Different theories offer distinct propositions regarding the kinds of dominant power that can achieve hegemony in world politics.
Jan A. Scholte (2018) suggested a useful taxonomy of theoretical approaches to study hegemony, which is reproduced below.
For instance, liberalist and realist theories of international relations suggest that hegemony lies with a dominant state. In this case, a particular territorial government controls an abundance of material resources, sponsors international regimes, and promotes values and visions that hold deep appeal beyond its borders. These approaches usually identify Britain and the U.S. as hegemonic states of the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. Many liberals and realists have also pondered whether China is destined to be the next hegemonic state.
By contrast, neo-Gramscian theories locate world hegemony within global capitalism and a transnational capitalist class. From this perspective, dominant rule-making power for the world order lies with surplus accumulation and its main agents, such as multinational corporations, core states (the G7/G20), global governance institutions, and orthodox think tanks.
Ruling knowledge In poststructuralist theories, hegemony in world politics resides within a ruling knowledge frame (variously called a ‘discourse’ or an ‘episteme’). In this conception, supreme power in world society lies with a certain language and consciousness. Poststructuralists often identify Enlightenment rationality as the hegemonic knowledge regime of modernity, as produced through science, education, mass communications, and so on. In post-colonialist theories, hegemony in world politics is a question of embracing (or counter-hegemonically resisting) the dominance of Western imperialism and associated social hierarchies of class, gender, geography, race, religion, and sexuality. Imperial hegemony classically operated through colonial rule by one state over external territories. Nowadays, neo-colonial rule occurs through ‘independent’ states in tandem with outside forces such as donor governments, multilateral institutions, and nongovernmental organisations.
In sum, multiple readings of hegemony in world politics are available. As Brian Schmidt (2019) pointed out, hegemony is a multifaceted and complex concept that means different things to different scholars. However, some common themes emerged from Schmidt’s (2019) literature review: “There are two principal components of hegemony: preponderant power and the exercise of leadership. Some theories of hegemony simply accentuate the preponderant power component of hegemony while most theories emphasise, in different degrees, both components.” Schmidt (2019) underscored that “Realist theories of hegemony are notorious for their tendency to conflate hegemony with overwhelming material power”.
How hegemony practiced?
In addition to elaborating on different conceptions of hegemony in world politics, there are various techniques that hegemonic forces can deploy to secure their legitimised rule.
How is world hegemony constructed and sustained? And by what means can counter-hegemonic forces contest it?
Rather than assemble a long and disjointed list of specific tools, perhaps one can helpfully distinguish several broad categories of (counter-) hegemonic practices in world politics. A fourfold typology, developed by Jan A. Scholte – and presented below – (2019), of material, discursive, institutional, and performative techniques can be helpful in this regard. With material practices, the dominant power in world society deploys economic resources to obtain legitimate rule. These resources can be tangible, such as raw materials, manufacturing industries, and military forces. Money and finances can also have crucial impacts, as evidenced by hegemonic use of the U.S. dollar, bank loans, overseas ‘aid’, and so on. Today, the material aspect of hegemony also involves controlling – and setting rules around – the digital economy of data and images. In particular, for ‘realists’, the dominant approach is to equate hegemony with overwhelming material power represented by the hegemonic state; this method is focused on the notion and scope of ‘power’.
With discursive practices, hegemony secures legitimate dominance in world politics through use of language and meaning. Willing subordination, as Scholte noted, is achieved with semantic signifiers (e.g., ‘community’, ‘democracy’, and ‘justice’) that construct the supreme force for good. Similarly, narratives (e.g., of ‘transparency’, ‘development’, and ‘security’) spin positive storylines to legitimise a structure of domination, as do hegemonic accounts of history. In short, hegemonic discourses construct consciousness (‘regimes of truth’) in which the dominated genuinely believe that their domination is a good thing.
With institutional practices, hegemonic forces establish and control the organisational apparatuses that generate the rules of legitimised domination. On one hand, these mechanisms include bodies that formulate and administer official rules on local, national, regional, and global scales. On the other hand, world hegemony operates through more informally governing institutions such as civil society organisations, foundations, and think tanks, which figure centrally into the production of ruling discourses.
With performative practices, world hegemony is secured through certain behaviours and rituals. For example, states perform their hegemony with flag ceremonies, commemorative monuments, national holidays, and military parades. Finance capital demonstrates its hegemony with clusters of glittering skyscrapers that dominate the centres of global cities. Modern science affirms its hegemony inter alia with conference routines, academic prizes, and graduation rites. Counter-hegemony, too, has its performances with street marches, dissident art, and so on.
As suggested earlier, hegemony in world affairs is generally achieved through these four types of practices in combination. Whether hegemony lies with state, capital, knowledge, empire, or whatever, it establishes and sustains itself through a mix of material, discursive, institutional, and performative techniques. None of the four is sufficient by itself. For example, to control rule-making institutions, a hegemonic force needs command of resources, narratives, and rituals. (Professor Dutkiewicz is a director of the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Carleton University)
Taken from the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute