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Hegemony: Domination and Influence

Introduction

Carlos’s family just moved to a newly-built community, divided into six neighborhoods. Each one is meant to be equal in resources, with the same number of houses, stores, and parks. However, as time goes on, the northern neighborhood becomes wealthier. It begins to exert its influence on the other areas, resulting in stores closing down and activities being centered in the northern neighborhood.

Explanation

Hegemony is about one group using their influence to affect another group, like in Carlos’s community. Though the most common example of hegemony is seen on a country level, it also exists on a smaller scale, like neighborhoods dominated by the wealthy that were initially home to low- and middle-income families.

Hegemony

Hegemony is when a dominant group has overwhelming power and exerts that power on others, in political, economic, cultural, or ideological forms. Most often, this term refers to the power that a country or social group wields.

The History

The word “hegemony” comes from a Greek word meaning “leader.” Indeed, Greece is where some of the earliest examples of hegemony exist. In ancient Greece, hegemony referred to one city-state exerting its stronger political and military influence over another city-state. For instance, Sparta was the dominant city-state in its area for several centuries. It was a part of an alliance with other city-states and, as the strongest, was known as the hegemon. However, in the 19th century, hegemony came to have a broader definition, no longer solely focused on political and military power, but looking at social and cultural power as well.

How It Works

There are several different ways of thinking about how hegemony works, and various scholars have defined it in slightly different ways. Some argue that a true hegemony can only occur when there is one dominant power that is far stronger than all the others, so much so that other countries don’t stand a chance of surpassing them. Others argue that the increasingly globalized nature of our world requires a different way of thinking about hegemony, taking into account the various world powers. For instance, during the Cold War, many scholars argued that the Soviet Union and the United States were dual hegemonic powers, pulling the rest of the world in either direction.

Hegemonic stability theory believes that a strong power is necessary to maintain the world order and keep the peace. Scholars who fall into this school of thought argue that the loss of a hegemonic power would result in international chaos and adverse effects, like the Great Depression. Liberal hegemony follows a similar train of thought and further argues that the hegemonic power acts in the interests of all powers.

Other schools of thought involve the idea that hegemony’s power comes not only from military might but also from structural institutions that reinforce their power. Philosopher Antonio Gramsci coined the term “cultural hegemony” to refer to the ruling class manipulating the values and beliefs of a society. Even outside of this conception, various scholars argue that hegemony can be perpetrated and supported by ideas which come to be normalized. For instance, many Western countries colonized others under the guise of bringing democracy, peace, and stability. 

Civil society can wield hegemonic power as well. Some scholars argue that hegemonic power today lies not with countries, but stems from capitalism. In this view, the power is in the hands of the most wealthy people and corporations who exert that influence over smaller companies, create monopolies, and exploit workers.

Whether or not the United States is still a hegemony or not has been the subject of much debate over several decades. On the one hand, the U.S. is certainly not the only world power, and various countries continue to oppose it in politics, military force, and economic sanctions. On the other hand, the U.S. spends more on its military than any other country, dominates international organizations, and plays a crucial role in global economic affairs. 

Additionally, while scholars may debate labeling the U.S. today a hegemony in the technical sense of the term, the country has certainly been a hegemony at times in history. For instance, the U.S. forced the Indigenous community off their lands, killing millions of people through the Trail of Tears, the Sand Creek massacre, and the American Indian Wars. The U.S. has never faced international condemnation for its genocide of the indigenous people, lending weight to the argument of the U.S. as a hegemonic power.

Another key example is U.S. interference in Latin America, especially during the 20th century. In 1986, the International Court of Justice found the U.S. guilty of funding a covert war against the Nicaraguan government, despite signing the Treaty of Friendship with the country in 1956. However, no action was taken against the U.S. It is also vital to remember similar events taken by many other countries, including England, France, and China.

Applying It

Though it may seem like hegemony was more common in the past, when countries like Britain freely called themselves an “empire,” hegemony is still occurring today. The U.S. has active-duty military troops in around 150 countries and continues to wage war in the Middle East. Media, business, and technology companies are taking over smaller companies and beginning to exert their influence as monopolies. Wherever the power of hegemony lies and however it is exerted, it is damaging and dangerous to those with less power.

So what can anyone do to fight back against a system of power that is so vast and powerful? You can read more about the effects of hegemony on countries and specific people, and spread awareness on this issue by talking about it with friends and family. You can call your representatives and urge them to vote against the measures that would exert undue influence on foreign countries. Most importantly, you can advocate for those in your community who are marginalized and thus fight back against the existing structures of power.

Think Further

  1. What is one example of a hegemonic power that is not a country?
  2. Do you agree with liberal hegemonic theory that the dominant power uses their influence to create peace and stability, or do you think that hegemonic powers are always damaging? Why?
  3. How can you fight to dismantle hegemonic systems of power?

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Learn More

  1. Clayton, Thomas. Rethinking Hegemony. James Nicholas Publishers, 2006. Google Books, https://books.google.com/books?id=fKQ4csjlktIC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.
  2. Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. Verso Books, 2014. Google Books, https://books.google.com/books?id=yblvDwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.
  3. Parchami, Ali. Hegemonic Peace and Empire: The Pax Romana, Britannica and Americana. Routledge, 2009. Google Books, https://books.google.com/books?id=Pwt6AgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.
  4. Schmidt, Brian. “The Debate on American Hegemony.” Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, June 2019, https://doc-research.org/2019/06/the-debate-on-american-hegemony/.