Friday, October 31, 2014

The End of the Long Twentieth Century? 

The Rise of China and the Possibilities of a New 

Global Fordism

Nick Jepson
It is now 20 years since the publication of Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Centurya highly influential and ambitious work charting the evolution of global capitalism over five centuries. Arrighi’s account posits the history of capitalism as a series of secular cycles, each consisting of expansionary material and financial phases. Every cycle is led by a hegemonic state, which houses an alliance of capitalist and governmental agencies best placed among various competitors to create the conditions for a stable profitable investment regime. The incipient hegemon’s competitive advantages over rivals (organizational, technological, geographical, etc.) gradually allow its capitalists to become the central actors in and beneficiaries of the most profitable circuits of accumulation. The dynamism of the hegemonic state-capital alliance drives (uneven) growth across the world-system as a whole, meaning that, generally speaking, the interests of all other capitalist actors become increasingly tied to supporting continued processes of hegemonic expansion. This tends to establish periods of relatively stable systemic growth, the material phase, which are eventually progressively undermined by their own contradictions. As returns on productive expansion under the organizational paradigm instituted by the hegemon diminish, capital begins to pull out of these activities and retreat into finance, in search of higher returns. The ensuing phase of financial expansion constitutes a brief belle époque in which the power of the hegemon appears to be resurgent. This proves illusory, however, as the financial expansion, not underpinned by growth in the real economy but in fact predicated upon an undermining of the bases of real growth, tends towards instability and quickly generates crisis. In turn, declining returns to financial capital promote a search for investment opportunities in a rising state-capitalist bloc that possesses the most advantages under the new conjuncture, eventually emerging as the new hegemon and providing the basis for another round of material expansion.

Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century is an almost unfathomably ambitious and 
complex work. Its monumentality derives from Arrighi’s conviction that the best way to handicap 
the possible futures of the world capitalist geo-economy is to analyze the structural evolution of 
this global system, an evolution spanning more than five centuries; the genius of the work rests in 
the distinctive approach that Arrighi takes. At the core of his approach is the identification of 
those long-term trends and accreted characteristics – one might call them “systemic 
contradictions” – that promise to send the world capitalist geo-economy in a radically different 
developmental direction as US hegemony wanes. Arrighi’s assessment of these contradictions 
compel him to make a provocative suggestion: in all likelihood, no singular concentration of state 
and economic power possesses the territorial scale or the organizational capacities required to 
lead the global system through another round of restructuring and expansion. Properly framed, 
this illuminating insight could serve as the starting point for a theoretical exploration of the 
socio-ecological constraints to global capitalist reproduction, but such is a journey (mostly) not 
taken by Arrighi in The Long Twentieth Century. In fact, to the degree that he subsequently 
contemplates the prospect of a China-centered reconstitution of the world geo-economy, Arrighi 
marginalizes the question of global systemic contradictions altogether.

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