Towards a Cultural International Political Economy: Post-Structuralism and the Italian School

This on-line version is the pre-copyedited, preprint version. The published version can be found here:

‘Towards a cultural international political economy: post-structuralism and the Italian School’, (co-authored with N-L. Sum) in M. de Goede, ed., International Political Economy and Post-Structural Politics, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 157-76, 2006.


By: Bob Jessop and Ngai-Ling Sum

This chapter seeks to overcome the one-sided emphasis on materiality at the expense of discursivity that plagues much work in critical international political economy. It does so by introducing the concept of cultural political economy (hereafter CPE) in an effort to avoid both the tendency towards soft economic and/or political sociology, in which the material specificity of economic and political categories is dissolved into a generic concern with the social or cultural, and the tendency towards hard political economy, in which economic and political categories are reified and their social construction and contingency are ignored (cf. Sayer 1998). Insofar as it emerged in part through critical engagement with structuralism, our approach can certainly be described as post-structuralist. However, because it is inspired by classical political economy and Gramsci’s work on hegemony, it could also be described as pre-structuralist. Thus, while we affirm the importance of neo-Gramscian contributions to IPE, we also criticize them for failing to exploit fully Gramsci’s account of the co-constitution and co-evolution of the material and the discursive. We also argue that this is best achieved through a combination of critical semiotic analysis and the critique of political economy in an approach that insists that both time and institutions matter to the overall dynamic of hegemonic struggles. This new approach has already been applied to ‘the economy in its inclusive sense’ – l’economia integrale (Jessop 1997, 2002, 2004) – and can be fruitfully extended to ‘the capitalist world order in its inclusive sense’ (Sum 2004) through an analysis of the relations between the production of hegemony and the hegemony of production.

An adequate exploration of ‘the capitalist world order in its inclusive sense’[1] would identify the many social practices and emergent mechanisms that govern the interaction of (a) the structural dynamic of accumulation on a world scale and (b) the global hegemony of capital as a principle of social organization on a world scale. This means looking at the production of accumulation strategies, governance projects, and hegemonic visions as well as processes that operate ‘behind the backs of the producers’ and that shape other institutional orders and global civil society. In addition, we must recognize that these practices and mechanisms operate on different spatial and scalar horizons so that an adequate account of the world order in its integral sense must also be sensitive to issues of space, place and scale and, in particular, the question of how global hegemony is grounded in, and instantiated at, different sites and scales, each with its own specificities. In exploring these themes we seek to move beyond economism and idealism to provide a coherent set of concepts and mechanisms to study new forms of (dis)integration in the global political economy. We first address the ‘cultural turn’ in political economy and then discuss its application to international political economy.

Cultural Political Economy

Cultural political economy emerges from taking the ‘cultural turn’[2] in political economy and thereby modifying both critical semiotic analysis and political economy. On the one hand, in contrast to most applications of critical discourse analysis, we explore the role of the three generic evolutionary mechanisms – variation, selection, and retention (Campbell 1969) – in shaping struggles for hegemony. On the other hand, in adopting the cultural turn, we highlight the role of the production of intersubjective meaning as a crucial moment in institutional evolution and in shaping economic and political crisis-tendencies and responses.[3] This general approach can be re-stated in terms of three broad claims about the role of discourse in the radical critique of political economy (cf. Jessop 2004; Jessop and Sum forthcoming).

First, ontologically, discourse contributes to the overall constitution of specific social objects and social subjects and, a fortiori, to their co-constitution and co-evolution in wider ensembles of social relations. Orthodox political economy tends to naturalize or reify its theoretical objects (such as land, machines, the division of labour, production, money, commodities, the information economy) and to offer impoverished accounts of how subjects and subjectivities are formed and how different modes of calculation emerge, are institutionalized, meet resistance, and are transformed or overturned. In contrast, CPE views technical and economic objects as socially constructed, historically specific, more or less socially embedded in – or disembedded from – broader networks of social relations and institutional ensembles, more or less embodied and ‘embrained’ in individual actors, and in need of continuing social ‘repair’ work for their reproduction. The same holds for the objects of orthodox political science and (neo-)realist international relations theory. These tend to treat the state as an ensemble of governmental institutions with specific capacities and resources deployable by state managers and other political forces in pursuit of interests that are objectively grounded in their respective social positions or in a naturalized, (neo-)realist logic of state action. In contrast, our CPE approach follows Marx, Gramsci, and Poulantzas (among others) in examining the state in its inclusive sense (‘political society + civil society’) as a social relation. This regards state power as the institutionally-mediated condensation of a changing balance of forces and examines struggles to constitute the state apparatus in its inclusive sense as well as the identities and subjectivities of the forces engaged in political struggle. Moreover, in revealing the socially constructed nature of the phenomena of political economy, CPE involves a form of political intervention that goes beyond Ideologiekritik (which serves at best to uncover the ideal and material interests behind specific meaning systems and ideologies) and explores the mechanisms involved in selecting and institutionalizing the dominance and/or hegemony of these systems and ideologies over others (see below).

