CRISES OF WORLD HEGEMONY AND
THE SPEEDING UP OF SOCIAL HISTORY
Beverly J. Silver and Corey R. Payne
A new period of global systemic chaos?
Escalating geopolitical tensions and deep internal divisions within the United States,
culminating in the election of Donald Trump, are among the indicators that we are
living through the terminal crisis of United States world hegemony –acrisisthatbegan
with the bursting of the New Economy stock market bubble in 2000–1andthat
deepened with the ongoing blowback from the Bush Administration’sfailedProject
for a New American Century and 2003 invasion of Iraq. Whereas in the 1990s, the
United States was almost universally viewed as the world’s sole and unshakable
superpower, by the time of the 2008 ﬁnancial meltdown, the notion that US hege-
mony was in a deep and potentially terminal crisis moved from the fringes into the
mainstream. Since 2016, the view that we are in the midst of an irremediable break-
down of US hegemony has gained even wider adherence with the intended and
unintended consequences of Trump’smovementto‘Make America Great Again’.
The current moment is now widely perceived both as a crisis of US hegemony
and a deep crisis for global capitalism on a scale not witnessed since the 1930s.
When historians look back on 2019–2020, two major signs of deep systemic crisis
will stand out. First, the worldwide wave of social protest that swept the globe
following the 2008 ﬁnancial meltdown, reaching a ﬁrst peak around 2011 and then
escalating toward a crescendo in 2019. Second, the failure of Western states to
respond in a competent manner to the COVID-19 global pandemic, undermining
the credibility of the West (and especially the United States) in the eyes of both
their own citizens and citizens of the world.
Toward the end of 2019 –before the scale of the COVID-19 crisis was appar-
ent –it looked like the rising wave of global social protest would turn out to be
the story of the decade, given the ‘tsunami of protests that swept across six con-
tinents and engulfed both liberal democracies and ruthless autocracies’(Wright
2019). As unrest inundated cities from Paris and La Paz to Hong Kong and San-
tiago, declarations of ‘a global year of protest’or ‘the year of the street protester’
lined the pages of newsstands worldwide (e.g. Diehl 2019;Johnson 2019;Rach-
man 2019;Walsh and Fisher 2019). Mass protest waves came to deﬁne the entire
decade. Already in 2011, Time magazine had declared ‘The Protester’to be their
‘Person of the Year’(Andersen 2011) as popular unrest spread across the globe
from Occupy Wall Street and anti-austerity movements in Europe to the Arab
Spring and waves of workers’strikes in China. Two decades into the twenty-ﬁrst
century, it has become clear that popular discontent with the current social setup is
both wide and deep.
This explosion of social protest around the world is a clear sign that the social
foundations of the global order are crumbling. If we conceptualise hegemony as
‘legitimated rule by dominant power’(following the introduction to this volume),
then the breadth and depth of social protest is a clear sign that the legitimacy of
dominant power(s) has been badly shaken. These twin processes –global protest
and global pandemic –were laying bare a stunning incapacity of the world’s ruling
groups to envision, much less implement, changes that could adequately address
the grievances from below or satisfy the growing demands for safety and security.
The major waves of global social protest and the incapacity of the declining
hegemonic power to satisfy demands from below are clear signs that we are in the
midst of a period of world-hegemonic breakdown. Indeed, as argued elsewhere
(Arrighi and Silver 1999, chapter 3), past periods of world-hegemonic break-
down –that is, the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century transition from Dutch
to British hegemony and the early twentieth century transition from British to US
hegemony –were also characterised by both mass protest from below in the form
of strikes, revolts, rebellions and revolutions and by a failure of leadership on the
part of the declining hegemonic power.
A new world hegemony –if one is to emerge –would require two conditions.
First, it would require that a new power bloc ‘collectively rise up to the task of
providing system-level solutions to the system-level problems left behind by U.S.
hegemony’, Second, if a new world hegemony is to emerge in a non-catastrophic
fashion, it would require that ‘the main centers of Western civilization [especially the
United States] adjust to a less exalted status’as the balance of power on a world-scale
shifts away from the United States and the West (Arrighi and Silver 1999: 286).
