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 establishment, and of the international monetary system testify to a process of disintegration. This does not mean that the old order of us hegemony will suddenly be replaced by a new hegemony, nor does it mean that socialist revolutions will sweep the developed and underdeveloped worlds. It means, however, that there has been a perceptible decline in the capacity of the United States to control other nations and a dramatic increase in the capitalist world system’s vulnerability to economic and political disorder. Such a state of affairs can continue for some time, but a disintegrating international order is still very different from a stable one.

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.

Even if one assumes that the third-world nations lack the strength or resolve to press these demands, there has already been a sharp deterioration in the ability of the usa (in co-operation with other capitalist powers and the major international economic agencies) to impose economic discipline on third-world nations. In the fifties and sixties, it was an easy matter to force third-world nations to accept periodic devaluations, orthodox liberal economic policies, and prohibitions on state participation in potentially profitable activities. Teresa Hayter (Aid as Imperialism), Cheryl Payer (The Debt Trap), and others have shown how these forms of discipline worked to perpetuate dependency and to block a leftward shift in national policy. But now, third-world governments are violating these ‘rules of the game’ with impunity: they borrow from each other to avoid resort to the International Monetary Fund, they exercise increasing control over trade and capital flows, and they pursue state capitalist policies in agriculture and industry. The fact that the United States has been forced to accept such changes, and its capitalists have occasionally profited from them, does not mean that both government and capitalists do not vastly prefer the good old days.

In regard to Japan and Western Europe, Petras and Rhodes perpetuate a basic misunderstanding of inter-imperialist conflict. They argue that the eec’s and particularly Japan’s economic dependence on the United States and internal problems of class conflict make unlikely any serious challenge by them to us hegemony. They fail to realize that a high level of economic interdependence and intense class struggle can be preconditions for serious inter-imperialist conflict. Capitalist states generally do not seek out inter-imperialist conflicts; such conflicts are thrust upon them when a particular nation experiences a contradiction between its position in the world system and its efforts to contain its own working class. When such a contradiction develops, the state in that nation might attempt to cool the class struggle domestically by forcing its major trading partners to make critical economic concessions. If its partners refuse, the result can be trade wars and escalating political and economic conflict. While such a scenario does not seem an immediate prospect for Western European nations or Japan, it is important to recognize that the representatives of their respective ruling classes are more likely to risk such a conflict with the United States from desperation, rather than from strength.