Periodizing the Thought of

Andre Gunder Frank:

From Underdevelopment to

the 19th Century Asian Age

Christopher Chase-Dunn

Institute for Research on World-Systems

University of California-Riverside

draft v. 3/19/2015. 9158  words

An earlier version was presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, New Orleans, Feb. 19, 2015 This is IROWS Working Paper #88 available at  



This paper reviews Andre Gunder Frank’s contributions to our understanding of the modern world-system, the long-term evolution of world-systems and the issues raised in Frank’s posthumous book about the Global Nineteenth Century. Early, middle and late Frank’s are praised and critiqued and those scholars who are continuing the Gunder Project are supported and encouraged.


Andre Gunder Frank’s legacy is wide and deep. He was one of the founders of dependency theory and the world-systems perspective. He took the idea of whole historical systems very seriously and his rereading of Adam Smith inspired Giovanni Arrighi’s (2007) reevaluation of the comparison of, and relations between, China and the West. This paper reviews Frank’s contributions to our understanding of the modern world-system, the long-term evolution of world-systems and some of the issues raised in his posthumous book about the Global Nineteenth Century (Frank 2014). I divide Frank’s thought into three periods (early, middle and late) in order to explicate his ideas and to compare them with one another and with those of other scholars.

            All intellectuals change their thinking as time passes. Some elaborate on their earlier ideas or pursue directions that had occurred to them in earlier projects. Some make radical changes that require retraining. Andre Gunder Frank was unusual in the extent to which he sought to correct mistakes in his own earlier work and was will to rethink basic assumptions. There are continuities in his work to be sure. He was passionate about grand ideas as new ways of looking at the world. He had a strong commitment in favor of the underdogs. He was never afraid of confronting his own earlier ideas and he enjoyed challenging taken-for-granted assumptions and myths.  His detractors called him a gadfly and said he “painted with broad strokes.” Broad strokes are often a good start down paths that are hard to think.

The Early Frank

            Gunder was an early adopter and important diffuser of the dependency perspective that emerged from Latin American social scientists in the 1950s. His 1966 article "The Development of Underdevelopment" (published in Monthly Review) was an important element in the Third Worldism that became an important element of Western independent socialism after the Cuban Revolution. Marxist economists Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy were significant contributors to this trend. The basic idea, which Frank held to the end, is that the nature of social institutions and class relations in poor and powerless countries are not primarily due to traditional local power structures but that these institutions and class structures have been shaped by hundreds of years of exposure to the powers of “the metropole” (Gunder’s original term for the powerful core countries). Colonialism and neo-colonialism have left what we now call the Global South in a state of dependent underdevelopment. So the modernity/traditionalism contrast was seen as a global socially constructed and reproduced stratified power hierarchy.

Gunder soon came into contact with other Third Worldists and, with Samir Amin, Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi (all Africanists) he helped to formulate the emerging world-system perspective. Frank’s research (Frank 1967, 1969, 1979b) showed that Latin American societies were heavily shaped by colonialism and neo-colonialism and argued that these dependent social formations should be understood, not as feudalism, but as peripheral capitalism because they were a necessary part of the larger capitalist world-system. The conceptualization of capitalism as mode of accumulation that contained both wage labor (in the core) and coerced labor (in the non-core) was elaborated by Frank and by the other founders of the world-system perspective. Wallerstein (1974) realized that serfdom had played a somewhat similar part in the peripheralization of Poland.  Frank helped to formulate the idea that the capitalist world-system was a single integrated whole and that it was a systemically stratified system in which global inequality was reproduced and the role of the non-core was an important and necessary part of the system. This was a challenge to Marx’s definition of capitalism as necessarily requiring wage labor and more orthodox Marxists accused Frank and the others of “circulationism” because they seemed to focus on the importance of trade between the core and the periphery rather than class relations within each country. But the world-systems formulators explicitly examined the global class structure as well as considering carefully the class structures within countries (e.g. Amin 1980b).

            Frank’s (1978) examination of world history from 1492 to 1789 provided an insightful account of the whole system and contributed to the reformulation of the study of systemic modes of production by recasting them as modes of accumulation, which included production, distribution and the different institutional ways in which wealth and power were appropriated.

