Hegemony and its practices in world politics
Many see hegemony through a Gramscian prism. (Credit: Sebastian Baryli, 'Grab von Antonio Gramsci'/Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0; original cropped) (via: bit.ly)

How can hegemony be established and sustained in world politics today? This intriguing question occupied a searching conversation among scholars from four continents at the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute in Berlin on 27 August 2018. What follows are my personal reflections on this discussion.

To set the context, I start with some general remarks about the concept of hegemony, as well as a review of competing ideas about who or what exercises hegemony in world politics. I then identify four types of practices for enacting (or opposing) hegemony: material; discursive; institutional; and performative. Each of the four is illustrated with examples from the Berlin meeting.

Hegemony: What is it?

Hegemony, as understood here, entails legitimated rule by dominant power. It prevails when supreme force governs society ‘top-down’ in ways that affected people positively endorse. Hegemony combines: (a) concentrated control of material resources; (b) leadership in setting societal rules; and (c) mindsets which convince people that the dominant power rules in their interests. So, crucially, hegemony involves legitimacy, whereby the dominated embrace their domination.

Hegemony is relevant to world politics as well as local and national arenas. Much of modern society involves significant cross-border flows: for example, of goods, knowledge, money, people, pollutants, and violence. Like social relations within countries, transboundary connections attract governance: that is, regimes which aim to bring regularity, predictability, and controlled change to society. When world ordering is achieved through legitimated rule by dominant power, we can say that international or global hegemony is in play.

Where does world hegemony lie?

Different theories offer different propositions about what kind of dominant power can achieve hegemony in world politics. For instance, liberal and realist theories of international relations argue that hegemony lies with a dominant state. In this case a particular territorial government controls a preponderance of material resources, sponsors international regimes, and promotes values and visions that have deep appeal beyond its borders. These approaches usually identify Britain and the US as hegemonic states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, respectively. Many liberals and realists also ponder whether China is destined to be the next hegemonic state.

In contrast, neo-Gramscian theories locate world hegemony in global capitalism and a transnational capitalist class. From this perspective, dominant rule-making power for world order lies with surplus accumulation and its main agents, such as multinational corporations, core states (the G7/G20), global governance institutions, and orthodox think tanks. For neo-Gramscians, hegemonic forces promote the legitimated rule of capital on a global scale, whereas the counter-hegemonic forces of various resistance movements (e.g., of landless peasants and the urban poor) seek to delegitimate and dismantle the dominant power of global capital.

For post-structuralist theories, hegemony in world politics resides with a ruling knowledge frame (variously called a ‘discourse’ or an ‘episteme’). In this conception, supreme power in world society lies with a certain language and consciousness. Post-structuralists often identify Enlightenment rationality as the hegemonic knowledge regime of modernity, as produced through science, education, mass communications, and so on. Many such theorists also highlight neoliberal governmentality (with its discourse of market civilisation) and securitisation (with its discourse of risk) as more specific variants of Enlightenment knowledge that rule world politics today. Hegemony arises inasmuch as subjects willingly underwrite these reigning mindsets as truth.

For post-colonialist theories, hegemony in world politics is a question of embracing (or counter-hegemonically resisting) the dominance of western imperialism and associated social hierarchies of class, gender, geography, race, religion, and sexuality. Imperial hegemony classically operated through colonial rule by one state over external territories. Nowadays neo-colonial rule occurs through ‘independent’ states in league with outside forces such as donor governments, multilateral institutions, and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs). Again, the hegemonic quality of the dominance entails that (neo-) colonially subordinated subjects believe that imperial power exerts rightful rule over them: e.g., when people of colour internalise racism. On the other hand, counter-hegemony arises for post-colonialists when social movements (of indigenous peoples, LGBTQ+, women, etc.) challenge empire.

Still other approaches interpret hegemony in world politics as the legitimated rule of prevailing forms of masculinity (in the case of feminist theories) and the legitimated dominance of anthropocentrism (in the case of ecological post-humanist theories). Meanwhile, my own research has suggested a concept of ‘complex hegemony’ in which legitimated rule by dominant power occurs in world society through several forces in mutually constituting combination: e.g., a leading state, global elite networks, capital, and reigning discourses.

