This is a provocative book, for it challenges the conventional wisdom in historiography and social theory. It argues that Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Karl Polanyi, Fernand Braudel, Immanuel Wallerstein, David Landes, and other contemporary social theorists are all wrong in their explanation of the "birth of capitalism," "the Rise of the West," and the "incorporation of Asia into the European world-economy" They are wrong because they suffer from a Eurocentric framework, examining world history "under the European street light." These social theorists attribute a central place in their theories to Europe, and they assert that Europe had some unique elements that "the Rest" did not have. In addition, these social theorists argue that there was a sharp break in world history around 1500, during which capitalism rose up in Europe and spread to the rest of the world.
For Andre Gunder Frank, the above social theories are no more than myths based only in Eurocentric ideology Gunder Frank contends that the world economy did not begin in Europe. His book is aimed to show that there already was an ongoing world economy before the Europeans had much to do and say in it. Also, it was Asia, not Europe, that held center stage for most of early modern history before 1800. The economies of Asia were far more "advanced," and its Chinese Ming/Qing, Indian Mughal, and even Persian Safavid and Turkish empires carried much greater political and even military weight than any or all of Europe. Only in around 1800 did Asian economies lose their positions of predominance in the world economy, while that position came to be occupied by the West during the nineteenth and the twentieth century. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, the center of the world economy seems to be shifting back to the "East" again; thus Gunder Frank titled his book "ReOrient" to stress this impendin g shift.
The innovation of Gunder Frank is that he offers a "globological" (holistic global world) perspective on early modern economic history. He assumes that "the whole is more than the sum of its parts and itself shapes its constituent parts." Thus, his task is to see how the structure, function, and dynamics of the world economy itself influence, if not determine, what happened in its various parts in early modern history.
In order to support his claims, Gunder Frank in Chapter 2 examines the structure and flow of trade, starting in the Americas and going eastward literally around the globe. This chapter shows what kind of a world economic division of labor existed, expanded, and changed in the early modern period from about 1400 to 1800. Chapter 3 examines the role of money in the world economy as a whole and in shaping the relations among its regional parts. Chapter 4 examines some quantitative global economic dimensions, comparing some worldwide and regional dimensions of population, production, trade, and consumption, as well as their respective rates of growth in Asia and in Europe. This chapter shows that Asia grew faster and more than Europe and maintained its economic lead over Europe in all these aspects until at least 1750. Chapter 5 pursues a "horizontally integrative macrohistory" of the world, in which simultaneity of events and processes is no coincidence. Demographic/structural, monetary, Kondartieff, and longer -cycle analysis is brought to bear in different but complementary attempts to account for what was happening here and there. The question about the long cycle opens Chapter 6 on how and why the East declined and the West "won" in the nineteenth century. The argument is that it was not Asia's alleged weakness and Europe's alleged strength in the period of early modern world history, but rather the effects of Asia's strength that led to its decline after 1750. Analogously, it was Europe's previously marginal position and weakness in the world economy that permitted its ascendance after 1800. This development also took advantage of "the Decline of Asia" after 1750.
Since the arguments in the book are so controversial, this book is bound to receive critical reviews. I foresee that economic historians will challenge the book's interpretation on the rise of the West, the decline of Asia, the linkages between Asia and the West, the use of historical materials and economic statistics, etc. However, as a political sociologist interested in world-system analysis, I would like to make some theoretical comments on Gunder Frank's "holistic global world" perspective.
First, a holistic global world perspective obviously calls for not only economic analysis but also political and cultural analysis. Gunder Frank, for instance, uses the analogy of a "three-legged stool," saying that a global perspective "rests equally on ecological! economic / technological, political / military power, and social/cultural/ideological legs" (p.340). In the book, however, Gunder Frank has not fully developed his "three-legged stool" analysis. While the book has much discussion on trade, money, market, population, and technology, it says relatively little about the state, war, peasant rebellion, colonial expansion, religion, ideology, etc. Readers may wonder how the political and cultural legs of the stool may affect the economic leg, and how the three "legged stools" can be combined in a global perspective.
Second, since Gunder Frank does not agree that there is a sharp historical break in 1500 during which capitalism rose up (and thus denying the usefulness of the concept of capitalism), and since Gunder Frank does not agree with Wallerstein's concepts of core, periphery, and semiperiphery, it seems that he has difficulties in spelling out the concept of the structure of his world economy. If it is not a capitalist world-economy that differentiated in terms of core/semiperiphery/periphery, what does Gunder Frank's structure of world economy looks like? At first I expected that the structure of world economy would be the focus in the last section of the book entitled "Theoretical Implications" (pp.339-59), but that section turns out to deal mostly with methodological issues like holism, commonality, and continuity. Until the book specifies a theory of the structure of the world economy, it will remain at the level of "description" of historical events rather than offering an original global "analysis" of world economy (p. 352).
Third, the book is clearer when it studies the dynamics of the world economy, for it brings in cycles as an explanation. Still, the book can be strengthened by elaborating the linkages among different types of cycles (microeconomic demand and supply cycle, macroeconomic cycle, and demographic/ecological cycles), the length of cycles (twenty years, two hundred years, three hundred years, and five hundred years), and the role of cycles in the transformation of the world economy.
The above queries notwithstanding, I find Gunder Frank's critique of "Eurocentric" social theories well-taken and his holistic global world perspective highly refreshing. His book has raised many important theoretical issues and forced us to reexamine our basic theoretical assumptions. It will also spark heated academic debates and open up new research frontiers in modern economic history for a long time to come. It, thus, has made a significant contribution to the study of Europe, Asia, and the world economy. As such, ReOrient will be on the list of required readings for students and researchers on modern economic history and global analysis.
ALVIN Y. SO is Associate Dean of Humanities and Social Science in the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
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|Author:||So, Alvin Y.|
|Publication:||The Review of Politics|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2000|
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