History of the Concept of Hegemony and Power
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Published: Wed, 28 Feb 2018
The concept of hegemony is notoriously difficult to quantify both in concrete political terms and in a less tangible philosophical manner. Moreover, in a world increasingly divided upon religious as opposed to ideological lines, the concept of hegemony has suffered from a certain crisis of relevance whereby it would seem that the preponderance of resources has indeed become the central precept for the paradigm per se; whereby, furthermore, economic and cultural imperialism have united to ensure the dominance of one geo political system within the international order in the vacuum created by the dissolution of ideology and the triumph of multi national capitalism. Yet all is not quite as it seems in the modern international sphere. Current events have a distinctly repetitive feel but, at the same time, the international relations landscape is changing and re configuring its boundaries with such rapidity and vigour that definitions and sweeping statements are deemed, correctly, to be out of place concerning any particular sphere of international relations. Certainly, the broader subject of hegemony and inter state communication is of utmost importance in the comprehension of the new world order, though keeping track of new theories is an essentially difficult, contradictory experience, particularly at the dawn of the twenty first century. As Benno Teschke (2003:1) explains in the opening chapter of his book, The Myth of 1648, the entire subject of contemporary international relations theory is in a constant state of flux, inspired by the death of the nation state and the advent of post modernity.
“The classical Westphalian system, rooted in the primacy of the modern, territorially bounded sovereign state, is being replaced by a post territorial, post modern global order. The old logic of geopolitical security is being subordinated to geo economics, multi level global governance, or the demands of a multi actor international civil society. A fundamental transformation in the structure of the international system and its rules of conflict and co operation is unfolding before our eyes.”
For the purposes of the essay, it will be necessary to analyse the concept of hegemony from its origins to see how it has evolved over time and where its relevance might lie within today’s post structuralist society, taking a chronological view so as to see how its conceptual meaning has altered along the way. It will likewise be necessary to examine international economic realities and histories as well as political instances of hegemony to highlight the essential duality between continuity and change – in other words, how the past might help us to better understand the present and the future, yet also how the current world order presents unique problems that were of no relevance in the past, which necessarily makes an overall academic judgement more problematic.
First a definition of hegemony must be attempted. Within the context of this essay, it is extremely important to comprehend the inherently different strands of hegemony: political, military, economic and cultural. Even more noteworthy is the general interchange that is apparent between the above factors – politics merges with economics and military helps to define any given national culture, which, in turn, means that hegemony is very difficult to quantify in the essentially narrow conceptual terms of simply a preponderance of resources. It will be shown that, throughout recorded history, nations and states have used a combination of factors to control other states, all designed to increase the security of the region and underwrite the strength of the dominant geo political power. Each nation and state that has enjoyed a period of relative dominance has chosen, either through external circumstances that have been thrust upon the rulers or via a conscious, calculated ideological choice, to use one of the above themes of hegemony to perpetuate its power base. When a group of people takes control over the fate of another it is never via only one of the above strands – political, military, economic or cultural. Rather, there always exists a concoction of more than one of the dominant conceptual themes to achieve the sum of hegemony and though much has changed throughout the course of history, this central precept remains difficult to ignore.
The key player in any discussion pertaining to hegemony and the preponderance of resources has to be the state. Certainly, as far as G. John Ikenberry (1986:53) is concerned, the interaction between any given domestic and international political economy has always been at the epicentre of international relations theory and the comprehension of the rule of empire and ‘state elites’ lies in understanding the ultimate power that the state has always possessed.
“As administrative and coercive organisations, states are embedded in complex political and economic environments and have a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Although they vary considerably, they have several elements in common. All states make exclusive claims to the coercive and juridical control of particular territories, and they also make special claims to the definition and representation of broad national interests.”
In conceptual terms, hegemony is best understood as the expression of society’s ruling classes over the majority of the nation or state over whom they propose to rule. Gramsci (1971:328), the interwar international relations academic and political prisoner who spent his final years behind bars in Mussolini’s Italy, describes hegemony as, “a conception of the world that is implicitly manifest in art, in law, in economic activity and in all manifestations of individual and collective life.”
