Cultural hegemony and social change

Posted on | september 6, 2012 | No Comments

Karl Marx 001.jpgIntroduction: Cultural Hegemony in Marxian and anti-Marxian Thought

We live in the most difficult times since the Great Depression. Just as in the Great Depression when there was political polarization and weakening of bourgeois parliamentary democracy but no revolution, similarly in the early 21st century there is no sign of social uprisings in the Western World undergoing a crisis in the political economy and bourgeois institutions. Why is it that the masses remain docile, a segment gravitating to the extreme right, another segment going as far as street protests, while most remain apathetic? If the political economy does not determine human behavior, is cultural hegemony responsible for shaping the human mind?

In ‘sociological Marxism’, a theory that assumes society runs parallel to economy and state and rejects economic determinism, Marxian intellectual Antonio Gramsci, Karl Polanyi and others were among early 20th century thinkers who developed a theory of cultural domination. Arguing that ideological superstructures (institutions both secular and religious, public and private) dominate to influence the human mind that they did not see as mechanistic, these thinkers placed the class structure in the context of cultural hegemony that is the product of bourgeois constructs rather than an inevitable or natural consequence as mainstream thinkers argue.

Another dimension to understanding cultural hegemony and the evolution of political systems is through the work of Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1966). Moore examines how social structures under an agrarian and industrial political economy produces certain political outcomes in different parts of the world, focusing on the violence preceding the evolution of ‘democratic’ (bourgeois) institutions. A sociopolitical revolutionary break with the past comes only after there has been an economic transformation that alters social relations. Moore made famous the statement “no bourgeoisie, no democracy”, which of course explains the 19th and 20th centuries, but it leaves questions about the decline of the bourgeoisie in the early 21st century and what that entails for democracy.

While Gramsci, Polanyi and Moore analyzed the dynamics of social class, political economy, social discontinuity, and the role of cultural hegemony from a rationalist or scientific perspective, Richard Rorty, an American philosopher who represented the new generation of right-wingers from the Reagan to the Bush presidencies returned to the assumptions of Thomas Hobbes and Edmund Burke regarding the irrationality of human nature and the conspiratorial nature of demagogue intellectuals preaching revolution in order to improve society and human beings; an otherwise unachievable goal. Besides perpetuating cultural hegemony instead of trying to understand it and suggesting ways for a more socially just society, such a philosophy is intended to reject a rationalist or scientific method of analyzing social class and political economy. The propagandist and populist nature of  Rorty’s philosophy captured the imagination of other populist conservatives throughout the media and political world.

Conservatism, especially in its extreme and especially when it comes from what the mainstream baptizes respectable academic, sells and it sells big with a segment of the population that is suspicious of intellectuals, identifying as ‘elitist’ that have no connection to the ‘common man’. Because conservatism, especially in its populist form, has been an integral part of cultural hegemony that resonates with a receptive audience already indoctrinated in the cultural mainstream. When someone like Rorty or populist talk-show personalities argue that the new Left intelligentsia has been obsessed with castigating the US for having an institution of slavery, a history of racism toward minorities, a militaristic policy that proved unpopular with the War in Vietnam, etc., a large segment with strong nationalist tendencies identifies with such rhetoric and becomes anti-revolutionary. This is the ultimate triumph of cultural hegemony when the masses at whose expense policies are implemented adopt an ideological position contrary to their own interests.

Belaboring the negative institutional traits of society to radically change society is an anathema to Rorty and those promoting cultural hegemony, while true salvation is to be found in working within the system, accepting cultural hegemony that entails institutional conformity. Just like the early Cold War when there was systematic persecution of dissidents from Hollywood to academia and research laboratories, including that of Robert Oppenheimer (Manhattan Project), similarly in the early 21st century there is a major shift toward that political climate of quasi-police state, helped along by cultural hegemony.

Bourgeois Values and Indoctrination of the Masses

Does the dominant, or hegemonic social class and the political elites representing that class in pluralistic societies under the guise of ‘democracy’ have the ability to perpetuate the facade of ‘democracy’ behind which operates an economic dictatorship, an increasingly anti-labor and quasi-police  state whose role is to prevent social change? As long as cultural hegemony is effective in shaping the concept of self (Louis Althusser) for the masses, and as long as the masses identify their interests with the dominant social and political class, the facade of democracy and bourgeois culture works to prevent social revolution, even reform that has the potential of leading toward greater social justice.

