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Andrew Carnegie and the Discourse of Cultural Hegemony

  • Alun Munslow (a1)

Can cultural change be explained as a function of discourse? A discourse is any language territory, whether a mode of thinking, talking or writing, which presupposes shared assumptions between its producer and consumer. This means that the relationship between language and ideology is dependent upon the nature of a particular discourse. This paper offers comments on this question with reference to the formation of the post-bellum American business culture and its ideology by examining the written works of one of its leading exponents, the industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Working from the assumption that this business culture was serving the interests of a new ruling group at the expense of subordinate Populist-Producer ones, does an evaluation of the business-man's discourse reveal how it helped create that ideological domination? Both Hayden White and Michel Foucault have claimed that culture can be explored by reference to the primary figurative modes of discourse, particularly the tropes of metonymy and synecdoche. Basic to this rhetorical approach to cultural formation is its assumption that ideology is a function of discourse, even though White, the most devoted practitioner of the theory of the poetic foundation of cultural practices, recognises Foucault's insight that discourse resides in the world and is bound up with property ownership, power and the imposition of force. Assuming that power is embedded in a dominant social formation, business spokesmen like Carnegie, working to maintain the authority of a particular class, did so through a range of discursive cultural practices that contended with others for dominance. In the Gramscian model of cultural change Andrew Carnegie was an organic intellectual in as much as he functioned according to the interests of the new fundamental class of the wealthy industrial bourgeoisie.

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1 Andrew Carnegie, Triumphant Democracy (London, 1886); The Gospel of Wealth And Other Timely Essays (London, 1901), The Empire of Business (London, 1902).

2 The scholarly literature on the Populist–Producer culture has expanded markedly over the past decade. Notable landmarks are Lawrence Goodwyn, Democratic Promise (New York, 1976); Alan Dawley, Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn (Cambridge, Mass., 1976); Gutman Herbert G., Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America (New York, 1977); Hirsch Susan E., Roots of the American Working Class: The Industraliation of Crafts in Newark, 1800–1860 (Philadephia, 1978); Cumbler John T., Working Class Community in Industrial America: Work, Leisure, and Struggle in two Industrial Cities, 1880–1930 (Westport, Conn, 1979); Montgomery David, Worker's Control in America (Cambridge, Mass, 1979); Milton Cantor, ed., American Working Class Culture: Explorations in American Labor and Social History (Westport, Conn., 1979); Brody David, Workers in Industrial America (New York, 1980); Laurie Bruce, Working People of Philadelphia, 1800–1850 (Philadelphia, 1980); Faler Paul G., Mechanics and Manufacturers in the Early Industrial Revolution: Lynn, Massachusetts, 1780–1860 (New York, 1981); Hahn Steven, The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850–1890 (New York, 1983); Couvares Francis G., The Remaking of Pittsburgh: Class and Culture in an Industrializing City, 1877–1919 (New York, 1984); Bensman David, The Practice of Solidarity: American Hat Finishers in the Nineteenth Century (Urbana, 1985); Montgomery David, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865–1965 (New York, 1987). Alan Trachtenberg is most clear that the two centres of opposition in the late nineteenth century were the Populists and the working classes, see The Incorporation of America (New York, 1982).

3 Foucault Michel, “The Order of Discourse,” Inaugural Lecture at the College de France, 2nd December 1970. The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York, 1972); The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York, 1973); Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (New York, 1973); The Birth of the Clinic (New York, 1975); Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essqys and Interviews, ed. by Bouchard D. F. (New York, 1977); Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison (New York, 1979); Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings (New York, 1980); White Hayden, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe (Baltimore, 1973), “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” Critical Theory, 7, 1, (Autumn 1980), 527, “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory,” History and Theory, 23, 1, (1984), 133, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism, Baltimore, (1978), “Structuralism and Popular Culture,” Journal of Popular Culture, 7, (1974) 759‐75;

4 Gramsci Antonio, The Prison Notebooks (London, 1982). Gramsci insists that in order to explore the processes of cultural formation what must be explained is how it happens “that there co-exist many systems and currents of philosophical thought, how these Currents are born, how they are diffused, and why in the process of diffusion they fracture along certain lines and in certain directions” (327). In his section on the “The Intellectual” and “Notes on Italian History,” in The Prison Notebooks Gramsci describes the complexities of hegemony in detail. Beginning by noting the crucial role of the intellectual in the process of establishing a social hegemony Gramsci offers the central insight that the intellectuals are the dominant groups' deputies “exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government” (12). The functions include “The ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses…to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige…which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.” The second major function of the intellectuals is to operate the “apparatus of state coercive power which ‘legally’ enforces discipline on those groups who do not ‘consent’ either actively or passively.” The establishment of a social hegemony is not of course as mechanical as it at first sounds. Consent and repression exist together and hegemony is moral as well as economic. For every conflict between dominant and subordinate groups there is also compromise. It is only at moments when there is a crisis of authority that the dominant groups resort to coercion. Hegemony, therefore, describes the relationship between the masses and the dominant groups of society through politics and economics but most significantly through social consciousness. Among the most significant link between the masses and the elite is language use.