Gramsci here describes cultural hegemony, which was of particular relevance when he was writing in the 1930’s, in a world that was dominated by ideological concerns. This type of hegemony and cultural control is a constant political reality that has been a feature of culture and society since the first recorded migrations of man. Never has hegemony as an ideal simply been confined to the realms of natural resources and economic might; it has always been an intangible equation of political power expressed through the elite of any particular nation, state or empire. The much celebrated Athenians, for example, made hegemony an everyday feature of the ancient world, whereby people were defined via their status within the broader Greek political and cultural hierarchy. The Greeks underscored their cultural ideal of hegemony with language and politics, especially the concept of citizenship, which remains a key feature in the study of political and cultural hegemony today. The United States today uses its visa system, for example, to differentiate between alien visitors from within the wider plates of the hegemony that it has created. In the ancient world, Plato and Aristotle grouped the various bands of hegemony together to form what they saw as ‘civilisation’. Therefore, to be an Athenian Greek was to be a civilised member of the hegemony of the nascent nation state; to be a ‘barbarian’ was to be an uncivilised member of the outposts of society, the parts where hegemony had hitherto failed to penetrate as a paradigm and as a cultural and economic force. This phenomenon has since been mirrored in the twenty first century with President Bush’s ‘with us or against us’ stance to global terrorism, where hegemony is once again used as the primary force in the perpetuation of the dominant military, political and economic power of the epoch.
Ancient cultures used the acquisition of foreign resources to underline their superior military and cultural power, although it should be noted that the technology and logistics did not then exist to ensure the movement of goods and services across inter state borders so that the preponderance of resources could not become the only outlet of hegemony as a concept. The Middle East trade route, for instance, remained a largely autonomous cultural, political and economic region in spite of the combined power of the Greek and Roman Empires, curtailing efforts at building an Empire from the sole premise of a sound economic base. Therefore, in the ancient world, hegemony meant much more than a preponderance of resources. It implied tangible political and citizenry rights and access to a pre defined status quo that was welded by the elite members of the state and continually updated and re defined by the men and women who had access to power within the machinations of the state. Indeed, the central role of the human actors within the state system remain as relevant today as they were in the ancient world and to dismiss their relevance as secondary to the preponderance of resources would be to misinterpret the dynamics of inter state governance. Individual diplomats, ministers, parties and politics will always have a bearing on the future of both international relations as well as the concept of hegemony where economic resources are only one factor in a much larger pyramid of political and economic concerns.
It thus becomes apparent that hegemony must co exist with the broader notion of empire, which is itself constructed upon the solid foundations of economic dynamism garnered through the procurement of resources. The notion of empire altered irrevocably during the dawn of modern history where industrialisation proved to be the catalyst for the significant, seismic shift in the view of hegemony as cultural, economic and political benchmark. The nineteenth century was indeed a watershed in terms of the re drawing of the conceptual parameters of hegemony. The Victorian era saw the traditional European empires of France, Belgium, Britain and Germany use their vast military and economic superiority to carve up the undeveloped world amongst each other with the procurement of raw materials and economic resources utilised as the main motivation for extra territorial action.
Without doubt, it is at this juncture in world history that the preponderance of resources becomes the pre eminent factor in the power of hegemony and cultural imperialism. The ‘Scramble for Africa’, for instance, constituted a devouring of the world’s finest natural resources and raw materials; resources that were unavailable in Europe were discovered in seemingly endless abundance in Africa and the poor political and social infrastructure of the indigenous tribes meant that, militarily, it was a case of simply buying off the key local decision makers and men of influence to ensure European preponderance of locally based economic wealth. Furthermore, unlike the false promise of El Dorado that hampered the conquistadores in Latin America, the lure of previously unimaginable wealth in Africa was the determining factor behind the unprecedented and swift carving up of the African continent. The impulse for hegemony, in this instance, was therefore the possibility of individual accumulation of economic empire as well as the broader national acquisition of another nation’s indigenous wealth. Charles Tilly (1985:172) explains how the extraction of resources from local producers and traders in Africa was the most important development for the edification of European hegemony in the undeveloped world and for the structure of the contemporary world order today.
“The quest inevitably involved them in establishing regular access to capitalists who could supply and arrange credit, and to imposing one form of regular taxation or another on the people and activities within their sphere of control.”
Industrialisation was therefore the central difference between nineteenth century views of imperial hegemony and that which was witnessed in the ancient and medieval worlds. Resources became, for the first time, the main concern of empire builders. This period in world history is also important for what it implies about the motives of the European leaders and rulers who embarked upon their scramble for Africa’s resources. What is immediately noticeable when reading the primary sources of these ‘explorers’ was the way in which they attempted to hide their true (economic) motive from view. The first British travellers to the ‘dark continent’ promulgated the view that the Europeans were on a civilising mission to ‘save’ the Africans from a life of pagan sin. Moreover, they said, their religious and missionary zeal would inevitably rub off on the political and economic mood of the continent so that, in effect, the Africans would wish to copy their European partners in order to better help themselves in the long term; politically, economically and socially. To achieve this end, the Europeans thus tied the notion of political territorial acquisition to the preponderance of resources by controlling the mechanisms of the fledgling states as well as the production of raw materials and natural resources.
