Globalising Gramsci

Issue: 129

Adrian Budd

Alison J Ayers (ed), Gramsci, Political Economy and International Relations Theory (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), £55

It says a good deal about the nature of the academy that despite Marxism’s internationalist perspective it was until recently at best marginalised and at worst ignored in the discipline of international relations (IR). This began to change in the 1980s in large part due to the pioneering work of Robert W Cox and those who subsequently developed his insights in what has come to be called the neo-Gramscian current in IR.

In the early-1980s Cox wrote two important essays on IR theory that challenged the mainstream emphasis on state power, usually conceived in narrow military terms, as the key determinant of world order change. Cox insisted that state power must be analysed in the context of the contending social forces formed at the level of production. He thereby introduced class relations and struggle into IR and argued that the key entities in the world system are not states but “state-society complexes”. Of perhaps greater significance for subsequent Marxist international relations analysis was his use of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, and the concept of hegemony in particular, to explain international phenomena. He argued that where a global hegemon is able to exercise “moral and intellectual leadership” and impose broadly accepted rules on subordinate powers, a world order, such as the 19th-century Pax Britannica and the post-1945 Pax Americana, can be relatively stable and peaceful. But, he argued, contradictions within even hegemonic world order structures contain the seeds of their transformation.

Cox, however, was explicitly not a Marxist and, while many neo-Gramscians consider themselves as such, the neo-Gramscian perspective has been subject to a number of Marxist critiques in the last decade or so. Ayers’s book is a contribution to that critique. Unusually in an academic book, Ayers’ introduction refers to revolutionary theory and the need to avoid the failures that can arise from an absent or mistaken theory in order that the aspiration that “another world is possible” may be realised. To that end part one is devoted to methodological and theoretical critiques of the neo-Gramscians, while part two challenges what critics have argued is their focus on dominant social forces and states to the exclusion of the resistance of the marginalised and subaltern. It includes chapters on Africa (Siba Grovogui and Lori Leonard, and Branwen Gruffydd Jones) and on gender (Jill Steans and Daniela Tepe). Although, as is usually the case with edited volumes, the quality of the chapters is variable, most contain insights into key weaknesses of neo-Gramscian theory.

Julian Saurin argues that Gramsci’s Marxism, forged in struggle, has been largely purged from neo-Gramscian analysis that is produced in the seminar room. The purpose of Gramsci’s study of the nature of ruling-class power in his notebooks was to understand the defeat of the revolutionary wave unleashed by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and prepare the workers’ movement for future struggles. He recognised that there was a consensual aspect of ruling class power, but this primarily concerned relations with classes whose interests were closest to those of the capitalist class. In relations with the working class, on the other hand, domination and force were paramount. For Gramsci, then, bourgeois hegemony represented a combination of coercion and consent. For the neo-Gramscians, by contrast (as well as for many other interpreters of Gramsci in fields other than IR), the coercive aspect of hegemony is largely overlooked and their emphasis is on consensus formation and the forces that have made revolution impossible. Saurin argues that, as far as the international system is concerned, the neo-Gramscians have shifted their focus from world order transformation to the conditions of reproduction of any given order. This is rather an exaggeration and reveals the problems, repeated elsewhere in the book, of treating the
neo-Gramscians as a unified school.

For Hannes Lacher the major problems of neo-Gramscian analysis flow from Cox’s rejection of a key Marxist concept, namely the mode of production. Cox objects that the use of this concept tends to produce ahistorical and abstract arguments that allow only a minor role to social and political struggle in historical change. He focuses instead on specific conjunctures of social forces and processes—what he calls historical structures, constituted by interactions between material capabilities, institutions, and ideas. There is some merit in Cox’s approach, and an appreciation of the conjunctural balance of class forces is essential for an engaged Marxist politics. But, as Lacher points out, Cox’s argument that we must choose between analysis of capitalism per se and of concrete historical structures of particular phases of its development is “sterile”.

