Hegemony is a form of domination, whether by consent or by force and whether by legitimate or illegitimate forms of power; it is a capacity to move and shape minds, actions, and attitudes.
However, hegemony requires a set of pre-existing conditions, such as territories, states, and international organisations, hallmarks of the classical international system. Furthermore, as Gramsci (1970), Foucault (1975), and Hardt and Negri (2009) would claim, hegemony requires an intangible penetration into the hearts and minds of the population through culture, discipline, and ideas via “legitimate leadership” (Lebow and Kelly, 2001). In other words, it seems that it takes a story and a memory to engineer hegemony. Or is it the other way around?
On one hand, Central Asia is a region with a shared history and story with both Russia and China. This should, in theory, make the Eurasian Union and the Belt and Road initiative an organic framework of governance in the region. However, on the other hand, due to elevated activity by radical Islamist groups, the region has also become part of the global narrative of the war on terror, which has come to shape Central Asian states’ borders and security infrastructure.
Despite this, neither the securitisation of Islam nor the “infrastructures of force” (Lefebvre, 2009) have prevented Central Asia from experiencing an Islamic resurgence in the last decade. Today, the region represents a vibrant map of actors as various as the United States, Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the European Union, all operating under conditions of change and uncertainty. It also demonstrates unfinished state-building processes and the potential for high levels of social resistance due to blurred cultural and ethical allegiances. In other words, the region does not demonstrate strong adherence to any of the cultures or social values of the dominant political or economic infrastructures. The question is, why?
Inspired by Charles Tilly’s (2000) idea of “power as improvisation” and Peter Katzenstein’s (2018) idea of “protean power”, that is, power which exists beyond control, this article suggests that there is no hegemon in Central Asia due to three main reasons: a change in the sources of power; a change in the nature of international society; and the emergence of new forms of liberalism resulting from the manufacturing of territories, societies, and economies.
The change in sources of power
Regionalisation projects have become a means to empower patterns and processes which may oppose, if not undermine, those very projects. In short, the Eurasian Union and the Belt and Road initiative are conventionally seen as hegemonic projects through the creation of a “common security complex” (Buzan and Waever, 2003) as well as the establishment of economic and political domination (Gilpin 1981). On the surface, these two projects seem to contain powerful sources of hegemony, especially if their actions and interests can be harmonised within overlapping spheres of influence.
However, the problem is that these infrastructures of force operate within the same mental maps as any other capitalist project which has operated before, and at the same time, are just as oppressive as any colonial project, except that they are evolving at a point in time when the “the force of obedience” (Hibbou, 2011) has become just as powerful as the force of coercion. While conventional literature sees regionalisation as a project of establishing domination, this article suggests that regionalisation can be a source of empowerment for weak communities and suspended states.
The nature of international society
Unlike in the classical international system, today’s incomplete states, resistance movements, and other non-unitary actors structured around grassroots communities, have become closely integrated into the fabric of international society through infrastructure previously created by NGOs and similar civil society organisations. Furthermore, they have become the ultimate meaning-makers and producers of knowledge, on par with the conventional big actors in the international system. In other words, what Gramsci (1970) called “civil society [which rules through consent]” has merged with “political society [which rules through force]”, thereby challenging the ultimate infrastructures of domination. This means that post-colonial societies and incomplete states have found a source of power from their own dependency, suspension, and obedience.
The process of creating domination is no longer only about “hierarchies in world politics” (Zarakol, 2017), but rather about a form of structural power which can “move minds and shape attitudes” (Strange, 1987). The force of obedience matters, as it allows more room for improvisation. The power to improvise is examined in this article as a decisive aspect of entangling into or escaping from the power of control or hegemony as domination. The power to improvise is defined here as the power to influence processes and patterns of change through the state of suspension and invisibility.
New forms of liberalism
Hegemony – conventionally defined through the notions of security and domination (Buzan and Waever, 2003; Zakaria, 1998; Gilpin, 1981) – is now challenged by a social dimension of grassroots globalisation(s), including informal cross-border trade and fluid social organisations rearranged around the sharing of non-tangible vital resources (such as water) and re-traditionalising strategies of survival and self-governance. Hence, the process goes beyond what the new English School calls “negotiated hegemony” (Costa Buranelli, 2017), into the realm of the invisible (Cassier, 2017; Lukes, 1986). Central Asia exemplifies the fact that these forms of governance represent a result of previous hegemonic projects, such as liberalisation, and now bears witness to a mixture of Hobbesian dilemma and Karl Polanyi’s double movement ( 2001), where a process of liberalisation simultaneously produces self-undermining processes, such as re-traditionalisation and social resistance. Both can be seen in Central Asia. Whether these processes lead to the establishing of hegemony will depend on whether and to what extent the stakeholders master the art of improvisation under conditions of uncertainty and change.
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