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Hegemony and Capitalism; the Case of America

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Today’s world is a capitalist world, Lenin claim this is the last stage of imperialism. Capitalism rules the world; there are winner and losers in this field. America with its huge economic capacity and a country that prefers the world structure to be capitalist is trying to become a hegemon. After the cold war America was the only super power, with its huge economic and military capacity, it could exert influence over most parts of the world. U.S influence is relativity decreasing over the world and some other major powers are emerging or in other terms re-emerging (Chaliand, Lecture Notes, 2013.) Capitalism is a system that breeds on its own and keeps getting big, as Marx explains it, today America sets the rules and is at the top of the game. Therefore, this essay attempts to merge the idea of capitalism with the American rule over the world.

This essay first defines capitalism, how it works, why capitalism is perceived as the last stage of imperialism, and its implication on the world. Secondly, this essay brings about Gramsci’s theory concerning hegemony, what is today’s hegemony? Is it appropriate to talk about American hegemony? Is there an American empire? To what extent has America been able to maintain its hegemony? This essay tries to answer these questions in detail with reference to relevant theories and events.

Capitalism and American Empire

Lenin in his book; Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, he argues “Imperialism emerged as the development and direct continuation of the fundamental characteristics of capitalism in general” (Lenin, 1916.) Lenin adds “Capitalism only became capitalist imperialism at a definite and very high stage of its development,” he further explains; free competition is the basic feature of capitalism but what we witness today is the [1]monopoly, which is opposite to free trade. Imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism(Lenin, 1916.)

According to Marx capitalism is a system of mode of production that expands on its own, there is no need for a hand to make it work. He referred to the system as a monster that keeps getting big and bigger, (Greaves, Lecture Notes, 2012) he further argued capitalism brings about a market that produces production for sale rather than its own use. He distinguished between two forms of commodity,[2] ‘use value’ and ‘exchange value’, exchange value in the capitalism is favored and this exchange value is explained and measured by the effort of a labor puts to produce. In this case, labor power is looked at as a tool rather than a human being , Marx describes it as the ‘heart of heartless world’ capitalism is giving people a robotic nature who keep working for long hours and usually does not encourage innovation, but the job requires human power(Breaverman, 1998.)

Capitalism first originated in Europe and then America and Australia, those were countries with [3]feudal system. In capitalism there exists free labor and people who own private market and properties. Those free labors depend on capitalists to work and live. The capitalist provides the means of technology and facilities for the worker to generate production, this is calculated by the amount of the time a labor puts and the amount of production, the longer hour a labor works results in more production which benefits the capitalist (Gallincos, 2009.)It means liberalization of market, a more and more technological sophistication,  that brings about a consumer population through the world, there is a great amount of production and this, through hegemony and advertisement, tells people what to buy and this increases over time. In other words it can be depicted as if the people are rats in cycling wheel that never stops cycling and rolling over without heading anywhere (Greaves, Lecture Notes, 2012.)

Observing America’s method in approaching and illuminating liberal hegemony, in most cases we see there are real effort made by the American’s to liberalize the international economy especially during and after the cold war. Going back to history, during the cold war America and USSR were the super powers and the world was a bi-polar world. At that time America’s main focus was on military security. “Through most of the latter half of the 20th century, the cold war and its alliance structures provided the framework within which the world economy evolved; now that framework has been weakened” (Gilpin, 2000.) With the collapse of the Soviet Union, America remained the only super power, and therefore their focus shifted from military security to economic security, they started by spreading their ideologies through the world and starting liberalizing the international market.

American diplomat, Acheson, admired the British empire and their economic system, which was based on the form of opening markets outside their border, he believed this was the best system a strong nation should be practicing, America with its huge economic growth followed the same path, “he felt British had done a good job in the nineteenth century, defending the world trade system by pumping their surplus capital into other countries; and there was no reason why the United States, with its vast wealth and enormous power after the Second World War, should not do the same” (Cox,  2005.)

America tried to liberalize the world economy, this way it has been able to expand its territory. Some scholars like Burden, ask; if not an empire what else could we name America? As It is the only nation who provides policy for the world through five global military commands which maintains more than a million men and women at arms on four continents; deploys carrier battle groups on watch in every ocean; guarantees the survival of countries from Israel to South Korea; drives the wheels of global trade and commerce; and fills the hearts and minds of an entire planet with its dreams and desires (Burden, 2003.)