Seen from 2020, it would appear that the second condition –the graceful
adjustment by the United States (speciﬁcally) and Western powers (more generally)
to a more equal distribution of power among states –has failed to materialise in a
spectacular fashion. If the second condition depends mainly on the behaviour of
the declining hegemonic power, the ﬁrst condition –the development of system-
level solutions to system-level problems –depends on the capacity of a new power
bloc to meet the demands emerging from below.
In the past, a new hegemonic power could lead the system away from chaos
only by fundamentally reorganising the world system in ways that at least partially
met the demands for livelihood and protection emanating from mass movements.
18 Beverly J. Silver and Corey R. Payne
Put diﬀerently, they could become hegemonic only by providing reformist solu-
tions to the revolutionary challenges from below. In this sense, world hegemony
requires the capacity (and vision) to provide system-level solutions.
Hegemony and world-systems analysis
This chapter takes a world-systems approach to ‘hegemony’, as we focus on the
interrelationship between historical capitalism and successive world hegemonies.
Moreover, we argue that world hegemonies cannot be understood without
examining their evolving social and political foundations. As such, our work is part of a
tradition within the world-systems school that builds out from Antonio Gramsci’s
conceptualisation of hegemony (see especially Arrighi 1994 , chapter 1).
A series of what might be called non-debates (or talking at cross-purposes) has
emerged in the literature on hegemony as a result of the divergent ways in which
the term is understood.
Diﬀerent deﬁnitional starting points exist even within
schools of thought, including within the world-systems perspective. Thus, Immanuel
Wallerstein (1984:38–9) deﬁned hegemony as synonymous with domination or
supremacy –that is, as a ‘situation in which the ongoing rivalry between the so-called
“great powers”is so unbalanced that one power is truly primus inter pares; that is, one
power can largely impose its rules and its wishes …in the economic, political, military,
diplomatic, and even cultural arenas’. Economic supremacy provided the material basis
for a series of hegemonic states –the United Provinces in the seventeenth century, the
United Kingdom in the nineteenth century, the United States in the twentieth cen-
tury –to ‘impose its rules and its wishes’in all spheres.
Instead, we start from the work of Giovanni Arrighi (1982, 1994 : 28–9) –
exponent of another major theoretical strand within the world-systems literature –
who deﬁnes world hegemony as ‘leadership or governance over a system of sovereign
states’, Building on Gramsci’s writings, Arrighi conceptualises world hegemony as
something ‘more and diﬀerent from “domination”pure-and-simple’. It is rather
‘the power associated with dominance expanded by the exercise of “intellectual
and moral leadership”’. Whereas dominance rests primarily on coercion, hegemony
is ‘the additional power that accrues to a dominant group by virtue of its capacity to
place all issues around which conﬂicts rage on a “universal”plane’,
Hegemonic rule, in practice, combines two elements: consent (leadership) and
coercion (domination). However, the targets of consent and coercion are diﬀerent.
As Gramsci put it:
the supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways, as ‘domination’
and as intellectual and moral leadership’. A social group dominates antagonistic
groups, which it tends to ‘liquidate’or to subjugate perhaps by armed force; it
leads kindred or allied groups (Gramsci 1971: 57).
In situations of stable world hegemony, the element of consent is strong –its reach
is relatively wide (geographically) and deep (socially). Social protest is relatively
Crises of world hegemony 19
infrequent and tends to be normative in nature (for example, legal strikes within
the conﬁnes of institutionalised collective bargaining). In situations of world-
hegemonic crisis or breakdown (like the present period), the overall balance
between consent and coercion tilts increasingly toward the latter. Social protest
tends to escalate and take on increasingly non-normative forms, while the response
from above takes on increasingly coercive forms (Arrighi and Silver 1999,chapter3;
Periods of stable world hegemony are characterised by a situation in which the
dominant power makes a credible claim to be leading the world system in a
direction that not only serves the dominant group’s interests but is also perceived as
serving a more general interest, thereby fostering consent (Arrighi and Silver 1999:
26–8). As Gramsci put it, with reference to hegemony at the national level:
It is true that the [hegemon] is seen as the organ of one particular group,
destined to create favorable conditions for the latter’s maximum expansion.
