Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, was an important contributor to Marxist theory with his idea of "hegemony".
From socialism to the civil rights movement, gender politics and contemporary ecological struggles, the idea of hegemony is a useful framework for understanding dominant systems of power, such as capitalism, and the development of progressive, democratic alternatives.
Hegemony should be defined as a process by which social groups — be they progressive, regressive or reformist — gain the power to lead. The idea does not just apply to the capitalist ruling class; it also relates to the question of how social groups gain, expand and maintain their power.
Throughout history, the capitalist class has retained its hegemony primarily through various forms of coercion ranging from the deployment of military force through to the more subtle forms including the use of economic power to marginalise political opponents.
It would, however, be a mistake to think that capitalism does not also rely heavily upon building consent to maintain hegemony. Indeed, I'd argue that from a strategic point of view, we need to pay attention to capitalism's consent-building because it's on this level that we compete with the ruling class.
The nature and strength of this consent varies.
The ways in which capitalism succeeds in maintaining its hegemony over subordinate classes is to sell the idea that its vision of society is one of liberty, freedom and innovation.
Of course, capitalism uses the ideas of bourgeois economists to convince working people that although economic policy is, ultimately, designed to suit capitalists' interests, they too gain some benefit via the trickle-down effect.
Capitalism can also win consent among those who perhaps don't buy the idea that the system is in their interests but who have been convinced that there is no alternative, or that the alternatives would be worse. In other words, capitalism promotes the belief that the system is a necessary evil.
During the 20th century, capitalism massively expanded its ability to build consensus, largely through corporate control of media and advertising. In the United States in particular, the promotion of the "American dream" and all the useless commodities required to attain it, helped massively boost consumption and thereby the economic interests of the capitalists, as well as promoting a way of life that only capitalism could deliver.
The promotion of corporately-owned media allowed the capitalist class to use its hegemonic political power to build even more consent. This, in turn, expanded its interests.
The hegemonic group will continually struggle in this fashion to reach greater levels of consent — in this case by locking people into rigid mindsets and overcoming any optimism. An example of this is the former Howard government's efforts to expand privately-owned schools and to make high school history content more favourable to bourgeois perspectives.
Hegemony is an ongoing process: the ruling class will constantly try to expand its interests and win consent particularly when its legitimacy is challenged.
Given that capitalist hegemony relies on coercion and deceit, progressives must therefore strive to build a hegemony that involves a far greater degree of openness, democracy and consensus.
The need for a transition from the apparent necessity of the "world as it is" view to the freedom to create the "world anew" should be the starting point in the struggle for a better world.
[Trent Brown is a member of Friends of the Earth Illawarra. This article is based on a talk he gave to a September 9 meeting organised by the Socialist Alliance. The unabridged version is available at Links, international journal for socialist renewal, visit www.links.org.au.]