Neo-Gramscian Approach to Globalisation: An Evaluation of the Relevance of Hegemony and Counter-Hegemony in International Relations

by globallista


The emergence of globalisation as a prominent feature of current world politics led to some scholars to perceive this phenomenon as the end of history and the triumph of liberal democracy. However, this approach is flawed with respect to a number of aspects. First, in contrast to its claim to have explained change; this approach has a static and ahistorical conception of state. Second, it is unable to call prevailing world order and its origins under question. Last but not least, it fails to take into account the potential for alternative forms of development.

Neo-Gramscian approach, which emerged with the works of Robert Cox in the 1980s, provides a critical understanding of the prevailing order and change, and offers a dialectical understanding of history. This approach is perceived as crucial in understanding globalisation for the reason that social relations of production, interrelated with state forms and global orders, underlie the global neoliberal hegemony. Thus, the strength of neo-Gramscian approach is mostly attributed to its distinguished focus on social aspects of hegemony.

The purpose of this study is to evaluate the concept of hegemony and counter-hegemony in the context of globalisation by focusing on the articles of Bieler and Morton[1] and Worth[2]. After the theoretical overview of the concepts of hegemony and counter-hegemony, the study aims to answer two questions. First, is current neoliberal global society, established through the Thatcher-Reagan doctrine, really global? Second, how does this relate to the so-called hegemony of neoliberalism and counter-hegemony of the progressive and nationalist responses to globalisation? The argument of this study is that the application of Gramscian notions to the international level results in a detachment from the national and historical context of Gramsci and that this disengagement causes neo-Gramscian approach to become less Gramscian for the sake of explaining international phenomena.

Theoretical Overview

The concept of hegemony, according to neo-Gramscian approach, is ‘an expression of broadly based consent manifested in the acceptance of ideas and supported by material resources and institutions’[3]. In that respect, this approach has broadened the conventional understanding of hegemony, which focuses solely on economic and military capabilities. The dual perspectives of consent and force, according to neo-Gramscian perspective, are established by the leading social force in a given historical structure. Historical structure is ‘a picture of a particular configuration of forces. This configuration does not determine actions in any direct, mechanical way but imposes pressures and constraints’[4]. According to Cox, these forces are material capabilities, ideas and institutions, which are in a reciprocal relationship with no predetermined hierarchy. The strength of each force changes from one historical structure to another, and thus is a historical question.[5]

The method of historical structures is applied to three spheres of activity, which are social relations of production, forms of state and world orders. According to neo-Gramscian approach, social relations of production are the terminus a quo for the analysis of hegemony as there is a relationship between power and production. Power in patterns of production leads to the empowerment of certain social forces and these social forces become the bases of power in forms of state, giving way to a particular world order. However, the understanding of power and production relations in neo-Gramscian approach is not only of materialistic nature; rather, it comprises the production and reproduction of knowledge, social relations, morals and institutions.[6] The second sphere of activity, which is forms of state, rests upon the social relations of production. Neo-Gramscian approach perceives state and structure as forming a solid structure, or in Gramsci’s words, a blocco storico (historic bloc)[7]. This solid structure, however, is not merely an alliance between state and social forces; it is rather an economic, political, intellectual and moral unity.[8] Accordingly, state does not only operate within a limited public sphere, but also works in the private sphere of civil society, such as religion, media and education. In that regard, state is a social relation rather than an institution distinct from civil society.[9] The last sphere of activity is world orders, which is the outward expansion of the hegemony of a certain historic bloc once it is consolidated in domestic sphere. This hegemony is generally supported by the mechanisms of international organisations.[10]

The concept of counter-hegemony, according to neo-Gramscian approach, refers to the resistance of social forces that challenge the overall ideology of the prevailing hegemonic order. If they become successful, these forces replace the hegemonic order with another, which is termed as ‘passive revolution’.  However, for the real transformation to occur, these new social forces should make several compromises with opposing groups after having built their hegemony. These compromises are thus necessary for the consolidation of the new hegemonic order.[11]

Is Neoliberal Global Society Really Global?

Robert Cox explains globalisation and the emergence of a global neoliberal society with the internationalisation of production and state. According to him, with the collapse of Bretton Woods system in the 1970s, a new global class structure started to emerge, in which ‘transnational managerial class’ gradually internationalised production and finance.[12] In accordance with this internationalisation, there emerged an ‘emulative uniformity’ between state officials, business and representatives of international organisations, restructuring the role of state.[13] Consequently, the state has also been internationalised and has become ‘a transmission belt for neo-liberalism’[14]

As also pointed out by Bieler and Morton, the internationalisation thesis has been criticized by many scholars, including Leo Panitch. Panitch criticizes the metaphor of transmission belt and claims that ‘globalisation is authored by states’, undermining the argument of Cox.[15] The response given by Bieler and Morton is that the thesis of internationalisation is not top-down as Panitch claims it to be on the grounds that ‘national context is the only place where an historic bloc can be founded’, showing the integral role of the state.[16] Moreover, they put forward that globalisation also involves a process of internalisation between several classes within states.

