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Hegemony: critical interpretations in

anthropology and beyond

Gavin Smith

Abstract: The popularity of the notion of hegemony in anthropology and

cognate disciplines has waxed and waned. The self-censorship of Gramscis
most accessible writings (Selections from the prison notebooks) and the multilayered nature of his thinking have led to a variety of understandings of the
term. Easier to reflect on historically, after the events, than to use for analyses of the present, hegemony is both attractive to intellectuals insofar as it
establishes their role in politics and yet prone to vagueness in its application to real life situations. For these reasons perhaps, the notion is now on
the wane. Yet before we throw out the baby with the bath water, we need to
reflect on precisely how it has been used in social analysis and praxis. This
article takes a critical view of those people who have most influenced anthropologists in their understanding of the term and argues that the
fetishization of culture has probably done more to mystify the concept
than anything else.
Keywords: Political economy, Gramsci, culture, economy, civil society, class,
hegemony, Italy

After a period of almost hegemonic dominance amongst anthropologists in the last

decades of the twentieth century, hegemony
has begun to lose form to the post-hegemonists led out of the starting gate by this
centurys favorite Negri and Hardt on the
promising young Empire (2000, see BeasleyMurray 2003). Since much of what was said
about hegemony in the first place was often
inconsistent and politically unhelpful, these
recent attacks from the floating left and the
neo-con right can only make a muddy situation still muddier. This article seeks to clear
the decks so we know where we stood and
where we might still stand, so that we can

each of us go forward in our various directions from here.

Histories of hegemony
Hegemony is about the mastering of history,
that is to say, it is about praxis: the use of
peoples will and agency to drive their own
history into the future; and it is about the
weight (or lightness) of the past, carried on
the shoulders of the present. The epistemological bedrock of the ideas contained in the
notion hegemony rejects the possibility of
the social person as object, passive recipient,

Focaal European Journal of Anthropology 43 (2004): 99120

100 | Gavin Smith

or cultural dope, just as it minimizes the moments when consciousness can be false.
It is a notion invoked to understand the
possibilities for catalytic (collective) practices
in a field of uneven resources of power. We
may speak of hegemonic processes when
power is used to organize consent, and when
consent is used to facilitate the securing of a
political project or projects. Insofar as societies are reproducing historical formations,
hemmed in by the volatile threats of barbarous change, so hegemonic formations
need to be secured for the future and yet carry
with them residues of past hegemonic work.
Because active social agents seek power
through mastering pertinent hegemonic fields,
so we might discover established hegemonies
and emergent hegemonies; so too may we expect to find within a larger hegemonic assertion lesser potential collective arenas.1 Hence,
we can say that hegemony cannot be dissociated from scale in time and space. This
means the cementing of hegemony over time,
through ensuring stable institutions and habits of culture for reproduction, and the securing of territorial mastery that may vary in
scale and in uniformity.2
Gramscis political project
The professionalization of our disciplines
today makes it hard for us to imagine the
softer lines that distinguished professional
from political figures as the social sciences
took form. Anthropology and sociology came
into being as professional disciplines in the
context of easily identifiable social and political currents. The long nineteenth century that
began with the French Revolution of 1789 and
ended with the Russian in 1917 witnessed the
rise and establishment of industrial society
and, with it a vast movement of people: a geographical movement in response to the demands of the growing industrial centers and
a series of political movements, as working
people sought some leverage on the motors of
history through collective organization. As
the century developed the societies to which
social thinkers turned their attention appeared to be increasingly complex and, so

crosscut by inner conflict that a pressing

question became how these kinds of societies
could hang together. The issue of social integration was central to people as varied as
Saint-Simon (17601825), Comte (17981857),
Disraeli (18041881), Cavour (181061), Bismarck (181598), Marx (181883), Durkheim
(18581917) and Weber (18641920). Their
solutions, of course, were more or less political or intellectual/cultural.
One element in the equation was the institutional one and drew attention to the proper
organization of industrial capitalism on the
one hand and to the modern state on the
other. A second element, however was the
problem of the population. Variously referred to as the crowd, the masses3 and subsequently the citizenry and the working
class, this second element was often distinguished from, rather than included in, society. After all, the long century began and
ended with revolutions and was much taken
up by them throughout, notably in 1830,
1848 and 1870. Moreover, as we have already
noted, people were on the move, especially
as large urban centers became the major
gravitational pull in Europe and the United
States. A crucial question became how they
might be regulated or given order through
their domination or through their better integration into society depending on ones political position.
Across Europe these questions took different form as they were applied respectively to
industrial and urban society on the one hand
and the countryside on the other. The concern with the population addressed then,
rather different dimensions of integration as
they were thought in terms of the city and the
countryside. In respect to the latter, an issue
of crucial debate, especially in Germany,
France and Italy, revolved around the evaluation of rural life and folklore, ethnology,
linguistics and anthropology were crucial
sites for this conversation. It is important to
remember that when Cavour came to power,
Italy was not just a geographical mass of
many small city and regional states, it was
also made up of a myriad of mutually incomprehensible local languages. Bismarcks

Hegemony: critical interpretations | 101

Germany too faced not only an institutional

question of state building, but a cultural one
of national formation in which ethnologists
had played a crucial role, debating the respective merits of statistics state building
and Romanticism (Linke 1990). Meanwhile in
France founding figures in anthropology, Van
Gennep and Mauss, were vocal players in debates over the Republic of Marianne versus
La France profonde (Lebovicz 1992) while the
English were taken up with the Irish question (Vincent 1990). By the turn of the century, as Rivers and his London colleagues initiated what was to become a professionalized
anthropological project directed at the outremer then, there already existed what we
might think of as an (albeit less explicitly professionalized) anthropological gaze directed
at the Other within. Capital-forming and nation-forming were not just the political projects of competing states; they were also the
intellectual projects of emergent and competing social science discourses.
Once aware of these historical currents it
becomes interesting to note that in the year
Malinowski (18841942) took up teaching at
the London School of Economics (1913) Antonio Gramsci (18911937), a scholarship student from Sardinia, began his association
with the Italian Socialist Party. As a student
at the University of Turin, Gramsci was
taught by members of the neo-linguistic
school, who sought to understand language
within the context of its social setting, especially in terms of folklore and popular culture. Being both Sardinian and a student of
linguistics positioned Gramsci politically
and intellectually. As a Sardinian he was attracted to the maximalist camp, set against
the reformist socialists who sought an alliance between the progressive bourgeoisie
and the working class of the north of Italy
and showed little interest in the south. As a
student, he was part of the neo-linguist
school, pushing him towards the idealist position among these revolutionary maximalists, against those he referred to as the positivists, who embraced an economistic and
determinist view of the inevitable march towards a socialist victory. Understanding of

these positionings is vital to any engagement

with Gramscis use of the notion hegemony.
He was, like most politically inclined intellectuals of the period, preoccupied with the
national question and, as a Sardinian this
meant essentially the southern question.
He described his own writings as the
body of practical rules for research and detailed observations useful for awakening an
interest in effective reality and for stimulating more rigorous and more vigorous political insights (quoted by Hobsbawm 1999:
12). We need, above all, to recognize that
Italy as a national and political project was
an uncertain and fractured endeavor during
the years of Gramscis early political education. Beginning with Mazzini, through Garibaldi to Cavour, the unity of Italy had been
sought through the means of state building.
Gramscis training, as well as his reading of
such major figures as Croce and Salvemini
inclined him to the view that neither organizational institutions of the state nor the outcome of a straightforward class struggle on
the part of the working class would resolve
the problem of unity. State and class were
important, but each needed to be understood
in terms that went beyond it: the historic bloc
and the national popular.
Two major thinkers were addressing the
questions of state power on the one hand and
class struggle on the other. Weber, himself
deeply embroiled in issues of (German) nationalism, wrote a political sociology that
sought to address the role of power in the securing of consent, but his concern with
Herrschafft remained deeply embedded within
the field of state authority. Lenin, on the other
hand, had addressed the question of class
struggle through, what Gramsci called, a
war of movement. This had succeeded because in Russia the state was everything, civil
society was no more than a gelatinous mass.
In Italy, on the other hand, simply to capture
the state would be no more than to capture an
outer ditch behind which was a vast civil society, yet to be conquered. This had been the
problem of past Italian attempts, and it had to
be addressed by first ensuring the thorough
advanced preparation of the troops. Thus,

