The following is taken from a paper I wrote on International Relations Theory. While Gramsci was particularly concerned with the class struggle on a domestic level, his theory could very well be applicable in the international setting.
The revolution is coming. It may not happen tomorrow, but it will happen nonetheless. It may start in a local context, but its repercussions will be global. What this revolution will look like, and [...click on link below to expand to full post] whether or not it will be marked by a hegemonic order, is not yet certain. As such, it is the task of the intellectual – the organic, critically thinking intellectual – to help conceive of what a new world order might look like, and how we might go about achieving it.
Such has been the focus of intellectuals Antonio Gramsci and Robert W. Cox. Gramsci focused on domestic revolution, while Cox expanded upon the core of Gramsci’s ideas and applied them to the international arena. The resurrection of Gramscianism within the field of international relations has provided an authentic and respectable theoretical model for neo-Marxists in the academy to follow. Indeed, Gramsci’s work contributed to ‘historical materialism’ what Kenneth N. Waltz contributed to realism. That is, they both made their respective theories ‘prettier’. Yet in contrast to the parsimonious nature of neorealism, what makes Gramsci’s work beautiful is the way he highlighted simple relationships –between civil society and the state, between coercive governments and consenting masses – and demonstrated how the nature of these relationships hold the key to major social transformations and even genuine emancipation. In this review, I build upon Cox’s writings on Gramsci, and – in good neo-Gramscian form – I go further to suggest the contemporary possibilities of a new world order and posit where this might take place.
First it is important to locate our current geopolitical arena and identify the existing world order. Cox starts this process by dividing the last century and a half into distinct periods. Cox saw the first period (1845-1975) as the classic era of pax britanica. The rise of “free trade, the gold standard and free movement of capital and persons” across the globe were maintained both by informal conventions and the coercive power of the British navy (Cox, 60, 223). The second period (1975-1945) witnessed the demise of the previous order, as well as chaos and war between great powers and the elimination of international ‘consent’ for the old order of imperialism. The third period (1945-1965) witnessed a return to a hegemonic order, with the United States using the Bretton Woods trio and Keynesian economics as the formal institutions which helped maintain international consent for the new pax americana. The final period (1965 to the time of Cox’s writing) sees the demise of Keynesianism and the rise of neoliberalism in its stead. Cox does not explicitly state whether the current neoliberal order is hegemonic or whether it is witnessing the emergence of a new counter-hegemonic bloc. He does imply that it is a period of potential transformation and suggests three possibilities for the future: Either a new hegemonic order “based upon the global structure of social power generated by the internationalizing of production”; or a non-hegemonic order marked by the emergence of multiple and conflicting “power centers”; or a counter-hegemonic order based on a “coalition” of developing countries that confront the dominance of the core countries and attempt to bring an end to traditional core-periphery inequalities (Cox, 237-238). This latter possibility is currently showing promise. Below, I will further explain how the world is indeed witnessing the emergence of a counter-hegemonic bloc as Cox anticipated more than two decades ago.
It is important, however, not to confuse the Gramscian notion of ‘hegemony’ (and thus ‘counter-hegemony’) with the neorealist terminology. In the realm of international relations, the Gramscian interpretation of ‘hegemony’ helps us to understand why the United States may be incapable of achieving a level of global stability despite its preponderance of power. In contrast, the neorealist can only account for a state’s capabilities, and as such fails to see the contingent power of institutions and conventions that are required to help maintain an order (Cox, 223). The political ramifications are severe. In essence, the neorealist advisor calls for increased military budgets and suspicion towards the intentions of other states (including suspicion towards multilateralism). The critical theorist advisor (if such a thing were to exist) would not only demonstrate how institutions and conventions help maintain hegemony, but would further seek to push for a world that is more fair and egalitarian. Put succinctly by Cox, neorealists fail to recognize that “dominance by a powerful state may be a necessary but not a sufficient condition of hegemony” (Cox, 223. Emphasis added). With this reinforced notion of ‘hegemony’ we are better able to appreciate the reasons for the decline of the American empire, which has taken place since the years of the OPEC crisis and the original conception of a New International Economic Order.
