Friday, September 25, 2009


by Steven Sherman

Arrighi forthrightly recognized that Marxism had reached an intellectual and political cul-de-sac. But, unlike postmodernists, he remained interested in developing a critical history of capitalism. The Long Twentieth Century and Adam Smith in Beijing, as well as his other books and articles, will be invaluable to future scholars and activists pursuing this project.

(On June 19, 2009 Giovanni Arrighi succumbed to cancer at the age of 71. Below, I try to give a sense of his intellectual
achievement. But we should also note his warmth and sense of humor, which family members, colleagues, students and others will undoubtedly miss.)

I first encountered Giovanni Arrighi when I was visiting Binghamton University and considering enrolling in the PHD program in Sociology in 1988. Giovanni was teaching a seminar, and took issue with a grad student who was fulsomely denouncing a minor point in the evening's reading. "Don't cut down a tree with a pen knife--it will break, and that would be a pity. But don't try to mow the lawn with an axe." Although he made these comments with his typically good humored demeanor, there was an important point being made. Use intellectual tools appropriate to the task you set yourself.

It was something he always tried to do as he took on the task that preoccupied him during forty years of writing--the reconstruction of a theory of historical capitalism. About a year later, he announced in a seminar that "Marxism is dead". "I'm sure you meant that metaphorically", a student commented the next week, encouraging him to back away a bit from the comment. "Metaphorically only in the sense that Marxism does not have a body that can be declared dead.... But, when someone dies, you don't go to their funeral and yell insults at them, even if they were a bad person. And Marxism was not bad."

Arrighi had no interest in postmodern critiques of Marxism, which largely abandoned efforts to explain capitalism. But he thought it was important to recognize that Marxism had reached a political cul-de-sac. In his article "Marxist century, American century", he noted that more and more of the world's working class was in a situation parallel to that which propelled Russia's on a revolutionary path: socially powerful in factories, but immiserated. Nevertheless, Marx had failed to anticipate that workers would divide themselves along such axes as nationality, gender, race, and age in ways which would frustrate the revolutionary impulse.

And Marxism had been compromised by its alignment with a state socialist model whose limits were increasingly obvious. Rather than defensively recuperate Marxism (as many Marxists continue to try) or toss over the project of critiquing historical capitalism altogether (a la the postmodernists), Arrighi sought to reconstruct the history of capitalism by eclectically combining Marx and Marxists with a number of other historically oriented scholars--Joseph Schumpeter, Fernand Braudel, Karl Polanyi, and, perhaps most audaciously, Adam Smith.

What he drew out of the Marxist tradition was itself an eclectic and unusual combination: the global vision of Immanuel Wallerstein, the class struggle emphasis of Mario Tronti, the focus on political leadership of Antonio Gramsci. On a political level, Arrighi never took it as an insult when some accused him of 'third worldism'. He regarded both Mao and Ghandi as important leaders and thinkers. On a biographical level, his experience trying to manage his father's factory, and his work for the multinational Unilever after he received a PhD clearly influenced him; throughout his career, he was convinced that most Marxists made an important error by failing to distinguish between different types of business enterprises.

Arrighi's first conceptual shake-up of Marxism came many years before it is was widely recognized that Marxism was in crisis. As a result of his work in Africa, he realized something was wrong with the theory that the essence of capitalist development was the proletarianization process, wherein the proletariat, seperated from the means of production, becomes dependent on wages for his reproduction.

Far from depending on wages for their reproduction, African workers continued to reproduce themselves by growing their own food and in other ways producing their own reproduction. In fact, were the capitalists to internalize the entirety of their workers reproductive costs, most of their profits would disappear. This work was part of a broader effort by Marxian anthropologists to develop a more complex understanding of how capitalism actually worked by closely observing relations in the periphery. It was subversive of the linear direction to history often mapped out by Marxists, with its often explicit political implication that the real focus of politics must be an urban proletariat.

The Long Twentieth Century, first published in 1994 (an updated edition will be released shortly) was a much more ambitious revision of historical capitalism. Arrighi took issue with a number of commonplaces here--that many of the features of capitalism since 1970, often captured under the phrase 'globalization' were dramatically new, that the US was becoming more powerful and globally entrenched, that material production had been superseded by finance. Instead, he went back to the fourteenth century to identify several recurrent patterns, tracing the rise and fall of Genoa, the Dutch, the British, and the US. Capitalist powers typically ascended by overseeing a 'material expansion' that enlarged the number of commodities circulating.

