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Ideological hegemony explains relationships of domination and exploitation as embedded in socio-culture. Its roots are in early twentieth-century Marxism, which had the task of explaining the absence or failure of worldwide communist revolutions. It suggests that to the extent that dominant class ideas are internalized by the dominated, they induce consent.
One of the earliest works to develop these ideas was History and Class Consciousness (Lukacs  1971), which drew a distinction between objective and subjective class consciousness. Objective class consciousness refers to workers’ material interests whereas subjective class consciousness refers to workers’ ideas and attitudes. ”False consciousness” is the gap between workers’ objective class interests and their awareness of them. This distinction moves away from ”pure economism,” which suggests that the inherent contradictions in capitalism make communism inevitable.
Antonio Gramsci (1891—1937) coined the term ideological hegemony while in prison in Fascist Italy between 1927 and 1935. The Prison Notebooks took aim at the Marxists of the Second International, who believed that universal suffrage in industrialized countries would naturally lead to the ”dictatorship of the proletariat.” Gramsci argued that ideational processes come between material forces and the meanings connected to them. The realm of ideas, or what Marx called the ”superstructure” (religion, legal structures, the family, etc.), normalizes the interests of the ruling class so that they appear natural and justified. Exploited people unwittingly adopt ideas and ways of life that are consistent with their continued exploitation.
How is hegemony achieved? Gramsci proposed that the dominant group exercises hegemony in ”civil society,” which represents all that we consider private, whereas it utilizes the state to directly dominate ”political society.” But ideological hegemony is not automatic; it is a project that the ruling class must accomplish. Therefore, its level varies between societies. Where it is strong, capitalists rely on popular consensus, where it is weak, physical coercion becomes more necessary. Workers’ revolutionary potential is higher in the latter, but they must develop counterhegemonies (the main political task of the socialist movement) to successfully accomplish their potential (Boggs 1978). Marcuse (1964) added the advertising industry, industrial management, and the very act of consumption to Gramsci’s modes of hegemony. Mass consumption weds lower classes to an exploitative system, and mitigates oppositional behavior and critical thinking. Moreover, media scholars argue that the format of television creates a reified view of reality impervious to radical change by proposing character themes that are fixed rather than developing. Furthermore, the very act of consuming mainstream cultural transmission — watching television — precludes public discourse and encourages passive absorption of dominant ideologies. Finally, these scholars point to the profit logic driving media dissemination, which create appetites for sensationalism, rather than the redress of everyday problems.
Hegemony has limits because the economic/ political structure of society is constantly changing, and hegemonic ideology must change to naturalize evolving social relations. Indeed, for Habermas, while ”advanced capitalism” evolved past the pure wage labor/capital dichotomy and can therefore avert a terminal economic crisis, it does produce a series of distinct crises that can lead to a ”legitimation crisis” (Habermas 1973), in which the system no longer produces the motivation for consent. Moreover, Todd Gitlin argues that television in the 1950s was able to exclude voices of dissent because of the relatively calm era of smooth economic expansion. By the 1970s, however, themes dealing with racism, sexism, and poverty entered the mainstream. Television culture attempted to domesticate feminist and ethnic resistance by delegitimizing ”radical” views in favor of those that were easily co-opted.
- Boggs, C. (1978) Gramsci’s Marxism. Pluto Press, London. Habermas, J. (1973) Legitimation Crisis. Beacon Press, Boston, MA.
- Marcuse, H. (1964) One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Beacon Press, Boston, MA.
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