But the development and expansion of the particular group are conceived of,
and presented, as being the motor force of a universal expansion …(Gramsci 1971:
181–2, emphasis added).
To be sure, the claim of the dominant power to represent the general interest is
always more or less fraudulent. Even in situations of stable hegemony, those
excluded from the hegemonic bloc –Gramsci’s‘antagonistic groups’–are pre-
dominately ruled by force. However, in periods of hegemonic breakdown, like the
present, claims by the dominant power to be acting in the general interest look
increasingly hollow and self-serving, even in the eyes of the ‘kindred or allied groups’.
Such claims lose their credibility and/or are abandoned entirely from above.
Nevertheless, in situations of world hegemony, the claim of the dominant power
to represent the general interest must have a signiﬁcant degree of credibility in the
eyes of allied groups. Thus, for example, in the high period of global Keynesianism
the United States was able to credibly claim that an
expansion of US world power was in a broader (if not universal) interest, by
establishing global institutional arrangements that fostered employment and welfare
(immediately in the case of the First World; and as the promised fruit of ‘devel-
opment’in the case of the Third World); thus, addressing the demands coming
from the mass labour, socialist and national liberation mobilisations of the early and
Arrighi argues that the willingness of subordinate groups and states to accept a
new hegemon (or even purely dominant power) becomes especially widespread
and strong in periods of ‘systemic chaos’–that is, in ‘situations of total and appar-
ently irremediable lack of organization’(Arrighi 1994 , 31).
As systemic chaos increases, the demand for ‘order’- the old order, a new
order, any order! - tends to become more and more general among rulers, or
among subjects, or both. Whichever state or group of states is in a position to
20 Beverly J. Silver and Corey R. Payne
satisfy this system-wide demand for order is thus presented with the opportu-
nity of becoming world hegemonic (Arrighi 1994 , 31).
As the early twenty-ﬁrst century progresses, there is mounting evidence that the
world has entered into another ‘period of systemic chaos - analogous but not iden-
tical to the systemic chaos of the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century’(Silver and
Arrighi 2011, 68). Moreover, there is mounting evidence of increasingly coercive
responses from above (cf. Robinson 2014). On both theoretical and historical
grounds, however, there is every reason to expect that power exercised through
increasingly coercive means will only succeed in deepening the systemic chaos.
Instead, a move toward world hegemony and away from systemic chaos would
require an aspiring hegemonic power to be able to, one, recognise the grievances
of classes and status groups beyond the dominant group/state and, two, be able to
lead the world system through a set of transformative actions that (at least in part)
successfully address those grievances. Transformative actions that succeed in
widening and deepening consent transform ‘domination pure-and-simple’into
Put diﬀerently, the establishment of a new world-hegemonic order has both a
‘supply’side and a ‘demand’side. The supply side of the problem refers to the
capacity of the would-be hegemonic power to implement system-level solutions to
system-level problems. In other words, hegemony is not strictly a matter of ideol-
ogy; it has a material base. The ﬁnal section of this chapter will return to the
‘supply’side of the problem. The next section will focus on elucidating the
‘demand side’of world hegemony in the early twenty-ﬁrst century.
Global social protest and the demand for world hegemony
The crumbling social foundations of US world hegemony
The concept of the ‘speeding up of social history’in this chapter’s title refers to the
fact that the waves of global social protest that have characterised periods of hege-
monic transition –and the challenges that they pose for declining and aspiring
hegemons –have become wider and deeper over the longue durée of historical
capitalism. Relatedly, the social contradictions of each successive hegemony –
Dutch, British, US –have emerged more quickly from one hegemony to the next;
thus, periods of relatively stable world hegemony have become shorter and
In sum, we can observe an evolutionary pattern of increasing social com-
plexity from one world hegemony to the next, as each successive hegemonic power
has had to accommodate demands from a wider and deeper array of social move-
ments (see Arrighi and Silver 1999, chapters 3, 4 and 5).