Second, epistemologically, CPE critiques the categories and methods of orthodox political economy and (neo-)realist IR theories and stresses the contextuality and historicity of all claims to knowledge. It rejects any universalistic, positivist account of reality, denies the facticity of the subject-object duality, allows for the co-constitution of subjects and objects, and eschews economic reductionism. In this sense, CPE is a form of political intervention into the field of knowledge production. For, in stressing the materiality of social relations and their emergent properties, it escapes both the sociological imperialism of pure social constructionism and the voluntarist vacuity of certain lines of discourse analysis, which suggest that agents can will anything into being in and through an appropriately articulated discourse. In short, CPE recognizes both the constitutive role of discourse and the emergent extra-discursive features of social relations and their conjoint impact on capacities for action and transformation.

Third, methodologically, CPE combines concepts and tools from critical discourse analysis with those from critical political economy. The ‘cultural turn’ includes a wide range of approaches but we use discourse to cover them all. For they all assume that discourse is causally efficacious as well as meaningful and that not only can actual events and processes and their emergent effects be interpreted but also, at least in part, explained in terms of discourse. Thus CPE examines the role of discursive practices not only in the continual (re-)making of social relations but also in the contingent emergence, provisional consolidation, and ongoing realization of their extra-discursive properties. However, if they are to prove more than ‘arbitrary, rationalistic, and willed’ (Gramsci 1971: 376-7), specific economic and political imaginaries and their associated discursive practices must have some significant, albeit necessarily partial, correspondence to real material interdependencies in the actually existing economic and political fields and their articulation with the wider ensemble of social relations. It is the interaction between the discursive and extra-discursive that gives relatively successful economic and political imaginaries their performative, constitutive force in the material world (see below).

A Closer Look at the Italian School

Having presented the basic features of CPE, we now address some specific issues for the development of a cultural international political economy that is consistent with general trends in post-structuralism. We begin with a sympathetic critique of the so-called Italian School pioneered by neo-Gramscian IPE theorists such as Cox (1987), Gill (1991), Rupert (1995), and Robinson (1996). These theorists do not belong to a unitary school with a common set of concepts but they do share a broad research programme. This builds on three features that they identify, rightly or wrongly, in Gramsci’s anti-economistic philosophy of praxis: (a) the grounding of class hegemony in political, intellectual, and moral leadership, albeit with a decisive economic nucleus, with the role of coercion confined to a last resort; (b) his interpretation of power blocs as long-term strategic alliances of economic and political forces; and (c) his analysis of the relation between economic base and ethico-political superstructure in terms of a relatively stable, mutually constituting historical bloc.[4] In order to move from national to international political economy, the Italian School rescales these concepts from national states and class configurations to the field of international relations. Thus it gives a subordinate position to most national states whilst noting the scope for a transnational class to emerge and for one (or, at most, a few) national states to be dominant or hegemonic in regional or world orders. It views ‘production’ and ‘social forces’ in terms of ‘states’ and inter-state relations in a ‘world order’ dominated by the expanding logic of capitalism and relates the formation of power blocs and historical blocs in late capitalism to the development of a transnational bourgeoisie. Although this approach is often insightful, its pioneers remain wedded to a rather traditional, state-centric view of class hegemony and domination and fail to develop the full implications of Gramsci’s concern with civil society and its role in constituting power and hegemony. Moreover, in contrast to Gramsci, who saw discourse at work in the technological and economic fields as well as in struggles over political and ideological domination, it has a rather structuralist reading of the production orders.

