Robert Cox and the post-hegemonic global order

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One of the prominent analysts of the international political economy in the 20th century, Robert W. Cox, sadly passed away this week, leaving behind a substantial intellectual legacy based on the neo-Gramscian analysis of the global order. Cox was one of the pioneering leaders of the critical political economy tradition and stimulated a wide reservoir of interdisciplinary literature that thrived to unveil the material and ideational bases of current and previous cases of global hegemony.

He modernized the ideas of classical Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci and produced an up-to-date theoretical perspective which allowed the use of such crucial concepts as "historic blocs" and "consent" in the context of political governance of a rapidly globalizing world economy. By arguing that "every theory is for someone and for some purpose," Cox problematized the relationship between leading theoretical paradigms and material developments in world politics and economy, and as such, attracted harsh criticisms from both liberal and realist circles in the academic field.

When I was pursuing my doctoral studies at the University of Manchester in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, the critical political economy tradition was pretty strong in the U.K. and the neo-Gramscian perspective, which principally derived from the writings of Robert Cox, inspired many analysts who criticized the American hegemony in innovative and refined ways.

My personal academic supervisors, Prof. David Coates – who also passed away this year – and Prof. Paul Cammack, as well as leading British political economists like Prof. Rorden Wilkinson and Prof. Phillip Cerny were among the proponents of neo-Gramscian analysis at varying degrees. What these and similar scholars were trying to achieve was extremely valuable as they were attempting to deconstruct the liberal narrative of economic and political globalization, and unveil the material and ideational bases of acquiring widespread consent for the sustenance of American hegemony from developed and developing countries. A lively literature focusing on the link between economic processes in production, finance and trade with issues of political legitimacy, culture and identity politics sprang out of original writings following neo-Gramscian analysis.

But when we say RIP to late Robert Cox in the first quarter of the 21st century, his ideas concerning the legitimation needs of the global hegemony and eliciting consent for this purpose from different societies seem increasingly irrelevant in a rapidly changing global order. As the U.S. increasingly distances itself from the liberal post-war order and embraces the realist language of trade and currency wars, power politics, xenophobia and exclusion; the neo-Gramscian approach to global political economy rapidly loses its explanatory value.

The U.S. administration under Donald Trump is not keen to carry the economic and political burden of rule-based international regimes, multilateral platforms and governance structures in order to provide stability in the global system. It does not claim to defend liberal values such as fundamental human rights and liberties, pluralism, multi-party democracy and rule of law.

Therefore, the structural need to elicit widespread international support on the basis of a rhetoric of defending economic and political liberalism is not recognized anymore. Instead, power games to constrain China's ascendancy as a global political, economic and technological power are played in an open and flagrant manner with no care for the attitudes of global public opinion. The U.S. acts in an aggressive pursuit of its national interest, as defined by the current politico-bureaucratic elite and does not feel to legitimize its actions by using a complicated array of political, economic and cultural arrangements as in the previous historical epochs.

Time will show whether the new American exceptionalism – based on bilateral alliances, economic protectionism and exclusionary political rhetoric towards minorities, migrants and different religious groups – is a temporary attitude associated with the Trump presidency, or the reflection of a long-term paradigmatic shift supported by the U.S. establishment. But if it proves to be the latter, we will need novel theoretical frameworks and macro-theorists such as the late Robert W. Cox to thoroughly understand and explain long-term prospects of international stability in an increasingly chaotic global order.

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