chapter  16
11 Pages

Antonio Gramsci


As a field of inquiry, international relations has long been dominated by a foundational vision in which politics among states was presumed to be qualitatively different from politics within them. Politics among states was thought to be characterized by the absence of sovereign authority and law, and consequently was anarchic, violence-prone, profoundly threatening, and therefore primarily concerned with the ‘high politics’ of interstate rivalry and national security rather than the ‘low politics’ of regulating economic or cultural exchange. Implicit in this view of our field was an inter-related set of stark boundaries separating the domestic from the international, the political from the cultural and economic, and state from society. Beginning in the early 1980s, these implicit boundaries and the state-centric vision of world politics were challenged by a group of scholars who deployed a conceptual vocabulary which was unfamiliar to most students of world politics, and derived from the writings of the Italian political activist and theorist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). Perhaps not coincidentally, the conceptual groundwork for a Gramscian

approach to international studies was laid by a scholar who came not from a background in academic international relations, but from a life of working in the International Labor Organization – Robert Cox. In a seminal series of articles, Cox expounded and drew upon Gramscian concepts to re-envision world politics in a more relational, dynamic and potentially transformative way (Cox 1981, 1983). In effect, Cox displaced states from their position of centrality in traditional international relations by re-envisioning a world politics in which different forms of state – or what Cox referred to as state/ society complexes – might be historically constructed in the relational nexus between world orders and social forces (including class formations understood in relation to historical structures of production). Social forces, forms of state, and world orders were understood as integral to one another’s historical construction, and these historical-structural processes were further understood to be intrinsically political, involving various kinds of socially situated actors whose collective self-understandings shaped their social identities, purposes, and horizons of political action. At the heart of the processes continuously (re-)constructing this relational

nexus were both consensual and coercive forms of power, in accordance with

Gramsci’s dual vision of politics. For Gramsci, ‘hegemony’ was a special kind of social power relation in which dominant groups secured their positions of privilege largely (if by no means exclusively) through consensual means. That is, they elicited the consent of dominated groups by articulating a political vision, an ideology, which claimed to speak for all and which resonated with beliefs widely held in popular political culture. Under these circumstances, coercive force might recede into the background of political life, always present as a potential but not directly apparent in day-to-day political life. So, adopting this conception to the understanding of world politics, Cox (1981: 139) suggests that particular state/society complexes may be situated in relation to world order such that they are endowed with hegemonic power

that is based on a coherent conjunction or fit between a configuration of material power, the prevalent collective image of world order (including certain norms) and a set of institutions which administer the order with a certain semblance of universality (i.e., not just as the overt instruments of a particular state’s dominance).