A Long Chinese Century?

By Peter Hitchcock

Issue 1.2 | November 1, 2010

Giovanni Arrighi. Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century. Verso, 2007. 420 pp.

This is a brave and provocative book by a writer who gave us some of the most brilliant critiques of geopolitics and geoeconomics of recent years. Arrighi described his projects as comparative historical-sociology which in terms of the works themselves is another way of thinking the world system as such (in contradistinction to the methodologies and conclusions of Wallerstein and Brenner). The contours of his approach were formed initially by his experience of working in Southern Africa in the 1960s where specific formations of capitalist development under the racist regimes of Rhodesia and South Africa taught Arrighi that simple models of proletarianization were insufficient to explain the contradictory relations at modernity’s edge. When Arrighi worked in Tanzania another lesson was learned, which was that decolonization through national liberation did not inexorably lead to socialist delinking. This degree of skepticism about normative leftist socio-economic critique continued in Arrighi’s participation in the Gramsci-inspired project of autonomia that galvanized worker organization in Italy in the 1970s. While the role of Gramsci would eventually diminish in the movement (particularly in its transformation into the multitude of Hardt and Negri), for Arrighi the committed agenda of the organic intellectual would never leave his subsequent research even if the emphasis fell increasingly more on intellectual rather than organic in that formulation.

True to his close and productive re-reading of the Marxist tradition, Arrighi’s Geometry of Imperialism (1978) took on the standard Leninist critique in part by questioning one of Lenin’s key sources for his position, the work of liberal economist J.A.Hobson. The point was not to negate Lenin’s inspiration so much as recast it by an adherence to the Gramscian concept of hegemony. The latter, for Arrighi, has proved much more fruitful in understanding the peculiarities of, for instance, the American empire of the twentieth century. Arrighi is best known for The Long Twentieth Century, a book that combines his formidable gift for historical detail with a capacity to unravel the complex sinews of economic relations. Adapting Braudel’s longue durée framework and his attention to the importance of city states, Arrighi also develops Braudel’s concern for the connections between financialization and the decline of hegemons in the world system. The effect of this telescopic temporality is to reveal deep structures in state formation that stretch our understanding of the twentieth century to include inter-state relations over a five hundred year period. These cycles of state formation and decline are not identical of course, but Arrighi displays the value of discerning a similar pattern formation in their constellation, one which extends to the decline of the United States as a hegemonic power in the current era. The role of finance capital is key and, as Arrighi has admitted, this tends to overshadow the intervention of labor in the capital/state nexus (although labor’s pertinence can be registered in much of Arrighi’s other work). In many respects, the appearance of Adam Smith in Beijing continues the work of Long Twentieth Century (and to an extent, the book he wrote with Beverly, Chaos and Governance as well as the co-edited collection The Resurgence of East Asia) and, with its subtitle, “lineages of the twenty-first century,” looks to meld longue durée with futurity.

While identifying the rise of China as a global power is certainly not new, Arrighi attempts to articulate the difference in China’s increasingly hegemonic status by bringing alternative measures of modernity and modernization to the fore, including, as the title suggests, a novel reading of Adam Smith. The book is dedicated to Andre Gunder Frank and readers will not only recognize a characteristic world systems analysis but also an augmentation of Frank’s own exploration of counter-Eurocentric critique in ReOrient (1998). The following is the basic problem Arrighi seeks to explore: is the resurgence of China a reconnection with the principles of its economic prowess before the rise of Europe or is its integration a basic extension of the nostrums of globalization in which cheap and unorganized labor is simply one more business opportunity? The easy answer is to say “both;” but while this would acknowledge China’s earlier history as the world’s richest economy, it would also tend to favor its present situation as an effect of Western neo-liberal tenacity and a closing-off of powerful alternative possibilities. Arrighi uses Smith as a lever to push back against the latter tendency while simultaneously invoking key Asian political economists like Hayami Akira and Kaoru Sugihara.

