Crises of world hegemony and the acceleration of social history

Image: Marcio Costa


Due to the ecological limits of capitalism and the changing balance of power between the global North and South, the reformist solutions that (temporarily) worked in the past are no longer sufficient..

A new period of global systemic chaos?

The escalation of geopolitical tensions and the deep internal divisions within the United States that culminated in the election of Donald Trump are among the indicators that we are experiencing the terminal crisis of the United States’ world hegemony – a crisis that began with the bursting of the stock market bubble. of New Economy Values ​​in 2000-2001 and which deepened with the continued reaction to the failure of the Bush administration's Project for a New American Century and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

While in the 1990s the United States was seen almost universally as the world's sole and unshakable superpower, by the time of the 2008 financial meltdown, the notion that US hegemony was in a deep and potentially terminal crisis had ceased to be marginal to become a reality. become dominant. Since 2016, the view that we are in the midst of an irremediable breakdown of US hegemony has gained even greater traction, given the intended and unintended consequences of Trump's move"Make America Great Again".

The current moment is now widely perceived as both a crisis of US hegemony and a profound crisis of global capitalism on a scale not seen since the 1930s. When future historians look to 2019-2020, two major signs of profound systemic crisis will stand out. First, the worldwide wave of social protests that swept the globe after the financial meltdown of 2008, first peaking around 2011, and then escalating to a crescendo in 2019. Second, the failure of Western states to respond competently to the global COVID-19 pandemic, undermining the credibility of the West (and especially that of the United States) in the eyes of both its own citizens and the citizens of the world.

In late 2019 – before the scale of the Covid-19 crisis was apparent – ​​it looked as if the rising global wave of social protests would become the story of the decade, given the “tsunami of protests that swept six continents and engulfed both liberal democracies and ruthless autocracies” (WRIGHT, 2019). As social unrest flooded cities from Paris and La Paz to Hong Kong and Santiago, declarations of “a global year of protests” or “the year of the street protester” filled the pages of newspapers around the world (e.g. DIEHL, 2019; JOHNSON, 2019; RACHMAN, 2019; WALSH and FISHER, 2019).

Waves of mass protests came to define the entire decade. In 2011, the magazine Time had chosen “O Manifestante” as “Person of the Year” (ANDERSEN, 2011), considering that popular unrest spread throughout the world, from the Occupy Wall Street and anti-austerity movements in Europe to the Arab spring and waves of workers' strikes in China. Two decades into the twenty-first century, it has become clear that popular discontent with the current social configuration runs both wide and deep.

This explosion of social protest around the world is a clear sign that the social foundations of the global order are crumbling. If we conceptualize hegemony as “order legitimized by the ruling power” (following the introduction to this volume), then the breadth and depth of social protest is a clear sign that the legitimacy of the ruling power(s) has been seriously undermined. shaken. These analogous processes – global protests and global pandemic – have revealed a stunning inability of the world's ruling groups to foresee, let alone implement, changes that could adequately address grievances coming from below or satisfy growing demands for safety and security.

The great global wave of social protests and the inability of the declining hegemonic power to satisfy the demands coming from below are clear signs that we are in the midst of a period of world hegemonic collapse. Indeed, as argued elsewhere (SILVER; SLATER, 1999), past periods of world hegemonic collapse – that is to say, the late XNUMXth/early XNUMXth century transition from Dutch to British hegemony and the transition from early XNUMXth century shifts from British to American hegemony – were also characterized both by mass protests from below in the form of strikes, uprisings, rebellions and revolutions, and by a failure of leadership on the part of the declining hegemonic power.

A new world hegemony – if it emerges – would require two conditions. First, it would require a new power bloc to "collectively rise to the task of providing systemic solutions to the systemic problems left behind by US hegemony." Second, if a new world hegemony is to emerge in a non-catastrophic way, it would require that “the main centers of Western civilization [especially the United States] manage to adapt to a less prominent situation”, as the balance of power in world scale moves away from the United States and the West (ARRIGHI; SILVER, 1999, p. 286).

