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Hegemony, from the Greek hegemón (guide, ruler, leader) and hegemonia (rule, leadership), denotes the preeminent influence a state, social class, group, or individual exercises over others. Today it is especially associated with the Italian Marxist and revolutionary Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), for whom it is the core and organizing concept of his social and political ideas. More recently hegemony has gained wide currency in social and political thought, international politics, as well as in cultural and literary studies.

In ancient Greek usage, one meaning of a hegemón is leader of a consensual alliance of the military forces of different poleis. Another, and more important, sense of hegemón refers to a polis at the head of an alliance consisting of a number of poleis that come together freely in order to address a common military threat. Here hegemony is a system of alliances in which a state exercises power and leadership over mutually consenting states. Herodotus (484–c. 420 B.C.E.) in his Histories describes the war of the Greeks against the Persians in terms of such an alliance. Thucydides (460/455–c. 401 B.C.E.), in his History of the Peloponnesian War, often uses the term in both senses of a military and political alliance. He notes that the Delian League, originally a voluntary alliance of states under the leadership of Athens established to confront the Persian threat against the common interests of the members, gradually turned into an Athenian Empire in which allies became subjects serving only Athenian self-interest. Thucydides cites this transformation as the primary reason for the Peloponnesian War.

In effect, in ancient Greece an alliance in which a hegemonic state assumes predominant military and political leadership is characterized by four fundamental structural elements. The first is a duality in structure: the hegemón on one side and its allies on the other. The second factor is the lack of a common citizenship. Individuals were citizens only of their own polis. And the third characteristic was that membership in the alliance was fluid—that is, different poleis entered or left it according to the strategic and political dynamics of the international environment. A fourth element, historically but not necessarily conceptually linked to the other three, is the tendency of a hegemonic alliance to transform itself into the imperial rule of the leading state.

Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) and Isocrates (436–338 B.C.E.) also employ hegemony to distinguish imperial from hegemonic rule. In the Politics, Aristotle distinguishes two types of rule, despotic and political (or constitutional). The first describes government over unequals in the interest of the ruler, and the second is rule among equals in the interest of the ruled. He uses the term hegemony when talking about the leadership of equals in the interest of all, and despotism when discussing the domination of others in the ruler's self-interest. It is to be noted that Aristotle's use of hegemony is closely related to his classification of governments in which legitimate and illegitimate types are differentiated according to whether they are lawabiding and pursue the common good.

Isocrates, in such works as The Panegyricus and On the Peace, laments the transformation of the Delian League into the Athenian Empire, attributing Athens's fall to its despotic rule over Greeks. He establishes a distinction not unlike Aristotle's: hegemony is leadership exercised over free and consenting allies, and despotism is the exercise of domination or force. Isocrates links the exercise of hegemony with the dissemination of moral/intellectual as well as cultural and aesthetic ideas. Athens is the natural hegemonic leader because she is the school of Hellas, the teacher and guide of Hellenes and, through them, the world.

Athens as the cultural and moral center of Greece (also proclaimed by Pericles in his Funeral Oration) points to another important meaning of hegemony: namely, as the ruling or guiding principle or idea. Thus Isocrates, following the rhetorician Gorgias (c. 485–c. 380 B.C.E.), proclaimed the supremacy of reason and discourse. Thus too rhetoric and public speech were deemed central to political and social life, and opposing discourses and narratives competed for recognition and preeminence. Moreover, Greek political thought generally struggled with the relation between power and knowledge. Without knowledge, power is reduced to mindless violence and coercion, purposeless and unpredictable. And without power, knowledge is ineffectual. Greek thinkers tried to reconcile or synthesize power and knowledge in order to construct a stable and just political order. Hegemony as a ruling principle expresses this ambition to empower knowledge and to educate power.

Macedon and Rome put an end to these political and conceptual distinctions. The rise of Stoicism and Epicureanism, the triumph of Christianity, combined with the Germanic invasions, inaugurated a new civilization wherein the classical emphasis on political and public action, with its concomitant distinctions between free rule and despotism, hegemony and empire, ceased to have meaning. The rise of the Italian city-states, the coming of the Reformation, and the rise of English and Dutch republican radicalism, as well as the social, economic, and cultural/intellectual changes that paralleled these events, once again placed at center stage political and conceptual issues dealing with liberty and domination, constitutional and despotic government, state independence and imperialism.

Hegemony, however, both as a term and a concept, did not regain currency until the nineteenth century. Since then, with important exceptions and under the rubric of hegemonism, it was generally applied to the international sphere in which a state exercises overwhelming power over others and thus comes to dominate them.

