NeoMarxism: a lecture for a Global Studies theory class



Antonio Gramsci, 1891-1937

Hegemony: the social, political and ideological power exercised by a dominant group or state.

Ellen M. Wood, Empire of Capital

Outline of Lecture:


Gramsci’s Biography

Gramsci’s Thought

Traditional Empire

NeoMarxist’s vision of Empire

The Bretton Woods System

The Enduring Relevance of Military Force and Nation-States


Introduction: NeoMarxism 

  • Traditional Marxism is dead, but neo-Marxism survives
  • NeoMarxism is the adaption of Marx’s ideals to the modern economic and political world, with a particular focus on globalization
  • A significant ideology in Latin America, particularly in the Andean region
  • Also influential in academic circles in Europe and Canada
  • At base, the doctrine looks at Empire, and the way that it is maintained
  • Believes that although the forms of empire have changed that imperialism still exists
  • Modern form of imperialism much more difficult to face than past forms because the coercion is hidden or masked
  • This makes it hard to see that the modern global system is designed to benefit wealthy countries, and the elites within those countries
  • Older forms of capitalism depended directly upon capitalism and colonial rule (Wood, 21)
  • Capitalism has now extended the reach of imperial domination far beyond the need for such direct rule.
  • National states now act through international organizations to impose capitalism, and a form of globalization that is in their benefit
  • NeoMarxism focuses not only economics, but also on the ideas of a thinker named Gramsci
  • Gramsci focused on the ideological domination which was key to having the poor consent to the rule of the rich
  • He called this hegemony
  • Built on Marx’s ideas to explore this concept
  • His form of thought was so different that many people do not believe that Gramsci was truly a Marxist
  • He focused as much on ideological domination as he did on economic domination
  • I want to talk today about neoMarxism’s perception of the global system
  • How the idea of hegemony can help to explain that system
  • This means talking about Bretton Woods, because NeoMarxists argue that this system was created by the US and other powerful countries to ensure their continued domination over the developing world

Gramsci’s Biography

  • Gramsci was an Italian communist
  • Born into a family that had many difficulties
  • Father convicted of embezzlement and imprisoned
  • Gramsci had serious health problems, including a malformation in his back
  • Perhaps because his father had dropped him and he was injured
  • He was born and raised in Sardinia, and had great sympathy with the miners and the peasants because he saw how they suffered
  • Sardinia at the time impoverished
  • Won a scholarship to study at the University of Turin
  • He gradually became involved in the labor movement
  • He dropped out of university before finishing his degree, in part because he was miserably poor
  • But his time in Turin was important
  • Had an active group of intellectuals, with whom he made many friends and political connections
  • Became a writer and traveled to Russia
  • Developed into a Communist leader
  • He was imprisoned in 1927, during Mussolini’s regime
  • He was freed in 1934, because of his poor health
  • But he died in 1937
  • while in prison he kept notebooks
  • a vast amount of material: nearly 3000 pages in 30 notebooks
  • These were found and finally published nearly years after he had died
  • When they came out they had a huge impact on Marxism

Gramsci’s thought

  • Not clear that Gramsci was truly Marxist, because his ideas represented a break with the thought of other Marxists
  • Marx had thought that the superstructure of a society –laws, traditions, literature, culture- were determined by its material base
  • In this sense culture is determined by forces outside itself
  • It has no autonomy
  • Gramsci took this idea further
  • He argued that culture is part of domination
  • The ideological domination of the masses by dominant intellectuals is “cultural hegemony”
  • Although society is hierarchical, the ruling class does not sustain itself mainly by force, but rather by what appears to be voluntary compliance with dominant ideas
  • hegemony is key to the successful functioning of a capitalist state
  • it is how the ruling class establishes and maintains its control
  • Gramsci said that the dominant culture is ultimately challenged by the working class.
  • Everyone is concerned with meaning, so everyone ultimately is an intellectual
  • But it will take a small group of revolutionaries to create an alternative ideology, a counterhegemonic ideology
  • This approach is less mechanistic than Marx
  • These thinkers still believe that economic interests still shape state and business actions
  • But they do not always operate out in the open, where they can be seen
  • Gramsci was particularly interested in popular culture, religion and folklore
  • Believed that these defined the values by which a society operates
  • So Gramsci believed in a “consented” coercion, in which people gave their loyalty to the state because of the power of ideology
  • But during moments of crisis, the mask of consent could slip away
  • This was a much more politically sophisticated analysis of the state than Marx’s view
  • The state is no longer only the government
  • Other aspects of life- education, culture, etc.-  were important to ensure the dominance of the state and the ruling class
  • The state ensures its power by meeting enough of the demands of the working class and the unions to maintain its power
  • Gramsci’s thought was very important to critical theory, cultural studies, and NeoMarxism
  • It has shaped how neoMarxists have thought about the global order and imperialism

