Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 21, 2008

Giovanni Arrighi’s Vico-Marxism

Filed under: China,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

Giovanni Arrighi

On March 5th, Red Emma, a radical bookstore in Baltimore, hosted a symposium on Giovanni Arrighi’s new book “Adam Smith in Beijing”. The panel consisted of Arrighi, David Harvey and Joel Andreas, a Sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University and specialist on class relations in China from 1949 to the present.

You can watch the event here.

When I first saw the title of Arrighi’s book, I jumped to the conclusion that it was some kind of hard-hitting exposé of the capitalist transformation of China. After all, what better symbol of neoliberalism is there than Adam Smith?

I was shocked to discover that Arrighi views Adam Smith as a prophet of markets, but not of capitalism. Not only that, what’s been happening in China for the past 20 years ago is the development of markets rather than capitalism. Boy, you learn something new every day.

Except for this part of Arrighi’s talk, the rest of it was not so controversial albeit long-winded and hard-to-follow. I had to listen to it twice in order to really figure out what he was trying to say. Like some other big-time Marxists (I am using the term liberally) who lecture extemporaneously and who are assured of their prominent place in history, Arrighi seems to disdain the usual need for clarity and economy of expression. The only other big-shot who I have heard in person that is more opaque and boring is Etienne Balibar.

Arrighi addressed the Sinophobia that has cropped up from time to time in the bourgeois press and on talk radio that tends to speak of the “China threat” as if we were still in the 1950s. It is of course hard to sustain this paranoia in the face of the evidence that just about everything for sale in Walmart and Home Depot is made in China. Who would want to nuke the country that makes your underwear?

Although Arrighi dismisses the rightwing hysteria over China, he does view the country’s rapid economic growth as a challenge to Western imperialism. He describes China’s embrace of markets as a “tactic”. In order to expand its influence in the world (totally benign in Arrighi’s view), it builds up its economic strength and gives short shrift to the military, Western Europe and the U.S.’s traditional means to build up hegemony.

Effacing the differences between Mao’s China and the China of today, Arrighi explains its growing power as a function of its “revolutionary” tradition. When Mao made his revolution, he prioritized education and health care. The “iron rice bowl” and other such institutions made the Chinese workforce extremely productive. It is this productivity rather than its willingness (and need) to work for coolie wages that explains China’s rise.

Additionally, the market reforms in China hearken back to an earlier period in the country’s history when an extensive network of non-capitalist markets made it the richest country in the world. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 A.D), the emperors pursued a policy of developing a self-sufficient peasantry that had a vested interest in fighting against invaders. In contrast to Europe, which was producing a proletariat through expulsion from the land, China enjoyed what Arrighi called “accumulation by possession”, a play on David Harvey’s neo-Luxemburgian notion of “accumulation by dispossession”.

In effect, the Chinese Communist Party is today emulating the successes of the Qing Dynasty by empowering a non-capitalist market system throughout the country. Although Arrighi does not use the term “market socialism”, it is clear that his views overlap with Eric Olin Wright, another Marxist totally committed to China’s economic development path today. (I took up Wright’s ideas here.)

As it turns out, Arrighi’s definition of capitalism stems from Fernand Braudel, the French historian associated with the Annales school, named after the scholarly journal he published. Here is how Arrighi explained Braudel’s approach in a 2007 Positions article (unfortunately only available to those with access to Project Muse) titled “States, Markets, and Capitalism, East and West”:

There are many conceptions of capitalism, but for our purposes Fernand Braudel’s is the most useful. In Braudel’s conception, capitalism is “the top layer” of the world of trade. It consists of those individuals, networks, and organizations that systematically appropriate the largest profits, regardless of the particular nature of the activities (financial, commercial, industrial, or agricultural) in which they are involved. Braudel distinguishes this layer from the lower layer of “market economy,” which consists of participants in buying and selling activities whose rewards are more or less proportionate to the costs and risks involved in these activities.

For Arrighi, China has never been subject to the top layer of capitalism. It is instead characterized by the lower level of happy, goods-exchanging farmers and small entrepreneurs who, at least to me, summon up the image of hobbits in Tolkien’s fantasy novels.

As an example of these fat and happy merchants, Arrighi refers to the township/village enterprises of the 1980s that supposedly transformed the Chinese economic landscape by providing an ample supply of rural labor and allowing native entrepreneurial instincts to rise to the surface. Once this bee hive of economic activity got started, Western corporations jumped in.

Rather than answer Arrighi’s obviously ridiculous ideas, I would urge you to listen to David Harvey and Joel Andreas, who both recapitulate Marx’s definition of capitalism and explain how it functions as the dominant mode of production in China. Harvey is quite telling in an account of a visit to one of these village enterprises which transformed itself from a collective farm into what amounts to a sales office for condominiums recently.

