International Gramsci Society Online Article
January 2003

Theoretical and Methodological Challenges of neo-Gramscian Perspectives in International Political Economy

Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton

In the early 1980s, Robert Cox developed a critical theory of hegemony, world order and historical change in two seminal articles (Cox 1981; 1983). This work was situated within a historical materialist problematic of social transformation and drew to a large extent from the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (Gramsci 1971). Since then, building on Cox's contributions, a series of similar, yet diverse, neo-Gramscian perspectives have emerged in International Relations (Morton 2001). Emphasis is placed on the construction of hegemony, which is initially established by social forces occupying a leading role within a state, but is then projected outwards on a world scale. Hegemony is understood as an expression of broadly-based consent, manifested in the acceptance of ideas and supported by material resources and institutions.

In the following, we will provide in three steps a brief outline of the core neo-Gramscian concepts as well as the main discussions surrounding them. Firstly, we situate neo-Gramscian perspectives within the general discipline of International Relations (IR) theory and, particularly, debates between positivist and post-positivist approaches. Secondly, we will contrast particular features of hegemony in order to highlight fundamental theoretical, political and thus normative differences between mainstream approaches and neo-Gramscian concepts. Thirdly, we will consider several key methodological issues that may assist the researcher in delineating an empirically driven strategy, thereby remaining engaged with the social world through the unification of theory as practice.

Positivism / post-positivism debate in IR

The de-linking of the dollar from the gold-standard by U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1971 heralded the end of the post-war regime of 'embedded liberalism' (Ruggie 1982) and ushered the world into a period of sustained structural change. Established IR theories found it difficult to make sense of these developments. Against this background, new critical theories of feminism, historical sociology and post-structuralism posed a fundamental challenge to mainstream approaches from the early 1980s onwards. As different as they are in their own ontology and epistemology, they have in common a rejection of the positivist assumption that the aim of social science is to identify causal relationships in an objective world. These new perspectives neither accept that it is possible to separate the subject from object, nor to distinguish between normative enquiry on the one hand and empirical scientific research on the other (Smith 1995: 24-6). The development of a neo-Gramscian perspective by Robert Cox has to be seen as a part of this rejection of mainstream positivist IR approaches.

Mainstream neo-realist and neoliberal institutionalist approaches, as well as the more radical alternative of world-systems theory, can be rejected as problem-solving theories. They all assume that basic features of the international system are constant. Neo-realism argues that states are the only important actors, neoliberal institutionalism regards states as most important actors using regimes in order to further their interests, and world-systems theory defines the world system as consisting of core, semi-periphery and periphery. As a result, structural change beyond these features cannot be conceptualised. Secondly, these traditional IR approaches contribute to the maintenance of existing social and power relationships, including their inherent inequalities, within the features identified as constant. Critical theory for Cox, by contrast, 'does not take institutions and social and power relations for granted but calls them into question by concerning itself with their origins and whether they might be in the process of changing' (Cox 1981: 129). It analyses how existing world orders emerged and how dominant norms, institutions and practices were established. Importantly, this is not a purpose in itself, but serves as a starting-point for the identification of those forces, able to develop an emancipatory project for a new and more just world order. Clearly, similar to other post-positivist approaches, neo-Gramscian perspectives, in their normative drive, accept that 'theory is always for someone and for some purpose' (Cox 1981: 128).

A neo-Gramscian concept of hegemony

A good way into the complex theoretical neo-Gramscian construction is through the concept of hegemony. Neo-realist hegemonic stability theory argues that international order may exist provided it rests on one powerful state, which dominates all other states through its preponderance in military and economic capabilities (e.g. Gilpin 1981). By contrast, the neo-Gramscian perspective developed by Cox broadens the domain of hegemony. It becomes more than simply state dominance. Within a world order, a situation of hegemony may prevail 'based on a coherent conjunction or fit between a configuration of material power, the prevalent collective image of world order (including certain norms) and a set of institutions which administer the order with a certain semblance of universality' (Cox 1981: 139). Hegemony is therefore a form of dominance, but it refers more to a consensual order so that 'dominance by a powerful state may be a necessary but not a sufficient condition of hegemony' (Ibid.: 139).

Hegemony within a historical structure is constituted through three spheres of activity. Firstly, the social relations of production are the starting point for analysing the operation and mechanisms of hegemony (Cox 1987: 1-9). Production is here understood in a broad sense and 'covers the production and reproduction of knowledge and of the social relations, morals and institutions that are prerequisites to the production of physical goods' (Cox 1989: 39). These patterns are referred to as modes of social relations of production, which engender social forces as the most important collective actors. By discerning different modes of social relations of production it is possible to consider how changing production relations give rise to particular social forces that become the bases of power within and across states and within a specific world order (Cox 1987: 4). This wider understanding of production ensures that social forces are not reduced to material aspects. '"Non-class" issues-peace, ecology, and feminism-are not to be set aside but given a firm and conscious basis in the social realities shaped through the production process' (Cox 1987: 353).