The Middle Frank: Ancient Hyperglobalism

          Gunder began to develop an interest in questions concerning the continuities and discontinuities between the modern system of the last five centuries and earlier periods. Other scholars were also doing this. Janet Abu-Lughod’s (1989) influential study examined a multicore Eurasian system in the thirteenth century CE. Chase-Dunn and Hall published a collection entitle Core/Periphery Relations in the Precapitalist Worlds in 1991. Gunder began reading world historians such as Philip Curtin and William H. McNeill. He developed an important working partnership with Barry Gills in this period and together they published the collection entitled The World System: Five Hundred Years or Five Thousand?  in 1993. Gills and Frank argued, following Kasja Ekholm and Jonathan Friedman (1982), that a “capital-imperialist” mode of accumulation had emerged during the Bronze Age and that this system went through phases in which state power was more important interspersed by phases in which markets and private accumulation by wealthy families were more important. This mode of accumulation had been continuous since the Bronze Age and so there was no transition to capitalism in Europe. Already Gunder had staked out this position in his 1989 Review article “Transitions and modes: in imaginary Eurocentric Feudalism, Capitalism and Socialism, and the Real World System History.” So capital imperialism had been continuous since the Bronze Age emergence of cities and states. The emergence of capital imperialism was never analyzed because it occurred before the emergence of cities and states in Mesopotamia, which was the beginning of the Frank-Gills system of capital imperialism. Frank and Gills also argued that there had been a single Afroeurasian world system since the Bronze Age because neighboring societies share surpluses and so are systemically linked with one another and if all indirect links are counted there would be a single network of interaction. Frank also implied that there will be no future transition to socialism.[1] The capital-imperialist system is a great wheel that has gone around since the Bronze Age and will continue into the future indefinitely.

            Many of Frank’s friends on the Left were very unhappy with this new analysis, but Gunder stuck to his guns, while continuing to critique neo-colonialism and exploitation of the downtrodden. The new emphasis was on the important continuities in the system, which were extended to the Americas after 1492, creating a single global system. Frank also developed a fascination with Central Asia in this period because of its long importance as a link between the East and the West and the hybrid and innovative social formations that emerged from there. In this he was a progenitor of a new (or renewed) Central-Asia-Centrism that flourished after Frank’s affections moved on to East Asia.

Janet Lippman Abu-Lughod’s important 1989 study of the multicentric Eurasian world-systems of the l3th century CE was a very valuable and inspiring contribution. Abu-Lughod helped to clear the way forward in world-systems analysis by rejecting the idea of the ancient hyperglobalists that there has always been either a single global (Earth-wide) system (Modelski 2003 and Lenski 2005) or a single Afroeurasian system since the early Bronze Age (Frank and Gills 1993).  Abu-Lughod agreed with Wallerstein (1974) that as we go back in time there were multiple regional whole systems that should be studied separately and compared. Things would be much simpler if it made sense to use the whole Earth as the unit of analysis far back in time. The ancient hyperglobalists are correct that there has been a either a single global network (or an Afroeurasian and American network) for millennia because all human groups interact with their neighbors and so they are indirectly connected with all others (though connections across the Bering Sea may have been nearly non-existent for a period after the humans migrated from Central Asia to the Americas). David Christian (2004: 213) contends that there have been four “world zones” of information interaction (Afroeurasia, America, Australia/Papua New Guinea and the Pacific) over the past 4000 years. But all these claims about ancient macro-region interaction systems ignore the issue of the fall-off of interaction effects (Renfrew 1975 and below).

Frank and Gills (1993) contended that there had been a single Afroeurasian system since the rise of cities and states in Mesopotamia. But, if we read Frank and Gills as studying the important continuities of the expanding West Asian/North African interstate system and the Afroeurasian prestige goods network, much of their analysis of core/periphery relations is quite valuable.

A Precontact North America-wide system?

