What is hegemony?



After several columns in a row that have been primarily about the current political climate, I’ve decided to go out on a limb and do a deep historical dive in order to provide a broader perspective on the big picture. As I am wont to do from time to time, this will be a multi-part undertaking. Actually, the topic I want to expound on usually requires a one-hour classroom lecture to cover - and it is something students have usually never heard of or thought about before. Nonetheless, putting it all into context can make a lot of things about the past century make a lot more sense.

The topic is hegemony: what it is, how it works, and what it means for us in the 21st century.

Much of what I will discuss is based on the work of the late Thomas McCormick (one of the foremost scholars of diplomatic history), who refined the earlier work of Yale economic historian Immanuel Wallerstein (us academics have to cite our sources, you know).

By the way, at this point I usually show a picture of Jiminy Cricket dressed as Uncle Sam, as a way for students to remember how to pronounce the word: Hegemony Cricket. Let’s start with a dictionary definition. “Hegemony, n.: leadership or dominance, especially by one country or social group over others.” In modern, international terms, this does not necessarily mean a country that militarily conquers everyone else. Rather, it is one country in an international community of countries that, due to a special set of circumstances, develops primacy to the extent that the other countries defer to it, either out of respect or fear. This has only been possible in the modern era (that is, since Columbus, when the possibility of global interconnection arose).

Before Columbus, McCormick and Wallerstein wrote, there were two types of societies/economies: Subsistence (hunter/gatherers) and external (kingdoms and empires). The European discovery of the New World, motivated by desire for trade, led to global capitalism. This led to the establishment of first, second, and third-world countries, with the first-world being the most powerful. Third-world countries mostly were used to provide resources to the more powerful ones. And when subsistence or external systems encountered the capitalist system, they were always absorbed by it. It’s sort of like encountering the Borg or a zombie horde - resistance is futile. Native Americans, for example, got drawn into the trade system, as did Africans, Pacific Islanders, and others, and became dependent on trade goods, transforming their cultures- and ended up losing their resources as a result.

The natural order among first-world nations in a global capitalist system is to have a balance of power: several first-world nations competing, providing checks and balances, with no one on top for long. Think of colonial history, when the English, French, and Spanish were all jockeying for power for centuries, going back and forth.

Hegemony occurs when, usually due to war or catastrophe, several of those nations are seriously damaged but one is relatively unscathed, putting them on top. This happened in the early 1800s with the Napoleonic wars. France and Spain, and most other major European countries, were devastated - but England, which had no fighting on its shores and who led the victory over Napoleon, was unscathed. This led to Great Britain gaining hegemony, which requires three things: military, political, and financial dominance. For well over a century, “the sun never set on the British Empire.” Britain was THE world power. Thing is, the moment you gain hegemony you start losing it - because you have to strain your economy by engaging in wars all around the globe to protect your national interests and stay on top. You become the “global policeman.” Britain managed it… until WWII, when things changed in a big way, leading to a new nation having - and struggling to maintain - hegemony and the global policeman role.

To be continued.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.       


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