102 | Gavin Smith

what distinguishes Gramsci from Weber is

his concern with power within and beyond
the institutions of the state; and what distinguishes him from Lenin is his emphasis on
the need for pre-war preparations to ensure
victory, something he derived from careful
analysis of the specificity of Italian history
and the current conjuncture.
From this historical setting, we can begin to
introduce key elements of Gramscis conceptual edifice. When we speak of the necessary
association of hegemony with the state we
need to think the Italian state, circa 1920;
when we think of hegemony we need to think
too of the problems Gramsci faced with respect to Italys southern question the apparent yawning gap between the world of the
Turin working class and the world of southern Italian peasants. These were the kinds of
issues that Gramsci felt he needed to address.
I have already noted that this took him towards an examination of areas of society that
lay beyond the political narrowly conceived.
This has led many people to the view that
Gramsci is the most useful starting point if
we want to find new political practices not in
the arena of formal parties and in the hands
of committed revolutionaries, but rather in
the realm of civil society. Gramscis thinking on the role of hegemony, it seems, may be
a useful tool for gaining insights into the cultural channels through which politics is expressed in this identifiable site in todays
society. Yet there are at least two difficulties
with this move: one is that it tends to break
the link between the projects of state governance and civil society described through
the spatial metaphor of a site. It is not just
that states may by interested in employing
consent but that to propose that the main
concern of the state is to gain consent is to
deconstruct the concept of power to such an
extent that domination by coercion and legitimized force virtually disappear from the
hegemonic equation (Vincent 1994: 120; see
also Silverman 2001; Roseberry 1994, 1996).
The second difficulty is that the state,
civil society, the economy and so on all become reified categories compartmentalized
from one another and from their historical

formation from place to place. Despite attempts to read Gramsci as just an idealist and
phenomenologist who rejected so-called materialism or realism; despite too, an insistence that Gramsci was concerned only with
the realm of the political superstructure to
the exclusion of the mode of production, it
is far more fruitful to understand his project
as one which sought to understand the relations between realms, as well as how these
changing relations reconstituted the realms
themselves politics, civil society, economy
and so on: The functions in question are ()
connective, he noted. It is worth quoting
him at length here:
What we can do for the moment is to fix two
superstructural levels: the one that can be
called civil society, that is the ensemble of organisms commonly called private, and that of
political society or the state. These two levels correspond on the one hand to the function
of hegemony which the dominant group exercises throughout society and on the other
hand to that of direct domination or command exercised through the state and juridical government. The functions in question are
precisely organizational and connective. The
intellectuals are the dominant groups deputies [or representatives] exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government.4 These comprise: 1. The
spontaneous consent given by the great
masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group () 2. The apparatus of state coercive power which legally
enforces discipline on those groups who do
not consent either actively or passively. This
apparatus is, however, constituted for the
whole of society in anticipation of moments
of crisis of command and direction when
spontaneous consent has failed. This way of
posing the problem has, as a result a considerable expansion of the role of the concept of
intellectual (2000: 3067; 1971: 1213, italics added).
Here, for the moment Gramsci is referring
to the expanding work of intellectuals in the

Hegemony: critical interpretations | 103

(superstructural) realm of governance, yet

we get a good sense of the way connectivity
works for him.
Bobbio (1989: 2930) has used this quote
to assert that, unlike Marx, Gramsci understood civil society to be something superstructural and hence distinct from the economy. Gramsci, in this reading, was only
concerned with matters of the political and
cultural superstructure. This reading has
then been reproduced by Laclau (2000: 47)
and those who have taken up Laclaus position (see for example Barrett 1991). Bobbios
argument is that Marx used civil society to
refer to the nasty and brutish world of the
economy and hence the base thus distinguishing his position from Gramsci, but this
is a very partial view of the complex word
economy. Derek Sayer (1987) has argued
that we need to distinguish between terms
Marx used for his own analytic clarity and
what anthropologists would call the emic expressions of the bourgeoisie. The harried
world of entrepreneurial interactions produced a kind of tactical awareness that could
be understood to be economic conduct, but
we need to take care. This kind of practical
sense produces a partial perspective on reality. It works perfectly well for getting things
done, but if it is given some kind of trans-historical natural value then it becomes a mystification ideological. And Marx differs not a
jot from Gramsci here. Brgerliche Gesellschaft,
after all, translates as bourgeois or civil society: that realm of society where bourgeois
ideas and practices prevail ideas and practices which tend to be rather economistic and
instrumental. So there are at least three distinctions that need to be made here. The first
is between historical understandings of the
economy as capitalist reproduction organized in terms of Marxs transhistorical concepts relations and forces of production and
the economistic culture of the nineteenth
century bourgeoisie. The second is a distinction between a civil society, which includes
this latter kind of economy, as well as other
institutions and practices beyond the state,
and a civil society which apparently can exist
in some way innocent of economic practices

and the instrumental culture that goes along

with it. Those anthropologists who believe
that their job is confined to studying the way
people experience the world are prone to accept uncritically the emic bourgeois understanding of what constitutes the economy
and they set about interpreting it as though
its only dimension was the cultural one.
Here we need to note that this is not Gramscis understanding of civil society or culture; later I will argue that it also curtails our
understanding of how hegemony works.
Returning to the quote, Gramsci is for
the moment only exploring for himself the
possible new role of intellectuals in the context of a growing bureaucratized parliamentary democracy. He seems to feel that they
are likely to have a role in both civil and political society, but that, as intellectuals qua intellectuals this is likely to be at the level of
what Marxists of his day used to call superstructural work. What the relevant ensemble of organisms commonly called private
might be at any given time, would surely depend on what kind of social situation you
were looking at.
Minimally, then, we can say that (1) hegemony needs to be understood as working
across a series of realms of a social formation,
and at least the quote above suggests that it
works precisely by being articulated between especially the realm of coercion and
punishment represented by the state and a
broader realm of organisms commonly
called private. And (2) without first knowing quite a bit about the social formation in
question we cannot presume to know that
coercion is limited to the state or even political society nor that persuasion is limited to
civil society understood as the non-economic superstructure of civil institutions.
Rather these metaphorical spaces in the social fabric are constituted by their dialectical
relationship to one another. This point is especially important because it has become
fashionable to associate the work of hegemony-building with forms of leverage made
possible through democracy, variously defined as the echoed voice provided by representative democracy or the immediate voice

