International Gramsci Society Online Article
January 2003

Gramsci, Modernity and Globalization

Stephen Gill

Prepared for the Conference: “Gramsci and the Twentieth Century” Istituto Fondazione Gramsci, Sardinia, 15-18 April, 1997. Revised July 17, 1997.[1]

This paper attempts to apply and develop some of Gramsci’s conceptualisations of state and civil society, historical bloc and his perspective on civilisations. These concepts are related to modernity and neo-liberal restructuring of the contemporary global political economy. Central to my argument is the idea that the present world order configuration, and prevailing forms of state and civil society are in a situation of “organic crisis”. This crisis involves structural changes in the prevailing ideas, institutions and material capacities that constitute the world order, in a process that can be called one of global transformation. Much of the restructuring has been driven by ruling class forces that deploy political discourses that hark back to nineteenth century classical Political Economy and utilitarianism.

The power and influence of the United States in world politics means that the neo-liberal state form has become increasingly a model for emulation at the end of the twentieth century, under pressure from the IMF, World Bank and the G-7, or more broadly the synthesis of public and private power that I call the “G-7 nexus”. This nexus can be defined as the constellation of social and political forces which regulate, police and protect a disciplinary neo-liberal world order. The precise admixture varies in different state-civil society complexes or in forms of what Gramsci called the “extended state”: the interpenetration of political and civil society in the form of state in an internationalised process of policy formation and surveillance.[2]

Nevertheless, this global transformation has, as Gramsci once put it in discussing his own time, many “morbid symptoms”, not least of which are greater social polarisation and a general crisis of the state and of political authority.[3] In such a context, then, how are we to sketch the potentials for resistance to neo-liberalism that might coalesce into a comprehensive and progressive counter-hegemonic historical bloc? Will this be articulated through new forms of political mobilisation or a new type of “myth-prince” that aims to democratise and transform world order in a more democratic and sustainable direction at the turn of the twentieth century?

Modernity, civilisation and capitalism

With regard to political economy our general hypothesis is that since the eighteenth century there has been an acceleration in the scope and intensity of change within given socio-political frameworks of modernity (e.g. the integral nation-state and inter-state system, the spread and deepening of capital as a social relation, the processes of industrialisation and rationalisation) as well as a shift in inter-subjectivities associated with this process.[4]

In this section then, we can only briefly highlight some of the more significant changes that have occurred over the past three centuries, for example in social and cultural terms, and the way that such changes may alter the nature of our lived reality, or our ontological frameworks of experience. One change is the shift from country to town and the rise of more urbanised patterns of settlement and civilization. Indeed, Eric Hobsbawm notes that this form of structural change within modernity has involved, at least in the OECD, the virtual elimination of the peasantry as a class - perhaps the most profound social change in the last millennium. More recently, urban civilisation has also involved a profound social and cultural revolution. Since 1945 this has been associated with unprecedented affluence, especially in the OECD.[5] In an era of mass education, and mass communication, the massive increases in productive power have also been linked to the emergence of a global youth culture and the emergence of feminist and other social movements.

Within the broad transformations associated with the onset of modernity, then, our more immediate considerations stem from a growing appreciation that we may be in the midst of an ontological change or shift: a redefinition of understandings and experiences that form basic components of our lived reality. This includes our mental frameworks - for example the way that we think about social institutions and forms of political authority in the brave new world of a globalizing capitalism that appears triumphant after the collapse of the USSR and other communist-ruled states.[6]

Gramsci took a longer historical view of global structural change. He linked it to a conceptualisation of modernity that was associated with new modes of rationality and concepts of the political. Moreover, he saw the emergence of modernity not just in terms of the rise of capital and the self-regulating market society, with its commodification of land, labour and money. For Gramsci, the rise of capital and modernity involved new civilizational forms. For Gramsci, the original bourgeois revolutions in Europe were constructed on the spread of Enlightenment ideas and practices and to cultural forces that later became associated with the incipient market society:

The Enlightenment was a magnificent revolution in itself and as De Sanctis acutely notes in his History of Italian Literature, it gave all Europe a bourgeois spiritual International in the form of a unified consciousness, one which was sensitive to all the woes and misfortunes of the common people, and which was the best possible preparation for the bloody revolt that followed in France.
    In Italy, France and Germany, the same topics, the same institutions and the same principles were being discussed. Each new comedy by Voltaire, each new pamphlet moved like a spark along the lines that were already stretched between state and state, between region and region, and found the same supporters and the same opponents everywhere and at every time. The bayonets of Napoleon’s armies found their road already smoothed by an invisible army of books and pamphlets that had swarmed out of Paris from the first half of the eighteenth century and had prepared both men and institutions for the necessary renewal. Later, after the French events had welded a unified consciousness, a demonstration in Paris was enough to provoke similar disturbances in Milan, Vienna and the smaller centres. All this seems natural and spontaneous to superficial observers, yet it would be incomprehensible if we were not aware of the cultural factors that helped to create a state of mental preparedness for these explosions in the name of what was seen as a common cause.[7]

What Gramsci was describing was an authentic revolution that had a hegemonic appeal. That is, to an extent it incorporated the interests of the subordinate or subaltern groups in society in a forward-looking and emancipatory political project. Gramsci suggests that it was based on “a unified consciousness, one which was sensitive to all the woes and misfortunes of the common people”. Whether we agree with the historical accuracy of this assessment or not, the key point here lies in the method Gramsci is using to analyse a historical transformation. That is to say, Gramsci understands that the question of a sudden and apparently spontaneous revolutionary change is linked to deeper historical roots, and that the question of the historical formation of political subjectivity and consciousness is central to historical change. In other words, the political innovations associated with the French Revolution (for example as reflected in the Republicanism of Tom Paine) rested upon the transformations in consciousness and in the notions of the political subject that had been developing through the Enlightenment.

