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Giovanni Arrighi: Systemic Cycles of Accumulation, Hegemonic Transitions, and the Rise of China



This article surveys and critically assesses the life work of Giovanni Arrighi, a renowned historical sociologist and world-systems scholar who passed away in 2009. In a trilogy of books published between 1994 and 2007 Arrighi develops the master concept of his theoretical legacy, systemic cycles of accumulation, and advances an original reading of the history and dynamics of world capitalism as a succession of hegemonic episodes, each one more expansive than the previous and culminating in crises and chaotic transitions. He anticipated the rise of a Chinese-led East Asia as the emergent twenty-first century centre of a reorganised world economy and society. Arrighi is faulted for failing to develop any theory of politics, the state and collective agency in his construct, for his lack of attention to social forces from below, and for his dismissal of recent theorising on globalization.
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Giovanni Arrighi: Systemic Cycles of Accumulation, Hegemonic
Transitions, and the Rise of China
William I. Robinson
Department of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA
First published on: 05 November 2010
To cite this Article Robinson, William I.(2010) 'Giovanni Arrighi: Systemic Cycles of Accumulation, Hegemonic
Transitions, and the Rise of China', New Political Economy,, First published on: 05 November 2010 (iFirst)
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/13563467.2010.512657
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Giovanni Arrighi: Systemic Cycles of
Accumulation, Hegemonic Transitions,
and the Rise of China
This article surveys and critically assesses the life work of Giovanni Arrighi, a
renowned historical sociologist and world-systems scholar who passed away in
2009. In a trilogy of books published between 1994 and 2007 Arrighi develops
the master concept of his theoretical legacy, systemic cycles of accumulation, and
advances an original reading of the history and dynamics of world capitalism as
a succession of hegemonic episodes, each one more expansive than the previous
and culminating in crises and chaotic transitions. He anticipated the rise of
a Chinese-led East Asia as the emergent twenty-first century centre of a reorganised
world economy and society. Arrighi is faulted for failing to develop any theory of
politics, the state and collective agency in his construct, for his lack of attention to
social forces from below, and for his dismissal of recent theorising on globalization.
Keywords: Arrighi, world-systems, cycles of accumulation, hegemony, globali-
sation, China
Giovanni Arrighi died in June 2009 at the age of 71 after a year-long bout with
cancer. One of the most noted historical sociologists and political economists of
his generation, Arrighi was a key contributor to the approach to the study of
world capitalism known as world-systems analysis. His long and illustrious
career spanned four continents and brought him into collaboration with an extra-
ordinary group of scholars and organic intellectuals of the international left, who
developed path-breaking critical analyses in the latter decades of the twentieth
century of development, underdevelopment and the world capitalist system.
New Political Economy, iFirst, 2010
William I. Robinson, Department of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA.
ISSN 1356-3467 print; ISSN 1469-9923 online/10/000001-14 # 2010 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/13563467.2010.512657
New Political Economy, iFirst, 2010
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Among them were Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin,
Walter Rodney, and John Saul. He will best be remembered for his trilogy of
works analysing the history and structural dynamics of world capitalism, The
Long Twentieth Century; Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times (1994);
Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System (co-authored with his
partner, Beverly Silver and several other collaborators, 1999), and Adam Smith
in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century (2007). In these works,
Arrighi develops the central concepts of his theoretical legacy: systemic cycles
of accumulation; hegemonic transitions; and the rise of a Chinese-led East Asia
as the emergent centre of a reorganised world economy and society.
Arrighi was born in Milan in 1937 and studied economics at the University of
Bocconi, also in Milan, in a department that was ‘a neo-classical stronghold,
untouched by Keynesianism of any kind.’ During his graduate studies, Arrighi
first ran and then closed his father’s firm, and also helped to manage his grandfather’s
factory, a position that convinced him that the ‘elegantmodels of neo-classical econ-
omics were ‘irrelevant to an understanding of the production and distribution of
incomes’ (Arrighi 2009: 612). Upon graduation in 1960 he went to work as an
unpaid teaching assistant and also took a job with Unilever as a trainee manager to
help make ends meet. Years later, he would reflect on this brief experience in the
world of capitalist business, from his father’s family-run shop to his grandfather’s
Fordist factory, to the multinational Unilever: ‘[this experience] taught me that it’s
very hard to identify one specific form as “typically” capitalist. Later, studying
Braudel, I saw that this idea of the eminently adaptable nature of capitalism was
something that you could observe historically’ (Arrighi 2009: 62). Indeed, one of
the hallmarks of world-systems scholarship with which Arrighi became closely
associated is the longue dure
e, or the long historic view that identifies enduring
cycles, tendencies, structures and patterns of structural change.
The turning point that would take Arrighi’s down the path of the systematic
study of historical capitalism came in 1963, when he moved from Italy to take
a position as Lecturer in Economics at the University College of Rhodesia and
Nyasaland (UCRN) in what was then Rhodesia:
It was a true intellectual rebirth. 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...Gradually, I abandoned abstract modelling for the concrete,
empirically and historically grounded theory of social anthropol-
ogy. I began my long march from neo-classical economics to
comparative-historical sociology. (Arrighi 2009: 62)
This ‘long march’ would lead Arrighi to take up a number of core themes in the
following decades and would also involve engagement with anti-colonial and
worker struggles. Thematically, we could divide his scholarship into his early
work on the colonial economy, labour supply, development, and national liber-
ation; a later, brief focus on Marxist praxis and on imperialism; and then on to
the extended, systematic study of historical capitalism as expounded on in the
trilogy mentioned previously.
William I. Robinson
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The ‘Southern African paradigm’: labour supplies, proletarianisation, and
During his time in Africa, Arrighi published a number of influential essays on the
political economy of Africa, focusing on labour supply and the colonial economy,
eventually collected in a book co-edited with John Saul, Essays of on the Political
Economy of Africa (1973). In one of these essays, ‘Labour Supplies in Historical
Perspective,’ Arrighi observed that the full proletarianisation of the Rhodesian
peasantry created contradictions for the colonial accumulation system. Wages
could be held down so long as the workers’ peasant families and home villages
could assume the costs of the workers’ reproduction. However, full proletarianisa-
tion undermined this mechanism whereby the African peasantry subsidised capital
accumulation and thus complicated the ability to exploit labour and required the
regime to become more repressive. Several of Arrighi’s contemporaries, including
Martin Legassick and Harold Wolpe, were observing a similar phenomenon
throughout the region. They concluded, in Arrighi’s own words, that ‘the whole
southern region of Africa...was characterised by mineral wealth, settler agricul-
ture and extreme dispossession of the peasantry. It is very different from the
rest of Africa.... [Which] were essentially peasant-based’ (Arrighi 2009: 63).
The works of Arrighi and his contemporaries in the 1960s became known as the
‘Southern Africa Paradigm’ on the limits of proletarianisation and dispossession.
Some would draw on the paradigm to develop theories of ‘articulated modes of
production,’ such that the reproduction of more than one mode (e.g., peasant-
based and capitalist) in the colonial economy, rather than backward, was func-
tional to the dominant capitalist mode (see, for example, Freund, 1985). Arrighi
himself would use the insights of the paradigm to derive broader conclusions on
the history and nature of world capitalism, as I will explain below. He would
later debate Robert Brenner and others who, studying the transition from feudal-
ism to capitalism in Europe, insisted that full proletarianisation favoured capitalist
development. ‘The problem with the simple “proletarianisation of capitalist devel-
opment” models is that it ignores not just the realities of southern Africa’s settler
capitalism but also many other cases, such as the United States itself, which was
characterised by a totally different pattern a combination of slavery, genocide of
the native population and the immigration of surplus labour from Europe’ (Arrighi
2009: 64).
In 1966 nine lecturers at the UCRN were arrested for political activities, among
them Arrighi, and deported. Arrighi went to Dar es Salaam, at the time an outpost
for exiled national liberation movements of southern Africa, a mecca for exper-
iments in what president Nyerere and others referred to as African socialism,
and in general for radical Third World intellectuals. Arrighi spent three years at
the University in Dar es Salaam, where in his own words he:
Met all kinds of people: activists from the Black Power movement
in the U.S., as well as scholars and intellectuals like Immanuel
Wallerstein, David Apter, Walter Rodney, Roger Murray, Sol
Picciotto, Catherine Hiskins, Jim Mellon, who later was one of
the founders of the Weathermen Underground, Luisa Passerinit,
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who was doing research on Frelimo, and many others, including
John Saul. (Arrighi 2009: 63)
In Tanzania Arrighi turned his attention to the nature of the new regimes emerging
from decolonisation and to broader questions of neo-colonialism. Several essays
he wrote while in Tanzania appear to presage his subsequent shift to the study
of capitalism at the world-systemic level (see, inter alia, Arrighi, 1970).
In 1969 Arrighi returned to Italy at a time of political ferment in the country and
took up a lectureship at the University of Trento, the main centre of student mili-
tancy at the time and the only university that had a doctoral program in sociology.
There, he jumped into left-wing politics. Having arrived from the frontlines of
militant anti-colonial struggles in Africa, Arrighi found the student and the
worker movements in a troubling state of flux and disarray. Militant workers
and student leftists had rejected the traditional Communist unions as ‘reactionary
and repressive’ and had formed ‘anti-politics’ groups like Potere Operaio and
Lotta Continua as alternatives. Arrighi and several of his students developed the
idea of finding a Gramscian strategy to relate to the movement and formed the
Gruppo Gramsci, which according to Arrighi was conceived in order to incubate
organic intellectuals of the working class in struggle. The autonomista movement
that would be so influential politically as well as intellectually in the next
several decades emerged out of these efforts. Again, in his own words:
That’s where the idea of autonomia of the intellectual autonomy
of the working class first emerged. The creation of this concept is
now generally attributed to Antonio Negri. But in fact it originated
in the interpretation of Gramsci that we developed in the early
1970s, in the Gruppo Gramsci co-founded by Madera, Passerini
and myself.... As the collectives [Colletiti Politici Operai,
CPO’s, or autonomous worker collectives] developed their own
autonomous practice, the Gruppo Gramsci would cease to have a
function and could disband. When it actually was disbanded in
the fall of 1973, Negri came into the picture, and took the CPOs
and the Area dell’Autonomia in an adventurous direction that
was far from what was originally intended. (Arrighi 2009: 667)
In 1973, Arrighi took up a teaching position in Cosenza and remained there
until his move to the United States in 1979. At this time, Arrighi led a research
working group in Calabria that drew on his labour supply research in Africa to
study migration from the agricultural south of Italy to the industrial north. Once
again, Arrighi argued that capitalist development did not necessarily rely on full
proletarianisation. In 1978, Arrighi published The Geometry of Imperialism
(1983), a work that anticipates the more pondered and sweeping historical study
of world capitalism that he would take up over the next three decades. It is a
rather confusing book in which he attempts to typologise imperialism, to
compare hegemonies in the history of capitalism’s international relations and,
in his words, to conceptualise a ‘topological space.’ Ironically, the book’s con-
clusion seems to concur with what scholars of capitalist globalisation argue
William I. Robinson
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today. Arrighi distinguishes from earlier imperialisms a US ‘multinational imperi-
alism’ led by the expansion of multinational corporations. The extra-
territorial spread of multinational corporations increasingly frees them from
the restrictions of nation-states and from the ‘unruliness’ and high cost of the
labour force responsible for declining profits. This expansion weakens the
nation-state and increases the homogeneity and interdependence of nations.