104 | Gavin Smith

of direct democracy. Such an agenda relies

on an especially narrow understanding of
the realm of civil society profoundly bourgeois indeed, but now stripped of the bourgeois connection to the economy.
Here then is the connectivity that we need
to bear in mind as we relate hegemony to
civil society. It might be similarly fruitful to
work across the resonances of culture traveling across some of its connectivities.
A war of position meant, for Gramsci, the
preparation of a multiplicity of dispersed
wills into a single aim on the basis of a
common conception of the world before a
political goal might be secured. Clearly how
one undertakes such preparation depends
very much on what one faces: the US circa
2002 might offer different possibilities to
Italy circa 1926, and the way intellectual
work relates to a political project must be
shaped accordingly. Gramsci saw himself as
a politically engaged intellectual seeking to
make bridges between the varied cultural
worlds of the North and the South. His understanding of culture was therefore framed
by his concern for the Southern Question on
the one hand, and his own role as an intellectual on the other. The work to be done required an understanding of the reciprocal
constitution of the practical and everyday
cultures that normally we think of today as
what anthropologists study and, on the other
hand what we might call the formal, aesthetic notion of culture, i.e. what anthropologists invoke when they produce texts and
seek to give them authority. Yet, being more
of a political strategist than an anthropologist, for Gramsci the so-called culture, folklore and practical wisdom of the South did
not lie in the realm of the Other, nor was it a
finished text to be held up momentarily for
incisive deconstruction. Rather it was a series of fragmented and partial lived moments whose cohesion required the work of
the imaginative intellectual.5
Exploring the role of intellectuals raised
questions about formal culture, while the
Southern Question directed attention to local
cultural practices.6 The relationship between
them can best be addressed by taking up his

hierarchy of forms: philosophy religion

common sense and folklore, and adding to
these along a slightly different dimension his
notion, practical sense.
Gramsci was less concerned with popular
culture as a body of traditions and customs
confronting modernity, than with its fragmented, dynamic and practical activity. While
common sense is made up of a fragmented
body of precepts picked up as the after life of
traditional philosophy, folklore is made up of
local commonplaces, sayings and tales that
become quite rigid popular formulae (Barrett
1991). Fragmented and partial, like its common equivalent, practical sense derives, not
from the past, but from forms of attention directed towards daily tasks. When Raymond
Williams (1977) years later talked of the selective ways in which we might pick bits and
pieces from tradition he might have been
prompted by this notion of common sense,
just as his reflections on the difficulties we
have as intellectuals in trying to capture the
present-ness of daily experience (because we
necessarily come at it after its present-ness is
etherized) might have been prompted by notions of practical sense. We have here then the
basis of what I have elsewhere called, the
Janus-face of hegemony facing backwards
and forwards like Benjamins angel of history.
Turning to the other end of the spectrum of
culture, in one sense, when Gramsci speaks of
traditional intellectuals, he is casting them
within a very commonly held view of culture
and the conventional institutions of cultural
production and display schools, museums
and so on. But Gramscis training led him to
the view that this kind of culture was also capable of producing personal self-control.
Whether this self-control might simply become a subtle form of governance or whether
it might be used as a source of effective resistance and agency, is a fascinating question that
I will address in the latter part of this article.
But we can initially note that, in a sense, both
kinds of culture popular culture and what I
shall call aesthetic culture have their formalregulatory (folklore versus philosophy-religion) and their dynamic-autonomous dimensions (practical sense versus self-control).

Hegemony: critical interpretations | 105

Intellectuals too, just like cultures, worked

across these terrains. As deputies of a ruling
historic bloc they worked in the upper reaches
of both political and civil society. But Gramsci
was at pains to imply that we all have an intellectual sensitivity lying dozing amidst the
bedclothes of common and practical sense. Indeed he joked about it. Noting that though all
men are intellectuals not all men have in society the function of intellectuals, he added
in a footnote Thus, because it can happen
that everyone at some time fries a couple of
eggs or sews up a tear in a jacket, we do not
necessarily say that everyone is a cook or a tailor (1971: 9). This latter kind of latent intellectual became manifest through her ability to
make ideologies not simply arbitrary, rationalistic, or willed, but rather ideologies that
are historically organic those, that is, that are
necessary to a given structure (ibid.: 3767).
The ideology of the hidden hand of the market that both Marx and Gramsci would associate with brgerliche Gesellschaft is a perfect
example of such an organic ideology. Unhappy alike with the form of aesthetic culture
the way it was spread in didactic fashion
through school education, religious proselytizing and its content producing a particular kind of self-controlled social subject; and
unhappy too with the formlessness of popular culture and its arbitrariness (especially its
failure to connect cause to effect), Gramsci invoked the crucial concept organic ideology.
Hence, the role of the organic intellectual
whose role is one pre-eminently of connectivity, both vertically across the hierarchy of
forms and horizontally, linking up the fragmented situational, personal and momentary
forms of common and practical sense into the
coherent whole of a collective will. He ends
the essay on The study of philosophy:
The analysis of these propositions tends I
think to reinforce the conception of historical bloc in which precisely material forces
are the content and ideologies are the
form, though this distinction between form
and content has purely didactic value,
since the material forces would be inconceivable historically without form and the

ideologies would be individual fancies without material forces.

There are then, ideologies that are arbitrary,
rationalistic (i.e. dissociated from practice)
and willed (i.e. stubborn in their willfulness).
As a result they are deprived of historical
praxis. And then there is another kind of ideology, organic ideology, that, among other
things, links across variously experienced
practical engagements thereby however
momentarily producing a collective will,
and directs self-control towards autonomous
action (agency). As a result, organic ideology
becomes a material force. Gramscis allusion
here is clearly to Marxs remark that when
ideologies become inherent to a given structure they acquire the same energy as a material force.
Gramsci was of course working in a society in transition. This impacted on common sense in terms of the after-echo of history mentalities and ideologies of older
groupings being conserved over time.
But the impact of transition on practical
sense had a crucial spatial dimension to it.
The current transition was very unevenly
felt across space. On the one hand, transformations in the sphere of production
leading to the mass-production factory
were bringing industrial workers closer together, with obvious political consequences
for potential collective action. On the other
hand, there was both a disarticulation between these political actors and the southern peasantry and also spatial dispersal
among the peasants themselves, that weakened their political agency. As Roseberry
(1994: 35960) puts it: In addition to sectoral differentiation among distinct class
fractions, based on different positions and
roles within accumulation processes, Gramsci
draws our attention to spatial differentiation, to the uneven and unequal development of powers in regional spaces.
We might understand any group that interests us then, as likely being caught between overlapping fields of force. These
fields of force need to be understood both in
terms of the material conditions that people

106 | Gavin Smith

face in the present, as well as the historical

forces that arise out of the past. The result
may often be that such groups are not just
initially faced with the fragmented nature of
common and practical sense, but are also entwined in contradictory influences on their
consciousness. Charles Hale (1994) provides
us with an especially vivid example on this
in his discussion of the Miskitu peoples with
whom he lived during the Sandinista regime
in Nicaragua (1982 to 1988). One major influence pressing itself upon the Miskitu in the
present were the policies of the Sandinistas.
These policies had two negative effects on
the Miskitu. Carrying the weight of the past,
they were partially the products of an older
nationalist tradition in Nicaragua, which
produced a very specific figure of the indio
and, facing the future, socialist programs
were now intent on producing a relatively
uniform collective will in the struggle to
build a new society in an antagonistic setting
dominated by the US. This then was one
field of force within which Miskitu practice
operated, but there was another, quite contradictory one, coming from a very different
element of the Miskitu past: the positive
value they placed on their older relationship
to the Anglo-American missions, which in
turn conditioned their attitude towards US
interventions in Nicaragua. Hale suggests
that this gave rise to contradictory consciousness both among the Miskitu and
within the Sandinista movement itself. Yet
Hale also draws attention to the way in
which a series of crises in the continuing instability of the besieged country, gave rise to
re-formulations and re-articulations. In so
doing he helps us to see the importance of
structural crises in the economy and for the
state in providing the conditions within
which hegemonic moments can be made.
De-stabilization makes philosophers of us
all, calling into question the common sense
we derive from older, stable forms of knowledge and unsettling the way in which our
practical knowledge gets things done for us.
The intellectual project, intellectual here
being understood in very broad and politicized terms, becomes one of connectivity in

Gramscis terms, articulations in Stuart

Halls. From what we have so far said, we
can see these linkages being made in at least
three ways. First between one fragmented
and situated idea and a series of others
within a broadly similar group of people, as
they begin to become self conscious of
themselves as indeed similar personal
hurt and humiliation becoming understood
as the social issue of abuse, one kind of
abuse linked to another, until an entire positionality becomes formed. Next we need
to address the kinds of questions Gramsci
sought to resolve with respect to the links
across in his case, northern workers and
southern peasants with very different daily
experiences, yet shared subalternity. Finally
we need to remember the very particular
feature that takes an ideology, as Gramsci
sees it, from being random and rationalistic to becoming organic a material force.
This is the linking of ideas to effective reality through the proper articulation of practice with the structural conditions that
might make that practice historically effective, i.e. praxis.
In praxis there is power, and we need of
course to remember that all of what we have
so far been discussing is taking place within
existing fields of power. Hegemony is about
how effective will can arise within the context of existing fields of power, thereby to
re-constitute the possibilities of history.
What hegemony constructs, notes Roseberry (1994: 361), is not a shared ideology
but a common material and meaningful
framework for living through, talking about,
and acting upon social orders characterized
by domination.
What we need to do now, therefore, is to
address a series of issues which arise when
we try to learn lessons from the past as represented by Gramsci, so as to address issues we
see to be important in our present. I will try to
do this in two different ways. First I will provide my reading of a number of influential
writers who have used the notion of hegemony for these purposes. Then I will suggest
a number of key issues that remain crucial to
the continued usefulness of the idea.