Seen from 2020 onwards, it appears that the second condition – the graceful adjustment by the United States (specifically) and Western powers (in general) to a more equal distribution of power among states – has spectacularly failed to materialize. If the second condition mainly depends on the behavior of the declining hegemonic power, the first condition – the development of systemic solutions to systemic problems – depends on the ability of a new power bloc to meet the demands that arise in the lower layers.

In the past, a new hegemonic power could only pull the system out of chaos if it fundamentally reorganized the world system in ways or styles that at least partially met the demands for sustenance and protection emanating from mass movements. Put differently, they could become hegemonic only by providing reformist solutions to revolutionary challenges coming from below. In this sense, world hegemony requires capacity (and vision) to provide systemic solutions.

Hegemony and world-systems analysis

This article approaches “hegemony” in terms of world-systems, as we focus on the interrelation between historical capitalism and successive world hegemonies. Furthermore, we argue that world hegemonies cannot be understood without examining their evolving social and political underpinnings. As such, our work forms part of a tradition within the world-systems school that develops out of Antonio Gramsci's conceptualization of hegemony.

A number of what might be called non-debates (or cross-purpose discourses) have emerged in the literature on hegemony as a result of the divergent ways in which the term is understood. Different definitions exist even within schools of thought, including within the world-systems perspective. Thus, Immanuel Wallerstein (1984, p. 38-39) defined hegemony as synonymous with domination or supremacy – that is, as a “situation in which the ongoing rivalry between the so-called 'great powers' is so unbalanced that one power is truly primus inter pares; that is, a power can largely impose its rules and its will in economic, political, military, diplomatic, and even cultural arenas”. Economic supremacy provided the material basis for a series of hegemonic states – the United Provinces in the XNUMXth century, the United Kingdom in the XNUMXth century, the United States in the XNUMXth century – to “impose their rules and wills” in all spheres.

Instead, we depart from the work of Giovanni Arrighi (1982 and 2010 [1994], p. 289) – an exponent of another major theoretical strand within the world-systems literature – who defines world hegemony as “leadership or government over a system of sovereign nations”. Drawing on Gramsci's writings, Arrighi conceptualizes world hegemony as something “greater than and different from 'domination' pure and simple”. It reflects more “the power associated with domination, amplified by the exercise of 'intellectual and moral leadership'”. While domination rests mainly on coercion, hegemony is “the additional power that is conquered by a dominant group, by virtue of its ability to place all issues that generate conflicts on a 'universal' plane”.

The hegemonic order, in practice, combines two elements: consent (leadership) and coercion (domination). However, the targets of consent and coercion are different. As Gramsci stated: “the supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways, as “domination” and as “intellectual and moral leadership”. A social group dominates antagonistic groups, which it tends to “liquidate” or subdue, perhaps even by force of arms, and leads groups that are akin or allies” (1971, p. 57).

In situations of stable world hegemony, the principle of consent is strong – its reach is relatively wide (geographically) and deep (socially). Social protests are relatively rare and tend to be normative in nature (eg legal strikes within the confines of institutionalized collective agreements). In situations of crisis or world hegemonic rupture (as in the current period), the general balance between consent and coercion increasingly leans towards the latter. Social protests tend to escalate and take on increasingly non-normative forms, while the upper strata's response takes on increasingly coercive forms (SILVER; SLATER, 1999; SILVER, 2003, p. 124-167).

Periods of stable world hegemony are characterized by a situation in which the dominant power credibly claims to be steering the world system in a direction that not only serves the interests of the dominant group, but is also perceived to serve a more general interest, thereby promoting economic growth. consent (ARRIGHI; SILVER, 1999, p. 26-28). As Gramsci stated, with reference to hegemony at the national level: “It is true that the [hegemon] is seen as the instrument of a particular group, destined to create favorable conditions for its maximum expansion. But the development and expansion of the specific group is conceived and presented as being the driving force of a universal expansion… (1971, p. 181-2).

