East and West  in

World-Systems Evolution

Christopher Chase-Dunn

Institute for Research on World-Systems

University of California-Riverside


Thomas D. Hall


DePauw University

Greencastle, Indiana

This paper uses the comparative world-systems perspective to address issues raised in Andre Gunder Frank’s world historical study of East Asia and Giovanni Arrighi’s comparison of China with the West. We discuss the issues of spatially bounding world-systems, modes of accumulation, the process of semiperipheral development in East Asia, and the development of market society and capitalism in East Asia as compared with the West. We also consider the potential for future hegemonic rivalry and the possibility that a more democratic and sustainable form of global governance could emerge in the 21st century.

To be presented at the conference on Andre Gunder Frank’s Legacy of Critical Social Science, April 11-13, 2008

University of Pittsburgh, David Lawrence Hall. draft v. 4/9/2008. 12097 words including bib. This is IROWS Working Paper #42 available at https://irows.ucr.edu/papers/irows42/irows42.htm

         Andre Gunder Frank’s legacy is deep and wide. He was a founder of dependency theory and the world-systems perspective. He took the idea of a whole historical system very seriously and his rereading of Adam Smith has borne new fruit in Giovanni Arrighi’s (2007) recent comparison of China and the West. This paper addresses issues raised by these two authors by using a comparative world-systems perspective to tell the East/West story again and to discuss the political implications of their analyses for the near future. We pay special attention to the process of semiperipheral development as it worked itself out in East Asia and the West. We also discuss U.S. hegemonic decline, the potential for future hegemonic rivalry, and the possibility that both the U.S. and China might contribute to the restructuring of the 21st century world order along more democratic and sustainable lines.

            The comparative world-systems perspective uses world-systems, defined as important and consequential interaction networks, to describe and explain human socio-cultural evolution since the emergence of language. It compares earlier and smaller regional world-systems to later and larger continental and global world-systems in order to see the patterns of structural change. The claim is that, at least since the emergence of chiefdoms, much of human socio-cultural evolution cannot be explained without using world-systems (rather than single societies) as the unit of analysis. This is because semiperipheral societies have been an important source of innovation and transformation in all world-systems that have core/periphery hierarchies (Chase-Dunn & Hall 1997: Ch. 5).

 Spatial Boundaries of World-Systems

            Before the global world-system emerged in the 19th century CE nearly all regional systems were composed of spatially nested interaction networks. There were smaller bulk goods networks (BGNs), in which food and everyday raw materials were circulated. These were encompassed by larger networks of sovereign polities that fought and allied with one another (political-military networks – PMNs).[1] These in turn were encompassed within even larger networks in which prestige goods and information flowed (PGNs and INs).  Bulk goods and political-military networks were extremely important for the reproduction or change in local socio-cultural structures in all systems. Prestige goods networks were more important in some systems than in others, and the nature of the functioning of prestige goods was different in some systems than in others.[2]

            Using nested interaction networks to define the spatial boundaries of systems makes it possible to map the expansions and contractions of interaction networks over time.[3]  David Wilkinson (1987) produced a chronograph of the expansion of what he originally called “Central Civilization” (a political-military network) that began with 3rd millennium BCE Mesopotamia and Egypt. We modified his chronograph adding BGNs and PGNs and portraying the East Asian and Central systems as they eventually merged to form a global PMN in the 19th century CE (See Figure 1). It was at this point that the states of the Europe-centered system surrounded and tried to penetrate China.

                Figure 1: East/West Networks Expand and Merge


Figure 1 portrays the expansion of state-based world-systems in both East Asia and the Central System of the West. It shows how the prestige goods networks connected with each other intermittently during periods of trade expansion over several millennia before they became permanently connected. The PGN corresponds with an Information Network in which ideas and technologies were diffused, along with pathogens. In the 19th century the PMN caught up with the PGN and in the 20th century the BGN also became global.

            This approach to bounding systems is much more empirically explicit than that adopted by Andre Gunder Frank in his work on 5000 years of world system history (Frank and Gills 1993). Frank and some of his followers (e.g. Chew 2001) seemed to think that there was already a global, or at least a Eurasia-wide world-system 5000 years ago. This was an instance in which “painting with broad strokes” missed a lot of important detail.  The important volume by Arrighi, Hamashita and Selden (2003) gets the spatial bounding of East-West connections mostly right.  

Semiperipheral Development

            Another important recurrent pattern that becomes apparent once we use world-systems as the unit of analysis for analyzing socio-cultural evolution is the phenomenon of “semiperipheral development.” This means that semiperipheral groups are unusually prolific innovators of techniques that both facilitate upward mobility and transform the basic logic of social reproduction. This is not to say that all semiperipheral groups produce such transformational actions, but rather that the semiperipheral location is more fertile ground for the production of innovations than is either the core or the periphery. This is because semiperipheral societies have access to both core and peripheral cultural elements and techniques, and they have invested less in existing organizational forms than core societies have. So they are freer to recombine the organizational elements into new configurations and to invest in new technologies, and they are usually more highly motivated to take risks than are older core societies. Innovation in older core societies tends toward minor improvements. Semiperipheral societies are more likely to put their resources behind radically new concepts.