Thus in his analysis of the relationship between the Enlightenment and the rise of bourgeois power Gramsci was also indicating the origins of a particular European civilizational form that served to change politics and social life in an earlier form of “globalisation”. This change was coincident with the emergence of modern industrial capitalism, and the deepening of capitalist social relations in England (the onset of intensive change) with their extension globally (the creation of a world market order). Central to this was not technological innovation as such. More importantly it involved a process of theoretical and political innovation that was partly inspired by the ideas of Adam Smith (and others like Ricardo), and also by the ideas of Bentham and the utilitarians and used by an instrumental state apparatus with considerable coercive power.[8]

Thus the creation of the market society with its associated ideology of “improvement” - an entirely new form of society with its new forms of social experience - drew on a strong and reorganised liberal state that could roll-back mercantilist regulations and practices in a process that today would be called “systemic transformation” (for example the role of the IMF and World Bank in the former communist-ruled countries of eastern Europe).[9] In eighteenth and nineteenth century England, nature, people and the means of exchange were progressively redefined through political action so that they became part of a new social ontology (which Karl Polanyi called the “fictitious commodities” of land, labour and capital) that was underpinned by new structures of law and constitutional practice. These “fictions” therefore became real insofar as they were treated politically and legally, as well as being thought of as if they were factors of production, a process that was extended geographically and given more depth socially as the new global market order was constructed. In sum, this change involved the emergence of a new social ontology and thus a new structure of experience that was partly produced by political action.[10]

Changes in World Order since 1945

In this section I sketch out some of the changes in world order since 1945, from a political economy perspective. In order to bring the post-1945 world order patterns into relief, however, requires us to initially sketch aspects of preceding world orders.

The construction of a Gramscian form of hegemony internationally in the nineteenth century, in so far as it could be said to have existed, involved some degree of emulation of the path of economic development laid down by British industrialisation, with the core states agreeing to new rules of international commerce and finance with Britain. Here the public and private dimensions of the British extended state were reflected in the importance of the City of London, which had a co-ordinating role in matters of international finance and trade. In this regard, after the defeat of Napoleon, British leadership had credibility at least with regard to a core grouping of states, partly because of its naval supremacy. Thus the nineteenth century world order did not rest upon preponderant power as such with regard to the relations between the core European states (and rising powers such as the USA and Japan) -. Rather the new world order reflected a changed balance of inter-state and class forces (a balance of internal and external power), as well as the ratification of a global racial hierarchy.

Indeed, in each world order configuration, following Robert Cox, there are different sets of social forces at work - that is different configurations of ideas, institutions and material capabilities, as well as different forms of production, state and world order.[11] Thus, viewed from the lens of the origin of the modern inter-state system born in Europe at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, under the leadership if not the hegemony of the ruling classes of the United Provinces, there has been a formal continuity, that is in the inter-state system with its principles of action based on the concept of sovereignty. Indeed, after 1945 there was a process of state proliferation which extended the Westphalian model of state sovereignty to the former imperial colonies. At the same time, the security system was disciplined and dominated by a superpower strategic duopoly. This also meant that the Westphalian peace had become an uneasy one, linked to the capacity for total war and total annihilation. Such a capacity was premised not only on nuclear weapons, but also on mass production and mass politics (enabling national mobilisation) in nation-states.

The latest phase in the Westphalian states system is partly linked to the demise of Fordist production structures and their identity with particular territories and jurisdictions. This “national” form of capitalist development is gradually giving way to post-Fordist, flexible methods and the global organisation of production. In some respects production is becoming increasingly feminized, that is in the sense that more women have entered the formal labour markets in many parts of the world. Such a redefinition of production relations implies some changes in (national) political identity, as well as changes in the form of state. We can call this process the internationalisation, or globalization of the state. The latter process is not entirely new. For example, the Westphalian system has been the international political counterpart to the emergence of world capitalism. In this sense, the Westphalian system has always been “internationalised”, since its inception, and this internationalisation has taken different forms. Moreover, superpower bipolarity during the Cold War implied some internationalisation of allied states’ political and security structures. Since 1945, this process has been associated with the global restructuring of production and finance. If we accept the idea of the internationalisation - or indeed, the globalization - of the state, we go beyond a traditional assumption of international relations: that states, almost irrespective of their character, are essentially the same for the purposes of analysing international politics. Rather, it is important to analyse the different forms of state, and how they change over time, thus serving to constitute different types of international or global order, and to use Gramsci’s ideas concerning the extended state (state + civil society) as a means to conceptualise the formation of global politics.