This speeding up of social history and increasing social complexity can be seen
when we compare the trajectory of US world hegemony to previous world
hegemonies. As was the case for both Dutch and British world hegemonies, the
ﬁrm establishment of US hegemony did not just depend on the country’s
Crises of world hegemony 21
preponderance in military and economic power. Rather it also depended on the
capacity of the rising hegemons to oﬀer reformist solutions to a string of revolu-
tionary challenges, ranging (in crude short-hand) from the American Revolution to
the French and Haitian Revolutions in the case of British hegemony, and from the
Russian through the Chinese Revolutions in the case of US hegemony. But the
social compact that would undergird US hegemony following the Second World
War –the mass consumption social contract for workers in the Global North and
decolonisation and the promise of development for the Global South –was broader
in geographical scope and reached deeper into the class structure than the social compacts
upon which either Dutch or British hegemony stood (Arrighi and Silver 1999,
chapters 3 and 5).
Relatedly, US hegemony was also the most short-lived since the US-led solu-
tions to the revolutionary challenges of the twentieth century were unsustainable
in the context of global capitalism. Fully implementing the hegemonic promises of
mass consumption for the core working class and of ‘catching-up’development for
the Third World would quickly bring about a squeeze on proﬁts, given their sub-
stantial redistributive eﬀects (Wallerstein 1995: 25; Silver 2019). Indeed, the initial
crisis of US hegemony in the late 1960s and 1970s was an intertwined crisis of
proﬁtability for capital, on the one hand, and a legitimacy crisis, on the other hand.
A variety of movements –from militant strike waves in the First World to the
eﬀorts to establish a New International Economic Order emanating from the Third
World –were in essence demanding a quicker and more complete fulﬁlment of
the implicit and explicit promises of US hegemony.
The ﬁnancial expansion and neoliberal counter-revolution that began in the
1980s temporarily resolved these intertwined crises. Financialisation –the massive
withdrawal of capital out of trade and production and into ﬁnancial speculation
and intermediation –had a debilitating eﬀect on social movements worldwide,
most notably via the mechanism of the debt crisis in the Global South and mass
layoﬀs at the heart of the labour movement in the Global North. The result was a
US belle époque in the 1990s as power and proﬁts were restored; however, as in the
case of the Dutch and British belles époques, this resurgence of power and proﬁt-
ability turned out, in the words of Braudel (1984), to be a sign of ‘autumn’rather
than a new spring for these hegemonies.
Financialisation and the neoliberal project marked a shift from hegemony
toward domination, a tilt away from consent and towards coercion. At the same
time, however, the process of creative destruction (to use Schumpeter’sterm)has
been fuelling a political backlash amongst those who had been incorporated as
junior partners into the mid-twentieth century hegemonic social compact (and
were now being ejected from it) –most notably male mass production workers in
core countries. At the same time, new (and increasingly militant) groups and
classes are being ‘created’that cannot be easily accommodated in the decaying
hegemonic order –most notably, an expanding but precariously employed
working class in the Global South and immigrant working class in the Global
22 Beverly J. Silver and Corey R. Payne
The social foundations of a twenty-ﬁrst century world hegemony
We have argued that the exercise of world hegemony requires an aspiring hege-
monic power to be able to, one, recognise the grievances of classes and status
groups beyond the dominant group/state and, two, be able to lead the world system
through a set of transformative actions that (at least in part) successfully address
those grievances. In more general terms, we have argued that a precondition for
world hegemony in the twenty-ﬁrst century is the emergence of a new power bloc
that would ‘collectively rise up to the task of providing system-level solutions to
the system-level problems left behind by U.S. hegemony’.
The remainder of this section examines actors and grievances in the early
twenty-ﬁrst century wave of global social protest from 2011 to 2019 as a window
onto the system-level problems that an aspiring hegemon would need to address in
order to transform domination (coercion) into hegemony (consent), and thus meet
the ‘demand’side conditions necessary to bring to a close the phase of deepening
systemic chaos into which we have now fallen. We pay particular attention to new
system-level challenges that have emerged over the past half-century –challenges
that would make a simple return to the US-led postwar social compact inadequate
to the task at hand.