Gramsci’s Theory of Hegemony: the America Context

What is hegemony? Karl Marx was a materialist; he believed hegemony is achieved once economic growth is obtained. Marx outlines the base and super structure. The base is the economic order and almost everything else is in the [4]superstructure, such as ideology, religion, education, etc. Marx asserted hegemony can be obtained if the base is strong and superior (Greaves, Lecture Notes, 2013). Nevertheless, Marx was a materialist and couldn’t see dialects other than of economic base being the initiative for hegemony. On the contrary, Gramsci goes further in explaining hegemony and the structures. To Gramsci, economic base is important but it is not the only drive to hegemony. Ideology is also an important element, in which hegemony might spring from. Creating hegemony is not an easy task, first the mass or the intellectual elite must get rid of their present perspective of the world which is imposed by external environment, this is a tough task, “it necessitates a process of learning and, inevitably, it brings into focus the question of the control over this process, of the relation between intellectuals and the masses ” (Morera, 1990: 24) in order to spread the idea, Gramsci focuses on the importance of engaging the mass in a process of critical thinking process that will result in a more coherent, deeper, and realist conception of the world. After this phase, comes a general learning process of the mass and intellectuals together, so the intellectual is a teacher and a learner, and the mass will have the same roles. This is important to bring about a culture that is in harmony with the mass. The previous culture must be destroyed and instead plant new ideas and perceptions(Morera, 1990). Further, he explains the importance of harmony between the intellectual and the ordinary people, for instance when it comes to science an intellectual should not expose the mass with a science that does not fit people’s feelings and values. “Introducing science into the life of people from the outside often leads to skepticism, sectarianism and, what is worse, tragedy”  (Morera, 1990: 25) because it will not fit with ‘feelings’ of the people, therefore a new conception should not come from outside people, but rather emerge within themselves. Gramsci focuses on merit repetition, the elaboration of a critical conception of the world must find its starting point in the problems, beliefs, culture and mode of thought of the masses; it must emerge from the depths of history. Intellectuals are better equipped to articulate ideas and connect feelings and thinking of the masses “intellectual, dialectically to the laws of history, will have a major responsibility to facilitate, but not dictate, the emergence of a new hegemony. They act as equal participants, not as the makers of history(Morera, 1990: 26). Gramsci explained these elements in his Prison Notebook, he thought Marx’s theory to unite workers of the world was a failure. While Marx called for unity of the workers, the workers of each nation got united and fought against each other. Gramsci, therefore, claimed first the basic elements of the society must be diffused, such as family, religion, and patriotism this way the workers will unite and look for the government to protect them. He believed this sort of culture could be achieved through spreading the ideas through TV, newspaper, education system and take over every element in the society. Looking at the world of today one can rightfully claim those ideas been promoted and worked on by the capitalists and not Marxists.  Further the one who is number one beneficiary from this capitalist system is the United Stated of America.

America through history strove to spread its ideology to promote free trade throughout the world. They have been, to a great extent, successful to impose their views and preferred ideas on most of the parts of the world. It is done through mass media. Media products are messages in code about the nature of society, the nature of productive relations within the media themselves and institutional domains and social processes (Altheide, 1984). Hence capitalism has become the conscious of the people, in which they barely question the system but see it as a normal way of life. Hall argues “Journalists’ socialization involves guidelines, work routines, and orientations replete with the dominant ideology” by this he means that the way journalists work sometimes unconsciously are promoting the capitalist economic order (Hall, 1979:342) these are also the counter argument which says journalists are conscious of the news they produce and they are aware that it strategically extends the capitalist order (Chaney, 1981:117). Journalists intentionally or unintentionally tend to present topics that are in favor of keeping the status quo. Gramsci, emphasized on the importance of the repetition of those ideologies, through repetition the ideas can take form within the people’s brain, this is how they accept the new order (Greaves, Lecture Notes. 2013.)

Journalists tend to cover topics and present news reports which are conservative and supportive of the status quo. One consequence of the unintended and intended use of these codes is to retard social change by presenting conservative news reports to a mass audience(Golding, 1981:81). Once the idea is delivered in the right form, it is be hard to change the way of thinking , this way culture, value and perception come into being that is in favor of the ruling class.

To elaborate, to remain a hegemon it is important to have the consent of the mass, a ruling class usually gains the consent or makes other nations to submit to its will, be it willfully or unwillingly but consent is important.  Consent is usually derived by making your beliefs  in a way to serve your interest as the ultimate truth to others as well; others must belief and accept what you claim to be the truth.If it could not gain the consent of a particular group or movement then it resorts to coercive means (Chandler, 2000.)

Further, in order to gain this statue of hegemony you must ensure international market sovereignty, and make others belief your predominance is common sense and it is a natural order.  Robert Wade, depicts ‘international financial architecture’ , he poses the question “if you are an aspiring modern day Roman emperor in a world of sovereign states, international markets, and capitalist economies and if you could single mindedly create an international framework of market rules to promote your interests, what kind of system would you create ?(Gallincos, 2009.)

Hegemony, Consent and Media

Gramsci argues; it is an important element of hegemony to have consent from the mass. The dominant class should project its own ideas and perspective to the subordinate class and make them feel it is a ‘common sense’ and ‘natural’. He further argues; common sense is not rigid, but rather it is in constant movement, as people’s need for production changes so common sense changes as well. Therefore, the dominant class, Fiske, claims consent must be won and rewon , “for people’s material social experience constantly reminds them of the disadvantages of subordination and thus poses a threat to the dominant class” (Fiske, 1999). If the dominant class failed to have consent of a group then it will resort to coercive means. Such as the case of America, with it is declaration of global war against terrorism and their invasion to Iraq and Afghanistan to eliminate those opposing its views.