We can demonstrate what is at stake here by distinguishing the ‘hegemony of production’ and the ‘production of hegemony’. The former refers to the relative dominance of a given production and/or financial order (e.g., Fordism) in structuring a social formation and to the structural mechanisms that secure its relative dominance in a historical bloc. Conversely, the ‘production of hegemony’ involves the processes and mechanisms through which ‘political, intellectual, and moral leadership’ is secured in and across the organizations and institutions of civil society and is successfully articulated with a specific economic configuration and state system. The Italian School tends to focus on the ‘hegemony of production’ and the formation of structured coherence between the economy, the state, and ideological domination rather than on the specific discursive and extra-discursive mechanisms involved in producing hegemony throughout a social formation. As such, despite its support for Gramsci’s anti-economism and its emphasis on transnational historical blocs, early Italian School work had a residual ‘economism’ because it neglected the specific discursive processes and mechanisms involved in securing the dominance of a given economic order and historical bloc (Jessop and Sum 2002; de Goede 2003). This stands in marked contrast to Gramsci’s own concerns with the always-already ideological character of economic practices and agents – witness his classic analysis of how hegemony in American Fordism was deeply rooted in the factory, the labour market, and the reordering of domestic life as well as in a broader array of social practices and institutions (Gramsci 1971).

Preliminary attempts to escape these limitations appear in second generation neo-Gramscian work such as Gill on ‘disciplinary neo-liberalism’ (1995), Rupert on common sense and resistance (1997; 2003), Davies on ‘transnational hegemony’ (1999), Egan on the movement against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (2001), Steger on ‘globalism’ (2002), Amoore on ‘flexible labour’ (2002), and Cox on ‘civilization and intersubjective meanings’ (2002). Nonetheless we believe that this second-generation work can be further improved by integrating it with a neo-Gramscian analysis of the ‘production of hegemony’ in the world economic order. This helps us examine more directly the articulation among ideas, cultural hegemony and civil society and to examine corresponding forms of domination and resistance.

We refer to ‘integral world capitalist order’ by analogy with Gramsci’s idea of the ‘state in its inclusive sense’ or the ‘integral state’ (political society + civil society) (1971) and Jessop’s account of the ‘economy in its inclusive sense’ or ‘l’economia integrale’ (accumulation regime + mode of regulation) (1990). Thus it can be understood as a world economic governance system formed through ‘hegemony of production + production of hegemony in (trans-)national civil society’. As such it is characterized by a relative structured coherence based on the mutually supportive intermeshing of the ‘hegemony of production’ and the ‘production of hegemony’ so that they displace and defer capitalist contradictions and secure a limited measure of social integration. This can never be completely achieved at the level of the world market and world society because continuing capital accumulation always depends on the continuing displacement and deferral of contradictions into zones marked by instability and crisis that co-exist with zones of relative coherence (cf. Jessop 2002). But we can certainly distinguish between periods when there is relative integration at the level of the world market and world society and periods when there is fragmentation and conflict.

The interdependence between hegemony of production and production of hegemony is vital to understanding the particular form, content and processes of the hegemony and resistance that typifies a specific historical epoch. Thus one should study closely the political, economic, and cultural relations between the discourses and practices of the ‘production order’ and those of groups and institutions of civil society. To show how this approach can be developed, we will briefly review how neo-Gramscians and neo-Foucauldians have undertaken the ‘cultural’ turn. This is useful because Gramsci is a pre-structuralist and Foucault a post-structuralist thinker and their respective approaches therefore have different implications for (international) political economy.

The Cultural Turn in IPE: Synthesizing Gramsci and Foucault

Gramsci and Foucault argue in their different ways that power operates ‘within the systems and subsystems of social relations, in the interactions, in the microstructures that inform the practices of everyday life’ (Holub 1992: 200). Both seek to move away from a strongly institutionalist, juridico-political, and state-centric account of power and its exercise without neglecting the role of institutions and apparatuses. Each is concerned, more or less explicitly, with discourse and discursive formations, with the articulation of power and knowledge, with hegemony and common sense, and with consent and coercion. And they also discuss the embedding and embodying of power in everyday routines. It is hardly surprising, then, that scholars have recently tried to enhance the contribution of Gramsci’s concepts to international political economy by incorporating Foucault’s work, especially its concern with discursive practices, disciplinary normalization, and the role of governmentality. But this has not always been carried through coherently and consistently. For example, while Gill (1995) refers to ‘disciplinary neo-liberalism’, he neglects the ‘micro-technologies of power’ that promote and underpin the neo-liberal project by normalizing certain objects/subjects of governance. And, although de Goede (2003) refers to the disciplinary and performative aspects of finance, she did not relate micro-power back to the macro-hegemony of consent/coercion. We believe that it is fruitful to combine the insights of Gramsci and Foucault, especially in terms of exploring technologies of power; but we also urge caution in doing so because of the important differences that exist between their respective meta-theoretical assumptions and overall approaches.

