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Neoliberalism and Hegemony in the New Millennium

This text was presented at the 2011 Telos Conference, “Rituals of Exchange and States of Exception: Continuity and Crisis in Politics and Economics.”

Of Power and Princes

During the sixteenth century, in his famous work The Prince, Machiavelli was already writing about the possibility of a hegemonic and civic form of political power. He described it as a type of principality where consensus was more important than brute force: “we now come to the case where a citizen becomes a prince not through crime or intolerable violence, but by the favour of his fellow-citizens, which may be called a civic principality.”[1] This text was one source of inspiration for the twentieth-century communist thinker Antonio Gramsci, who wrote about the possibility of creating a “Modern Prince.” This “Modern Prince” would take the form of a renewed and hegemonic communist party capable of waging a war of position against bourgeois hegemony.

Gramsci wrote that the new party should be formed by a democratic and creative collective power. Only by discrediting the worldview of the capitalist class and its allies could a revolutionary party hope to be successful in advanced capitalist social formations, where a complex network within civil society supported the bourgeois state. For Gramsci, the “Modern Prince” can only develop in certain conditions that reflect both popular discontent with the status quo as well as elements of a social new order.

Specifically Gramsci wrote “that the modern prince, the myth-prince cannot be a real person, a concrete individual. It can only be an organism, a complex element of society in which a collective will, which has already been recognized and has to some extent asserted itself in action, begins to take a concrete form.”[2] I contend that for the past fifteen years or so, a new form of collective will has been forming around anti-globalization forces.

In this paper I propose to present the rise of this new “Postmodern prince” based on the writings of neo-Gramscians such as Robert Cox and Stephen Gill. In my view the “Postmodern prince” can be understood as the coordination on a global scale of various social and political movements on the left who are slowly trying to unite in order to resist Neoliberalism. Neoliberalism can be broadly defined as a political and economic reinforcement of corporate and class power within contemporary states as well as globally.

Protests and the Formation of a New Collective Will

The protests against the ministerial meeting of the WTO in Seattle in 1999 brought major international attention to how the global economy of advanced capitalism was being managed. Many felt that the decisions made by their governments were not in the interests of the majority of the population.

Recently, in Toronto, the G20 summit witnessed both peaceful and violent protests against what is seen by activists as the restructuring of the world economy according to corporate interests. As early as 1965, Nicos Poulantzas[3] and, later, Jürgen Habermas wrote about the new problems arising from rapid growth and crisis in advanced-capitalist societies. Specifically Habermas wrote that “I am thinking here of disturbance to ecological balance, violation of the consistency requirements of the personality system (alienation) and potentially explosive strains on international relations.”[4]

Starting from a neo-Gramscian perspective, I propose looking at how governments, institutions, and groups in civil society are presently engaged in a struggle about the kind of future they wish to see realized. Two alternative projects presently confront each other. One is the creation of a free market utopia on a world scale. The other, according to Stephen Gill, is the creation of a counter-hegemonic movement that proposes a fairer world order.[5] As Robert Cox once wrote, the outcome will depend, as usual, on power relations among social groups.[6]

The economic crisis, which began to manifest itself as a more general social crisis in 2008, has only made the contradictions of contemporary capitalism sharper and the legitimacy of the ruling classes less solid. I suggest that, unless governments stop their pursuit of a neoliberal agenda they will face mounting opposition and will be forced to change course by social forces they will have unleashed through labor exploitation and poverty engendered by a deregulated world economy.

The neoliberal state-form, which appeared in advanced capitalist societies, was born out of the slow disintegration of the welfare-nationalist state which came to provide many services to what Antonio Gramsci called the subaltern classes such as basic education adapted to the needs of capital, healthcare services to insure the reproduction of the workforce, etc. Thus the state, especially in its welfare-nationalist form, could appear to represent the general interest of the society as a whole.[7]

Ideologically, the neoliberal counterattack culminated with Thatcherism in Great Britain and Reaganism in the United States during the 1980s. Politically and economically these neoliberal measures, which Cox calls hyperliberal strategies for expanded capitalist reproduction, have continued unabated until the recent economic crisis.

This capitalist counteroffensive first emerged with the downturn of the world economy during crisis of the 1970s. The dominant classes perceived their share of global wealth as being threatened and their rate of profit as diminishing. In the eyes of the ruling factions of the advanced capitalist states, overly generous social programs and excessive government regulations were the cause of this unpleasant situation.