So how are we to interpret the contemporary era of global change? One way to do this is to focus on the relationship between forms of state and global politics, through the application of the Gramscian concept of hegemony, which contrasts with the conventional International Relations usage of Realists, who equate hegemony with the dominance of one state over others. The Gramscian concept suggests a more complex problematic, involving consent and coercion, as well as political leadership, authority and legitimacy. The basis of hegemony is to be found in the relationship between state and civil society, both within, and across nation-states. The Gramscian concept of hegemony can be applied to show that there was a relative political and economic congruence between the major states and leading elements drawn from their civil societies across a range of OECD countries roughly between 1950 and 1970. Their relations were bound together by security and military-political ties under the leadership of the ruling elements within the United States. The potentially globalizing thrust of economic forces was constrained by national systems of economic planning, regulation and political accountability, often in the form of state capitalism and corporatism. International economic relations and the resolution of international economic conflicts were institutionalised in both informal private councils and in the Bretton Woods institutions, as well as in inter-state bargains, in an era of high economic growth, at least when compared to the 1970s and 1980s.

The political centrepiece of these arrangements was a relatively flexible, “organic alliance” structure (involving North America, the EEC and Japan and an associated process of international organisation). Characterised by a degree of institutional and political pluralism, the alliance was underpinned by sets of cross-cutting economic, military and political links (e.g. involving organisations such as NATO and the US-Japan security arrangements). This arrangement can be interpreted as the political counterpart to the internationalisation of capital which has emerged since 1945. The arrangements thus contained an element of their own transformation and possible transcendence. This “organic alliance” can be contrasted with the relatively brittle, “tactical” alliance structures of the former Soviet Union and its allies, which collapsed precipitately at the end of the 1980s.

Nevertheless, it can be argued that economic globalization has undermined this integral hegemony in a number of ways. For example, there has been an ideological shift towards neo-conservatism in politics and neo-liberalism in economics. A political shift occurred which marginalized labour and social democratic parties from the inner circles of power (less so in some countries, such as Germany, than in others, e.g. the USA, UK, and Japan). What I call the “terrain of political contestability” has shifted to the right in the OECD countries since the early 1970s.

Thus, partly because of the restructuring of production and finance, and a rightward neo-liberal political shift, there has been a change in the form of state. The bloc of forces and discourses which give identity and direction to the relation between political and civil society have changed in many of the major capitalist nations and Third World countries in the last two decades. Whether the forms of development associated with this shift towards neo-liberalism are politically, economically or ecologically sustainable, is a central question for the next decade. Indeed, it might be suggested that a less consensual order is emerging, one based increasingly on the politics of supremacy and coercion, rather than one built from broad based popular legitimacy - despite the widening circles that benefit from neo-liberal restructuring (for example affluent middle classes in the Third World). The 1980s and 1990s, then, can be characterised as a period of crisis of hegemony, and a decline in the coherence of the post-war order, by economic and political breakdown and chaos, unsustainable patterns demographic growth and urbanisation, environmental degradation, mass poverty and starvation, and massive refugee and migratory movements.

Globalization: the “occasional” and the “permanent”

In this section I sketch an outline for analysis of present-day patterns of globalization, which can be understood as one of the dominant subjectivities of our times. This involves the elaboration and application of some neo-Gramscian ideas concerning (1) revolution and modernity (2) organic crisis and (3) the distinction between a politics of hegemony and a politics of supremacy. This is particularly since the present era of neo-liberal globalization seems to be supremacist in nature, rather than hegemonic.

Further, the analysis of global politics in the 1990s would do well to follow a methodological injunction of Gramsci’s historicism, and distinguish the “occasional” from the “permanent”, for example in the analysis of crises that may last for decades.[12] Thus, from the viewpoint of the longue durée, we might say that we are witnessing world-wide a new phase of the bourgeois revolution (and its associated dominant subjectivities) with its origins not only in the French Revolution in its “successive waves” but also in the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688. It is in this sense that particular institutional configurations of modernity - for example market society and liberal forms of state - can be said to globalize. In this context the political agency of the British state and the Concert of Europe was particularly crucial in the nineteenth century as is that of the USA and the G-7 in the 1990s: globalization is both geoeconomics and geopolitics.[13]

Nevertheless, since the 1970s there has been a period of flux and uncertainty that relates in part to a sense that key institutional aspects of historical reality are in mutation: for example forms of state, market and civil society, in forms of political economy: local, national, regional and global. It also relates therefore to changes in the way the world is perceived, understood and experienced: a shift in the ontology of world order that serves to constitute the form and nature of an organic crisis that is influencing the very nature of our civilizations.[14]

This crisis in its immediate or “occasional” sense may be said to have had its conjunctural origins in the global economic crisis of the early 1970s. Since then, a particular model of capitalist development - Anglo-American neo-liberalism - has tended to prevail in the politics of global restructuring. This model, in turn, is based on a set of institutions and practices which tend to promote a social Darwinist reconfiguration of priorities, policies and outcomes. The most pervasive - and perverse - consequence of this shift has been a rapid deepening of social inequality within particular states and social formations, and between nations. It is reflected in the observations of many - from disillusioned former Thatcherites to religious and civic leaders, including the Pope, as well as penitent rentier billionaires such as George Soros, that capitalism has moved into a brutalising and criminal phase, especially in parts of the Third World and the former Soviet Union and the marketization of social life is incompatible with not only a Popperian Open Society (as desired by Soros) but also with any notion of “civil” society . As such, we can be sure that not only is there no “end of history”, but also that a fully neo-liberal world can never emerge, because of the political, economic, social and ecological contradictions of neo-liberalism, to say nothing of its and moral bankruptcy.

