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Boris Johnson, Papua New Guinea and Hegemony

In 2006, prior to his status as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson was revelling in the slow disintegration of New Labour. With ethnocentrism now added to his infamous crassness, he declared that, ‘For 10 years we in the Tory Party have become used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing, and so it is with a happy amazement that we watch as the madness engulfs the Labour Party’.

Ignoring diplomatic outrage from Papua New Guinea’s High Commissioner in London and refrains from almost all circles, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (his full name) then added oil to the fire by thanking Papua New Guinea’s High Commissioner for her criticism while stating, ‘I meant no insult to the people of Papua New Guinea who I’m sure lead lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity in common with the rest of us’.

Perhaps the affront could have been avoided if only this former Etonian, graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, and distant relative of David Cameron, had been given the earliest opportunity to consult some of the essays in a recent edited book collection on Hegemony: Studies in Consensus and Coercion

The book provides excellent scholarship on colonial Papua New Guinea and its subsequent formation as a modern state. One remains hopeful that the readership of Ballots & Bullets might be broad enough to include former members of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, such as Boris Johnson, or David Cameron, or George Osbourne, in order to affirm the merits of this book and its approach to understanding hegemony in and beyond the Asia-Pacific region.

But if now, what does this volume offer in and beyond the debunking of prejudiced assumptions about Papua New Guinea?

Given its primary focus on the Asia-Pacific region, Hegemony: Studies in Consensus and Coercion (edited by Richard Howson and Kylie Smith) presents a series of theoretical and empirical essays that provides new insights on the study of hegemony but also on the political economy and regional geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific.

Hegemony can refer to cultural, ideological and moral leadership combined with coercive dynamics and it is important in the Asia-Pacific context because of the different historical situations and class actors involved in the region over, and through, which hegemony is exercised. The book is therefore centred in debates, reflections, and controversies on the notion of hegemony, drawn from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, in order to provide alternative readings of hegemonic processes in the Asia-Pacific region. As a result, it delivers a set of new regional and theoretical views that adds to the focus of my own book Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy.

One of the main messages delivered in Howson and Smith’s Introduction is that ‘hegemonic authority exercised as domination must impose coercion at some level of intensity and focus so as to ensure the dominant interests are protected’ at the state level or world order. This subtle comment is crucial in that it recognises the mix of coercion and consent that defines a situation of hegemony, namely a form of power through which class rule is conducted that blends together different cultural, social, coercive, and intellectual dimensions.

As a result, a focus on various ‘hegemonic principles’ binds together many of the essays within the book, notably on hegemony, imperialism and colonial labour (Andrew Wells); the World Bank and neoliberalism in Vietnam (Susan Engel); hegemony and neoliberalism in India (Ruchira Ganguly-Scrase and Timothy J. Scrase); the Australian experience of neoliberalisation and subalternity (Damien Cahill; Kylie Smith); and U.S. geopolitics and Japan (Yoko Harada).

A further key motif of the book is the relationship between hegemony and passive revolution, with the latter referring to ruptural conditions of political, social, or economic transformation and upheaval that result in a restoration of dominant class rule. One example of passive revolution would be the case of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) that, as outlined in my latest book Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development, led to specific forms of state intervention from above and mass mobilisation from below to shape Mexican history throughout the twentieth century.

Returning to the edited volume, essays on hegemony and Japan (by Yoko Harada) and Papua New Guinea (by Charles Hawksley) give further empirical attention to the condition of passive revolution in alternative contexts. The real gem is Hawksley’s chapter and his focus on the modernising project of state formation and development in what would later become Papua New Guinea (PNG). This process is understood as a passive revolution in that it was induced, planned, and executed through the colonial state to entrench the conditions for capitalism within the emerging state of PNG. To quote Hawksley directly: ‘The commonsense of capitalism, including the subjugation of citizen to state, of local politics to the state, and of people to the market, has failed to take a stranglehold on the people of PNG’.

For this reason among many—pace Boris Johnson—one would not want to cast the people of PNG as leading ‘lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity’, especially given that such a blameless existence can hardly be seen to apply to any class-ridden society. Hawksley’s essay is thus a classic contribution to the debates on passive revolution and delivers an exceptional interpretation of Gramsci relevant to historical and contemporary conditions in global politics.

Overall, then, what this fascinating book reveals is that the categories developed by Antonio Gramsci are alive and kicking and that he continues to have a bearing on politics across different times, places, and spaces.

I would highly recommend dipping into these new analyses on the politics of hegemony and giving it a try!

Adam David Morton

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  1. Mark H Wilkinson Mark H Wilkinson

    It’s rather sneaky to put Boris in the lead of a post that essentially has bugger all to do with him. I very nearly read the whole thing.

  2. Adam Morton Adam Morton

    Mark – I think the point here is that my piece and the book at the centre of its focus has a great deal to with the sorts of loaded assumptions that political figures such as Boris Johnson retain about the post-colonial world. After all, one of the central chapters in the book, *Hegemony: Studies in Consensus and Coercion*, focuses on Papua New Guinea and its argument is precisely about overcomming prejudices that Boris Johnson displays. If you had read the whole article this would have been clearer…Even if I disagree with a book, article, newspaper column (or for that matter a film) I never leave the reading unfinished or walk out half way through. Otherwise, the result is half-baked opinion. Overcoming “common sense” assumptions about the post-colonial world is what my blog entry is all about; assumptions held by many within and beyond government, including good ol’ Boris.

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