Imperialism: Hegemonic Powers and Contender States

This article will attempt to both theoretically and historically – albeit somewhat schematically -- explain the relationship between a hegemonic power and the rise of contender states in a capitalist world shaped by imperialism. It will also attempt to demonstrate the enormous power that a liberal state-form provides capitalism, especially in its phase of real domination. Finally, it will survey the prospects for a challenge to the hegemony of American imperialism by one or several prospective contender states over the medium term. (1)

The development of capitalism has entailed imperialism from its very inception. The capitalist accumulation process is inseparable from imperialism. As Paul Mattick put it more than six decades ago: “The insatiable need for ever more and more profits, the fact that capitalism is nothing but profit production, makes it necessary to explain the driving forces behind imperialist actions in terms of economic categories. More than that, whatever the phenomenon that may be brought forward to explain imperialism, as, for instance, the ideological arguments, the desire for security, for land and raw materials, the monopolization of markets, capital export, strategic-military requirements, or anything else, can be reduced finally to its simplest terms: capitalism’s vital necessity to accumulate profits.” (2) Certainly any imperialist project is over-determined by a complex of factors. Nonetheless the imperative of accumulation is decisive in its explanation. Moreover, conflict between rival capitals is unavoidable, clashes and wars inevitable. As Mattick goes on to say: “Capital must expand or disintegrate. In either case nations, blocs of nations, or continents must of necessity encroach upon the interests of other nations and coalitions.” (3) The result is inter-imperialist conflict.

Indeed, even before capitalist social relations of production were firmly established, mercantilism, colonial expansion, and the slave trade shaped the imperialist politics of the most powerful European absolutist states. The development of capitalism, the consolidation of its social relations and property forms, the rise of the bourgeoisie, also entailed the emergence of a hegemonic power astride the world system in formation. That hegemonic power, of course, was Britain. While Britain was the site where capitalist social relations of production were first consolidated, its global hegemony was also the result of a series of successful wars against the French contender state, beginning in the seventeenth century -- a process that culminated at Waterloo. That hegemony rested in large part on the ability of British capital to construct a series of industrial, commercial, and financial institutions and networks that established it as the veritable core or center of the emerging political economy. These included the vital role of the Bank of England and the city of London in assuring the smooth functioning of the Gold Standard, and controlling the financial networks essential to capital. Yet, slowly over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the British and American economies combined into an emerging trans-Atlantic economy, with the balance of power shifting towards the latter. The rapid growth of American industrial capacity, the enormous financial power of Wall Street, and even the US’s burgeoning military power (the parity, grudgingly accepted by London, between the British and American fleets in the Treaty of Washington, 1922, was a landmark here) combined to transform the US from a junior partner of Britain into the presumptive hegemonic power in the capitalist world system in the aftermath of World War One. World War Two completed the consolidation of American imperialism, with its industrial, financial, and military supremacy, as the veritable hegemon of the global capitalist system – one shaped by a network of institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, and now the WTO, all controlled by the US. While this process certainly occasioned resistance from the British ruling class, confronted by a choice between German or American global hegemony, London’s decision to choose to become the junior partner of American imperialism is not difficult to understand, especially when one considers the elaborate network of financial, corporate, military, and cultural links between their respective capitalist classes.

What, then, of contender states that challenged first British and then American global hegemony over the capitalist world market? After the defeat of Napoleon, and the end of the French challenge to British hegemony, it would be Germany that would emerge as a serious contender state in the decades after its unification in 1870. The defeat of German imperialism in World War One, a defeat in which the US played a decisive role, might have led to the incorporation of Germany into the world system under Anglo-American hegemony. However, the shattering of the basic institutional structures of the global capitalist system under the impact of the Great Depression, instead led Germany to make one more bid for global hegemony, even as Japan challenged Anglo-American supremacy regionally in East Asia and the Pacific. The defeat of these contender states then left only Russia as a serious contender state with which the American hegemon would have to contend for the next four decades, until the collapse of the Stalinist regime. It is not the history of the unfolding of the conflicts between the Anglo-American hegemonic power and its rival, contender, states, which I want to explore now, but rather the very different political or state systems that historically have characterized the hegemon on the one hand, and the contender states on the other. These different state systems are no mere superstructure, no epiphenomenon, of little or no consequence, but rather crucial elements in the very power of the hegemon; key factors in its hegemony over the global capitalist system.