For Foucault, power is immanent and relational – it has no ultimate ground beyond specific technologies of power and their articulation to knowledge. This approach encourages researchers to open the ‘black box’ of hegemony and domination to explore specific technologies of power (cf. Dean 1999). Foucault analyzed these in different ways at different stages in his work and his later studies on biopower and governmentality are especially illuminating on the disciplinary force of specific normalizing processes and institutions at both the micro- and macro-levels. But Foucault’s commitment to the ‘death of the subject’ means that the technologies of power have theoretical priority over their agential supports as well as over the subjects (or individual bodies and populations) who are formed and disciplined by them. Subjects rarely appear as agents, let alone as centred agents. Indeed, even though Foucault claims that, wherever there is power, there is resistance, he grounds this in a generic ‘plebeian instinct’ of resistance rather than in specific material positions, identities, or interests. In this sense, Foucault tends to focus either on the surface manifestations of power relations or their underlying technologies; he lacks a clear account of the actual effectivity of discourses or disciplines in specific situations. Thus, while his later lectures do note how the exercise of power in different sites may be strategically codified through the state and how capitalist relations privilege some disciplinary techniques over others, Foucault still focuses on the microdynamics of power in everyday life. Accordingly, as Marsden has noted, Foucault can tell us something about the how of power but far less about the why of power and its role in reproducing particular forms of social domination (1999: 149).

Whereas Foucault is more interested in ‘diagrams’ and technologies of power that can be applied across different social fields, Gramsci grounds the exercise of power in specific material apparatuses (political and ideological as well as economic) and specific social practices. His theory of hegemony is concerned both with particular modalities and apparatuses of power and with particular subjects with particular social identities and material interests. He rejects any transhistorical account of power and focuses on power in modern capitalist social formations where mass politics have developed. Moreover, whereas Foucault rarely concedes that there is an overall structural coherence to social formations apart from the general adoption of specific technologies of power, Gramsci asks how an inherently unstable and conflictual social formation acquires a certain degree of social order through the continuing achievement of unstable equilibria of compromise. This is why he puts so much emphasis on hegemony, power blocs, and historical blocs but also recognizes the role of force, fraud, and corruption in securing social order. Far from subscribing to the automatism of a mechanical base-superstructure relation, Gramsci adopts a more fluid and interactive understanding of the reciprocal relations among the economic, political, ideological and cultural spheres.

Given these differences, we should not attempt to combine Foucault to Gramsci as if their respective approaches were wholly commensurable and complementary. This does not preclude some form of synthesis. Indeed several attempts have already been made to combine Foucault and Gramsci – either to ‘foucauldize Gramsci’ or to ‘gramscianize Foucault’[5] (see diagram 1). At the expense of ignoring other scholarly influences and mediations in the work of the following theorists, we can locate certain contributions of Stuart Hall along with the post-Marxist work of Laclau and Mouffe in the first group; and Fairclough, Jessop and de Certeau in the second. Those who attempt to foucauldize Gramsci aim to further reduce the risk of reductionism in Gramsci’s Marxist philosophy of praxis by emphasizing the plurality and heterogeneity of identities and social forces and the inherent unfixity of micro- and macro-social relations (e.g., Hall 1981, 1982; Laclau and Mouffe 1985). Thus Foucault’s work is invoked to emphasize the immanence of power in opposition to its economic determination in the last instance, to highlight the variety of mechanisms that produce and discipline subjects, and to insist on the inevitable plurality and contingency of identities and interests. However, while this creates the space for recognizing the diversity of identities at play in modern societies and to avoid class reductionism, it risks losing sight of materiality so that hegemony becomes little more than ‘discursive idealism’ or ‘discursive totality’ (cf. the critiques in Chouliaraki and Fairclough 1999: 117; and Bernans 1999: 19). It also misses the later Foucault’s interest in the mechanisms and struggles involved in the strategic codification of power relations and the development of governmental rationalities that provide the basis for emergent and provisional macro-social order. In short, ‘foucauldizing’ Gramsci leads to a conflationary form of theorizing that dissolves the distinction between the ideational and the material and is just as flawed as that in structuralism and economism (McAnulla 1999: 8).