            Peter Peregrine and Charles Lekson (2006, 2012) claim there was a continent-wide American ‘oikumene’ that extended to Honduras in Central America before the arrival of the Europeans.[2] They contend that information spread quickly and cite several stories from historian Herbert Eugene Bolton as evidence. The issue here is the spatial scale of what Chase-Dunn and Hall (1996) have called the Information Network. Information is exchanged, often in connection with trade, and this kind of interaction is important for the diffusion of ideas and technologies. Though information is lighter than other goods it is still subject to the frictions of space, and so there is information fall-off and point in reached beyond which no information travels.
Chase-Dunn and Hall have tended to assume that the Information Network is about as big as the Prestige Good Network, but this is just a rough guess. Peregrine and Lekson’s idea that information could rapidly spread across the entire North American continent by means of foot transportation and in a situation in which intelligible languages were rather localized is somewhat far-fetched. We know that indigenous Americans developed specialized trade languages for intergroup communication and there was regional multilingualism that allowed information to move from group to group. But how far and fast could information move? 

Cora Alice Du Bois’s (1939) study of the diffusion of the Ghost Dance cult from Western Nevada to Northern California and Southern Oregon may help us get a handle on the issue of the spatial scale of Information Networks. Du Bois interviewed people who had participated in and observed the spread of the Ghost Dance cult. The 1870 Ghost Dance came from the same area as the more famous 1890 Ghost Dance that inspired a Sioux uprising, and the doctrine was very similar. The Indian dead were returning and all the Europeans would disappear. As informants told Du Bois, this was a “hurry-up word.” Doing a special dance would hasten the arrival of the formerly dead and the emergence of the new world. This kind of millenarianism is familiar to students of social movements and may have been an occasional feature of precontact indigenous social movements as well. It is hard to sort out the autochthonous ideological elements from the borrowed aspects of the Ghost Dance, and using it to estimate the geographical nature of precontact information systems has the same problem. By 1870 Indians in Nevada, California and Oregon had some access to roads, horses and wagons, which they did not have before 1849 or so. These undoubtedly extended their abilities to communicate with each other by making longer trips easier. This said, the geography of the 1870 Ghost Dance was still rather limited by several important factors. Language was one. Many Indian communities had multilingual members, but the composition of these and their willingness to aid the spread of the Ghost Dance doctrine were important determinants of where the movement spread to and where it did not. Some communities, those that had been less disrupted by the arrival of the Euroamericans, were more resistant. The old “doctors” (spiritual specialists) in these did not approve of the new ideas and were able to prevent the introduction or adoption of the songs and dances in less disrupted regions. The Ghost Dance songs and ideas were carried from their origin in Eastern Nevada by inspired individuals who went abroad to tell the word. And the word was taken farther by new recruits, who often modified the content and adapted it to local traditions. From Walker Lake in Nevada, where the Ghost Dance emerged, to the farthest point north in Southern Oregon is about 300 miles as the crow flies. The range of a cult was probably less in precontact North America, especially before the arrival of the horse. This is far from the continent-wide oikumene posited by Peregrine and Lekson. But it does not exclude the possibility that ideas and information can diffuse very long distances by passing from group to group, nor that there may have been a occasional very long distance trip by an individual or a small group. Such adventures would probably have been rare, but they may account for the diffusion of “Southern Cult” artistic styles from Mesoamerica that appeared during the decline of the Mississippian interaction sphere.  In any case, Gunder Frank’s notion of connectedness is based on the transmission of “surplus,” not the transmission of information or ideas. Physical goods containing human labor are likely to be even more subject to the tyranny of distance than are ideas.

Modes of Accumulation and the East/West Comparison

            In 1989 Andre 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).[3] 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. Frank 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 were 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 have been 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 Afroeurasian 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.

            My position is that there, indeed, have been major transformations in the modes of accumulation. One reason both Frank, and to lesser extent Arrighi (1994), missed this is that they started their histories well after states had been invented. An anthropological framework of comparison recognizes that the invention of the state was itself a major shift, marking the invention of the tributary modes of accumulation. That this transition occurred independently several times in human history indicates that it was part of a regular process of socio-cultural evolution (Sanderson 1999; Chase-Dunn and Lerro 2014; Hall and Chase-Dunn 2006).

            In Rise and Demise, Chase-Dunn and Hall 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 they were out on the semiperipheral 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 in Beijing 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.

            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.[4]

            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.[5]

            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 (e.g. Bergesen 2014a). While we do not condone China-bashing, and we agree with Arrighi that China may be a somewhat more progressive force in world society than many other powerful actors, the idea that adoption of the Chinese model of political economy 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.

