Review (Guest): The Long Twentieth Century – Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times

4 Star, America (Founders, Current Situation), Capitalism (Good & Bad)
Amazon Page

Giovanni Arrighi

Product Description

Winner of the American Sociological Association PEWS Award for Distinguished Scholarship: a comprehensive analysis of the development of world capitalism over the millennium.

The Long Twentieth Century traces the relationship between capital accumulation and state formation over a 700-year period. Arrighi argues that capitalism has unfolded as a succession of “long centuries,” each of which produced a new world power that secured control over an expanding world-economic space. Examining the changing fortunes of Florentine, Venetian, Genoese, Dutch, English and finally American capitalism, Arrighi concludes with an examination of the forces that have shaped and are now poised to undermine America’s world dominance. A masterpiece of historical sociology, The Long Twentieth Century rivals in scope and ambition contemporary classics by Perry Anderson, Charles Tilly and Michael Mann.

4.0 out of 5 stars The History of Capitalism,September 7, 2010

By  Joseph Martin “pomonomo2003” (NJ, USA) – See all my reviews

Why is this edition “new and updated”? Apparently, because of the 15 page Postscript at the end of the book (pp. 371-386). (I had read the first edition back when it first came out in the nineties but no longer seem to have a copy of it so I cannot compare the earlier edition with this one.) Here in the Postscript Arrighi attempts to sum up what he understands were the three main propositions of his book.

Firstly, according to Arrighi, a Capitalist Epoch (there are more than one!) comes to an end when the financial (intermediation and speculation) overwhelms trade and production. This happens because the “possibility of continuing to profit from the reinvestment of capital in the material expansion of the world economy has reached its limits.” But this ‘financialization’ of the world economy is only a temporary respite for the current ‘dominant regime of accumulation’; historically, according to our author, it is the harbinger of its end.
Next, these occurrences are not recurrences. That is, the transition from one ‘regime of accumulation’ to another is not merely cyclical. A new regime (I mean the historical examples of the specific regimes of accumulation that our author identifies and elucidates) is always a fundamental reorganization of the capitalist world. Each regime has been (thus far) stronger, militarily and financially, than its predecessor.

And lastly, and perhaps most ominously, “the financial expansion of the late twentieth century [is] anomalous in key aspects”. Most worrying, for Arrighi, is the bifurcation of military and financial power. The three possible results he foresaw from this were: “the formation of a world empire; the formation of a non-capitalist world economy; or a situation of endless systemic chaos.”

What follows are merely some notes to (and impressions of) the postscript, not a review of the whole marvelously detailed book. All quotes are from this postscript unless a page number is given.

“[M]aterial expansions eventually lead to an over-accumulation of capital, which in turn leads capitalist organizations to invade one another’s spheres of operation.” Financial expansions occur only when profit margins in trade and production fall to a degree that forces capitalist agencies to attempt to remain as ‘liquid’ as possible. This “consolidates […] the ‘supply’ conditions of financial expansions.” Now, one of the things I enjoyed when I first read Arrighi is his love of the sources. He is unsparing in finding examples to support his argument and conceptualizations that anticipate it. For instance, he here continues his thought on financial expansions by saying:

“Historically, the crucial factor in creating the demand conditions of financial expansions has been an intensification of interstate competition for mobile capital – a competition that Max Weber has called ‘the world-historical distinctiveness of [the modern] era’.” Indeed, while even in pre-modern times there was capital not controlled by state or empire, its ability to freely go wherever it pleased was severely curtailed.

Our author is quite often either admired or dismissed for being a Marxist. But, as Arrighi indicates, he has also learned a great deal from Fernand Braudel:

“The concept of financial expansions developed in ‘The Long Twentieth Century’ builds on Braudel’s observation that financial expansions are a sign of maturity of a particular phase of capitalist development.”