Arrighi’s later work would not follow up on this observation. Moreover, with
his departure from Italy Arrighi would not return to such activism.
Arrighi and the world-systems paradigm
In 1979 Arrighi joined Wallerstein and Terence Hopkins as a professor of soci-
ology at the Fernand Braudel Centre for the Study of Economies, Historical
Systems, and Civilizations at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
The Fernand Braudel Centre became known as the main centre of world-
systems analysis, attracting scholars from all over the world. World-systems
theory shares with a number of critical approaches to international relations and
international political economy a common genealogy that traces back to Marx
and his critique of capitalism, and in turn grew out of a long tradition in
Marxist and radical analyses of world capitalism dating back to the writings of
V.I. Lenin, Hilferding, Rosa Luxembourg, and other early twentieth century
theorists of imperialism. However, accounts of world capitalism among radical
academics and political actors began to diverge in the post-World War II
period. In particular, more traditionally oriented approaches followed Marx’s
view that capitalism would develop the forces of production worldwide as it
spread, while others saw the backwardness and underdevelopment of some
regions of the world as the alter-ego of the advancement and development of
others. A number of schools emerged that argued that the very nature and
dynamics of world capitalism resulted in global inequalities among countries
and regions, bringing about the development of some and the underdevelopment
of others. This view was first put forward by the structural school of Rau
l Prebisch
and the United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America in the 1950s and
1960s, followed by more radical and explicitly neo-Marxist dependency theorists
or the ‘dependentistas’ of the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, radical intel-
lectuals and political leaders from other parts of the Third World, such as Samir
Amin and Walter Rodney, were reaching similar conclusions, inspired in part
by the Latin Americans. It was in this milieu that Wallerstein forged his distinctive
world-systems theory.
By the late 1970s, world-systems theory had become established as an alterna-
tive perspective from which to examine issues of capitalism, development and
world inequalities. Although Arrighi was closely identified with the world-
systems paradigm, he rejected the notion of a single ‘world-systems theory’ as
developed by Wallerstein. Instead, he argued that the Fernand Braudel Centre’s
particular approach to the study of world capitalism should be considered more
loosely as a ‘world-systems perspective or analysis’. World-systems analysis ‘as
a distinctive sociological paradigm’ typically departs, Arrighi maintained, ‘from
what had been the two main substantive contentions of world-systems scholars:
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the persistence of the core-periphery structure of the global political econo-
my...and the long-term, large-scale nature of the processes’ identified with
contemporary world capitalism (Arrighi 2005: 33).
The world-systems paradigm shares several additional assumptions that dis-
tinguish it from other approaches to the study of global political economy and his-
torical and contemporary world capitalism. The world economy is a system of
interconnected national economies that bring together national capital (especially
national financial power) and states that struggle to move up the hierarchy of
states and the value-added pecking order. For world-systemists, key actors are
rival states operating in an inter-state system, each in competition with the
others. These competitive nation-states within an inter-state system are the sub-
units of analysis and the larger unit of analysis is the interaction between these
sub-units and the world system over time. In this regard, the paradigm appears as
a left-wing variant of realism in the field of international relations. Consistent
with the world-systems paradigm, a territorial logic is immanent to historical capit-
alism, as are rival national capitals and state competition. Capital or firms interna-
tionalise but this constitutes the international activity of rival national capitalist
groups and firms. In Wallerstein’s words, states ‘are by definition rivals, bearing
responsibility to different sets of rival firms [my emphasis]’ (Wallerstein 2004: 56).
Arrighi shared with world systemists and with IR scholars in the realist tradition
this state structuralism that subordinates classes and social forces to states as the
central historical actors and posits the territorial logic of fixed nation-states and
their rivalry through the inter-state system as an immanent organising principle
of world capitalism (see my discussion and critique, Robinson 2001). These
tenets underpinned the theoretical construct he would develop from his arrival
at the Fernand Braudel Centre up until his final work, Adam Smith in Beijing.
He never seriously contemplated the possibility that more recent globalisation
may exhibit qualitatively novel properties and that could involve discontinuities
with the historic pattern of world capitalist evolution and hegemonic transition
that he mapped and theorised. As I will elaborate on below, he dismissed as
‘globalisation speak’ the global capitalism interpretation of late twentieth and
early twenty-first century world dynamics with which I myself, among others,
am associated.
Master concepts: systemic cycles of accumulation and hegemonic
A decade and a half after arriving at Binghamton, in 1994, Arrighi published what
could be considered his magnus opus, The Long Twentieth Century. In it, he
develops his master concept of systemic cycles of accumulation (SCA). Arrighi
presents in The Long Twentieth Century a structuralist model of the development
of the capitalist world-system over the last 600 years involving a series of four
‘long centuries,’ each with its associated hegemonic centre. As world-systems
scholar Christopher Chase-Dunn noted at the time of its release, ‘[t]his is a
new world-systems version of the “stages of capitalism” literature’ (Chase-Dun
1996: 164). He draws on Braudel’s conceptualisation of the capitalist world-
economy as a ‘layered system,’ with three tiers. The bottom layer is comprised
William I. Robinson
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of subsistence production. Small commodity producers and firms structured by the
market are in the middle. The top layer of the world economic hierarchy is com-
prised of finance capitalists (haute finance) who control the means of payments
and extract huge profits by combining their own organisational forms with the
political-military power of particular states. For Braudel, as for Arrighi, only
this top layer is termed ‘capitalist.’ Arrighi applies Braudel’s framework to ident-
ify four SCAs, or century-long periods of hegemony based on combinations of
economic power with territorial state (political) power, each epoch involving
increasing scope, greater intensity, and shorter duration. Each of these cycles
begins in one territorial state around some innovative reorganisation of capitalism
that gives the state a productive advantage and places it in the centre of the world
system and in the position of hegemonic power.
