I first heard the word hegemony in one of my introductory grad school courses. I didn’t know what it was. Fortunately, someone sitting next to me saved me the embarrassment by asking the lecturer what it meant. In this context—as in most cases—hegemony is used to describe one country’s dominance over others. In the case of food, however, Merriam-Webster’s definition may be better at helping us understand:
hegemony: the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group
Marxism and the concept of hegemony
Let’s go back to the late 1800s to explore a bit of Marxism and how this term originated. For those of you unfamiliar with Marxism, let a person totally unqualified to do so attempt to explain (Marx for dummies can be found here).
In its most general sense, Marxism was Karl Marx’s attempt to understand why society was structured in the manner it was—and currently is—the reason for different classes and why some people are poor while others are rich. In exploring this, Marx studied both capitalists and workers as well as the role these two groups of people play in capitalism. Capitalists are driven to use their capital (money) to make more money and workers are motivated to sell their labor as a commodity to pay for things like food and rent. For most of us, we’re in the worker group; living in a capitalist-driven world, we have no choice but to sell our labor (be it physical or otherwise) in order to survive.
Many times, the interests of the capitalists are not in line with the interests of the workers, and this is a structural component of capitalism. Maximizing profits often comes at a cost, namely increased hours, reduced wages, and fewer benefits for workers.
To help us drive this point home and understand why hegemony is an unlisted ingredient in most of the food we consume, let’s throw another Marxist thinker into the mix—Antonio Gramsci.
Antonio looked at not only how the ruling country or class got power, but also how they maintained that power. For him, cultural hegemony was the realization that a class or group cannot dominate by simply advancing their economic interests with the use of coercion or force—they had to do this in a clever manner in order to sustain their place in the free market.
Hegemonic power in the food system
Large and powerful organizations or entities have remained in positions of power because of their capacity to use intellectual leadership and alliances with a variety of actors. In the food system, this could be seen by huge junk food producing corporations partnering with nutritionists and dietitians. These experts may have learned about all of the adverse health impacts of fast food and processed meats, but many of them have sat down to nutrition conferences sponsored by McDonald’s—featuring bacon salads and chocolate chip cookies.
Corruption is a facet of many components of modern life and while it would be wrong to vilify all dietitians, many of the supposed gatekeepers of nutrition education are, in fact, sleeping with the enemy. Dietitians may overlook reductions in things like high fructose corn syrup while receiving funding from the Corn Refiners Association. They may minimize their recommendations to reduce red meat consumption as members of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, whose largest sponsor is the National Cattleman’s Beef Association.
‘Big Food’ has also learned to make compromises that will keep their profits high, responding to consumer needs by appearing to fulfill health or environment-related outcomes. This is tied in with Gramsci’s understanding of hegemonic groups making use of moral leadership to maintain ideological and social relationships that contribute to economic gain.
Picture this. You’re walking through the seemingly neverending cereal aisle at the supermarket. You’re overwhelmed by the Great Wall of Sugar-Sweetened Rings and Flakes. You know that obesity and sugar and gluten and palm oil and GMOs are all things to worry about so you try to avoid products from the big ‘unhealthy’ cereal producers like Kelloggs, General Mills, and Post, right?
WRONG. These big companies are actually making money off the fears that consumers have about some of their products. The makers of uber-processed and sugar-laden Fruit Loops and Frosted Flakes still sell products that are on the ‘bad list’ for many nutritionally-savvy people, but now also offer reduced-sugar, whole-grain, and gluten-free varieties. Using technology and the latest in food science, these corporations are successful at substituting one ingredient making its way around social media as something to be avoided with another sometimes more dangerous ingredient.
Healthwashing and a similar sustainability-focused greenwashing have made their way into the products in our pantries. The miracles of marketing have made it possible for some of the worst companies to appear to be providing solutions to the environmental and health woes of consumers.
Companies continue to offer super-processed and nutrient-devoid products but add words like natural, farm fresh, artisan, organic, multigrain, gluten-free, vegan to cater to an ever-expanding health-conscious and eco-friendly market. They buy organic food companies to infiltrate a customer base formerly left untapped. They create roundtables and arguably ineffective corporate social responsibility plans. Simply put, they manipulate the situation to take your money.
Where to go from here?
A lot of people would argue that the food system is broken. While it may appear that way, the food system is working in precisely the way a capitalism-driven food system should. It’s providing the capitalists with capital—but all the negative social and environmental outcomes to accompany it.
So, just know this. Big Food isn’t going down without a fight. They’ve got an arsenal of experts and resources to maintain their position of power. They’ve infiltrated media outlets, schools, nutrition associations, and environmental organizations to continue getting their way. They like to keep you confused. They like to keep you hooked to their products.
The good news is that, as eaters, we all play a key role in this game called hegemony. We can all do our part to either contribute to or challenge a concentration of power. Vote with your fork, think before you eat, and don’t look at the status quo as something that can’t be changed.