In Marxist philosophy, the term cultural hegemony describes the domination of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class, who manipulate the culture of that society — the beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values, and mores — so that their ruling-class worldview becomes the worldview that is imposed and accepted as the cultural norm; as the universally valid dominant ideology that justifies the social, political, and economic status quo as natural, inevitable, perpetual and beneficial for everyone, rather than as artificial social constructs that benefit only the ruling class.
In philosophy and in sociology, the term cultural hegemony has denotations and connotations that derive from the Ancient Greek word ἡγεμονία hegemonia “leadership”, “rule”. Hegemony is the geopolitical method of indirect imperial dominance, with which the hegemon (leader state) rules subordinate states, by the threat of intervention, an implied means of power, rather than by direct military force — that is, invasion, occupation, and annexation.
The etymologic and historical evolution of the Greek word hegemony, and of its denotations, has proceeded thus:
- In Ancient Greece (8th century BC – 6th century AD), hegemony (leadership) denoted the politico–military dominance of a city-state upon other city-states, as in the Hellenic League (338 BC), a federation of Greek city–states, established by King Philip II of Macedon, to facilitate his use of the Greek militaries against the Persian empire.
- In the 19th century, hegemony (rule) denoted the geopolitical and cultural predominance of one country upon other countries, as in the European colonialism imposed in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia.
- In the 20th century, the political-science denotation of hegemony (dominance) expanded to include cultural imperialism; the cultural domination, by a ruling class, of a socially stratified society. That by manipulating the dominant ideology (cultural values and mores) of the society, the ruling class can intellectually dominate the other social classes with an imposed worldview (Weltanschauung) that ideologically justifies the social, political, and economic status quo of the society as if it were a natural and normal, inevitable and perpetual state of affairs that always has been so.
In 1848, Karl Marx proposed that the economic recessions and practical contradictions of a capitalist economy would provoke the working class to proletarian revolution, depose capitalism, restructure social institutions (economic, political, social) per the rational models of socialism, and thus begin the transition to a communist society. Therefore, the dialectical changes to the functioning of the economy of a society determine its social superstructures (culture and politics).
To that end, Antonio Gramsci proposed a strategic distinction, between a War of Position and a War of Manœuvre. The war of position is an intellectual and cultural struggle wherein the anti-capitalist revolutionary creates a proletarian culture whose native value system counters the cultural hegemony of the bourgeoisie. The proletarian culture will increase class consciousness, teach revolutionary theory and historical analysis, and thus propagate further revolutionary organisation among the social classes. On winning the war of position, socialist leaders would then have the necessary political power and popular support to begin the political manœuvre warfare of revolutionary socialism.
The initial, theoretic application of cultural domination was as a Marxist analysis of economic class (base and superstructure), which Antonio Gramsci developed to comprehend social class; hence, cultural hegemony proposes that the prevailing cultural norms of a society, which are imposed by the ruling class (bourgeois cultural hegemony), must not be perceived as natural and inevitable, but must be recognized as artificial social constructs (institutions, practices, beliefs, et cetera) that must be investigated to discover their philosophic roots as instruments of social-class domination. That such praxis of knowledge is indispensable for the intellectual and political liberation of the proletariat, so that workers and peasants, the people of town and country, can create their own working-class culture, which specifically addresses their social and economic needs as social classes.
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In a society, cultural hegemony is neither monolithic, intellectual praxis, nor a unified system of values, but a complex of stratified social structures, wherein each social and economic class has a social purpose and an internal class-logic that allows its members to behave in a way that is particular and different from the behaviours of the members of other social classes, whilst co-existing with them as constituents of the society.
As a result of their different social purposes, the classes will be able to coalesce into a society with a greater social mission. When a man, a woman, or a child perceives the social structures of bourgeois cultural hegemony, personal common sense performs a dual, structural role (private and public) whereby the individual person applies common sense to cope with daily life, which explains (to himself and to herself) the small segment of the social order stratum that each experiences as the status quo of life in society; “the way things are”. Publicly, the emergence of the perceptual limitations of personal common sense inhibit the individual person’s perception of the greater nature of the systematic socio-economic exploitation made possible by cultural hegemony. Because of the discrepancy in perceiving the status quo — the socio-economic hierarchy of bourgeois culture — most men and women concern themselves with their immediate (private) personal concerns, rather than with distant (public) concerns, and so do not think about and question the fundamental sources of their socio-economic oppression, and its discontents, social, personal, and political.
The effects of cultural hegemony are perceptible at the personal level; although each person in a society lives a meaningful life in his and her social class, to him and to her, the discrete social classes might appear to have little in common with the private life of the individual man and woman. Yet, when perceived as a whole society, the life of each person does contribute to the greater social hegemony. Although social diversity, economic variety, and political freedom appear to exist — because most people see different life-circumstances — they are incapable of perceiving the greater hegemonic pattern created when the lives they witness coalesce as a society. The cultural hegemony is manifested in and maintained by an existence of minor, different circumstances that are not always fully perceived by the men and the women living the culture. (See: Entfremdung, Karl Marx’s theory of alienation)
Intellectuals and cultural hegemony
In perceiving and combating cultural hegemony, the working class and the peasantry depend upon the intellectuals produced by their society, to which ends Antonio Gramsci distinguished between bourgeois-class intellectuals and working-class intellectuals, the proponents and the opponents of the imposed, normative culture, and thus of the social status quo:
Since these various categories of traditional intellectuals [administrators, scholars and scientists, theorists, non-ecclesiastical philosophers, etc.] experience through an esprit de corps their uninterrupted historical continuity, and their special qualifications, they thus put themselves forward as autonomous and independent of the dominant social group. This self-assessment is not without consequences in the ideological and political fields, consequences of wide-ranging import. The whole of idealist philosophy can easily be connected with this position, assumed by the social complex of intellectuals, and can be defined as the expression of that social utopia by which the intellectuals think of themselves as “independent” [and] autonomous, [and] endowed with a character of their own, etc.
— Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (1971), pp. 7–8.
The traditional and vulgarized type of the intellectual is given by the Man of Letters, the philosopher, and the artist. Therefore, journalists, who claim to be men of letters, philosophers, artists, also regard themselves as the “true” intellectuals. In the modern world, technical education, closely bound to industrial labor, even at the most primitive and unqualified level, must form the basis of the new type of intellectual. . . .
The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist of eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor [and] organizer, as “permanent persuader”, not just simple orator.
— Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (1971), pp. 9–10.
Gramsci’s intellectual influence
In 1967, the German student movement leader Rudi Dutschke reformulated Antonio Gramsci’s philosophy of cultural hegemony with the phrase Der lange Marsch durch die Institutionen (The Long March through the Institutions), denoting the war of position, an allusion to the Long March (1934–35) of the Communist Chinese People's Liberation Army, by means of which, the working class would produce their own organic intellectuals and culture (dominant ideology) to replace those imposed by the bourgeoisie.
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Long March Through the Institutions21
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