Hegemony is a concept latent in the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin (Hoffman, 1984), but scholars agree that Italian communist Antonio Gramsci deserves credit for developing it into a sociological theory that reaches far beyond its 19th century meanings of military or economic dominance.
Some of the circumstances of Gramsci’s life add insight to his development of hegemony theory. Born Jan. 22, 1891, the fourth of seven children, Antonio Gramsci never quite reached 5 feet tall--the result of a fall from the arms of a servant when he was a toddler, his family said (Rosengarten, 1999). He won a scholarship to the University of Turin, where he first came in contact with the Italian Communist Party. Gramsci joined the party in 1915, eschewing a promising career in academia to become a journalist who wrote political columns and theatre reviews with equal ferocity. His journalism career ended in 1921 when he became a member of the Italian Communist Party’s central committee, and from May 1922 to November 1923 he lived in Moscow as an Italian delegate to the international communist congress. Gramsci was arrested in Rome, on Nov. 8, 1926, under laws adopted by Benito Mussolini’s fascist-dominated legislature. Along with other Italian Communist Party leaders, Gramsci was sentenced to 20 years in solitary confinement.
The limitations of Gramsci’s body and the bars around him, however, never confined his mind. If anything, his humble stature and forced isolation allowed him to gain perspective on how the fascists were able to subjugate the people of his homeland without continual force. Every week or so, friends and family sent him books and periodicals from across the world. In turn, Gramsci sent them the “Prison Letters” that were posthumously published along with his prison “Notebooks” (1971). Both collections alternately brim with loneliness, hope, quotidian details and deep insights into the invisible bondage he called hegemony.
Never in robust health, Gramsci suffered from years of malnourishment, squalid living conditions and nervous exhaustion during--and even before--his imprisonment. Hospitalized under the watch of a prison guard, Gramsci died from a stroke on April 27, 1937. He was 46.
Gramsci’s seminal writings on hegemony were piecemeal and often obscure, sometimes intentionally so in order to get them past prison censors. But subsequent scholars have gleaned three principal components of the concept: power, culture, and ideology (Adamson, 1978) (Bocock, 1986) (Gitlin, 1978, 1980) (Williams, 1977).
I present detailed explications of each of these concepts in my dissertation (Dorsher, 1999), but space constraints here force me to summarize the concepts I rely upon by listing the working definitions I synthesized, along with my principal sources:
Power: a relative relationship in which one person or group has the ability to get others to behave in a desired way and can affect their goal accomplishment (Johnson, D., & Johnson, F., 1992, p. 401).
Culture: everything a society communicates among its members in the process of producing, maintaining, repairing, and transforming its reality (Kellner, 1995, p. 12) (Carey, 1975, p. 177).
Ideology: Culture directed by power; i.e., the culture favored and manufactured by society's dominant coalition (Gilbert, 1996, p. 7).
Hegemony: “Ideology writ large” (Hamilton, 1986, p. 7); an iterative process whereby people in power deepen their dominance by using culture to negotiate for the consent of the subjugated (Gitlin, 1980) (Williams, 1977).
Counterhegemony: an alternative process whereby people attempt to gain dominant power by countering, co‑opting, and compromising dominant culture. It is not the opposite of hegemony; it is merely someone else's hegemony — one that has not yet become dominant (Williams, 1977).
Pluralism: the sharing of power among groups in society. It is the opposite of hegemony and counterhegemony (Kweit, M., & Kweit, R., 1981, p. 93).
Cybernetics: a system that uses continuous feedback to control and progressively correct unsatisfactory actions (Wiener, 1950, 1961).
Hegemony online: a cybernetic process whereby people in power deepen their dominance by using online communication to negotiate for the consent of the subjugated (Dorsher, 1999).
The hegemonic process comprises five facets, which are graphically portrayed in Appendix A and are paralleled by the counterhegemonic process. They facets are: (a) making dominance transparent and common-sensical, (b) maintaining status quo, (c) co-opting resistance, (d) negotiating with resisting elements and (e) marginalizing any remaining resistance.
Although they represent a progression, I call them facets rather than steps because not every facet is necessary to subjugate most people most of the time. Some people, however, challenge the hegemony repeatedly, and most people resist it partially at least some of the time.
Of the five, negotiation is the most easily overlooked--yet most essential--element of hegemony. It is through negotiation that the hegemony generates a new layer of consent. Giving nondominant groups part of what they want lessens their resolve to overthrow the dominant class and ultimately strengthens the hegemony. Without negotiation, the hegemony stagnates, progressively suffers entropy, and unwittingly strengthens counterhegemonies, until one of them overthrows it.
It is at the point of negotiation that online communication surpasses all previous media in utility for hegemony. This may not be immediately apparent, because the utopians focus on how the Internet--unlike one-way, mass media--allows its users to easily communicate their concerns and questions to the establishment powers in the media, government, and even business. Also, users have greater control over how they spend their time with this medium than any other. And as a result, the powers that wish to strengthen their hegemony by dominating online media are forced to negotiate with the medium’s users.
But just as every other medium was lionized as a liberating force when it was new--only to soon be subtly subjugated as a force for control (Beniger, 1991)--online communication gives established powers the upper hand in their negotiations with the medium’s users. The established powers have quickly come to control the vast majority of Web content, using their vast advantages in staffing and technology to, in effect, buy their digital ink by the barrel. Just as importantly, all the direct communication from Internet users yields valuable feedback for Internet publishers, who can quickly implement those suggestions that seem most likely to increase user loyality--and ignore the rest, because they still remain faceless and protected behind the technological veil.
Most uniquely, the Internet’s networked architecture lets online publishers silently and cheaply gather a vast stream of passive feedback about the interests and predilections of their sites’ users. Through the use of “cookies” and other Web page tracking software, every online move a user makes potentially becomes another bit of data that can be sold directly to advertisers or used to tailor the site’s content in ways that attract the biggest or best-attuned audience for advertisers. And in true hegemonic fashion, all of this takes place with the active consent of online users, who are either unconscious of this process, are negotiating for their short-term gains without thinking of the long-term consequences, or are resigned to the outcome.
In answer, then, to my theoretical research question, I conclude that: (a) hegemony is at the nexus of power and culture; and (b) online communication reflects and reinforces the off-line hegemony found in society, better than any medium before it.