Both the British and American hegemons were characterized by a liberal political or state system. I will argue that this state-form was not incidental to their hegemony; nor did they possess liberal state-forms just because of their hegemonic role in the world capitalist system. Rather, I want to argue that a liberal state, and the contingent historical factors that created and shaped it, was itself a critical element in the very power that made, first Britain and then the US, the hegemonic capitalist power. The liberal state, as it developed in Britain and the US, with its parliamentary system in the former and its constitutional system, based on a separation of powers in the latter, with its electoral systems, which permitted both the formation of strong governments and a rotation of political teams in power, with its legal system and recognition of individual and corporate rights, all coalesced to provide the institutional guarantees of law and order which maximized the potential for the development of a system based on commodification and the law of value, even as the state apparatus itself operated only indirectly in broad areas of social and economic life. Indeed, under the auspices of the liberal state, the value form and the exchange mechanism could spread from the point of immediate production throughout the economic sphere, and then into the political and cultural spheres, finally re-shaping the very subjectivity of each individual until it was consonant with the mechanisms of value production. Indeed, to speak of a liberal state does not at all contradict the claim, that I also want to make, that this is a totalitarian state-form; a state-form that permits capital to maximize its control over every sphere of social and private life; indeed a state-form that tendentially destroys what was once the hallmark of the bourgeois world: civil society, and especially the bourgeois public space, and the private realm. Where the public space and the private realm preserved considerable autonomy under the formal domination of capital, the liberal state has facilitated the penetration of the law of value into these once autonomous spheres of social existence, and their subordination to the capitalist state. In short, this is a state-form within which the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital could be seamlessly brought about.

By contrast, contender states, historically weaker in terms of their capitalist organization and structures of power, have been characterized by a state-form that becomes the veritable locus of capital accumulation. In an effort to “catch up” with the hegemonic power and prevent itself from being incorporated into its institutional and power structures, the contender state apparatus itself directly becomes the fulcrum of economic growth, organization, and control. Given the relative weakness of contender states vis à vis the imperialist hegemon, statism is both an expression of that weakness, as well as a necessity. It is the very weakness of the contender state in terms of capital accumulation, and its institutional structures and circuits, which leads it to compensate for that weakness by a more direct reliance on the power of the state apparatus. As a result, state monopolies, nationalization, exchange and capital controls, a single party, secret police and state sponsored block associations, censorship, internal passports, compulsory job assignments, and “voluntary” workdays, are all hallmarks of contender states. Yet, the level of control over the population thereby achieved pales by comparison with the effective control over human life attained by the hegemonic power and its liberal state. The totalitarianism of the Nazi or Stalinist state, incomparable in their violence and brutality, turns out to be a misnomer, when compared to the ruthless effectiveness of the multiple control mechanisms characteristic of the liberal state, especially in times of “emergency” or war. Here, a comparison of the war economies in Britain, the US, and Nazi Germany during World War Two is illuminating. Whereas Britain and the US mobilized millions of women to replace men in the factories, the Nazi regime, fearful of civil discontent, relied on the forced labor of foreigners to replace men at the front. The outcome was both low out-put in German factories as slave laborers resisted the demands of their masters, in contrast to the patriotism that prevailed in Britain and the US, as well as a generalized resentment and resistance to the demands of the Nazi regime throughout “fortress Europe.” The difference between reliance on force and coercion by the Nazi contender regime, and the effectiveness of the multiple circuits of control and “democratic” mobilization in Britain and the US, is directly linked to the liberal state-form in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Indeed, here is an issue where revolutionaries need to reject the tradition of the communist left in its confrontation with fascism and Stalinism. The communist left never really understood the significance of liberalism and its state-form. Thus, as the German left (in exile) confronted the specter of fascism, for Otto Rühle, Paul Mattick, and Karl Korsch, liberalism and democracy appeared as weak forms of bourgeois rule, historically condemned to disappear when confronted by the more “robust” and purportedly efficient red and brown fascism (to use Rühle’s terms), i.e. Nazism and Stalinism. For these theorists, the very survival of the Anglo-American regimes would necessitate their transformation from liberal regimes into fascist ones in order to defeat their imperialist rivals. That the liberal regimes in Britain or the US had more control over their populations, and achieved a better organization of the economy, than their fascist antagonists, was incomprehensible to these comrades. With the defeat of Nazism, the communist left persisted in seeing liberalism as a weak and outdated state-form: thus, both the Gauche communiste de France and Socialisme ou barbarie claimed that capitalism could see its own future in the purportedly better organized state capitalism ensconced in Stalinist Russia. It was not their conviction that capitalism in this epoch had to be totalitarian that was mistaken, but rather their inability to see that the liberal state could be a far more effective form for the totalitarian control of society than either fascism or Stalinism.