The first cycle centred on the Italian city states in the sixteenth century followed
by the rise of hegemony of the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, to nine-
teenth century Britain and then to the United States after 1945. Each SCA involves
two phases, a period of material expansion followed by a period in which market
saturation and capitalist competition lowers profits. In the second phase, the locus
of accumulation shifts to finance capital; haute finance comes to dominate the
hegemonic power by manipulating financial services to sustain profit making.
Arrighi follows Braudel, and departs from the classical Marxist account, in situat-
ing finance capital not as a particular twentieth-century stage in the development
of world capitalism, but a recurrent, cyclical phenomenon dating back at least to
the thirteenth-century Italian city-states. ‘An increasing mass of money capital
sets itself free from its commodity form, and accumulation proceeds through
financial deals’ (Arrighi 1994: 6). For a few years financialisation appears to
create renewed prosperity, as it did during Britain’s belle epoque of 18961914
and for the United States from the 1980s and the 1990s. However, this prosperity
is illusory; it is ‘a sign of autumn’ the term coined by Braudel and evoked
frequently by Arrighi. Money lending, deficit spending and war profiteering
conceal crises of over accumulation and foreshadow the decline of the hegemonic
power. In the longue dure
e, the declining hegemon’s autumn is another rising
hegemon’s spring.
Hegemonic transitions are characterised by a period of systemic chaos as well
as organisational revolutions in a newly emerging hegemonic bloc of business and
governmental institutions and spatial shifts in the epicentres of world accumu-
lation that brings about structural changes in the world-system. The ‘Genoese Dia-
spora SCA’ as Arrighi termed it involved external financial influence over the
Iberian states. The Dutch SCA ‘internalised protection costs’ because finance
capitalists came to control and utilise the Dutch state. The British SCA ‘interna-
lised production costs’ by enclosing much of the nineteenth-century industrial
revolution and raw materials production within the boundaries of the British
empire. And the US SCA ‘internalised transaction costs’ by the expansion of mul-
tinational corporations to include inside these corporations a great portion of those
transaction costs that previously took place between separate firms. Arrighi con-
cluded The Long Twentieth Century affirming that the crisis of the 1970s signalled
the fading of US hegemony, suggesting a future Asian SCA based on flexible
accumulation and outsourcing.
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The theory of hegemonic transition as systemic change laid out by Arrighi in
The Long Twentieth Century provides much of the theoretical guidance for
Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System, which appeared in 1999
the same year that Arrighi left Binghamton to take a position at Johns Hopkins Uni-
versity. In it, Arrighi, his wife and writing partner Beverly Silver, and several
collaborators attempt to make greater sense of the late twentieth-century and to
shine some predictive light on the future by analysis of systemic change in
earlier periods of transformation in the world system. This endeavour is undertaken
through an exploration of several inter-related controversies. One is the changing
balance of power among states. Arrighi and his collaborators suggest that the late
twentieth-century saw renewed Great Power rivalry, system-wide financial expan-
sion centred on the declining US hegemon, and the emergence of new loci of
power, in particular, East Asia. However, the late twentieth-century was peculiar
insofar as it is characterised by an unstable ‘bifurcation of military [US] and finan-
cial [East Asian] global power’ (Arrighi and Silver 1999: 95). Another was the
balance of power between states and business organisations. The transitions
from the old joint-stock trading companies to the British system of family business
enterprise, and then to the US-based system of multinational corporations is
explored as backdrop to the late twentieth-century reorganisation of state-business
relations based on transnational decentralisation, the spread of informal network-
ing, and the subordinate revival of small businesses around the world that have
weakened the regulatory capacity of even the most powerful states.
A third is the power of subordinate groups in the world system. This topic, laid
out in one chapter authored by Silver, is the only place in the trilogy that focuses on
social forces from below (Silver [2003] subsequently published a more expansive
treatment of this topic). The system-wide expansions in trade and production that
characterised each period of hegemony were based on social compacts between
dominant and subordinate groups. These compacts became undone through intra-
elite conflict and unrest from below as competition among states and capitalist
enterprises during hegemonic transitions undermined the conditions necessary
for the reproduction of social compacts. Growing social conflict, spurred on by
rising polarisation during the ‘financialisation’ period of hegemonic decline
gives way to new compacts as emerging hegemons reorganise world production
on novel foundations. Arrighi and his colleagues saw the late twentieth-century
process creating new social forces - through increased proletarianisation, feminisa-
tion, and changing spatial and ethnic configuration of the world’s labour force that
the decaying hegemonic order will have greater difficulty accommodating.
Arrighi’s is a core-centric (and inevitably Eurocentric) view of world capital-
ism. He is not concerned in the trilogy either with the rest of the system, except
for China and East Asia, and, more egregiously, in my view, with class and
social forces from below. It is the ‘top layer’ of the world-system, and especially,
(national) finance capital and their corresponding core states, that concerns
Arrighi and that seems to be the only level where processes of historical determi-
nation are at work. Apart from the one chapter in Chaos and Governance men-
tioned above and a couple of other essays (see especially Arrighi 1990) we find
virtually no role of agency from below; labour movements, the exploited
classes and the colonised played a minor role in the trilogy, and class analysis
William I. Robinson
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does not figure in Arrighi’s ontology of world capitalism or among his methodo-
logical arsenal. Even the capitalist class of hegemonic powers appears to collapse
into hegemonic states as predilect macro-agents of history.