Traditional Empires

  • Neo-Marxists believe that the idea of Empire is central to understanding the modern international system
  • Need to place the idea of empire in historical context
  • Much of what I am going to discuss now is based on the thought of Ellen Meiksins Wood, who wrote Empire of Capital.
  • In this work, she looked at the history of empires
  • Originally, empires were based on different economic bases
  • The Roman empires’ economic base was land, cultivated by slaves
  • This meant that the great imperial land-owners had immense influence, and that warfare was an essential aspect of the empire’s economic system, because it always needed a means to take in new slaves
  • This was very different from some later empires, such as that of the Dutch and British
  • They also appropriated land, but it was perhaps less economically important than the importance of trade
  • So the character of empire has changed through time

The Declining Benefits of Empire

  • May seem that the days of empire are long gone
  • But neoMarxists would argue that the changes to the international system are more apparent than real
  • It is true that colonialism was no longer politically acceptable
  • But it was also the case that the economic environment for imperialism had changed
  • Even in the early years, not always clear that empires were economically profitable
  • Adam Smith argued that India was sort of a “showy and splendid” equipage that cost Britain more than it was worth (Wood, 116)
  • Other historians have made the same argument
  • In particular, the profitability of the empire was very unclear after World War Two
  • there is a perhaps apocryphal anecdote about a British Prime Minister after World War Two asking his Ministry of Finance if Britain could afford to give up the Empire
  • the answer came back: the Empire breaks even
  • doesn’t matter if Britain maintains its Empire; doesn’t matter if it lets it go
  • I don’t know if this anecdote is true, or just a story
  • But historians have extensive debates about whether the British Empire was truly profitable
  • There is still not agreement
  • The point for a neoMarxist would make is that Empires ended not only because of resistance, but also because there was no longer a need for them
  • Wealthy nations found a way to exert the control they wanted over poor countries through the structure of the global system
  • There was another way to internationalize capitalist imperatives: the Bretton Woods System
  • This created a rule-base system that was apparently fair, but in fact benefitted the wealthy nations, by imposing a particular form of globalization that supported capitalism
  • There was a shift away from a military form if imperialism
  • A new system dominated by the U.S., and which used international organizations to impose its authority
  • From the perspective of Gramsci, the system succeeded because it was able to obtain the consent of many of those who were exploited by it.

Bretton Woods System

  • You are hopefully all familiar with the structure of the Bretton Woods system, which the U.S. created with its allies at the end of the Second World War
  • Traditionally said that the U.S. helped to broker this new system because it was haunted by the failures of the Great Depression
  • Wanted to create a stable economic basis for the future
  • That may be true
  • But neo-Marxists also argue that this structure is also one that ensures the control of the United States and key wealthy countries over the developing world
  • At its core, NeoMarxists believe that powerful states gave up Empires after World War Two because they were too expensive, and the resistance was too great
  • It was also the case, however, that formal domination was no longer needed
  • Wealthy states created a system that ensured their domination
  • They just did not have to intervene militarily as often as before
  • This did not mean that military forces were no longer important
  • But they were not the main tool anymore
  • Created a system through which the rich world could dominate the poor, without the appearance of imperialism
  • Bretton Woods, as such, was a tool of hegemony, from a neoMarxist perspective
  • It could be used to impose economic policies on other states
  • It required that developing countries would only receive aid if they complied with the dictates of the United States

The Three Pillars: the IMF

  • I want to briefly revisit the three pillars of the Bretton Woods System
  • My apologies to those of you have heard me discuss this in the Intro. Class
  • The Bretton Woods system is so important that it is worth covering briefly
  • the first of these pillars was the IMF, or International Monetary Fund
  • the IMF was originally created to stabilize exchange rates by linking world currencies to the U.S. dollar, which was pegged to gold
  • this system of fixed exchange rates lasted until 1971, when the U.S. took the dollar of the gold standard
  • historically, fixed exchange rates played an important role in encouraging global trade
  • the IMF remains a powerful economic actor
  • theoretically, acts to protect countries during currency crises
  • NeoMarxists argue that it has another role
  • Countries must accept conditions in order to receive funds from the IMF
  • This is called “conditionality”
  • These are typically neoliberal ideals, which critics say open up developing countries and their markets to rich countries
  • For this reason, the IMF is bitterly unpopular in the developing world
  • Argentina, for example, will not implement some articles in the IMF charter
  • Both Venezuela and Ecuador have threatened to withdraw from the IMF, although neither has done so
  • The former President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, once called the IMF “a tool of empire” that serves “the interest of the North”
  • Critics point to a number of facts about the IMF
  • the amount that a nation donates to the IMF weights its voting power
  • This leads to political debates
  • China: in 2001 wanted to increase its quota in the IMF, which would have increased its voting power
  • It was not allowed to
  • The IMF is perceived as being controlled by the US and European powers
  • Also the case that the IMF is centered in Washington, like all the Bretton Woods institutions
  • It is always headed by a European, while the World Bank is headed by an American
  • NeoMarxists say that this represents the bargain that wealthy countries made to control the international organizations that impose their policies