F-2006e-figure1To escape this conflationary solution to the ideational versus structuralist trap, we follow those who, in order to produce a better understanding of the dialectic of materiality and discursivity, have tried to ‘gramscianize Foucault’. Their approach stresses the contradictory and conflictual dynamic of capitalist social formations based on the reciprocal interweaving and interaction of the material and discursive. It takes seriously the ways in which dominance and social power are enacted in and through discourse but also recognizes that there are emergent structural properties to power relations that constrain the field of discursive practices and struggles. In this sense, then, it explores the mutually constraining, mutually transforming, mutually constitutive dialectic of discourse and social structuration at all scales from the micro-social to the emergent dynamics of a world order in the process of formation.

Jessop’s strategic-relational approach (hereafter SRA), at least in its early stages (1982, 1990), is more material-discursive than discursive-material insofar as it highlights the ways in which structures may privilege some actors, some discourses, some identities, and some strategies over others (cf. Fairclough 1995: 6; Chouliaraki and Fairclough 1999: 24-26, 68). But the SRA also explores how specific actors orient their strategies in the light of their understanding of the current conjuncture, their strategic calculation about the ‘objective’ interests tied to specific ‘subjective’ identities, and, perhaps, the lessons they have learnt from previous rounds of strategic conduct or routine behaviour. Thus the SRA sensitizes us to the reciprocal path-dependent and path-shaping nature of hegemonic transformation. Jessop’s later work integrates discursive elements (e.g., economic and political imaginaries) into the SRA so that he can explore the co-evolution of discursive and extra-discursive processes and their conjoint impact in specific contexts (2004). Of particular interest here are the discursive and extra-discursive mechanisms that select and then institutionalize some discourses among the many that are continually produced. The SRA also implies that there is a co-constitution of subjects and objects in fields such as production, governance, and hegemony. Moreover, while eschewing reductionist approaches to economic and political analysis, it would stress the materiality of social relations and highlights the constraints involved in processes that operate ‘behind the backs’ of the relevant agents. As such, it would be especially concerned with the structural properties and dynamics resulting from such material interactions. Substantively, this approach takes economic and political imaginaries not as ‘arbitrary, rationalistic, and willed’ (Gramsci 1971: 376-7) but as corresponding, albeit partially, to real material forces in the existing international political economy. In short, Jessop’s work could mediate between the neo-Gramscian focus on the economic, political, and intellectual-moral bases of power and the neo-Foucauldian concern with specific technologies of individual and social power and locate both in a broader critique of political economy.

The strategic-relational analysis of the role of both structure and agency in struggles over hegemony rests on the general evolutionary distinction between variation, selection, and retention. First, there is continuing variation in discourses as actors intentionally or unintentionally redefine the sites, subjects, and stakes of action and articulate innovative strategies, projects and visions. This is especially likely during crises, which often produce profound strategic disorientation and a proliferation of alternative discourses. Second, while most of this variation is arbitrary and short-lived, with no long-term consequences for overall social dynamics, some innovations are selected because they resonate discursively with other actors and social forces and/or because they are reinforced through various structural mechanisms. So we must explore the discursive and extra-discursive mechanisms that select some discourses for further elaboration and effective articulation with other discourses. Discourses are most powerful where they operate across many sites and scales and can establish and connect local hegemonies into a more encompassing hegemonic project. Third, these discourses will be retained (discursively reproduced, incorporated into individual routines, and institutionally embedded) when they can reorganize the balance of forces and guide supportive structural transformation.

Although any given economic or political imaginary is only ever partially realized, those that succeed, at least in part, have their own performative, constitutive force in the material world – especially when they correspond to (or successfully shape) underlying material transformations, can mobilize different elites to form a new power bloc, can organize popular support, disorganize opposition, and marginalize resistance. They will be most successful when they establish a new spatiotemporal fix that can displace and/or defer capital’s inherent contradictions and crisis-tendencies in the international political economy. In short, discourses and their related discursive chains can generate variation, have selective effects – reinforcing some discourses, filtering others out, and contribute to the differential retention and/or institutionalization of social relation through the recursive selection of certain genres and knowledging technologies. These technologies of control operate at the micro-social level to normalize and discipline thoughts, aspirations, decisions, and common sense through mundane discursive practices (e.g., metaphors, indexes, tables) and routine practices (e.g., working, reading, managing, discussing, debating, advertising) of everyday life. Organic intellectuals have a key role here in giving meanings and constructing common sense knowledge to underpin consent. Inspired in their everyday lives by a wide range of influential figures such as industrial statesmen (and stateswomen), managers, lawyers, auditors, politicians, civil servants, academics, school teachers, pop stars and sport celebrities with a high-profile campaigning role, individuals and groups refashion subjectivities by reflecting on their circumstances, values, interests, and conduct. The greater the range and scale of sites in which resonant discourses and practices are selected and retained, the greater is the scope for them to condition everyday social practices, institutions and modes of governance. The resulting social forms are typically asymmetric in regard to economic resources, state capacities, gender, ethnicity, nature, place, etc. This allows counter-hegemonic movements to develop and to promote alternative discourses, strategies and tactics. We can summarize these ideas by identifying six inter-related moments in the operation of discursive[6] and structural selectivity (see Box 1).