Contesting inequality between countries
Aﬁrst fundamental diﬀerence between the social-political conditions to be
accommodated within any twenty-ﬁrst century world hegemony and all previous
world hegemonies is the signiﬁcant change in the balance of power between the
West and ‘The Rest’(Popov and Dutkiewicz 2017). All previous hegemonies were
Western hegemonies in a double sense. First, the West had amassed an over-
whelming preponderance of economic and military power vis-à-vis the rest of the
world. Second, consent (hegemony) applied to allied classes and groups within
Western states, whereas force (domination) prevailed with few exceptions in the
To be sure, faced with rising national liberation movements in the ﬁrst half of
the twentieth century, the United States led a transformation of the world system
that fostered decolonisation and normalised de jure
national sovereignty. Never-
theless, the main levers of economic and military power remained ﬁrmly controlled
by the US and Western allies. With the increasing economic power of the non-
West in the twenty-ﬁrst century, especially but not limited to China, a stable
Western-dominated world order is no longer possible. Collective action by states in
the Global South, reﬂected in institutional innovations such as BRICS and ALBA,
further signals this impossibility. A new world hegemony (whether led by a single
state, a coalition of states, or a world state) would have to accommodate this
greater equality between the Global North and Global South. This changing bal-
ance of power is, in turn, the context in which the search for solutions to major
system-level problems –such as stark class inequalities within countries,
Crises of world hegemony 23
environmental degradation and climate change, and guarantees for physical safety
and human dignity –will play out in the coming decades.
Protesting inequality within countries
One recurrent theme that has animated protest movements over the past decade is
extreme social inequality. For the Occupy Wall Street movement, which spread
from Zucotti Park near Wall Street to 951 cities in 82 countries in 2011 (Milkman,
Luce, and Lewis 2013), a key grievance of the protestors was stark inequality –
encapsulated in the slogan of the 99% against the 1%. In the years following the
Occupy Wall Street movement, class inequality became even more extreme in
most countries, sparking yet another worldwide upheaval in 2019. Protests erupted
in Hong Kong, India, Chile, Colombia, Bolivia, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, leaving
commentators struggling to identify their common theme. ‘But there is one’,
writes Michael Massing (2020):‘rage at being left behind. In each instance, the
match may diﬀer, but the kindling has (in most cases) been furnished by the gross
inequality produced by global capitalism’. While the ‘matches’were varied and
‘seemingly modest’–a subway fare hike in Chile, a tax on WhatsApp calls in
Lebanon, cuts to fuel subsidies in Iran and Ecuador, and price increases on bread
and onions in Sudan and India (respectively) –‘these uprising aren’t just about a
few dimes here and there. They’re about an ever-growing majority of the global
populace that has become fed up with cost of living increases, low wages, [and] the
erosion of public trusts’(Silk 2019).
The early twenty-ﬁrst century has also seen a return of labour unrest, but in new
industrial and geographical sites. There were major strike waves featuring new
working classes –particularly in East and South Asia –that had been ‘formed’in
the process of the neoliberal restructuring of the world economy (Karatasli et al.
2015, 191). China, especially, emerged as a new epicentre of world labour unrest.
As Friedman (2012) notes: ‘While there are no oﬃcial statistics, it is certain that
thousands, if not tens of thousands, of strikes take place each year …with many
strikers capturing large wage increases above and beyond any legal requirements’
(see also Silver and Zhang 2009).
Even in the Global North, we have seen a rise of labour militancy among the
sectors of the working class that have grown in size and centrality in the course of
the past several decades, most notably immigrant workers and workers of colour.
The majority of these workers are ‘concentrated in low-wage, precarious work in
such industries as domestic service, agriculture, food and garment manufacturing,
hotel and restaurant jobs, and construction’. In the process, the struggle for immi-
grant rights is intertwining with the struggle for labour rights (Milkman 2011); for
example, with US unions being driven to ﬁght on behalf of their members against
deportation raids in the Trump era (Elk 2018).