Marxists ought not attempt to explain concrete developments—in the international or domestic spheres—solely by reference to capitalism’s constitutive social relations. As capitalism’s dynamism constantly throws up novel forms and new contradictions, theory must be historicised. Nevertheless, the social relations of exploitation and competitive accumulation at the core of the capitalist mode of production underpin, albeit in historically determinate ways, the concrete phenomena of particular conjunctures. Without an appreciation of this, those conjunctures (Cox’s historical structures) seem to float above capitalism, which is taken for granted and therefore effectively disappears from Cox’s analysis. Thus, major epochal transformations, such as between feudalism and capitalism, are reduced to just one more transformation between historical structures, akin to that between, for example, the era of British global dominance and the period of inter-imperialist rivalry at the end of the 19th century. As Lacher puts it, the neo-Gramscian method of historical structures “all but severs the link between the succession of historic blocs and some concept of epochal unity that the ‘mode of production’ served to designate”

The neo-Gramscians have produced richly textured studies of the international system that expand the range of causal factors beyond the state power that is central to traditional IR. But, without appropriately historicised Marxist concepts that flow from a mode of production analysis which provides a coherent thread that links these factors, the neo-Gramscians often produce merely pluralist descriptions of the events they study. Furthermore, as Pinar Bedirhanoglu argues, despite Cox’s own insistence on the importance of state-society complexes, the absence of a coherent theory of the interdependence of states and societies means that these different spheres of human activity come to be seen as autonomous. This, Bedirhanoglu argues, has serious political consequences, for if states are autonomous of underlying social relations then the solution to the problems faced by subordinate classes is not to transform society but to change governments. It also leads to indeterminacy about the role of the state, which in Coxian analysis undergoes a mysterious transformation from being a bulwark against world order pressures to being a “transmission belt” from global neo-liberalism into national economies.

Many of the chapters provide predominantly theoretical critiques of the neo-Gramscians. The chapter by Alfredo Saad-Filho and Alison Ayers is an exception and demonstrates the superiority of Marxist analysis by offering a more convincing explanation of an important world order shift analysed by Cox. Echoing arguments mentioned above, Saad-Filho and Ayers contend that Cox’s analysis of the transition from Keynesianism to neo-liberalism relies not on the way that the contradictions of the long boom and Keynesianism undermined capital accumulation, but on an eclectic and ultimately descriptive account that relies on the machinations of an “autonomous” state, which appears as a deus ex machina . Certainly, other factors are noted to give a superficial comprehensiveness to Cox’s explanation, but the capitalist logic linking these factors is not explained such that Cox offers a “description of conflicts around (the process of) accumulation, but not about (the nature of) capitalist accumulation”.

Saad-Filho and Ayers’ example of concretising their critique of Cox could be usefully followed by the authors of some of the other chapters. Jonathan Joseph, for example, offers a convincing critique of the neo-Gramscian understanding of hegemony as the inter-subjective diffusion of ideas and argues for a rooting of hegemony in capitalism’s structural underpinnings. This is a reasonable argument and an antidote to the ideologism that infects much neo-Gramscianism. Yet, he makes too little of the class contradictions at the heart of the capitalist structure and so is unable to explore the degree to which ruling class intellectual leadership shapes the world views of subordinate classes. He therefore produces a different, more structurally grounded, version of the somewhat troublesome dominant ideology thesis and, like most analysts of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, ignores Gramsci’s arguments about working class contradictory consciousness.

Furthermore, like the neo-Gramscians themselves, he makes no mention of the area where ruling class ideas are most influential. For, while workers’ direct experiences lead, even in periods of low levels of struggle, to a resigned acceptance rather than enthusiastic embrace of ruling-class ideas on the market, entrepreneurship, private property, etc. there is more widespread acceptance of the idea of a national community standing against external “others”. This is a major challenge to the neo-Gramscian argument that the contemporary world order is characterised by transnational integration and, in a book on the neo-Gramscians and IR, ought to have received a more sustained treatment than a few paragraphs in Bedirhanoglu’s chapter.

Marxists do not always have to write about the contemporary world to say something useful and interesting, and many of the chapters here are indeed interesting. But, if Marxist theory is to maintain its relevance as a force that can make another world possible it must always take as its reference point, engage with and test itself against the historical or current realities of the world. With one or two exceptions, too often the chapters in this book engage only with neo-Gramscian theory. More disappointingly, important subjects such as US power and war (one of the great gaps in Cox’s work) are not subject to extended discussion—indeed they are barely mentioned and do not appear in the index. The index shows, meanwhile, seven references to Althusser and twelve to poststructuralism. I am not making an anti-theory or sectarian point here. I merely suggest that, in a book by Marxists on IR, I would have liked rather more analysis of the contemporary dynamics of the international system. This is the sort of thing that some neo-Gramscians, however theoretically renegade, can be rather good at.