Most interesting, however, is that the latter part of this non-hegemonic period has witnessed the emergence of a counter-hegemonic bloc, one that is growing every day, and one that has the potential to capture the hearts and minds of global civil society. Where is this taking place? This reviewer has witnessed a counter-hegemonic bloc, Gramscian style, emerging in Latin America. Latin Americanists have begun to express how the so-called ‘Washington consensus’ (neoliberalism) is being vehemently rejected in parts of Latin America and continues to be questioned in the realms of state and civil society. Polities with functional civil societies have grown wary of what American neoliberalism has thus far offered to them. In recent years, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Mexico (and of course Cuba) have either elected leaders or spawned massive social movements that fall into this counter-hegemonic bloc. Even traditional intellectuals are taking note, as noticeable in the title of next year’s conference for the Latin American Studies Association (made up of 5000 academics throughout the hemisphere): After the Washington Consensus: Collaborative Scholarship for a New América.
The IR version of Gramscianism helps a great deal in explaining this rise of dissent in Latin America. In contrast, neoliberals will have you believe that America needs to turn its attention to evil-minded despots in the Middle East or Asia and that the end of history can be achieved through enforcing free markets and democracy upon the world. Neorealists are warning of the impending emergence of India and China as new superpowers. Yet this oversight on behalf of the Bush administration’s "neorealiberalist" advisors has allowed the counter-hegemonic bloc to grow and flourish without the same kind of successful trasformismo that has been characterized throughout Latin American history, which has taken place in the name of the 1823 Monroe doctrine. It has been American policy to either passively co-opt or outright intervene coercively to ensure the continuance of ‘consent’ amongst Latin American peoples; Hence the countless examples of American overt and covert interventions throughout the region both during the Cold War (in the name of anticommunism) and during the previous imperial era (in the name of liberalism). Thus, while the United States is mired in conflicts in other parts of the globe, a Gramscian type of passive revolution is made possible in Latin America. Cox describes passive revolution as “the introduction of changes which did not involve any arousal of popular forces” (Cox, 54). It would be a fallacy to suggest that the so-called “shift to the left” in Latin America has gone without the arousal of American or opposition forces. However, the traditional response, the response that America has touted in previous world orders, is now different, and it has been deemphasized while the U.S. is mired in other regional conflicts.
Passive revolution does present some potential dangers. Gramsci and Cox warn of the possibility of ceaserism. This may be what the world is witnessing in the public bravado of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Nevertheless, as Cox points-out, caeserism does not always have to be reactionary; it can also be progressive. As noted above, another danger is presented by trasformismo, which Gramsci identified as a process of co-opting potential revolutionary leaders, specifically the “assimilating and domesticating [of] potentially dangerous ideas by adjusting them to the policies of the dominant coalition.” (Cox, 55) In the Latin American context, this is most prominently witnessed in America’s ability force nations that are antithetical to the Washington consensus into unilateral trade deals with the United States. A statement symptomatic of trasformismo was made by recently-elected Nicaraguan leftist Daniel Ortega, who went to great lengths to indicate that his regime would not work against the interests of foreign big business. The history of American-led wars in Latin America has certainly left a legacy of fear in the hearts of all Latin Americans, and this fear has worked in favor of the anti-revolutionary force of trasformismo. Put simply, previous examples of coercion have now led to a certain measure of consent.
However, we know that Gramsci saw state and society forming a solid structure, and that revolution required a new structure emerge within this relationship, overturning the old order. According to him, a blocco storico emerges “when a subordinate class (e.g., the workers) establishes its hegemony over other subordinate groups (e.g., small farmers, marginals)” (Cox, 56). This blocco storico is necessary for the achievement of a war of position, a revolutionary transformation which can take place as a result of changing social conventions more so than resulting from coercion. I argue that this is what is being witnessed in Latin America. The ability of Chavez, Morales and Lula (all of whom were previously members of the working class), to establish their hegemony over other subordinate groups is indicative of the localized change which will soon lead to global revolution.