The second sphere of activity is forms of state. State power rests on the underlying configurations of social forces. Therefore, rather than taking the state as a given or pre-constituted institutional category, consideration is given to the historical construction of various forms of state and the social context of political struggle. This is accomplished by drawing upon the concept of an historical bloc and by widening a theory of the state to include relations within civil society. An historical bloc refers to the way in which leading social forces within a specific national context establish a relationship over contending social forces. It is more than simply a political alliance between social forces represented by classes or fractions of classes. It indicates the integration of a variety of different class interests that are propagated throughout society 'bringing about not only a unison of economic and political aims, but also intellectual and moral unity . . . on a "universal" plane' (Gramsci 1971: 181-2). Different forms of state are considered as the expression of particular historical blocs. Overall, this relationship is referred to as the state-civil society complex that, clearly, owes an intellectual debt to Gramsci. For Gramsci, the state should be understood not just as the apparatus of government operating within the 'public' sphere (government, political parties, military) but also as part of the 'private' sphere of civil society (church, media, education) through which hegemony functions (Gramsci 1971: 261). It can therefore be argued that the state in this conception is understood as a social relation. The state is not unquestioningly taken as a distinct institutional category, or thing in itself, but conceived as a form of social relations through which capitalism and hegemony are expressed.

Thirdly, world orders not only represent phases of stability and conflict but also permit scope for thinking about how alternative forms of world order might emerge (Cox 1981: 135-8). The construction of an historical bloc cannot exist without a hegemonic social class and is therefore a national phenomenon (Cox 1983: 168, 174). Yet once hegemony has been consolidated domestically it may expand beyond a particular social order to move outward on a world scale through the international expansion of a particular mode of social relations of production (Ibid.: 171, Cox 1987: 149-50). This can further become supported by mechanisms of international organisation. Finally, within each of the three main spheres it is argued that three further elements reciprocally combine to constitute an historical structure: ideas, understood as intersubjective meanings as well as collective images of world order; material capabilities, referring to accumulated resources; and institutions, which are amalgams of the previous two elements and are means of stabilising a particular order.

Overall, the aim is to break down over time coherent historical structures-consisting of different patterns of social relations of production, forms of state and world order-that have existed within the capitalist mode of production (Cox 1987: 396-8). Social forces, as the main collective actors engendered by the social relations of production, operate within and across all spheres of activity. Through the rise of contending social forces, linked to changes in production, there may occur mutually reinforcing transformations in forms of state and world order.

There are several important further developments of neo-Gramscian perspectives. Most important, Stephen Gill has expanded on the above framework through the introduction of the concepts of new constitutionalism and disciplinary neo-liberalism. According to Gill, new constitutionalism involves the narrowing of the social basis of popular participation within the world order of disciplinary neo-liberalism. It is 'the move towards construction of legal or constitutional devices to remove or insulate substantially the new economic institutions from popular scrutiny or democratic accountability' (Gill 1992: 165). New constitutionalism results in an attempt to discipline states along a neo-liberal restructuring policy by disseminating the notion of market civilisation based on an ideology of capitalist progress and exclusionary or hierarchical patterns of social relations (Gill 1995: 399).

Methodological challenges and empirical research

One way of proceeding with empirical research is to conduct analysis in relation to the three levels of activity outlined above. Research may start through an investigation of the production structure in order to identify social forces as the key collective actors. Globalisation, in addition to a shift from Keynesianism to neo-liberalism at the ideological level, has been defined as the transnationalisation of production and finance (e.g. Cox 1993: 259-60, 266-7). A neo-Gramscian analysis, therefore, concludes that this change in the production structure has led to the emergence of new collective actors, i.e. transnational social forces of capital and labour (Bieler 2000: 18-52).

In a second step, rather than deducing particular positions of social forces from their location in the production process, neo-Gramscian perspectives try to find out through an empirical analysis which social forces attempt to formulate a hegemonic project around which ideas. Gill (1995) concludes that transnational capital within globalisation is currently involved in formulating a project around the ideas of neo-liberal economics, since this furthers specific material interests best. Of course, such hegemonic projects also need to include other ideas in order to reach forces beyond transnational capital. Only then is the establishment of a historical bloc possible. Within the EU, for example, transnational capital promotes a compromise of 'embedded neo-liberalism'. It is predominantly based on neo-liberalism, but it also includes mercantilist aspects to attract capital fractions, which concentrate on the European market and would prefer protection against global competition, as well as social aspects to attract trade unions and social democratic elements (van Apeldoorn 2002).