Producing Hegemony, Sub-Hegemony and Counter-Hegemony in Everyday Life

In order to highlight the complex relation between domination and resistance, we now explore how these processes cut across the hegemonic, sub-hegemonic and counter-hegemonic spheres of activity that are contested in everyday life.

 Production of Hegemony and Sub-Hegemony

 The relative success of global actors (such as global institutions or transnational companies) in securing global governance depends on their mobilization of actors  from other sites and scales. For present purposes, this includes the diffusion of discourses produced by these actors to other scales through intermediaries who speak the intended hegemonic ‘language’ and translate it into regional and local contexts. This is never a purely one-way, top-down or bottom-up process because the stability of hegemony rests on the capacity to absorb alternative meanings and marginalize resistances so that dominant discourses are adapted to more global or local circumstances and thereby strengthened through everyday practices. This involves an admittedly asymmetrical, multilateral adaptation and negotiation of circulating discourses concerned with transforming the capitalist order. Economic-corporate concessions play a key role here as they do on other scales so that local and regional elites  align their interests with a transnational class — with material and symbolic rewards for those who are quick to relay and recontextualize hegemonic discourse. All of this depends in turn on appropriate intermediate technologies of power to anchor such discourses regionally and locally (Peet 2000; Sum 2003). Martin-Barbero (1993) refers here to the ‘hegemonic echo’ that legitimates, customizes, and recontextualizes ideological power in common sense and everyday practice. This indicates that continuing hegemony depends on a certain flexibility and fluidity, on the ability to combine values, ideas, identities, and interests from various sources and scales. In a more bottom-up manner, new discourses may also emerge from sub-hegemonic centres of power and reverberate back to the hegemonic sites, where they may be absorbed into the hegemonic codes (Peet 2000). These processes of ideological exchange reinforce the ties between hegemonic and sub-hegemonic nodes. Thus studies of hegemonic processes on a global scale must identify the multiscalar interdiscursive spaces where actors with different horizons of action to produce an ‘integral world capitalist order’. This new ‘word order’ and associated practices represent a dominant ‘worldview’ that has an underlying structural class relevance as well as being ethnic-, gender- and place-biased.

These processes of hegemony building gradually stabilize a kind of systemic power that cannot be reproduced mechanically but depends, as Gramsci emphasizes, on the prosaics of everyday life. Thus, hegemony is produced and reproduced in everyday cultural transactions that partly express and partly shape values, actions, and meanings. These hidden forms of domination, which are embedded in everyday activities and experiences, are reflected in folklore and common sense. This can be reinforced through the normalization of the prevailing patterns of economic, political, and ethico-cultural domination so that the interests of dominant groups go largely unchallenged. This aspect of Gramsci’s work was extended in Foucault’s micro-technologies of control and related disciplinary practices.

The Production of Counter-Hegemony and Resistance in Everyday Life

Despite the appearance of social unity and consensus generated by successful hegemonic projects, this is always a temporary, if not illusory, unity. The gaps between discourses and practices at the micro-level open up spaces for alternative conceptions of society and counter-hegemonic subjectivities. Likewise, at the macro-level, the very selectivity of hegemonic projects means that some identities and interests are excluded and suppressed. The latter involves not only those who lose out on class grounds but also those who are oppressed on gender, ‘race’, ethnic, territorial, and other grounds (Jessop and Sum 2001: 94-5; Bakker 2003: 66-82; Rupert 2003: 186). Thus hegemony remains vulnerable and there is a permanent potential for hegemonic instability as diverse social forces exploit these tensions and conflicts and offer alternatives and engage in counterhegemonic mobilization. This has its own potential bases in class, social movements and popular culture and can deploy both ‘wars of position’ and ‘wars of manoeuvre’ to resist hegemonic control and organize action across different sites at different scales. Alternative social forums (e.g., World Social Forum, European Social Forum) illustrate the potential of counterhegemonic wars of position; some recent transnational protests (anti-globalization riots in Seattle and Genoa) illustrate the limits of wars of maneouvre.. The Internet and alternative publishing media, watch groups, and agitprop vehicles have become important in coordinating this ‘postmodern prince’ (Gill 2000) and providing alternative symbols and means of receiving and imparting information that guide efforts to promote social change.

