Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997

The Way the Modern World Works: World Hegemony to World Impasse

Peter J. Taylor
Chichester: Wiley
ISBN 0 471 96586 3
£18.99 (pb)
xiv + 276 pp.

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Peter Taylor illustrates the development of global society and politics by considering three hegemonic states of the modern world: Holland in the seventeenth century, Britain in the nineteenth and the USA in the twentieth. Applying Gramsci's idea of dominance through 'intellectual and moral leadership' within states to relations between states, Taylor makes a useful conceptual lateral shift. Hegemonic states are core states in the system of global politics which act as reference points or guides to other states. Culture plays an important role in addition to coercion. Moreover, the author makes clear that at the root of hegemonic power (and decline) are economic forces. The rise of the three hegemons is considered historically and in detail and here the author substantiates his argument by detailed illustration from the three societies. World history moves through a gradual and culminating process of greater inclusion into the world community, made possible by the economic, cultural and military superiority of the hegemonic states: the USA, it is hypothesised, is the final hegemon. Throughout the book there are interesting and pertinent insights and comparisons between the three societies.

In covering such a vast canvas both over time and in subject content, specialists will no doubt point to deficiencies and imbalances. It would be a pity to dwell on these for the book has a powerful message as a study in macro sociology of the global system. However, there are a number of themes which could have been given more attention even within the paradigm adopted. For instance, it is clear that implicitly or often explicitly (economic) class interests underpin the actions of the hegemonic states. The author quotes with approval Kolko and Kolko (The Limits of Power, 1972): American plans post-1945 were 'to restructure the world so that American business could trade, operate and profit without restrictions everywhere' (p.74). However, the dynamic of dominant class interests, as found in traditional Marxist writers, are displaced in the discussion by states which are given the role of leading actors. But who feeds the hand that holds the sword, or fuels the gunboats or the airplanes? The analysis often shifts from class to the elite paradigm, giving elites authority without making it clear in what class context they operate.

Generally, the author is persuasive on the hegemonic processes at work in the three societies. No doubt critics will question some of his interpretation. Is it true that 'the modern social science discipline more than any other [which] is an American creation'(p. 103), Parsonsian sociology, gives rise to a major hegemonic ideology? Whatever its potentialities, even in the USA, sociology lacked widespread influence and American sociology was (and generally is) a parochial methodologically rigorous empiricism lacking in global significance. If any social science subject has become hegemonic, surely it must be economics which can be seen - through the policies of international agencies such as the IMF, Thatcherism and even New Labour - to constrain modern states in the image of a market society. 'Socialist corporatism' will not be allowed to work.

The discussion of countervailing forces in the modern world might also usefully have been discussed further. The author points out, correctly in my view, that the 'end of Soviet power has been to promote American triumphalism' (p. 177). But was the failure of socialism an inadequacy of socialism or a failure of the Soviet version under conditions of Cold War created by the hegemonic powers? Clearly, under the conditions of twentieth century capitalism, Soviet socialism could not compete, let alone win, in a contest in cultural hegemony. The attempt to build socialism in Russia and China came too soon and in the wrong countries.

The final section of the book is challenging and controversial. It is argued that a world impasse has been reached. Capital accumulation is the 'main motor' of the expansion of the world economy in the twentieth century. Such expansion cannot continue, it is contended, because there are environmental limits. The 'earth is ultimately too small for the modern world-system' (p. 190). In a rather speculative final section the author concludes that a 'total change in material life for a post-modern world' (p.193) is necessary. Two scenarios of change are suggested; the rich may 'turn against the system' and a form of 'eco-fascism' may prevail in which the rich (the advanced states) will ensure that the acquired capital will remain with them and accumulation will be denied to others. This will give rise to a global apartheid of rich dominant and poverty stricken subordinate states. The other possibility is a 'deep green' world system. This is a more optimistic scene involving a new asceticism, a shift from concern with standard of living to quality of life, to respect for nature, to a 'pluralistic humanism' (p.223). These are challenging ideas and call for further discussion and action.

This is a stimulating book, well referenced, illustrated with interesting plates and clearly written. It can be read with profit by a wide range of readers, many of whom will doubtless challenge the author's conclusions.

David Lane
Social and Political Sciences
University of Cambridge

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997