In Europe during the latter half of the nineteenth century, the rise of working-class and peasant parties and movements, combined with socialist, anarchist, and Marxist critiques of liberalism and capitalism, challenged the existing sociopolitical order and questioned the legitimacy of its moral/intellectual claims to liberty and equality. In Germany, controversies within the working-class movement and its Social Democratic Party centered around the mechanics of capitalism and appropriate strategies (reform or revolution) for its overthrow. In Russia the term hegemony was made current by socialists such as George V. Plekhanov (1855?–1918), Paul B. Akselrod (1850–1928), Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), and Vladimir I. Lenin (1870–1924), and it referred to the leading role of the working class in a system of alliances directed against the prevailing order. During the first decade of the twentieth century, Lenin and the Bolsheviks, in their competition with Mensheviks and socialist revolutionaries for the favor of workers and peasants, devised a revolutionary strategy in which the proletariat would assume a hegemonic role and lead the peasantry and oppressed national minorities to the overthrow of tsarism and the institution of a socialist sociopolitical order. Here hegemony is seen as an alliance of social forces in which the working class plays a preeminent role. The Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in 1918, and the consequent imposition of party dictatorship revealed the authoritarian character of Soviet communism, which exposed the rhetoric of hegemony and democratic alliances as mere instrumental formulas masking domination and terror.

It is with Antonio Gramsci, especially in his prison writings collected in the Prison Notebooks (1929–1935), that hegemony acquired conceptual coherence and theoretical significance. In his thought, hegemony became more than a synonym for preeminent power or a term used ad hoc to refer to asymmetrical power relations. Like Lenin, he criticized the economic determinism of Marxist thought and emphasized the use of reason and will to change economic, social, and political structures. Unlike Lenin, he developed a more nuanced and more articulated theory of state and society. His notion of hegemony regarded state and society and their interrelationships as based on the formulation and dissemination of cultural, ideological, and moral/intellectual systems of value and belief. Thus the state is not pure force and violence, nor is it merely the dictatorship of one class over another. Returning to Hegel's notion of history and politics as the products of humanity's reflexive activity in the world, Gramsci understood hegemony as the historical unfolding and its articulation within concrete societies of a conscious and disciplined human subjectivity.

Both Lenin and Gramsci identified the formation of a conscious historical subject as the fundamental problem of revolutionary Marxism: though the economic and structural conditions were present, the working class, the actor assigned to carry out the revolution, was culturally and politically ill prepared to organize it and construct a new order. In Russia, Lenin and the Bolshevik Party gave history a push and manufactured the revolution in the name of the workers and peasants, a strategy that failed in more advanced countries. Attempting to understand this failure, especially the victory of fascism in Italy, Gramsci focused on the differences between the West and Russia regarding the nature, structure, and purpose of state and society. Gramsci contrasts the sociopolitical order confronting Lenin's Bolsheviks in Russia and that faced by the communists in the West. The differences in social and political structures between the East and the West require different methods and strategy in order to overcome liberal capitalism. Gramsci notes that in Russia the "State was everything" and civil society "primordial" and weak, while in the West civil society was strong and resilient, such that there was a "proper relation" between state and civil society.

Gramsci radically changes both the Marxist conceptions of state and society and their interrelationship. Civil society is the sphere of liberty, where consent and persuasion are generated. Yet it is also the sphere of cultural, ideological, religious, and economic conflict, where this conflict is defined by the contest of voluntary and secondary associations such as trade unions, political parties, sects and churches, schools and universities, civic organizations, and interest groups of various kinds. Civil society in the West has developed massive and complex structures of social and political institutions that together legitimate and render stable the prevailing order. The interwoven and multiple layers of complex associations of modern democracy render revolution impossible in the West. Gramsci opposes civil society to political society and hegemony to dictatorship. The latter means the juridical, administrative, and military apparatus of government and represents force and coercion. It is also the classical liberal understanding of the state, what nineteenth-century Europeans called the "night-watchman" state. The two spheres, while analytically distinct, mutually penetrate and reinforce each other. In fact, one presupposes the other. Hence Gramsci sees what he calls the "integral state" as "civil society plus political society." Hence too, in Gramsci (as in Hobbes and Locke), one cannot have a viable civil society without a viable government.

Hegemony is intimately linked to civil society. The strength and viability of civil society (i.e., the degree of complexity and articulation of social, economic, and cultural groups) is directly related to the degree of hegemonic power. Within both state and society, hegemony is seen as the generation and organization of consent—namely, the formation of a "conception of the world" and its dissemination throughout the people. Such a conception (an "ideology" or a system of beliefs) is always opposed to different conceptions of the world. These are constantly in conflict, in a "battle" against each other, and the hegemonic conception is one that has been transformed into the generalized habits and customs of the people. A counterconception, or a counterhegemony, is constantly generated, even if only embryonically, to challenge the prevailing one. Intellectuals generate and disseminate these values and ideas, yet the latter cannot become politically and historically significant without their proliferation throughout the people. Hence, in modern society, especially democracies, the battle over opposing values and competing Weltanschauungen underlines the crucial role played by the people, especially in the form of public opinion.