The liberal state, in its classical form in the nineteenth century, in the form of “corporate liberalism” and Keynesianism in much of the twentieth century, and in the form of “neo-liberalism” over the past quarter of a century, has presided over the creation and consolidation of the global capitalist market, under Anglo-American hegemony. Neo-liberalism, and its purported reliance on market mechanisms and “privatization” may, and probably will, give way to new institutional forms to grapple with the intractable issues spawned by a global capitalist economy, but short of a virtually complete breakdown of the prevailing capitalist economic and financial structures, it seems clear that the liberal state will reinvent itself and provide the political framework within which the global capitalist economy will most effectively function. Indeed, the very suppleness of this state-form, its ability to organize, manage, and control social life, means that the capitalist hegemon will not easily give it up. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a state-form better suited to the hegemonic capital in this epoch, where its tasks include the coordination of the global accumulation process and the modes of subjectification and control made possible by capital’s unprecedented power over life, both linked to the development of techno-science and its centrality to the real subsumption of labor to capital. Moreover, within the ambit of a liberal state and a global capitalist economy, the very physiognomy of the capitalist class has been transformed. From the old, left, Club of Rome, to the right, Mount Pèlerin Society, to the meetings of the IMF, and through a network of corporate board rooms based on trans-Atlantic, indeed global, shareholdings, to military exchanges at the highest levels and ongoing governmental linkages (the G7, for example), an increasingly global capitalist class has emerged under American hegemony.

This brings us to the question of new challenges to the American hegemon, the prospects for new contender states, perhaps anti-liberal in their state-forms, on both the regional and global levels. Indeed, within the revolutionary milieu, and especially in the face of the debacle of American policy in Iraq, and its global implications, there is widespread talk of a challenge to the dollar as the global reserve currency of the capitalist world by the Euro, of the determination of Russia to use its vast oil and gas reserves as a political weapon, perhaps in conjunction with Iran’s efforts to reshape the Middle East, and especially of the challenge to American hegemony represented by a rapidly growing China.

While Euro holdings by central banks have dramatically increased, so have dollar holdings, and there seems to be no concerted move to directly challenge the dollar as the reserve currency of the capitalist world. The tentative moves by Iran, and by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, to denominate the price of oil in Euros, not dollars, have remained just a threat. Indeed, the denomination of oil in cheap dollars (relative to a strong Euro) means lower oil prices for Europe, which for the moment means that the EU has little interest in such a move. But what is important here is that talk of a switch from the dollar to the Euro as the reserve currency is not linked to any moves on the part of European capital to challenge the hegemonic role of the US in the world capitalist system. Despite the weight of the EU in the global economy, the key elements for a challenge to American hegemony by European capital are lacking. Any prospective challenge on the part of European capital would have to be based on the complete political unification of the EU, and on the development of an independent military capacity, and a distinct culture, a European nationalism, with a concept of a nation-Europe, opposed to “colonization” by America, even as it would have to presuppose the breaking of the innumerable links that over the past fifty years have forged a trans-Atlantic capitalist class. As the debacle of the European constitution showed, even the tentative steps to forge a European political entity, or state-form, have been, for the moment, a failure, and the steps to redraft the constitution, and try again, are not seen as a threat by the American hegemon. Moreover, as far as the military is concerned, Europe remains dependent on the US for, technology, logistics, planning, and even combat units, the evidence for which can be seen in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the vision of a militant European nationalism as part of a coherent political project directed against American hegemony still remains largely confined to the extreme right and left fringes of the political and cultural spectrum, where it manifests itself in visions of an alliance between Europe and the Arab–Islamic world against American imperialism or dreams of a Franco-German-Russian condominium to challenge the US, neither with significant support within the capitalist class. And within the EU itself, the American hegemon can count on the support of a ring of states from Britain to Poland, to the Baltic republics and now the Balkans, who clearly prefer the American link to a Europe dominated by Germany and France, further indications that the path to European unity will not be smooth. In the absence of a breakdown of the global capitalist economic system forged by the US over the course of the past century, which would dramatically transform the capitalist landscape, it is difficult to see the conditions coming together that would propel Europe on a path to challenge the global hegemony of American imperialism.