But when this reached its limits, preeminent states turned towards finance, employing networks developed as trading and military powers to produce a global financial reach. Eventually this was exhausted, when the money was employed to finance a new production complex (he was fond of pointing out that Marx himself noted the 'tag team' quality of the history of capitalism, with the Dutch handing off power to the British, and the British handing off to the US)

Whereas Hardt and Negri claimed that Arrighi described the static 'eternal return' of cyclical history, in fact he described this pattern to indicate certain evolutionary features. Each power controlled a larger territory than the last. And while, since the Dutch, each power has grounded its material expansion in a 'hegemonic' political settlement, each of these settlements included more classes and larger portions of the world. Thus, when the US became hegemonic following World War II, it included as junior partners both the industrial working classes of the US and Western Europe and post-colonial leaders.

This deal was fragile, and came undone as the US' competitive position declined in the 1970s and the US, in line with the pattern, shifted towards finance. There was no doubt in his view that American hegemony had begun its decline. He was also confident the US financial expansion would end (recall that the book was published in 1994, during the Clintonian heyday of the 'end of history'). Arrighi ends the book on an uncertain note, suggesting that the world could self-destruct in total war, or perhaps give way to some sort of global social democracy.

In seminars, he often expressed an optimism, arguing that a Chinese or East Asian hegemony might be grounded on a more inclusive political deal than that which undergirded American hegemony. His next project (edited with his partner, Beverly Silver), Chaos and Governance(disclosure--I was part of the working group out of which this book emerged) largely filled in the framework of the Long Twentieth Century, indicating the financial, military, and social transformations that accompanied each hegemonic transition.

In his final book, Adam Smith in Beijing, Arrighi focused on the question of the re-emergence of China as a great economic power. The book's framework employs a typically audacious gesture. Adam Smith claimed that the natural pattern of the growth of a market economy was to expand through the division of labor, eventually reaching an equilibrium. For Arrighi, this was true in China, but not in Western Europe. The latter did not expand through this 'natural' market pattern, but instead expanded geographically, using the fruits of colonial plunder to fuel its market economies. He notes that Smith himself (in contrast to many of his alleged followers) remarked that the expansion of Europe was hardly a blessing for the colonial world.

The second audacious borrowing/reworking in the book involved a concept from David Harvey, accumulation by dispossession. Harvey developed the concept to describe the process of appropriation around the world by financial capital during the neoliberal epoch. Arrighi described the long history of Chinese capitalism as 'accumulation without dispossession'. In other words, the Chinese proletariat was never really alienated from the land, lending a qualitative difference to capitalism in the East (note the overlapping theme with his earlier work on Africa).

Even with all the changes of the last twenty years, Arrighi believed that this difference was still highly relevant to understanding China. The final chapter brims with optimism about the potential of Chinese development, even as he emphasizes China's complete failure to date to come to terms with the environmental question. This is not the place for a full critical assessment of Arrighi's work. Here it should just be indicated some of the strengths of his legacy. First, his major historical works were subversive of one of the worst elements of traditional Marxism, its tendency towards the apocalyptic.

In this vision (profoundly influenced by Judeo-Christian theology) the world is fundamentally bad until the revolutionary break, which replaces the old system with a new, good one. The Long Twentieth Century and Chaos and Governance both suggest a much more complicated vision, in which capitalism incorporates emancipatory demands even as it expands. Secondly, there is the profoundly Eurocentric quality to much Marxist writing. The presumption is that Europe figured out capitalism first, and shows the future to the rest of the world. Although this has been tempered lately, as the experience of colonialism has been better incorporated, the idea that there are important world historical narratives besides the expansion of European capitalism remains marginal.

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the details of Adam Smith in Beijing, its regrounding of the centrality of China is highly significant. One can imagine parallel long, global histories of Indian/South Asian or Islamic development. "I am not post-modern or modern, I am pre-modernist", Arrighi once declared in a seminar, not really joking. He focused less and less on the possibility of the one-fell-swoop ovethrow of capitalism in favor of a collective, worldwide groping for a more just, equitable and sustainable world.

As he commented in his final interview: "I would have no objections to it being called socialism, except that, unfortunately, socialism has been too much identified with state control of the economy. I never thought that was a good idea. I come from a country where the state is despised and in many ways distrusted. The identification of socialism with the state creates big problems. if this world-system was going to be called socialist, it would need to be redefined in terms of a mutual respect between humans and a collective respect for nature.

But this may have to be organized through state-regulated market exchanges, so as to empower labour and disempower capital in Smithian fashion, rather than through state ownership and control of the means of production. The problem with the term socialism is that it’s been abused in many different ways, and therefore also discredited."