Indeed, when we introduce the issues of power and justice into our examination of neo-liberal forms of globalization, what is emerging is a politics of supremacy, rather than a politics of justice or hegemony, that is a sign of the impermanence of the prevailing form of world order. By a situation of supremacy I mean rule by a non-hegemonic bloc of forces that exercises dominance for a period over apparently fragmented populations until a coherent form of opposition emerges. In the present era, this supremacist bloc can be conceptualised as commensurate with the emergence of a market-based transnational free enterprise system dependent for its conditions of existence on a range of state-civil society complexes. It is both “outside” and “inside” the state: it forms part of the “local” and “global” political structures and has as its central purpose the intensification of the discipline of capital within the (neo-liberal “workfare” or “competition”) state and civil society.. Thus, in my sketch of power structures of contemporary global politics, with significant local variations, a transnational historical bloc is formed, with its nucleus largely comprising elements of the G-7 state apparatuses and transnational capital (in manufacturing, finance and services), and associated privileged workers and smaller firms (e.g. small and middle-sized businesses linked as contractors or suppliers, import-export businesses, service companies e.g. stockbrokers, accountants, consultancies, lobbyists, educational entrepreneurs, architects, designers).[15] In brief, financial pressures have provoked redefinition of desirable and necessary action by governments. A shift is occurring away from socialisation of risk provision (health care, pensions, unemployment insurance and so on), towards a privatised system of self-help. In this situation the individual is made to fight in the market place for survival and to protect him or herself against sickness and the vulnerability of old age.

The concentration of capital now has a fully global aspect and it has proceeded along the lines anticipated by Marx. For example, in 1992, the 300 largest transnational firms controlled about 25% of the world’s $20 trillion stock of productive assets; the top 600 corporations with annual sales over $1 billion accounted for over 20% of the world’s total value-added in manufacturing and agriculture.[16] Most workers of transnational corporations are well-paid, and tend to enjoy better working conditions than those in local firms. Directly and indirectly transnationals perhaps account for 5% of the global work-force, although they control over 33% of global assets.[17] In the financial markets, by 1994 the daily flow of foreign exchange transactions world-wide may have exceeded $1 trillion or “roughly the foreign exchange holdings of all the central banks of the major industrialized nations”.[18] This is despite the fact that perhaps no more than 10 per cent of all financial transactions are related to real economic activity (that is to finance trade flows or capital movements). Much of the rest is related to speculative activity, money laundering and tax evasion, as well as the offsetting of risk. The scale of the globalization and centralisation of capital means that global political action is increasingly needed to not only reproduce and extend the existing patterns of accumulation, but also for the left and other progressive forces to democratise and to control them.

Indeed, one concrete manifestation of the combination of structural and direct forms of the power of capital is the combination of a high degree of leverage and penetration of transnational capital and what I call “new constitutional” structures that make liberalised access to both OECD and “emerging markets” a condition of government policies, as well as serving to insulate economic processes and institutions from democratic accountability (for example the statues and practices of the new World Trade Organization). Such structures of power serve to configure the political and constitutional conditions that surround Structural Adjustment Programmes and various other forms of technical and financial assistance to lesser developed states (i.e. in the third world and Former East Bloc) by, for example, the international financial institutions and the European Union. In this context, that is the spread and deepening of capital as a social relation, there is the intensification of a shift from what Marx in Grundrisse called the formal to the real subordination of labour to capital (that is to say that there is a shift from working for capital to working as part of capital). As noted, this has been also linked to an extensive commodification of social life (the shaping of social relations by making labour and nature into exchangeable commodities). Marx’s concept of commodity-fetishism (the ways that the exchange of commodities in the money form masks the conditions and struggles associated with their production) can also be related to the content of the prevailing cultural discourse that has accompanied this transformation, in so far as it enables us to identify the basic social form that it presupposes: the way in which capitalist commercialisation shapes outlooks, identities, time-horizons and conceptions of social space. Kees van der Pijl adds that in this historical configuration the closest approximation of capital-in-general are the institutional forms of money capital, where money capital appears as a concentrated mass, subject to the control of bankers.[19] As such it confronts labour as an “alien and dominant power’. Yet the state has to intervene to secure the supply of labour, to police and protect territory, to sustain the value of money, etc.. That is to say that the power of state is in principle accountable: indeed it is through the use of state power that the agents of globalizing capitalism exert much of their influence - that is the power of capital is both structural and direct in form.