The reliance on Smith would seem counter-intuitive since he is most often read to endorse the kind of free-for-all associated with de-regulated markets of at least the last thirty years. Surely Marx, one of Smith’s fiercest critics, could provide a more circumspect understanding of capitalism’s Asian expansion? First, of course, as Arrighi underlines, Smith did not argue that markets should operate irrespective of or beyond considerations of the state for the distribution of public good (the state, not the market, provides the “invisible hand”). In fact, The Wealth of Nations is precisely about the ability of the state to harness the market as a means of sustenance for the state and its prerogatives (the wealth of nations is a measure of market/state synergy, not unbridled markets). Second, Marx’s sense of capitalist globalization is awkwardly “flatist,” Arrighi maintains, in a kind of Thomas Friedman manner. Certainly, as the Communist Manifesto mentions, some of those “Chinese walls” have been torn down by capitalist imperatives, but this is a caricature of market logics (like the Asiatic Mode of Production), rather than a nuanced understanding of practical exigency. The reliance on Smith permits Arrighi to maintain a crucial distinction between market practices and capital accumulation proper while also allowing Arrighi to provide a historical explanation for economic divergence and a contemporary convergence seen in China’s explosive growth since 1978 and from 1992 in particular.

Now it has to be said that Arrighi is not endorsing Smith’s analysis as the key to reading twenty-first century economic lineages, nor is he simply dismissing a basic Marxist critique of Chinese capital accumulation, as if the production of Chinese billionaires was merely a socialist aberration. His thesis, eloquently expressed in the introduction, is that the combination of the failure of the Project for a New American Century with China’s increasing economic prominence makes Smith’s vision for an equalization of East and West, a “commonwealth of civilizations,” more rather than less possible. Obviously, this reading of Smith flies in the face of the free-marketeers of globalization, just as the interpretation of a market with non-capitalist characteristics is counter-intuitive for most, but the power of the book is that the conceptual daring is largely a consequence of careful reading and nuanced working assumptions. A third factor and possibility, market turbulence and global chaos, also hovers in the background and, given Arrighi’s understanding of the role of financialization in the decline of hegemons, perhaps this could have received greater attention, especially in his conclusions. On the whole, however, this is an impressive leftist analysis of China in the world system that will reward further reflection in the years to come.

Arrighi organizes his critique into four interlinked sections. The first part examines the case for re-reading Adam Smith as a key to unlocking the enigma of contemporary Chinese capitalism through a history of a market society that survived by not being very capitalistic at all, at least in terms of conventional “development” models. The second part takes on Robert Brenner’s analysis of the “persistent stagnation” of the global economy between 1973-93 and the topic of global economic turbulence (also drawn from Brenner). Arrighi’s reading of Brenner is substantiated by comparing periods of turbulence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which allows Arrighi to track the declining fortunes of a global hegemon (the U.S.) against the contrasting dynamism of China. The third section continues the discussion of hegemony and the misguided attempt of PNAC (Project for a New American Century) to revive it (elsewhere Arrighi has called this “great power suicide”). The conceptual framework here borrows heavily from Arrighi’s earlier works, especially The Long Twentieth Century but also from ideas developed in the book on chaos and governance. The final section considers the “New Asian Age” both on its own terms, and in terms of its meaning for European and North American developmental limits. Arrighi ends the book with a short exegesis of the Beijing Consensus and its implications for global politics and economics. Although some chapters drift considerably from the original thesis, the argument overall presents a compelling case for seeing the “ascent of China” as a radical alternative to the Euramerican axis.

Arrighi hones his interpretation of China’s market society as a version of Smith’s thoughts on natural economic development. Prior to the tumult of the twentieth century, China’s economic apparatus had encouraged market equilibrium by using labor reserves more than technological advantages. Food production surpluses were stored rather than shipped via international trade and this obviously helped maintain social order in times of shortage (the state redistributed such surpluses as a matter of course). Calling this an “industrious revolution” (the term is borrowed from Hayama Akira’s analysis of Tokugawa, Japan via Kaoru Sugihara and the debate over the Great Divergence), Arrighi underlines the specific advantages of economic activity based on a broad skill set and social mores less prone to narrow specialization (of the kind, by contrast, Marx discerns in European industrialization). Until the Opium Wars, China was the East Asian hub of an interstate system focused on minimizing territorial acquisition and the destabilizing effects of competition ill-suited to what Smith meant by national wealth. Such critique stands as a challenge to any theory based on a single world system (like Andre Gunder Frank’s), or economic logic that claims a global status by default. The point is less that Smith remains in Beijing, as it were, but more that the genealogy of this regional system remains enough to confound analyses bent on reading China’s economic resurgence as primarily or simply an extension of Western industrial capitalist models of modernization.