All of those who were part of the collective became property owners immediately (after the “reform” allowed them to) and were transformed into millionaires, as explained by their chief, a man sitting under a big hammer-and-sickle banner. This man also explained to Harvey that their enterprise made heavy use of migrant labor. When Harvey asked through a translator if the migrant workers shared in the profits, the chief said of course not since they they did not “contribute anything”.

Harvey then asked the translator to ask him how that squares with the Communist iconography he was sitting underneath. The translator told Harvey that this question would mean the end of the interview.

None of this is of interest to Arrighi, who like nearly all “World Systems” theorists, disdains the class struggle in favor of the larger contests between hegemons and hegemons-to-be, which are either states or collections of states. Geopolitics trumps class in this quarter of the academic left and as such dovetails neatly with the discipline called “International Relations” in political science departments all across the world.

Arrighi’s book can be seen as the second installment of Andre Gunder Frank’s “Re-Orient”, which argued that China, after a long period of second-class citizenship in a world dominated by Western imperialism, was about to be restored to its glorious past. Frank and Arrighi most certainly would like to see the U.S. and Europe reduced to the status it once had, when Great Britain was considered the backwaters of world trade. I for one have a hard time sharing their enthusiasm. A world that consists of the cyclical rise and decline of Great Powers has more to do with Vico than Marx.

Giambattista Vico (1668 – 1744) was an Italian philosopher and historian who argued in the Scienza Nuova that civilization develops in a recurring cycle (ricorso) of three ages: the divine, the heroic, and the human. (From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giambattista_Vico) It is basically a cyclical view of history that accepts domination of states over states as a given. Heroic states dominate human states and that’s just the way it is. Europe had its turn for 500 years and now it is East Asia’s. Which reminds me, unrepentant Marxist that I am, of the words in Peggy Lee’s classic:

Peggy Lee

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire.
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up
in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement.
I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames.
And when it was all over I said to myself, “Is that all there is to a fire”

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

And when I was 12 years old, my father took me to a circus, the greatest show on earth.
There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears.
And a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads.
And so I sat there watching the marvelous spectacle.
I had the feeling that something was missing.
I don’t know what, but when it was over,
I said to myself, “is that all there is to a circus?

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

Full: http://www.lyricsdownload.com/peggy-lee-is-that-all-there-is-lyrics.html


  1. Extremely well written post with wonderful ending. I remember that Andre Gunder Frank’s “Re-Orient” was particularly ill (or well?)- timed. A few months after the book was published, East Asia came tumbling down (it was 1998, if I remember correctly), just when its rise was being prophesied.

    Comment by readerswords — May 21, 2008 @ 6:07 pm

  2. You can hear the Peggy Lee song here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTpFUT-lxls or here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qe9kKf7SHco. Time better spent than listening to Arrighi.

    Comment by Phil Gasper — May 21, 2008 @ 6:27 pm

  3. Among your best

    Comment by damon runyon — May 21, 2008 @ 6:40 pm

  4. Vico sitting next to Peggy Lee, that would be some dinner party. You could invite James Joyce. Before he drank himself under the table he would explain to the Neapolitan how he used his history-as-recurring-nightmare script to structure Finnegans Wake. Giovanni Arrighi should come to Italy and convince Italians that the Chinese are harmless. They’ve become the second most-hated here by the immigrant bashers. The Rom are the preferred target. Their camps are being torched at night.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — May 22, 2008 @ 6:25 am

  5. Very nice. A little harmless capitalism, sort of what Cuba wishes, and Chavez dreams of.

    Comment by Dave — May 22, 2008 @ 8:23 am

  6. You summed up my problems with WS theory better than I ever have or could. Thank you!

    I was just listening to Wallerstein on Against the Grain (KPFA) and was stunned at how shallow his largely geopolitical analysis of hegemony and ‘cycles’ of hegemony in the world system. I think “IR theorist” is a much more appropriate term for Immanuael than “Marxist”.

    I have read “Adam Smith in Beijing” and will say – to give him a little credit – there is some discussion of class relations in the crisis of US Fordism in the 1970s (he seems to draw a lot on his colleague Beverely Silver who has written a book on labor politics).

    Comment by matt — May 22, 2008 @ 9:35 pm

  7. Wonderful analysis. While watching the video, I was frustrated immediately by the jerk-off who took nearly ten minutes to introduce the speakers.

    Comment by Graeme — May 23, 2008 @ 7:22 am

  8. In response to #7: Didn’t you love the way he used the term “problematicize”? Ugh.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 23, 2008 @ 12:55 pm

  9. Actually reading Adam Smith in Beijing (as opposed to watching the video) would be more helpful. It’s much more nuanced than this post suggests. I think a reading of the book with the present crisis in Western capitalism in mind might be helpful.
    PS I’m interested by the racist undertones in phrases like “fat and happy merchants”. Does Britain or the US have fat and happy merchants, or does wealth make them thin?

    Comment by maestromuro — September 20, 2008 @ 8:22 am

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