What of China, whose economic growth and military expansion has been prodigious? While the European capitalist classes lack the will at the present time to directly challenge the American hegemon, the Chinese capitalist class, which may indeed have the will, lacks the resources to mount such a challenge. Mesmerized by the rapid growth of the Chinese economy, and the transformation of its urban landscape over the past few decades, it is all too easy to overlook the extent of the backwardness of China, its enormous agrarian sector, the numerical and social weight of its vast peasant population, and the enormous difficulty of incorporating the mass of its population into an industrial, let alone post-Fordist, economy. What took Europe centuries to accomplish, for example, Chinese capital must attempt to accomplish in decades, lest social unrest threaten to overwhelm its state-form and the power of its ruling class. Moreover, while one faction of Chinese capital seems content to integrate itself into the global division of labor prescribed by the American hegemon, to permit China to serve as a reservoir for cheap but disciplined labor for the production of consumer goods exported to Europe and America, another faction, perhaps the dominant one, seeks to transform China into at least a regional hegemon in East Asia – a project that is a direct threat to American capital. If China is not to be directly subjected to American hegemony, this latter faction of Chinese capital, with its power base in the military, the single party, and the state apparatus, will have to challenge American hegemony in East Asia. However, that project will likely be resisted by the other capitalist states of the region, the Asian tigers, for whom the rise of China to regional power can only be seen as mortal danger, one that will drive them more firmly under the shelter of the American hegemon. This is also the case for Japan, now the biggest investor in China, but whose own capitalist class will probably see the rise of Chinese power more as a threat than an opportunity. For Japanese capital, for both economic and historical reasons, the American hegemon seems far less of a danger than a putative Chinese hegemon, and as China extends her political and military reach in East Asia, Japan can be expected to draw closer to the US. Indeed, Japan and the tigers to her East, and a rapidly growing India to her West, both nestled within a global economy dominated by the US, will serve to check Chinese imperial ambitions. (4) My point is not to foreclose the prospect of a Chinese challenge to American imperial hegemony, but rather to highlight the formidable obstacles that any such challenge will face.

Clearly in a capitalist world, the hegemonic power, no matter how firmly established, will inevitably face imperialist challenges. The dialectic of hegemon and contender states is a hallmark of the life of capital, and economic crisis will only heighten these tendencies. The dialectic of hegemonic power and contender states in a capitalist world is definitely not a theory of super-imperialism, of a worldwide cartel of capitals that would supersede imperialist antagonisms. Those antagonisms are integral to the dialectic of hegemon and contender state that I have traced. Indeed, significant tensions exist between capitalist states within the orbit of American hegemony, and regional challenges to the American hegemon abound especially in Central Asia and the Middle East. However, in trying to evaluate the prospects for continued American hegemony over the capitalist world, it is important to recognize the enormous economic, financial, political, military, and cultural, power of the American hegemon, established over the course of more than a century, relative to any contender state or states. While a massive global economic breakdown or financial collapse would shatter the bases of American hegemony, until that occurs, in my view, analyses of the imperialist balance of forces, both regionally and globally, too often underestimate the power of the American hegemon, and its profound bases in the very structuration of the capitalist world today. Indeed, the real and realistic challenge to American hegemony comes not from a contender state, an inter-imperialist rival, but from the global working class, which alone constitutes a challenge to the awesome power of capital.

Mac Intosh


1. Despite considerable theoretical differences, the work of Kees van der Pijl, Transnational Classes and International Relations (Routledge, 1998) based on a vision of the capitalist world divided into a “Lockean heartland” and “Hobbesian contender states,” has helped shape the following analysis.

2. “The War is Permanent,” Living Marxism, spring 1940, p.5.

3. Ibid., p. 21.

4. Indian capital, in contrast to Chinese, seems content to play a role as a regional power within the global system shaped by American imperialism. Unlike Chinese capitalism, Indian capitalism is far more open to the international financial networks established by the US, and given the danger its Hindu ruling class sees in the Islamic world, far less likely to challenge American hegemony regionally.

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