I have less trouble with the difference of Arrighi’s approach from Frank’s grand scheme, or indeed the detailed way he distances himself from Brenner’s understanding of global turbulence, than I do reconciling the history of industriousness with the actual interpellation of China for capitalism in the present, irrespective of the modernization at stake. For all of Arrighi’s laudable appeals to economic hybridization in China’s contemporary economic organization, the argument tends to caricature the economic decisions of the foreign companies (some 600,000) currently operating joint ventures on the mainland. On the one hand, it clearly matters that prevailing assumptions about China’s growth are challenged and reconceptualized; on the other, much of what passes for benign trade in China’s export-driven economy has done very well out of reductionism, stereotyping, and accumulating capital the good old fashioned way. Some of the keys to foreign business interest in China are obvious: the recognition of a massive, educated and under-employed work force, comparatively very low wages, port infrastructure, unorganized labor, state authoritarianism, minimal environmental protection and tacit support of corruption. If these are “instruments of Southern emancipation” (384), the boards of Wal-Mart and GM are their biggest advocates. By 2005 the PRC claimed that 70% of their exports were foreign invested (Western experts calculate this at about 58%) and it has been estimated that 40% of China’s GDP is foreign owned (standard metrics of GDP do not exclude proceeds that find their way onto the balance sheets of foreign corporations). In other words, one can quite easily accept or ignore the principles of industriousness and divergence in play and make a bundle from the Chinese miracle. If Smith’s “natural path” to national wealth has been vindicated, it nevertheless betrays some fairly obstinate symptoms of crass and “unnatural” capital accumulation. Just as contemporary Marxist critique can be hamstrung by the abstract protocols Marx devised in part from a reading of Victorian capitalism, so one must be wary of any Smithian Marxism grounded on a template of eighteenth century non-capitalist market activity. Arrighi is absolutely right to read China as breaking the lock of Western industrial capitalism as longue duree, but contemporary China is also a pharmakon of capitalism, poisoning and preserving its constitutive economic laws.

One knot in the history of capitalism Arrighi addresses is the difference in its formations according to whether or not individual states develop along capitalist class interests. From the evidence Arrighi arrays, we do not see yet a bourgeois class structured in dominance in the PRC. Certainly, changes to property laws and the tenuous lid placed upon independent labor self organization have favored embourgeoisfication, just as the benefits of cadre status and the power of guanxi (connections) have encouraged an elite social strata relatively free to enjoy the benefits of other people’s surplus value. Yet, whereas a strong state has the power to shape institutional infrastructure according to capitalist interests, the Chinese state also maintains the capacity to redistribute wealth above the claims of capitalism per se. We tend to associate inconsistencies between the state and class hegemony with democracy (in the United States the evocative term employed is often “checks and balances”), but in China it now takes the form of a dialectical enigma, as if capitalism has the right to everything, except to supplant the power of the Communist Party itself. Because historically China’s imperial designs have been primarily limited to border wars and acquisitions, and the tributary system and interstate trade have minimized trade advantage through belligerence, Arrighi calls China’s return to the world stage “a peaceful ascent,” particularly in comparison to European aggression. As he acknowledges, this does not mean China eschews military options: it will increasingly seek to protect its vital sea lanes and it is hard to envisage a resolution of the Taiwan issue with a handshake (although among the business communities of both entities there has been a great deal of handshaking for some time). Nobody calls the Communist Party communist anymore, yet the dialectical contradiction between its historical mandate and the will to power of a class in formation cannot be sustained indefinitely (we might term this a high level ideological trap, as a complement to Elvin’s celebrated equilibrium trap that Arrighi invokes). And, one should note, China’s ascent began not only with a war against Japan, but also with a devastating civil conflagration.

If the unevenness of capitalism is a given, in China it has assumed some remarkable and perhaps unique undulations. When I walked past the Rolls Royce dealership in Beijing, I was reminded that the “spirit of ecstasy’s” busiest market used to be Hong Kong. As commentators have remarked, long before the fifty year deal on the “one country, two systems” approach to Hong Kong is up, the Mainland’s key cities will have topped its capitalist sheen. Hong Kong is an interesting problem for the lineages Arrighi elaborates. As part of the post-war “capitalist archipelago” (that includes Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea), it was not only the final resting place of British colonialism but remains an abstract space of “disappearance,” to borrow from Ackbar Abbas. Its colonial repertoire has been summarily and justifiably quashed but its function as a capital spigot, particularly from overseas Chinese, has both a real and imagined after-life. While it is no longer a transit point for “coolie” labor, the logic of such practices persist in the way its capital outlays proletarianize Mainland peasants, and hierarchize immigrant labor (the use, for instance, of Filipino women as servants, amah or feiyung). Shanghai may sublate the colonial desires of European machination but all of its mirrored glass and concrete profusion obstinately reminds one of the “positive non-interventionism” of the free-trade zone to the south. Thus, even as it is true that the European/East Asian divergence differentiates the Chinese market, in Hong Kong the specter of consanguinity has existed in the Chinese imaginary for quite some time and it is not easily exorcized by the invocation of a market economy that appears to eschew accumulation by dispossession.

