Hegemony derives from the Greek term hēgemonía (), referring to the predominance of one of the city states (e.g., Sparta or Athens) over the others and its related leadership in issues of common interest. In modern times, it has come to be used in reference more generally to the predominance of one actor over others. In contemporary political science, we can distinguish two traditions in the use of the term hegemony. In international relations theory, hegemony has been used more or less directly in reference to the original Greek meaning, where it refers to the predominance (primarily in terms of economic and military power) of one state over others. Alternatively, in Marxist-inspired political science, hegemony refers to the predominance (especially in an ideological sense) of one social group over others. Finally, Robert Cox has established an approach in critical international relations theory in which the differences between these two traditions are transcended.
In international relations theory, the concept of hegemony has been applied to the phenomenon of one state's being strong enough to maintain an international order that is beneficial to (most) other states as well. Two main traditions can be distinguished here, the neorealist theory of hegemonic stability and the theory of historical cycles of global hegemony and leadership.
The theory of hegemonic stability (developed in the 1970s by Charles Kindleberger and subsequently subscribed to by many neorealist authors) argues that the interstate system will be relatively peaceful and stable if there is a hegemonic state that provides certain public goods to the system (most basically prosperity and security). A state will be a hegemon if it has both the capability and the will to perform this function. The capability of a state depends on the (relative) size and level of development of its economy, its ability to dominate certain key technological sectors, and its political and military power. During much of the 19th century, Great Britain dominated the world economically, politically, and militarily. Through its role as a stabilizer in the European balance of power and through its management of the gold standard, it was able to secure a measure of stability in interstate relations, which was beneficial to the growth of a liberal world economy. Similarly, after 1945 the United States became the hegemon: It emerged out of the war as by far the strongest military and economic power, and it used its power to create the institutional framework (the Bretton Woods system), which facilitated the unprecedented expansion of the world economy in the following decades.
When the Bretton Woods system collapsed in the early 1970s and the hegemony of the United States weakened, hegemonic stability theory predicted the erosion of the liberal regime established by the hegemon as well. However, no such development took place. This gave rise to an alternative interpretation. In his After Hegemony (1984), Robert Keohane argued that collaboration between states needs to be based not only on the exercise of hegemony but also on the recognition by states that voluntary cooperation can be beneficial to them. Crucial to this approach is the concept of complex interdependence, which explains why states engage in cooperation through the creation and reproduction of international regimes.
Very similar conceptions of hegemony have been developed by scholars who started theorizing interstate hegemony from adjoining disciplines such as historical sociology (e.g., Immanuel Wallerstein) or political geography (e.g., Giovanni Arrighi and Peter Taylor). Wallerstein (1980), the intellectual founder of world systems theory, defines hegemony as that “short moment in time when a given core power can manifest simultaneously productive, commercial and financial superiority over all other core powers” (pp. 38-39). According to Wallerstein, there have been three instances of hegemony in the history of the capitalist world economy: (1) the United Provinces (1620-1672), (2) England (1815-1873), and (3) the United States of America (1945-1967). All these powers displayed some common characteristics. First, they initially achieved a relative advantage in agro-industrial production, then in commerce, and finally in finance. Second, hegemonic powers tended to be advocates of global “liberalism” in economic and political terms. Finally, in all three cases military power rested primarily on naval capabilities. The conditions that determine the rise of a particular country to hegemony in the system are manifold: Geographic location and size, the strength of the state apparatus, the availability of new technologies capable of giving the country in question a competitive advantage over other core powers, the availability of sufficient investment capital and human capital (skilled labor), and a productive agricultural sector can all contribute to the attainment of hegemony.
Some authors with intellectual roots in international relations, such as George Modelski and William R. Thompson, have taken a historical view and arrived at insights very similar to those of world systems theory (although without using the word hegemony). Modelski's “long cycle of world leadership” consists of four phases: the phase of (1) global war among major powers in the system, resulting in the emergence of a (2) world power assuming the leadership role; after a period of 2 to 3 decades, the world power's leadership starts to wane in the phase of (3) delegitimation so that eventually a strong challenger rises in the phase of (4) deconcentration, whose challenge results in a new global war. According to Modelski, there have been five such cycles in the history of the world system: the Portuguese cycle (1494-1580), the Dutch cycle (1581-1688), the first (1689-1791) and second (1792-1913) British cycles, and finally the American cycle (1914-present). Decisive for the attainment of world leadership is the “capacity for global reach”: The aspiring power must be securely located, preferably on an ocean; it must possess ocean-going sea power (potentially more than half of all available sea power); it must have sufficient financial resources to pay for its navy; and it must have a political structure that can lend coherence to a global enterprise. The principal challengers have been land powers: The French challenged the Dutch leadership only to find the English taking over the lead, and similarly the French and German challenges eventuated in leadership by (again) Britain and the United States.