What exactly are these ‘phases’? In this book Arrighi delineates four ‘Systemic Cycles of Accumulation’: the Genoese, the Dutch, the British, and, lastly (and currently but falling), the United States. Besides Marx and Braudel, Joe Schumpeter (the Schumpeter of Cycles and ‘Creative Destruction’) is another important influence. One sees evidence of all three of these influences everywhere.

Now, in “Empire” Hardt and Negri (mis-)understood Arrighi to be indicating that these systemic cycles are repetitions:

“What concerns us more is that in the context of Arrighi’s cyclical argument it is impossible to recognize a rupture of the system, a paradigm shift, an event. Instead, everything must always return, and the history of capitalism thus becomes the eternal return of the same. In the end, such a cyclical analysis masks the motor of the process of crisis and restructuring. Even though Arrighi himself has done extensive research on working-class conditions and movements throughout the world, in the context of this book, and under the weight of its historical apparatus, it seems that the crises of the 1970s was simply part of the objective and inevitable cycles of capitalist accumulation, rather than the result of proletarian and anticapitalist attack both in the dominant and in the subordinated countries.” (Hardt & Negri, Empire, p. 239.)

Now, our author maintains that what returns, of course, are merely these recurrent financial expansions. And again, that they are always the forerunners of systemic change. As we saw earlier each regime is financially and militarily stronger than its predecessor. So, what does Arrighi mean by systemic change? There have been four regimes of capitalist accumulation according to our author. The first, Genoa, was defenseless and had to ‘buy’ protection from the Spanish Empire. Each regime has to compete for mobile capital but the next regime “the Dutch was able to do so without having to ‘buy’ protection from territorial states…” So you see, there has been Systemic change; the “Dutch regime, in other words, ‘internalized’ the protection costs that the Genoese externalized.” How was the next regime of accumulation (the British Empire) different from the Dutch? The British “did not need to rely on others for most of the agro-industrial production on which the profitability of its commercial activities rested.”

So you see, the Dutch ‘internalized’ the protection costs that the Genoese had to purchase from others, while the British internalized production costs that the Dutch had to externalize. Okay, how does the current American regime differ from the British? Thanks to its continental size the US was able to largely internalize various market transaction costs. The US policy of “keeping the doors of the domestic market closed to foreign products but open to foreign capital, labor, and enterprise, had made it the main beneficiary of British free-trade imperialism. (p. 62)” Now, in another area, there has been a pendulum swing, back and forth, from regime to regime. Arrighi calls this the ‘extensive’ and ‘intensive’ regimes of accumulation. This is an alternation “between ‘cosmopolitan-imperial’ and ‘corporate-national’ organizational structures. Each step forward in the process of internalization of costs by a new regime of accumulation involved a revival of governmental and business strategies and structures that had been superseded by the preceding regime.” Thus, according to Arrighi, the first regime, the Genoese were extensive (that is, “cosmopolitan-imperial”), the Dutch were then intensive (“corporate-national”), the British were extensive, and the US intensive.

So, although each regime has internalized costs that no previous regime could, there is a swing back and forth between ‘cosmopolitan-imperial’ and ‘corporate-national’ types of regimes. A third point Arrighi makes is that there is a “successive shortening of the duration of each systemic cycle of accumulation. While the government and business organizations leading each cycle have become more powerful and complex, the life-cycles of the regimes of accumulation have become shorter.” It would thus seem that more power only leads to less stability. At this point in the Postscript Arrighi quotes Marx approvingly saying: “that ‘the real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself’ and that capitalist production continually overcomes its immanent barriers ‘only by means which again place these barriers in its way on a more formidable scale’.” Arrighi takes this insight regarding the internal contradictions of capitalism from Marx, who really only applied it to the British System, and argues that it applies to all four Capitalist Epochs, but in different ways. Arrighi explains that “the essence of the contradiction is that in all instances the expansion of world trade and production is a mere means in endeavors aimed primarily at increasing the value of capital, and yet, over time, it tends to drive down the rate of profit and thereby curtail the value of capital.”

