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Robert Cox is a Canadian political scientist and former UN officer. He was first to introduce the Gramscian concept of hegemony to the international relations (IR) studies and ever enriching the concept to better fit with the global events and transformation since 1980s. Cox starts the discussion by showing where he stands, and claiming that observation may lead us to ‘profound abstractions’, but it is the empirical analysis that can take us into the right conclusion of understanding reality (Cox 1981: 126). As a historical materialist, Cox explains the subject through its historical development and origins. After analyzing and criticizing the traditional IR theory, Realism, Neo-Realism, and as well as the problem-solving theoretical approaches, attempts to put emphasis on his empirical, comparative, and historical materialist analyses to theorize his critical hypothesis of hegemony, social forces, states, and world orders beyond the traditional IR theory. He claims that IR theory was initially the distinction between states and societies, and the overall interactions amongst the states regarding to the consequences of peace and war, and defining the states based on their foreign policies and interests (Cox 1981: 126-27). Nevertheless, by the time he was writing this essay in 1980s, IR studies concerned themselves with the interconnectedness of the states and societies, especially the civil societies as two opposite tides merged together, but such approach blurred the overall vision to comprehend them. This led to the separation of IR into two main groups; one sees states as the main actors (thesis), another believes that transnational entities and none-state actors are playing big roles (anti-thesis), yet neglecting the significance of state/society complexes which Cox establishes his perspective on (synthesis) (Cox 1981: 127-28). 

On the one hand, the Marxists broadened the state dimension by putting emphasis on the social dimensions; on the other hand, some portraited purely abstract version of state based on capitalist mode of production. Cox also mentions that there is another group who believes that culture and ideology are the locus of points and areas where to be considered (Cox 1981: 127). Cox thinks that none of them came up with reflective explanations to the historical development and the interconnectedness of all of the above. Moreover, while some radicals believe humanity can departs from history, the conservatives claim that we cannot escape history, and they try to conserve liberal political economic principles (Cox 1981: 128-30). Both sides are unaware of the fact, Cox claims, that historical development is what made the political and economic schemas. However, despite the continuity of history, changes within the world orders, states, and social forces are also inventible (Cox 1981: 130-35). The core-periphery analysis brought about two other perspectives; the radical approach (world systems analysis) that claims the strong (dominant) sates are located in the core and the weak (subordinated) circumscribed within the periphery, while the second one focuses on the structural-functional sociology (Cox 1981: 127-28). Both are perceiving the world in a merely hierarchical or vertical structure, regardless of the fact that there are weak (subordinated) states within the core, as well as, rising powers and emerging markets within the periphery in horizontal and/or multinodal structures of dialectic interplay and power relations amongst the classes/states domestically and globally. Cox wisely described theories as perspectives perceived based on spacetime particularly in political and social dimensions (Cox 1981: 128).

In another mean, he is aware that theories are not methods to discover natural economic or political laws, but hypotheses to theorize and conceptualize the global, state, and social structures through different lenses of vision that are shaped by specific core-beliefs (schemas) and historical developments in particular spacetime spectrum. By this, he means that theories and concepts in the social sciences especially in IR and IPE can never be proved as facts, and they are in constant modification, transition, and rejection due to their shortcomings with time. For Cox, there are two main types of theories, that have two different approaches, for two different purposes. In another mean, he believes that theories are made to serve particular purposes (Cox 1981: 128- 29). Problem-solving theory is to define the world as it is by analyzing relationships and institutions and how to make these relationships and institutions within the given world, state, or social orders function smoothly by focusing on one or few particularities and coming up with alternatives for a particular aspect in the overall system that cannot be changed. Such theories are valid during stability. Therefore, they contribute to keep the dynamic continuity of the systems. The other type of theory is critical theory which its locus of focus is not merely on the institutions and relationships within the systems, but tries to demonstrate how they came into being, where are the dysfunctions, and what are the possibilities for systemic changes. Thus, they can be valid during systemic instability and transition. While the former is inductive reasoning, the latter is deductive and does not necessarily come up with an alternative but tries to give an adequate understating of the systems and how they function (Cox 1981: 128-30). Cox departs from the former and mostly sides with his critical theory through historical materialism tradition to empirically historicize the IPE development, demonstrate the global system, and come up with three predictions for the future. 

Although not every aspect of his essay is mentioned above, the core elements and what he circles around are explained so that his stance to be critically analyzed. One of the most efficient methods Cox uses is comparative analysis and to synthesize all the opposing arguments to craft his own. Consequently, he could remove the weak points and merge the profound aspects, yet in a fluid notion that is not immune to critiques. Also, by knowing and being aware of the importance of spacetime, he makes readers to learn from the essay without thinking so much about the flaws and imperfections while he himself claims it is not comprehensive and irreplaceable. When it comes to hegemony for instance, unlike the former doctrines of supremacy which is only preserved by force, he deliberately demonstrates the essence of material capabilities (content), ideas/ideologies (form), and institutions all together to establish hegemony through class dialectic within a defined territory or states interaction and disputation within the world system. Moreover, hegemony is sustained by both coercion and consent (Cox 1981: 135-38). While domination and subordination have always existed, yet their relations are not subtle and unchangeable. The hegemon will decline, and the subordinated will rise. Also, when it comes to changes and interactions on domestic and global scales, social forces, forms of states, and world orders are all highly integrated and interrelated (Cox 1981: 141-44). Thus, changes in social forces lead to changes in forms of states, and consequently changes in world orders and vice versa and so on. To add more to that, changes in modes of production, either by classes, states, or hegemons will result in changes in the other sectors and spheres and so forth (Cox 1981: 144-49). 

Eventually, Cox’s critical theory can be criticized based on two main points. First, while he was writing the essay in 1980s, the Reaganism in particular and Thatcherism were under way through financial globalization via the neoliberal apparatuses, yet Cox might not be well aware of such tendency and believed that the financial capital is resurfacing as a ‘prominent’ force (Cox 1981: 147). Whereas, such a force/class reigned or may still reign a ‘hegemonic’ era based on fictional consent and virtual coercion through digitalization and financialization of global economy neglecting the diverse social forces, states’ interests, and different political and economic developmental paces by imposing the ‘Golden Straitjacket’ policies. Another important aspect that he can be criticized for is to come up with his ambiguous three dimensional predictions of future, which shows his incapability to foretell the forthcoming hegemon (Cox 1981: 149- 51). One can sense that he is trying to avoid future criticism. Meanwhile the first prediction fell short to precisely define the next hegemon, the world has become multipolar ever since. The second scenario is more palpable with reality, yet we still sense the segments of the former hegemonic order. The last and maybe the least foreseeable scenario to Cox, can be applied more to the current global systemic changes while China, Russia, and the rise of the rest are signals to the formation of a counter-hegemonic bloc. However, they do not necessarily or fundamentally defy the existing hegemonic bloc, but they try to fit in and flourish within the global capitalist order. 

Arez Barzinjy 

Bachelor of Arts in International Studies and Law at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani

Studies Master’s Degree in Global Political Economy and Development at University of Kassel, Germany


Refereed Text: Cox, Robert. “Social Forces, States, World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory.” Millennium-Journal of International Studies, (1981): 126-155.