Of course, the dominant power's claim to represent the general interest is always more or less fraudulent. Even in situations of stable hegemony, those excluded from the hegemonic bloc – Gramsci's “antagonistic groups” – are predominantly governed by force. However, in periods of hegemonic rupture, such as the current one, the claims of the dominant power that it acts in favor of the general interest seem increasingly empty and self-interested, even in the eyes of “like groups or allies”. Such claims lose their credibility and/or are abandoned entirely from above.

Nevertheless, in situations of world hegemony, the dominant power's claim to represent the general interest must have a significant degree of credibility in the eyes of allied groups. Thus, for example, in the period of the global heyday of Keynesianism and developmentalism, the United States could credibly claim that an expansion of US world power was in the more general (if not universal) interest, by establishing global institutional arrangements that promoted employment and well-being (immediately in the case of the First World; and as the promised fruit of “development” in the case of the Third World); thus meeting the demands brought by mass labor, socialist and national liberation mobilizations in the early and mid-twentieth century.

Arrighi argues that the willingness of subordinate groups and states to accept a new hegemon (or even a purely dominant power) becomes especially widespread and strong in periods of “systemic chaos” – that is, in “a situation of total, apparently irremediable, lack of organization” (ARRIGHI, 2010 [1994], p. 31) .

As systemic chaos mounts, the demand for 'order' – the old order, a new order, any order! – tends to become more and more widespread among the rulers, the ruled, or both. Therefore, any State or group of States that is able to meet this systemic demand for order has the opportunity to become world hegemonic (2010 [1994], p. 31).

As the beginning of the 2011st century progresses, there is growing evidence that the world has entered another “period of systemic chaos – analogous, but not identical – to the systemic chaos of the first half of the 68th century” (SILVER; ARRIGHI, 2014, p. . XNUMX). Furthermore, there is growing evidence of increasingly coercive responses coming from the upper layers (cf. ROBINSON, XNUMX). However, for both theoretical and historical reasons, there is every reason to expect that power exercised by increasingly coercive means will only succeed in deepening systemic chaos.

On the contrary, a movement towards world hegemony and away from systemic chaos would require an aspiring hegemonic power to be able to: (a) recognize the grievances of class groups and status beyond the dominant group/state and; (b) being able to lead the world system through a set of transformative actions that (at least in part) successfully address these grievances. Transforming actions that manage to broaden and deepen consent transform “pure and simple domination” into hegemony.

Put another way, the establishment of a new hegemonic world order has both a “supply” and a “demand” side. The supply side of this question refers to the capacity of the supposed hegemonic power to implement systemic solutions to systemic problems. In other words, hegemony is not strictly a matter of ideology; it has a material base. The final section of this article will return to the “supply” issue. The next section will focus on clarifying the “demand side” of world hegemony in the early XNUMXst century.

Global social protest and the demand for world hegemony

The concept of “accelerating social history” in the title of this article refers to the fact that the global waves of social protests that characterize periods of hegemonic transition – and the challenges they pose for the hegemons declining and aspiring—became broader and deeper over the course of Wear of historical capitalism. Successively, the social contradictions of each successive hegemony – Dutch, British, American – emerged more rapidly between one hegemony and the next; thus periods of relatively stable world hegemony became shorter and shorter. In short, we can observe an evolutionary pattern of increasing social complexity from one world hegemony to the next, as each successive hegemonic power has had to accommodate demands from a wider and deeper range of social movements (see ARRIGHI; SILVER, 1999, p. 151-290).

This acceleration of social history and increasing social complexity can be seen when we compare the trajectory of US world hegemony with previous world hegemonies. As with the Dutch and British world hegemonies, the firm establishment of American hegemony did not depend only on the preponderance of its military and economic powers. It also depended on the ability of rising hegemons to offer reformist solutions to a series of revolutionary challenges, stretching (in a crude and abbreviated version) from the American Revolution to the French and Haitian Revolutions, in the case of British hegemony, and from the Russian to Chinese, in the case of US hegemony.

But the social pact that would sustain American hegemony after World War II – the social contract of mass consumption for workers in the global North and the decolonization and promise of development for the global South – was broader in geographic reach and reached deeper into society. the class structure than the social pacts on which Dutch or British hegemony was based (ARRIGHI; SILVER, 1999, p. 151-216; 251-270).

