on 13 May 2007
This work on the history of the global political economy is co-authored by ten different people, all scholars in the world systems tradition, apparently held together by Arrighi's particular version of this tradition. The result is an immensely wide-ranging but nevertheless coherent text providing an overview of changes in the European-centred world system over time.
A major point of this book is to examine the current crisis of the world system by comparison with the previous transitions to and from Dutch, British and American hegemony. These transitions are discussed over a series of themed chapters dealing respectively with changing financial centres, transitions in models of development and of business formation (from joint-stock companies to family businesses to transnational corporations), the social forces involved in each transition, and the way each transition changed the relationship between Europe and Asia. The current situation, read as a period of decline of American hegemony, is explicated in line with what went before, since about 1600.
The authors put forward a view - that American hegemony is now in crisis, and that phenomena such as financial expansion, militarism and social polarisation are symptoms of this crisis and of a "chaotic" period in the world system - which is no doubt controversial. This view is very well-presented and clearly argued, and follows logically from a consideration of historical examples which is based on a wealth of secondary historical research and includes reference to most of the major works of economic and social history in the last four centuries. While large sections of the book read as simply descriptions of past events, this very presentation prepares the reader for claims about the present which make perfect sense in the sequence of historical comparisons. This is empirically-informed theory as it should be done, with conclusions guided by empirical material and questioning rather than affirming the "common sense" of the area.
One issue not raised in sufficient detail is the increasingly networked structure of the world economy and its resultant decentred structure - what Hardt and Negri call the supplanting of imperialism by "empire". If each previous transition involved an increasing scale (from city-state to empire to superpower), it would make sense for the next transition to be to a truly global scale, as Hardt and Negri predict. This would also transform geopolitics along the lines discussed by Appadurai: global networks will increasingly outflank states, and military superiority will be neutralised by networked asymmetrical warfare connected to global flows of money and arms. Also missing is any serious consideration of transformative possibilities - of how social movements or theorists should respond to the present conjuncture, whether there is any possibility of a break with the world system itself or whether capitalism will necessarily perpetuate itself. The account can at times read quite deterministically, though this is probably due more to the choice of angles of vision than to the authors' intent - a historical comparison necessarily has more to say about continuities and systemic forces than possibilities of rupture. The narrative can also lean overly strongly towards description, knitting together the analysis and implications only towards the end of each chapter.