Hegemony refers to the dominance of certain ideas, images, discourses and ideologies, either generally or in specific domains. The former can be illustrated in statements such as "we live in a neoliberal hegemony"; the latter by a statement such as "individualism is hegemonic in the labor market". For the latter, we often use the term micro-hegemonies.
Typically, when ideas etc. are hegemonic, they would be considered "normal" and "neutral". Thus when an ideology such as individualism is hegemonic in the labor market, we would consider this individualism just a simple fact of life, someting logical, uncontroversial and self-evident, rather than as an element of ideological dominance. A hegemonic ideology is no longer experienced as an ideology.
Hegemony as 'soft power'
The current usage of the term hegemony has its roots in the work of Antonio Gramsci, and formed, in Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, an important part of a theory of power. Gramsci, leader of the Italian Communist Party, was imprisoned after Mussolini's fascist coup in Italy. This coup was an event he found inexplicable because 1920s Italy looked, from within Marxist-Leninist revolutionary analysis, ripe for a proletarian revolution rather than a fascist one led by the bourgeoisie. The Prison Notebooks offer an extensive analysis of the reasons for this paradoxical development.
Gramsci's explanation revolved around the fact that, while the bourgeoisie represented an altogether weak minority in terms of 'hard' power (a mass confrontation between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat would almost certainly be won by the latter), they had acquired an almost total dominance in the field of culture: Italian culture was synonymous with Italian bourgeois culture, and the values and traditions of the bourgeoisie were experienced by all - including the proletariat - as the normal ones, the ones that carried prestige and had to be adopted in order to be a normal Italian. Bourgeois culture, in short, was hegemonic in Italy, which explained why the proletariat had followed bourgeois leaders in the fascist coup.
Gramsci thus made a sharp distinction between 'hard' power - the power of repression, of capital and the means of production, of the forces of order and the army - and 'soft power'. Any revolution, he argued, could only be successful if soft power was acquired - when the masses had learned to think, talk and feel like the prospecive leaders; and any political system could only survive and acquire a degree of stability when it was hegemonic, when its culture had become the culture setting the benchmarks for social and political life. Soft power, he proposed, was dominant, while hard power was determinant: when a regime lost its hegemony, the last resort for solving the conflict would be violence and repression. In itself, however, hard power would never result in decisive change. What was required was a culture and a cultural apparatus of institutions and regulations in the arts, the media, the education system. Of particular importance in his view was the formation of a class of organic intellectuals - intellectuals drawn from the working class, capable of voicing and articulating the ideology of the proletariat and attributing prestige to it.
Translations of Gramsci's work only became available internationally in the late 1950s, decades after his death. But they had a tremendous influence on the development of social thought in the post-World War 2 era. His focus on culture as a crucial element in theories of social change contributed to what is variously called 'Neo-Marxism', 'New Left' and 'Marxist Humanism', a Marxism that rejected the mechanistic base-superstructure interpretations dominating the Communist political world as well as its authoritarian-dictatorial features and advocating democratic socialism aimed at the full development of human potential, notably through art and culture as political projects.
This emphasis on culture as an object of political action went hand in hand with analyses of culture, historically as well as in the present, as a field of political struggle, oppression and social inequality. The Franfurt School with Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse; the British school of Marxist historians (with Eric Hobsbawm and E.P Thompson); sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu, postcolonial scholars such as Edward Said; and the Birmingham school of Cultural Studies, to name just those, can all be seen as pioneers in this field and precursors of what we do presently.
Gramsci's views on culture were also adopted as the cornerstone of contemporary New-Right metapolitics. Hence the term 'culture wars' as a descriptor for the current online-offline battles defining much of the political dynamics of today: they are about defining a political culture and making that culture hegemonic.
Orthopraxy and hidden transcripts
An important critique of mainstream interpretations of hegemony is directed at its suggested uniformity, totality, singularity and stability. Phrases such as "we live in a neoliberal hegemony" might suggest that neoliberalism is just one clear set of fixed ideas, that it pervades every aspect of social life and every form of consciousness, and that it remains unchanged over time. Evidently, this doesn't match the empirical facts, which show the exact opposite: dominant ideas are flexible, dynamic, fragmented and contextually adjustable.
In an influential book called Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1992) James C. Scott drew attention to the fact that hegemony could be an appearance, something he called a 'public transcript', hiding various forms of disagreement and anti-hegemonic thought and conduct. The latter he called 'hidden transcripts': ideas and visions carefully kept below the radar by dissenting groups and individuals as a way of remaining safe in the face of power. People pretend to follow the hegemonies defining their social situation - something Scott called 'orthopraxy' - and follow the social and cultural formats that protect them from sanctions. But without agreeing to the ideologies informing the formats.
Scott's insights must alert us to the complex nature of hegemony in actual practice: while some ideas are undoubtedly dominant, their occurrence in practice (e.g. in online discourse) does not immediate imply that the actors of such practice 'believe' or 'subscribe' to such ideas. In many instances, the preproduction of dominant ideas in discourse is a matter of routine and ritual rather than of conviction: of orthopraxy, in other words.
Oppositional versus anti-hegemonic
Not every form of political dissent is an attack on hegemony; most forms of dissent are oppositional but not anti-hegemonic. This distinction takes us back to the core of hegemony: the fact that it is a 'deep' saturation of consciousness by certain ideas, visions, discourses and so forth - a 'normal' and 'neutral' set of fundamental assumptions guiding a multitude of concrete arguments. Anti-hegemonic acts are acts that challenge those deep assumptions, while oppositional acts merely attack the concrete argument.
As an example, take the proposition
"in order to ensure safety in society, the number of immigrants should be reduced to 4000 per year".
Two dissenting responses are possible:
a) "No, we should allow more than 4000 immigrants per year into our country"
b) "The presence of immigrants does not have a noticeable effect on the safety of society"
Of these two responses, (a) is oppositional, while (b) is anti-hegemonic, because (b) challenges the fundamental assumption underluying the argument, that immigrants threaten the safety of societies. Response (a) accepts that assumption and merely addresses the issue of numbers of immigrants to be allowed in the country.