Relatedly, US hegemony was also the shortest, since the solutions produced by the United States to the revolutionary challenges of the XNUMXth century proved unsustainable in the context of global capitalism. The full implementation of the hegemonic promises of mass consumption for the central working class and of development in the form of catching up for the Third World would quickly cause a profit squeeze, due to its substantial redistributive effects (WALLERSTEIN, 1995, p. 25; SILVER, 2019). In reality, the initial crisis of American hegemony in the late 1960s and 1970s was an interlinked crisis of capital profitability on the one hand and legitimacy on the other. efforts to establish a New International Economic Order emanating from the Third World—required, essentially, a faster and more complete fulfillment of the implicit and explicit promises of US hegemony.

The financial boom and neoliberal counterrevolution that began in the 1980s temporarily resolved these interlinked crises. Financialization – the massive withdrawal of capital from trade and production into speculation and financial intermediation – has had a debilitating effect on social movements across the world, most notably through the mechanism of the debt crisis in the global South and mass layoffs in the global South. heart of the labor movement in the global North. The result was a belle époque American in the 1990s, as power and profits were restored; however, as in the case of belles epoques Dutch and British.

The time it took for each regime to emerge from the crisis of the previous dominant regime, become dominant itself, and reach its limits (signaled by the onset of a new financial expansion) was less than half, both in the case of the British regime and the Genoese and in the case of the American regime in relation to the Dutch” (ARRIGHI, 2010 [1994], p. 225). This resurgence of power and profitability turned out to be, in the words of Braudel (1984), a sign of “autumn” instead of of a new spring for these hegemonies.

Financialization and the neoliberal project marked a shift from hegemony towards domination, a declension that moved away from consent towards coercion. At the same time, however, the process of creative destruction (to use Schumpeter's term) has fueled a political backlash among those who had been incorporated as junior members of the hegemonic social pact of the mid-twentieth century (and who were now being expelled from it) – most notably male mass production workers. in central countries. Concomitantly, new (and increasingly militant) groups and classes are being “created” that cannot be easily accommodated in the decaying hegemonic order – in particular, an expanding but precariously employed working class in the global South and an immigrant working class in the global South. Global North.

The social foundations of a XNUMXst century world hegemony

We have argued that the exercise of world hegemony requires that an aspiring hegemonic power be able both to recognize the grievances of class groups and status beyond the dominant group/state, as well as leading the world system through a set of transformative actions that (at least in part) successfully address these grievances. More generally, we have argued that a precondition for world hegemony in the XNUMXst century is the emergence of a new power bloc that “would collectively rise to the task of providing systemic solutions to the systemic problems left by US hegemony. ”.

We examine the actors and grievances in the recent global wave of social protests of the early 2011st century, from 2019 to XNUMX, as a window into the systemic problems that an aspiring hegemony would need to address in order to transform domination (coercion) into hegemony (consent). , and thus meet the conditions on the “demand” side necessary to end the phase of deepening systemic chaos in which we now find ourselves. We pay particular attention to the new systemic challenges that have emerged over the last half-century – challenges that would make a simple return to the US-led postwar social pact inadequate to the task at hand.

A first fundamental difference between the sociopolitical conditions to be accommodated within any 2017st century world hegemony and all previous world hegemonies is the significant shift in the balance of power between the West and “the Rest” (POPOV; DUTKIEWICZ, XNUMX). All previous hegemonies were Western in a double sense. First, the West had accumulated an extraordinary preponderance of economic and military power relative to the rest of the world. Second, consent (hegemony) applied to classes and allied groups within Western states, while force (domination) prevailed, with few exceptions, in the non-Western world.

Indeed, in the face of growing national liberation movements in the first half of the twentieth century, the United States led a transformation of the world system that promoted decolonization and normalized de jure national sovereignty. Nevertheless, the main levers of economic and military power remained firmly in the hands of the United States and its western allies. With the growing economic power of non-Westerns in the XNUMXst century, especially but not limited to China, a stable, Western-dominated world order is no longer possible. The collective action of the countries of the global South, reflected in institutional innovations such as the BRICS and ALBA, further signals this impossibility. A new world hegemony (whether led by a single state, a coalition of states, or a world state) would have to accommodate this greater equality between the global north and the global south. This shift in the balance of power is, in turn, the context in which the search for solutions to major systemic problems – such as the stark inequality of classes within countries, environmental degradation and climate change, as well as guarantees of physical security and human dignity – will unfold over the coming decades.

