Defining cultural hegemony is no simple task. To feel culturally dominated evokes deep fears and uncertainties; but even those who express these feelings are not clear what they are. By comparison, military hegemony is far less problematic: here, domination merely requires the ability to annihilate one’s nearest competitors. It is a daunting but not a complex undertaking—a question of counting up the nuclear missiles, ships and planes, and being prepared to use them. A militarily dominant country may not win every time—morale, geography and public opinion do matter—but it never loses. Hegemony in this field is a matter of state policy, economic resources and technological know-how. Patriotism and a sense of being under threat are further requirements but these are not too hard to engineer; most countries succeed without difficulty. It is even easier if you have some achievements to be proud of and are worried about forfeiting them.

Cultural hegemony is made of different stuff. States do not decide to become culturally dominant; nor is it clear what this might entail since cultures, however defined, are not coterminous with ‘states’ or even ‘nations’—they develop on the basis of widespread borrowing, adaptation, imitation, and are endlessly redefined. States, of course, often favour this or that cultural activity, and give support to their theatres, writers, musicians or film-makers. These, however, are often defensive measures, aimed at ensuring a wider audience for what are regarded as the country’s finest artefacts, or protecting what is arbitrarily regarded as the national culture—one artificial construct against others. In so far as culture is also a productive activity, the instruments at a state’s disposal are largely economic: subsidies, protectionism, quotas. This does not amount to much, or not enough to increase the cultural power at the nation’s disposal which, by and large, accrues almost spontaneously—a by-product of economic power, prestige, influence, history and chance.

Global or regional cultural domination entails exporting one’s cultural products, which usually have—in the minds of both exporters and importers—a clear national origin. In the nineteenth century France and Britain, culturally dominant in the field of narrative, imported very little, and that mostly from each other. Today the US imports remarkably few films and television programmes, relative to its consumption, and many of those they do buy in have been consciously designed to satisfy American audiences. This is a crucial sign: other people watching your films, reading your books, listening to your music, going to your plays, and imitating them, while you know nothing of theirs.footnote1

To achieve this kind of dominance it is necessary, though not sufficient, to possess, in vast quantities, the means to produce and diffuse cultural commodities: publishers for books and music; a strong press; a film industry that includes a distribution network; a music industry; radio and television studios; numerous venues for live performances, and so forth. It is also necessary to have a strong domestic market for, with very few exceptions, the export of cultural commodities is a by-product of a thriving home industry. This is where costs are covered and initial profits made; gains from abroad are a bonus. Some countries have a strong domestic market for certain of their cultural products but are not able to export in significant quantities. The Indian film industry, for example, is, in terms of production, the largest in the world, but its penetration of foreign markets is relatively modest and still confined, overwhelmingly, to Indian communities abroad. Japanese animation has a significant presence in the rest of the world but this tends to be a niche market, specifically earmarked for penetration; the ‘Japanese’ content of such films is kept to a minimum, while much of their inspiration comes from the West. Animation’s success also has no counterpart among the other Japanese cultural industries—popular music, narrative, cinema—whose products may have great appeal locally but get scant showing elsewhere.

What follow, then, are brief notes towards an initial way of understanding the positions states can occupy in the hierarchy of cultural power. Though the possible combinations are numerous and complex, we might propose an initial set of characterizations:

Do these suggestions permit us to map out the contours of cultural hegemony in the nineteenth century, and to make some preliminary indication of the basis for US dominance, in the twentieth? To do so, we need to think of culture in economic terms, producing commodities to be bought and sold. In the nineteenth century these fall into two categories. Firstly, ‘recorded’ products embedded in a physical item that can be purchased, or hired out, and individually consumed: texts (books, newspapers), prints, illustrated texts (magazines, picture books) and ‘recorded’ music.footnote2 Secondly, products which, for their consumption, require the physical presence of purchasers at a venue where the performance takes place. Here, consumption is collective and the product, strictly speaking, unique, since no two performances of even the same spectacle—at the theatre, the opera, the variety show, the café concert—can be identical.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the markets for both recorded cultural goods and performance were in constant expansion, reflecting the increasing size of markets in general. There were, however, specific causes for the growth of cultural markets: a large middle class with plenty of leisure time; technological improvements that made books cheaper (and sheet music too, through lithography); a thriving press, and literary journals that provided serialized fiction; an efficient lending-library system. The expansion of education provided a powerful, often state-backed, market for school texts. The real French best sellers of the nineteenth century were not Dumas or Verne but works such as Larive’s and Fleury’s grammar primer, which sold a million copies between 1882 and 1883 alone, twelve million between 1872 and 1889, and twenty-six million by 1920. Other factors would include the linguistic unification of a number of European nation-states, which enlarged the markets for printed texts.