The first Asian tigers

October 23, 1998

This is a brave book, brave in the academic as well as the personal sense. In terms of personal history, Andre Gunder Frank has long been associated with a Marxisant approach to the third world and its underdevelopment under capitalism, collaborating with scholars such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin and Giovanni Arrighi. After what he now sees as "50 years of wandering near-blindly through the historical woods", he has come to reject his earlier Eurocentric approach and severely criticises the majority of historians and social scientists and many of the concepts in which they trade.

For Frank's stated aim is to reorient western and, indeed, world views about human history, at least in the period 1500 to 1800. Discovering the East to have been the centre of a world system well before that supposedly developed in Europe, certainly in the post-Roman period, Frank is led violently to reject the Eurocentricism he sees as deeply embedded not only in the works of Marx and Weber but also in those of their modern counterparts such as Fernand Braudel and Wallerstein, who recently tried to dismiss the accusation in New Left Review. Frank is almost certainly correct in calling for a reorientation that he sees as having profound political as well as theoretical consequences. Politically, we need to accept the existence of one world. Theoretically, he argues that there has been only one world system (which he differentiates from the hyphenated world-systems of others) comprising Asia, Europe and Africa since 1500, excluding only some Pacific islands. So there has never been any question of a takeover by a world system established by Europeans, since before 1800 the centre of the world economy lay in Asia, in particular China. Europe was then a marginal player on the scene, with little or nothing to export in that direction in return for the rich manufactures of the East - silks, cotton cloth and porcelain - until it was able to put its hands on the silver mines of Mexico and Peru, the produce of which ended up in the "sink" of China. It was only access to that money supply that allowed Europe actively to enter the existing world economy. And it was in that context that Europe developed the industrial production of cloth (and then other products) in the process of import substitution.

Frank's analysis is based upon those flows of bullion throughout the world economy for which he stresses the need for a holistic approach, by which he refers to the holism of a geographical system rather than the holism of a social system in a sociological sense; indeed, he concentrates very much on the monetary aspects of the economy, appearing to set aside other more productive facets of the economy, let alone the political, religious, kinship and other sub-systems. This geographical holism leads him to play down, and even deny the relevance of different modes of livelihood (or production) in a very radical way, overturning the bases of many, not only Marxist, analyses of the political economy; Africa is assumed to be a paid-up member of the Euro-Asiatic-African system, partly because of the concentration on money flow (African gold and American silver). But to neglect the basic differences in the productive forces in Africa and in the major Eurasian economies leads to a serious misunderstanding of their respective roles in world affairs both in the present and in the past, in particular in terms of the impact of Europe and Asia, for example in the slave trade in the west, north and east of the continent. So too does the parallel neglect, acknowledged by the author, differences in modes of destruction (or coercion) and of communication and knowledge construction.

For example, Frank is convinced that Europe's ability to participate in the worldwide market was due to its control over huge amounts of American bullion, whereas its naval capabilities were of much less importance. But how did Europeans acquire those vast quantities if not through control of the seas which they obtained through "guns and sails", as many have stressed? Control of the means of destruction (and communication, in the form of maps for instance) was essential. But Frank's is always a money-based interpretation. While flows of bullion were of enormous importance in the world economy, they cannot be entirely abstracted from other flows, of consumer goods, of military technology, of information and knowledge. Guns were an important export for northern Europeans and a means of acquiring African gold. While Frank correctly draws attention to the paucity of manufactured goods available to the Europeans for export, they did exist, most significantly for world history in the shape of muskets and military know-how; earlier there had been woollen cloth, Roman glass and pottery, as well as wine. It was the possession of these weapons, and the ships to carry them, that permitted the Europeans to establish themselves on the coasts of Africa, West Asia, India, America and elsewhere, not bullion, not "western rationality", not the Protestant ethic.

Perhaps because he is so concerned with holism and money flows, Frank stresses the significance of cyclical as distinct from linear movements, referring to short, medium, long and even longer cycles. The long cycles are 50-year movements proposed by Kondratieff - and taken up in Germany by Schumpeter in his examination of the world economy in the context of the New Economic Policy of the Soviet Union in the 1920s. These cycles related in the first place to the changing prices of agricultural and industrial products. He applied the same methods to the study of salaries, interest rates, external trade and to other features of social life, including wars. Moreover there was a rationale behind the existence of the cycles, which pertained to the changing tempo of investments needed for the periodic renewal of productive forces that become effective only after a considerable delay and that persist over time until the need and resources for major capital expenditure are exhausted. Kondratieff perceived such cycles in 19th century Europe and their existence was tied to specific socioeconomic conditions; it is more difficult to envisage their working in the same way out of this context, and that is equally true of the longer cycles proposed by Frank, which seem to have no parallel rationale.

The weight to be placed upon cyclical or linear dimensions, as for example with the developmental cycle of domestic groups, is always a matter of balance and of contextual determination. So too is the weight to be placed upon wider (holistic) and narrower relationships. In his admirable attempt to stress the long-standing links in the economy of Europe and Asia after the bronze age, Frank tends to see concepts such as system and agency, structure and culture as requiring binary decisions regarding their use. And he tends to play down context and difference even when these would seem to be relevant to a more holistic, social systems approach to the political economy. It is correct to call attention to the problems involved in a western approach to feudalism, capitalism and other "modes of production"; but there seems little point in merging them into one, arguing for a unity that does not stop with the insistence on one world but treats that as effectively undifferentiated regarding modes of livelihood.

Let me stress this is a fascinating work, written in a polemical style, full of information and discussion about monetary flows in the world economy between 1500 and 1800. It insists on a completely necessary reorientation of academic and political views about the rise of the West and the parallel or proceeding decline of the East. It will prove to be compulsory reading for all those thinking about the development of the modern world economy during those critical centuries.

Jack Goody is a fellow of St John's College, Cambridge and author of The East in the West.

Reorient: Global Economy in the Asian Age

Author - Andre Gunder Frank
ISBN - 0 520 21474 9 and 21474 9
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £42.00 and £14.95
Pages - 416

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