[Marxism] Joel Andreas answers Arrighi NLR article on China

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 3 08:37:03 MST 2008

(I am not sure if this is only available to NLR subscribers. If you'd 
like to read the entire article, contact me offline.)


Over the last decade, China has suddenly become a major player in the 
global economy, and it has become increasingly common to read that it is 
on the way to becoming the world’s dominant power. In the literature of 
such forecasts, Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing stands out for 
two reasons. The first of these is that Arrighi embeds his analysis 
within a grand and sophisticated historical model of the rise and fall 
of a sequence of hegemonic powers. The second is that while many Western 
scholars view China’s ascent with trepidation, Arrighi welcomes it with 

In Arrighi’s model, which was most fully developed in The Long Twentieth 
Century (1994), the capitalist world system has evolved through a 
succession of hegemonic cycles. These have each been dominated by a 
single power, and although they have had distinct characteristics, so 
far they have all followed similar trajectories. When The Long Twentieth 
Century was published, Arrighi was already convinced that the global 
centre of capital accumulation was shifting from the North Atlantic to 
East Asia, yet at that time China had only just begun to transform its 
economy in a fashion that would allow it to fully integrate into the 
global economy and become the ‘workshop of the world’. Today, the 
emergence of China as a global economic power, and the military and 
economic setbacks of the United States, have given Arrighi the 
confidence to predict that the epoch of us hegemony is likely to be 
followed by an era of East Asian dominance, with China at its centre.

For Arrighi, Chinese world hegemony could have three positive results. 
Firstly, by restructuring the current hierarchy of powers, dominated by 
the West, a period of East Asian pre-eminence might bring about greater 
equality among the world’s nations. Secondly, Chinese hegemony might 
prove to be less militarist and more peaceful than its European-American 
predecessors. Thirdly, the rise of China might foster a more egalitarian 
and humane East Asian development path—one based on market exchange, but 
that is not capitalist.

Arrighi’s optimistic scenario has attracted surly responses from 
reviewers convinced of the superiority of Western civilization, and more 
thoughtful and positive reviews from others, less sanguine about the 
world order produced by Western domination. [1] Each of his three 
predictions deserves serious individual consideration. In this essay, I 
will limit myself to responding to the last—that China might be 
pioneering the development of a market system that is not capitalist.

What you see, of course, depends greatly on the conceptual framework you 
employ. Arrighi starts with a model of capitalism derived from Braudel’s 
historical narrative of the development of capitalism in Europe. Braudel 
divided the economy into three layers. At the bottom, economic activity 
consisted of subsistence production with little market exchange. A 
middle layer was composed of market-oriented activity organized by 
competitive entrepreneurs. The top echelon was reserved for capitalists 
proper, benefiting from monopoly positions and closely associated with 
state power. This is a framework that has informed much world-systems 
analysis, and Arrighi employs it to suggest distinct models of Western 
and East Asian development. In the West, capitalists dominated the 
state, generating a potent combination of economic and military 
expansion that allowed Western powers to conquer the world. In East 
Asia, by contrast, a strong state fostered market exchange, but kept 
large-scale capital in check. This model flourished under the hegemonic 
supervision of the Chinese empire, presiding over a relatively peaceful 
system of interstate relations in the region which made it the 
wealthiest in the world until the nineteenth century. Then, as the 
Chinese state declined and East Asia was incorporated into a world 
economy dominated by European powers during the nineteenth and early 
twentieth centuries, Japan grafted elements of the Western capitalist 
model into its own economy, creating a hybrid system.

In The Long Twentieth Century, Arrighi was hopeful that the rising 
economic power of Japan, stripped of its military dimension after the 
Second World War, might foster a new model in which economic and 
military power were dissociated, and could eventually usher in a 
‘post-capitalist world market society’. [2] In Adam Smith in Beijing, 
Arrighi has shifted his attention to China, where, he writes, a strong 
welfare-oriented state created by the Communist revolution has 
rediscovered the economic dynamism of the market, fostering the 
initiative of masses of small entrepreneurs, rural and urban. [3] As 
China leads East Asia to recover its position as the most economically 
developed region of the globe, he suggests, it may choose to conform to 
the Western capitalist paradigm or it may blaze a different path more in 
accord with its own past.

Arrighi’s develops his models on a grand scale, encompassing global 
networks of power and trade, interstate competition, and the evolution 
of economic and political systems over hundreds of years. Like others 
who work in the world-systems paradigm, he is more concerned about 
structures that reproduce international inequality than those that 
reproduce inequality within nations. As a consequence, he devotes little 
attention to analysing the details of production relations. What might 
we see if we revisit recent Chinese economic history, turning our 
attention to production relations? Such will be my focus, and for this 
purpose I will use Marx’s conceptual framework. I will then consider 
Arrighi’s suggestion that China might be pioneering a development path 
distinct from that of the West, using Braudel’s definition of 
capitalism, which focuses on the relationship between capital and the 


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