Comment on Hegemony

Lots of my students ask me what Hall really means by 'hegemony', and I often have to say I am not at all sure. Perhaps this little section shows why. We could have several meanings here, could we not? (NB one analysis finds even more possible meanings)

  • cultural leadership
  • cultural mapping and management
  • rule by consent  (eg instead of force)
  • the articulation of different cultural themes into a discourse
  • constructing a lived experience
  • manging a 'complementary' relation between dominant and subordinate class cultures
  • unifying a bloc

These might all mean the same thing, of course -- so why do we need so many descriptors? They might consist of a range of typical activities -- activities by a ruling bloc? If so, how do the crafty devils know which particular strategy will work - -when it might be necesary to unify a ruling bloc, and when it might be better to try and lead the subordinate one? Does hegemony sometimes achieve so much leadership that it produces a whole 'lived experience', while at others it manages only a 'complementary relation'? If it is a complex a process as this, what is the implication of calling all these aspects variant of the one thing - because they are all reducible all along to something as simple as 'dominant ideology'?

It seems to me that there is enough ambiguity to allow advocates of the term 'hegemony' to deploy it to describe virtually any state of the social formation. If the social formation seems strongly united in supporting a political system, this shows the strength of hegemony ( as constructing a lived experience). On the other hand, if there is widespread dissent, but short of outright revolution, this also shows the strength of hegemony (in permitting an illusory 'complementarity' between subordinate and ruling class cultures). Can the concept ever be submitted to any empirical test? Has British society ever been in a state other than one or other of the varieties of hegemony? If not, does the term have any explanatory power at all? Perhaps we have to just accept the term and confine ourselves to 'specific' and 'historical' analyses of different types of hegemony -- if so, what remains of the great scientific breakthroughs promised for this new sophisticated marxism?

This latter account, and this flexibility in its use, explains the superiority of the term as an explanation of Western 'pluralist' societies, as opposed to other, usually unspecified, more 'vulgar' Marxist approaches, of course, so we want to preserve it, especially in an educational context when we are constructing classical educational narratives which offer '2-part dialogues' between different positions (marxism and structuralism, say) before letting one master-narrative ( gramscianism) have the last word. 

But who else needs all these variations and possibilities? Proper marxists would say that bourgeois notions of academic consistency are pretty irrelevant, and that they are far more concerned to use what helps them in the Struggle -- perhaps these overlapping definitions  will help us forge a politics to overcome bourgeois hegemony and foster 'proletarian counter-hegemony' (or should that be just 'proletarian hegemony')? This was pretty central to Gramsci's work, of course, in his heroic efforts to found the Italian Communist Party, in his work with real proletarians in the Fiat works in Turin, in his final struggle with Italian fascism (which, tragically, he lost -- so perhaps we should also study Mussolini?). But where does it all lead with Hall and the nice British activists who clustered round him? 

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