Definition of Cultural Hegemony

How the Ruling Class Maintains Power through Ideas and Norms

A girl chases a dollar sign through a field, symbolizing the way we are socialized to pursue economic success within the rules and norms of the system, an example of how cultural hegemony works.
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Cultural hegemony, a concept developed by Italian scholar and activist Antonio Gramsci, refers to domination or rule achieved through ideological (cultural) means. The term refers to the ability of a group of people to hold power over social institutions, and thus, to strongly influence the everyday thoughts, expectations, and behavior of the rest of society by directing the normative ideas, values, and beliefs that become the dominant worldview of a society.

Cultural hegemony functions by achieving the consent of the masses to abide social norms and the rules of law by framing the worldview of the ruling class, and the social and economic structures that go with it, as just, legitimate, and designed for the benefit of all, even though they may really only benefit the ruling class. It is distinct from rule by force, like in a military dictatorship, for achieving rule through the realm of ideas, norms, and expectations.

Cultural Hegemony According to Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci developed this concept based on Karl Marx’s theory that the dominant ideology of society reflected the beliefs and interests of the ruling class. He argued that consent to the rule of dominant group is achieved by the spread of dominant ideologies--a collection of world views, beliefs, assumptions, and values--via social institutions like education, media, family, religion, politics, and law, among others.

Because institutions do the work of socializing people into the norms, values, and beliefs of the dominant social group, if a group controls the institutions that maintain social order, then that group rules all others in society. Cultural hegemony is most strongly manifested when those ruled by the dominant group come to believe that economic and social conditions are natural and inevitable, rather than created by people with a vested interest in particular social, economic, and political orders.

Gramsci developed the concept of cultural hegemony in an effort to explain why the worker-led revolution that Marx predicted in the previous century had not come to pass. Central to Marx’s theory of capitalism was the belief that the destruction of the economic system was built into the system itself, as capitalism is premised on the exploitation of the working class by the ruling class. Marx reasoned that workers could only take so much economic exploitation before they would rise up and overthrow the ruling class. However, this revolution did not happen on a mass scale.

The Cultural Power of Ideology

Gramsci realized that there was more to the dominance of capitalism than the class structure and its exploitation of workers. Marx had recognized the important role that ideology played in reproducing the economic system and the social structure that supported it, but Gramsci believed that Marx had not given full credit to the power of ideology. In an essay titled “The Intellectuals,” written between 1929 and 1935, Gramsci wrote about the power of ideology to reproduce the social structure via institutions like religion and education. He argued that the intellectuals of society, often viewed as detached observers of social life, are actually embedded in a privileged social class and enjoy prestige in society.

As such, they function as the “deputies” of the ruling class, teaching and encouraging people to follow the norms and rules established by the ruling class. Importantly, this includes the belief that the economic system, the political system, and a class stratified society are legitimate, and thus, the rule of the dominant class is legitimate. In a basic sense, this process can be understood as teaching students in school how to follow rules, obey authority figures, and behave according to expected norms. Gramsci elaborated on the role the education system plays in the process of achieving rule by consent, or cultural hegemony, in his essay, “On Education.”

The Political Power of Common Sense

In “The Study of Philosophy” Gramsci discussed the role of “common sense”--dominant ideas about society and about our place in it--in producing cultural hegemony.

For example, the idea of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps,” that one can succeed monetarily if one just tries hard enough, is a form of common sense that has flourished under capitalism, and that serves to justify the system. For, if one believes that all it takes to succeed is hard work and dedication, then it follows that the system of capitalism and the social structure that is organized around it is just and valid. It also follows that those who have succeeded economically have earned their wealth in a just and fair manner, and that those who struggle economically in turn have earned their impoverished state. This form of common sense fosters the belief that success and social mobility are strictly the responsibility of the individual, and by doing so obscures the real class, racial, and gender inequalities that are built into the capitalist system.

Cultural hegemony, or our tacit agreement with the way that things are, is a result of the process of socialization, our experiences with social institutions, our exposure to cultural narratives and imagery, and how norms surround and inform our everyday lives.