Monday, February 14, 2005

Hegemony vs. Empire

Lee Harris explains why Hegemony and Empire aren't the same thing. This is interesting to me because I'm always fascinated by how a "lost" word can be resurrected, become a part of the everyday lexicon of discourse and then, finally, turn into an overused piece of jargon. To me, hegemony has become such a word, especially among historians. According to Harris, it was the radical historian George Grote, in his History of Greece, who resurrected the word from obscurity:
Hegemony, according to Grote, was emphatically not empire. On the contrary, Grote used these two different words in order to demarcate between two radically different kinds of political organization, both of which had been illustrated by Athens during two different historical phases of its career. Hegemony had come first; and only afterwards did it degenerate into empire. . . .

The corrupting of an ideal, brought about by human greed and ambition, is always lamentable; but the corruption does not invalidate the ideal -- and it was the ideal of hegemony that George Grote wanted his readers to focus on. True, we may reasonably argue about whether hegemony inevitably degenerates into empire; but we may not reasonably argue that there is no difference between the two forms of political organization. Democracies have often degenerated into tyranny -- yet no one in his right mind would argue that, because of this melancholy fact, there is no difference between the ideals of despotism and democracy.

Hegemony, as Grote used the word, meant the leadership by a single stronger partner of other less strong, but still autonomous partners, undertaken for the mutual benefit of all parties concerned -- and in the case of the Delian league, a partnership that, as a matter of historical fact, brought peace and prosperity to those who were its members, and which, in addition, gave grave second thoughts to the vast and powerful Persian empire whose seemingly infinite resources perennially threatened the autonomy of each of the individual Greek city-states.

For Grote, the fact that the Delian League worked, and worked so well for so long, was a point that needed to be brought emphatically to his reader's attention. Hence, his insistence on reviving the concept of hegemony. There had to be some simple way of referring to mutually beneficial confederacies led by strong, but not overbearing leaders -- leaders who, while leading, continue to respect the autonomy of their partners -- and what better word to serve this purpose than the Greek word that had originally been intended to refer to precisely such a confederacy?

By a sublime irony, this once useful linguistic distinction has been completely lost in the intellectual discourse of contemporary politics, and lost due to the fact that the world's greatest living linguist, Noam Chomsky, has perversely chosen to conflate the two words as if they were merely synonyms for the same underlying concept. Thus, Grote's precise and accurate revival of the original Greek concept has been skunked forever by Chomsky's substitution of the word hegemony for the word empire, so that nowadays the two are used interchangeably, except for the fact, already noticed, that hegemony sounds so much more sophisticated than empire. Why use a word that ordinary people can understand, when there is a word, meaning exactly the same thing, that only the initiated can comprehend?
Yes, sometimes we historians do love to bandy terms about for the sake of sounding sophisticated, don't we? Nonetheless, no matter how "high falutin'" the term "hegemony" is, those who have succeeded in conflating empire and hegemony have taked away the ability to accurately apply the term, in its correct connotation, to the United States. So, in the "Grotian" sense, the U.S. is a hegemony. To many, though, it is a hegemony in the Chomskyite sense. When such a confusion exists, perhaps it is time to re-retire a term.

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