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Rethinking Marxism

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Social Forces in the Struggle over Hegemony: Neo-Gramscian Perspectives in International Political EconomyAdam David Morton

To cite this Article Morton, Adam David(2003) 'Social Forces in the Struggle over Hegemony: Neo-Gramscian Perspectives

in International Political Economy', Rethinking Marxism, 15: 2, 153 179 To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/0893569032000113514 URL:

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Social Forces in the Struggle over Hegemony: Neo-Gramscian Perspectives in International Political EconomyAdam David Morton

IntroductionSituated within a historical materialist problematic of social transformation and deploying many insights from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, a crucial break with neorealist mainstream international relations approaches emerged by the 1980s in the work of Robert Cox. In contrast to mainstream problem-solving routes to hegemony in international relationsthat develop a static theory of politics; an abstract, ahistorical conception of the state; and an appeal to universal validity debate shifted toward a critical theory of hegemony, world order and historical change.1 Rather than a problem-solving preoccupation with the maintenance of social power relationships, a critical theory of hegemony directs attention to questioning the prevailing order of the world. It therefore 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). Yet, instead of contrasting the concerns of these competing approaches, the aim here is to pursue a critical theoretical route to questions of hegemony. This move does not necessarily foreclose dialogue between problem-solving and critical theory, as they are not mutually exclusive enterprises, but it does remain wary of the assimilatory calls for synthesis that emanate from mainstream exponents.2 The critical impetus bears a less than direct affiliation to the constellation of social thought known as the Frankfurt School represented by, among others, the work1. While differences exist, the neorealist work of Kenneth Waltz, as well as that of Robert Keohane, can be included within mainstream, problem-solving international relations approaches to hegemony (see Waltz 1979, 1990, 1998, 1999; Keohane 1984, 1986, 1989a). The classic critique remains that by Richard Ashley (1984). 2. The call for synthesis has been an abiding concern among many advocates of mainstream international relations theory (see Baldwin 1993; Katzenstein, Keohane, and Krasner 1998; Keohane 1989a, 1734, 1989b, 1998). It can be regarded as a principal tactic in allocating the terms of debate and settling competing ontological and epistemological claims (see Smith 1995a, 2000; Tickner 1997, 1998; Weber 1994). ISSN 0893-5696 print/ISSN 1475-8059 online/03/020153-27 2003 Association for Economic and Social Analysis DOI: 10.1080/0893569032000113514



of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno or, more recently, Jrgen Habermas (Cox 1995a, 32).3 Although overlaps may exist, it is specifically critical in the sense of asking how existing social or world orders have come into being; how norms, institutions, or social practices therefore emerge; and what forces may have the emancipatory potential to change or transform the prevailing order. As such, a critical theory develops a dialectical theory of history concerned not just with the past but with a continual process of historical change and with exploring the potential for alternative forms of development (Cox 1981, 129, 1334). This critical theory of hegemony thus focuses on interaction between particular processes, notably springing from the dialectical possibilities of change within the sphere of production and the exploitative character of social relationsnot as unchanging, ahistorical essences but as a continuing creation of new forms (132). The emergence of this problematic can also be situated within a reaction to the more scientific or positivistic currents within historical materialism. It is well known that Antonio Gramsci himself reacted against the crude reasoning of Nikolai Bukharin in the Popular Manual that sought to establish historical materialism as a positive science or sociology (Bukharin 1969; Gramsci 1971, 41972). Similarly, for Cox, a historical mode of thought was brought to bear on the study of historical change as a reaction to the static and abstract understanding of capitalism associated with Louis Althusser. Not unlike neorealist problem-solving approaches, Althusser sought to design an ahistorical, systematic, and universalistic epistemology that amounted to a Theological Marxism in its endeavor to reveal the inner essence of the universe (Althusser 1969). The scientific character of Marxist knowledge was customarily asserted by Althusser (1970, 132) in contrast with Coxs divergent, historical materialist insistence on considering the ideational and material basis of social practices inscribed in the transformative struggles between social forces stemming from productive processes (Cox 1981, 133; 1983, 163). The first section of this paper therefore outlines the conceptual framework developed by Robert Cox and what has been recognized (see Morton 2001a) as similar, but diverse, neo-Gramscian perspectives in international political economy that constitute a distinct critical theory route to considering hegemony, world order, and historical change. Subsequently, attention will turn to situating the world economic crisis of the 1970s within the more recent debates about globalization and how this period of structural change has been conceptualized. Finally, various controversies surrounding the neo-Gramscian perspectives will be traced before elaborating in conclusion the directions along which future research might proceed.

A Critical Theory Route to Hegemony, World Order, and Historical ChangeAccording to Cox, patterns of production relations are the starting point for analyzing the operation and mechanisms of hegemony. Yet, from the start, this should not be3. For useful discussion of the contradictory strands and influences between Frankfurt School critical theory and critical international relations theory, see Wyn Jones (2000).



taken as a move that reduces everything to production in an economistic sense: Production . . . is to be understood in the broadest sense. It is not confined to the production of physical goods used or consumed. It 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 encapsulate configurations of social forces engaged in the process of production. 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). The objective of outlining different modes of social relations of production is to question what promotes the emergence of particular modes and what might explain the way in which modes combine or undergo transformation (103). It is argued that the reciprocal relationship between production and power is crucial. To examine this relationship, a framework is developed that focuses on how power in social relations of production may give rise to certain social forces, how these social forces may become the bases of power in forms of state, and how this might shape world order. This framework revolves around the social ontology of historical structures. A social ontology merely refers to the key properties that are thought to constitute the social world and thus represents claims about the nature and relationship of agents and social structures. In this case, the social ontology of historical structures refers to persistent social practices, made by collective human activity and transformed through collective human activity (4). An attempt is therefore made to capture the reciprocal relationship of structures and actors (Cox 1995a, 33; 2000b, 559; Bieler and Morton 2001). Three spheres of activity thus constitute an historical structure: the social relations of prod