Hegemony: critical interpretations | 107

The hegemony of culture

Though Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau
are clearly key figures in the current understanding of hegemony, and indeed Mouffes
original article (1979) can be said to have been
the major inspiration for a return to Gramscis work, I do not address their recent work,
because instead I seek to trace the ways in
which non-anthropological writers have influenced anthropological understandings of
hegemony. I do this through a selective reading of Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall,
and I finish this section by commenting on
three anthropologists who have envisaged
their ethnographic material through the idea
of hegemony in an especially thorough way.7
Preparatory to understanding how Williams conceives of hegemony, we need to understand his view of the way ideology works
as an inversion of our unfolding engagement
with the world: we produce ideology in a reverse sequence from the way in which people experience their actions in the present.
Williams quotes from Marx to note that at
the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of
the labourer at its commencement (1977:
59), and he takes two interconnected ideas
from this. If we note the time sequence here,
we can see a reversal of this sequence, when
we come to observe a cultural product. We
tend to start by looking at the things we see
in society the car, the bank, the concert
and then work back from there, while in fact
for any of these things to come into existence,
it was necessary first for somebody to imagine them, and only later produce them. Second, we need to get over our very natural
sense that thinking and imagining are preeminently a capacity for internalization that
thinking and imagining are all in the head
and all a very personal and individual process, as most psychologists might want us to
believe. Again Williams does not want to
deny this to say that thinking does not take
place in this way. Of course it does. But we
need to distinguish somehow the fact that actors themselves begin with thoughts and
ideas, often rather incomplete and tentative

ones, and do so in very particular social situations, and then act upon them so to speak.
We need to distinguish between this sense of
experience as in the present and incomplete,
and the fact that we, as observers, come on the
scene only after this process has become manifest, and has attained some sense of completion: thinking and imagining are social
processes () [that] become accessible only in
unarguably physical and material ways: in
voices () [in] penned or printed writing, in
arranged pigments on canvas (1977: 62).
Our reason for being interested in a work of
art on the canvas is that, by a reversal of its actual process of production, we can have an
(albeit distorted) idea of the ideas that produced it. The same might be said for a less obviously artistic product of culture like a way
of speaking or a wedding, but now we turn
back not towards an individual producer of
culture, but rather the structure of feeling of
an entire collectivity of people.
Once we understand this collective element of cultural production, we need to note
an especially important implication. The
practice of coming together with other people
to get something done in everyday life, be it
work in the narrow sense, or simply some
other projected act such as deciding to go to a
movie, requires what Williams calls practical
ideas of relationship that is to say: the turning of your thoughts and imaginings towards
the business of communicating and relating
to other people as you practically engage
with the world. Consciousness and its
products are always () parts of the material
social process () as the necessary conditions of associated labour, in language and in
practical ideas of relationship (1977: 612,
italics added).
For Williams, hegemony adds the element
of social power to this process: To say that
men define and shape their whole lives is
true only in abstraction. In any actual society
there are specific inequalities in means and
therefore capacity to realize this process
(1977: 108), yet this power works precisely
across the incompleteness of the on-going
work of practical experience. Throughout his
life Williams tried to find a means for writing

108 | Gavin Smith

about what he called changes of presence,

given the inescapable fact that they can only
be captured a posteriori. Though he never
succeeded in this project (Harvey 2001: 158
87), he sought to do so through the expression structures of feeling. Although particular qualities of social experience and relationship, he noted,
are emergent or pre-emergent, they do not
have to await definition, classification, or rationalization before they exert palpable pressures and set effective limits on experience
and on action () we are () defining a social experience which is still in process, often
indeed not yet recognized as social but taken
to be private, idiosyncratic, and even isolating, but which, in analysis (though rarely
otherwise) has its emergent, connecting, and
dominant characteristics, indeed its specific
hierarchies (1977: 1312, italics in original).
Williamss reflections here seem to capture
well the way in which people, their practices
and their forming subjectivities, move through
their pasts into their presence (sic) simultaneously enmeshed in experience while at the
same time besieging it in the personal by
denying its sociality (cf. Sider 1997).
Relations of domination and subordination,
in their forms as practical consciousness, as in
effect a saturation of the whole process of living () to such a depth that the pressures and
limits of what can ultimately be seen as a specific economic, political and cultural system
seem to most of us the pressures and limits of
simple (I would say personal) experience and
common sense (Williams 1977: 110).
Williams is frequently accused of being responsible for making hegemony appear to
operate only in the realm of the cultural
(Kurtz 1996, Comaroff and Comaroff 1991,
1992), but this seems more apt for those who
cite him than for the man himself.8 It is not
culture or ideology that are here being
taken for granted, but the daily practices of
domination. He stresses that it is not the
upper level of ideology but rather a whole

body of expectations and practices that are

reciprocally confirming a sense of absolute because experienced reality beyond
which it is very difficult for most members of
the society to move, in most areas of their
lives (1977: 110).
Williams is also often accused of only
rather loosely using Gramsci when he came
to employ the concept of hegemony. But
Williamss use of specific hierarchies is
surely an allusion to Gramscis ways of
thinking about culture (see above), and his
insistence on the role of connectivity in the
forming of hegemony is likewise entirely
Gramscian. The connecting up of common
sense and personal experience, so rendering
them political, certainly require cultural
work, but he does not see this cultural work
as necessarily just at the level of superstructures ideological manipulation and so on.
Cultural work is not a distinct level of social
reality; rather it is threaded through every
aspect of it. Moreover all this requires the
work of real agents: It does not just passively exist as a form of dominance. It has
continually to be renewed, recreated, defended and modified. It is also continually
resisted, limited, altered, challenged by pressures not at all its own (ibid.: 112).
Two points are especially important in
Williamss reflections on the way hegemony
works. One is that there are always limits to
total persuasion or control of a historic blocs
hegemony. The very fact that it always needs
to be renewed through persuasion (from
something else presumably) means that a
reigning hegemony contains within itself its
own limits. The other is that Williams also
wants us to see that it is peoples agency itself
that pulls them into consent. Hegemony
works not because people are passive, as theories of social control or dominant ideology would suggest, but rather precisely because it works on the active agent, always
incomplete with respect to her/his daily projects whose goal is achieved through colluding with power so as to attain some part of it.
Hall (1996a, 1996b) continues with Williamss (and Marxs) insistence that what we
are concerned with is the social embeddedness