These public forms of open opposition coexist with more subterranean forms of resistance and subversion in everyday life. Michel de Certeau’s work (1984) on the polyvalence of tactics of resistance is useful here. He argues that dominant social forces operate primarily through ‘strategies’, i.e., practices that assume a stable base of operations; in contrast, marginal actors must use ‘tactics’ that do not depend on a secure locus from which to act continuously and legitimately. They operate in the space of the liminal, the outside, the other. Tactics involve a continuing trial-and-error search through the ‘practice of everyday life’ for weak points and angles of attack. Tactical action uses speed or time to throw entrenched powers off balance in order to gain what often prove to be merely temporary advantages – taking action on the wing and securing transient victories (de Certeau 1984: 35). This theory of strategies and tactics can help us theorize the relation of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic power and reveal tensions within and across different technologies of power. Indeed, according to Harris (1992: 156), de Certeau can be used to gramscianize Foucault by providing a more nuanced account of resistance to complement the latter’s account of disciplinary power. De Certeau’s concept of tactics sheds light on the prosaic forms of creativity that enable individuals and groups to escape the ‘webs of discipline’ by exploiting the affordances of mundane products and routine circumstances to subvert their disciplinary logic. Drawing on everyday practices such as reading, walking and cooking, he shows how people develop alternative uses of commodities and other objects in ways that may subvert their ‘legitimate’ or otherwise prefigured modalities of consumption. Such ‘dispersed, tactical, and makeshift creativity’ constitutes an ‘anti-discipline’ that Foucault’s analysis overlooks (Langer 1988:123).

De Certeau’s work on the everyday, while providing important observations, lacks a coherent conception of capitalism. As such, Lefebrve’s work on ‘détournement’ (or diversion), which was appropriated from the French Situationists led by Debord, call attention to cultural playfulness and protests (e.g., ‘cultural jamming’ or ‘reclaim the streets) that subvert and dislocate commodification. Seen from these aspects of de Certeau’s and Lefebrve’s work, it can be said that everyday life is a continuing battle of wits and a site of micro-resistance in which the (un-)structured and covert activities of the liminal seek to accommodate power while simultaneously protecting their interests and identities. However, resistance must entail something more than a re-writing of culture within the symbolic space of capitalism. For Gramsci, resistance will last if it is followed by a ‘war of position’ mediated by the building of a counter-hegemonic historic bloc of cultural, economic and political structures and relations and articulated and organized by its own organic intellectual. In short, hegemony is unstable, contingent, and incomplete and is continually liable to challenge through crises in the power bloc, the disjunction between hegemonic and sub-hegemonic discourses and forces at key nodal points in the global order, and the emergence of resistance and counter-hegemonic projects.

There is a continual interplay of wars of position, wars of manoeuvre, and short-term tactics of resistance as social forces seek to hegemonize, form subhegemonic linkages, and neutralize the counter-hegemonic. Hegemony (as opposed to domination) is typically (re-)produced through accommodating a broad coalition of interests compatible with the continued reproduction of existing social relations. Where this is threatened, then we must also consider the possibilities of passive revolution and increased resort to force, fraud, and corruption (cf. Gramsci 1971). The flexibility required to maintain hegemony can be seen in an increasingly important response to current challenges to neo-liberal globalization, namely, recent attempts to define and construct a new kind of ‘moral leadership’ under the general rubric of the ‘globalization with a human face’. Thus, if a ‘new constitutionalism’ was the means of institutionalizing ‘disciplinary neoliberalism’ in the 1990s (Gill 1995), this is now being complemented by a ‘new ethicalism’. This variation in response to the crisis of neo-liberalism has been selected and promoted by transnational elites as an ethico-managerial strategy to reconnect economic policies with moral norms and to reconfigure them into managerial visions and practices (e.g., corporate social responsibility, accountability and transparency) (Sum 2004; Sum 2005; Sum and Pun 2005). These changes do not suspend the contradictions between capital and labour or the rivalries inherent in capitalist competition but they do seek to give them a ‘human face’ that can mobilize trade unions and social movements as well as individuals behind corporate social responsibility and to defuse the growing resistance to unfettered capitalism at the micro- and macro-scales. This passive revolution combines ‘war of manoeuvre’ and ‘war of position’ in the search for a more stable social basis for global capitalism based on civil society as well as the labour movement and state authorities. Nonetheless the underlying contradictions and rivalries remain. Thus, just as capital seeks to escape its ‘social responsibilities’ where they hurt profitability, marginal forces continue to resist at individual sites of production up to the organization of social movements on a global scale (e.g., the World Social Forum).