So here we are today in the midst of another period of ‘financialization’. Does this mean that the US System is about to be surpassed by another? Well, we shall see…

But how would this new regime, if it rises, differ from the US system? According to Arrighi,

1. “the leading governmental organization of the new regime would approximate the features of a world-state more closely…”

2. “the new regime would be of the extensive (cosmopolitan-imperial) rather than of the intensive (corporate-national) variety.”

3. “the new regime would internalize the costs of reproducing both human life and nature…”

I have no problem with the first two points. They follow the pattern that, in our author’s analysis, capitalism has followed. Point three, however, is an attempt to predict something entirely new. That is to say, it attempts to predict the exact shape of a a break in the pattern. Of course, if we follow Arrighi’s analysis of the four capitalist systems it is certainly uncontroversial to say that the next regime will internalize a cost that the US regime would or could not internalize. However, ahead of time, I would argue that it is impossible to say exactly what that cost will turn out to be. And it is not at all clear to me, again staying within the parameters of Arrighi’s analysis, why it is necessary that both these costs (the reproduction of ‘human life and nature’) are internalized. – Why both of them?; why not only one of them? I frankly found this prediction that the next capitalist regime will “internalize the costs of reproducing both human life and nature” surprisingly utopian in this otherwise very realistic analysis the history of capitalism. Let us let the future make its own propaganda. And finally (and hopefully not beating this point to death) why not an entirely different cost internalization – like, oh say, a revolutionary new energy technology available to all (i.e., internalized by all) that lowers the cost of energy to unprecedented levels?

But why is Arrighi concerned that this new regime might not rise at all? After all, if his analysis of these four capitalist regimes is correct then how could a new regime not arise after the present ‘financialization’ of the world economy passes? Well, the “patterns that we observe ex post, in other words, are as much the outcome of geographical and historical contingencies as they are of historical necessity.” That is, the question on the table is are we here seeing in Arrighi’s delineation of these four Capitalist Systems a structurally necessary historical pattern or merely a record of contingencies that happened to happen?

Assuming the former, what Arrighi would now expect is the rise of China/East Asia as the next capitalist regime. But “the kind of bifurcation between US military power and (East Asian) economic power that we can observe since the 1980’s has no precedent in the annals of capitalist history.” Thanks to this bifurcation the West, after several centuries, is losing “control over surplus capital”. This is indeed unprecedented. So now you see, the ‘new’ does happen even in the midst of the cycles that Arrighi identifies and elucidates. But how can the new capitalist regime, that must rise according to the understanding of the current financialization of the world economy that Arrighi here puts forth, become globally hegemonic if it does not possess the greatest military power?

It can’t… So, in light of this bifurcation of US military power and East Asian economic power, what exactly happens? Arrighi envisions three possibilities:

1. “The United States and its European allies might attempt to use their military superiority to extract a ‘protection payment’ from the emerging capitalist centers of East Asia. If the attempt succeeded, the first truly global empire in world history might come into existence.”

2. “If no such attempt was made, or if it was made but did not succeed, over time East Asia might have become the center of a world market society buttressed, not by superior military power as in the past, but by the mutual respect of the world’s cultures and civilizations.”

3. It is “also possible that the bifurcation would result in endless worldwide chaos.”

The first edition of this book appeared in 1994. This Revised and Updated Edition came out in 2010. For those fifteen odd years the world, for our author, has only been treading water. “All three of the scenarios sketched out in the Epilogue remain possible alternative historical outcomes to the terminal crisis of US hegemony.” Arrighi will not know which scenario actually occurs, he died in June, 2009. The Postscript that we have been following in this review is dated March, 2009.

This is a superb book; in following the outline our author provides in the Postscript I have ignored the details of the main text. The richness of the argument is in these details. Do not deny yourself this richness…

Four and a half stars for a wonderfully detailed, realistic history of capitalist regimes marred only, albeit rarely, by a surprisingly utopian vision of the future under the next regime.

Vote and/or Comment on Review