Thus knowledge of core/periphery hierarchies and semiperipheral locations is necessary for explaining how small-scale interchiefdom systems evolved into the capitalist global political economy of today. The process of rise and fall of powerful chiefdoms, called “cycling” by anthropologists (Anderson 1994; Hall 2001, 2006), was occasionally punctuated by the emergence of a polity from the semiperipheral zone that conquered and united the old core region into a larger chiefly polity or an early state. This phenomenon is termed the “semiperipheral marcher chiefdom” (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997:83-84, Kirch 1984:199-202).

Much better known is the analogous phenomenon of “semiperipheral marcher states” in which a relatively new state from out on the edge of a core region conquered adjacent states to form a new core-wide empire (Mann 1986; Collins 1981). Almost every large conquest empire one can think of is an instance of this. A less frequently perceived phenomenon that is a quite different type of semiperipheral developed is the “semiperipheral capitalist city-state.” Dilmun, early Ashur, the Phoenician cities, the Italian city-states, Melakka, and the Hanseatic cities of the Baltic were instances. These small states in the interstices of the tributary empires were agents of commodification long before capitalism became predominant in the emergent core region of Europe, itself a still semiperipheral region in the larger Afroeurasian world-system.

 The semiperipheral development idea is also an important tool for understanding the real possibilities for global social change today because semiperipheral countries are the main weak link in the global capitalist system – the zone where the most powerful antisystemic movements have emerged in the past and where vital and transformative developments are most likely to occur in the future.

The Idea of Evolution

It remains necessary to clarify what we mean and what we do not mean by the word “evolution.” Sanderson (1991; 2007) has explained that the scientific study of evolution must be cleansed of certain assumptions that tend to be included by most users of this word. We are not necessarily talking about “progress.” Progress is an idea that requires specifying a set of desiderata, value commitments, and assumptions about what is good and what is not. That is a fine thing to do and we shall do it toward the end of this paper. Progress can be an empirical question once one has defined what is meant. But the study of evolutionary patterns of change need not assume either progress nor its opposite, regress. It is simply a study of certain directional patterns of change.

            In general societies have gotten larger and more complex and more hierarchical albeit with occasional reverses in these patterns. We further note that new social forms most often arise out of a necessity fostered by social interactions, resource shortages, climate change, diffusion of new ideas, technologies, or microorganisms, and most typically a combination of one or more of these. New social forms often appear via a satisficing mechanism: the first form that is found to work is seized. As more versions appear (say states) and come into competition a selection process favors those that can outproduce and outfight the others, that is, a maximization process. However the “selection pressure” is locally determined, both spatially and chronologically. We also note that these changes, or evolution, are rarely linear, or even smooth. Rather, they are marked by many reversals, collapses, fragmentations, etc. (Hall 2006). Development of complexity often engenders other societies to become more complex, though at times promotes break up or collapse to simpler forms. Scientific explanations of evolutionary change do not employ purposes as causes (teleology) and they do not assume inevitability.   

Central and East Asian Evolution since the Stone Age

East Asian complexity and hierarchy emerged as sedentary agriculture developed in inland fertile valleys. Horticultural settlements developed into chiefdoms and farmers traded and fought with those groups that continued to rely primarily on hunting and gathering. Eventually the hunter-gatherers were pushed onto the steppes, where they shifted toward pastoralism. Thus began the long sedentary/nomadic dance that was to have such huge consequences for the evolution of East Asian world-systems. The pastoralists traded meat and live animals for grain. Some of them settled on the edges of the region of sedentary polities to form new semiperipheral chiefdoms, and later states. Often small states and nonstate societies were linked by trade networks (Smith 2005).

            In Central Asia the domestication of the horse followed the development of agriculture (Anthony 1998; Honeychurch and Amartuvshin 2006; Levine et al. 2003; Linduff 2003; Mair 2003; Sherratt 2003). Steppe nomads brought the chariot to China from the West. And they may have also brought bronze-making technology, although that may have emerged independently in China. In either case horses and bronze were technologies that accelerated the growing complexity and size of polities and gave rise to the early state formation.  The Shang were the first of a series of semiperipheral marcher states that conquered older core states to put together a core-wide empire in China (see Figure 2 below).

            It was not until the first century B.C. that the Silk Road became a safe route for caravans with the establishment of a chain of empires linking Han China, Kushan, Parthian and Roman Empires (Liu and Shaffer 2007; Teggart 1939). Before that, diffusion was limited to down-the-line trade among oases settlements and/or the carrying of cultural elements by migrating steppe nomads. Nomads played a crucial role in the development of trade from China across Central Asia, they linked the disparate nodes from the down-the-line trade. Indeed, “the nomads were, if you will, the godfathers of international overland trade in Eurasia, making peoples all along the route offers they could not refuse” (Barfield 2001a: 259; see also Sherratt 2003). Some have argued that original Chinese state formation by the Shang was spurred by an invasion of chariot-making barbarians from the West (McNeill, 1963; Mair 2003; Renfrew 2001). Whether or not bronze-making diffused from the West or was independently developed in China is still in contention (Linduff 1998; Puett 1998), but the origin of the chariot is not. Primary state formation in China was largely autochthonous, a matter of local chiefdoms emerging in a context in which horticulture had long been established (Barfield 2001b; Underhill and Habu 2006).

