August 10, 2011

A sign of autumn


For Arrighi, the history of global capitalism can be understood as a spiral, at once recursive and expansive. At the scale of the world and across long waves of global development, its cycles integrate the ebb and swell of states and markets and take on familiar and even predictable patterns; in the passage from cycle to cycle, however, uncertainty is the only emperor.

In his telling, there have been four “cycles of accumulation,” each with its own imperial leader. In each period of something more than 100 years, a leading nation is able to organize the larger sphere toward its own interests — sometimes via force, but in main because it serves the interests of other states and enterprises to align themselves with the leader, a kind of influence known variously as hegemony, soft power, or neo-imperialism.

The four “long centuries” have been led by Genoa, the Dutch, the British, and the United States. Some things about this grouping are surprising, including the earliest: We are more used to recalling the glory of Venice and Florence than we are the Ligurian republic of shipbuilders. Other commonalities are plain enough, such as the reminder that the British East and West Indian Companies were cover versions of the Dutch innovation.

Most striking and most dramatic is the discovery that each of these long centuries has itself been divided into three phases, choreographically consistent: a merchant phase based on trade, followed by a phase of industrial expansion, and finally a period of financialization, in which economic vitality moves to the banking sector. It is a febrile vitality indeed, burning hot and fading away; the shift to finance is always, in Braudel’s lovely phrase, “a sign of autumn.” And when the finance era runs its course, so does the empire.

This, finally, is the crux of the book: the discovery “that the financial expansion that came to characterize the global economy in the closing decades of the twentieth century was not a new phenomenon but a recurrent tendency of historical capitalism from its earliest beginnings.” It is this that grants us some purchase on the mercurial catastrophe of the last couple of years. We should not think of the rule and ruin of Wall Street as a novel historical fact; Genoa, after all, invented modern banking, and Amsterdam saw the first stock market. In the British Empire’s dotage, the City of London became financier to the world (in The Dial in 1922 the ever-grumpy T.S. Eliot described the cosmopole as “a little bookkeeper grown old”).

The schematic quality of Arrighi’s history, seductive as it is, has also summoned skepticism. Does it not promise a sort of eternal return, the same shape repeating irrevocably — in a manner that seems discordant, to say the least, with the shifting course and deeply variegated texture of history, its subjective influences and contingent character, and its essential unknowability?

Arrighi’s postscript to the new edition, written shortly before his death, addresses these doubts directly by pointing out that he had never in fact offered such a parade of the endless same. Yes, there is a three-staged cycle that keeps coming around. But each time, it recurs at a larger and more complex scale, internalizing new costs of protection or transaction, making a more efficient order of things. Each arises from a successively larger base, with more resources and more population: from the Italian city-state to the nation-state and eventually to the continental state of the US. And in turn the reach of each empire is broader, spiraling outward toward the only real spatial limit, the arc of the globe itself. This is what globalization means, after all; it has been in motion for quite some time, but has now perhaps reached some sort of limit. We recall the preceding cycles not to mutter about how there is nothing new under the sun. We reach back into the tradition so as to better reflect on our present predicament.

- Joshua Clover on Giovanni Arrighi. The rest of the article can be found here.


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