The nineteenth century partition of the undeveloped world by the most powerful industrial states of the age thus left a legacy that is of the utmost relevance for the topic of hegemony in today’s twenty first century society. As economic resources become increasingly scarce in the contemporary world, the major Western powers must find ways of securing the holding of resources while covering up the raw economic reasons for doing so. One can see, as Chomsky and Vidal attest, a certain similarity between the contemporary US symptom of national security and the ‘war on terror’ and the Victorian ideal of a missionary zeal. Significantly, both propaganda spins fail to recognise that the preponderance of resources is the real reason why these states have found themselves fighting foreign wars and stationing troops so very far from their own national borders in the recent past.
Of added significance was the fact that the Victorian experimentation with imperialism showed, for the first time, how a state might achieve supreme power with resources and capital based outside of the national territorial borders. Susan Strange (1988:2) sees this as the most important step in the development of true imperial hegemony in the West; the point where a modern nation has the ability to dictate key economic policy far beyond its own national, geo political borders.
“The location of productive capacity is far less important than the location of the people who maker the decisions on what is to be produced, where and how, and who design, direct and manage to sell successfully on a world market.”
At this point it makes sense to shift the focus of our investigation from a broader viewpoint of historical instances of hegemony to a dissection of the most important contemporary topic within the confines of the essay title. The key contemporary actor within the study, without a doubt, must be the United States, the source of the preponderance of twenty first century economic resources and the still the most potent post modern military force on the planet. As the eminent British historian, E.H. Carr (1992:292), writing on the eve of the Second World War, testified, hegemony is a by product of realism; an essentially Darwinist view of politics that suggests a discernibly detectable survival of the fittest in international affairs. The unassailable American hegemony of the post modern age is best understood within this wholly realist context.
“To attempt to ignore power as a decisive factor in every political situation is purely utopian. It is scarcely less utopian to imagine an international order built on a coalition of states, each striving to defend and assert its own interests.”
Since 1945 the USA has built its empire upon the twin pillars of the military and its insatiable consumer economy, even going so far as to re model the state to the tune of the desires of the political economy. The National Security Act (1947), for example, which oversaw the formation of the CIA, was the first in a long history of decrees and acts designed to ensure the longevity of the republican model and the destruction of all of its ideological enemies in the process. Gore Vidal (2004:95 96) explains the dynamic nature of American national security policy, post 1945, a policy that deemed aggression as the best form of political and economic defence.
“When Japan surrendered, the United States was faced with a choice: either disarm, as we had done in the past and enjoy the prosperity that comes from releasing so much wealth and energy into the private sector, or maintain ourselves on a fully military basis, which would mean a tight control over our allies and such conquered provinces as West Germany, Italy and Japan.”
It is important to understand that Washington wishes its control of the globe not to be limited to its dominance of world economic resources; rather, hegemony, as it is understood in 2005, is a varied political, economic and cultural phenomenon that wishes to export the very ethos of the United States as well as importing the wealth generated by the nation’s pre eminent economic position. To date, the United States has used language, technology and the military to acquire its vast array of economic resources and likewise uses its dynamic corporate ethic to underpin the strategies of the imperial national government. Therefore, to see the preponderance of resources as the only specific aim of American hegemony in the twenty first century is to miss the point entirely. As previously outlined, the American government understands the essential interplay between the various features of hegemony. Certainly, the USA has used economics as its basis for the extension of power witnessed since 1945 but the ideology of the most awesome capitalist country on the planet has been held in place via the spread of its symbolic features to every corner of the globe (except, of course, for large swathes of the Middle East, which is a source of much of the antagonism between the two diametrically opposed sections of the new global economy). Various international relations commentators have noted the way in which imperial America uses brand names such as MacDonald’s and Nike to increase the economic and cultural hegemony of the US Empire, leaving fast food restaurants and designer clothes chains as castles by proxy. As Chomsky (2003:13) succinctly puts it: “The goal of the imperial grand strategy is to prevent any challenge to the power, position and prestige of the United States.”
