HEGEMONY – A useful Concept.

By Joe Falkiner

Nearly 90 years ago the Italian communist philosopher Antonio Gramsci reminded thinking people of a very valuable concept which could help them understand how society works. It could assist us as we attempt to grapple with the frontiers of theology. This concept is HEGEMONY.

Hegemony is defined by the Wikipedia Encyclopedia as “The Dominance of one group over other groups, with or without the threat of force, to the extent that . . . cultural perspectives become skewed to favour the dominant group.” The dominant groups are known as ‘Hegemons’. This can be any social group whose ideology is just accepted unthinkingly by other people, and the domination usually starts from an intellectual position. Theology and Religion can sometimes be used to justify this domination.

In this article I just wish to focus on two points, namely (i) the acceptance by the dominated group of this state of affairs, and (ii) the role of religion and of the church in maintaining or challenging Hegemons.

1st point: People tend to accept this state of affairs

An example
We can use this concept to help us understand why, for example, blacks accepted racial discrimination for such a long time (about 300 years). I remember at the time of the students’ uprising in 1976 in Soweto, that my mother’s black domestic servant said to her: “What are these students doing? Don’t they know we are merely black?” She had internalised the idea spread by white academics (like Verwoerd, the leader of the dominant group) that black people were inferior in some way, that blacks were allowed into white areas merely for their labour and for no other reason, and that therefore they should be subservient to whites. For her, this was ‘common sense’. It was the ‘natural order of things’. It had become part of her culture. It was not seen as immoral. Moreover, it was not only whites that believed this, but much of the whole population, including black people!

I was working in Kwa Thema and Tsakane at the time, and I remember that there was initially very little support for the militant students from black adults. It took perhaps a year for parents to begin to support their children in the struggle, and another year before their grandparents did the same. It seems that in some way they had been conditioned to accept the social, cultural and political policy of apartheid. Hence they did not resist. And because of this acceptance, whites (the ‘dominant group’) were able to rule South Africa for generations without having to use force.

This concept of racial superiority was unthinkingly accepted by many christians and was justified by some theologians.

This word, ‘hegemony’ can help us to understand any social domination, or any similar kind of situation, not just racial domination. Hegemony is not a particular political policy. Racial domination, for example, was present in South Africa long before the political policy of apartheid was introduced in 1948. Hegemony has been described [i] as

  • “The permeation throughout society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs and morality that has the effect of supporting the status quo. Hegemony in this sense might be defined as an ‘organising principle’ that is diffused by the process of socialisation into every area of daily life.
  • To the extent that this prevailing consciousness is internalised by the population it becomes part of what is generally called ‘common sense’ so that the philosophy, culture and morality of the ruling elite (the dominant group) comes to appear as the natural order of things.”

Such a system is propagated by those in power in order to sustain their position.

It was this kind of thing that Gramsci was dealing with in the north of Italy 80 - 90 years ago, except that the issue there was not racial discrimination. It was class discrimination. The dominant group consisted of employers, financiers, and the politicians such as Mussolini that they had put into power (The Ruling Class). The subservient group was the workers and their families (The Working Class). This was shortly after the Russian Revolution of 1917, and Gramsci puzzled over the problem of why the workers in Italy failed to develop a similar revolutionary consciousness. Gramsci felt that they were lacking a consciousness of their right and ability to question the political, social, ideological and economic power that their employers and other authorities had over them, and which they apparently accepted. A subsidiary problem for him then became that of worker-education, of how to educate the mass of workers that they could indeed question and challenge the norms of their society, instead of just accepting the status quo. Gramsci taught that everyone, no matter how poorly educated, has intellectual and analytical ability. They were just normally discouraged from using this ability.

The power of hegemony
How had they been discouraged? This is a key point in Gramsci’s writings, done during 11 years in prison after having been locked up by Mussolini. They were discouraged because of the existing hegemony. The word comes from a Greek root meaning ‘leadership’. This leadership leads the mass of people to live and behave in a subservient way. A hegemony is a social phenomenon which benefits those in control of society, so powerful that the beneficiaries do not even need to use physical force to impose their will. The oppressed people freely give their intellectual consent without even being aware that they have done so, or that they had any choice in the matter. This is part of the problem.

And so Gramsci investigated those social forces that influenced people to accept this or that ideological position unthinkingly. One such social force that he studied was the Catholic Church. [ii]

More examples
Once we have an idea of hegemony, we can think of many more examples.
  • For thousands of years slaves accepted the idea that they were merely slaves and had to obey. This was totally accepted by theologians at the time.
  • For a time the British Empire ruled over much of the world because of the British built up a hegemon.
  • At the moment the USA seems to promote a global hegemon, claiming the right to impose its views, its culture and its economic system on the rest of the world, and we know that many non-Americans accept this.
  • And so on. But do we ever question why?

How does a Hegemony permeate society with its views?
Wikipedia encyclopedia says: “To the extent that hegemony is a cultural phenomenon, cultural institutions maintain it”. If we take for example the propagation of the “Free Market”, we find all sorts of institutions that have little to do with international trade maintaining and even supporting the idea of a free market. They include the TV, newspapers, schools, the advertising industry and so on. I find this very frightening, and as the Church is also a cultural institution, this means that we have an extra responsibility to be aware of what is happening.

2nd point: The Role of Religion and of the Church in maintaining a hegemony.

