Hegemony, the dominance of one group over another, often supported by legitimating norms and ideas. The term hegemony is today often used as shorthand to describe the relatively dominant position of a particular set of ideas and their associated tendency to become commonsensical and intuitive, thereby inhibiting the dissemination or even the articulation of alternative ideas. The associated term hegemon is used to identify the actor, group, class, or state that exercises hegemonic power or that is responsible for the dissemination of hegemonic ideas.
Hegemony derives from a Greek term that translates simply as “dominance over” and that was used to describe relations between city-states. Its use in political analysis was somewhat limited until its intensive discussion by the Italian politician and philosopher Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci’s discussion of hegemony followed from his attempts to understand the survival of the capitalist state in the most-advanced Western countries. As a follower of Karl Marx, Gramsci understood the predominant mode of rule as class rule and was interested in explaining the ways in which concrete institutional forms and material relations of production came to prominence. The supremacy of a class and thus the reproduction of its associated mode of production could be obtained by brute domination or coercion. Yet, Gramsci’s key observation was that in advanced capitalist societies the perpetuation of class rule was achieved through largely consensual means—through intellectual and moral leadership. Gramsci’s analysis of hegemony thus involves an analysis of the ways in which such capitalist ideas are disseminated and accepted as commonsensical and normal. A hegemonic class is one that is able to attain the consent of other social forces, and the retention of this consent is an ongoing project. To secure this consent requires a group to understand its own interests in relation to the mode of production, as well as the motivations, aspirations, and interests of other groups. Under capitalism, Gramsci observed the relentless contribution of civil society institutions to the shaping of mass cognitions. Via his concept of the national-popular, he also showed how hegemony required the articulation and distribution of popular ideas beyond narrow class interests.
Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks.