Once I got some understanding of where the messages of how I should live are coming from, I came across another term which seems crucial to my understanding: Hegemony.
The idea of Hegemony, which describes the unquestioned worldview which is taken in by a population, has given me a much clearer picture. It’s been something of an eye-opener and seems central to my understanding. I have to admit I got a bit preoccupied with it!
The British sociologist Antony Giddens described ideological hegemony simply: “shared ideas or beliefs which serve to justify the interests of dominant groups”
The term ‘hegemony’ was coined by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in the 1920s. He used the term to describe how, in a democracy, the domination of one group over others can be achieved by political power which depends on the population taking on certain values and ideas.
Gramsci was pondering why the population remained apathetic while jackbooted Fascists used torture and violence to take control in Italy in the 1930s and why the Russian revolution had been such a long time coming when millions of peasants were living in abject poverty while a small minority elite were living in luxury. (Can’t help seeing something of a parallel with our 21st century world!)
His message was that ‘What comes to pass does so not so much because a few people want it to happen, as because the mass of citizens abdicate their responsibility and let things be.’
Although in modern times the mass media, social media and a massive advertising industry are the most obvious channels through which values and ideas are spread so that they largely become common sense, they are by no means the only channels.
Maintaining the status quo
Our social institutions drip feed us messages to maintain the status quo. Competition and individualism are the order of the day. Co-operation and kindness are generally side-lined. Our schools are a hot bed of competition; employers reward behaviour which increase profits with little regard for the well-being of workers; private properties are cherished while public space is disregarded and run down.
The chains inside my head
Soon after I learned about ‘hegemony’ I came across a book which really helped me to grasp the idea of the ‘chains inside my head’. David Edward’s ‘Free to be Human’ has the intriguing subtitle: ‘Intellectual Self Defence in an age of illusions.’ The book’s message is that it is to the benefit of our economic system that we are all kept discontented because we will go out and buy, buy, buy.
The main thrust of the book is that there is no greater obstacle to freedom than the assumption that it has already been fully attained. Few of us in the West suffer physical restraint by the state, but we are still constrained by powerful psychological forces which are, in a way, more difficult to perceive because we are unaware of them.
What, then, are the ideas and beliefs that I, born in the UK in the mid-20th Century, have been led to take in as common sense and pretty much beyond question from an early age?
- To be successful and happy and to ‘fit in’ I have to look a certain way and live in a certain style
- A life of excessive material consumption is that to which I must aspire and represents natural ‘progress’
- Get a job, work hard and I can ‘make it’ – if I don’t succeed I’ve only myself to blame
- Those who have ‘made it’ deserve ‘it’ and have worked hard for ‘it’ (or perhaps they are smarter and superior to me)
- Those who haven’t ‘made it’ haven’t tried/worked hard enough (or are perhaps pretty stupid and inferior)
- There is no such thing as ‘society’ – if we each look after ourselves the whole will benefit. Public services ‘bad’, private provision ‘good’
- Free-market competition will allow wealth to be created by the hard-working and enterprising and the benefits will trickle down to all
If, when times are hard, I begin to feel insecure and fearful, I might be encouraged to pick up a few more ideas along the lines of:
- Benefit cheats are mainly lazy layabouts, ruining the country sitting around all day smoking and watching TV.
- We can’t get a hospital or doctor’s appointment because we are being over-run by immigrants – health tourism is wrecking our NHS.
Because powerful forces constantly reinforce variations of these ideas in my head, I have to remind myself continually that this way of thinking isn’t God-given natural progress. It is all part of the society in which I happen to be living and it suits those who are in a position to benefit most from it.