The rise of new working classes in the Global North and Global South has gone
hand-in-hand with the ‘unmaking’of the unionized, well-paid and over-
whelmingly white industrial working classes that were junior partners in the
24 Beverly J. Silver and Corey R. Payne
twentieth-century world-hegemonic order. Abandoned by capital for cheaper
locales or, in the case of public sectors workers, seeing their welfare eroded by the
hollowing out of government functions, these workers have waged defensive
struggles. The post-2008 protests against austerity in Europe are particularly note-
worthy, but far from the only examples of such defensive struggles (Karatasli et al.
2015, 190–1). At the same time, we have seen an increase in protests by the
unemployed and irregularly employed (or to use Marx’s term, the ‘stagnant relative
surplus population’). This part of the working class played a prominent (and often
overlooked) role in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Yemen in the 2011 Arab Spring
(see Karatasli et al. 2015, 192–3) and beyond.
A radical new vision for the twenty-ﬁrst century is required to meet these
challenges from below. The US hegemonic promise of mass consumption and
development was never credible within the context of historical capitalism. Wal-
lerstein’s (1995) claim that capitalism could not accommodate the ‘combined
demands of the Third World (for relatively little per person but for a lot of people)
and [of] the Western working class (for relatively few people but for a lot per
person)’, remains true today. The challenge for the twenty-ﬁrst century is to
credibly incorporate the widening and deepening array of working classes and
movements that are demanding greater equality, both between and within coun-
tries. Needless to say, this precludes a simple return to the twentieth-century US
The ﬁght against environmental degradation and climate change
All previous world hegemonies of historical capitalism have been based on the
externalisation of the costs of reproduction of labour and of nature. The natural
world was treated as a no-cost input, while proﬁtability at the system-level
depended on paying the vast majority of the world’s workers below the full cost of
the reproduction of their labour power. The externalisation of the costs of repro-
duction of labour and nature were taken to an extreme with the highly resource-
intensive and wasteful model associated with the ‘American way of life’,
Almost a century ago, Mohandas Gandhi recognised the unsustainability of the
Western capitalist model of development. He wrote:
The economic imperialism of a single tiny island nation [England] is today
 keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million [India’s
population at the time] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip
the world like locusts (quoted in Guha 2000).
The existential threat posed by the hegemonic promise to universalise the Amer-
ican way of life –fundamentally an updated version of Gandhi’s critique –has been
taken up by environmental and climate change activists, whose movement has
gained momentum over the past decade, culminating in the September 2019
worldwide climate strike of students and young people. As reported by The New
Crises of world hegemony 25
York Times, in cities around the world –from Berlin to Melbourne, in Manila,
Kampala, Nairobi, Mumbai and Rio –the number of strikers was easily in the tens
of thousands, with many cities seeing hundreds of thousands. ‘Rarely, if ever, has
the modern world witnessed a youth movement so large and wide, spanning across
societies rich and poor, tied together by a common if inchoate sense of rage’
Demands for physical safety and dignity
Speaking at the 2019 climate strike in New York, youth climate activist Greta
Thunberg declared: ‘We demand a safe future. Is that really too much to ask?’
Indeed, the credible promise of safety is fundamental to all world hegemonies.
Today, the threats to safety are multiple, growing and interconnected. Constant, if
relatively low-intensity, conﬂicts rage around the world, precipitating the greatest
refugee crisis since the Second World War. In turn, neo-fascist and far right
movements have been in resurgence, blaming refugees and immigrants for the (real
and imagined) insecurities of populations in host countries (e.g. Schultheis 2019;
Becker 2019). Climate change, militarism, and the refugee crisis are all intertwined
in a vicious circle that fuels the dynamics of twenty-ﬁrst century systemic chaos.
All these processes are playing out in the context of the huge inequalities that
have grown together with the decay of the US hegemonic world order. The
global COVID-19 pandemic is bringing this social inequality into stark relief for
those who did not already have eyes to see (Fisher and Bubola 2020). Meagan Day
aptly compared the relationship between the pandemic and inequality to analysing
waterﬂows with dye tracing:
A river just looks like a river until the dye is added, and the dye reveals how
the structural features of the riverbed send the water coursing in speciﬁc pat-
terns. A pandemic is like that …[it] shows how the shape of our [social] sys-
tems send people careening in particular directions depending on their
location upstream. It was happening before, but now it’s a bright color for all to see.