Cultural hegemony explains modern-day reluctance on the part of workers and the declining lower middle class to resist through revolutionary means. Is it possible that a social revolution is not taking place in the Western World and especially across southern and much of eastern Europe where austerity is devastating the middle class and workers because people have accepted bourgeois values, ideology and institutions to which they see no alternative better than the existing one no matter how horrible it may be? What are some of those values indoctrinated into the minds of the masses, including leftists?

1. Working within the parliamentary system to find solutions to societal problems, because working outside such a framework entails absence of legitimacy as bourgeois society defines it, and the risk of lapsing into chaos if revolution follows means personal and societal disaster.

2. Ardent belief in individualism as the norm and the categorical rejection of communitarian values as deviation from the norm. In practice, this means that if you are rich, it is owing to the merits of your character, not because you have found the key legally or illegally to engage in the process of capitalist appropriation. By contrast, if you are poor, it is your fault, not institutional, because you must lack some trait that prevents you from making it in the open society that offers institutional opportunities to all who become rich. Therefore, the institutional structure is ‘objective’ and thus blameless for the fate of the individual and the multitudes of poor.

3. If the economy is contracting, it is because you and those like you have been living too well in the past, while under-producing, so now you must pay – this is especially true if you are a public employee, generally assumed lazy and overpaid, if not corrupt assuming you have a position that lends itself to making money under the table. In short, upward social mobility experienced in the past must be moderated through the process of downward social mobility for society to find balance, so the workers and middle class must sacrifice for the whole of society, when in reality the sacrifices are intended to strengthen finance capital.

4. If the economy and the state fiscal structure is on the wrong course, it is your fault for immersing in consumerist greed, debt-spending, or not spending enough to stimulate the consumer-based economy, and not paying your fair share of taxes that accounts for your predicament and that of the rest of society. How do all of these contradictory things make sense is in itself fascinating and that people believe it even more so.

The answer rests  in cultural hegemony. Specifically, it has to do with massive advertising as well as the media whose role is to inculcate bourgeois values along with bourgeois guilt into people’s heads. The rest of the institutions, from churches to schools, play a contributing role in the process of shaping the mind and identity, thus the entire society is bathing in the worldview of the bourgeois economic and political elites that transfer blame downward toward the masses, arguing that in an open society people have freely chosen their leaders and institutions, when in reality those have been superimposed.

5. When the economy is on the wrong tract, politicians are to blame and almost rarely business that the political class serves. For example, a recent US public opinion poll finds that 66% blame the lack of economic and job growth on ‘bad policy;, while only 23% blame Wall Street, despite the well-publicized ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement. In short, the vast majority of people trust the corporate structure because they identify it with the ‘national interest’, while they mistrust politicians who in essence are the servants of the corporate structure.This process is also part of cultural hegemony.

6. Cultural hegemony is triumphant because the irrational is triumphant in human nature. It is a myth, perhaps dating back to Lockean philosophy and its influence on Enlightenment thinkers that influenced 19th century socialists including Marx, that human beings are rational and act as such, implying that in cases of social revolution the motivation and intent of those following revolutionary leaders is rooted on idealism.

As much as I regard reprehensible the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes who opposed the English Civil War of the 1640s and the counter-revolutionary Edmund Burke who opposed the French Revolution, there is something to be said about their keen observations regarding human nature manifesting itself in revolutionary times. Is it not the case that the rupture in cultural hegemony took place during the course of the Enlightenment that challenged the status quo, thus providing a sense of legitimacy to the revolution? After Locke was the first philosopher to make a rational case for revolution and he was a major influence on the French in 1789. In short, cultural hegemony has limitations because it is always challenged, and when that challenge reaches a substantial number of people and the nature of the challenge converges with the realities in peoples’ lives, a segment of them will challenge the status quo.

Cultural Hegemony Lessons for the 21st Century

The lessons of cultural hegemony from the past should be applied today, as we look at those who want revolutionary action, but shy away from it. What motivates some to protest, others to adopt a more militant position, and the vast majority to do absolutely nothing except complain to their family and friends? Has cultural hegemony suppressed any sense of idealism of aiming toward social justice? Is the majority of the population immersed in ‘bourgeois pragmatism’ – paying bills for now, taking care of family, satisfying immediate needs and trying to advance their careers in the age of careerism that cultural hegemony promotes?