 Protesting inequality within countries

A recurring theme that has animated protest movements over the past decade is extreme social inequality. For the Occupy Wall Street movement, which spread from Zucotti Park, near Wall Street, to 951 cities in 82 countries in 2011 (MILKMAN; LUCE; LEWIS, 2013), one of the main complaints of protesters was extreme inequality – summarized in the slogan of the 99% against the 1%. In the years following the Occupy Wall Street movement, class inequality became even more massive in most countries, triggering another worldwide uprising in 2019. Protests erupted in Hong Kong, India, Chile, Colombia, Bolivia, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, leaving commentators struggling to identify their common theme. “But there is one,” writes Michael Massing (2020): “rage at being left behind. In each instance, the igniter may have been different, but the fire has been (in most cases) fueled by the enormous inequality produced by global capitalism”.

While the “lighters” were varied and “apparently modest” – a metro fare hike in Chile, a charge on WhatsApp calls in Lebanon, cuts to fuel subsidies in Iran and Ecuador, and price increases for bread and onions , respectively in Sudan and India – “these uprisings are not just about a few cents here and there. These are a growing majority of the global population who have become fed up with rising living costs, low wages, [and] the erosion of confidence in the public sector.” (SILK, 2019).

The beginning of the XNUMXst century was also marked by a return of labor movements, but in new industrial and geographic locations. There were large waves of strikes brought about by new classes of workers – particularly in East and South Asia – that had been “formed” in the process of neoliberal restructuring of the world economy (KARATASLI et al., 2015, p. 191). China, in particular, has emerged as a new epicenter of the world's labor movements. As Friedman (2012) notes: “Although there are no official statistics, it is certain that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of strikes take place each year… with many strikers getting significant pay increases above and beyond any legal requirements” (see also SILVER; ZHANG, 2009).

Even in the global North, we have seen an increase in labor militancy among sectors of the working class that have grown in size and centrality over the last few decades, most notably immigrant and ethnic minority workers. Most of these workers are “concentrated in precarious, low-wage jobs in industries such as domestic service, agriculture, food and clothing manufacturing, hospitality and restaurants, and construction”. In the process, the struggle for immigrant rights is intertwined with the struggle for labor rights (MILKMAN, 2011); for example, with American unions being led to fight on behalf of their members against deportation strikes in the Trump era (ELK, 2018).

The rise of new working classes in the global North and the global South was accompanied by the “dismantling” of the unionized, well-paid, overwhelmingly white industrial working classes, who were junior partners in the hegemonic world order of the 2008th century. Abandoned by capital for cheaper locations or, in the case of public sector workers, seeing their well-being eroded by the hollowing out of government functions, these workers have waged defensive struggles. The post-XNUMX protests against austerity in Europe are particularly noteworthy, but far from being the only examples of such defensive struggles. et al., 2015, p. 190-191). At the same time, we have seen a rise in protests from the unemployed and the irregularly employed (or, to use Marx's term, the "permanent relative surplus population"). This part of the working class played a prominent (and often minimized) role in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen during the 2011 Arab Spring (see KARATASLI et al., 2015, p. 192-3) and beyond.

A radical new vision for the 1995st century is needed to address these challenges from below. The American hegemonic promise of mass consumption and development was never viable within the context of historical capitalism. Wallerstein's (XNUMX) assertion that capitalism could not accommodate the "combined demands of the Third World (for relatively little per person, but for many people) and [the] Western working class (for relatively few people, but for a lot per person) )”, remains true today. The challenge for the XNUMXst century is to credibly incorporate the growing and profound variety of classes and workers' movements that demand greater equality, both between and within countries. Needless to say, these factors prevent a simple return to the world hegemonic model of the XNUMXth century United States.