Thus the dominant discursive formation of our time is the neo-liberal concept of “globalization”. It suggests that privatisation and transnationalisation of capital are either inevitable or desirable from a broad social viewpoint. In this sense, the concept of globalization exhibits positive and negative forms of ideology. A positive aspect is the equation of free competition and free exchange (global capital mobility) with economic efficiency, welfare and democracy, and a myth of virtually unlimited social progress, as represented in TV advertising and other media, and in World Bank and IMF reports. A negative aspect is how neo-liberal market forces are often said to have marginalised non-market alternatives, especially from the political left. Thus some equate globalization with the unfolding of a business Hegelian myth of the capitalist market (“the global information standard”) as the Absolute Idea: global financial markets are said to be “civilising” although implacable and gigantic forces for good government.[20] Some equate neo-liberal globalization with the “end of history”, although, as implied in his invocation of Nietzsche’s dispirited and pathetic “Last Man”, for Fukuyama the victory of liberalism is a hollow one, since the post-communist Last Man (where liberalism is the only global alternative) is doomed to boredom: a morbid repetitiveness simulates death; a condition that may be palliated by satellite TV showing World Cup Soccer.[21]

Of course, “globalization” as a process is not amenable to reductionist forms of explanation, because it is many-faceted and multidimensional and involves ideas, images, symbols, music, fashions, and a variety of tastes and representations of identity and community. Nevertheless, in its present, mythic and ideological representations, the concept serves to reify a global economic system dominated by large institutional investors and transnational firms that control the bulk of the world’s productive assets, and that are the principal influences in world trade and financial markets.

From a socio-historical perspective then, a remarkable feature of contemporary world society is how more and more aspects of everyday life in OECD nations have come to be premised upon or pervaded by market values, representations and symbols, as time and distance are apparently shrunk by scientific-technological innovation, the hyper-mobility of financial capital and some types of information flows. Commercialisation has configured more aspects of family life, religious practice, leisure pursuits and aspects of nature. Indeed, processes of commodification have progressively encompassed aspects of life that have been viewed as inalienable.[22] Increasingly, patent rights over human genes and tissue, plants, seeds and animal hybrids are obtained routinely by pharmaceutical and agricultural corporations, including the DNA of “endangered peoples” that is aboriginal or native peoples. These private “intellectual” property rights are being internationalised and extended into the legal regimes of the world through the new World Trade Organisation. Such developments are taking place when, in much of the OECD, there has been little political debate over the repercussions of biotechnology and genetic innovation, to say nothing of the privatisation of life-forms.[23] At the same time large numbers of people are almost totally marginalised from enjoyment of the fruits of global production.

In conclusion to this section, twentieth century capitalist “globalization” is perhaps best understood as part of a wider historical pattern of structural change associated with modernity. The inter-subjectivities associated with this pattern of structural change help to give shape and meaning to a type of world order that is supremacist rather than hegemonic in form, that is to say, it rests upon domination over apparently fragmented populations and localised forms of resistance. However, the apparent victory of neo-liberal forces associated with the power and reach of transnational corporations may not be is permanent, nor simply occasional. The shift towards a more globalized world order is neither complete nor a fully realised social and political transformation, since political and social counter-forces necessarily form to challenge the dominance of capital. Indeed, as Kees van der Pijl notes, in an age of neo-liberal globalization, capital appears as the life-giving force in a “fatal inversion” - we live by the world market or we perish; yet some 30 per cent of world’s work-force is unemployed. Nevertheless Pijl reminds us that the long-run tendency towards inequality and pauperism was considered by Marx as a sign of capital’s old age. He cites the recent UNDP Human Development Report, 1996 which noted that 358 billionaires had combined assets that exceeded the total annual income of 45 per cent of world’s population, that is of 3.2 billion people, a truly staggering concentration of wealth that reflects the growing power of capital in its struggle with labour on a world scale.[24]

Resistance and counter-hegemony: will a new myth-prince emerge?

One way to conceptualise this struggle is to suggest that what has been emerging in world politics during the 1990s is something akin to the “double movement” outlined by Polanyi. The movement in question is the attempts by the historical counter-movements to reassert social control over the movement towards the unfettered power of capital in determining the possibilities for social choice. Polanyi’s two cases of this were in the late nineteenth century, and again in the inter-war period, after the attempts to restore a liberal world economic order under Anglo-American dominance in the 1920s collapsed. Today we can relate the metaphor of the “double movement” to those socio-political forces which wish to assert more democratic control over political life, and to harness the productive aspects of world society to achieve broad social purposes on an inclusionary basis, across and within different types of civilisation. This involves a critique of the moral bankruptcy and social consequences of the narrow application of a crass consumerist materialism which lies at the heart of neo-liberal discourse and practice.

Of course, there are many differences between the inter-war period and the 1990s. Much of the world in the 1990s experiences what can be called - for want of a better expression, a form of not only market discipline, but for many, a form of organised chaos with its “many morbid symptoms”. By this I mean it is systematic in form, linked to the spread of laissez-faire ideas and practices, and is sustained politically, by a relatively affluent, politically active minority of the world’s population (this minority is larger than that in the 1930s, partly because of the widening of political participation and economic growth). It is chaotic in the sense that the accelerated integration of the world into a single market since the mid-1970s also involves the disintegration of existing sets of social arrangements and state forms - such that social provision of many basic public goods becomes unsustainable. Often this chaos worsens because of the actions of instrumental, irresponsible, unaccountable or corrupt political élites or ruling classes. In this context, a relentless Social Darwinism is tending to increase the level of socio-economic inequality and political marginalization in much of the world, and, dialectically, generates a growing disillusion with conventional organised politics and a politically unsatisfied desire for alternatives. In this context, there is a pervasive sense of structural crisis, a widespread sentiment of uncertainty and anxiety, of exhaustion of political alternatives, and in some manifestations, a yearning for “order”: a new order or an attempt to reconstitute the old order. This is akin to the condition of disorientation and flux that Giovanni Arrighi associated with periods of “systemic chaos” such as the 1640s, the 1790s, and the 1930s,[25] when the credibility and appeal of the old order and of a range of political alternatives was at an historic low.

