Arrighi II

Giovanni Arrighi’s “Hegemony Unravelling 2” is, frankly, rather disappointing. I commented on “Hegemony Unravelling 1” in an earlier entry. This second installment continues the argument that US global dominance is in terminal decline, and compares the end of this particular capitalist “spatial fix” with the successive declines of Genoa, the United Provinces, and Great Britain, each of which anchored earlier “cycles of accumulation.”

Unlike Hardt and Negri, however, who likewise claim that the current global system is shortly coming to an end, Arrighi believes that it will merely be superseded by a new system, this time with China in the driving seat: just as the US was the beneficiary of European wars in the first half of the twentieth century, so it is “China” that is “the real winner of the War on Terrorism” (115).

But as for “whether this ‘victory’ can translate into a new global spatial fix and what such a fix will look like” (115), Arrighi declines to elaborate. He has even less to say about the “less violent and more benevolent alternatives” that he invokes in his article’s dying breath (116).

Meanwhile, of hegemony in the Gramscian sense of order secured through consent, all Arrighi adds is the notion that the US has, since Vietnam, moved from offering protection against real external threats to operating a “protection racket” that provides security only from threats (real or imagined) that it itself generates. Hence states such as Japan and Germany, acting as rational actors in the global game of fiscal and political trust, have withdrawn their support from US overseas adventures, leaving the global hegemon for the first time to shoulder the military, political, and economic costs of its imperial project: “the failure of George W. Bush to make US clients pay for the second Iraq war [. . .] can be taken as a sign that by then the United States had lost both hegemoney [i.e. the ability to extort tribute] and hegemony [i.e. legitimacy]” (112).

The rise and fall of empires obeys, for Arrighi, the logic of some profound universal and transhistorical set of laws. There’s precious little room here for agency on the part either of the dominant or the dominated. Occasionally it is suggested that Bush’s neoconversative team made mistakes, for instance by “pushing” the American protection racket “too far” (113), but really it hardly seems to matter as, Arrighi suggests, US decline is as inevitable as, in retrospect, was the sun setting on the British Empire a century or so ago.

And as for the notion that subalterns (the proletariat, the Third World, or whatever) might become historical actors: well, Arrighi seems to be saying, forget about it.

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