America might be the most powerful capitalist country of today, but it does not have consent of the people all over the world. Not to forget, it has been hugely successful in making the media work to serve their benefit. It has been able to make people dream and desire what the America desires in terms of music, movies, and productions, this way it has been able to shape a good number of nation’s culture throughout the world (Althiede, 1984.) One can also find many examples where actors refuse American hegemony. America’s invasion to other countries explains the fact that America failed to maintain consent from some parts of the world. For example, Iran’s regime, radical Islam movements and most importantly China, these are all posing a threat to American hegemony. China is becoming a real threat to America in terms of economic development. That is because China’s economy is rising constantly. Even though China does not have a particular ideology to promote as America’s liberal hegemony, however it does seem that once China is economically superior to America it might own an ideology as well, as according to Marx, once the base (economic development) is strong ideologies come in to being (Greaves, Lecture Notes, 2013.)

America would not be hegemonic after the cold war if the seeds of an imperial project had not been planted prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the fading years and wake of cold war, the responsibility of exerting an international police power fell squarely on the shoulders of the United States. The gulf war was the first time the US could exercise this power in its full form. America’s call for a new world order and later global war against terrorism, these events have had a significant role in shaping international order.

American Hegemony in Crisis

Counter-hegemonic forces are challenging American global domination. Resentment toward American global power extends from Latin American ‘backyard’ (Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil) through Middle East and China, as well as among academic circles in even in allied Europe, where there is a lot of concern about the U.S. desire for ‘cowboy’ diplomacy (Zibari, 2012.)Hence, one can argue American hegemony today is not as strong, a number of scholars argue America has not achieved hegemony, one must be cautious in referring to America as hegemon. According to Whiteman, it is pointless to bring about arguments regarding counter movement to liberal hegemony (Whitman, 2009.) However, one has to address America’s power and if it is not a hegemonic power then what else can best describe its influence over the world? America’s power may be challenged but still it is number one to make significant and fateful decisions for the rest of the world.

Despite the influence America exerts through the world, their hegemony is in crisis. That is because; America does not have the consent of a large number of groups and nations in the world. For example, china is rising economically and it is perceived as a threat to America. China seems to rise peacefully, but their power is significant. America continuously seeks new allies in the Asia pacific to make itself strong and dominant in the world affairs (Hixon, 2012.)

To elaborate, Iran and radical Islam are seen as a major threat to America as well.  They are not ready to submit to America’s will. Therefore, America invaded a number of countries e.g. Iraq in 2003, Afghanistan which both cost U.S huge amount of capital. America’s intervention are carried out under slogans of democracy, liberty and human rights. However, America has not intervened into countries that serve its interest even if they are undemocratic regimes such as the gulf countries and Saudi Arabia in particular (Chomsky, 1991.) America has lost consent not only on the international level but on the domestic level as well, because today the American public opinion are standing against U.S intervention into other countries and this poses a puzzle to American diplomat who dream of an American empire (Brenner, 2012.)

Further, there is also a major resistance to the economic order of the world which is capitalism. As it has widened the gap between rich and poor, the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer and the middle class is shrinking (Hixson, 2012.)

Here a question rises; does America’s decline mean the decline of capitalism? Opponents of capitalism believe this is the case. Because, Capitalism survives ever-increasing amounts of energy, resources and human labor being commodified, or turned into property to be bought and sold on the market. Since there are major revolts against this lifestyle through the world, then American end could also mean end of capitalism.


Capitalism, the system of the world that acquires free trade and labor power, America is number one beneficiary from this system. For a long time America has been attempting to promote free trade and liberalize world economy, because its power resides on capitalism and free trade. Therefore, some scholars tend to call it liberal empire. U.S is liberal just as far as it serves its national interest, once this interest is shaken, America would not mind violating liberal principles such as, human rights and democracy. America has been able to achieve hegemony through both soft and hard power, they have been successful in implementing Gramsci’s theory regarding changing people’s perception of the world and mold it to a world perspective that serves your interest. It has done so through extensive commercial programs, TV shows that tell people how to live an American life. Those actions have a lasting effect in shaping peoples opinion, in turn it brings about a culture which reflects American culture. Whenever this interest is threatened America resorts to hard power to maintain its position in the world as a super power. U.S interest most of the time is threatened by China’s economic development, and Iran; by their refusal to surrender to America’s will, Radical Islam who also pose a threat to American ideologies.



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[1]Monopoly theory aims to define the final historical stage of capitalism following monopoly capitalism. In which capital is in the hands of fewer and fewer capitalists.

[2]Use Value and Exchange Value are Karl Marx theory which refers to the money and the effort workers put to produce production.

[3]Feudal system: a system for structuring society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour.

[4]Base and Super Structure, are Karl Marx’s invention to illustrate how the world is formed in terms of economy and ideology, science and religion. The base is the economy, and superstructure contains the rest, such as ideology, education, culture, religion etc, he explained that if the base is strong so the rest will follow as well and that economy is the most determining element.



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