The article by James Petras and Robert Rhodes (‘The Reconsolidation of us Hegemony’, nlr 97) makes an important point in criticizing some interpretations of the decline of United States hegemony. However, their attempt to provide an alternative analysis ignores a number of important recent developments in the world economy and suffers from the same methodological weaknesses that plague the ‘conjunctural analyses’ that they criticize. The consequence is that they leave us with the erroneous impression that American hegemony has been restored to its pre-Vietnam glory.
The prediction that the usa would soon be displaced from its dominant role in the world system by the eec or Japan has been implicit in some discussions of declining us hegemony and intensifying inter-imperialist conflict. It is clear, by now, that such a prediction was wrong. Neither Japan nor the eec has shown the capacity or willingness to attempt to displace the United States, although they have struggled to alter the way in which the latter exercises its leadership. It is this erroneous prediction and some of the assumptions behind it that Petras and Rhodes criticize, but they mistakenly go on to reject the very notion of a decline in us hegemony.
It would have been more fruitful to have re-thought the concept of a decline in international hegemony. Some earlier formulations tended toward a simplistic, horse-race model of international hegemony—the kind of model that became popular during the Cold War years of us-Soviet competition. If the United States began to slow down in the stretch, there was a good chance that Japan or the eec would pull into the lead in the international capitalist sweepstakes. The capitalist world economy has seen a succession of hegemonic powers, but the process of displacement does not occur from one day to the next. It has always been punctuated by long periods of international disorganization, wars, economic crises, and the opening of new periods of capitalist expansion. The present period is one of increasing international disorganization; in fact, it is useful to conceptualize the decline of us hegemony as a gradual unravelling of the institutional fabric of us global domination. The entire set of structures that the United States imposed on the rest of the capitalist world in the aftermath of the Second World War has begun to come apart. The more-or-less simultaneous crises of the Imperial Presidency (Watergate), of the nato alliance (including the instability in Europe’s Southern Tier), of the us intelligence establish
Petras and Rhodes point to the failure or weakness of the Left in particular nations as evidence of us strength. They seem oblivious to the possibility that there might be real, internal obstacles to socialist revolution in these nations. They also miss the point that was developed by Paolo Flores and Franco Moretti in regard to Italy (‘Paradoxes of the Italian Political Crisis’, nlr 96), that it is possible for the Right and the Left to be weak and divided at the same time. Despite their assertion that ‘the capitalist system will not collapse under the weight of its own contradictions’, they adhere to a zero-sum model in which if the capitalists are weak, then the Left must be strong, and if the Left is weak, the capitalists must be strong.
Petras and Rhodes focus on the recent right-wing coups in Latin America, but they ignore the leftward thrust in other parts of the third world. As important as the triumph of revolutionary movements in Southern Africa and the radicalization in the Caribbean (particularly in Guyana and Jamaica) has been the generalized challenge by third-world nations to the ‘rules of the game’ of the capitalist world economy. While there is undoubtedly a substantial rhetorical component to third-world demands for ‘a new international economic order’, the pressures for high and stabilized commodity prices and for a reduction in the third world’s debt burden have real consequences. Even if these are not objectively anti-capitalist demands, they threaten to reduce the size of the surplus that is transferred from developing to developed nations.