However, an important shortcoming of the internationalisation argument remains unanswered in their article. The problem is that Gramsci originally perceived state as being comprised of political society and civil society. Accordingly, the existence of a global society would directly necessitate the existence of a form of ‘international’ state. In the same vein with Panitch’s criticism, Germain and Kenny put forward that ‘the concept of global civil society here gains meaning precisely through its relationship to the national state or the world market rather than the ‘international’ or ‘internationalizing state’. Even more importantly, a truly Gramscian understanding of civil society would require the existence of a political society and an institutionalised structure, rather than a ‘fluid process of consensus formation’ with no global political society.[17]

Hegemony and Counter-Hegemony in a Global Context

If there is not a global civil society in a truly Gramscian sense, the question is how can the hegemony of neoliberal society and counter-hegemony of responses to globalisation be explained? Even more importantly, how can one evaluate the strength of the hegemonic and counter-hegemonic forces in a global context?

According to Cox, the global hegemony is exerted internationally by hegemonic forces within a powerful economic state. Accordingly, counter-hegemonic movements emerge from within different states in order to challenge this hegemony.[18] According to Worth, ‘world hegemony is less totalised and more fragmented . . . [and] the appearance of counter-hegemony can take differing forms’[19]. In accordance with this argument, Worth proposes two different ‘janus-like’ forces that can be considered as counter-hegemonic formations, namely progressive and nationalist forces. He points out that these movements may seem to be too weak and inconsistent to challenge the hegemony of neoliberalism at first glance. However, he asserts, these ideological alternatives have deep roots in history and that the consolidation of neoliberal hegemony creates a more favourable environment for these movements. While progressive forces can use transnational ties for their own project, nationalists can increase their power by pointing out to the weakening of national identity as a result of neoliberal hegemony.[20]

Even though this kind of modification of the original Gramscian understanding of hegemony and counter-hegemony has practical advantages, it is a rather simplistic and symptomatic reading of Gramsci. The first setback of such an approach is that the strength of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic forces in a global context is almost impossible to be traced down. In that regard, while there is almost no doubt that neoliberal ideology has a global dominance; it is hard to define this dominance as ‘hegemony’ in Gramscian terms predominantly due to the difficulty of measuring its strength on a global scale. The second setback is the ‘resilience of local culture’. Even though the dominance of neoliberal ideology can be observed all over the world, it is also observed that ‘local culture changes the emphasis of neo-liberalism wherever and whenever it comes into contact with it.’[21]



Neo-Gramscian approach, with its valuable insights on the relationship between social production relations and power, offers an alternative framework for the analysis of globalisation.  However, it is highly problematic to use the concepts that were originally created to fit the national and historical context of Gramsci. Accordingly, it has been argued in this paper that the application of Gramscian notions to the international level results in a detachment from the national and historical context of Gramsci and that this disengagement causes neo-Gramscian approach to become less Gramscian for the sake of explaining international phenomena.

Nevertheless, this does not necessarily mean that neo-Gramscian approach is unable to explain globalisation. On the contrary, the critical stance of neo-Gramscian scholars enables one to grasp the origins and social bases of neoliberalism. Unlike the problem-solving theories, to use Cox’s terminology, neo-Gramscian understanding of globalisation reveals how the global dominance of neoliberalism came about and how this dominance can be challenged by different forms of ideological forces. In that regard, neo-Gramscian approach is exceptionally crucial for a better understanding of the prospects of change.

[1] Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton, “A Critical Theory Route to Hegemony, World Order and Historical Change: Neo-Gramscian Perspectives in International Relations”, Capital & Class, vol. 82, 2004.

[2] Owen Worth, “The Janus-like Character of Counter-hegemony: Progressive and Nationalist Responses to Neoliberalism”, Global Society, vol. 16, no. 3, 2002.

[3] Bieler and Morton, p. 87.

[4] Robert Cox, “Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory”, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, vol. 10, no. 2, 1981, p. 135.

[5] Cox, 1981, p. 136.

[6] Bieler and Morton, pp. 89-90.

[7] Robert Cox, “Gramsci, Hegemony and International Relations: An Essay in Method”, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, vol. 12, no. 2, 1983, p. 167.

[8] Bieler and Morton, p. 90.

[9] Bieler and Morton, p. 92.

[10] Bieler and Morton, p. 93.

[11] Worth, p. 299.

[12] Bieler and Morton, p. 94.

[13] Bieler and Morton, p. 95.

[14] Bieler and Morton, p. 96.

[15] Bieler and Morton, p. 101.

[16] Bieler and Morton, p. 102.

[17] Randall D. Germain and Michael Kenny, “Engaging Gramsci: International Relations Theory and the New Gramscians”, Review of International Studies, vol. 24, no. 1, 1998, p. 17.

[18] Worth, p. 300.

[19] Worth, p. 301.

[20] Worth, p. 314.

[21] Germain and Kenny, pp. 18-19.