I have been examining Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. There are a few areas of this idea that I am unsure of and would like to hear others opinions on the meaning of this concept and its physical manifestations. The below quote comes from Gramsci’s prison note books:

“What we can do, for the moment, is to fix two major superstructural “levels”: the one that can be called “civil society”, that is the ensemble of organisms commonly called “private”, and that of “political society” or “the State”. These two levels correspond on the one hand to the function of “hegemony” which the dominant group exercises throughout society and on the other hand to that of “direct domination” or command exercised through the State and “judicial” government. The functions in question are precisely organisational and connective. The intellectuals are the dominant group’s “deputies” exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government.”

Now, in referring to hegemony my understanding is that he is referring to the ideologies and morals of any given society; the ideas which are common most world views and thought patterns of individuals within a collective group. He appears to be implying that the hegemony is somehow a construction and tool of the ruling classes which enables the perpetuation of power over the masses. When this method fails judicial action is used. He also seems to be stating that the intellectual culture of the time is instrumental in the development and utilisation of hegemony.

Asides from the Marxist context, is there a distinct difference between hegemony and Durkheim’s collective consciousness?

Can something like hegemony, which to me would appear to have a cyclical relationship between itself and society, really be used as a tool of domination? Or is it beyond the control of the ruling classes? Obviously the advent of mass media changes the likely answer to this somewhat.

Are all intellectuals architects and actors of hegemony? Surely they are in the same cyclical relationship: hegemony influences and acts upon their work and visa versa.

I would be very interested to hear other people’s interpretations and understandings of the role and nature of hegemony or any suggestions for reading on the topic.

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I found Orientalism a really interesting and comprehensible application of Gramsci's notion of hegemony.  

“Knowledge of the Orient, because generated out of strength, in a sense creates the Orient, the Oriental and his world.” (2003:39) 

Orientalism is an example of a hegemonic discourse as a tool of domination that was created by the ruling classes of the colonial powers and of an intellectual who is part of the movement attempting to change the hegemonic discourses of the present through uncovering these dominant ideologies. 


Apologies if I have misinterpreted everything, I haven't completely got my head around it either! 

Disclaimer: The following remarks are speculations. The author makes no pretense to serious scholarly reading of Gramsci or Durkheim. The conceptual framework that guides these speculations is taken from the work of Amitai Etzioni on formal organizations, in which Etzioni suggests that organizations have three ways to control their members: coercion, compensation or appeal to shared values.

The conclusion, briefly stated, is that Durkheim's collective consciousness ignores coercion and postulates what we might call an innocent society, in which shared values are reinforced by periodic celebration and provide the rationale for compensation that takes the form of unforced reciprocity. As a Marxist, writing in prison, at a time of revolutionary ferment, Gramsci is all too aware of coercion and the fact, later pithily summed up by Mao Tse-tung: "Power grows out of the barrels of guns." He is puzzled, however, by the way in which bourgeois intellectuals embrace as values the conditions of their subordination and of social hierarchy in general. This is the question to which he gives the label "hegemony." Hegemony is not (to borrow Dan Foss' useful term) a "thingie," a taken-for-granted social fact. It is, rather, a state of affairs created by the willing acceptance, celebration and propagation of reactionary values by people who should know better. The question to which "hegemony" points is "Why?" And the answers, given that Gramsci is writing about obstacles to revolutionary action in early 20th century Europe instead of Australian aborigines imagined as primordial primitives, involved such factors as control of schooling, ownership of mass media, and the distribution of rewards to those who toe the official line, as well as periodic outbursts of collective effervescence (the Nuremburg rallies, for example, or May Day parades in Red Square).

So it would appear hegemony takes a ‘top-heavy’ repressive form whereas collective consciousness arises ‘from the bottom’ and can be empowering.

This interpretation sounds a bit simplistic to me and overly dependent on the 'top-heavy' and 'from the bottom' metaphors it includes.


'From the bottom' sounds very nice, especially if one imagines in the manner of Rousseau, noble savages agreeing on a social contract. But the plain fact of the matter is that cultural transmission of collective consciousness is always top-down, from parent to child and older to younger generations. As someone whose life has been shaped by a complex and highly ambivalent process of individuation, both wanting to please my parents and definitely not wanting to do exactly what they expected me to, I find the prospect of a world in which children are stuck with the collective representations of their tribes utterly appalling. 


