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New Left Review 32, March-April 2005


In the first part of a major engagement with David Harvey’s New Imperialism, Giovanni Arrighi sets out the interlocking dynamics, spatial and temporal, of capitalist development and imperialism. Should US difficulties in Iraq and the ballooning current-account deficit be read as symptoms of a deeper-lying crisis, a shift from hegemony to dominance presaging the rise of a new East Asian challenger?

GIOVANNI ARRIGHI

HEGEMONY UNRAVELLING—1

The ‘E’ and ‘I’ words, empire and imperialism, are back in fashion. Their return is not due, pace John Ikenberry, to the advent of the ‘American unipolar age’ in which ‘[f]or the first time in the modern era, the world’s most powerful state can operate on the global stage without the constraints of other great powers’. [1] John Ikenberry, ‘Illusions of Empire: Defining the New American Order’, Foreign Affairs, March–April 2004. I would like to thank Andre Gunder Frank, Antonina Gentile, Greta Krippner, Thomas Ehrlich Reifer, Mark Selden, Steve Sherman, Arthur Stinchcombe and Charles Tilly for their comments on previous papers, parts of which have been incorporated in this article; Benjamin Brewer and Beverly Silver for their comments on the article itself; and Ravi Palat for incessantly bombarding me with evidence for and against my theses. That age had begun with the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, yet throughout the 1990s the buzz-word was ‘globalization’, not empire or imperialism; and as Ikenberry himself notes, the unparalleled global power of the United States was generally discussed under the rubric of ‘hegemony’. Even critical thinkers—including many Marxists—found the concepts of empire and imperialism of little analytical use. [2] Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, ‘Global Capitalism and American Empire’, in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, eds, The New Imperial Challenge, London 2003, pp. 2–3. In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, Bruce Cumings claimed that it would have taken an electron microscope to detect the use of the word ‘imperialism’ to describe the United States’ role in the world. [3] Bruce Cumings, ‘Global Realm with no Limit, Global Realm with no Name’, Radical History Review 57, 1993, pp. 47–8. Hyperbole, of course; but the exaggeration contained an important element of truth.

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