Newsletter #28: Hegemony, Order, and Rivalry Before the West, with Ayşe Zarakol

By Mack Penner

I had to listen to Ayşe Zarakol’s interview with The Dig twice — once for unalloyed historical interest, once for analytical implications. The historical interest component is pretty obvious: Zarakol discusses eastern world orders from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, ranging across Asia and eventually getting into Europe, too. From the Ming Dynasty to the Habsburgs, Zarakol also discusses almost literally everything in between. The episode is more than two hours long, but I almost wish it was four.

The implications of Zarakol’s analysis are manifold. I want to focus, however, on the nature of geopolitical rivalry and competing orders. In her book Before the West, Zarakol makes the point that the crises which threatened historical world orders were not generally the products of rivalry, “but rather structural dynamics such as climate change, epidemics, demographic decline, monetary problems, and so on.” In fact, Zarakol argues, rivalries often strengthened historical orders by deepening accepted norms between competing powers and reifying the principles on which those norms were based.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

To make this point, Zarakol invokes the idea of an “ecumene.” In her book, she writes, “the ecumene is the deep normative well from which notions of ‘power,’ ‘sovereignty,’ ‘legitimacy,’ and so on are derived at any given time. It appears natural, unchanging, with alternatives unthinkable.” The terms of geopolitical rivalry, then, are established ecumenically, and order is not threatened by rivalries in which either side shares the same ecumenical assumptions.

Can we read the present moment in this way? Sure. Perhaps we could say that Sino-American rivalry is grounded in ecumenical capitalism, and thus does not carry systemic implications. As I noted in newsletter #22, the work of Dig guest Ho-fung Hung and other observers like Branko Milanovic suggests that capitalism is under no great threat from rivalry between the United States and China. Structural factors — climate change being foremost among them — are where the ecumenical action is.

Further Reading and Listening Zarakol’s use of the ecumene concept is helpful especially for the way it distinguishes mere dominance, or supremacy, from more fundamental normative assumptions. In general, this distinction can be hard to come by.

Consider the fate of a more familiar concept: hegemony. Not too long ago, hegemony was mainly an arcane Marxist concept. Today, you might encounter the word just about anywhere. This diffusion has come with a conceptual watering down. Especially as developed by Antonio Gramsci, hegemony refers to something like the “deep normative well” that Zarakol describes, but it is rarely used with such meaning. Instead, hegemony is invoked here, there, and everywhere, including on the Left, as a simple synonym for dominance. This matters because, as Zarakol so clearly shows, dominance of the kind that is at stake within rivalries is comparatively superficial. The hegemonic, or ecumenical, foundations of global capitalism are, to put it one way, “deeper” than the geopolitical rivalries that characterize the current world order.

I recommend further reading on the intellectual history of “hegemony,” like Perry Anderson’s The H-Word: The Peripeteia of Hegemony. You might also read Anderson’s better-known essay The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci. From The Dig’s archives, check our Jonathan Matthew Smucker’s interview on Hegemony How-To.