Those in power came up with an alternative neoliberal vision of world order that can now be understood as a capitalist counteroffensive to reorganise the state-finance nexus. According to the geographer and economist David Harvey, “They [the wealthy] set in motion the radical reconstruction of the state-finance nexus (the national and then international deregulation of financial operations, the liberation of debt-financing, and the repositioning of the state apparatus with respect to social provision).”[8]

Globalization and the “Postmodern Prince”

In the 1990s Cox saw in certain groups and organizations of civil society a possibility of creating a new historic bloc based on more social and progressive values than those promoted by the hyperliberal model: “such social forces are emerging among women, environmentalists, peace activists, indigenous peoples, trade unions . . . to name but a few examples of popular sector movements that increasingly are opposed to the harmful consequences of globalization.”[9] Stephen Gill, another Neo-Gramscian, pursued this thought and tried to understand the loosely based coalitions around the anti-globalization movement as a new force capable of changing opinions about the new forms of state emerging in the twenty-first century.

When Gill says “postmodern” he does not mean it in the aesthetic or discursive senses but as a social vision which goes beyond the limits of contemporary capitalism in the same way Habermas wrote about the possibility of a “postmodern” society in Legitimation Crisis.[10] By “postmodern” Gill means “a set of conditions, particularly political, material and ecological that is giving rise to new forms of political agency whose defining myths are associated with the quest to ensure human and intergenerational security on and for the planet, as well as democratic human development and human rights.”[11] These forces are therefore both defensive, in terms of preserving viable living conditions for mankind, as well as pre-figurative of more egalitarian social relations.

Environmental groups have begun a dialogue with unionized workers, feminists with anti-racist organizations. The subaltern elements in society are developing a more unified critical consciousness of the costs associated with the unlimited pursuit of profits. The economic summits have given a forum for various sectors of society to discuss and denounce certain practices by states who have agreed to follow the globalization thrust toward deregulated capitalist accumulation: “what is significant here is that the new counter-movements seek to preserve ecological and cultural diversity against what they see as the encroachment of political, social and ecological monocultures associated with the supremacy of corporate rule.”[12]

These extreme neoliberal economic measures adopted by consensus in various economic summits and through institutions like the IMF and World Bank are no longer being ignored by the citizens who are affected by them. According to Gill, “the wider juridical-political framework for locking in such commitments can be called the new constitutionalism of disciplinary neo-liberalism.”[13] These commitments often lock out any kind of democratic control by citizens.

From a political standpoint, the change has been that whereas Poulantzas believed that the state preserved the political interests of the dominant classes by creating policies that lessened the effects of a deregulated economy, it is tending toward doing so much less today. As Habermas said, if the state form becomes more hyperliberal and the present crisis “allows fewer possibilities for problem solving than are necessary to the continued existence of the system,”[14] then we might be heading towards a crisis of hegemony. The rapidity with which states are now restricting the rights of protestors by criminalizing dissent to a certain extent is quite alarming in this respect.

The positive aspect of the situation is that various elements in civil society are struggling against economic exploitation and planetary destruction and are slowly but surely developing common ground. Gill even goes so far as to say that this new social force, the alliance and common goals shared by the various anti-globalization movement, can truly change the world, “a new ‘Post-Modern prince’ may prove to be the most effective political form for giving coherence to an open-ended, plural, inclusive and flexible form of politics and thus create alternatives to neo-liberal globalization.”[15] The alternative to joining these struggles is to let the powerful create even greater inequalities.


1. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince and The Discourses (New York: Random House, 1950), p. 35.

2. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1980), p. 129.

3. Nicos Poulantzas, See “Preliminaries to the study of hegemony in the State,” in The Poulantzas Reader, Marxism, Law and the State, ed. James Martin, (London: Verso, 2008).

4. Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975), p. 41.

5. Stephen Gill, “The Post-Modern Prince,” in Power and Resistance in the New World Order (New York: Palgrave, 2003), p. 211.

6. Robert Cox, “The Global Political Economy and Social Choice” (1991), in Approaches to World Order (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996) p. 191.

7. Poulantzas, “Preliminaries to the study of hegemony in the State,” p. 82.

8. David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital (Oxford: Oxford UP) p. 131.

9. Cox, “The Global Political Economy and Social Choice,” p. 191.

10. See Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, p. 17.

11. Gill, “The Post-Modern Prince,” p. 211.

12. Ibid., p. 214.

13. Ibid., p. 212.

14. Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, p. 2.

15. Gill, “The Post-Modern Prince,” p. 221.

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