Hegemony is a popular concept to throw around in academia these days. The cost of so ecumenical an adoption (or, as a cynic might say, the reason for it), is that the notion becomes imprecise. It may seem as if the idea of hegemony can be made to encompass any idea about power, and the fact that Gramsci's notebooks were written under conditions of heavy censorship doesn't help.

In most formulations of hegemony, however, its fundamental mechanism is naturalization: what had seemed arbitrary comes to be seen as natural, or even obviously correct, when it is seen at all. By definition, then, it's hard to give a good obvious example of hegemony in action (indeed, the possibility of recognizing and contesting hegemony is one of the fronts along which hegemony and its critics contend). Consider, however, some of the fundamental ideas we hold about money and it's relationship to labor:

  • The value of labor is independent of the value of the labor's product.
  • The value of labor is measured by time.
  • Time is equivalent to money.

These tenets are central to the functioning of capitalism; the decoupling of labor and the product of labor is what permits the surplus value to be extracted. We live in a society in which this conception of time and money has been thoroughly naturalized, to the point where it seems self-evident. It's probably fair to say that the majority of people who hold a salaried job have never questioned whether or not the fundamental yardstick of their labor makes any sense.

But seen from another angle, these ideas about money seem pretty arbitrary. If I spend the day making horseshoes, isn't the value of my work dependent on the number of horseshoes I made instead of how long it took me to make them? Why should it matter whether I spent an hour to make this horseshoe or two hours?

Indeed, if you look at the activity that surrounded the Industrial Revolution in England, you find that an awful lot of work--intellectual, cultural, and spiritual work--was being done to massage the idea of money into the hearts of the masses, and there were many words spoken about things we take for granted.

John Wesley, for example, the founder of the Methodist Church, spent a lot of time sermonizing on money. Money, for Wesley, was one of the talents with which we are endowed by God, such as our souls, our hands and feet, and our speech. In fact, money is the most important talent, "that precious talent which contains all the rest... Indeed it is unspeakably precious, if we are wise and faithful stewards of it; if we employ every part of it for such purposes as our blessed Lord has commanded us to do."

It sounds strange to modern ears to hear money being spoken of as a "talent," especially in a religious context. The role of money has become so naturalized that it may even strike us as vulgar to hear a man of God tell us, as Wesley does, to "gain all [we] can." But in Wesley's time, the groundwork of capitalism had not yet been laid, and in order for it to take root, the flock had to be taught the value of money.

Prior to industrialization, after all, the point of production was clear. The reason we made a horseshoe was because there was a horse that needed to be shod, or to trade it for something else we needed. Money in that context was a facilitator, that enabled us to time-shift or space-shift transactions, but it wasn't an end unto itself.

So the questions Wesley was answering were germane to the time: What is money, and why should we want it? What's it good for? Why should we organize our lives and our societies around it?

Nowadays, of course, we don't ask those kinds of questions. Hegemony is not about what is said but what goes unsaid. Even in much of our fantasy fiction, where horses have wings and people throw fireballs from their fingertips, little disks of gold, silver, and copper are simply assumed. It's hard for us even to imagine a world without money; in Star Trek, we have to get rid of scarcity itself before we get rid of cash, and even then there are the Ferengi.


  1. John Wesley's Sermons (http://gbgm-umc.org/umhistory/wesley/sermons/)