Hegemony: critical interpretations | 109

of cultural products: ideology concerns the

ways ideas grip our minds and then through
our practices become a material force. But,
while Williams by temperament and training
tended towards a more literary and historical
perception, for Hall the issue is much more a
problem of the present conjuncture and
hence the practical issues of struggling over
the securing of hegemony. The issue for Hall
then, is how a practical kind of thought effectively stabilizes power and domination in
society (1996a: 27). So what Hall does is to
theorize the nature of social embeddedness
more systematically than does Williams, and
he does this through the notion of articulation. We cannot understand some element of
culture simply by de-constructing it in some
formalist manner, because its meaning depends entirely on its indexicality the way it
is articulated with its current social setting.
Hall then, wishes to find a position between that in which ideologies are ascribed
in blocks to classes and one in which the elements of a discourse appear spontaneously
to combine and recombine () without ()
constraints () other than those provided by
the discursive operations themselves (1996a:
41). The way he does this is by accepting that
the position people hold in the processes of
capitalist reproduction has some effect on
their social subjectivity. He accepts too that
the way expression takes place is affected by
discursive operations, in terms of a chain of
connected meanings. And he employs the
idea of articulation in a way not dissimilar
to the structural Marxist notion of the articulation of one mode of production with another, but in this case a mode of capitalist
production and a mode of discursive production to explain the way in which the
one effect plays out against the other.
But Hall also adds a specifically politically
conjunctural moment to these other two
forms of articulation: the means by which an
ideological conception becomes materially
effective by being articulated to the field of
political and social forces and to the struggles between the different forces at stake
(1996a: 42) that is, Gramscis specifically organic ideology. So we need to work through

each of these elements in the forming of social subjectivity. First, material conditions
play their part by setting up what Hall calls
certain tendential alignments. In this Hall
approximates Bourdieus use of elective
affinities which he in turn borrows from
Weber. As Volosinov/Bakhtin saw it, this
material dimension of class gives rise to
multiaccentuality at the level of discourse
(1973), as we will see shortly.
The way Hall sees this first process of formation (and I do not mean first in any temporal sense, simply the order in which I am
dealing with them) is that it provides the
repertoire of categories that are in all probability available to the group: Material circumstances are the net of constraints, the conditions of existence for practical thought and
calculation about society (1996a: 44).9 But
they do not provide the principles by which
selection from the repertoire might take place
which ideas will be made use of (ibid.: 44).
Before answering this question (and it will
surely be answered in terms of some form of
articulation) we need to turn to our second
moment. On the one hand there is the capitalist system with its logic of reproduction.
On the other there is language whose cogency depends on the logics which connect
one proposition to another in a chain of connected meanings; where the social connotations and historical meaning are condensed
and reverberate off one another (Hall 1996a:
40). This is not just an issue of selection, as
with Williams, but rather a process in which
the selection of one proposition, idea or keyword has a knock-on effect along a chain of
discursive connections. Hence, positioning
oneself in society as a wage-worker or a
mother, also means inscribing the category
wage-worker, or mother, along an entire
chain of connected meanings. Hall refers to
Volosinovs notion of inscriptions. Actors
are positioned by being inscribed into the
logic of these more or less cogent systems of
signs, which we might want to call culture
(1996a: 42). Hence, the same person might
position him- or herself vis--vis (be inscribed in) capitalism (a) as a consumer, (b)
as a skilled worker, (c) as a gay woman, etc.

110 | Gavin Smith

At this point then, we see two realms of

connection, two modes of production if you
like, the one producing social formations, the
other producing discursive formations. The
question becomes (in Althussers language)
how does the one hail the other, calling up
some keyword, and then evoking a whole series of connections, while suppressing another series? To answer, it is helpful to turn
for a moment to Wolf (1999: 45), who uses
Parmentiers (1994) discussion of Charles
Peirce to introduce the crucial role of signs
that act as interpretants that serve the purpose of asserting a particular tie of an indicator to its otherwise random designatum (Wolf
1999: 53). It is the power residing in the
speaker that determines (regulates) the interpretants that will be admissible, emphasized, or expunged (Parmentier 1994: 127
8) (Wolf 1999: 545). In Volosinovs terms,
Sign becomes the arena of the class struggle (1973: 23). Because ideological shifts do
not occur when one entire schema is replacing another, the mastery over keywords that,
through power impose connections, takes on
vital importance. What was previously secondary and subordinate, or even incidental,
is now taken to be primary becomes the nucleus of a new ideological and theoretical
complex (Wolf 1999: 545).
By working along in this way, we begin to
see how the organic linkages that can be
made between the fragmented practical ideas
that serve us so well in our engagement with
the daily world have both social and discursive dimensions. But we should become
aware too of the pre-eminent role of power
that lies outside and beyond the discursive
moment. This leads Hall to his third element
of articulation: the political articulating
this process of ideological de-construction
and re-construction to a set of organizational
political positions, and to a particular set of social
forces (1996: 42, italics added).
What then are the implications of Halls
framework? One has to do with the crucial role
of conjuncture, of assessing the historical moment when articulations between social formation and discursive formation have a political
leverage effect: No ideological conception can

ever become materially effective unless and

until it can be articulated to the field of political and social forces and to the struggles between different forces at stake (ibid.: 42). The
other is the crucial role that intellectuals play,
allied to power bases, in organically linking
fragmented common sense and practical precepts to appropriate chains of connection
through the use of strategic interpretants in
Peirces terms not just tying child abuse to
immoral parents and thus using the link that
ties it to the chain of good family values, godliness and so on. But tying the parents into
the system of surplus extraction that draws
them to homework on some component of
sports shoes or some thread of carpet. Intellectuals then must not only seek to make linkages where fragmentation has been intentionally produced; they must reflect upon which
linkages produce which political effects and
at what conjunctural moments.
The influence of Hall on cultural studies,
and subsequently the influence of the cultural studies hegemony on Hall, has been to
severely curtail the holism of his original
agenda, giving much more weight to discursive articulations and untying crucial political crises strategically key for the securing
of new hegemonies from the logics of a surplus-extracting economy. The effect is to return Gramsci to his role as an analyst of the
superstructure alone and hence to make the
securing of hegemony an entirely discursive
(some would say, cultural) task. It becomes
hard to see how particular kinds of social formation give rise to hegemonic forms of governance where others employ other means of
domination or to explore why hegemonic
forms of governance are channeled through
different elements of a social formation.
Jean and John Comaroff have applied an
especially careful and effective set of reflections on hegemony to the work they have
done in historical ethnography in South
Africa (1991, 1992). They are especially critical of Raymond Williams for setting a trend
towards an overly culturalist view of hegemony, noting with some disdain the tendency some writers have to prefix hegemony
with the word cultural. Their own version

Hegemony: critical interpretations | 111

of hegemony rests on a distinction between

agentive power, as discussed in The German Ideology and a non-agentive version,
which may not be seen as power at all, since
its effects are rarely wrought by overt compulsion. And they refer to the unspoken
authority of habit (1991: 22). This latter is
best understood in terms of
the commodity form itself as discussed in
Capital. [It] derives, as if naturally, from the
very construction of economy and society. As
it happens, Marx decided to call the one ideology. The other, to which he applied no
term, lays the ground for a characterization
of hegemony () we take hegemony to refer
to that order of signs and practices, relations
and distinctions, images and epistemologies
drawn from a historically situated cultural
field that come to be taken for granted as
the natural and received shape of the world
and everything that inhabits it (ibid.: 23).
The Comaroffs three-volume historical ethnography is a sustained study of the way
things came to be taken for granted through
dialogical processes of power. Yet, their astute
reference to Marxs major work notwithstanding, their work does not seek to understand
hegemony within a thorough characterization of the social formation. The hidden hand
of hegemony comes from its normalness, its
everyday-ness, not from the iron demands of
surplus extraction and specific possibilities
and constraints this gave to the shaping of
hegemonic projects.
The most sophisticated attempt to do this is
Siders study of Newfoundland. In this work
(1986, 2003), likewise a historical ethnography,
the very particular features that condition social reproduction fertilize the ground in which
culture grows. We see how the emergence of
collective and fractured senses of subjectivity
come to be experienced specifically as culture,
through the very particular characterization of
the Newfoundland and British imperial social
formations and Siders rich and evocative descriptions of the inter-locational and intragroup micro processes that arise in the securing of livelihood. Sider argues that merchant

capital, unwilling to invest in the social infrastructure of production, relied on sets of relationships that themselves produce what looks
like a distinct culture among Newfoundlanders and then, as such, serves well to regulate
people within it dividing them and binding
them into a perpetual subalternity. Here culture is not understood as the prior pattern on
which hegemony operates by being taken for
granted, but rather the historical outcome of
quite specific ongoing struggles in various
sites and at various levels within the context
of identifiable forms of domination.

