What is ‘cultural hegemony’

Around the turn of the 2000’s into the 2010’s, multiple members of the commentariat started putting out articles discussing a curious topic. Long a mainstay of American life, truly popular ‘pop’ culture was beginning to dissolve away.

In our past were viral Summer hits, watercolor television shows, massive awards productions, and digested and ready-made opinions on major events. In the present, though, these were all subsumed into a more and more atomized, personalized reality: the internet and, especially, forums and early social media connected niche fandoms into siloed off communities. There was no more ‘fitting in’, because there was no more ‘in’ and what ‘fitting’ meant was entirely up for debate.

For American liberals, this was a curious oddity and nothing more. For broken and beaten academics and thinkers (cursed like I am), it’s symptomatic of a greater, deeper shift in American society. To us, this is all about an obscure cultural critique called “Cultural Hegemony”.

At home among small communities and literary circles in the latter half of the 20th century, “Cultural Hegemony” and its creator, Antonio Gramsci, were concerned with understanding and describing how societies perpetuate themselves. If there are tensions between two groups of society, say, the haves and the have-nots, what’s the best way to hide that tension? Or to subvert it with something else entirely?

Gramsci reckoned that the best way to go about things would be for the dominant economic party to subsume popular culture, and then use their financial and structural means to immerse every person in that culture. If we’re born, raised, and die, within particular boundaries, it becomes much harder to think and talk about things that exist outside that framework.

Gramsci’s research and commentary was centered around the rise and rule of the Italian fascists, against the backdrop of the Second World War. Many of the things that define our world today in the 21st century, though, mean that we live in a qualitatively different, unrecognizable world. Linking the two is a difficult job, one that begs for a contemporary example. And that’s where, in the early to mid 2010’s, Twitter and YouTube comfortably slide in.

A New Pattern

The democratization of media is a very well-worn topic, both in text and on videos on platforms like YouTube or Facebook. The capital barriers to putting one’s ideas out there have completely collapsed: most everyone today has a phone in their pockets capable of filming themselves and their worlds.

Of all the effects of this we could imagine as being foreseeable or even desired, the largest and most essential has flown completely under the radar. Thirty years ago, if you wanted an opinion on the O.J. Simpson car chase and trial, you tuned into network television. More importantly, you received broadly the same framing of facts and commentary as everyone else.

Contrast this to, say, any major mass shooting in the United States over the past three years. All follow the same broad pattern: in the aftermath of a catastrophe, multiple framings and viewpoints emerge. Communities develop around these framings and explanations, on Reddit, on YouTube, on Twitter.

The most popular of these communities can have tens of thousands of members, organized along a flat ad-hoc hierarchy. No one has any power to determine the consensus of the community all alone. Instead, the ombudsmen of the community are determined organically and democratically, usually based on their skill at building a coherent and reasonable narrative that explains the catastrophe.

And in these cauldrons of opinion, pre-existing cultural hegemony, culture that represents the capitalist class’ opinions, ideology, and world, reconstituted and hewn into a new piece that fits the same form.

What’s next?

This is all fine to discuss, but there are two parts to research and critique: describing the past, and analyzing the future. Predictions are a bit outside my wheelhouse, but I think it’s prudent to really consider how these different frameworks might evolve.

The most important concept of this analysis is that our reality is defined by our material conditions: culture is downstream from economic realities.

In the future, what’s the most likely form that our economic realities will take? So far, the 21st century in America has been defined by inequality, the disappearance of the comfortable middle, and the squeezing of the consumer class.

It seems obvious that this would express itself in our media and culture. Media that is more lonely, more earnest, more honest about our reality.   The pace of this change has been breakneck so far, owing to the crowds holding the reins of the platforms. But, even a slow moving cultural structure like network television does move.

The battlegrounds of culture will be on those platforms, and whether those qualities become dominant in our culture or we recede into an anodyne, anesthetized borrowed dream of a Friends New York.

If the American people do fall back into that light phenazepam sleep, all of us should remember that there are only two resolutions to sleep: death, or waking up, and waking up after decades of dreaming is a violent and uncomfortable shock.