You need a gun

Wolfgang Streeck

  • The H-Word: The Peripeteia of Hegemony by Perry Anderson
    Verso, 190 pp, £16.99, April 2017, ISBN 978 1 78663 368 2
  • The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci by Perry Anderson
    Verso, 179 pp, £14.99, April 2017, ISBN 978 1 78663 372 9

What is the relationship between coercion and consent? Under what circumstances does power turn into authority, brute force into legitimate leadership? Can coercion work without consent? Can consent be secured without coercion? Does political power depend on voluntary agreement and values shared in common, or does it grow out of the barrel of a gun? When ideas rule, how is that rule maintained? Can associations of equals – built on common interests, ideas and identities – endure, or must they degenerate into empires kept together by force? Such questions go to the foundations of political theory and practice. There is no better way to explore them than by tracing the complex career of the concept of hegemony, from the Greeks to today’s ‘international relations’. That is the task undertaken by Perry Anderson in The H-Word and The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci.

The two books are closely connected. The H-Word reconstructs the long history of the concept of hegemony in 12 chapters, moving from Thucydides via Lenin and Gramsci to various German and other imperialists, and from there to British, American and French postwar international relations theory. It takes in American political science and US strategic doctrine; the political economy of the Thatcher years; the work of Ernesto Laclau and Giovanni Arrighi; and, after a particularly exciting treatment of Asia and China from the time before the Warring Kingdoms to Mao and Deng Xiaoping, ends with today’s European Union. Antinomies deals with Gramsci alone; essentially it is a reprint of a long essay published in 1977 in New Left Review. Both books are remarkable examples of the deep, historically situated reading of complex texts. Antinomies contains a preface reflecting on the interval since the first publication of the essay forty years ago, and in an appendix a fascinating report from 1933 on Gramsci in prison, written for the leadership of the Partito Comunista Italiano by a fellow prisoner, published in English here for the first time.

The concept of hegemony has been and is still applied to relations between and within societies, to international politics as well as to national class struggle. Wherever they crop up, hegemons and their ideologues will do what they can to identify hegemony with legitimate authority: a social contract among equals in which leaders govern by consent and their followers give that consent in grateful return for services rendered. Yet when push comes to shove, as it very often does, the indispensable element of coercion in hegemony comes to the fore. Hegemony has never been sustained without coercion, but has more often than not been secured without consent. Hegemons don’t always carry guns, but you can’t be an effective hegemon without a decent supply of them. The purpose of hegemonic ideology is to make people believe that the hegemon is benevolent: having been granted power, the hegemon will act on behalf of those who cannot help themselves, whatever the cost to the hegemon. In compensation, the hegemon expects to be loved. But if it is to be secure when the moment of truth arrives, the hegemon must be able to instil fear. Pace Weber, a political regime is not stabilised by legitimacy, but by the capacity to substitute for it with coercion.

So far, so Machiavellian (‘Is it better to be loved than feared or better to be feared than loved? One would of course like to be both; but it is difficult … and when a choice has to be made it is safer to be feared’). Anderson dispenses, one after another, with preachers of the ‘white man’s burden’ school of belief in benevolent empire, among them Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, with their self-serving fairy tales about a post-Vietnam US internationalism organised around ‘complexity’, ‘interdependence’, ‘regime theory’ and ‘liberal institutionalism’. But his main focus is Gramsci, who as general secretary of the PCI was interned by Mussolini in 1926, and died in prison 11 years later. Gramsci had spent time in Moscow in the years after the Russian Revolution, and had been privy to the deadly serious strategic debates of the Third International. None of what he heard would, in his view, be helpful in leading the Italian party to victory. Italy was a deeply traditionalist European country, in which the dominance of capital was based on more than just brute force. It was deeply ingrained in ‘civil society’ and everyday life: the Church, the peasantry, small business, the urban bourgeoisie and parts of the intellectual and cultural elites were all more or less in the bourgeois-capitalist camp.

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