The fight against environmental degradation and climate change

All previous world hegemonies of historical capitalism were based on the externalization of the reproduction costs of labor and nature. The natural world was treated as a costless input, while systemic profitability depended on paying amounts below the full cost of reproducing your own labor power to the majority of the world's workers. The externalization of the costs of reproducing labor and using nature has been taken to an extreme with the highly resource-intensive and wasteful model associated with the “American way of life”.

Almost a century ago, Mohandas Gandhi recognized the unsustainability of the Western capitalist development model. He wrote: “The economic imperialism of a single tiny island nation [England] is today [1928] keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million [the population of India at the time] were to undergo a similar economic exploitation, it would despoil the world like a swarm of locusts” (1928) apoudGUHA, 2000).

The existential threat posed by the hegemonic pledge to universalize the American way of life – fundamentally an updated version of Gandhi's critique – has been embraced by environmental and climate change activists, whose movement has gained momentum over the past decade, culminating in the worldwide student climate strike. and young people, in September 2019. As reported by The New York Times, in cities across the world from Berlin to Melbourne, in Manila, Kampala, Nairobi, Mumbai and Rio – the number of strikers easily ran into the tens of thousands, and in many cities into the hundreds of thousands. “Rarely, if ever, has the modern world witnessed such a large and broad youth movement, spanning rich and poor societies, united by a common sense of revulsion, however incipient (SENGUPTA, 2019).

Demands for physical safety and dignity

Speaking at the 2019 climate strike in New York, young climate activist Greta Thunberg declared: “We demand a secure future. Is that too much to ask?".

Indeed, viable promises of security are fundamental to all world hegemonies. Today, security threats are multiple, growing, and interconnected. Constant conflicts, although of relatively low intensity, ravage the world, causing the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. In turn, neo-fascist and far-right movements have resurfaced, blaming refugees and immigrants for the insecurities (real and imaginary) of the populations of the receiving countries (SCHULTHEIS, 2019; BECKER, 2019). Climate change, militarism, and the refugee crisis are all intertwined in a vicious circle that fuels the systemic chaos dynamics of the XNUMXst century.

All these processes are unfolding in the context of the enormous inequalities that have grown in tandem with the decline of the US hegemonic world order. The global pandemic of covid-19 is highlighting this social inequality to those who could not yet see it (FISCHER and BUBOLA, 2020). Meagan Day aptly compared the relationship between the pandemic and inequality with an analysis of dyed water flows:

A river only looks like a river until dye is added, and the dye reveals how the structural features of the riverbed direct the flow of water in specific paths. A pandemic is like that … [it] shows how the structure of our [social] system influences the different directions that people can take, depending on their location upstream. This has happened before, but now it's a bright color for all to see. (DAY, 2020).

Likewise, the global pandemic has highlighted pre-existing flaws in the world order – rising inequality, job and livelihood insecurity, the refugee crisis and the looming threat of climate change – making these flaws now clear, “for all to see”. ”. With borders closed and the world economy paralyzed, the collateral damage of the pandemic in the form of skyrocketing unemployment and the evaporation of (already) precarious livelihoods was overwhelming in scale and scope.

As global systemic chaos deepens, there is, in Arrighi's words, a growing "demand for order - the old order, a new order, any order!" (2010 [1994], p. 31). The initial response from above has been to accelerate an already underway global shift to increasingly coercive forms of government. As we enter the third decade of the XNUMXst century, the proliferation of emergency executive powers, police-imposed confinement orders and the domestic deployment of military forces to deal with the fallout from the pandemic – including the anticipated waves of social protest – were among the signs of this trend. However, such deviations towards coercion and away from consent, as argued above, are likely to further deepen global systemic chaos.

The offer of world hegemony in the XNUMXst century

“What kind of hegemony, if any, can emerge in our current world of proliferating global challenges and profound systemic changes?”