            The partial isolation of Chinese civilization from the West was great enough to prevent the diffusion of phonetic writing, an invention that spread widely in the West displacing earlier ideographic forms of writing. By the time contacts with the West became more common, the Chinese already had a substantial investment in a great literature written in their ideographic script and this became the symbolic core of Eastern civilization that could not be lightly thrown away in favor of a less cumbersome form of representing language. Ideographic writing also had the advantage that it could easily transcend dialect, and even language differences. It served as a lingua franca, not unlike Latin in Europe, but was better and lasted longer.

            Indeed, the silk road cities, and occasional statelets were hotbeds of change, as would be expected in nodal areas. Recent works by McNeill and McNeill (2003) and Christian (2004) have stressed the importance of trade and communications networks in the processes of human socio-cultural evolution. Both of these recent works employ a network node theory of innovation and collective learning that is similar to the human ecology approach developed earlier by Amos Hawley (1950). Innovations are said to be unusually likely to occur at transportation and communications nodes where information from many different sources can be easily combined and recombined.

            This is one, but only one, of the reasons Andre Gunder Frank (1992) argued for the Centrality of Central Asia. Central Asian states seldom made the semiperipheral marcher state transition – with the glaring exception of the Mongols (Hall 2005) – they were conduits of change in many directions. Indeed, Central Asian nomads were the vectors of many social changes, in all directions (for instance see Barfield 1989; Kradin 2002; Kradin et al. 2003). For most of its four millennia history China was only linked to West Asia or South Asia, or even Southeast Asia via trade and information networks (PGNs & INs). Only during the Mongol Empire did it become linked to West Asia militarily (PMN). Yet a curious synchrony of Eastern and Western cycles of population growth, largest city population sizes and territorial sizes has been observed from about 500 BCE to about 1500 CE, whereas South Asia does not appear to follow the same pattern. These synchronies could have been caused by climate change, but they also could have been caused by trade fluctuations, epidemic diseases or warfare with Central Asian peoples (Chase-Dunn, Manning and Hall 2000; Turchin and Hall 2003).


Figure 2: Largest Empires in the East Asian Region

Figure 2 shows the territorial sizes in square megameters of the largest states and empires in East Asia from 1900 BCE to 206 BCE with the sequential upsweep carried out by Chu, Qin and Western Han. Both of the upsweeps involved the actions of semiperipheral marcher states who rolled up the regional system of states (Chase-Dunn et al 2008).

            The history of core/periphery interaction in China makes it clear that a distinction needs to be made between peripheral and semiperipheral marcher states. Semiperipheral polities are recently settled sedentary societies on the geographical edge of a region of older sedentary polities. But not all of the empire-makers have been of this kind. Sometimes huge confederations of still-nomadic peoples emerge from Central Asia to conquer the farmers and cities of China. And whether or not these steppe confederacies succeed in conquest, they posed a continuing threat to agrarian states in both the East and the West for millennia.  These must be considered to have been peripheral marcher states.

Figure 3: Territorial sizes of largest states and empires in East Asia

Figure 3 shows the sizes of the largest states and empires in East Asia from 1900 BCE to 1949 CE, so the part to the left side of the vertical line overlaps with Figure 2. We see that the second upsweep that started in Figure 2 was carried further by the Hsiung-Nu, a steppe nomad conqueror state that many believe was composed of the same people who were known as the Huns in the West.

            All these upward sweeps in the territorial sizes of empires involved semiperipheral or peripheral marcher states. The Hsiung-nu were classic horse pastoralist nomads who came out of Central Asia, very similar to the later Mongols. The Turks were also from Central Asia but they were different. They were originally hill people who specialized in mining and metallurgy. They became an important ethnicity in the Central Asian oasis states, and then led several expansive conquests toward both the east and the west. (Chase-Dunn et al 2006).

            In his classic study, Inner Asian Frontiers of China, Owen Lattimore graphically described the cycles of Chinese dynasties thus(1940: 531):

Although the social outlook of the Chinese is notable for the small honor it pays to war, and although their social system does not give the soldier a high position, every Chinese dynasty has risen out of a period war, and usually a long period. Peasant rebellions have been as recurrent as barbarian invasions. Frequently the two kinds of war have been simultaneous; both have usually been accompanied by famine and devastation, and peace has never been restored without savage repression. The brief chronicle of a Chinese dynasty is very simple: a Chinese general or a barbarian conqueror establishes a peace which is usually a peace of exhaustion. There follows a period of gradually increasing prosperity as land is brought back under cultivation, and this passes into a period of apparently unchanging stability. Gradually, however, weak administration and corrupt government choke the flow of trade and taxes. Discontent and poverty spread. The last emperor of the dynasty is often vicious and always weak--as weak as the founder of the dynasty was ruthless. The great fight each other for power, and the poor turn against all government. The dynasty ends, and after an interval another begins, exactly as the last began, and runs the same course. 

            Lattimore qualifies this characterization for different periods.            But it remains an insightful description of a process that repeated itself over the centuries until China became surrounded by the West.

Reorient and Largest Cities: The Timing of the Rise of the West

            Andre Gunder Frank’s (1998) provocative study of the global economy from 1400 to 1800 CE contended that China had long been the center of the global system. Frank also argued that the rise of European hegemony was a sudden and conjunctural development caused by the late emergence in China of a “high level equilibrium trap” and the success of Europeans in using bullion extracted from the Americas to buy their way into Chinese technological, financial and productive success. Frank contended that European hegemony was fragile from the start and will be short-lived with a predicted new rise of Chinese predominance in the near future. He also argued that the scholarly ignorance of the importance of China invalidates all the social science theories that have mistakenly understood the rise of the West and the differences between the East and the West. In Frank’s view there never was a transition from feudalism to capitalism that distinguished Europe from other regions of the world. He argues that the basic dynamics of development have been similar in the global system for 5000 years (Frank and Gills 1994).