Indeed, it is hard to find collective agency in Arrighi’s trilogy beyond the
immediate policies of state managers. On the one hand, Arrighi’s focus is on
deep historical structures. On the other, when agency is brought into the narrative
it is at the behavioural level of the policy decisions of state managers or proximate
policy makers. For instance, the turn from Fordism-Keynesianism to neo-liberal-
ism, or the new round of US interventionism in the wake of 9/11, as discussed in
Adam Smith in Beijing, are attributed simply to a conscious attempt by US policy
makers to recover declining US hegemony. There are no mediating levels here
between his analyses of deep structural processes and behavioural-level decisions
of state policy makers. In sum, Arrighi has no theory of politics that could take us
beyond the behavioural, descriptive level of agency.
Arrighi was not unaware of these limitations. He stated in an interview shortly
before his death that The Long Twentieth Century became basically a book about
the role of finance capital in the historical development of capitalism, from the
fourteenth century. So Beverly [Silver] took over the work on labour....
because I could not focus on the cyclical recurrence of financial expansions and
material expansions and, at the same time, deal with labour’ (Arrighi 2009: 74).
Yet this will remain unsatisfactory for those who would impute some causal
role in the financial and material dynamics of capitalism to the struggles
between distinct social and class forces.
Relatedly, although states are at the centre of Arrighi’s theoretical system there
is no theoretical treatment of the state or analysis of what social forces make up
states in his overall ontological conception of world capitalism. Arrighi follows
Weber and more recent institutionalists such as Tilly in his view of the state as
a territorially bound power institution and in the dualism of the state (the political)
and capital (the economic) as spheres that relate externally to each other. Hence,
the genesis of capitalism takes place when the two fuse in the Italian city-states in
the thirteenth century, as discussed earlier.
Arrighi and other world-systemists see a new round of inter-core rivalry over
which state will be the next hegemon in the wake of declining US hegemony.
For Arrighi, as for his fellow world-systemists and for many international relations
theorists, hegemony is associated with the dominance of a particular country and
predicated on that country’s national products out-competing the products of other
countries. Neither Arrighi nor other world-systemists have been willing to con-
template that there may be a changing configuration of social space that redefines
the relationship between space and accumulation and involves transnational class
and power relations that are not coterminous with a framework that posits rival
national powers competing for hegemony through the inter-state system (but
see Chase-Dunn 2010). Nevertheless, in the age of globalised production one is
hard-pressed to find evidence that supports the notion of each country producing
and trading its own national products. Many of the twenty-first-century develop-
ments Arrighi discusses in the trilogy are put forth within the realist framework
that precludes alternative explanations such as those suggested by scholars of glo-
balisation. In Adam Smith in Beijing, for instance, he insists, that the shift
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from GM to Wal-Mart as the old and the new symbols of ‘US’ capital illustrates
growing US economic dependence on China, whose corporations become major
suppliers of merchandise to US consumers. It is an empirical fact, however, that
Chinese-based manufacturing for the world market involves vast co-investment
with transnational corporations from around the world, the United States included,
that shifted to China as part of novel transnational accumulation strategies and
patterns (GM and Wal-Mart, moreover, can hardly be considered ‘US’ corpor-
ations to the extent that their individual, institutional and state investors are
drawn from every continent, including China, and moreover, Wal-Mart as of
mid-2010 had opened 290 retail outlets throughout China [Wal-Mart 2010]).
A number of social scientists have suggested that the social configuration of
space is less territorial to the extent that the transnational geographic dispersal of
the full range of world production, service and financial processes recasts core
and peripheral accumulation processes along a social logic not co-extensive with
specific territorially defined states (see Cox 1987; Hoogvelt 1997; Robinson
2004). Yet in Arrighi’s theoretical system, and more broadly in the world-
systems paradigm, these processes along with the capitalist classes they involve,
by theoretical fiat, must be coextensive with particular nation-states. This is
because capitalism, as Arrighi and other world-systemists view it, is by definition
organised as a fusion of a particular nation-state with particular national capital.
The Long Twentieth Century, as the centrepiece of the trilogy, is as much a study
on the origins and ontology of world capitalism as it is on its history. Capital is
finance and capitalists are those that control money. Arrighi does not see capitalism
as a production (class) relation or as an exchange relation but rather as a capital
state relation as the historic fusion of capital (finance) with the state that gave birth
to capitalism. Following Braudel, Arrighi sees the origins of capital in the relation-
ship between those who controlled money capital and the rulers of the emerging
interstate system in the thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries, the ‘much neglected
transition involving the fusion of state and capital’ (Arrighi 1994: 11). Thus as long
as there is world capitalism the nation-state/inter-state system must be its organis-
ing principle (as distinct from a mutable property or historical outcome) and there
must be a hegemonic nation-state centre or a would-be centre.
A coming ‘Asian age’?
Chaos and Governance concludes with the changing balance of power between
Western and non-Western centres. The focus here is on the gradual incorporation
by the West of the East into the capitalist world system in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, which marked the ambiguous triumph of Western civilis-
ation in a now single global system, ambiguous because Western colonialism
and suzerainty could not fully disarticulate the China-centred Asian trade and
tributary network nor undermine the civilisational basis of this network. East
Asia has emerged as the most dynamic centre of world-scale accumulation pro-
cesses. Should the region become the centre of a new world order (the new
hegemon) it will face the challenge of transforming the modern world into a ‘com-
monwealth of civilizations’. It was here that Arrighi started the story in the final
tome of the trilogy.