(Day 2020, emphasis added)
Likewise, the global pandemic highlighted the pre-existing fault lines in the world
order –rising inequality, insecurity of employment and livelihoods, the refugee
crisis and the looming threat of climate change –making these fault lines now clear
‘for all to see’. As borders closed and the world economy shut down, the collateral
damage from the pandemic in the form of surging unemployment and the eva-
poration of (already) precarious means of livelihood was breathtaking in scale and
As global systemic chaos deepens, there is, in Arrighi’s words, a growing
‘demand for order - ‘the old order, a new order, any order!’(1994 [2010: 31]).
The initial response from above has been to accelerate an already ongoing global
shift toward increasingly coercive forms of rule. As we enter the third decade of the
26 Beverly J. Silver and Corey R. Payne
twenty-ﬁrst century, the proliferation of emergency executive powers, police-
enforced shelter-in-place orders, and the domestic deployment of military forces to
manage the fallout from the pandemic –including anticipated waves of social
protest –were among the signs of this trend. Nonetheless, such shifts toward
coercion and away from consent, as argued above, are only likely to further deepen
the global systemic chaos.
The supply of world hegemony in the twenty-ﬁrst century
‘What, if any, kind of hegemony might play out in our present world of pro-
liferating global challenges and profound systemic shifts?’–this is the central
question posed in the Introduction to this volume (Scholte et al. page #).
The argument put forward in this chapter leads us to a set of interconnected
answers. We agree with the claim, implicit in the volume’s title, that answering this
question requires ‘reimagining power in global politics’. However, we also argue
that this re-imagining is not a new phenomenon; rather, each successive world
hegemony of historical capitalism has involved an analogous re-imagining of power
in global politics. Successive hegemonic powers have responded to global chal-
lenges by promoting the ‘recurrent fundamental restructuring [of the modern
world system]’(Arrighi 1994 : 31–2).
We have argued that a central driving force behind the successive restructuring
of global capitalism –and re-imagining of world hegemonies –has been the chal-
lenges posed by major world-scale waves of social protest. The Haitian Revolution
and mass revolts by enslaved people in the Americas in the late eighteenth century
forced the rising hegemonic power (the UK) to ‘re-imagine’global capitalism
without one of its fundamental pillars –plantation slavery. The upsurge of labour
movements, socialist revolutions and national liberation movements in the ﬁrst half
of the twentieth century forced the rising hegemonic power (the US) to ‘re-ima-
gine’global capitalism without the fundamental pillars of formal colonialism and
the restriction of the democratic franchise to property owners. The latest wave of
global social protest in the early twenty-ﬁrst century will also require any aspiring
hegemonic power to re-imagine hegemony in fundamental ways (Arrighi and
Silver 1999, chapter 3).
The question that we must pose here, however, is whether we’ve reached the
limits of ‘re-imagining’hegemony within a capitalist world system. One common
feature of all past world hegemonies –Dutch, British, US –is that they succeeded
in ﬁnding reformist solutions to the revolutionary challenges posed by mass move-
ments from below. In other words, each successive hegemony managed to lay the
foundations for a major new expansion of the capitalist world system. They were,
for a time, able to resolve the fundamental contradiction between proﬁtability and
legitimacy that has characterised historical capitalism.
With the further ‘speeding up of social history’–with protest today emanating
from an even wider and deeper array of social movements –the question arises as to
whether another world hegemony can be imagined, much less successfully
Crises of world hegemony 27
implemented, within the context of global capitalism.Putdiﬀerently, is it possible to ﬁnd
a credible reformist solution to the challenges posed by today’s mass movements?
Until recently any such reformist eﬀorts were not on the agenda of most global
governmental and business elites; instead coercive measures and doubling down on
the neoliberal project were the order of the day (Silver 2019). However, the fallout
from the global pandemic (itself coming on the heels of a decade of escalating
worldwide social protest) may have ﬁnally shaken the conﬁdence of those in
power. Thus, for example, the Financial Times’Editorial Board (2020) opined
that: ‘Radical reforms [analogous to those pursued in the decades following the
Second World War] will need to be put on the table’in order to ‘oﬀer a social
contract that beneﬁts everyone’, In essence, they are proposing a return to the
mid-twentieth-century social compacts that undergird US-led world hegemony.