Frank’s model of development is basically a combination of state expansion and financial accumulation, although in Reorient he focused almost exclusively on financial centrality as the major important element. His study of global flows of specie, especially silver, is an important contribution to our understanding of what happened between 1400 and 1800 CE. Frank also uses demographic weight, and especially population growth and growth of the size of cities, as an indicator of relative importance and developmental success. 

Figure 4: Regional Urban Population as a % of the World’s Largest Cities

In Figure 4 we see the emergence of the world’s first cities in Mesopotamia and Egypt represented here by the designation West Asia/North Africa. In the upper left hand corner of the graph the dashed line shows that this region had 100% of the largest cities on Earth in 2000 BCE. As other regions developed large cities this monopoly necessarily diminished, and 4000 years later only a very small percentage of the world’s largest cities were in this region. This is strong evidence of the notion of uneven development and the geographical movement of the cutting edge of societal complexity.

The relative size-importance of European cities (indicated by the solid line) shows a long oscillation around a low level, indicating Europe’s peripheral and semiperipheral location in the larger Afroeurasian world-system. The long history of the incorporation of the very small systems of Europe into the expanding Central System of West Asia/North Africa is discussed in Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997: Chapter 9). Europe had been firmly incorporated into the trade networks of the Central System during the bronze and iron ages. Figure 1 indicates that by around 1450 CE Europe began a long rise. It passed East Asia in 1825 CE and peaked in 1850, and then underwent a rapid decline in importance as indicated by the relative size of largest cities. 

All the largest cities on Earth, including those in the Americas and Oceania, are in the denominator of our measure of relative city sizes. So in the decades of the 20th century the percentages shown in Figure 4 do not add up to 100% because some of the largest cities are in none of the regions tracked (e.g. New York, Mexico City, Sao Paolo, etc.). The Americas had become part of the Central System, but Figure compares constant regions rather than expanding networks. Thus Figure 1 indicates that the relatively smaller and older European cities (e.g. London and Paris), were surpassed by the much larger American and Asian cities in the twentieth century.

The trajectory of Europe displayed in Figure 4 supports part of Gunder Frank’s (1998) analysis, but contradicts another part. The small cities of Europe in the early period indicate its peripheral status vis a vis the core regions of West Asia/North Africa, South Asia and East Asia. As Frank argues, Europe did not best East Asia (as indicated by city sizes) until the eighteenth century. But the long European rise, beginning in the fifteenth century, contradicts Frank’s depiction of a sudden and conjunctural emergence of European hegemony. Based on relative city sizes it appears that the rise of Europe occurred over a period of 500 years.

For East Asia we see in Figure 4 a rapid rise that began in 1200 BCE with the emergence of states. This was followed by a small decline and then another burst of relative urban growth that began in 361 CE and that rose to a peak in 800 CE, another decline, and then a further rise to the highest peak of all in 1350 CE. Then there was a small decline and another peak in 1800. Not until 1825 was East Asia bested by the European cities after a decline that started in 1800 and continued until 1914, when a recovery began. The European cities were bested again by the East Asian cities between 1950 and 1970 during the rapid decline of the European cities in terms of their size-importance among the world’s largest cities. This most recent rise of the East Asian cities is a consequence of the upward mobility of Japan, China and the East Asian NICs in the global political economy.

Frank’s depiction of a sudden and radical decline of China that began in 1800 CE is supported in Figure 4. His analysis, which focuses on the period from 1400 to 1800 CE, does not examine the relative decline of East Asian predominance that began in 1350 and the rise to a new peak that began in 1650 as indicated in Figure 4.

Our examination of the problem of the relative importance of regions relies exclusively on the population sizes of cities, a less than ideal indicator of power and relative centrality.[4] Nevertheless, these results suggest some possible problems with Andre Gunder Frank’s (1998) characterization of the relationship between Europe and China before and during the rise of European hegemony. Frank’s contention that Europe was primarily a peripheral region relative to the core regions of the Afroeurasian world-system is supported by the city data, with some qualifications. Europe was for millennia a periphery of the large cities and powerful empires of ancient West Asian and North Africa. The Greek and Roman cores were instances of semiperipheral marcher states that conquered important parts of the older West Asian/North African core. After the decline of the Western Roman Empire, the core shifted back toward the East and Europe was once again importantly peripheral.

Counter to Frank’s contention, however, the rise of European hegemony was not a sudden conjunctural event that was due solely to a developmental crisis in China. The city population size data indicate that an important renewed core formation process had been emerging within Europe since at least the 14th century. This was partly a consequence of European extraction of resources from its own expanded periphery. But it was also likely due to the unusually virulent forms of capitalist accumulation within Europe, and the effects of this on the nature and actions of states. The development of European capitalism began among the city-states of Italy and the Baltic. It spread to the European interstate system, eventually resulting in the first capitalist nation-state – the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century as well as the later rise of the hegemony of the United Kingdom of Great Britain in the nineteenth century.

