Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Giovanni Arrighi

Lost in the shuffle of recent events has been the death on June 18th of Giovanni Arrighi, described as "one of the foremost scholars of the history and future of capitalism" at Verso's blog.
I actually haven't yet read anything by Arrighi myself, though his monumental books The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times and the more recent Adam Smith in Beijing are on my ever-lengthening list of books I feel that I need to read in order to understand our time (while I'm here, allow me to again point you to jane dark's excellent recent post on world system hegemons, which draws on Arrighi's arguments in both of these books). In March 2008, not long after Adam Smith in Beijing appeared, I happened to catch a panel discussion with Arrighi, David Harvey, and Joel Andreas at 2640 in Baltimore (Arrighi taught at Johns Hopkins University, Andreas still does, and of course Harvey taught there for the better part of two decades). It was a fascinating and occasionally heated discussion. I took copious notes intended for use on this blog, but I was never able to get my act together to organize them. (However, it turns out you can view a film of the event here; it's worth looking at if you have the time.) I was especially interested in this discussion, precisely because of its focus on China. As I've mentioned here previously, I'm greatly interested in China, but I've been unsure how to proceed. I'd like to read a history of the communist revolution and the cultural revolution that takes it seriously, without being fawningly Maoist or something. Perhaps Arrighi's later book covers some of the history; no doubt the book is equipped with a substantial bibliography (I'm also aware that, as one would expect, Monthly Review Press has some titles that look just right for this investigation, such as perhaps this one or this one or, especially, this one.)

One thing I remember from the panel discussion was Arrighi's contention that China's emergence as an economic power has been in large part dependent on the advances of the revolution, which resulted in a generally healthy and educated populace. Harvey and Andreas didn't dispute this point, but they were far less sanguine about the prospects of China becoming a major power, given its, in their view, particularly virulent form of capitalism. (This contention of Arrighi's reminds me, incidentally, of this talk given by Dmitry Orlov, in which he argues that the USSR, because of its socialism, however deeply flawed, was much better prepared to handle its collapse than the USA will be to handle its inevitable collapse, when it comes.)

Anyway, this great, great interview (link via Verso) of Arrighi by Harvey, which appeared in the New Left Review this Spring, has me dying to dive into his work sooner rather than later. The interview covers a lot of ground, from his work in Africa, where he cut his teeth in the 1960s ("the mathematically modelled neo-classical tradition I’d been trained in had nothing to say about the processes I was observing in Rhodesia, or the realities of African life"), up through to China and the current financial crisis. Here is a short excerpt:

One of Marx’s conclusions in Capital, particularly Volume One, is that adoption of a Smithian free-market system will lead to increases in class inequality. To what degree does the introduction of a Smithian regime in Beijing carry the risk of even greater class inequalities in China?

My argument in the theoretical chapter on Smith, in Adam Smith in Beijing, is that there is no notion in his work of self-regulating markets as in the neoliberal creed. The invisible hand is that of the state, which should rule in a decentralized way, with minimal bureaucratic interference. Substantively, the action of the government in Smith is pro-labour, not pro-capital. He is quite explicit that he is not in favour of making workers compete to reduce wages, but of making capitalists compete, to reduce profits to a minimum acceptable reward for their risks. Current conceptions turn him completely upside-down. But it’s unclear where China is headed today. In the Jiang Zemin era, in the 1990s, it was certainly headed in the direction of making workers compete for the benefit of capital and profit; there is no question about that. Now there is a reversal, one which as I’ve said takes into account not only the tradition of the Revolution and the Mao period, but also of the welfare aspects of late-imperial China under the Qing in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I’m not putting bets on any particular outcome in China, but we must have an open mind in terms of seeing where it’s going.

In Adam Smith in Beijing, you also draw on Sugihara Kaoru’s work in contrasting an ‘industrious revolution’, based on intensive labour and husbanding of nature, in early modern East Asia, and an ‘industrial revolution’, based on mechanization and predation of natural resources, and speak of the hope that there could be a convergence of the two for humanity in the future. How would you estimate the balance between them in East Asia today?

Very precarious. I am not as optimistic as Sugihara in thinking that the East Asian tradition of ‘industrious revolution’ is so well entrenched that it may, if not become dominant again, at least play an important role in whatever hybrid formation is going to emerge. These concepts are more important for monitoring what’s happening than saying, East Asia is going this way, or the United States is going the other way. We need to see what they actually do. There is evidence that the Chinese authorities are worried about the environment, as well as about social unrest—but then they do things that are plain stupid. Maybe there is a plan in the works, but I don’t see much awareness of the ecological disasters of car civilizations. The idea of copying the United States from this point of view was already crazy in Europe—it’s even crazier in China. And I’ve always told the Chinese that in the 1990s and 2000s, they went to look at the wrong city. If they want to see how to be wealthy without being ecologically destructive, they should go to Amsterdam rather than Los Angeles. In Amsterdam, everybody goes around on bicycles; there are thousands of bikes parked at the station overnight, because people come in by train, pick up their bicycles in the morning and leave them there again in the evening. Whereas in China, while there were no cars at all the first time I was there in 1970—only a few buses in a sea of bicycles—now, more and more, the bicycles have been crowded out. From that point of view it’s a very mixed picture, very worrying and contradictory. The ideology of modernization is discredited elsewhere but so far is living on, rather naively, in China.

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