The place of Mao and Maoism also complicates this picture. Arrighi, drawing to some extent on the insights of Wang Hui, positions Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernizations as a program that both repudiates the Cultural Revolution and maintains a dialogue with the socialist tradition in China, in which Mao’s articulation of the revolution remains pivotal. Mao’s Marxism differs crucially from that of Marx and Lenin in that it sees the peasantry as a primary force for progressive social and economic change. Representing the largest migration in human history, the 200 million Chinese peasants who, since 1978, have moved off the land to swell the population of Chinese cities (while creating 600 new ones along the way) have been the engine of economic expansion, raising living standards across the nation while intensifying the de-industrialization of the West.  If they were not exactly a reserve army of labor, they are now certainly the world’s most active one. As Arrighi correctly notes, before 1978 Mao’s policies had rapidly improved agricultural output which in turn aided basic everyday life. The revolution provided a substantial social safety net plus land reforms and regional integration. Sharp increases in literacy and longevity among the peasantry clearly offset the strife of the republican years and those of the late Qing before them. Subsequently, Dengism sought to reconnect with those gains over and above the chaos unleashed by the Cultural Revolution and the calamity of the Great Leap Forward (positive elements of the Cultural Revolution also facilitated this reform, but that is another story).

In addition to Mao’s privileging of the peasantry, Arrighi suggests that another critical contribution of Mao’s was the concept of the “mass line” in which the Party both taught and learned from its peasant base. Certainly Deng maintained the Communist Party’s vanguard status but here Arrighi’s argument comes close to tautology—Mao’s CCP proferred the mass line and since Deng became the leader of the CCP, Maoism was produced in his image. Deng, purged as a “capitalist roader” in the Cultural Revolution (which strongly evoked the mass line), saw the ideological struggles of the Cold War years as a Maoist dead end and, if he began the reforms by tackling the limits of the agricultural models developed under Mao rather than unleashing the labor power of urban workers, this was in part an acknowledgment of the requirements of capital input (and the memory of the pseudo-industrialism of the “Great Leap,” including its disastrous food for weapons program).  The effect of the under-reading of Mao in the actual transition to the Four Modernizations is highly evocative of a false synthesis, the unity of opposites that Mao himself purged from his dialectics. As Mao put it, thinking of the posited unity of the KMT and the CCP, “there is nothing which cannot be severed.”

To the extent that Arrighi’s book eschews a detailed exegesis of the economic practices of China, 1949-1978, it participates in the awkward amnesia that befalls Western commentary on how a communist party came to foster the accumulation models of Apple and Carrefour. In addition, while acknowledging the increasing and intense incidents of Chinese labor protests, Arrighi resists sustained analysis of the movements in play, particularly the difficulties of organizing simultaneously against capitalism and the Communist Party. China weathered the recent global financial crisis not only by restraining its banks in the derivative markets but by aiming its stimulus package squarely at massive labor-absorbing infrastructural projects, a recognition that the claims of labor must be immediately and rapidly assuaged (some estimates suggest China needs a GDP growth of 8% just to absorb new workers coming onto the market). This is not simply a continuation of Maoist doctrine, but a crisis driven by the alignment of the Communist Party with the real contradictions of the global economic order. True, an argument can be made that capitalism is playing China’s game at the risk of fomenting an enlightened socialist order. But then if China steps out of the mass (produced) line, global capitalism might play some of its other ideological cards, including “democracy.” At that moment another lineage, of a class structured in dominance through the state, may re-enter the discourse of reading the market in China. Until then, Arrighi’s provocative and pointed understanding of Adam Smith in Beijing stands as a deeply impressive legacy.

Peter Hitchcock is a Professor in the English Department at the Graduate Center and Baruch College of the City University of New York.  He is also a member of the Certificate Programs in Film Studies and Women’s Studies, and the Associate Director of the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics.  His latest book is The Long Space: Transnationalism and Postcolonial Form (Stanford, 2010).