An Asian World Economy?

Ulhas Joglekar uvj at
Wed Sep 5 10:31:18 MDT 2001

[ full article snipped and URL substituted. Les ]

An Asian World Economy?

Tirthankar Roy

ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age by Andre Gunder Frank;
University of California, Berkeley and Los Angeles, published in India
by Vistaar Publications, New Delhi, 1998; pp xxx + 416, Rs 525.

An orientalist cliché, that had such great adherents as Karl Marx and
Max Weber, held pre-colonial Asia to be immutable and primitive in
political-economic terms. A corollary was, economic modernity in Asia
began with European discovery of Asia, Vasco da Gama marked the
beginning of the new era. Modern research, on the Indian Ocean trade
especially, has shown that to be a myth. Asia was already a major
player in world commerce when Europeans discovered it. With European
ascendance in maritime trade, a world-encompassing commercial system
took shape. The division of labour that gave these exchanges their
systemic character has been explored in the works of the world systems
school. The world economy surely played a role in subsequent
comparative economic growth and pattern of world inequality. But the
nature and significance of the influence remain debatable.

Positions in this debate depend somewhat on the perspective from which
the commercial system is seen. If Europe is seen as the centre of
world commerce, owing to Europe's superior political and economic
strength, the world economy would seem to be an expression of an
already well-articulated inequality. In this view, which can be called
the received view in 'world history' scholarship, capitalism
originated in Europe and the world economy reflected the external arm
of capitalism.1 Europe was already a superior political-economic power
when it came to Asia, world commerce strengthened its position. On the
other hand, if the centre of world commerce is seen as Asia, Europe's
ascendance cannot be taken for granted and needs to be
explained. Capitalism cannot be seen to be a European discovery.

Andre Gunder Frank, whose work on the origins of underdevelopment has
been familiar and influential in India, argues in his new book,
ReOrient, that the centre of early modern world economy was Asia, not
Europe. A number of other world history scholars dealing with the
three centuries before the Industrial Revolution have argued for a
more Asia-based approach. Frank goes further. He makes Asia the pivot
of the world economy, thereby decentring Europe and decentring the
idea of a European world system from the received narrative. Europe
was at first a minor passenger on the 'Asian economic train'. From the
17th century onward it strengthened its presence in the Asia-centred
world economy, aided by American silver and Asia's own endogenous
decline. The late 18th century was 'still one of competing and
'shared' political economic power between the declining Asians and the
rising Europeans' (p 319). In the 19th century Europe displaced Asia
and took the driver's seat.

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