The World Bank

  • the World Bank makes loans to less-developed countries at very low interest rates, which these countries can use on development projects
  • Its official mission is to reduce global poverty
  • According to its 1989 articles of agreement, it also has to promote foreign investment and international trade, as well as facilitating capital investment
  • Like the IMF, it has also been critiqued for advocating an neoliberal world view, and for imposing austerity programs that are too harsh
  • These are the so-called structural adjustment programs
  • Much like the IMF, its views are imposed through conditionality
  • But throughout the 1990s, the World Bank was closely associated with the so-called Washington Consensus
  • The WC called for deregulation, privatization, the growth of private capital and neoliberal policies.
  • Developing countries often both need and resent the bank
  • Believe that many of the projects are actually funded because in some way they benefit the first world
  • The World Bank has tried to improve its image
  • But according to NeoMarxists this has not changed the World Bank’s fundamental character as a tool of ideological and economic imperialism
  • For example, recently the voting rules in the World Bank have also been revised to give developing countries more of a voice
  • The U.S. still the most powerful voter in the World Bank, with about 15% of votes, because voting power is still largely determined by economic size
  • The President of the World Bank is always an American, although they must be “approved” by the organization’s members.
  • Critics also say that because the United States’ veto power within the UN Security Council, it can prevent any changes to the World Bank that it does not like
  • The World Bank, for NeoMarxists, is another tool of imperial domination

World Trade Organization

  • Lastly, there was the GATT, which evolved into the World Trade Organization
  • GATT has played an important role in reducing the barriers to world trade
  • on January 1, 1995, the GATT became a new body: the World Trade Organization
  • the WTO is much more powerful than GATT
  • it is able to discuss barriers to the trade in ideas and services, not only products
  • in fact it is so powerful that some people fear that it threatens national sovereignty
  • this is why there are often bitter protests associated with meetings of the WTO
  • people believe that by imposing particular ideals of intellectual property, the WTO undermines the well-being of indigenous peoples and poor states
  • I want to discuss just one controversial aspect of the WTO, out of many
  • Serve to explain why some people see as a tool for wealth corporations and states

Patenting Life

  • Key aspect of WTO: TRIPS
  • Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property
  • Covers trade in ideas and patents
  • All forms of intellectual production
  • One of the strange aspects of intellectual property law is that it is possible to patent life
  • This has meant that to some extent, corporations can take advantage of traditional knowledge about plants and medicine without giving back to the communities that created this knowledge
  • In 1993 researchers at the University of Mississippi medical center patented turmeric, because they had evidence that it improved wound healing
  • The U.S. patent office awarded a patent in 1995
  • India was outraged
  • Said that its people had been using turmeric for its medicinal benefits for thousands of years
  • The University did not support the patent case
  • But the two researchers did
  • Argued that no one in India had documented their knowledge
  • Ten year battle: ultimately the U.S. patent office dropped the patent
  • The Indian government has a project to digitize and systematically record all the ancient documents regarding the medicinal use of plants
  • But what about societies in which this knowledge is part of an oral tradition?
  • There are other examples
  • People have patented the oil of the neem tree for its medicinal properties
  • Even some strains of basmati rice have been patented
  • Caused great protest in the developing world
  • People have been using strains of rice for thousands of years
  • Fear that they will now have to pay royalties on them
  • This is only one example of many relating to intellectual property rights
  • General claim: that the WTO serves the interests of companies not the poor countries
  • Could see this during the debates over generic medications and HIV/AIDS
  • Another example of how the Bretton Woods system, to a neoMarxist, serves the interests of capitalism

The role of Countries:

  • NeoMarxists make a couple of points about this system
  • Economic domination takes place, but without an obvious imposition of military force
  • Instead, it is exercised through the structures that define the global economy
  • For this reason, economic globalization is inextricably linked to imperialism
  • It takes place according to a system of well-defined rules
  • Ostensibly for the benefits of everyone
  • In fact, it’s like a casino game in Vegas, in which the house always wins
  • And the game is rigged by powerful states not companies
  • NeoMarxists argue that states remain powerful actors, and are fundamental to imperialism
  • With political and economic globalization there have been many authors who have argued that states are declining in importance
  • NeoMarxists believe that states are still critical to the system of global domination
  • The nation state is the key guarantor of the modern form of capitalism
  • Local states in developing countries are the best tool to impose capitalism and globalization upon their populations
  • Modern capitalism without a network of multiple territorial states is unthinkable
  • Nation states impose the order and rules that capitalism needs to flourish
  • Bretton Woods is important
  • But ultimately this system is funded and maintained by powerful states, who use it in their national interests
  • There is also a difference between the interests of corporations and states
  • It’s common to emphasize the wealth and power of states
  • You might expect that neoMarxists would argue that multi-national corporations are the true power running the world
  • A few do
  • But most neoMarxists argue that in order for imperialist domination to be maintained, there needs to be a check on the power of major corporations
  • Sometimes, it may be necessary to sacrifice the interests of Exxon in Ecuador, or pharmaceutical corporations that want to fight giving generic drugs to people living with HIV, if their actions create so much protest that they threaten the Bretton Woods System itself
  • The system only works if there is a check on the power of the corporations
  • While corporations are powerful, they are often much less powerful than they seem
  • The state is the only institution that is really essential to capital
  • Its welfare functions are even useful, as they help to prevent the social unrest that might threaten capitalism
  • there are some things that corporations cannot do
  • They do not have the military force of the great powers

Military Power

  • The great powers are very reluctant to use military power
  • It undermines the legitimacy of the system, which based on the appearance that its serves everyone
  • It is also expensive
  • NeoMarxists also recognize that not every military action is only for the purpose of capitalism
  • At the same time, states are ultimately able to impose the order that capitalism needs to function
  • Nation states are therefore essential to the operating of modern capitalism, according to neoMarxists like Ellen Wood.
  • Military force is still relevant
  • Why is it that after the Cold War, U.S. military expenses are at a record level?
  • The U.S. accounts for at least 40% of global military spending, and by some measures more than half
  • Surprising with a system that is not supposed to depend on military force
  • But because the new capitalist order is global in scope, U.S. financial interests could be threatened at any point on the globe
  • It takes an immense military system to police this
  • The military force sends a message, even when it is not used
  • The new imperialism, to NeoMarxists, is globalization
  • And military force may never be used, but is always in the background
  • The unilateral supremacy of the U.S. is always tested, so the U.S. always wants to have the force to support it, if required

U.S. and imperial hegemon

  • Key argument of neoMarxists is that the U.S. is an imperial hegemon
  • It has the greatest network of military bases of any state on the planet
  • But it mainly acts through international agencies and institutions
  • Wealth is still being transferred from the developing countries to the wealthy nations
  • But this reality is harder to perceive
  • The U.S. supports a specific form of globalization which benefits wealthy countries
  • The market itself has become a tool of compulsion
  • There has been a separation of economic and political domination
  • Hard to rally opponents of U.S. hegemony because modern imperialism is a much more difficult enemy than past empires
  • The system is still defined by class exploitation
  • Neoliberal policies are a tool of Western domination
  • Financial deregulation has taken place to the advantage of Western financial interests
  • Very much the ideology of leftist leaders in Venezuela and Bolivia, as well as members of the ALBA bloc
  • My anecdote about Albania as a model in the 90s
  • Surprise: Marxism has survived and evolved.


  • Part of the reason that NeoMarxism has survived: it focuses on economic globalization
  • Speaks to issues about the internationalization of capitalization
  • Economic globalization creates anxiety and causes hardship in many parts of the globe
  • NeoMarxism puts a frame around these concerns for people to understand
  • Also justifies negative attitudes that people have regarding the Bretton Woods institutions, particular their use of structural adjustment programs to impose certain policies
  • NeoMarxism has survived and thrived by linking itself to the anti-globalization movement
  • It is also based upon Gramsci’s ideas, which creates a more sophisticated model of how states impose their values
  • The core argument: you do not have to use military force to impose imperialism, is really based on the ideas of an early twentieth century Italian thinker


NeoMarxists argue that modern exploitation is often hidden, which is a strange argument. Do you think that it is possible to be exploited without being aware of it?

Do you think that it is possible to think of the United States as an imperial power?

For you, what are the weaknesses of the neoMarxist argument?

What are the strengths?

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