The book begins with an analysis of the differences between free markets and capitalism, and evolution scenarios of capitalism. For the first hundred-some pages, Arrighi is SLOWLY building the theoretical foundation of his argument and draws from several sources ranging from Adam Smith and Marx to Hannah Arendt and Schumpeter, from countless (non-)academic citations to his own observations.
Historically, capitalism occurs in the later stages, and at the expense, of free markets, and requires ever expansive institutions and policies. According to Arrighi, the evolution of the USA, being the latest and most expansive capitalist power, has taken the capitalist logic to its earthly limits. Indeed, the US has continued on the trajectory set by the earlier capitalist powers--the Italian Republics, Dutch Empire and British Empire--by creating more powerful capitalist frameworks, alas all this has already come to a too high of a price for itself and the planet.
And, while the above arguments go back and forth, with factual illustrations and theoretical considerations, China is being analyzed in historical, comparative and Asian contexts. With the exception of some 150 years, at least for the past 5-600 years, China has been not only different from the West (and its capitalist models), but also very affluent. The differences come in many ways: military outlook and projection of power, trade, state institutions, relationships between the state and its citizens/other states, productivity, innovation and on and on. In fact, Arrighi seems to infer that, for the most part of that time interval, the Chinese have been as much closer to a free market system as far away from the capitalist system.
Close to the end of the book, one sees that Arrighi does not necessarily advance a comprehensive thesis to explain even the next 50 years, but leaves the reader better equipped to continue the inferential process he started. To summarize, this process consists of the study of theoretical frameworks, historical analogies between/among capitalist powers, comparative perspectives on China and the reduction of capitalist alternatives, by elimination, for the USA. Also by limiting the range of the capitalist alternative(s) in their current and historical forms, we are left to witness for ourselves the evolution, the tradeoffs, and ultimately the future of China itself.
This is a book that will most probably anchor the conversation about the 21st Century for some time to come. The wide spectrum for Arrighi's analysis provides for an integrated approach across several fields, which so far have been studied in isolation at best.
How can the reader benefit more? By tightening the argument and the text itself--maybe Arrighi needs to decide who his readers are. For the public at large, a Foreign Affairs article may do it. For the more academically inclined, it is not clear how/why the events of the last 10-15 years in the US fit Arrighi's framework. Indeed, Arrighi belongs to the school of thought dating the end of the US capitalist supremacy in the 1970s. So, if the US decline started in the '70s, how was it possible for the economical revival of the '90s? In other words, was the economic revival of the '90s in contradiction with Arrighi's earlier thesis? According to the author, Britain had also gone through a similar period of economic boom at the end of the 19th century--decline, sudden prosperity followed by decline and two world wars. Reconciling current events with-in a longue durée approach may look artificial/arbitrary/a posteriori. For example, was the Project for the New American Century historically immanent, or the result of voting accidents in Florida? On the other hand, a lot of the last 8 year events seem to follow the path indicated by Arrighi. After this book was published, even the paragons of capitalism, aka the US financial system, have entered a deep structural crisis. Moreover, if we are to consider the volume of inputs alone, the US has no place to grow unless the Chinese stumble at their own (Adam Smithian-) game. At a different level, I suspect there will be some to quarrel with Arrighi's implicit higher valuation of free markets relative to capitalism. They'll probably be quick to say that the "old" left may be redefining itself in terms of opposing capitalism with free markets instead of socialism...
All in all, the reader will be well rewarded by reading this book and perhaps follow its author all the way into the pages of the New Left Review magazine.
This book helped me crystallize a whole number of ideas, which I could well summon up into an Open Letter, for O8:
Small is Beautiful!
Small(er) enterprise is better than (quasi-)monopolies;
Universal healthcare is both good and necessary;
Let wages converge lower;
Put money into the following infrastructures: education, energy efficiency, internet, transportation;
Encourage innovation and exports;
Bring smart people in, our universities should be the Ellis Island of the 21 Century!
2009 Addendum: Like it or not, even 20 years after the fall of Communism, Marxist critique of capitalism is still ahead in making sense out of our times.