The arguments presented lead us to a set of interconnected answers. We agree with the statement that the answer to this question requires “reimagining power in global politics”. However, we also argue that this reimagining is not a new phenomenon; on the contrary, each successive world hegemony of historical capitalism brought with it an analogous reimagining of power in global politics. Successive hegemonic powers responded to global challenges by promoting “recurrent fundamental restructurings [of the modern world system]” (ARRIGHI, 2010 [1994], p. 31-2).

We have argued that a central driving force behind the successive restructuring of global capitalism – and the reimagining of world hegemonies – has been the challenges posed by large waves of social protests on a world scale. The Haitian Revolution and the mass revolts of enslaved peoples in the Americas in the late 1999th century forced the rising hegemonic power (the United Kingdom) to “reimagine” global capitalism without one of its fundamental pillars, plantation slavery. The resurgence of labor movements, socialist revolutions and national liberation movements in the first half of the XNUMXth century forced the rising hegemonic power (the United States) to “reimagine” global capitalism without the fundamental pillars of formal colonialism and restriction of exercise. democracy to property owners. The latest global wave of social protests in the early XNUMXst century will also require any aspiring hegemonic power to fundamentally reimagine hegemony (SILVER; SLATER, XNUMX).

The question we must raise here, however, is whether we have reached the limits of the “reimagining” of hegemony within a capitalist world system. A common feature of all previous world hegemonies – Dutch, British, American – is that they succeeded in finding reformist solutions to the revolutionary challenges posed by mass movements from below. In other words, each successive hegemony managed to lay the foundations for a major new expansion of the capitalist world system. They were, for a time, able to resolve the fundamental contradiction between profitability and legitimacy that has characterized historical capitalism.

With the subsequent “acceleration of social history” – with protests now emanating from an even wider and deeper range of social movements – the question arises as to whether another world hegemony can be imagined, let alone successfully implemented. , within the context of global capitalism. In other words, is it possible to find a viable reformist solution to the challenges posed by today's mass movements?

Until recently, any reformist attempts in this direction were not on the agenda of most global government and business elites; on the contrary, coercive measures and the redoubling of the neoliberal project were the order of the day (SILVER, 2019). However, the fallout from the global pandemic (which, in turn, came on the heels of a decade of escalating worldwide social protests) may have finally shaken the confidence of those in power. Thus, for example, the Editorial Board of the Financial Times (2020) opined: “Radical reforms [analogous to those made in the decades after World War II] will need to be put on the table” to “offer a social contract that benefits all”. Essentially, they propose a return to the mid-twentieth-century social pacts that sustained US-led world hegemony.

Regardless of whether such calls for “radical reforms” by global elites fade or grow over time, a return to the mid-XNUMXth century solution is not sustainable. Indeed, as argued above, the hegemonic American project – which proclaimed its goal of universalizing the American way of life – fell into a combined crisis of profitability and legitimacy just two decades after its launch.

As Gramsci noted in another context: “Hegemony (under capitalism) presupposes that the leading group must make sacrifices of some economic-corporate kind. But there is also no doubt that such sacrifices and compromises cannot touch the essentials; for although hegemony is ethical-political, it must also be economic, it must necessarily be based on the decisive function exercised by the ruling group in the decision-making core of economic activity” (1971, p. 161).

Thus, without a clear commitment to prioritizing the protection of humans and nature over the pursuit of profitability, as soon as the social contract begins to threaten profitability (as it did in the 1960s and 1970s), it would once again be abandoned by the layers of society. superiors (SILVER, 2019). A new world hegemony would require, instead, a radical reimagining of world power and global politics. Social movements will undoubtedly play a key role in this process, either directly or by generating transformative pressures on aspiring hegemonic states. In any case, a serious “reimagining” of the “strategies, organizational structures and ideologies”, including the “internationalism”, of the movements is necessary (KARATASLI, 2019) if we are to collectively rise to the task of providing systemic solutions to the systemic problems left behind by the world hegemony of the United States.

*Beverly J. Silver and pProfessor in the Department of Sociology and Director of the Arrighi Center for Global Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

* Corey R. Payne it's dPhD candidate in sociology at Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, USA).

Translation: Raquel Coelho e Isis Camarinha.

Originally published in the magazine reorient, flight. 1, no 1.


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