17 August 2009

On Giovanni Arrighi

Lately I’ve read, as you probably did too, about the profits gained by Wall Street firms through “flash trades” executed on the basis of information received thirty milliseconds before being shown to traders generally. There is also a lot about Twitter in the news: its hacking by the enemies of a Georgian professor, its possible use by NFL players during games. Something I did not learn from the newspaper—I had to be told by a friend—was that the Marxist political scientist Giovanni Arrighi had died, on June 18 of this year. There was no obituary in the Times, any more than there had ever been reviews of Arrighi’s books while he lived.

Marx wrote in the Grundrisse, the same friend recently reminded me, that the ultimate tendency of capital is to move “at the speed of thought.” This turns out to have been an underestimate on Marx’s part: even a quick thinker can’t turn over an idea in thirty milliseconds. Capitalist culture still moves a bit slower than capital itself, but the plain tendency of our present-day communiqués is toward instantaneous dissemination, a sparkle of fleet significance, and swift oblivion. People in the rich countries live longer today than ever before, even as the lifespans of our ideas, our feelings, our commitments, our fashions, our jobs, and the objects with which we surround ourselves shrink and shrink. One lives one’s long life in a cloud of mayflies.

Not the least way that Marxism is opposed to capitalism is in its relationship to time. Capitalist culture approaches a pure instantaneousness: no future, no past. Marxism, by contrast, is a discipline of deep memory and long anticipation. It situates the effervescent eternity of our current way of life in the long sequence of the modes of production, from hunter-gathering, to early agriculture, through slave society, feudalism, the notorious “Oriental despotism,” and our own capitalism as, over four centuries, it has swamped the globe. The Nikolai Kondratiev behind “Kondratiev periodicity,” which traces the somewhat mysterious, 50- to 60-year-long waves of capital accumulation; Eric Hobsbawm who over three volumes of synthetic history charted the “long 19th century” between 1789 and 1914; Robert Brenner who in The Economics of Global Turbulence was able to see the development of the world economy since the Second World War as a single continuous story—all of these are Marxists. And Giovanni Arrighi tended to take an even longer view than most of his colleagues. In The Long Twentieth Century, he offered a convincing account of modern capitalism as a series of expansions headquartered successively in the Italian city states of the late Renaissance; the Dutch United Provinces of the 17th century; England during its long imperial heyday; and the United States of “the American century.” In each new cycle, always on a geographical scale larger than the last, the main ascendant power won its role through being the world’s great exporter of capital. Then, when its enthusiasm for war or luxury began to exceed what its income could cover, this power became a net importer of capital—indebted to the newcomer waiting in the wings, as the Dutch were once to the British, and then the British to the Americans. This turn toward financialization was, on Arrighi’s account, a reliable “sign of autumn” in any hegemonic polity.

In his final book, Adam Smith in Beijing, Arrighi elaborated on the latest turn of the wheel. Of course your average op-ed writer could have told you that China—with Japan, America’s chief creditor—looked poised to succeed the US as the world’s dominant economy. But Arrighi alone could set China’s rise within the whole span of capitalist history, and the originality of his book didn’t end there. A brilliant synthesizer, he borrowed from one historian the notion of the “great divergence” between East and West that took place with the advent of the industrial revolution, and from another the idea of a contrasting Chinese industrious revolution, founded in early modern times on the intensified division of labor (without—as in the West—increased fossil fuel use). Arrighi then read Adam Smith against the grain—as well as more closely, it should be added, than his conservative counterparts—to conclude that Wealth of Nations better described the China of the 18th century than the England of the 19th or the US of the 20th. The result of all this was that Arrighi found it possible to believe that the China of the future might retain or recover a non-capitalist market economy: a way of doing things more efficient, more egalitarian, and more sustainable than any we in the West have known. This optimism (sometimes called “neo-Smithian Marxism”) could seem too ingenious to be persuasive—but Adam Smith in Beijing must still be among the very best and most interesting books anyone has written about the deep history and far future of our contemporary political economy. Even the gaps in Arrighi’s historical logic reminded you how rare he was in having articulated such a logic; others had nothing but gaps.

It’s too bad that Arrighi will not be around to confirm or refine his theses—theses bearing vitally on the whole human future—of a sustainable China and a non-capitalist market. This is the final methodological problem for any student of the longue durée: he lacks the longevity enjoyed by his objects of study. But books, of course, survive, and few serve better than Arrighi’s for helping you to look up from the stock ticker, the headline crawl, and the tweets to see something vast and slow and violent turning like a planet on its axis.

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  • Benjamin Kunkel
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