Indeed, as van der Pijl has argued, as the discipline of capital is imposed more strongly it encounters resistance within three broad sets of processes of class struggle. Indeed one can theorise points of resistance and thus of collective action in ways that go beyond a singular view of political agency through the analysis of the different dimensions of the discipline and power of capital. The first concerns what Marx called “original accumulation”. This is where the commodity form incorporates previously non-commodified goods and services into the reaches of capital, for example through privatisation and commercialisation, in some cases violently forcing people off the land (as in the enclosure movement in England, and the new enclosures associated with the “opening” of the Amazon; displacing of populations to construct dams, etc.). The second set of conditions relates to the capitalist production process, where much of the recent evidence shows that in the brave new world of high-technology, knowledge based capital, instead of a leisure society being created, the pattern is one of intensification of work, longer working hours and a rising rate of exploitation of labour on the one hand, and mass unemployment and marginalization on the other. It is mainly in this sense, that Van der Pijl argues that the development of capital “has shrunk the number of people whose fate is primarily and ultimately tied up with the prevailing order.”[26] The third set of conditions and thus of forces of resistance relate to the social reproduction of labour in its broadest sense, where for example, micro-economic rationality is spreading into sphere of reproduction in the home, the schools and the institutions of civil society more generally. These changes are also linked to the intensified exploitation of nature as well as the human body as a site of accumulation. This raises the issue of a broad crisis of social reproduction and the long-term sustainability of the neo-liberal world order. This is seen at its most intense in the predicament of the vast majority of women in the Third World. Indeed, one aspect of the intensified commodification of everyday life which often goes unnoticed on the part of western political economists is the way such commodification tends to operate, albeit indirectly, with a gender bias. Since many of the ultimate victims of this process are not only women, but also children, it can be related to the social Darwinist tendencies outlined earlier, and gives a feminist twist to Goya’s theme of Saturn devouring his children, where capital, as it were, has truly become more destructive than creative.[27]

Beyond resistance, what the left and other progressive forces need to do is to reconsider their criteria of action and of political agency and how to synthesise and channel the potentials for resistance into a creative political project that has a new form of the modern prince as its mobilising myth. We need to ask, in other words, what will be the new principle(s) of social justice that will act as both a criterion for judging the adequacy of policy that can challenge the counter-myths of progress and endless accumulation and consumption associated with neo-liberalism What forms of potential political community and identification can be envisaged that can mobilise and consolidate support for such initiatives? As Gramsci put it:

The modern prince, the myth-prince, cannot be a real person, a concrete individual. It can only be an organism, a complex element of society in which a collective will, which has already been recognised and has to some extent asserted itself in action, begins to take concrete form.[28]

This also means that intellectuals should analyse world order with a certain “pessimism of the intelligence” as well as an “optimism of the will”. It means taking into account the relations of force, including military force, and what Fernand Braudel in The Structures of Everyday Life called the broader “limits of the possible”, that is the “relations of force” in political, social and ecological terms. In Gramscian language, the problem is how to construct a counter-hegemonic transnational blocco storico - analogous to a transnational political party - a “we” that might comprise a new constellation of democratic and progressive social forces. The “how” needs to be both effective and open-ended, plural, inclusive and flexible, and it must be forged in terms of a realistic political optimism that is creative and forward-looking. The idea of collective political will thus concerns the possiblity of a world-wide political association or imagined community of the progressive counter-movements. As noted, Polanyi’s concept of the “double movement” is useful here in thinking about this globally, since, as in the 1930s, some of today’s counter-movements involve attempts to reassert democratisation whereas others are highly reactionary: the neo-liberal globalisation tendency is being challenged politically in complex ways. Such an alternative community would not only seek to restrict the scope of commodification in the definition of social forms and institutions, but also develop real and concrete alternatives. Indeed it is important to investigate this potentiality in the form of social movements (for example certain types of feminism and ecological groups) as well as in the political parties and other institutions of civil society and in so doing, open up the question of what will be the key problems for the critical study of political economy and ecology in the foreseeable future.

One key constraint on this potential is perhaps that our political imaginations may still be trapped in an ontology of world order that equates political action with territorialism and the state - although the constraints and opportunities of a more economically globalised world order are increasingly palpable. We need then to rethink the questions of politics in both global and local frames of reference. Indeed, we need to do so by developing a role for the imaginative intellect in reconstructing the normative basis for collective action. Would this require a galvanising myth or a quite different form of political innovation? If so, how would this global “imagined community” be created and by whom, and what might it consist of ? Finally, “we” need to ask ourselves the question posed by Enrico Augelli and Craig Murphy, “what is the best that can be achieved by collective action in the historical time in which we can imagine our actions making a difference?”[29] We also need to have a clear view of what is “occasional” and what is “structural” in our assessment of the condition of capitalist and counter-hegemonic modernity as we enter the twenty-first century: what then are the big issues that “we” need to theorise and to articulate politically?