What Gramsci looks at is the ways in which minority elite opinion (of intellectuals and opinion makers generally) is transformed into the people's or the majority's opinion and, in turn, the ways in which the two kinds of opinion interact and mutually affect one another. These concerns are reflected in his analyses of popular culture and its relation to high culture, in his discussion of the role played in modern society by newspapers, journals, and mass media generally, and in his inquiry into the historical and social bases of myth, folklore, and religion. The focus on popular culture and its relation to elite culture reflects Gramsci's original radical project: to discover within capitalist society a subordinate group (called "subaltern" by Gramsci) potentially able to become hegemonic. The purpose, character, and direction of Gramsci's hegemony is to understand why power structures are stable and persist over time and simultaneously to uncover within this structure subaltern groups, cultures, and ideas capable of hegemonic development.

Thus the hegemonic and the subaltern are intimately related, such that each is defined by the other. A group is hegemonic to the extent that it formulates a coherent system of knowledge and an articulated conception of the world that, once disseminated throughout the population, have become the way of life and the way of thinking of the entire society. Similarly, a group is subaltern to the extent that its ways of thinking and its consciousness are "disaggregated," fragmented and "discontinuous," such that it is incapable of autonomous action. It is in the opposition between the hegemonic and the subaltern that a sociopolitical and sociocultural space opens up for the autonomous development of the latter. Hegemony was developed by Gramsci to identify within the preexisting order groups capable of opposition, both cultural and political, and capable of presenting an alternative to the structure of power and to its system of beliefs. The movement from the subaltern to the hegemonic is the movement from fragmentation to political and cultural coherence, and is what describes the formation of a group capable of self-government and thus capable of rule. In this sense, every hegemony generates a counter-hegemony, in which opposing conceptions of the world, and opposing systems of knowledge, confront each other in a struggle to construct and to transform reality.

Gramsci's emphasis on culture, its generation, proliferation, and transmission, led him to inquire into the reciprocal ways that language and power influence each other. Language formation and use construct ways of looking at the natural and social world. Language not merely expresses or reflects reality, but, more important, organizes and structures the world. There is a reciprocal relation between a hegemonic ruling group and the language it uses to define itself and to establish its supremacy. A subordinate group aspiring to preeminence must devise a language capable of understanding and capturing the reality it seeks to master. Languages, therefore, are either hegemonic or subaltern, and if the latter, potentially hegemonic.

In effect, hegemony is a complex and highly articulated concept and operates at various levels. First, in the manner of the ancient Greeks, it is a free and consensual alliance of groups that share similar interests and perhaps similar values, under the leadership of that group that manages to represent and pursue the interests and aims of the associated groups. Gramsci expresses this relationship in the polarity domination/leadership: leadership is exercised over allied groups, and domination ("even with armed force") over antagonistic groups. Second, hegemony may refer to the formation of an equilibrium between force and consent, such that force does not prevail "too much" over consent. Third, hegemonic power is power generated by values and beliefs, by moral/intellectual ideas through which the world is organized and perceived and through which the world acquires meaning. In this case hegemonic takes the sense of ruling principle or organizing idea. It explains the strength and resilience of the existing liberal capitalist system and the ability of its ruling groups to attain and maintain the allegiance of subordinate groups. Fourth, hegemony refers to a group equal to or capable of rule and self-rule—and capable of extending its view of the world throughout society. It describes the process by which a subordinate group acquires the ideological, institutional, and political means to formulate its own hegemonic conception of the world and oppose it to that espoused by the existing ruling group.

Hegemony, originally developed by Gramsci to unpack the complex of economic, political, and cultural sources of power in order to discover within the existing system the germs for revolutionary transformation, has been appropriated, either selectively or more rigorously, by a diverse number of intellectual discourses and academic disciplines. In international politics and political science, it is used variously either to describe an imperial system of domination, a voluntary alliance under a leading state, or simply to refer to the noncoercive, nonmilitary elements of power. In anthropology, it refers to the power and structural characteristics that underlie culture in its broadest sense. In sociolinguistics, the interaction between sociopolitical power and the emergence and development of languages (natural and specialized, local and dialectal) is stressed. In literary and cultural studies, popular forms of narratives and art as well as folk traditions and beliefs are analyzed. The polarity between the hegemonic and the subaltern has become central to fields of inquiry ranging from colonial and neocolonial studies to philosophy of language, to the study of rhetoric, and to the philosophy and sociology of education.

Such a polarity uncovers the power and class relationships that underlie fields of knowledge and the cognitive and methodological constructions developed to understand and to capture the material and the sociocultural reality. Since the hegemonic and the subaltern presuppose each other, understanding of a given reality means inquiring into the ways in which a dominant hegemony interacts with a subordinate culture, as well as the manner in which elite and mass mutually penetrate, oppose, or reinforce each other. Since the relation between hegemony and subalternity is fluid and changing, and since the subaltern is potentially hegemonic, contemporary uses of hegemony in various fields and disciplines articulate, and reflect, a political contest among competing interpretations and opposing values. Precisely because hegemony was developed as methodological concept to investigate established sociopolitical reality, it is also a political and social tool useful in the "battle" to generate differing views of the world and competing models of knowledge.

Benedetto Fontana

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