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  History recycled
While the good times may be rolling now, sociologist Christopher Chase-Dunn warns of dark days ahead if the world doesn't stop repeating its mistakes. 
By Michael Hill
Sun Staff

   Spiral-gyra: Christopher Chase-Dunn looks at world developments on a long-term basis -- like 500 years. (Sun photo by Algerina Perna) 

At the daw of the year 2000, with the Cold War dimming in the memory and market economies growing worldwide, many see a coming century unlike any other, dominated by American ideals, free of the conflicts that have so often rent the world asunder.

 Christopher Chase-Dunn, though, sees another case of been there, done that.

 Ever hear of the Dutch in the 17th century? The British in the 19th? The Johns Hopkins University sociologist says we are not on the verge of a brave, new world, merely repeating a cycle of history. He gives us 20, maybe 30, years before another major war.

 "I'm not talking about these small wars that we always have going on. I'm talking about a world war," he says.

 "This is not inevitable. I'm not a determinist. But unless we make some changes, this could happen."

 Chase-Dunn's ideas, contained in a new book he co-authored -- "The Spiral of Capitalism and Socialism," due out next month -- come not just from looking at the last 20, 50 or even 100 years, but from examining about 500 years of history.

 The pattern he sees emerging is one of an enthusiasm for unfettered capitalism and an expansion of international trade under the direction of a dominant power -- in this case, the current situation with the United States on top -- followed by a reaction that includes warfare and social progress.

 As evidence of this pattern, he points to how 19th-century globalization, dominated by the British, created the conditions that led not only to World Wars I and II but also to the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and a similar revolution in China and a wave of worldwide decolonization.

 Chase-Dunn adds another possibility to the list of future catastrophes -- an environmental disaster.

 "Of course, those could be related, as often wars are triggered by a fight for scarce resources," he says.

 Chase-Dunn, 56, an Oregon native, arrived at Hopkins in 1975 with degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University. Unafraid to use the term socialism as a positive development -- a key part of the social progress cycle -- at times he sounds like an old leftist who didn't get the message that the Cold War is over and his side lost.

 "I am not talking about Soviet-style socialism, but democratic socialism," he says. He claims that what he calls "market socialism" -- which would spread ownership of major firms among all citizens, sort of the ultimate stock option -- would be the solution for many of the ills wrought by an unfettered free market.

 From his several-centuries-long perspective, Chase-Dunn argues that the world has seen victories for unrestrained capitalism before, and never has one proven permanent.

 The parallels he points out are rather eerie. For instance, just as the Internet is touted as the technological change that makes this economic boom unlike any other, previous such cycles also had their technological innovations -- sea power and trade in the case of the Dutch, the Industrial Revolution for the British -- that were supposed to make them similarly unique.

 In Chase-Dunn's spiral model, the dominant countries overextend themselves even as the economic prosperity of their era helps rivals build up military strength.

 The economic bubble eventually bursts and the resulting contraction causes squabbling over the diminishing markets. Warfare results. Those concerned with social welfare develop a stronger voice and make some progress -- for example, the labor movement grew out of the era of British hegemony.

 The rivals to the United States that Chase-Dunn sees emerging in the coming decades are traditional ones -- the Germans and the Japanese.

 "Both are prohibited by their constitutions from re-arming, but both are being encouraged to do just that, by the United States," he says. China, he argues, has too many internal problems to become the major rival.

 For all his foreboding, Chase-Dunn is not a gloom-and-doom kind of guy. In person, he is serious but ebullient and thinks the world has half a chance to avoid this doom if it takes the right steps toward world cooperation instead of confrontation.

 He argues that the seeds of such cooperation are always planted by the dominant powers during their reign and downfall. He points to the Westphalian treaties that essentially set up modern Europe in the Dutch era and the various international organizations, -- the League of Nations, United Nations, World Bank and International Monetary Fund -- in the time of dominance by Britain and the United States.

 This is why his book -- written with Terry Boswell of Emory University -- is not about cycles, but spirals, because in each repetition of this pattern, every aspect grows larger: the globalization of the economy, the international organizations created, the wars and other responses.

 "I've never written a book like this," Chase-Dunn says. "I'm a quantitative sociologist, a numbers guy. I tell my students that we are doing science here -- you present the evidence and explain what it says. You don't bring in your personal beliefs. But when you talk about what should happen in the future, you have to bring in your values."

 What he hopes for is genuine international cooperation, not only among governments, but also among groups espousing social progress, particularly labor and environmental organizations. He says the protests last month during the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle could be the start of something.

 "They [the protesters] were saying the right things out there," Chase-Dunn says. "We'll have to find out whether they meant them."


Originally published on Jan 19 2000 

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