This process of regional core formation and its associated emphasis on capitalist commodity production further spread and institutionalized the logic of capitalist accumulation by defeating the efforts of territorial empires (Hapsburgs, Napoleonic France) to return the expanding European core to a more tributary mode of accumulation.

Acknowledging some of the unique qualities of the emerging European hegemony does not require us to ignore the important continuities that also existed as well as the consequential ways in which European developments were linked with processes going on in the rest of the Afroeurasian world-system.  The more recent emergence of East Asian cities as again the very largest cities on Earth occurred in a context that was structurally and developmentally distinct from the multi-core system that still existed in 1800 CE. Now there is only one core because all core states are directly interacting with one another. While the multi-core system prior to the eighteenth century was undoubtedly systemically integrated to an important extent, it was not as interdependent as the global world-system has now become.

A new East Asian hegemony is by no means a certainty, as both the United States and German-led Europe will be strong contenders in the coming period of hegemonic rivalry (Bornschier and Chase-Dunn 1999; Chase-Dunn et al 2005). In this competition megacities may be more a liability than an advantage because the costs of these huge human agglomerations have continued to increase, while the benefits have been somewhat diminished by the falling costs of transportation and communication. Nevertheless megacities will continue to be an indicator of predominance because societies that can afford them will have demonstrated the ability to mobilize huge resources.

Modes of Accumulation and the East/West Comparison

            In 1989 Gunder Frank wrote the first version of his contention that “the modes of production” distinction made by Marxists is just so much ideological nonsense (Frank 1989).[5] He had discovered that something very like capitalism existed in the ancient and classical worlds, and he had become quite skeptical about the idea of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe, which he increasingly saw as a Eurocentric construction that ignored important larger Eurasian-wide dynamics. Gunder came to accept something close to Kasja Ekholm and Jonathan Friedman’s (1982) notion of “capital-imperialism” in which the world system had oscillated back and forth between more state-organized and more market-organized conditions since the emergence of cities and states in Mesopotamia. According to Frank’s view there have been no transitions from qualitatively different logics of social reproduction. This view ignored what had happened before the emergence of states (the so-called kin-based modes of production), and it minimized the idea of a long-term trend in which large tributary states became increasingly commercialized as they adopted and expanded the use of money and markets. Frank also largely ignored what we have called “semiperipheral capitalist city-states” in the ancient and classical worlds. And he completely denied that Europe had experienced a transformation in which capitalism had become the predominant mode of accumulation.

            This conceptual move on Frank’s part was arguably an over-reaction to some very important but not well-understood insights – that markets, money, merchant capitalism, finance capitalism, capitalist manufacturing and wage labor had played a much more important role in the ancient and classical worlds than many others had recognized, and that much of the Marxist version of the transformation of modes of production was very Eurocentric. Furthermore, as did many others by 1989, Frank came to see the Soviet Union more as a somewhat modernized and totalitarian version of capital-imperialism than as an experiment in socialism. Frank’s response to these insights was to completely throw out the idea that modes of accumulation evolve. As with the contention that there had been a single world system since the Bronze Age, he may have over-reacted in order to make a dramatic break with his own earlier thought and that of many others.

            Our own position is that there, indeed, have been major transformations in the modes of accumulation. One reason both Frank, and to lesser extent Arrighi, miss this is that they start their histories well after states have been invented. We however (1997) start about 12 millennia ago, and recognize, along with many anthropologists, that the invention of the state is itself a major shift, marking the invention of the tributary modes of accumulation. That this transition has occurred independently several times in human history indicates that it is part of a regular process of socio-cultural evolution (Sanderson 1999; Chase-Dunn and Lerro forthcoming; Hall and Chase-Dunn 2006).

            In our 1997 book, Rise and Demise, we characterized Rome and China as commercializing tributary empires in which substantial amounts of marketization, commodity production and wage labor had emerged, but the predominant logic of social reproduction remained based on the appropriation of surplus product through the use of state power.

            Taxation, tribute-gathering and rents from landed property were the mainstays of the state and the ruling class.  Paper money was used in Sung China in the 10th century CE. But the state and the ruling class of mandarins, or the marcher-state usurpers who sometimes came to power, were mainly dependent on the use of state coercion to extract surplus product from the direct producers. This is rather different from a capitalist system in which profit-making and the appropriation of surplus value through employment of wage labor has become the mainstay of the state and the ruling class. China was commercialized, but the central state was still a tributary state, not a capitalist state.  A capitalist state is controlled by capitalists and acts primarily in their interest, though state power is sometimes used to also serve others who are allied with and needed by the capitalists. Capitalist states existed in the ancient and classical worlds, but there were out on the edge, in the interstices between the tributary states and empires. Only in Europe did a cluster of semiperipheral capitalist city-states emerge, and then later a capitalist core state, the United Provinces of the Netherlands in the seventeenth century.