5 Organic intellectuals are those among a fundamental class, and created by it, who are aware of its functioning and character and conscious of the ends it is pursuing. Gramsci was very precise on the special position of the entrepreneur as an organic intellectual: “He must be an organiser of masses of men.… If not all entrepreneurs, at least an elite amongst them must have the capacity to be an organiser of society in general, including all its complex organism of services, right up to the state organism, because of the need to create the conditions most favourable to the expansion of their own class” (Gramsci, op. cit., 5–6). The only groups who can achieve hegemony are the fundamental classes – the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. The central question in the achievement of hegemony is precisely how intellectual and ideological leadership is established. It is clearly not a simple class alliance, It is, rather, the function of ideology to act as the hegemonic cement. How can a genuine ideological harmony be achieved? The answer is in part to be found in the nature of language and discourse. Gramsei preceded Foucault in his stress upon the role of discourse in reinforcing cultural domination. For Gramsci, “Great importance is assumed by the general question of language, that is, the question of collectively attaining a single cultural climate,” (his emphasis), op. cit., 349. As Jackson Lears pointed out recently the nature of the available discourse benchmarks that which is allowable, and de-legitimises certain lines of discursive argument. It may make it impossible for potentially oppositional groups to articulate their problems, Lears T. J.Jackson, “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities,” The American Historical Review, 90, 3 (06, 1985), 569–70. This is the essence of the process of interpellation. The individual is constituted in discourse, and because the structure of ideology is homologously related to the structure of the discourse, the subject is thereby constructed in ideology.

6 Each trope represents a different and equally legitimate mode of consciousness, which has in turn culturally formative consequences. It is, therefore, possible to eharaeterise cultural practices of particular historical epochs according to different linguistic protocols. White maintains that the historicised study of culture requires as its analytical model the theory that language is culturally constitutive.

7 White, “Structuralism and Popular Culture,” loc. cit., 772–73. It is White's position that language is possessed neither by the economic base nor superstructure but is anterior to both, and language is the instrument of mediation between consciousness and being. This is the point of divergence for the cultural materialist who would dispute that ideology is a function of tropic determination. However, for White the poetic function is the basis for all cultural activity. White insists that the trope or linguistic prefigurative act then offers us only a limited range of modes of emplotment, argument and ideology with which to explain events and make sense of our culture Metahistory, (1–42). In White's model of narrative discourse there are three parole strategies of explanation – by empbotment, argument and the ideological implications of the first two. Within each strategy there are four modes of representation. The relationships between the elements in White's grid are elective at the conscious or unconscious choice of the historical writer. The so-called elective affinities or most likely relationships are:

The writer's strategies of explanation are determined by their tropobogical prefiguration of the data operating at the level of the langue. The most recent previous treatment of White and his narratological theories of writing history is to be found in Ellis Richard J. and Munslow Alun, “Narrative, Myth and the Turner Thesis,” Journal of American Culture, 9, 2, (1986), 926.

8 Carnegie, Triumphant Democracy, 442.

9 Carnegie, Gospel of Wealth, 115–22.

10 Carnegie, Empire of Business, 113.

11 Carnegie, Gospel of Wealth, 55.

12 Carnegie, Empire of Business, 109.

13 Carnegie, Triumphant Democracy, 366.

14 Ibid., 365.

15 Carnegie, Gospel of Wealth, 89.

16 Ibid., 86.

17 White, Metahistory, 22.

18 Carnegie, Gospel of Wealth, 54.

19 Ibid., 12.

20 Ibid., 17.

21 Carnegie, Empire of Business, 5561.

22 Carnegie, Gospel of Wealth, 142–43.

23 The term passive revolution is defined by Gramsci as a form of hegemony whereby the masses are absorbed and neutralised by the bourgeoisie, thus preventing them from opposing the hegemonic class. A period of passive revolution is essentially a period of class inspired reformism to establish a spurious consensus over the ends of civil government. It is differentiated from an expansive hegemony which results from the genuine adoption of the interests of the masses by the hegemonic class, and the creation of a popular will. In the period of passive revolution large sections of the people are deliberately excluded from the hegemonic system through the means adopted by intellectuals like Carnegie. See Gramsci, 58–9, 105–20.

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Journal of American Studies
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