The Late Frank: Sinocentrism

















Gunder’s (1998) provocative study of the global economy from 1400 to 1800 CE contended that China had been the center of the global system since the Iron Age. Marx, Weber and most other social scientist were hopelessly Eurocentric and this fatally distorted their concepts and explanations of what had happened in world history. The idea that capitalism arose in Europe is a myth.  Capital imperialism had been the dominant mode of accumulation since the early Bronze Age. Gunder  contended 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 production networks. 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 construed the rise of the West and the differences between the East and the West. As I have said above, in Frank’s view there never was a transition from feudalism to capitalism that distinguished Europe from other regions of the world. He argued that the basic dynamics of development were similar in the Afroeurasian system for 5000 years (Frank and Gills 1993).

In ReOrient Gunder forcefully argued that it is fundamental and necessary to study the whole system in order to look for continuities and transformations. He contended that the most important way to do this is to look at multilateral trade, investment and money flows. He argues correctly that very little quantitative research has been done on the whole global system. When he reviews what has been done he finds that the Rise of the West occurred much later than most thought and that it was due mostly to the ability of the European states to extract resources from their colonies.  In the Global 19th Century the gap that emerged between China and the West was smaller and shorter than most observers knew. He contends that the rise of the West was short and insubstantial and the global system is now returning to the China-centered structure that it has had for most of the history of the world system.

Gunder’s  model of development emphasizes 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, importantly extends the work of Flynn (1996) and others to expand our understanding of what happened between 1400 and 1800 CE. Frank also used demographic weight, and especially population growth and the growth of cities, as indicators of relative importance and developmental success (see also Morris 2010, 2013)

World Region


Population in thousands

East Asia



South Asia



West Asia-Africa






East Asia






Table 1: World Largest cities in 1400 CE

            Table 1 shows the sizes of six largest cities on Earth in 1400 CE. Two of the six (Nanjing and Hangzhou) were in China and Nanjing was the largest and much larger than the second largest, which was Vijayanagara, the capital of a large empire that emerged in the southern part of South Asia to resist Moslem incursions. So, based on city sizes, Gunder is right that China was the center at the beginning of the period studied in ReOrient.



























Figure 1: East Asian and European Urban Population as a % of the total population in the World’s 6 Largest Cities, 1500 BCE to CE 2010

Figure 1 shows the percentage of the total population in the world’s six largest cities held by cities in Europe and East Asia since 1500 BCE. Both regions rise and fall but the waves are not synchronous. Rather there is the sea-saw pattern noted by Morris and other observers. Europe had a rise that began during the late 3rd millennium and then crashed in the late 2nd millennium.  East Asia had a rise that began in the late 2nd  millennium BCE, crashed and then recovered and peaked in 500 BCE. East Asia has another rise in the middle of first millennium CE, a decline and then another rise during the first part of the 2nd millennium CE, a decline that ends in 1800 CE and then a recovery. Europe has a small recovery during the last centuries of the first millennium CE, a crash, and then a rise to a level higher than that of East Asia that peaks in 1850 and then a decline that is due to the rise of American cities as well as the recovery of cities in East Asia.  Figure 1 indicates that in 1200CE Europe had no cities among the world’s six largest but then it began a long rise. It passed East Asia between 1800 and 1900, and then underwent a rapid decline in importance as indicated by the relative size of its largest cities. 

For East Asia we see in Figure 1 a rise to the highest peak of all (80%) in 1300 CE. Not until 1900 was East Asia bested by the European cities after a rapid decline after 1800. The European cities were bested again by the East Asian cities between 1950 and 2000 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.


The trajectory of Europe displayed in Figure 1 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 in ReOrient, Europe did not best East Asia (as indicated by city sizes) until the beginning of the 19th century. But the long European rise, beginning in the thirteenth 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 600 years. And Frank’s contention that the European peak was relatively shallow is somewhat contradicted by the height of the peak in 1900, which time European cities had 70% of the population of the world’s six largest cities.

Frank’s ReOrient depiction of a sudden and radical decline of China that began in 1800 CE is supported in Figure 1. His analysis in ReOrient, which focuses on the period from 1400 to 1800 CE, does not examine the relative decline of East Asian predominance that began in 1300 CE.

This 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.[6] 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 Western 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 a peripheral region relative to the Middle Eastern core.