Perhaps the most general of these big issues concern the role of education and wider political practices to form an ethical counter-hegemony that is appropriate to the conditions of the late twentieth century. Part of this task involves the study of political economy so that, for example, we can better investigate and critique the form of transformations associated with the globalisation of unsustainable production and consumption patterns, and the intensification of what Walter Benjamin once called the “dream-world of mass culture”, that is the saturation of our symbolic world and forms of consciousness with the cornucopia of consumerism. In this sense it is not just the social relations of production, but also the atomised forms of social imagination that are fetters on human emancipation in capitalism.[30] Left thinkers need to develop a critique of what Raymond Williams once called the “magic system” of capitalist advertising and TV and those forms of cultural representation that produce a commodified dreamlike mental condition, that is they project a form of experience that is individualised and atomised.[31] In other words, and following the example of Gramsci, in order to promote the emergence of collective consciousness left intellectuals should seek to remobilise a critique of contemporary political and cultural institutions and re-establish the link in popular consciousness between the question of consumption and deepening exploitation, commodification and alienation in social relations, and the reshaping of the hierarchy and nature of state forms. We need to pose questions such as: What do these changes mean for the constitution of social life in lived communities? Put differently, what are the socio-ecological limits to existing patterns of power, production and consumption? In this regard, there is a need to show how far and in what ways there has been a depletion of the ethical dimension of political and economic life and to link this to the economism of prevailing perspectives and forces in the global political economy. We need to show how the social Darwinist tendencies are associated with growing social polarisation and widening inequality both within and across state forms, in an era of when financial power and Mammon seem to predominate in defining economic alternatives and systems of political accountability and representation.

There is also a need to continue to develop a critical ontology that builds on and if possible extends Gramscian concepts to help identify material and mental frameworks for understanding and action and some potential for change in the world order. Ontology is an aid to praxis and to critique, in so far as it helps to us explain how, in a given historical situation, dominant forces - for example the rising power of the industrial bourgeoisie in the creation of nineteenth century self-regulating market society under a strong state - premise their supremacy not simply on coercive capacities but also on the hegemony of a particular perspective and the political framework that this entails: for example a utilitarian and neo-classical form of political economy as contrasted with a moral economy form, or a political economy of utopian or Marxian socialism. More broadly this involves a struggle over the politics of knowledge production and the institutionalisation of a certain pattern of possibility and potential within universities and other social entities. In other words, the historical process may prioritise certain modes of understanding or perspectives on the world, involving conceptions of society and representation that have significant - although uneven - implications for social change and ways that resistance to capitalist hegemony might be understood and mobilised. This is how Gramsci conceived of theoretical innovation, that is linked to the educative and political function of the party. It is in this sense that ontology is of political relevance.


[1] I would like to thank Greg Chin for valuable suggestions and help in preparing this paper, and Scott Redding for comments.

[2] Private associations, and social institutions such as the family, education and the church are both constituted by, and interpenetrated with, the government or “political society” and together these form the extended state. See Stephen Gill, American Hegemony and the Trilateral Commission, (Cambridge University Press, 1990) for a discussion of the institutional nexus associated with this, involving private international relations councils, transnational corporations, state apparatuses, unions, universities, think-tanks, etc. operating transnationally in the period 1945-89.

[3] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, edited by Q. Hoare and G. Nowell Smith (New York, International Publishers, 1971). See for example p. 210.

[4] However, what seems unprecedented in scale are the rapid growth in population and degradation of the environment - again the turning point seems to have coincided with the emergence of industrial capitalism at the end of the eighteenth century. The scale and scope of these process has accelerated since 1950, such that virtually all human-induced ecological change in history has occurred since then, and the rate of this change is quickening, although with uneven effects in different regions of the planet.

[5] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes (London, Michael Joseph, 1994).

[6] Ontology involves shared understandings of the universe, the cosmic order and its origins; of time and space, of the interaction of social forces and nature. Ontology is connected to prevailing patterns of social reproduction, to the political economy of production and destruction, to culture and civilizational patterns. An ontology of the world includes our hopes, doubts, fears and expectations, our assessments of constraints and of human possibilities. From a Gramscian viewpoint therefore, an ontological shift would involve changes in consciousness and processes of objectification: forms of self-creation of people and their interactions with nature. For an elaboration see Stephen Gill, “Innovation and Transformation in the Study of World Order”, in eds. Stephen Gill and James H. Mittelman, Innovation and Transformation in International Studies. (Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1997: 4-25).

[7] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Political Writings, 1910-20, selected and edited by Q. Hoare. Translated by John Matthews. (New York, International Publishers, 1977: 12).

[8] Of course some of Bentham’s ideas or inventions never became practical innovations, that is never applied directly (for example his plans for the perfect prison/manufactory/poor house, the Panopticon) whereas others did (for example his ideas about public administration premised upon the central concept of “inspectability”). See Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: the political and economic origins of our times. (Boston, Beacon Press, 1957).

[9] As Wood notes, English Political Economy was a system founded epistemologically not on Cartesian rationalism and French rational planning as such, but rather on the “invisible hand” of classical Political Economy and the philosophy of empiricism with its “ideology of improvement”, that is the primacy of property linked to the ethic and science of productivity and profit, the ethic of enclosure and dispossession, expressed theoretically in the work of Locke and Petty. For Wood this is the root of what she calls a “destructive modernity” - that is the tendencies towards the subordination of all human values to productivity and profit. Wood, “Modernity, Postmodernity or Capitalism? Monthly Review, Vol. 48, No. 3: 1996: 34.