William I. Robinson
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The rise of the neo-conservatives in the United States, the attacks of 11 Septem-
ber 2001, and the subsequent US invasion and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan
could not be foreseen when Arrighi wrote his first two tomes of the trilogy. With
the benefit of hindsight, Arrighi argues in Adam Smith in Beijing that the neo-
conservative Project for a New American Century adopted by the Bush adminis-
tration was intended to stave off hegemonic decline. Instead, it revealed the limits
of US power and sparked the ‘terminal crisis’ of US hegemony. The invasion of
Iraq distracted the United States and favoured the rise of China, which will
likely be the ultimate winner in the ‘war on terror.’ According to Arrighi:
The failure of the Project for a New American Century and the
success of Chinese economic development, taken jointly, have
made the realization of Smith’s vision of a world-market society
based on greater equality among the world’s civilizations more
likely than it ever was in the almost two and a half centuries
since the publication of The Wealth of Nations. (Arrighi 2007: 8)
Here it is necessary to observe that Arrighi is reading Adam Smith in such a way
as to argue that ‘there is a fundamental world-historic difference between processes
of market formation and processes of capitalist development’. China, he says, is
becoming a ‘market economy’ as analysed and envisioned by Smith rather than
undergoing ‘capitalist development proper’ (Arrighi 2007: 24). China’s rise and
potential hegemony has a very different basis from that of its Western predecessors.
Arrighi draws on a growing body of scholarship on East Asia to remind us that
China was the leading economy of the world until the eighteenth century and com-
manded an East Asian state system that was organised very differently than the
European world system. His discussion on East Asian history draws especially
on the work of Kaoru Sugihara, who developed the concept of the ‘Industrious
Revolution’ to describe the historical East Asian growth model based on labour-
intensive forms of production and husbanding of natural resources to distinguish
it from the ecologically destructive capital- and energy-intensive Western path.
China’s economy was admired by Adam Smith as the ‘natural path’ to develop-
ment, based on agricultural improvement that allowed the rural population to gen-
erate domestic demand for manufacture, in distinction to the Western path that
relied on international trade. The Chinese state in the wake of the Communist revo-
lution revived this focus on agriculture and created a workforce of higher quality
than in other low-wage countries that now makes it possible for China to develop
a market system based on skilled labour rather than capital machinery.
The rise of a China-led East Asian centre is also based on the revival of regional
trade and marketing networks that were more developed in the region than in
Europe until the eighteenth century and on the fusion a revived Industrious
Revolution with the Industrial Revolution. This hybridisation has led to a new
model of East Asia-led flexible and networked accumulation that accounts for
the shift in economic power to the region:
The subordinate incorporation transformed but did not destroy the
pre-existing regional system of international relations. More
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importantly, it also contributed to the ongoing transformation of
the incorporating Western system itself. The result was a hybrid
political-economic formation that has provided a particularly
favourable environment for the East Asian economic renaissance
and the consequent transformation of the world beyond the
capacity of theories based on the Western experience to compre-
hend what is going on. (Arrighi 2007: 313)
We should observe here that Arrighi’s upbeat view of a coming ‘Asian Age’
devolves, in part, from his ambiguous and contentious conception of capitalism
as a capital-state relation, as discussed earlier. This allows Arrighi to claim that
China is not capitalist despite the rise of a capitalist class and capitalist enterprises:
The capitalist character of marked-based development is not deter-
mined by the presence of capitalist institutions and dispositions but
by the relation of state power to capital. Add as many capitalists
as you like to a market economy, but unless the state has been
subordinated to their class interest, the market economy remains
non-capitalist (Arrighi 2007: 331 2).
This view, of course, is a variant of classical social democratic theory. The Chinese
state in Arrighi’s view still retains a high degree of autonomy from the capitalist
class and is therefore able to act in the ‘national’ rather than in a class interest.
Arrighi’s assessment of the coming ‘Asian age’ involves some of his most con-
tentious arguments. He does acknowledge the sharp rise in inequalities in China,
growing labour conflict, and ‘countless episodes of super-exploitation, especially
of migrant workers’ (Arrighi 2007: 360). His view of China is nonetheless overly
benign and often appears at odds with empirical evidence. Far from ‘husbanding
of natural resources,’ empirical evidence suggests China’s economic expansion
has wrought ecological degradation on vast tracks of the Chinese countryside
and its cities are some of the most polluted in the world (see Economy 2004;
Bochuan 1992). Chinese state and private firms have invested billions of dollars
to extract natural resources from Latin America, Africa and elsewhere not
unlike transnational corporations originating from the West. Far from the salutary
effect that he purports the East Asian development path is having on Chinese
workers skilled labour that is able to self-manage production in Chinese
enterprises the ethnographic evidence suggests that the Chinese industrial
export sector constitutes the new ‘satanic mills’ (Chan, 2001).
Arrighi is optimistic that a coming Asian era will involve a ‘greater equality
among the world’s civilizations’ as envisioned by Smith. It is hard not to detect
here a romanticised view of the global South, which, he asserts, under the leadership
of China and India, may put forward a new alliance a new and more powerful
Bandung that would usher in a more progressive world order ‘a socially more
equitable and ecologically more sustainable development path’ (Arrighi 2007: 10).
It is not clear, though, why the rulers of China and India would be any more
benign or enlightened as agents of a new global hegemony than their Western
predecessors. It appears here that Arrighi’s realism drives his political prognosis.