The Church
If we take apartheid as an example, we can note that although the Church officially condemned apartheid, yet our institutions such as schools, hospitals and parishes unthinkingly maintained it. It seems we were dominated by this idea. We took it as being the “natural order of things”, and it became part of our own catholic culture. A hegemony uses things like religion to maintain its dominance, and we seemingly allow that to happen.

Gramsci pointed out that within the Catholic Church there are several hegemonies being promoted by a number of groups struggling against each other for ideological dominance. In his study of the modern history of the Church he identified the Integralists (the right wing), the Modernists (the left wing), and a central group that he identified with the Jesuits.

  • Even before Gramsci was born, Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) had condemned liberalism, socialism, and Protestantism as errors, which Catholics could not follow. He was a typical Integralist.
  • The next Pope, Leo XIII (1878-1903) was different, allowing workers to form associations such as Trade Unions, provided these were based on Christian values.
  • Then in Gramsci’s own lifetime, Pope Pius X (1903-1914) again took up the integralist policies of Pius IX. He condemned Modernism and encouraged Catholics to vote for right-wing parties.
  • Benedict XV (1914-1922) on the other hand reversed such policies, suspended some ultra-Integralist organisations in the Church, and stopped the worst attacks on the Modernists. While not being left-wing, he was more sympathetic to the left.
  • Pius XI (1922-1939) moved back to the centre, but often kept quiet in the face of Nazism and Fascism.

This back-and–forth movement illustrates which hegemony was dominating papal electors in the Church at any one moment. We have seen something similar during the recent election of the Pope.

The problem is that ordinary christians seem to conform to whatever hegemon dominates at the time, without really thinking about it. The general acceptance by the church of capitalist ideologies is an example. As the Korean theologian Yong-Bok Kim has pointed out, the Christian churches have mainly taken up a position of “conformity to the capitalist world”. He says:

  • “The political economy of the household is that of sharing, whereas the political economy of corporate capitalism and of state capitalism in its international and national forms is that of profit maximization and domination by power. The Christian churches have not taken this very seriously”.

This I see to be mere acceptance by the churches and christians in general of the capitalist hegemony and the value system preached by disciples of that hegemon.

But there have been exceptions, especially among theologians.

The famous Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth was a contemporary of Gramsci, and while Gramsci was analysing the fascist hegemon led by Mussolini, Barth concerned himself with the social influence of rampant German nationalism in the First World War and later during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. In all these cases the Church was largely silent. Barth wrestled with this problem of the Church and especially of theologians and pastors just accepting whatever ideology was in vogue. He did this right from the time of the 1st world war (1914-1918), through the years of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), then through the years of Nazi Germany led by Hitler (1933-1945), (resulting in the slaughter of the Jews), right until his death in 1969. His initial difficulty was the Letter to the Romans, which appeared to demand that christians obey and respect authority. His commentaries on this book of the bible have become important.

In 1999 Timothy Gorringe wrote a book entitled KARL BARTH AGAINST HEGEMONY. This book caused quite a stir and was well reviewed in many theological periodicals. We don’t have a copy in our library, but the University has one, which could probably be ordered on interlibrary loan.

Barth’s point, according to Gorringe, is that theologians should free themselves from this kind of cultural and ideological domination. It does not help if theologians and pastors counter a hegemony by promoting an alternative hegemony. Their reference point should be only God’s revealing Word. Gorringe concludes his book by saying:

“His (Barth’s) theology con-stituted a good, liberating, and helpful contradiction opposed to the destructive contradictions of the day. It is against hegemony, and understands Christian life as a constant struggle against hegemony. But it is against hegemony because it understands the vividness, joy, celebration and forgiveness of human life as this is promised us in Christ. It is the gospel of freedom for life. As such it constitutes an invitation to us to respond, theologically, to our own context, for freedom, in faith in the God of life.”

Contextual Theology
Gramsci developed the idea that education of the masses could be the way to counter the power of hegemony in a society. This idea was taken up by Paulo Friere, the precursor of Contextual Theology in South America. He wrote:
“Gramsci has profoundly influenced me with his keen insights into other cultures”22

We should note at this stage that 50 years after Gramsci South American theologians of liberation used the term ‘conscientization’ to describe this necessary education process, and instituted ‘small basal communities’ i.e. small discussion groups of people at the bottom of society, meeting regularly, to talk about their life in relation to the Gospel message. These Liberation Theologians were working on Gramsci’s idea that everyone, no matter how poorly educated, has the freedom, as well as the intellectual and analytical ability to do this. People have just normally been discouraged from using this ability.

The use of Religion today
A recent article by Carl G. Estabrook in the American magazine COUNTERPUNCH shows how the American right wing uses religion to propagate its own political agenda. The commandment ‘honour your father and your mother’ for example is being used to ‘spin out an entire structure of obedience’ to authority, in clear contradiction to the Exodus message, a message of liberation from domination. The other commandments are treated similarly. I recommend that you read the article on the internet.

[i] (Barry Burke, 1999 article on ANTONIO GRAMSCI in Infed website).

[ii] Antonio Gramsci, first section of FURTHER SELECTIONS FROM PRISON NOTEBOOKS, translated and edited by Derek Boothman, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1995.

Paulo Friere, THE POLITICS OF EDUCATION, Bergin & Garvey Publishers, Massachusetts, 1985. p.182