The 'top-heavy' and repressive image also has its flaws. The notion that hegemony is imposed by force violates the basic premise of the question 'hegemony' raises, i.e., why do so many intellectuals voluntarily embrace the values of the state? The answer is that all successful states have mechanisms in place to co-opt intellectuals, to seduce them into the state's embrace by providing rewards (prestige, office, wealth) that make going along to get along an attractive proposition. But, no, even that is too simple. The greatest rewards go to those whose thoughts or deeds are seen as strengthening the state, enriching the traditions it exemplifies. The iron fist of coercion is only deployed against those, always a small minority of those who make up the state's intellectuals, whose resistance goes too far and becomes a threat to the state. Thus it is that whether we are talking about conservative intellectuals who work for such organizations as the Heritage Foundation in the U.S.A., the party cadres whom Milovan Djilas labeled the New Class in the former Communist Eastern Bloc, or the mandarins who governed imperial China and the local gentry from whom they were recruited, there are always plenty of intellectuals who actively or passively support hegemonic values. 




Toby, I took the liberty of cross-posting your introduction to this thread to Dead Voles, whose owner Carl Dyke wrote a dissertation on Gramsci. Carl has returned from his Christmas vacation and has some nice things to say. Should you be interested, point your browser here.

Certainly, part of Gramci’s concept of hegemony deals with hegemony as a construction and tool of the ruling classes which enables the perpetuation of political and economic power over the masses, what I like to call poleconomic power.  With regard to Durkheim’s concept of collective consciousness, it seems more mechanical – without the concept of agency outlined in Gramci.  I have written about hegemony from the Gramcian point of view i.e., that with the rise of a storable-stealable-surplus in the Neolithic aggrandizers began to formulate structures or rule sets that enabled them to tweak the collective consciousness of communalism that had pervaded the lives of Paleolithic non-storing hunter-gatherers, slowly building up new rules and mores backing the concept of leadership and rule by a few over the many. 

Of course, they billed this as a public service and in some ways it was.  There were building projects ala Wittfogel and there were have-nots who wanted to take the storable-stealable-surplus and which necessitated building defenses, organizing militia and manufacturing weaponry.  In time, hegemony pervaded the collective consciousness and rule by a few seemed “normal.” 

Political domination thus became not so much a direct physical control of people but a control of their minds.  Once a corpus of ideas and rules had been created to back the concept of rule, future rulers found is less necessary to impose judicial action or the hard hand of police action in order to maintain hegemonic control over the population.  This was because rule was “out there” in the ethos of the people. 

For example, in today’s America the concept of individualism and the belief that an individual can and must do for himself allows those unduly benefiting from the system to “divide and conquer.”  Rulers don’t need to apply direct state controls on most of the population because they are self-controlling.  That is just one example. 

Thus, we can say that there are two aspects to hegemony: (1) the active, intended behavior of the ruling élite; and, (2) the effect of the corpus of ideas in society on the minds of individuals, imparted, of course, through socialization, which is an ongoing process in the lives of individuals who are influenced by conversations with others and the media, to name only two post-childhood influences.

You ask: “Can something like hegemony, which to me would appear to have a cyclical relationship between itself and society, really be used as a tool of domination?  Or is it beyond the control of the ruling classes?”  It is important not to reify the distinction between the two aspects of hegemony I mentioned above.  They work together.  People are influenced by all the cultural ideas floating around them, though nobody in office is actively trying to influence them through such ideas; but on the other hand if we imagine a group of politicos sitting around a conference table trying to decide how to implement a new policy they will be aware of the cultural ideas “out there” and try to use and manipulate them to their benefit. 

Also, in time institutions like the mass media become co-opted to project images and ideas favorable to the ruling class.  Look at the million dollar salaries of those hawking the evening news.  One constant of American news is that America is the greatest country in the world and we are saving the world from destruction by our police actions around the globe.  I have to actively search out alternative sources of news from abroad to circumvent this propaganda, though most of my neighbors do not and buy into the chauvinism coming to them over the airways.  No doubt, those benefitting from the military industrial complex (or what is also called the State-Management System) sit back and smile when the American newscasts conclude.

And yes, to a certain extent we are all actors in the hegemonic game e.g., my books, however radical and subversive I might think them to be, are merely one more contribution to the establishment.  I was struck by that fact recently while strolling through the library at Cambridge University and came across my books in the shelves alongside musty volumes from centuries past.  We contribute to a set of established institutions and in so doing help to reify those institutions.

On the other hand, hegemony is constantly being eroded by contradictions in the system in ways that the rulers try to figure out and combat, but at times fail.  Take the case of Mubarak’s Egypt most recently in the news.  History tells us that, in time, most hegemonic efforts by the ruling élite fail for one reason or another ala Jared Diamond’s Collapse.  Over the long run, rulers cannot know or cope with the myriad of environmental, social, political and economic forces at work eroding their hold on power.




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