Intellectual responsibility and the

challenges of current reality
We have now seen that there are multiple dimensions to hegemonic processes. Authors
pick up on different elements of this complex
notion. It might be noted that all of them
wish to recognize the multiple forms of
power it their role in the formation of social
subjectivity. In anthropology this would
seem to show a significant shift in our use of
culture as the salient means for recognizing
differences among people. When difference
between people in one part of the world and
those in another had been understood in
terms of cultures (in the plural), then culture itself became a means of describing and
accounting for those differences. Within this
frame it became quite straightforward to understand the way a person took on distinctive characteristics simply as the result of
growing up to be Trobriand, Mapuche, or
Untouchable. Yet even this sequence of examples alerts us to the weakness of this conceptual framework. The complex processes
that produce ideas of Indian-ness and also
marginalize Mapuche people, while at the
same time shaping their potential for collective will are hard to conceive without reference to sets of relationships well beyond the
locales where Mapuche live relationships
moreover in which power plays a role sine
qua non. And if this is so for the Mapuche,
the how much more so for Untouchables.
Cultures then, as collectivities, if they exist at

112 | Gavin Smith

all, are constituted through quite specific historical fields of force.

Meanwhile, this labeling of collective
bodies of people in terms of culture, which
supposedly distinguished them from others, ran the danger of occluding significant
differences within these collectivities (Keesing 1987). Both the external presentation of
a culture as coherent and authentic, as well
as the contours of difference within such a
culture, again would need to be understood
in terms of macro and micro processes in
the exercise of power. We see this powerfully in the work of Gerald Sider (1986,
2003), where evocations of cultural specificity place both Newfoundland within the
British political economy and place one
Newfoundlander vis--vis another.
All this brings us from an older anthropology that dealt with culture to a newer one exploring the fruitfulness of hegemony and
thereby reconstituting the idea of culture itself. Yet it would be quite wrong to conclude
that hegemony points us towards power relationships expressed uniquely, or even pre-eminently, through the vehicle of culture. A far
more useful question is to ask at what points
hegemony can be secured within a collectivity as well as between existing or emergent
collectivities by evoking notions associated
with culture and what the political implications are for these kinds of attribution.
A number of non-anthropological writers
have set out upon such a project with considerable success (i.e. to understand sensitivities
of difference, belonging, identity, experience)
by rejecting culture as a tool of enquiry so as
to explain culture as emergent from the a variety of historical processes. Thus, we find
Foucaults archaeologies enabling us to understand health, sexuality, etc., as constituted through the currents of force and counterforce that are society. Likewise we find
Bourdieu (1984) showing how the social conditions of any situated cluster of people (he
would call them classes) in French society become activated and thus reproduced through
practices of distinction: micro-vibrations of
the cultural tuning fork. Authors such as
these, themselves clearly influenced by both

Gramscis insights and his deeper epistemology, have themselves provided the shoulders
on which many anthropologists seek to climb.
Yet, perhaps because of their guild loyalties,
they seem over-hasty in wheeling on culture
too early in their analyses and thereby miss the
crucial role of power as constitutive of subjectivity in Foucault and of instituted practices in
the case if Bourdieu.10 Yet there is no question
that Gramscis understandings of hegemony
can be rendered more subtle and ultimately
more useful through exposure to others who
have sought to understand the relationship between power and the shaping of society and of
social subjects not just Foucault (2003) and
Bourdieu (op. cit.), but also the work of Postone (1996) and the people working on governmentality (Burchell, Gordon and Miller
1991, Burchell 1993, Dean 1999).
Politically informed intellectual work arises
dialectically within the social conditions of its
production and clearly these more recent
writers seek to make their understandings of
the relationship between power and the forming of social subjects relevant to current historical conditions. Gramsci himself noted the
mistake of looking for the criterion of intellectual work simply within the activity itself,
rather than in the ensemble of the system of
relations in which these activities (and therefore the intellectual groups who personify
them) have their place within the general
complex of social relations (1971: 8), and
Bourdieu (1984) and Bauman (1987) have
made the same point. I have spent a large part
of this article showing how Gramscis conceptualizations arose within a quite particular
historical conjuncture. The question arises as
to what we might usefully retain from his
work that might help us to grasp current reality and, incidentally, how this retention of
Gramscis epistemology might carry us beyond Bourdieus sociology of power and the
governmentality of the neo-Foucauldians.
It seems to me that there are at least two
very obvious challenges to the use of the
idea of hegemony for current political projects. One has to do with the changing way
in which the economy has come to be understood since Gramscis original writings,

Hegemony: critical interpretations | 113

especially the way it mediates between social

practices and the shaping of social subjectivities. The other has to do with the space of
the polity to which hegemony refers. Conventionally we associate Gramscis use of
hegemony with his understanding of the
State, and the specificities of Italian society.
How then does the idea of globalization affect the relevance of Gramscis concept? We
need to remember that while the economy
and globalization may reflect some very
real material conditions of today they can
also be understood as discourses forceful
assertions and practices of truth. Moreover,
both these terms have a particular effect on
our sense of agency. The hidden hand of the
one and the sheer displacement of where the
action really is to an always elsewhere in
the case of the other have their effects on political action. Seen in this way, we have to
note the gigantic, inarticulable silences of the
real that they produce: not just the pervasive
and forceful exclusions inherent in any discourse, but a larger and more exhaustive vacuum of willed blindness (to what is happening elsewhere) and convinced will-lessness
(faced with the deus ex machina of the economy) realms designated beyond the realm
of praxis.
But before turning to these two features of
the present, we need to rehearse some of the
features peculiar to hegemony. I have argued
elsewhere that it is useful to understand
hegemony by consciously addressing ourselves to two different currents of time and to
two different scales of space. The face of
Janus, facing both backwards and forwards
helps us to think about the first of these. On
the one hand we might look at hegemony in
terms of the accumulated power struggles,
the historical balance of power, that gives us
the ground on which we stand. This is the
face of Janus that provides us with a perspective on the way hegemony shapes our
selves and our social setting. Yet this face
taken alone, is again divided. Like it or not
our ancestors built railroads, destroyed temples, leveled mountains and we live in this
material landscape. It is a history powerful in
its present materiality and intransigence.

And yet these materialities disappeared entire other potential histories not just bucolic
villages of rural dwellers in the march of the
Canadian Pacific Railroad but a much more
extensive ethnocide. Then, as temples fell so
stock exchanges were built. As mines closed
down so were museums constructed on the
sites, celebrating the miracles of engineering
and the adventurousness of entrepreneurs.
In other words quite selective striations were
made across the material rocks of history.
On the other hand, Chantal Mouffes early
writing and the motivation behind Stuart
Halls interest in cultural studies, build upon
Gramscis interest in the other face of Janus:
the maneuvers and alliances, the compromises and persuasions that are the mode of
production for a very present and future-oriented hegemonic project. Bits of common
sense about the past need to be woven into
the fabric of practical issues and urgencies of
the present. Crisis has the wonderful effect,
moreover, of weighting the scales against a
calm and critical gaze upon our own archaeologies in favor of the immediacy and newness of the present.
Then, alongside these temporal issues we
need also to note the scale at which different
fields of hegemonic work operate. We know
that Gramsci himself was especially concerned
with the scale of the Italian nation state: the
role of a commanding historic bloc on the one
hand and emergent hegemonic connectivities
between the peasantry and various elements
of the northern working class. But we have
seen too, that Gramsci was also concerned
with how multiple interests might come together into a collective will. This seems to suggest not just a concern with alliances across
groups, but ways of enhancing communication and sympathy within groups, and I have
suggested above that this provides a particular
role for the intellectual as she takes bits and
pieces of attitudes and experiences and threads
them into an organic ideology.
But if, instead of taking each of these elements separately, we try to think of them all
at once, we can see (for example) that the
backwards-facing Janus does not simply represent a passive acceptance of history as

