In Marxist philosophy, cultural hegemony is 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 imposed, ruling-class worldview becomes the accepted cultural norm; the universally valid dominant ideology, which justifies the social, political, and economic status quo as natural and 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 derived from the Ancient Greek word hegemonia (ἡγεμονία) indicating leadership and rule. In politics, 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 – AD 6th century), 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 access to and 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 upon 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, theoretical 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.
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.
Cultural hegemony has philosophically influenced Eurocommunism, the social sciences, and the activist politics of socially liberal and progressive politicians. The analytic discourse of cultural hegemony is important to research and synthesis in anthropology, political science, sociology, and cultural studies; in education, cultural hegemony developed critical pedagogy, by which the root causes of political and social discontent can be identified, and so resolved.
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) to identify the political 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.
Critique of Gramsci
- The ideological apparatuses of the State
As conceptual criticism of Cultural hegemony, the structuralist philosopher Louis Althusser presented the theory of the Ideological State Apparatus to describe the complex structure of relationships among the different organs of the State, by which ideology is transmitted and disseminated to the population of a society. In his critique, Althusser draws from the concepts of hegemony that Gramsci presents in cultural hegemony, yet rejects the absolute historicism proposed by Gramsci.
That the ideological state apparatuses (ISA) are the sites of ideological conflict among the social classes of a society. That, in contrast to the Repressive State Apparatuses (RSA), such as the military and the police forces, the ISA exist as a plurality. While the ruling class in power can readily control the repressive state apparatuses, the ISA are both the sites of class struggle and the stakes (the objects) of class struggle. Moreover, the ISA are not monolithic social entities, and are distributed throughout the society, as public and as private sites of continual class struggle.
In On the Reprduction of Capitalism (2014), Louis Althusser said that the ideological apparatuses of the State are over-determined zones of society that comprise complex elements of the ideologies of previous modes of production, thus, are sites of continual political activity in a society, which are:
— the religious ISA (the system of Churches)
— the educational ISA (the systems of public and private schools),
— the family ISA,
— the legal ISA,
— the political ISA (the political system, e.g. political parties),
— the trade union ISA,
— the communications ISA (press, radio, television, etc.)
— the cultural ISA (literature, the arts, sport, etc.) 
Althusser said that the parliamentary structures of the State, by which the “will of the people” is represented by elected delegates, are an ideological apparatus of the State. That the political system, itself, is an ideological apparatus, because it involves the “fiction, corresponding to a ‘certain’ reality, that the component parts of the [political] system, as well as the principle of its functioning, are based on the ideology of the ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ of the individual voters and the ‘free choice’ of the people’s representatives, by the individuals that ‘make up’ the people.”
- The function of the Intellectuals
As a Marxist intellectual, Louis Althusser’s principal criticism of Cultural hegemony is Gramsci’s tendency towards absolute historicism — the definitive significance of historical context — as a basis for political action. As a Communist of Leninist bent, Antonio Gramsci proposed that the sciences are only ‘true’ as a pragmatic function of proletarian ideology, useful for politically unifying the working class, by developing their class consciousness. That the ideology of Gramsci’s strategic position ignores the genuinely scientific principles of Marxist theory. Althusser’s analysis is that Marxist philosophy is a body of objective, scientific knowledge with which to form explanatory concepts about the processes of history, by way of the structural analysis of the modes of production.
That, in itself, the spontaneously-developed class consciousness of the proletariat is insufficient for effecting strategic action, yet is a “very special kind of ideology” that has strategic value in tactically “unifying the avant-garde of the working class in its class-struggle organizations”. Marxist philosophy has the scientific principles for analysing the component theories of an ideology; that Marxist philosophy is not a dogma, but a set of scientific principles with which to form and develop the concepts of and for ideological consciousness.
As a theoretician of Communism, Antonio Gramsci said that “Man cannot be conceived of except as historically-determined man”; therefore, science is politics; the Scientist is a figure of Authority. In that vein of intellectual reduction, science might be viewed as not much different from ideological philosophy; science is equivocated with speculative philosophy and dogmatic religion.
In the praxis of social and political power, the determination that a set of ideas is “scientific” originated in the intellectual social-class stratum of society. The ruling class (society) afford the scientist the social privilege of recognition as a specialist–expert in the fields of intellectual endeavour — thus the ruling class politically empower the scientist to ideologically police the academic procedures of and for the production of knowledge for all society. As such, Antonio Gramsci’s Communist political stance reflects the absolute historicism that the Marxist Louis Althusser is wont to critique as intellectually inflexible.
Althusser said that science, itself, is more than the purview of scientists, but purview of all society. That, as a field of human endeavour, science is subject to and is a subject of the dominant ideology, because the scientist is a person whose political identity is as historically-determined, as that of any person in society. The workplace of the scientists, the academic institutions, themselves, are ideological apparatuses of the State; thus, the authority of science derives from itself — as verifiable data and information useful for effecting decisions, tactical and strategic. As such, the philosophic abstractions of ideology are of a political form unlike the concrete, verifiable facts of science. Althusser’s conception of the political autonomy of science derived from the French philosophy of science, by way of the historical epistemology of the philosophers Jean Cavaillès, Gaston Bachelard, and Georges Canguilhem.
- Louis Althusser
- Cultural capital
- Cultural conflict
- Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (1990), by James C. Scott
- Hegemonic masculinity
- Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe
- Marx's theory of alienation
- Nicos Poulantzas
- Political consciousness
- Social capital
- Southern strategy
- Subaltern (postcolonialism)
- The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (1962), by Jürgen Habermas
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Long March Through the Institutions21
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