Cultural hegemony is a term developed by Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci was concerned with how power works: how it is wielded by those in power and how it is won by those who want to change the system/s. Gramsci realised that in order to create and maintain a new society, you also needed to create and maintain a new consciousness.
The repository of consciousness is culture. This includes both big-C Culture, culture in an aesthetic sense, and small-c culture, culture in an anthropological sense: the norms and mores and discourses that make up our everyday lives. Culture, in this sense, is what allows us to navigate our world, guiding our ideas of right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, just and unjust, possible and impossible. You may be able to seize power by force but unless the power is backed up by a culture that reinforces the notion that what you are doing is good and beautiful and just and possible, then any gains on the economic, military and political fronts are likely to be short-lived.
The power of cultural hegemony lies in its invisibility. Unlike a political system backed up by a written constitution, culture resides within us. It doesn’t seem “political,” it’s just what we like, or what we think is beautiful, or what feels comfortable. Wrapped in stories and images and figures of speech, culture is a politics that doesn’t look like politics and is therefore a lot harder to notice, much less resist. When a culture becomes hegemonic, it becomes “common sense” for the majority of the population.
No culture, however, is completely hegemonic. Even under the most complete systems of control, there are pockets of what Gramsci, and later Hall, called “counter-hegemonic” cultures: ways of thinking and doing that have revolutionary potential because they run counter to the dominant power. For Gramsci, these cultures might be located in traditional peasant beliefs or the shop-floor culture of industrial workers; for Hall they might be found in youth subcultures like Rastafarians and punks, and even in commercial entertainment. The activist’s job, according to Hall, is to identify and exploit these cultural pockets, build a radical counter-culture within the shell of the old society, and wage the struggle for a new cultural hegemony.
An important caveat: Gramsci never believed that cultural power alone was enough. The fight for cultural hegemony had to be part of an overall strategy that also incorporated struggles for political and economic power.
If we think about power and institutions and cultural hegemony within the aid system, we need to consider what the existing big C and small c is.
In Sum: Politics is not only fought out on parliamentary floors and between political parties, workplaces or on battlefields, but also in the language we use, the stories we tell, and the images we conjure — in short, in the ways we make sense of the world.