The term “hegemony” is derived from the Greek word hegemonia meaning leader. A widely used term in international relations theory, hegemony is most frequently used to denote the predominant position of the most powerful state in the international system or the dominant state in a particular given region. Viewed from this power-centric Realist perspective, the United Kingdom came to be regarded as the hegemonic power of the 19th Century as the United States is currently considered the hegemony in the post-Cold War era. Following the same logic, India is widely viewed as the current regional hegemony in South Asia. It is not surprising thus that almost all the non-Marxist scholars of different theoretical predilection in the international relations theory use the term hegemony to describe the dominant-dependant structure of relationship between the hegemony and the states that fall under its hegemony.
In the Marxist theory, on the other hand, the term hegemony is used in a very different and specific sense. Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), Italian Marxist and social theorist is widely considered to be the most influential 20th century Marxist exponent of the theory of hegemony. For Gramsci, hegemony refers to the ability of a dominant class to exercise power by winning the consent of those it subjugates, as an alternative to use of coercion. Unlike the traditional Marxists m, Gramsci puts emphasis on the non-coercive form of class rule. He believed that while it could be true to speak of coercive or the fear of coercion as the main reason behind the inability of exploited and alienated majority in overthrowing the system that caused them so much hardship in the case of less developed societies like the pre-Revolutionary Russia, the situation was quite different in the case of more developed countries of the West. Gramsci believed that in case of the developed West, the system was maintained not merely by coercion, but perhaps more importantly through consent. It is in this context that his theory of hegemony becomes crucial in understanding the nature of modern capitalist society. Hegemony is the typically understood, in the Gramscian sense, as a cultural or ideological process that operates through the spread of bourgeois values and beliefs throughout society.
Consent, according to Gramsci, is produced and reproduced by the hegemony of the ruling class in society. It is this hegemony that allows the bourgeois values-the moral, political, and cultural values of the dominant class-to become widely dispersed throughout society and to be accepted by subordinate classes as their own. In other words, the bourgeois ideology is so deeply internalized by the subordinate and exploited classes that it becomes part of unquestioned “common sense”. The penetration of such bourgeois values takes place through the institutions of civil society like the media, the education system, churches, volumatry organizations, etc.
Gramasci’s contribution to the general body of Marxist thought lies in the fact that he successfully managed to shift the focus of Marxist analysis more towards super structural phenomena as against the traditional obsession of the orthodox Marxists with economic base. After Gramsci, international relations theorists such as Robert Cox have attempted to “internationalize” his thought by transposing several of his key concepts, most notably hegemony, to the global context. While drawing upon Gramsci’ s notion of hegemony and transposing it to the international realm, Cox argues that hegemony is perhaps as important for maintaining stability and continuity at the international level as it is at the domestic level. According to Cox, successive dominant powers in the international system have shaped a world order that suits their interests, and have done so not only as a result of their coercive capabilities, but also because they have managed to generate broad consent for that order even among those who are disadvantaged by it. Using the examples of the two hegemons, United Kingdom and United States, Cox manages to demonstrate that the ruling, hegemonic idea of “free trade” is so widely accepted today in the world that it has almost become part of the “common sense” even through it impacts upon the peripheral states adversely and only the dominant states tend to gain from it. Cox argues that the degree to which a state can produce and reproduce its hegemony in the international system indicates the extent of its power in the system. The success of the United States is Gaining near universal acceptance for Neo-liberalism, Cox argues, shows the dominance of the current hegemon in the international system.