Friday, November 13, 2009

Tom Reifer's Tribute to Giovanni Arrighi

After writing my previous post, I found Tom Reifer's tribute to Giovanni Arrighi, entitled "Capital's Cartographer," in The New Left Review, November-December 2009. Arrighi, an economist and sociologist, is one of the originators of world-systems analysis, and his book Adam Smith in Beijing (Verso, 2007) is one of the more original contributions to understanding the turbulence of our times. I read the book in June of this year (that month, Arrighi succumbed to cancer), and still, I've been trying to get my head around the ambitious scope of the book.

Arrighi, with his co-author Beverly Silver, over a decade ago, had foreseen that the expansion of global finance
of the last twenty years or so is neither a new stage of world capitalism nor the harbinger of a ‘coming hegemony of global markets’. Rather, it is the clearest sign that we are in the midst of a hegemonic crisis. As such, the expansion can be expected to be a temporary phenomenon that will end more or less catastrophically.
The hegemonic crisis in question is precisely that of the United States, and they warned that the US had unprecedented capacity to turn its power to "exploitative dominion." Iraq, maybe? Afghanistan? But, as Reifer notes,
In Adam Smith in Beijing, Arrighi returned to many of these issues in light of the re-emergence of a Chinese-centred East Asia and America’s reckless gamble to continue its hegemonic reign with the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Rather than heralding a new age of US hegemony, as its advocates hoped, Arrighi emphasized how the ambitions of the Project for the New American Century, whose members staffed key positions in the Bush White House, ironically increased the long-term likelihood that the 21st century will be the age of Asia.
That is as good of a summary of the book as I can think of, especially because it underlines that Arrighi sees hegemony as reinforced by military means, something that is often neglected or minimized by economists and sociologists (this, he argued, included Marx). I would recommend reading Reifer's tribute, if not Arrighi's work, to understand these developments. As Reifer states,
Adam Smith in Beijing, like its predecessors, is a difficult and ambitious book; not because it is poorly written—Giovanni’s prose was exemplary in its lucidity—but because of the density of its analysis and the scope of its ambitions.
Nevertheless, I don't think that should turn non-specialists away from the book. It is probably one of the more influential texts on how I think about global politics today (along with David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism), because economics is not separate from politics. We should reject the idea that economics is something self-contained that must be handled by experts, specifically because these experts work to reinforce their own power. Instead, do two things: in criticism, treat economics like anything else, that is, a system of social relationships; and in practice, not be afraid to call for heavy reform and regulation to make the system more stable and equitable.

However, while acknowledging that economics is not our expertise, we should still aim to inform ourselves and think critically about its relationship to global politics or world-systems. This is the importance of works by thinkers such as Giovanni Arrighi. The next step, that I have been thinking about off-and-on lately, is incorporating this kind of sociology/anthropology/economics approach into recent takes on hegemony (Laclau) and ideology (Zizek). My thesis is that the "Lacanian" turn, while it contributes to understanding how desire works in subjective identification, does not address the structural force played by violence and economics.

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