Ultimately, these different approaches to hegemony are in agreement on one fundamental point: They all conceptualize hegemony as a relationship between states. This contrasts sharply with the original definition of hegemony in Marxist thought.
Hegemony in the Marxist tradition is usually associated with the name of Antonio Gramsci, the leader of the Italian Communist Party between 1924 and 1926, when he was arrested by the Fascist regime. In fact, the term was already used extensively by various Russian socialist leaders in the decades leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In this early debate, hegemony referred to the leading role that the proletariat might play in the revolutionary struggle against the feudal order, provided it could transcend its internal divisions and develop a coherent ideological project. Gramsci was concerned to rethink political strategy in light of the very different experiences of the Russian and the West European revolutions of 1917-1919. In Russia, the capture of state power gave the revolutionary forces a sufficient grip on society at large to implement their political program. In the West (as the failed revolutions in Germany and Italy showed), the political power of the ruling class did not rest primarily on the control of the coercive apparatus of the state but was diffused and situated in the myriad institutions and relationships in civil society. In reflecting on these historical experiences, Gramsci developed his understanding of hegemony beyond its early forms by emphasizing the importance of intellectual and moral leadership and of the hegemonic group being able to bind other social groups and by recognizing the possibility of hegemony being exercised by any social class (in particular the bourgeoisie).
No social group can rule by force alone. In any class society, the ruling class, that is, the social group that has the ultimate control over the primary means of production, organizes, reproduces, and reinforces its position of economic power through a complex mix of noneconomic mechanisms. These include ideological or religious power, institutional forms, and ultimately the (threat of the) use of force. Under certain historical conditions, the balance between force and persuasion can move from one end of the continuum to the other (without either ever completely disappearing). Hegemony, in the classic Gramscian sense, is then defined as a form of class rule based primarily on consent by the subordinate groups (produced by the political, intellectual, and moral leadership of the hegemonic group) rather than on coercion (resting on the application of physical force).
Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have critiqued Gramsci's thought, and in particular the adoption of Gramsci's ideas by more recent Marxist authors, as being marred by a lingering materialist determinism. They have argued for a radical reinterpretation of Gramsci's theory of hegemony on the basis of discourse theory: Hegemony then becomes a strictly subjective phenomenon. Their intervention has led to continuing debate in Marxist thought between those committed to further developing historical materialism and those arguing for a constructivist (or post-structuralist) turn.
Robert Cox became the founder of an approach that became known as neo-Gramscianism or transnational historical materialism in which he brought the earlier two traditions together by applying Gramsci's understanding of hegemony to the analysis of international politics. He argued that to understand global politics we need to abandon the idea that is central to the classic paradigm in international relations theory, namely, that the state is the key unit of analysis. Basing himself on a materialist position, he argued that it is social relations of production that are key and that therefore the basic unit of analysis should be the state-society complex rather than the state conceived as a black box. Cox enlarged the scope of his project by making the crucial claim that Gramsci's core ideas can fruitfully be applied to the analysis of a globalizing international capitalism even though Gramsci himself was primarily concerned with analyzing politics in national contexts.
Hegemony, in Cox's understanding, is simultaneously a relationship between social forces as well as a relationship between states: The international hegemony of states such as Great Britain and the United States is in fact the outward projection of the domestically grounded hegemony of a particular configuration of social forces. American hegemony in the post-1945 era was grounded in the hegemony of the class coalition (or in Gramsci's terminology historic bloc) of internationally oriented transnational corporations and the organized industrial working class. The longer-term historical dynamics of the global system are determined by the patterns of interaction of hegemonic and nonhegemonic state-society complexes: societies characterized by the predominance of consensual and coercive forms of class rule, respectively. The international order can be characterized as hegemonic when a specific national configuration of class forces is able to project its predominant influence externally, thus supporting a leading role for its state; or it can be characterized as nonhegemonic (Cox speaks of “rival imperialisms”) when such leading class coalitions remain “domestic” because they are too weak to project their influence outwardly.
Civil Society, Class, Social, Constructivism, Interdependence, International Regimes, Marxism, Power, World Systems Theory
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