Theories have abounded concerning the so called decline of American hegemony, largely circulating since the oil crisis in the 1970’s, which first highlighted the fragility of the preponderance of key natural resources in the post modern world. Susan Strange disagrees fundamentally with international relations commentators such as Nye, who see America’s decline as an inevitable by product of the notion of both hegemony and Empire, essentially dictating that – from Rome to Byzantium to Britain – any attempt to secure global pre eminence must end in the destruction of that political and economic model. She argues that the USA is a unique case that shows no signs of the fragmentation that beset its historical precedents. Essentially, this means that US notions of hegemony are not solely tied to economic factors pertaining to the preponderance of resources; its survival and indeed growth rests upon the fact that the USA ideal of hegemony is far more flexible than many critics give it credit for. As Cox (2005:21) underscores, the issue of American hegemony entails far more than a swelling of the national treasury at the expense of extra territorial economic resources.
“One of the more obvious objections to the idea of a specific American empire is that, unlike the ‘real’ empires in the past, the United States has not acquired, and does not seek to acquire the territory of others. This in turn has been allied to another obvious objection: that the United States has often championed the cause of political freedom in the world. How then can one talk of empire when one of the United States’ obvious impulses abroad has been to advance the cause of national democracy and self determination?”
The issue of hegemony in contemporary times is further hampered by the ambiguity and uncertainty that surrounds the ultra contentious geo political and economic topic of globalisation. Not only have scholars found globalisation extremely difficult to define but it also poses unique problems of conceptual bracketing. It is supposedly an economic question (intrinsically tied to the preponderance of resources) yet in practice, globalisation appears to be little more than an extension of American political hegemony, namely the spread of democracy to every reach of the globe as the initial platform on which to launch a visionary global hegemony.
Whereas the nineteenth century European empires formulated the concept of the preponderance of natural resources as the most vital step on the way to the establishment of their brand of hegemony, the Americans in the twenty first century have used technology, particularly their corporate dominance of new media and the Internet to strengthen their dominant position in the world economy. Globalisation therefore is tantamount to Westernisation, which is itself a direct descendent of Americanisation. According to Sinclair et al (2004:297), “world patterns of communication flow, both in density and direction, mirror the system of domination in the economic and political order,” and in this way it can be shown how US hegemony is built upon sterner raw materials than the mere preponderance of economic resources. Indeed, logic dictates that if the USA’s global hegemony was only standing upon the prevalence of resources, then its position would be nothing like as contentious as it is in the broader world order, constituting the front line of the new global disorder, as Robert Harvey describes it. Indeed, Harvey (2003:455) already views the concept of global hegemony as outdated, requiring five separate but interconnecting strands of economic and politic pro action to keep the status quo alive in the future.
“These then are the five great areas of change necessary to avoid a state of global political economic anarchy: the establishment of superpower policing to combat terrorism and to prevent conflicts breaking out all over the world, through an efficient system of regional alliances and deterrents, backed up by the threat of major superpower intervention; the widening and deepening of global democracy; the regulation of the global economy through co operation between the three economic super states of the next few decades – America, Europe and Japan – in co operation with regional groupings of the rest of the world; a gigantic government primed stimulus for demand and development in the three quarters of the developing world untouched by globalisation; and reform from within of the capitalist corporation.”
The analysis of hegemony and power bases throughout history shows that the prevalence of resources is but one factor in a multi faceted chain of command that requires a strong military and political infrastructure as well as a flourishing economic base to prevail. The upsurge in interest that the topic of hegemony has generated in recent years has been due to the power of the world’s one remaining superpower alone. Hegemony has become synonymous with America’s quest for global dominance and various commentators have cited the contemporary “war on terror” as nothing but a smokescreen for the increasing garnering of resources, particularly oil in the Middle East. Indeed, Vidal (2004:7) compares the “war on terror” to a “war on dandruff”; such is his confusion over what the notion actually means.
There is no doubt that it is this perceived neo imperialism that is at the heart of the current negativity surrounding the concept of hegemony and its continued association with solely (Western) economic motives. However, it should be noted that a significant change in the global order is currently under way, one in which the Americans will have to broker what Strange (1988:17) refers to as a series of “New Deals” with autonomous international states in order to remain a leading economic force. The advent of China, in particular, as the twenty first century’s most potent consumer and industrial society will undoubtedly challenge the very ideal of American and Western hegemony and will necessarily require a re drafting of the USA’s preponderance of resources. Hegemony must, in effect, adapt to a discernible duality and spirit of inter state co operation that the concept has not known in the past. The concept of hegemony therefore has value far beyond the preponderance of resources as the evolving concept of globalisation is in the process of emphasising. As globalisation begins to take hold as an economic, cultural and political reality, the effects of hegemony will be felt in all areas of the world that wish to be part of the dissolution of the concept of the nation state and the embracement of a new political and economic world order.
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