Nevertheless, to be successful, hegemonic projects need to be concretised within a form of state, the second level of activity. Hence, thirdly, it has to be investigated how these transnational forces of capital become internalised in a particular form of state or how they are resisted. Andrew Baker (2000) provides a very good example of an analysis outlining how transnational capital has become internalised within the British form of state. Finally, in a fourth step, one has to investigate how neo-liberal hegemony, achieved within particular forms of state, such as the UK and the USA, is transferred to the world order sphere of activity. In general, this takes place through the expansion of a particular mode of social relations of production to other countries aided by international organisations. In concrete terms, in times of globalisation, this refers to the increasing transnationalisation and opening up of other countries' economy, partly due to the investment of western TNCs in developing countries, thereby transnationalising these countries' production structures, and partly through the imposition of neo-liberal restructuring programmes by international organisations such as the IMF or World Bank, further opening up countries to foreign investment. Again, the exact way of how this outward expansion occurs in different countries and regions is a matter of empirical investigation.

An alternative route to empirical research is through the emphasis on the socio-cultural interplay between ruler and ruled within state struggles over hegemony leading to various avenues along which domination and resistance can be analysed. Here, Gramsci's own criteria on the history of subaltern classes can be taken as a point of departure when analysing alternative historical and contemporary contexts (Gramsci 1971: 52-5). The history of subaltern classes is intertwined with that of state-civil society relations and it is therefore important to try and unravel such contestations. One way of doing so is to identify the 'objective' formation of subaltern social classes by analysing developments and transformations within the sphere of production (Ibid.: 52). This advances an understanding of the 'decisive nucleus of economic activity' but without succumbing to expressions of economism (Ibid.: 161). For example, historical and contemporary research would also need to incorporate, as much as possible, a consideration of the mentalities and ideologies of subaltern classes, their active as well as passive affiliation to dominant social forms of political association, and thus their involvement in formations that might conserve dissent or maintain control (Ibid.: 52). Alternatively, it might entail focusing on the formations which subaltern classes themselves produce (e.g. trade unions, workers' co-operatives, social movements) in order to press claims or assert their autonomy within the existing conditions of hegemony. Questions of historical and political consciousness expressed by subaltern classes can then be raised within this research strategy. Ultimately, though, it is imperative to appreciate the common terrain occupied by the art of both domination and resistance. 'The history of subaltern social groups is necessarily fragmented and episodic. . . . Subaltern groups are always subject to the activity of ruling groups, even when they rebel and rise up' (Ibid., 54-5).

Concretely, this methodological approach has been widely deployed to expose material ideological interests at stake in the writing of history that, for example, has occupied a special place within the extensive field of Subaltern Studies (e.g. Guha and Spivak 1988). This approach also has a counterpart in understanding post-colonial state formation in the Africa and the Americas and the complex mix of state building, nation making, elite power and subaltern accommodation and resistance that inheres within regional histories (e.g. Bayart 1993; Mallon 1994, 1995). A neo-Gramscian perspective might therefore analyse empirically how certain social forces have attempted to construct hegemonic projects through neoliberal globalisation and how these have been contested by subaltern classes. This can encompass how the interests of transnational capital, stemming from changes in the social relations of production, have been internalised within particular forms of state to thus configure state-civil society relations and circumscribe the activities of subaltern groups. Such a focus could then also lead one to consider associated questions of resistance. For example, how changing forms and relations of production embodied by neoliberal globalisation lead to a recomposition of state-civil society relations, generating new structures of exploitation, forms of class-consciousness, modes of resistance and class struggle (Morton 2002). Thereby raising awareness about issues of subjectivity, identity and difference in ways that do not bypass issues of materiality, inequality and exploitation within a political economy approach. Empirical studies here, amongst others, include analyses of transnational class formations in Europe (van Apeldoorn 2002, Bieler 2000, Bieler and Morton 2001); the institutionalisation of mass production in the USA and its expansion as the basis for American hegemony throughout the world after the Second World War (Rupert 1995); the promotion of polyarchy, or 'low intensity democracy', as an adjunct of US hegemony in the Philippines, Chile, Nicaragua and Haiti (Robinson 1996); the promotion of 'democracy' in South Africa (Taylor 2001); as well as aspects of neo-liberalism and cultural hegemony in Chile (Davies 1999).

Neo-Gramscian perspectives, of course, have not remained without criticisms. Critical engagement has concentrated on:

It is only through serious engagement with these criticisms (Morton 2003b) that neo-Gramscian perspectives can refine their analytical concepts and fully develop their explanatory power.


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