Regardless of whether such calls for ‘radical reforms’from global elites fade or
grow over time, a return to the mid-twentieth-century solution is not sustainable.
Indeed, as argued above, the US hegemonic project –which proclaimed its goal to
be the universalisation of the American way of life –fell into a combined crisis of
proﬁtability and legitimacy just two decades after its launch.
As Gramsci noted in another context:
Hegemony (under capitalism) presupposes that ‘the leading group should make
sacriﬁces of an economic-corporate kind. But there is also no doubt that such sacriﬁces
and such a compromise cannot touch the essential; for though hegemony is ethical-
political, it must also be economic, must necessarily be based on the decisive
function exercised by the leading group in the decisive nucleus of economic
activity.’(Gramsci 1971: 161, emphasis added).
Thus, without a clear commitment to prioritise the protection of humans and
nature over the pursuit of proﬁtability, as soon as the social contract begins to
threaten proﬁtability (as it did in the 1960s and 1970s), it would once again be
abandoned from above (Silver 2019). A new world hegemony would instead
require a radical re-imagining of world power and global politics. Social move-
ments will no doubt play a key role in this process, either directly, or by generating
transformative pressures on aspiring hegemonic states. Either way, a serious ‘re-
imagining’of movement ‘strategies, organizational structures and ideologies’
including ‘internationalism’is required (Karatasli 2019) if we are to collectively rise
up to the task of providing system-level solutions to the system-level problems left
behind by US world hegemony.
1For a comprehensive review of the use of the term hegemony –from the ancient Greeks
through to Barack Obama –see Anderson (2017).
2In transporting Gramsci’s concept of social hegemony from intrastate relations to inter-
state relations, Arrighi (1982, 1994 ) takes a similar path as IPE School Gramscians
such as Cox (1983, 1987), Keohane (1984), Gill (1986, 1993), Gill and Law (1988).
28 Beverly J. Silver and Corey R. Payne
3See, for example, McMichael (2012).
4‘Historically, the states that have successfully seized this opportunity did so by recon-
stituting the world system on new and enlarged foundations thereby restoring some
measure of interstate cooperation’(Arrighi 1994 , 31–2).
5In emphasizing the transformative nature of hegemony, Arrighi puts forward an evolu-
tionary theory of the longue durée of historical capitalism, which is another key contrast
between his approach within the world-systems school and that of Wallerstein. For
Arrighi, the ‘fundamental transformations carried out by successive hegemonic powers”
means that “world hegemonies have not “risen”and “declined”in a world system that
expanded independently on the basis of an invariant structure…Rather, the modern
world system itself has been formed by, and has expanded on the basis of, recurrent fundamental
restructuring led and governed by successive hegemonic states’(Arrighi 1994 : 31–2, emphasis
6‘While the governmental and business organizations leading each [systemic cycle of
accumulation] have become more powerful and complex, the life-cycles of the regimes
of accumulation have become shorter. The time it has taken for each regime to emerge
out of the crisis of the preceding dominant regime, to become itself dominant, and to
attain its limits (as signaled by the beginning of a new ﬁnancial expansion) was less than
half, both in the case of the British regime relative to the Genoese and in the case of the
US regime relative to the Dutch’(Arrighi 1994 : 225).
7The three periods of ﬁnancial expansion discussed by Braudel each led to a dramatic
resurgence of power and prosperity for the leading capitalist country of the time (e.g. a
second golden age for the Dutch; the Victorian belle epoque for Britain). Yet in each case,
the resurgence of world power and prosperity was short-lived. For Braudel, the successive
shifts by Genoese, Dutch, and British capitalists away from trade and industry and into
ﬁnance were each a sign that the material expansion had reached ‘maturity’. Financiali-
sation turned out to be a prelude to a terminal crisis of world hegemony and to the rise of
a new geographical centre of world economic and military power (Braudel 1984;Arrighi
8The extension of legal sovereignty to former colonies was not matched by an equivalent
extension of de facto sovereignty or eﬀective national self-determination.
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