We have proposed a cultural political economy approach to overcome the recurrent and complementary temptations of (a) economism versus culturalism and (b) structuralism versus voluntarism. CPE makes two theoretical innovations to address these temptations. First, while it affirms the ‘cultural turn’ in political economy and the performative power of the imaginary, it applies some of the tools of evolutionary economics (derived in part from evolutionary theory more generally) to discourse analysis. It therefore examines the structural as well as discursive biases at work in the variation, selection, and retention of discourse and discursive practices and thereby admits the causal effectivity of material as well as discursive factors in political economic dynamics. Thus the logic of capital accumulation cannot be grasped one-sidedly in economic or cultural terms but requires not just a gestural ‘dialectical analysis’ (that emphasizes the role of both economic and cultural factors) but an effective ‘integral analysis’ that takes full account of their co-constitution, interpenetration, and mutual influence (Jessop 1997). Second, it adopts a SRA to structure and agency (Jessop 1990, 2001). This aims to avoid the ‘agencyless structuralism’ of earlier IPE and the ‘structureless agency’ of neo-Foucauldian approaches. But this contribution goes beyond a general presentation of the SRA. For, in building on neo-Foucauldian analyses, we have noted some technologies of power that are critical in helping to secure global hegemony (Sum 2004). Such technologies are never neutral but have their own selectivities. They often have a key role in establishing nodal points of local or regional equilibria of compromise and in linking sub-hegemonies at different sites and scales of action into the broader world order through everyday activities. This is typically a multidirectional as well as multiscalar and multi-site process in which global, regional, national, and local players interact both directly and indirectly to establish, negotiate, contest, and subvert the hegemonic ‘word’ order and its instantiation on different scales and sites. In this sense hegemony is necessarily produced and reproduced in everyday transactions. Their production and reproduction depend on complex interlinkages and intertextualities across different sites and scales of economic, political, and social organization. Thus hegemony is achieved through recurrent molecular phases and interactions that, together with material concessions and the judicious use of force, produce an ‘unstable equilibrium of compromise’ from which there emerges a ‘collective will of a certain level of homogeneity’.

We have also highlighted the interaction between (sub-)hegemonic and counter-hegemonic forces in cultural IPE. The formation of a ‘popular collective will’ can never be complete because there are always excluded or marginalized forces, both within a given social formation and beyond it. This provides a permanent reservoir of resistance and a permanent potential for the development of counter-hegemony on different scales and sites. This is most noticeable in periods of crisis, especially when the crisis involves more than limited economic issues and is translated into the political and ideological spheres. In these circumstances dominant groups can either seek to recuperate hegemony by negotiating with the subalterns and/or they must resort to brute force. Where this leads to a successful recuperation of an institutionalized compromise without serious threat to fundamental social relations, we can talk, with Gramsci, of a ‘passive revolution’. For hegemony is mediated through many different forms of consensus and self-rule — armoured, as Gramsci rightly notes, by coercion and, as Foucault notes, by various disciplinary practices too. This complex interactive achievement of building consensus and moral leadership is central to Gramsci’s thinking and can be enriched by referring to Foucault, de Certeau, etc. and integrating their analyses into a strategic-relational cultural political economy and its application in international political economy.



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[1] This essay focuses on the capitalist world order, i.e., the tendential development of a world society dominated by the logic of capital accumulation. The same basic approach can be applied to the tendential development of a world society dominated by other principles of societal organization (see Jessop 2002).

[2] On the cultural turn, see Bonnell and Hunt (1999).

[3] For more general reviews of evolutionary and institutional economics, see Hodgson (1988; 1993) and Lawson (1997).

[4] Some Italian School theorists equate power bloc, historical bloc, and the social bases of stable orders of production and political power – we have distinguished these in order to identify the three key themes that the ‘School’ derives from Gramsci.

[5] The term ‘gramscianizing Foucault’ was first used by Harris (1992: 156).

[6] On ‘discursive selectivity’, see Hay (1996).

One thought on “Towards a Cultural International Political Economy: Post-Structuralism and the Italian School

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