[10] Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, for example in England, whilst punishment for crimes against property became increasingly severe, by 1714 Protestant dissent was tolerated: heretics no longer burned at the stake. As Christopher Hill put it ironically, “Christianity and sovereignty ceased to be dependent, for their validity, on the hangman”. There was a general shift in literary consciousness, as the “tortured doubt” of Shakespeare’s tragedies and the poems of John Donne gave way to the “superficial certainties” of Alexander Pope. There were new assumptions about society and the universe, for example Newtonian mechanics and the theory of universal gravitation saw the universe as a self-moving machine and the categories of time, space, matter and motion associated with modern science began to emerge. Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714 (New York, W.W. Norton, 1961: 248).

[11] Robert W. Cox, Production, Power and World Order: Social Forces in the Making of History. New York. Columbia University Press, 1987).

[12] Gramsci, Notebook 4, 38:177ff. Prison Notebooks, Vol. II. New York. Columbia University Press, 1996. Translated and edited by Joseph A. Buttigieg. Relations between structure and superstructures. For example Gramsci wrote about the events in France between 1789-1870. He points out that only in 1870-71, with the attempt at the Commune were the seeds of 1789 “historically exhausted”, that is when a new class “struggling for power” demonstrated its vitality over “the old and the very new”. The internal contradictions in the French social structure that took form in 1789 were therefore only resolved with the Third Republic after several “waves of upheaval”. Gramsci indicates that only by careful study of these waves (1789-94; 1794-1815; 1815-30; 1830-48; 1848-70) of varying duration “makes it possible to determine the relations on the one hand between structure and superstructure” and the “permanent and the occasional”.

[13] Ellen Wood argues that the main historical model for the political economy of modernity and late twentieth century capitalism was England, and not the continental states. She also points out that much of the Enlightenment project was not just pre-capitalist but non-capitalist, for example the Absolutist State was “a centralized instrument of extra-economic surplus extraction, and office in the state was a form of property that gave its possessors access to peasant-produced surpluses” Ellen Meiksins Wood, “Modernity, Postmodernity or Capitalism? Monthly Review, Vol. 48, No. 3: 1996: 29-30.

[14] Eric Hobsbawm’s study of the period 1914-91, The Age of Extremes (London, Michael Joseph, 1994), notes that following the “golden years” of the 1950s and 1960s, we are now in the midst of a new age of uncertainty, decomposition and global economic, political and social crisis. This implies change in the self-understandings of the age. Hobsbawm’s proposition has been reflected in a wide range of writings over the past two decades, such as those with the prefix “post-”.

[15] For an earlier elaboration of this historical bloc, see Stephen Gill and David Law, ‘Global hegemony and the structural power of capital,’ International Studies Quarterly (1989), Vol. 36, pp. 475-99.

[16] ‘A Survey of Multinationals’, The Economist, March 27, 1993.

[17] UN Research Institute for Social Development, States of Disarray. The social effects of globalization (UNRISD, Geneva, 1995: 154)

[18] Morris Miller, ‘Where is global interdependence taking us?’ Futures, Vol. 27. No. 2, 1995: 125-144. Miller is citing Bank for International Settlements statistics.

[19] Kees van der Pijl, Transnational historical materialism (University of Amsterdam. Mimeo, 1996: 27-30).

[20] Walter Wriston, The Twilight of Sovereignty. How the Information Revolution is Transforming Our World. (New York. Scribner’s, 1992).

[21] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, (New York. Avon Books, 1992: 319).

[22] Herbert Gottweis, ‘Genetic Engineering, Democracy, and the Politics of Identity’, Social Text. 1995, Vol. 13: 127-152.

[23] John Vidal and John Carvel, ‘Like lambs to the gene market’, Guardian Weekly, January 1, 1995: 17. On the commodification of the human body involving the sale of eggs, sperm, kidneys and the patenting of genes, see Andrew Kimbrell, “The Body Enclosed. The Commodification of Human ‘Parts’”. The Ecologist, Vol. 25, No. 4. (July-August 1995) 134-40. I am grateful to David Law for this reference.

[24] Kees van der Pijl, Transnational historical materialism: an outline (University of Amsterdam. Mimeo, 1996: 52).

[25] Giovanni Arrighi “The Three Hegemonies of Historical Capitalism”, in Stephen Gill, ed., Gramsci, historical materialism and international relations, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp 148-165.

[26] Kees van der Pijl, Transnational historical materialism (University of Amsterdam. Mimeo, 1996: 55).

[27] A mural from the Quinta del Sordo, transferred to canvas, 1819-23. It hangs in the Museo del Prado. See J-F Chalbrun, Goya, (London, Thames and Hudson, 1965: 228).

[28] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, edited by Q. Hoare and G. Nowell Smith (New York, International Publishers, 1971: 129).

[29] Enrico Augelli and Craig Murphy, “Consciousness, Myth and Collective Action: Gramsci, Sorel and the Ethical State” in eds. Stephen Gill and James H. Mittelman, Innovation and Transformation in International Studies. (Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1997: 25-38).

[30] See Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. (Cambridge. Mass. MIT Press, 1989: 253-343).

[31] Raymond Williams “Advertising: the Magic System” in Simon During, ed. The Cultural Studies Reader. (London. Routledge, 1993: 320-36).

Stephen Gill is Professor of Political Science at York University, Toronto, ON, Canada.   ^ return to top ^