In sum, multiple readings of hegemony in world politics are available. At the Berlin meetings several authors invoked state-centred conceptions (Sloan and Zhang), while several others took neo-Gramscian routes (Dornan, Germain). The focus of certain workshop papers on ideas and knowledge leaned towards post-structuralist understandings (Chebankova, Pal), while another presentation developed a post-colonialist argument (Parashar). This wide diversity of approaches underlines the importance for each analyst to be explicit about their particular notion of hegemony. Otherwise people readily talk past each other.

How is world hegemony practiced?

In addition to elaborating different conceptions of hegemony in world politics, participants in the Berlin workshop discussed various techniques that hegemonic forces can deploy to secure their legitimated rule. How is world hegemony made and sustained? And by what means can counter-hegemonic forces contest it?

Different presentations highlighted different kinds of instruments of hegemony, often reflecting their theoretical orientation. Thus Sloan, from a realist perspective, focused on the tools of war. Geiger, in a liberal vein, highlighted international organisations as vehicles for world hegemony. Germain, on neo-Gramscian lines, concentrated on money. Chebankova, with post-structuralist inclinations, emphasised the role of ideas. Parashar, with a post-colonialist approach, accentuated subaltern struggle.

Yet, rather than assemble a long disjointed list of particular tools, perhaps one can helpfully distinguish several broad categories of (counter-) hegemonic practices in world politics. A fourfold typology of material, discursive, institutional, and performative techniques can be suggestive in this regard. The distinctions are drawn for analytical convenience, of course: the four aspects tend to overlap and combine in concrete actions.

With material practices, dominant power in world society deploys economic resources to obtain legitimate rule. These resources can be directly tangible, such as raw materials, manufacturing industries, and military forces. Money and finance can also figure crucially, as witnessed by the hegemonic use of the US dollar, bank loans, overseas ‘aid’, and so on. Nowadays the material aspect of hegemony further involves controlling – and setting rules around – the digital economy of data and images.

With discursive practices, hegemony secures legitimated dominance in world politics through the use of language and meaning. Willing subordination is achieved with semantic signifiers (e.g., ‘community’, ‘democracy’, and ‘justice’) that construct the supreme force to be good. Similarly, narratives (e.g., of ‘transparency’, ‘development’, and ‘security’) spin positive storylines to legitimate a structure of domination, as do hegemonic accounts of history. In short, hegemonic discourses construct consciousness (‘regimes of truth’) in which the dominated genuinely believe that their domination is a good thing.

With institutional practices, hegemonic forces establish and control the organisational apparatuses that generate the rules of legitimated domination. On the one hand, these mechanisms include bodies that formulate and administer official rules (on local, national, regional, and global scales). On the other hand, world hegemony operates through more informally governing institutions such as civil society organisations, foundations, and think tanks which figure centrally in the production of ruling discourses.

With performative practices, world hegemony is secured through certain behaviours and rituals. For example, states perform their hegemony with flag ceremonies, commemorative monuments, national holidays, and military parades. Finance capital demonstrates its hegemony with clusters of glittering skyscrapers that dominate the centres of global cities. Modern science affirms its hegemony inter alia with conference routines, academic prizes, and graduation rites. Counter-hegemony, too, has its performances with street marches, dissident art, and so on.

As suggested earlier, hegemony in world affairs is generally achieved through these four types of practices in combination. Whether hegemony lies with state, capital, knowledge, empire, or whatever, it establishes and sustains itself through a mix of material, discursive, institutional, and performative techniques. None of the four is sufficient by itself. For example, to control the rule-making institutions a hegemonic force needs command of resources, narratives, and rituals. Likewise, deployment of discursive techniques requires economic means, institutional frameworks, and ceremonial presentations.

To be sure, this short reflection does not answer the deeply contested questions of whether hegemony operates in world politics today, in what particular form, and through what specific techniques. However, perhaps the schema outlined here can help to make the debates more focused and systematic.


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