The Contemporary Context of Global Politics
Global political processes don’t take place in a vacuum. They happen against a backdrop of a specific time, when there are specific ideas that are popular. Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was an Italian Marxist who mused widely on political thought while he was imprisoned by the Fascists. He died of the illness he contracted in prison before he could finish these thoughts in published works. However, some of his concepts have proved so useful to political science that they have thrived without polishing, and beyond the context in which they were first developed. This is what social scientists call “garbage can theory,” which is an unnecessarily snarky way of saying that you can use what you need from a theory and recycle the rest. Think of it like cannibalizing a junked car for spare parts. This means you can use the structural analysis of society in Marxist theory, which is something the Marxists are particularly good at, without agreeing with their prescriptions on how or even if society should be changed.
In Gramsci’s political thought, hegemony refers to the nexus between an idea and the class that both supports it and is supported by it. A popular, persuasive ideology is wedded to the fortunes of a particular class that then gains control over both the state and over other groupings in civil society—not just class, but also race, gender, family, etc. Thus, a hegemonic class dominates the network of relations of social forces. Gramsci’s concept of hegemony refers to the dominance of an ideology that is so entrenched it no longer requires conscious coercion to enforce it.
To get an idea of how deeply ingrained a hegemonic idea can be, take the character of Kermit the Frog, the Muppet from Sesame Street. You can easily imagine Kermit having a conversation with another Muppet or with a human because you’ve seen it happen on TV. But watching an old interview with Jim Henson with his hand up Kermit’s back obviously manipulating him is upsetting and feels weird. This is more than just “cognitive capture,” or an overly narrow, insular view of an area, such as that found in industry regulators—like when regulators see nothing wrong with “innovative” financial products that turn mortgages into collateralized mortgage obligations. Hegemony is all-pervasive and defines an era. The inability to imagine an alternative reality without this deep sense of wrongness is a sign that you’ve been snared by it.
The type of globalization that exists in the contemporary world was created by the hegemony of states that favored one type of policy — the “Washington Consensus” of neoliberal economics — over other types. The term “Washington Consensus” was coined by John Williamson at a propitious time to become a catchphrase: 1989, when the Cold War was ending. It thus provided an imperfect but shorthand expression for the generally neoliberal economic policy recommendations that were being considered at the time, aimed at Latin America in particular, but also at Asia and the newly independent former Soviet republics. Broadly, it advocated the pursuit of macroeconomic stability through the control of inflation and reducing fiscal deficits, the opening of economies through trade and capital account liberalization, and the liberalization of domestic product and factor markets through privatization and deregulation.
The idea in the Washington Consensus most successful at winning broad acceptance was privatization. This led to the privatization of many functions that were previously the domain of the state, and to the emergence of multiple nonstate actors to perform these functions. Privatization as a concept expanded its hegemony from the “sale” of the state’s assets in the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, to the U.S. outsourcing of core activities of the state with its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in war by the early 2000s—such as using companies like Blackwater in Iraq to provide services that were previously the province of the military. Privatization as a concept then spread to the assumption of elite private investor risk in the late 2000s with the state bailouts of financial firms in 2009. These are indicators of the hegemonic change in the assumptions and methods underlying the provision of global security. Furthermore, it created a huge growth in actors (like private security companies) that could exhibit agency on the global stage, picking and choosing from among a range of actions and of possible relationships with others. They can thus impact the structure of global politics. In this manner, one can draw a causal line from hegemony through globalization and nonstate actors to the structure of today’s world.