114 | Gavin Smith

some kind of natural progression but thinking now in terms of micro-levels of the hegemonic process either an active collusion in
the stakes of history as we assess them at this
moment or, alternatively, a troubling working
against the experience given to us through
this particular, selective history (see Sider
1997). Thus, Roseberry has spoken of using
the concept not to understand consent but
to understand struggle, the ways in which
the words, images, symbols, forms, organizations, institutions and movements used by
subordinate populations to talk about, understand, confront, accommodate themselves
to, or resist their domination are shaped by
the process of domination itself (Roseberry
1994: 3601). We can see the distinction between collusion and critique in the process of
hegemonic formation especially clearly in
the case of progressive social science scholarship, which has shifted so notably from a
radically critical perspective on capitalism
and the state, and skepticism towards scholarship supported by state and capitalist
agencies, to one of responsible proposals
and suggested re-adjustments for the state
and capitalism as One by one, prominent
academic voices have been incorporated into
the wider, state-sponsored production of
practical knowledge (Favell 2001: 355).
What we are talking about here is a very
complicated set of connectivities. These might
be understood as bridges, such that intellectual work takes place through linking up islands of differing kinds of experience through
conceptualizations that resonate across their
immediate variations. But, once we shift from
a very short-term time-frame and begin to
think in terms of a historical dialectical in
which moments of practice and experience act
reciprocally so as to constitute and re-constitute one another, then the task becomes more
hazardous. This is especially so with such key
concepts as culture, economy, even the
state and of course civil society.
There are then many challenges to the
usefulness of the notion hegemony in the
current conjuncture. Here I will address just
two: the dialectical constitution of the economy; and the problems of scale raised by

projects set within a political field imagined

as global.
Hegemony and economy
Traveling as they do across widely different
parts of the world and even sometimes
across divergent historical terrains, anthropologists are especially aware of the indexicality of Western concepts, such as these.
Generally, they are dismissive of the one-dimensional and undynamic ways in which
other scholars make use of the notion culture and are quick with the rapier wound of
Ethnocentric! So all this should not be news
to them. Yet it is remarkable how sacrosanct
and unexplored, by contrast, is the notion
economy. We might gain important insights
into the workings of our world if we accept
with Laclau and Mouffe, for example, that
the economy is simply one more discursive
moment in a world of multiple discourses.
Their situating of economy in this way
might be useful. But when Anna Tsing asks
us to throw out David Harveys naming of
the contemporary economy as flexible accumulation and replace it with her spectacular
accumulation (Tsing 2001: 186, italics in original), we should not leap too soon. Instead
we need to ask whether we might not want
to say the same thing about economy as we
are so prone to say about culture: that it is
multi-layered, indexical and dialectically
constituted. Her term too, may be useful. But
she and Harvey may be talking about different parts of the egg she has so spectacularly
and stylistically scrambled.
We may find that Gramsci associates the
securing of hegemony by a historic bloc in
Italy in 1920s in terms of the institutions that
induct people into the ways of culture and
religion. With respect to the South there was
a significant number of peasants involved
in share cropping and not fully incorporated
into market relations, for whom the church
and possibly public education may have
been important channels for the securing of
hegemony. This is not to say that hegemony
might not be secured through different channels. With respect to the North, for example,

Hegemony: critical interpretations | 115

Gramsci identified a very particular compact

for securing social order between corporations and the state: an intensification of exploitation achieved through new forms of
management and corporatist strategies, and
expansion of state intervention in the economy and society (2000: 223). Subsequently,
Gramscis Fordism was to become Keynesianism, the welfare state and (in Britain)
Marshalls program for the constitution of the
social citizen (Marshall 1963). While it is obvious that each of these projects employed
different combinations of institutions and
programs towards the forming of social subjects, we need to note too that in so doing they
also reconfigured the way in which economy
and culture are dialectically constituted.
So, while there is good reason to associate
hegemony with a particular kind of modern
society, one in which government requires
some acknowledgement of participation on
the part of the masses, and good reason too to
note that the construction of hegemony (consent) always occurs in dialectic with the application of coercion or punishment (domination) (Silverman 2001: 401), we still need to
be careful not to assume that certain practices
(e.g. punishment) are in fact exercised legitimately only by specific institutions (of the
state). It may be for example that punishments
can be very nicely administered through the
market, and likewise consent. By shifting the
sites where certain practices take place, we
also need to re-think the terms we use to describe those practices. The economic levels of
circulation and consumption have become
major vehicles for the expression of culture,
while the economic level of dispersed regional production re-constitutes the realm of
the so-called civil society, employing principles of good conduct, neighborliness and
family values as major forms of social regulation (Narotzky and Smith 2005).
In the current conjuncture in wealthy nations then there are multiple purposes that
the economy is made to serve. Not just production-circulation-consumption (though certainly that), but also to punish, to reward (i.e.
materially), to reason, to justify, to imagine
and to communicate (i.e. ideologically). The

pervasiveness of economy as an ideological

field that mediates a significant percentage of
images of society, at least in the West and
across all classes then,11 would seem, in turn,
to suggest a re-configuring of the task facing
intellectuals, and it is certainly one that has
been taken up in cultural studies and in the anthropology of consumption. Yet by making
the economy synonymous with the market
these intellectuals collude in a remarkably effective exercise in obscuring the complex levels
of the economy. Perhaps for example these one
dimensional understandings of the economy
are especially well suited to making power
appear to work in a capillary manner through
the market, while obscuring much more fundamentally coercive elements of the economy. If then we will need to understand hegemonic processes operating widely through the
economy, as I think we must, we will need,
as well, to recognize the way in which coercion and consent, resistance and collusion
are expressed throughout the economys
multiple operations.
It has become fashionable to dismiss
Marxs insistence on the fundamental role of
production as hopelessly outdated in the socalled information economy where the working class can be bid a less than fond farewell,
but anthropologys fascination with exchange
and consumption, risks giving the impression that economy means essentially retail
economy, economy where it can be seen,
conveniently available in the public sphere.
It is likely that Marx and Engelss ethnographic reflections on Manchester were no
more palatable to the Victorian bourgeoisie
living in Kensington or the gentry hunting in
the shires, than are todays institutions of
capitalist production, servicing, financing
and managing to the American middle class.
Yet these are the sites where most of the latter spend minimally a third of their waking
hours. They remain sophisticated sites of regimentation where domination is not dressed
in the velvet glove of democracy, rights and
such like. We need surely to try to understand the link between this element of the
economy and the fetishization of the more
public civil society.

