if the mass of the people were to come to a realization that allowed them to question their political and economic rulers’ right to rule.

Hegemony is exercised in civil society which is a tangle of class struggles and democratic struggles. (Simon, R. 1992) Hegemony in civil society must achieve leadership in the sphere of production taken up by the bourgeoisie, controlling the productive process and achieving state power. Those who have economic power have a strong link to political power and vice versa. Those who monopolize control over economic production, distribution, exchange and consumption is the dominant class which has the most power.

A change in hegemony may occur when the dominant class begins to break up, creating an opportunity for the subordinate classes to merge and build up a movement capable of challenging the weakened dominant class and achieving hegemony. But, if this opportunity is not taken, then the dominant class has the opportunity to reorganize new alliances and reestablish hegemony.

Hegemony goes beyond culture which is the whole social process in which people define and shape their lives. It is bases in ideology which is a system of meanings and values that expresses a particular class interest. (Simon, R. 1992) In order to create a class strong enough to have hegemony, one has to first instill a solid ideology based on specific interests that will dominate the rest of society, using the influence of capitalist relations.

Gramsci felt that in order to have hegemony, ideologies have to be instilled by certain people or leaders. Gramsci identified intellectuals as leaders in society. He identified two types of intellectuals. The first is traditional intellectuals who are people that regard themselves as independent of the dominant social group and are regarded as such by the majority of the population. (Gramsci, A. 1971) The second type is the organic intellectual. This is the group that grows organically with the ruling class, and is their thinking and organizing element. (Gramsci, A. 1971) They were produced by the educational system to perform a function for the dominant social group in society. It is through this group that the ruling class maintains its hegemony over the rest of society.


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