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New Left Review I/143, January-February 1984

Mike Davis

The Political Economy of Late-Imperial America

Conventional definitions of American post-war ‘hegemony’ have focused on the sheer preponderance of economic and military power concerted through an atomic-military monopoly, monetary sovereignty, overseas investment, and historic differentials of productivity and mass consumption. Accordingly, from a baseline in the late 1940s when the conjunction of all these factors promoted the hubris of an ‘American Century’, it is possible to plot a relative decline of American hegemony as the coordinates of economic power have changed in favour of Western Europe and Japan. Despite the strategic importance of shifts in per capita gdp, trade balances, or manufacturing export shares, however, it remains a truism that statistics seldom speak for themselves, or in one voice. For example, it is not automatically clear which macro-trend is the more meaningful: the relative erosion of us economic supremacy or the tendential equalization of production and consumption norms among the three heartlands of advanced capitalism. Nor is there a unilateral determinancy between indices of economic competitiveness and the structures of political and military domination. In truth, a simple ‘balance of power’ approach frustratingly yields more dilemmas of this type than it provides clear-cut answers. A better methodology, in my opinion, is to define ‘hegemony’ not as a single, all-embracing power relation—radiating through various instances—but as a dynamic system which unifies accumulation, legitimation and repression on a world scale. In this sense, American hegemony is a historically specific form of adequation between the capitalist state system and the world economy.

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