If people are facing a bleak future for themselves and their children unless they embrace the institutional structure, how can they possibly unhinge from cultural hegemony, which is all they hear and see in the media, and in any institutional or social setting? How can people break away from bourgeois values and practices? This sense of ‘bourgeois pragmatism’ is also an integral part of the brainwashing process, to be absolutely crude about it, given that indeed this is a result of multifarious forces from society and the result of long-term historical and traditional (religious and secular) influences.

This concept of bourgeois pragmatism that has its roots in the 19th century, made a return in the 1980s onwards with Richard Rorty among others who adamantly opposed social revolution, any more than they believed in redemption of human beings or their progress through revolution. Unlimited freedom and allowing people to muddle through their problems is what these advocates of ‘bourgeois pragmatism’ favored; in short, early 19th century-style social and economic conditions.

Downward Social Mobility vs. Cultural Hegemony

In the past three decades, the Western World has been experiencing uneven income distribution in favor of the top ten percent of the population, mostly at the expense of the bottom two thirds of the people many of whom considered themselves an integral part of the middle class and democratic society. All the studies that have been conducted indicate that downward social mobility have gone hand in hand with the decline of the welfare state and the rapid rise of corporate welfare under the neoliberal model during the age of globalization. In 2010, the Federal Reserve affirmed that the economic contraction entailed that the median American family experienced a living standard comparable to the early 1990s, wiping away two decades of gains. With stocks too risky for many small investors and savings accounts paying little interest, building up a nest egg is a challenge even for those who can afford to sock away some of their money.

From 2008 until the present, the situation I am describing became much worse, and it is expected to deteriorate in the remainder of the decade, as structural unemployment hovers around 10% in Europe and around 8% in the US. If we consider structural underemployment, we have a picture that approximate Great Depression levels, considering that the combined unemployment and underemployment figures account for an estimate 20% of the workforce in the US and a bit higher in Europe. For example, one-third of all Americans between 18 and 29 are underemployed, receiving very low pay, invariably without benefits of a full time worker. One would think that such dire conditions would shake the foundations of bourgeois society. On the contrary, with the exception of some street protests throughout the Western World, a small percentage going to the extreme right (varieties of neo-Fascism), the institutional structure appears sound, at least for now, with no guarantees how long it will remain so.

Arab Spring and Cultural Hegemony

If cultural hegemony works to prevent social change, how do we account for Arab Spring revolts? If by the word ‘revolution’ we mean systemic change, then Arab Spring revolts did not result in systemic change. If by the word ‘revolution’ we imply grassroots, then Arab Spring revolts do not fall in this category, because there was heavy outside interference, especially in the cases of Libya and Syria.

It is true that political change has resulted, but it is not institutional change by any means where Arab Spring has taken root. Still, how do we explain that an otherwise ‘traditional’ religious society, somewhat influenced by modern secular culture and using high tech communications, manage to have a segment of its population mobilize for change, albeit limited to political regime and with external political, financial and military interference? Does Arab Spring prove that the cultural hegemony theory is wrong, or does it validate it, and what are the lessons for the rest of the world’s grassroots movements?

Arab Spring was a revolt against secular, one-party state regimes that lacked legitimacy from the ruling population and represented a notion of sovereignty identified with the early Cold War instead of the 21st century. Muslims rebelled against such regimes to bring change that would reflect traditional values and practices through domestic and foreign policy that their governments did not represent. Cultural hegemony actually worked to promote Arab Spring, given that the rebels by far wanted a return to Muslim roots and social justice within Muslim institutions. 

One reason we fail to see progress on women’s issues, and democracy and human rights, as the West defines those concepts, is precisely because cultural hegemony, especially in the context of ‘political Islam’ operated all along behind Arab Spring. Political Islam, the mixing of religion and politics, has alienated a segment of the Middle East-North African population, but it remains the principal dynamic in Arab cultural hegemony. 


Some thinkers assume that more than anything people crave safety an security, and on the fears of those cultural hegemony rests. Some argue that actualizing their potential is just as important for human beings, but this entails having an institutional structure that permits and promotes those possibilities. I have argued in the past that revolution is possible in this century. Many factors have to converge for a revolution to take place. It is true that revolutions rarely take place amid economic contractions, but economic hard times eventually prepare the stage for uprisings that may fester in the minds of people for many years before they act. Modern technology has made it possible for cultural hegemony to be challenged, but real conditions (socioeconomic status and lack of prospects for a better future) in peoples’ lives must be such that they will free themselves of cultural hegemony’s grip to embrace social change. 

AUTHOR: Jon Kofas
E-MAIL: jonkofas [at]


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