            In Volume 1 of The Modern World-System Immanuel Wallerstein (1974) noted a key difference between China and the West that had huge consequences. He pointed out that China had a central government -- single “world empire” that could make and enforce a system-wide policy. Wallerstein pointed out that at the same time that the Portuguese King Henry the Navigator was heading out, with Genoese support, to circumnavigate Africa for the purposes of outflanking the Venetian monopoly on East Indian spices, the Ming Dynasty was abandoning the Treasure Fleet explorations to Africa and the West in order to concentrate on defending the heartland of the middle kingdom from steppe invaders. In Europe there was no central emperor to tell the Portuguese to desist. Europe was developing a multicentric interstate system in which finance capital was beginning to play and important role in directing state policy (see Arrighi 1994), while China was maintaining a relatively centralized tributary empire. Arguably this was the most important difference between China and the West. It was the weakness of tributary states in the West after the fall of Rome that allowed capitalism to become a predominant form of accumulation, while the strong tributary state in China, run by mandarins and semiperipheral conquerors, repeatedly succeeded in confiscating the wealth of merchants who posed a political threat to state control.

            This explanation was rejected as so much Eurocentric claptrap by Frank, because Max Weber and Karl Marx had said as much, and they needed to be thrown into the dustbin of Eurocentrism with all the other dead white guys. In Adam Smith Giovanni Arrighi, reviews and recasts the recent work on Chinese economic history that has been partly inspired by Gunder Frank’s analysis (e.g. Bin Wong 1997; Kenneth Pomeranz 2000; Kaoru Sugihara 2003)  These authors show extensive markets, commodity production, buyer-driven commodity chains, etc. in China and confirm that Chinese economic institutions in 1900 were not inferior to those of the West.  Arrighi (2007) ends up with the conclusion that the key question is “who controls the state?” In Europe capitalists came to control, first city-states, and then nation-states. In China that never happened, though it may be happening now for the first time.

            One may ask what happened to capitalist efforts to gain state power in China. Even if they did not succeed, efforts should have been made. Of course Melakka, a Chinese ally in Malaysia, was a semiperipheral capitalist city state in the sea-borne carrying trade (Curtin 1984). But there was also Koxinga, a maritime capitalist state in that nearly emerged in China in the 17th century transition from the Ming to the Qing dynasties (Arrighi 2007:333-4; Hung 2001).  So capitalists were not absent from the stage in East Asia, but neither did they succeed in conquering the commanding heights as they did in the West.

            Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing is dedicated to Andre Gunder Frank and Frank’s influence is obvious throughout. Arrighi does not accept Frank’s blanket rejection of the distinction between the tributary mode of accumulation and the capitalism mode of accumulation. In The Long Twentieth Century Arrighi describes China as having been a tributary state. But in Adam Smith Arrighi depicts China as having developed a more labor-intensive form of market society that is less inhumane than the kind of capitalism that developed in the West. Like Frank, Arrighi appears to have abandoned any discussion of the possibility of a future transition to a qualitatively different socialist mode of accumulation, though this is not explicitly discussed.  While Frank sees history as great wheel that goes around and around between more state-organized and more market-organized forms, Arrighi sees some possibility of progress in the sense of a more egalitarian form of market society, with China playing the role of exemplar and midwife.[6]

            Both Frank and Arrighi share the conviction that East Asia is again rising to a central position, though Frank did not say as explicitly Arrighi has exactly what is meant by this. As reviewed above, Frank argued that China had been the center of the Eurasian world-system until the late eighteenth century and that then Europe had suddenly gotten the upper hand, but that the European societies and their offshoots were now in decline and China will be the center once again. In Adam Smith Arrighi is careful to avoid saying that China will become the next global hegemon. Rather he sees China as the exemplar of a better form of political economy – market society, and so the world will become flatter (less unequal) to the extent that other countries emulate the Chinese model of networked and state-led market society.

            Arrighi contends that the kind of market society that is said to be emerging in China is kinder and gentler to workers because it does not replace labor with machines in such disruptive manor and it is less destructive to the environment than Western capitalism because it does not employ as large-scale methods of harvesting nature. It is also supposedly less imperialistic.  He contends that there was an “industrious revolution” in China in the eighteenth century in which intensive labor was used to produce commodities instead of replacing labor with machines. This kind of market society was characterized by Mark Elvin (1973) as a “high level equilibrium trap” in which capital had little incentive to invest in labor-saving technology because labor was so cheap. Arrighi emphasizes the upside of this for employment. He also contends that the Chinese Revolution helped to create the conditions under which this kind of market society could reemerge in the decades since Mao’s demise.[7]

            Arrighi further contends that China was less imperialistic than the West in earlier centuries, concentrating more on domestic development than on global expansion. The East Asian PMN with China at its core was somewhat less prone to interstate war than was the multicentric European system of competing core states. Physical and human geography are also relevant here.  As John Fitzpatrick (1992) first point out, despite a relatively great degree of centralization, the East Asian system was still an interstate system that periodically broke down into smaller warring states. These breakdowns were less frequent than the nearly constant interstate wars of Europe, but this is probably due to the preponderance of power held by the East Asian hegemon – China, than to any difference in the modes of accumulation. An eight hundred pound gorilla can keep the peace.  The East Asian trade-tribute system studied by Takeshi Hamashita (2003) was a rather hierarchical form of international political economy, though it was probably less rapacious than European colonialism. But again this was at least partly due to the fact that the core was a single core-wide state rather than a collection of competing core states.

