Cycles of Hegemony

September 15, 2016

In his world-systems theory, Immanuel Wallerstein presents a macrosocial framework for analysing the history of modernity, or of capitalism.  Capitalism, Wallerstein argues, should be understood as a ‘world system’, which can best be analysed as a single unit composed of many mutually dependent parts.  Unlike an empire, in which a single central political unit controls a vast territory through hierarchical lines of command, capitalism as a world system contains no overarching political decision-making body.  In capitalism, many independent and quasi-independent states – each their own political entity – exist within a global interstate system, connected by geopolitical and economic ties.

These different political entities are not equal.  Some are under others’ overt political control in a direct colonial relation; some are client states with only limited decision-making autonomy; some are constrained by lesser economic or military power than their rivals; and some are relatively powerful and autonomous within the framework of the global system.  Wallerstein therefore subdivides the world system into three categories of political entity – core, semi-periphery and periphery – with relations of political-economic dominance and dependence between them.  Although the capitalist world system is, for Wallerstein, intrinsically segmented in this way, which political entities occupy which structural roles is not fixed.  States gain and lose political-economic power, and as they do so the structure of world-system changes.

If a core state becomes sufficiently powerful relative to its rival core states, Wallerstein argues, it achieves the status of a hegemonic power.  A hegemonic state cannot subsume the entire system within a single, centralised, hierarchically controlled political unit – a global hegemon is not a global empire.  But a hegemonic state plays the dominant role in shaping the rules of the global political-economic system, in a way that serves its interests.

In his major work, The Modern World-System, Wallerstein argues that the long-term dynamics of the capitalist world system can be analysed through the lens of ‘long waves’ (‘Kondratiev waves’) of global growth, stagnation and recession.  These multi-decade economic cycles correspond also to multi-decade cycles of political transformation.  Specifically, Wallerstein proposes a ‘cycle of hegemony’ that describes the rise and fall of hegemonic states within the system as a whole.

Since the creation of the capitalist world system in the ‘long 16th century’, Wallerstein argues, there have been only three hegemonic powers, and three periods of hegemony:

The United Provinces was the hegemonic power in the mid-seventeenth century, briefly, from 1648 to the 1660s.  The United Kingdom was the hegemonic power for a slightly longer time in the nineteenth century, from 1815 to 1848, perhaps a little longer.  The United States was the hegemonic power in the mid-twentieth century, from 1945 to 1967/1973. (Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600-1750, p. xxiii)

For Wallerstein, the moment in which a state functions as a hegemonic power forms one stage of a recurrent four-stage cycle of hegemony:

If one starts the story when there is an uncontested hegemonic power, the first moment occurs in the period immediately thereafter.  It is the moment of the slow decline of the hegemonic power, during which two powers emerge as contenders for the succession.  The moment after that is when the decline has become definitive.  We can think of this second moment as one in which there is a ‘balance of power’ in the world-system.  During this moment, the two contenders for hegemony struggle to secure geopolitical and world-economic advantage.  The third moment is when the struggle becomes so acute that order breaks down and there is a “thirty years’ war” between the contenders for hegemony.  And the fourth moment is when one of the contenders wins definitely and is therefore able to establish a true hegemony – until, of course, the slow decline begins. (xxiii)

Now – it goes without saying that historical patterns only persist as long as they persist.  There is no reason to assume that a pattern which has held in modern history to date – if it has – will necessarily continue in the future.  And, indeed, Wallerstein himself appears to believe that we are currently in a transition from a capitalist world-system to some other, novel global political-economic structure.  For Wallerstein, the most pressing political question is the nature of that emerging structure – will it take an emancipatory or oppressive form?

I myself, however, attribute this last element of Wallerstein’s position to the perennial analytic defect of Marxists: the hope that “this time is different”, and that the current purported crisis of capitalism is a terminal one.  There seems to me to be no very compelling reason to assume that there is any decisive break in the structure of the world-system, in our current historical moment.  The conservative and reasonable ‘baseline projection’ from a world-systems perspective, in my opinion, is to assume that we are currently still within one of the long-term ‘cycles of hegemony’ that have structured the history of the capitalist world-system to date.

If so, where are we in that cycle?  Well, clearly we are no longer in the period of hegemony.  As Wallerstein says in the passage I quoted above, the period of US hegemony came to an end some time in the late-1960s – mid-1970s.  I would suggest, further, that the period of hegemonic decline has also now ended, or is at the very least ending.  We are instead entering a new period of ‘great powers rivalry’, in which the powers within the interstate system are sufficiently balanced that jockeying for geopolitical position becomes a more central preoccupation of states’ governing elites.

Now, the period of hegemony is characterised by a global political-economic structure created and enforced by the hegemonic state: an economically liberal order within the sphere of the hegemonic power’s global influence.  In the period of decline that order persists, because although the former hegemonic power’s political-economic strength is reduced, it is in the interests of its rivals to retain the political and economic structures that are increasing their economic, and therefore geopolitical, strength.

In the period of great powers rivalry this calculation changes, for two reasons.  First, the period of great powers rivalry is, Wallerstein argues, typically characterised by global stagnation or recession.  In this scenario, economic growth moves closer to a ‘zero sum game’ in which states are concerned to expand their spheres of influence and thereby increase or secure their wealth at others’ expense, rather than relying on general global economic expansion ‘naturally’ increasing states’ wealth through the ordinary operation of the liberal international order.

Second, with the ‘opening up’ of geopolitical space, and the unpredictability of the future structure of the world system, states have an increased interest in gaining geopolitical power relative to their rivals.  This too leads to an increase in interstate geopolitical competition.  Eventually, Wallerstein suggests, that geopolitical competition will result in global war.

It is, again, worth emphasising the unpredictability of history, and the inadequacy of any conceptual schema to the complexities of global political-economic dynamics.  Still, Wallerstein’s approach seems to me to provide a useful ‘baseline’ for thinking about our current macrosocial moment.  

In particular, here are some of the things associated with the shift from the first to the second stage of the ‘cycle of hegemony’, described above: Increasing interstate rivalries; efforts by many states to expand their spheres of influence; global economic stagnation and recession; declining power of a previous hegemonic power.  An increasing decay or collapse of the liberal international order, and a corresponding movement towards greater autarky for individual states, and towards greater interstate competition.  Shifts in the ideological ‘superstructure’ that parallel these political-economic shifts: increased challenges to the global liberal order, and to liberal ideology more broadly; greater suspicion of international institutions; increased nationalism, and therefore, often, nativism.  A shift towards more zero-sum understandings of wealth accumulation, both between and within states; correspondingly, greater intra-state rivalries between economic groups.  All of these things seem to have some explanatory purchase on our current anti-liberal, anti-elite, increasingly isolationist political moment.

Further – again, with all due caution and caveats – this ‘baseline projection’ would seem to warrant a pessimism about the medium term geopolitical outlook.  If the US is, indeed, to be replaced by an alternative global hegemonic power within a capitalist world-system – if the ‘cycle of hegemony’, as Wallerstein characterises it, is to persist – then that new hegemonic power must, somehow, establish its hegemony.  On Wallerstein’s account, this has only ever previously been achieved through a ‘thirty years war’:

The original Thirty Years’ War was from 1618 to 1648, out of which the United Provinces emerged hegemonic.  The second one was the Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars of 1792-1815, out of which the United Kingdom emerged hegemonic.  And the third was the period 1914-1945, out of which the United States emerged hegemonic. (xxv)

Will this current period of interstate rivalries result, eventually, in a new ‘thirty years war’?  Again, the predictive power of social science is notoriously limited.  But this seems like something worth worrying about, in amongst all our other worries.