William I. Robinson
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Yet India in particular, but China as well, are ever more polarised class societies led
by ruling political and economic elites whose own reproduction has become increas-
ingly tied to the reproduction of global capitalism to the extent that they have inte-
grated their countries ever deeper into the world capitalist system. Why would
Chinese and Indian transnationally oriented elites and capitalists seek a socially
more equitable and ecologically more sustainable development?
In an interview published just before his death, Arrighi is less committal in his
assessment of the future and also acknowledges that the balance of forces between
classes in China is still up for grabs. He also emphasises the contingent nature of
the transition underway in China ‘the social outcome of China’s titanic modern-
ization effort remains indeterminate’ (Arrighi 2009: 87). Moreover, in defence of
his optimism and, at the least, as partial vindication of his theoretical system,
Arrighi observes that China has prospered while Africa has languished and
other regions of the South have fallen behind. He concludes Adam Smith in
Beijing the last work before his death by returning full circle to the first sig-
nificant research of his career, on the political economy of Southern Africa.
Arrighi asks why it is that China as taken off yet Africa has been left behind in
the world economy. He finds that the near total dispossession of the peasantry
in Southern Africa hindered the development of capitalist growth by eliminating
the ability of the rural labour force to subsidise its own reproduction and that of
capital accumulation. In distinction, China has proceeded apace through ‘accumu-
lation without dispossession’; despite the sharp increase in inequality, the Chinese
peasantry has not lost access to the land.
I would like to thank Christopher Chase-Dunn and Yousef Baker for the comments and suggestions on earlier
drafts of this essay. The content, of course, is my sole responsibility.
1. I first met Arrighi in 1996, when he awarded my book Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, U.S. Intervention,
and Hegemony (Cambridge University Press, 1996) the annual prize of the Political Economy of the World
System section of the American Sociological Association, a section that he chaired that year. Over the next
12 years I had the opportunity on a number of occasions to debate with him in public forums over our differ-
ences and to discuss these differences in private conversations. These debates were always friendly and
respectful. I learned a great deal from Arrighi and remain indebted to him for the support he gave me at
crucial junctures in my own career.
Note on Contributor
William I. Robinson is professor of sociology, global studies and Latin American studies at the University of
California at Santa Barbara. His research and teaching areas are macro and comparative sociology, globalisation,
political economy, development, Latin America and Latina/o studies. His most recent book is Latin America and
Global Capitalism (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).
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of Minnesota Press).
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tudes Africaines, 19 (1), pp. 23–9.
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World System’, Journal of World-System Research, VII(1), pp.
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University Press).
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William I. Robinson
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... Entretanto, há controvérsias nessa perspectiva, Robinson (2010) defende que o que possibilitou a China sobressair no mercado foi a exploração intensiva de seus trabalhadores, para este autor esse processo chinês está longe de algo que apresente igualdade ou respeito com o povo da China, para o autor esse crescimento ainda não pode ser caracterizado como um desenvolvimento sustentável. O que é de comum acordo, é que há uma discussão se a ascensão da China será capaz de modificar o cenário capitalista mundial, ou seja, se está se tornará a nova hegemonia capitalista, dando início a um novo ciclo sistêmico de acumulação. ...
... In this way, Arrighi pointed out: I do not know if China is capitalist or a market socialist economy, but China's emergence in the global scenario provokes a change in the relations of the interstate system, and the South now appears with a strengthening position related to the North of the world. Lately I have talked frequently about the possibility of a "New Bandung" (Vecchi 2008: 111 However, under this highly indeterminate scenario, the GS' potential and the analytical foundations provided by Arrighi concerning the convergence of the GS with the GN, are always presented from a top-down, historical, and systemic perspective (Robinson 2011). Even when regional and national specificities in the framework of a general, holistic system are considered, in fact, the possibilities for the "rest" of the non-Asian GS cannot be explained-neither from its own internal processes nor from the specificities of its macro-regional articulation. ...
Full-text available
This article analyzes the economic convergence of the global South with the global North (GS and GN, respectively) as well as the divergence within the GS between Asia and "the rest" (Latin America and Africa). In order to address these processes, the paper is structured in three parts. In the first part, the fundamentals that support this "divergent convergence" are considered in light of two theoretical perspectives: world-systems analysis (WSA) and Latin American Structuralism (LAS). We take into account the analytical tools of these theoretical perspectives and differentiate the historical, systemic, and top-down approach of WSA (focused on the contributions of Wallerstein and Arrighi) from the historical, structural, and bottom-up perspective of LAS. In the second part, we analyze the convergence of the GS with the GN in terms of economic dynamic, economic dynamism, and control of the accumulation process, as well as the divergence within the GS between Asia and "the rest". We finally argue the possibility and necessity of complementing WSA and LAS approaches in order to explain these simultaneous processes of "divergent convergence" and to reflect on the challenges for the rest of the GS in facing the consolidation of Asian dominance under Chinese leadership.
... The Chinese state in Arrighi's view still retains a high degree of autonomy from the capitalist class and is therefore able to act in the national rather than in a class interest (Robinson 2010). ...