            The notion that China concentrated only on domestic problems after the Ming abandonment of the treasure fleets is contradicted by Peter Perdue’s (2005) careful study of Qing expansion in Central Asia, and the notion that China is an exemplar of contemporary egalitarianism in relations with the periphery is contradicted by the situation in Tibet and by many observers of Chinese projects in Africa. While we do not condone China-bashing, and we agree with Arrighi that China is a somewhat more progressive force in world society than many other powerful actors, (including the current U.S. regime) the idea that adoption of the Chinese model of political economy, so-called market society, can be the main basis of a more egalitarian, just, and sustainable form of global governance is a bit of a stretch. On the other hand there are important elements of the idea of market society that probably are quite relevant for a formulation of what should be the goals of contemporary progressives, and that are possibly achievable during the twenty-first century. (more below).

World Revolutions and East Asia

            As far as we know the idea of world revolutions was first developed by Terry Hopkins, Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi in their 1989 book Antisystemic Movements (Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein 1989). The idea is that the structure of global governance in the modern world-system evolves because of competition among core states for hegemony and because subordinated groups of people resist oppression and domination. These latter forms of resistance coalesce when local and national social movements, uprisings, rebellions and revolutions cluster in time, and as these subordinate groups increasing become connected to one another across space. Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein (1989) analyzed the world revolutions of 1848, 1917, 1968 and 1989. They contend that the demands put forth in a world revolution do not usually become institutionalized until a consolidating revolt has occurred, or until the next world revolution. So the revolutionaries appear to have lost in the failure of their most radical demands, but enlightened conservatives who are trying to manage hegemony end up incorporating the reforms that were earlier radical demands into the current world order.

            Up until the nineteenth centuries movements of resistance in the East and the West were mainly disconnected with one another. In China the great peasant rebellions continued as part of the dynastic cycle. In the West world revolutions, beginning with the Protestant Reformation, played an important role in the rise and fall of hegemons and the development of capitalism (Boswell and Chase-Dunn 2000). But in the nineteenth century these two separate phenomena became intertwined. The world revolution of 1848 in Europe was linked in interesting ways with the Taiping Rebellion, and the Chinese nationalist revolution of 1911 was an important part of the world revolution of 1917 (Chase-Dunn 2008).

Rerise of the Global Left

            We agree with Arrighi that the current rise of China as an important player in the world economy was facilitated by the period of development led by the Chinese Communist Party. And we also stand firmly with Arrighi to help defend him when he (and sociology) are red-baited and demeaned by economistic trolls (e.g. Clark 2008).  But in this friendly context (a conference devoted to Andre Gunder Frank’s critical social science) we will also say where we agree and where we disagree with the political implications of Arrighi’s analysis as presented in Adam Smith.

            The world revolution of “20xx” (twenty dos equis) is going on now (Chase-Dunn 2008). There are many continuities with earlier revolutions, and we substantially agree with Arrighi’s specification of how the decline of U.S. hegemony is similar to, and different from, the decline of British hegemony in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Though there was a huge wave of globalization in the late nineteenth century, and then a wave of deglobalization during the “Age of Extremes” in the first half of the twentieth century, the world is quite a bit more globalized now than it was then (Chase-Dunn et al 2000).

            The family of antisystemic movements in the global justice movement of movements has achieved some recent successes, and has endured some failures. There has not been much in the way of domestic violence or divorce, but some new relatives have appeared and some of these either want to move into the house or refuse to do so. Nevertheless, a multicentric and strongly linked network of movements has emerged in the context of the World Social Forum process (Chase-Dunn et al 2007). The labor movement is no longer hegemonic on the Left, even in its own eyes. Most of the labor activists in the global justice movement now see a big tent in which labor plays an important role, but is only one of several other important players (Santos 2006).

What Exactly is Wrong with Capitalism?

            The ideological hegemony of neoliberalism has been a useful foil for encouraging social movements and NGOs to scale up their activities -- to become more transnational and to form global networks of opposition.  If a problem is obviously not resolvable at the local or national level, people will make larger coalitions and create global networks, as many (but not all) have done (Reitan 2007).

            But the neoliberal boogeyman has also created some problems for the orientation of the movements.  Because neoliberals use “market magic” as a justification for attacking and dismantling all institutions that operate to protect the interests of workers or the poor, this encourages movement leaders and writers to go back to railing about commodification and commercialism, as the Marxist left has done in the past. Karl Polanyi’s works on the negative properties of disembedded markets have had an understandable resurgence of popularity. Some of this is good because it gives people a way to resist the arguments of the neoliberal ideologues. And some of it is good because the notion fair trade is a valuable part of local and North/South altruistic solidarity. But it would be unwise to carry the anti-market sentiment as far as was done in the Soviet Union. To our knowledge no one is now advocating the abolition of market exchange or money. That is good.

            This raises the issue of what is really wrong with capitalism. Most Leftist agree that capitalism destroys the environment, exacerbates social inequalities and leaves vast numbers of people in extreme poverty and bad health. But what is it about the institutional features of capitalism that cause these negative outcomes?

            For his analyses of the evolution of hegemony Giovanni Arrighi has adopted a Braudelian understanding of capitalism that contrasts the local market economy (which is not capitalism) with haute finance, which is capitalism. We agree with the part about the relative worthiness of small commodity production.  But we think that a contemporary political analysis needs to once again also consider the issue of the institutional nature of property.  Private property in the major means of production (meaning large private firms) is an important institutional form of modern capitalism.  No one now advocates the expansion of state-owned firms as the solution to the problems created by capitalism because the Soviet Union showed that such firms are grossly inefficient.

