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Bibliographic Data: Frank, Andre Gunder. ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Main Argument: Contrary to just about all received economic and historiographical theory and engagement of the last 150 years or so, evidence shows that far from "taking over" beginning in 1500 CE, European world economic dominance did not really begin until about 1800. In every century since at least the 10th (and probably much earlier), Asian economies were far wealthier and more productive than those in Europe, which were only able to participate in the world economic system to the extent that the silver they expropriated from the Americas was desirable to Asian economies as money and as a commodity. By the late 1700s, most Asian economies had fallen into a high-level equilibrium trap in which economic rationality mitigated against the development of mechanization. By contrast, at the same time perpetually high labor costs and high labor mobility in western Europe forced people there to invent mechanized labor-saving devices (aka the Industrial Revolution) in order to compete globally. The resurgence of Asian economies at the end of the C20th and beginning of the C21st is quite probably part of the world economic system returning to its normal pattern.

Yeah, it is a terrible pun. )

Critical assessment: The importance of Frank's argument, and his conclusions, is belied at time by the tendentious tone he takes, but all in all I am glad to have read this book when I did. Frank is basically correct, and the proof is that his arguments--and his interpretation of the evidence--have the virtue not only of simplicity but of accounting for almost everything we know, unlike racist Eurocentric blathering about what in "culture" gave rise to Western hegemony. It wasn't culture; it was global economic forces. Frank's conclusions also put bullets into the notions of globalization, mercantilism, and "capitalism" per se, which any sensible person already knew were false--in a word, Frank checks all the ticky-boxes. I do think that (like most economic historians) he doesn't account enough for human irrationality--racism and wars aren't incidental to human history; they are a prominent feature of it with important causes below the macroeconomic level. The global economic system throughout history may evince "unity in diversity", but humans aren't the same as their economies.

I found myself asking at points, "Is it really all about the benjamins, baby?" Reading this book and Abu-Lughod, you get the picture of humanity as driven by the acquisitive instinct--I don't want to say greed, precisely, because it's perfectly reasonable to want nicer things, individually and societally, and I think of 'greed' as wanting more than one needs--which may well fundamentally be true. But--and I freely admit this is because I am not an economic historian, and have no desire to become one--just because sociocultural formations are "responses" to global macroeconomic forces in the global economic system doesn't invalidate studying them as subjects of study in their own right. And I don't think it necessarily invalidates comparative histories, either--I hope it doesn't! It just means that we have to be exceedingly careful about the terms of our comparisons, and not fall into the Eurocentric theory trap.

Speaking of theory, I'm still sort of in awe at how Frank disregards it so blithely. Now, I personally have never had much time for Marx as a descriptive writer ("the Asiatic mode of production"? Tell me another one!), but I do think that there are things, to paraphrase Chakrabarty, that are well worth being saved from the Eurocentric wreckage, and Marx's critiques of the havoc that modernization and mechanization wreak on people as people are definitely some of them. We need Marx, along with feminism, to help us grope towards a way out of the worldview our macroeconomic response-formation (modernity) has stranded us in, and I don't want to give that up.

Also, high five Adam Smith! Way to be mostly right! I think we can even vindicate him saying "the colonies don't pay" if we recognize that he was talking about the British colonies on the eastern seaboard and in the Caribbean, whereas when Frank talks about "the colonies," which manifestly did pay, in disease-ridden blood and sweat-stained treasure, he means all of the Americas under European subjugation.

One final critique--well, two: 1) Frank's uncritical acceptance of the existence of the Srivajayan empire, which may well have never existed; and 2) the near-total neglect of Africa. At the end Frank says that it may have mostly been caught in a "low-level equilibrium trap" for the period in question (north and east Africa excepted, of course), and in the beginning he both lowballs the number of people stolen out of the continent and says that that loss of millions of people probably had little demographic impact (!), which seems difficult to credit at best without in-depth explanation. Obviously, one of these is much more important than the other.

Classmates of mine pointed out that Frank in speaking of the "high-level equilibrium trap" is following theory that is now almost completely discredited, and that no one writes "this kind" of global history these days; global or international history looks at movements between nations/nits of analysis, as opposed to what Frank does, which is take it out to a whole other level. I firmly believe we need histories like Frank's, if only to force the rest of us to remember to raise our heads up out of our niches.

Also, one gets the typically rosy economic history picture from Frank--wars and revolutions and genocides and all forms of violence get short shrift in his account, which anyone who looks at world history over the past 500 years can tell you is hideously distorted. This is why I don't think we can reduce world history to accounts of the acquisitive instinct and trade at play; humans, for good and ill, are more than that, and Frank's disregard for all the ugly parts of humanity are a serious blow to his account.

Further reading: Frederick Teggart, Rome and China; Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

Meta notes: Don't fall into the boundaries trap, the periodization trap, the theory trap--bear these things in mind as categories, but not as things that exist independently. Cite Frank! Write history from the perspective of his conclusions, and, as they say, spit in the eye of anyone who looks at you sideways.


ahorbinski: shelves stuffed with books (Default)
Andrea J. Horbinski

May 2016

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