In the early 21st century, platforms, known as digital media intermediaries, have greatly influenced people’s daily lives. Due to the importance of platforms for the digital economy and culture, including intellectual property and participatory culture, several countries have developed their own social network sites and Web portals. Nonetheless, a handful of Western countries, primarily the U.S., have dominated the global platform market and society. This paper aims to historicize the concept of imperialism in the globalized 21st century. It investigates whether the recent growth of American-based platforms has resulted in a change to the fundamental idea of the imperialism thesis by analyzing the evolutionary nature of imperialism towards platform imperialism. It then addresses whether we are experiencing a new notion of imperialism by mapping out several core characteristics that define platform imperialism, including the swift growth and global dominance of SNSs and smartphones. It pays close attention to the capitalization of platforms and their global expansion, including the major role of intellectual property rights as the most significant form of capital accumulation in the digital age. It eventually endeavors to make a contribution to the platform imperialism discourse as a form of new imperialism, focusing on the nexus of great powers.
As many commentators highlighted, a distinguishing feature of Arrighi’s notion of hegemony lays in its Gramscian background. However, an in-depth analysis of the uses and problems of the Gramscian concept of hegemony in the work of Arrighi is still missing. The aim of this contribution is thus to fill this gap, by showing how the interpretation and use of Gramsci’s ideas of hegemony by Arrighi looks far more problematic than himself admitted. The main argument here defended is that the Gramscian definition of hegemony constitutes at the same time a veritable cornerstone and the weakest point in Arrighi’s general theory.
This chapter sets the conceptual groundwork for a framework which utilizes both institutional approaches and the systemic cycle theory. The first section revisits the problematic issues in the systemic cycle theory, notably the lack of institutional and macroeconomic insights, and offers a Keynesian/demand-side reinterpretation of Arrighian concepts of extensive and intensive capitalism strategies. The second section surveys the open issues of institutional analysis, notably the problem of endogenous institutional change. It also offers a conceptual approach to institutions and institutional change in a manner consistent with a global-level theory of endogenous institutional change. The third section argues there are asymmetrical similarities in these faults and that the two research agendas can substantially benefit from interaction. This chapter enables a metatheoretical language that the framework of the next chapter can utilize in order to push the institutional change agenda onto the transnational level.
The epoch of the long ’30s and ours share a quintessential characteristic: They are both chaotic scenarios of dramatic institutional and economic experimentation and adjustment, intended to reshape the fundamental social and political structures in response to the emergence of new subjectivities defying the traditional tools of capture and governance. More specifically, the new great transformation we are experiencing is due to macro-and micro-effects both of the “success” and the crisis of neoliberalism. To contribute to a growing sense of awareness and orientation about the present, this chapter critically examines the political communication strategies enacted by MoVimento 5 Stelle and Lega in Italy, as emblematic cases of new populism comparable with the characteristic expressions of the authoritarian collectivism of the ’30s. These phenomena are relevant not only for understanding the vicissitudes of the single state, but more generally for the ongoing rearrangement of international relations.
This article explores how, in the quest for new global order, global governance might acquire greater sociological legitimacy. What are the sources of legitimacy in global governance? In other words, what conditions generate confidence and trust in global-scale authorities? To explore this question, the article first elaborates on the general concept of legitimacy as it relates to global regulation. Thereafter the discussion considers, under three main headings, a broad range of possible drivers of legitimacy beliefs vis-à-vis global governance. First, some of these sources are institutional, relating to features of the global regulatory organisations, such as their procedural inputs and their performance outputs. Second, other sources of legitimacy are individual, relating to the characteristics of the subjects of global governance, such as their identity orientations and their levels of social trust. Third, further sources of legitimacy in global governance are societal, relating to the general ordering patterns of world politics, such as prevailing norms, capitalism, and a hegemonic state. The article concludes by urging that researchers break from past habits of treating institutional, individual and societal sources of legitimacy separately and in isolation from each other. Instead, legitimacy in global governance can be more fully understood – and more effectively promoted in practice – if one examines these various forces together, and in terms of their mutual constitution.
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The article compares the approaches to the study of the contemporary stage of development of world civilization that were developed in the concepts of globalization and world-systems analysis. It is emphasized that the globalization studies and WSA are competing analytical perspectives. While the globalization studies consider the contemporary period of social development as a qualitatively new global stage in the history of humanity, the world-systems analysis argues that the essence of a new historical stage is the crisis of the modern global capitalist system and its transformation towards the new historical system. A comparison study of globalization and world-systems analysis demonstrates that the latter provides more clear picture of social reality. The world-system reinterpretation of the concept of globalizations is proposed.
Full-text available
The paper presents a new interpretation of globalization within the boundaries of the author’s concept of soft globalization, which exploits a normatively attractive alternative to the concept of the Empire. It is argued here that the conditions of development of contemporary post - colonial world communities do not require any unification in the form of the Empire, but instead the creation of a non repressive mechanism of social regulation - the implementation of a form of soft globalization, a globalization with a mental form are expedient here. Historically, globalization occurred in a strict material(i.e. economical and military) form that prompted the conditions for the evolution of civilization as the Empire: a case in which the development of the world occurs under the power of a single dominating state. Imperialistic politics leads to colonial politics formation. The history of the phenomena of civilization shows many instances of Empire globalization. Globalization in the Empire form was already observed at the time of the Roman Empire. At this time processes of development inside the Empire were manifestations of globalization in its highest cultural shape. But ancient Rome was also a social and political experiment that acquired the attributes of a purely material globalization in the end, and historically brought about the irreversible crash of the Roman Empire itself. Contemporary fluctuations referring to the process of globalization can be registered in the US’s attempts of material domination inside this or that existing case of civilization, which causes colonialism appearance. The main idea stressed in the paper is that only a mental globalization could succeed in the end.
The author of Long Twentieth Century and Adam Smith in Beijing, interviewed by David Harvey, on dispossession and development, capitalist crises, China's future. The political education of a teenage factory-manager, via African liberation struggles and autonomia operaia; and influences-Braudel, Gramsci, Smith, Marx-in Arrighi's work.