            As we have said above, Giovanni Arrighi suggests in Adam Smith that a more benign form of market economy is emerging in China that can be a model that will help resolve the main negative consequences of capitalism for other countries as well. He does not discuss in detail exactly which institutional features of the Chinese system are worth emulating.  His discussion of a benign state that manages a market society is suggestive, but more needs to be said about this. This is difficult terrain on which to tread, especially with respect to sensitivities in China about being lectured by westerners about democracy and human rights, but the contested notions of democracy must necessarily be part of the discussion.

            The Chinese use the term “market socialism” to describe there own model. At present this seems to mean a state managed by the Communist Party and a market society in which private ownership of the major means of production is allowed.

            Whether or not China is a developing exemplar, the emerging global justice movement needs to debate again the classical issues of democracy and socialism and to learn from the mistakes of the past. The world revolution of 1989, in which the peoples of Eastern Europe threw the Russians out, and sought to establish individual political rights and protections long disparaged on the left as “bourgeois,” sensitizes many progressives to the need to reconsider the attacks on individualism that Leftists carried out in response to the perceived anti-collectivism of capitalism (e.g. Mary Kaldor 2003). New social movements such as the European autonomists contend that individualism and collectivism are not necessarily incompatible.

            This said, we think that simply extended social democracy to the global level as advocated by the LSE scholars and others, does not address the more fundamental issues of economic democracy that must be addressed in moving toward a more just and sustainable world society. Boswell and Chase-Dunn (2000) outlined a modified version of John Roemer’s model of market socialism in which capital itself is socialized (see also Loy Forthcoming).

            Left cosmopolitans are advocating globalization from below, while indigenous peoples and some neo-anarchists and autonomists simply want self-reliance and the right to do what they want to do without interference. These are huge issues and they reverberate in East-West relations. There has been very little participation by people from the People’s Republic of China in the World Social Forum process, and the somewhat understandable protective attitude of the Chinese government toward propaganda from abroad stands in the way of greater participation. If China is to play a progressive role in world politics its people must be allowed and encouraged to become autonomous activists in transnational social movements.

Multilateral Global Governance

Though Arrighi does not specifically address the issue of hegemonic evolution, it is a topic that his analysis of the past of and of East Asia naturally raises. He is being careful to show that the current Chinese regime is not plotting to become the next hegemon. This is understandable because racists and nationalists in the rest of the world are champing to once again use the “yellow peril” as a bogeyman. But another approach is suggested by Arrighi’s analysis.  He shows that there have been a series of hegemonies and that each successive one has been larger than the previous one, and that more of the political, military, financial and transportation functions of the world economy have become incorporated and coordinated within the state boundaries of each successive hegemon. He discusses the issue of appropriate state size in light of Adam Smith’s analysis of the proper role of the developmental state. [8]

We extend Arrighi’s analysis of the evolution of hegemony in the following way. The next hegemon will not be a single state and neither will it be the European Union, which is about the same size economically as the United States. In this sense the cycle of hegemony will end, but there will be further cycles of political centralization and decentralization. The next one will probably be a condominium of core states and their allies that will embrace universalistic principles and present itself as a global democratic state. It will be a form of global confederacy stronger than the United Nations, and more democratic, at least in appearance. There will be a global peoples’ parliament in which global political parties will contend to have their representatives elected by the citizens of the Earth (Monbiot 2003). China is likely to play a progressive role in this emergent multilateral global governance. The tasks of the family of antisystemic movements will be to make the democracy real, to expose sham and to see that minorities and majorities from the Global South are respected, to mobilize new movements that experiment with sustainable economic democracy.  A truly democratic and collectively rational form of global governance could emerge in the twenty-first century. As Gunder would have said, the struggle continues.


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[1] The PMN is an interacting system of sovereign polities. This is what international relations scholars study as the international system of national states, except that all world-systems have this even if the polities are bands, tribes or chiefdoms instead of states.

[2] In the classical prestige goods system a local elite monopolizes the importation of goods that are deemed to be necessary for important social institutions such as marriage.  If you must have a holy pot to get married and Uncle Joe controls access to these pots then Joe has a lot of control over when and who you marry. In other systems prestige goods function as a medium of exchange that symbolizes alliances or as a stored form of wealth that allows a group to trade for food during a time of scarcity instead of resorting to raiding. This latter was the way that prestige goods were important in indigenous California (Chase-Dunn and Mann 1998)

[3] The advantages of this approach to spatial bounding of systems is argued more recently by Chase-Dunn and Jorgenson (2003).

[4] For more discussion of this and more evidence about the rise of Europe see Chase-Dunn and Manning (2002).

[5] This eventually became Chapter 6 of Frank and Gills (1993). In an earlier battle with Marxists Frank had convincingly argued that the characterization of a systemic mode should include more than production, and so he shifted to the term “mode of accumulation” which we also adopted.

[6] Arrighi’s model of the evolution of Western hegemonies contains a version of the oscillation back and forth between network and corporate forms of organization (Arrighi 2006).

[7] We can note that the strongest challenges to capitalism in the twentieth century came from semiperipheral Russia and China.

[8] Immanuel Wallerstein had his own consideration of the issue of state scale in his analysis of hegemonies. France was too large and contained regions with contradictory interests vis a vis the larger world economy, and so it was not able to attain the position of hegemon.