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Chris Bambery examines Gramsci’s idea of hegemony and explores the Roman and US Empires

It’s common to hear the United States being described as hegemonic within the world order. Indeed, I have said this on a number of occasions. But, is it true?

If we are talking about hegemony in the way it was used by the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, the answer must be no. 

For Gramsci, a hegemonic class held state power not only through its coercive power and its economic supremacy but political, moral, and intellectual dominance. Hegemony means that the subordinate classes do not just accept these, but themselves articulate the key elements of the ruling class’s ideological discourse.

These were diffused through civil society (the family, churches, the media, schools, the legal system, trade unions, and cultural and economic associations) so that members of the subordinate classes would accept these discourses as their own.

According to Gramsci’s famous definition, ‘the State is the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules.’1

Gramsci explains that ‘The supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways, as ‘domination# and as ‘intellectual and moral leadership’.’2

The capitalist ruling class has the capability, ‘of absorbing the entire society, assimilating it to its own cultural and economic level.’3

Coercion and consent exist together, side by side. The bourgeois state is an ‘integral state, combining both a repressive force and a network of social relations for the production of consent in which both are united and distinct.’

The balance between force and consent constantly shifts. For most of the time, the ruling class in parliamentary democracies rely on consent, but around the war in Gaza, we have seen how they have been quick to attempt to exercise coercion against those protesting Israel’s slaughter.

As consent starts to break down the use of force can increase and then predominate.

Gramsci was talking about hegemony being largely exercised within a nation state, his own Italy in particular. He was very much aware, having been on the anti-war revolutionary left during World War One, that he lived in an age of imperialism within which rival powers strove for global hegemony. That remains the case today. But has one ever achieved it?

It is hard to find any empire achieving hegemony, with one exception in very different times from those of capitalism.

The Roman Empire did achieve a degree of hegemony. In the western empire, Latin was the language of the emperors and their court, the aristocracy was based in Rome, the military command and provincial elites. There was a common religion, a common law, a common culture and the centre of any town would have been familiar to any traveller.

This was largely true only at the elite level, and to an extent in parts of the Iberian Peninsula, what is now central and southern France and Italy where former legionaries were given lands. There, Latin was common and after the collapse of the Empire, remained and evolved into the different languages of today. 

In Britain (England south of Hadrian’s Wall and parts of Wales), the mass of the population were, of course, peasants, whose language was not Latin but British or Celtic. 

The armies of the late Empire accommodated late numbers of ‘barbarians,’ including generals, and ‘barbarian’ tribes were allowed to settle within the Empire to help secure territory. These ‘barbarians’ identified with Roman civilisation and did not wish to overthrow it.

The tax base of the Western Empire was collapsing and local elites began siding with incoming tribes or attempting to create their own kingdoms.

In Britain when the Legions departed, it became a relatively classless peasant society, before reverting back to what it had been before, a patchwork of warring kingdoms with the cities de-populated. It did, however, remain Christian. 

There would be attempts to recreate the Empire, most notably Charlemagne’s, but in a society where power was increasingly de-centralised the social base for this was not there. Again, this was something that operated at an elite level, including the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, but the latter exerted a degree of ideological and social control.

Fast forward to a new kind of empire; capitalist Britain’s.

In India, Asia and Africa there was little consent to British colonial rule. This relied on repression culminating in savage wars like that in Kenya in the 1950s, or the vicious suppression of slave revolts in the Caribbean, and divide and rule, playing off ethnic and religious groups, often with disastrous consequences.

In what became the United States and the Dominions it was different.

The colonial settler elites which emerged in North America, Australia and New Zealand had no plans to go ‘home,’ unlike the colonial administrators sent from London. In the 13 American colonies these settler elites were able to accumulate capital, with slavery crucial in that, developed their own networks and in the wars with France and the indigenous people their own military capabilities. 

The British looked to alliances with the native peoples in their wars with France and in the subsequent American War of Independence. The American elite wanted to eradicate them.

Thus, they began to challenge the colonial officials shipped in from Britain and refused British tax demands, culminating in revolution and the creation of the USA.

In Canada, Australia and New Zealand the corresponding elites achieved a high degree of autonomy, Dominion status, without needing to resort to revolution. During the Second World War, unable to rely on British military protection, they shifted over into the US camp.

For a brief period following the end of World War Two the United States seemed to contrast with the old, European colonial powers. It used anti-colonial rhetoric and promised to champion democracy worldwide, but that quickly evaporated with the onset of the Cold War.

The British Empire provided it with invaluable bases; it allied with the despotic House of Saud; took over from Britain in fighting a civil war with the wartime resistance in Greece; sided with France in its failed re-colonisation of Vietnam. 

The cold war boiled over into the Korean War, involving the People’s Republic of China, while at home anti-communist witch hunts swept society. The Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s, early 1960s focused attention globally on systematic racial discrimination. The belief that the US was a land of unlimited opportunity and equality collided with the realities of racial, economic, and political disparities, highlighting the contradictions between the ideals and the realities of American society, which in turn undermined US pretensions for global leadership undermining the social cohesion necessary for sustaining global leadership.

With the Bretton Woods System – GATTS, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – it formed the international monetary system centred on the U.S. dollar. The Marshall Plan, the OECD and NATO, became the foundations for the European Union while Japan was rebuilt as a loyal ally.

Hollywood, Sinatra and Coca Cola swept the world, and later Elvis Presley, so in the Western half of the world there was a degree of consent and identification with American culture.

But there was only a degree. In Italy and France strong sections of the working class identified with Stalinism on the basis of wartime resistance. In what was called the Third World there were both national liberation movements and the Non-Aligned movement centred on India, Indonesia, Egypt and Yugoslavia. There was also considerable resistance to the dominance of American culture.

In a strange way the collapse of the Soviet Union would undermine American dominance, despite the claim of Francis Fukayama in his 1989 essay The End of History? that humanity had reached a point where it was, ‘not just … the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.’4

America’s position as the only super-power would be challenged by the rise of China. Washington’s  efforts to use its military dominance post 9/11 spawned a powerful global movement against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The occupations of both Iraq and Afghanistan would end in defeat.

In 1999, the protests at the Seattle G7 conference also heralded the rise of an anti-capitalist movement. Post 2008, the financial crash and the subsequent global recession major movements would see powerful movements against austerity.

The Gaza war has created a further change. By the start of 2024 the only states sharing the US’s unconditional support for Israel were the UK, Germany, Canada, Australia and Japan. The rest of the world was opposed to that to varying degrees. A powerful movement in solidarity with the Palestinians arose, not least in the US. Joe Biden’s hopes of re-election have been torpedoed.

Substantial sections of the world population do not buy into American culture or accept the US as the standard bearer of democracy. Rather, they question or resist American attempts to impose its order. Within the US there is a growing alienation from the two party system and a questioning of things once taken for granted, not just its alliance with Israel.

So, in Gramscian terms America is not the world’s hegemon. It certainly does not dominate by consent. It is also facing a greater challenge to its pro-Israel stance in the Gaza war, a challenge which leads people to question the universal neo-liberal agenda and the US international rules based order.

  1. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Ed. & Trans. Quentin Hoare & Geoffrey Nowell Smith), International Publishers, 1971, P244, 
  2. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Ed. & Trans. Quentin Hoare & Geoffrey Nowell Smith), International Publishers, 1971, P57-58
  3. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Ed. & Trans. Quentin Hoare & Geoffrey Nowell Smith),  International Publishers, 1971, P260
  4. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History? The National Interest, No. 16, Summer 1989, P3-18

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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