Hegemony and the hidden persuaders the power of un-common sense

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HEGEMONY in sociology, political science and international relations, is generally used to describe dominance or control rather than leadership. Thus 'hegemonism' describes the policies of states which control or bully those within their sphere of influence; 'hegemonic control' refers to a system of ethnic domination in which the political elite controls a subordinated ethnic community (or communities) in such a way that it is incapable of effective revolt; and 'hegemonic party' refers to a political party which is the only effective party in control of a particular society.
The widespread popularity of the concept of hegemony is the 1970s and 1980s derived from the western Marxist rehabilitation of the Prison Notebooks of the Italian Communist leader, Antonio Gramsci, who died at the hands of Mussolini's Fascists.
Drawing on the work of Machiavelli and the elite theorist Pareto, Gramsci used the concept of hegemony to describe the way in which he believed the bourgeoisie established and maintains control even in a democratic system in which workers and peasants might make up an electoral majority. The dominance of the bourgeoisie was not based on their control of the coercive power of the state, but rather rested upon their ability to exercise moral and political leadership, and to win consent for their vision of what was possible and worthwhile.
In Gramsci's thought, each successful political system requires the creation of an 'historic bloc', unified around an 'hegemonic project', in which the dominant class builds alliances beyond itself, and wins consent for its institutions and ideas. The appeal of this idea for western Marxists was twofold: it helped account for the failure of revolutionary Marxism in Western Europe, and it suggested that intellectuals played a key role in building hegemony for a historical bloc. By implication the role of western Marxist intellectuals was to create a 'counter-hegemonic project', that is, an alternative form of political and moral leadership.
In recent years the word 'hegemony' has come to be used more loosely, in studies of working class youth sub-cultures, the production of television news and the development of state education. Some historian deplore this development, claiming that while the obscurities, difficulties and contradictions in Gramsci's writings on hegemony owed something to his conditions of imprisonment, his latter day disciples in western Europe and North America have no similar excuse for lack of clarity.

[Kenneth McLeish (1993) Guide to Human Thought - ideas that shaped the world; Bloomsbury]


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