116 | Gavin Smith

And this is not to mention a much vaster

majority of people for whom the freedoms
of the so-called civil society provide precisely
the hegemonic leverage for the regulation of
their labors. It is precisely because the livelihood settings of these kinds of informalized
economies are (usually with the encouragement of the state) unregulated, that mastery
over hegemonic fields becomes a crucial element in the production and extraction of surplus-value, as dispersed linkages need to be
maintained through the continual extension
of senses of intimacy towards commonality
and commonality towards sociality. That is to
say, the re-constitution of the particularisms
of family, neighborhood and local culture to
service the universality of the profit margin
(see Smith and Narotzky 2004).
Hegemony and society
There are, then, challenges to current uses of
the idea of hegemony thrown up by the
combined facts that what is called the economy is pervasive and that its dynamics are
elusive and complex. Generally we have addressed this issue by leaving the difficult
parts of the economy to other people, yet this
surely weakens the value of such an approach. Others often themselves no more
prepared to bite off and digest what they
need to know about economic processes
would reject the idea of hegemony anyway,
arguing that it has been surpassed by the decenteredness of power and the vast extensions of scale evoked in the term globalization. After all, is not hegemony about the
forming of a historic bloc and the use of various forms of power to bring on board the
popular classes? And if so, this seems to presuppose a coherent social space, like the nation state. There is a sense in which the anxiety about how to talk about hegemony once
we shift beyond the nation state is, like the
issue of culture and economy, simply a
category mistake. Hegemony is about the
use of power and persuasion in the forming
of historic blocs. Shifts in scale should not
disqualify this analytic framework, as is
amply shown by anthropological uses of

hegemony to address issues of colonial governance (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991, Fox
1985, Sider 1986).
To some extent the problem lies less with
scale then, than with the inability to disentangle hegemonic projects from current anthropologys fixation with the culture concept. This is nicely demonstrated by the
fruitful way in which two non-anthropologists make use of the term to help us understand what they refer to as the Chaos and
governance of the Modern World System.
Arrighi and Silver, take three international
hegemonic moments the Dutch, the British
and the United States and discuss the interaction between inter-state competition/
compacts, inter-enterprise competition/compacts and dominant-subordinate group competition/compacts. The central argument is
that system wide expansions in trade and
production that have characterized each
hegemonic period of hegemony have been
based on social compacts between dominant
and subordinate groups (Arrighi and Silver
1999: 151). While hegemony has often been
discussed in the context of the securing of
national arenas, anthropologists have generally used the notion to address issues of imperialism and colonialism.
While more recently anthropologists and
historians have shifted from the sites where
colonialism was applied to interrogate the
imperial projects themselves, these have
often been inspired not by Gramsci but by
Foucault (Stoler 2002). As a result we are inclined to see colonialism in terms of programs a term especially attractive to Foucauldians much less in terms of the kind of
active cross-currents that are inherent to the
idea of hegemony. The exception is Asad,
who thinks within a similar international
frame to that of Arrighi and Silver, but takes
us into a potentially fruitful line of enquiry
as useful for today as for yesteryear. We need,
he says, to pursue our historical concerns by
anthropologizing the growth of Western imperial power () It needs to be stressed
however, that it is not enough for anthropologists to note that hegemony was not monolithic, or that Western power continually

Hegemony: critical interpretations | 117

evoked resistance. It is not enough because

conventional political history of colonial times
and places has always been a record of conflict: between and here Asad proposes a
different set of blocs to those of Arrighi and
Silver, different European interests, different
groups of non-Europeans as well as between
colonizers and colonized. Asad, moreover,
provides us with a much more nuanced enquiry: An anthropology of Western imperial
power must try to understand the radically altered form and terrain of conflict inaugurated
by it new political languages, new powers,
new social groups, new desires and fears, new
subjectivities (Asad 2001: 139).
And insofar as Western imperial power
continues its purview, so Asads agenda
throws up the essential challenge. To some
extent it may be that it is the sheer complexity of a supposedly global economy that
makes us shy away from critical analytic
tasks. As Harvey (2003) has recently noted,
the sheer volatility and chaotic fragmentation of power conflicts makes it hard to discern how the stern laws of economics are
working behind all the smoke and mirrors
(though it is revealing that Harvey notes that
Rosa Luxemburg had made this point nearly
a hundred years ago!). Or perhaps the current wave of free-trade, backed up by technologies of communication and mobility,
known as globalization makes it hard to
employ the notion hegemony, because they
appear to multiply the sites from which, and
means through which, power is exercised. At
first Foucault and now many others have encouraged us not simply to think of power as
decentered, acting capillary-like among the
populace; they have also banished sociological and institutional foci from analysis.
Globalization discourse helps to reinforce
this position, especially in the hinterlands
that surround neo-liberal discourse. The
combination of neo-liberal propensities to
absent the concept society plus Foucauldians similar distaste, may have the (positive?) effect of drawing our attention to
micro-projects niches for neo-liberals, autonomous sites of revindication for poststructuralists but this resistance to holism

(fashionably referred to as the meta-narratives of grand theory) also has the effect of
compartmentalizing social reality and thus
preventing a forthright, if challenging, pursuit of connectivities.
There is not doubt that the current conjuncture throws up provocative challenges to
the applicability of the notion of hegemony
and its attendant epistemology. But before
we throw out the term and its project entirely, we might want to reflect on what we
are losing by doing so. A recent school selfidentifying as one of post-hegemony has
now arisen, well informed by the original
term but now apparently turning to an
agenda attuned to the fragmenting projects
of the Right.

1. In this sense, the notion, counter-hegemony
can be used for very limited situations, and
certainly not for emergent hegemonic projects that seek to position themselves vis--vis
a dominant, established hegemony.
2. The word territorial is placed in quotes, because the geographical contiguity of hegemonic fields can frequently be more imagined
than real. See the conclusion of this article.
3. The terms carried their own resonances, both
of uncontrolled force and of improper manipulation. Crowd originating from the
German to molest and the Norwegian to
swarm but also from the Dutch to push;
and mass alluding not only to the (natural)
force experienced in a gravitational field, but
also to the basis for bread, but only after its
proper kneading. Crowds and masses then
carried with them simultaneously an inherent force and also dangerous possibilities for
being (improperly) formed, pushed, kneaded,
i.e. led. Citizenry and working class, effectively hailed the respective categories of that
potential leadership.
4. Deputy is the term used for a Member of
Parliament in Italy, the person who supposedly represents the interests of those who
elected him.
5. Indeed his reflections at this point prefigure
an ambitious anthropological project.

118 | Gavin Smith

6. In order to provide for the needs of human

beings living in a city, a region, a nation, it is
necessary to feel those needs; it is necessary
[for the politician] to represent concretely to
his fantasy those human beings as beings who
live and work daily, to represent their sorrows,
the sadness of a life they are forced to live. If
one does not possess this power to dramatize
life, one cannot guess the general and particular provisions able to harmonize lifes necessities and governments availabilities (1958:
101 as quoted in Urbaniti 1998: 145).
7. By far the best thing written on Gramsci and
culture, as much for anthropologists as for
others, is Crehan (2002).
8. A now vast literature in anthropology employs the notion hegemony. Kurtz (1996) in
his critical examination of its uses by anthropologists, singles out Carstens (1991), John
and Jean Comaroff (1991, 1992) and Fox
(1989) for special attention. The notion is especially salient in the ethnographies of Sider
(1986); see also Rebel (1989a, 1989b) Ortner
(1989) and Silverman (2001), as well as in
Gledhill study (1994). Anthropological critiques of Scotts dismissal of the concept can
be found in Roseberry (1996), Smith (1999).
9. The problem lies, as usual, with the usage of
the word culture. E.P. Thompson (1961) famously accused Williams of widening the
term culture to such an extent that it would
be impossible to imagine anything in the
world that did not fall within its orbit.
10. Here Hall approximates Bourdieu when he
suggests that what is possible or unlikely for
a class of people does not just become translated into a statistic of probability; it also gets
translated into sayings, commonplaces and
ethical precepts in a dialectic between objective structures and cognitive and motivating structures (Bourdieu 1977: 7783).
11. What limits these authors in political terms,
when compared to Gramsci are the elimination of society in the case of Foucault as the
macro arena of fields of force; and in the case
of Bourdieu, his skirting of the specific features of capitalist reproduction.
12. Jameson notes, [T]he ideology of the market
is unfortunately not some supplementary
ideational or representational luxury or embellishment that can be removed from the
economic problem and then sent over to
some cultural or superstructural morgue, to
be dissected by specialists over there. It is

somehow generated by the thing itself, as its

objectively necessary after-image: somehow
both dimensions must be registered together,
in their identity as well as in their difference
(1991: 278).

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