Counter to Frank’s contention, however, the rise of European hegemony was not a sudden conjunctural event that was due solely to a late 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 13h 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 (and then global) world-system.  The recent reemergence of East Asian cities has occurred in a context that has been 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 some extent by long-distance trade, it was not as interdependent as the global world-system has now become.

An emerging new round of East Asian hegemony is by no means a certainty, as both the United States and German-led Europe and India 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 of 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 and the emergence of automated military technologies. 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.

The Last Frank: the Global 19th century Asian Age

        The posthumous publication of Gunder’s last book would have never happened without the Herculean work of Robert A. Denemark in converting a massive corpus of notes and drafts into a coherent whole. The first chapter is a long list of debunked myths in which everything you have ever heard about the 19th century is declared to be bunk and alternative assertions are proclaimed. The bombastic tone is classical Gunder. There are too many issues to address here. Instead I will focus on what I see as the main contributions.

While Frank attacks some of what he himself said in ReOrient regarding the timing of the emergence of the gap between China and the West, the main thrust is the same. The rise of the West was more recent and less in magnitude than anyone thought. While there were some amazing technological developments, mainly the invention of the steam engine, the continuities were more important than the transformations. There were no Dutch or British hegemonies and the so-called “industrial revolution” was a minor sideshow that did not much change the structure of the global system.  England was never the workshop of the world. The cotton textile industry was a brief blip that rapidly spread abroad. The point at which Britain eclipsed China was either 1850 or 1870.

            In Frank and Gills (1993) it was asserted that the structure of the global system stands on a “three legged stool”: ecological/economic, sociopolitical and cultural-religious. But, as in ReOrient,   Frank mainly concerns himself with the structure of international trade. The newly ecological Gunder is more evident in his discussion of the ways in which the reproduction of the  core/periphery hierarchy involved the export of social and physical entropy from the core to the periphery. At the same time he contends that the consequences of European imperialism in the 19th century were strongly resisted in many areas of the non-core.  He once again affirms that the main cause of the rise of the West was based on its ability to exploit and dominate and derive resources from colonized areas, especially India.

                Gunder’s review of other scholars who claim to have analyzed the global system in the 19th rightly points out that most of them do not include China –  more instances of Eurocentrism. The main exception is the research on multilateral trade by Folke Hilgerdt published in 1942 and 1945. Gunder rightly observes that the structure of the whole system cannot be well represented by focusing on bilateral connections –determining the interactions between two countries -- because this leaves out their relations with other countries. This is the same insight that is correctly trumpeted by the advocates of formal network analyses of social structures. Gunder also denigrates the use of variable characteristics that indicate the relationships between a single country and the rest of the world, such as indicators of trade openness that show the ratio of the size of the national GDP to trade with the rest of world. Frank lumps these in with the idea of bilateral connections, but they are different. He is right to point out that a lot of information is lost in these calculations. Instead he prefers what he calls multilateral structures, and in practice he focuses on what he calls trade triangles that examine the exchange relations among three countries. This is an important methodological insight for studying the structure of the world economy and Frank makes good use of it to support his claims about the lateness and shallowness of the Rise of the West.

The Frank Project is part social science and part commitment to a more egalitarian world society. Several eminent scholars have stepped to the plate to carry the research that Gunder began in new directions. I have already mention Robert A. Denemark’s huge effort to produce the last of Gunder’s books. Barry Gills, Albert J. Bergesen, Sing Chew, Patrick Manning and now Peter Peregrine and Charles Lekson are taking Gunder’s ideas in different important directions. Related work was done by George Modelski and Gerhard Lenski who share(d) Gunder’s idea of a global human system extending back to the Bronze Age, and William R. Thompson did research and published with Frank on cycles in the Bronze Age.  As for the emancipatory side, a

s Gunder would have said, la luta continua (the struggle continues).


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[1] Gills’s (Gills 2001; Gills and Thompson 2006) subsequent studies of resistance to neoliberalism  portray a possible future based on a cosmopolitan sense of the evolution of human consciousness towards greater self awareness of our unity as a species and our common history and common future-- and tendency (projected into the future) to organize ourselves as a coherent global society-community that will transcend past inherited institutions such as the Westphalian states system.

[2] The oikumene concept was emphasized by world historian William H. McNeill (1963) and has been used by David Christian (2004) in his notion of “world regions.”

[3] 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.

[4] 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).

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

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