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Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Long Twentieth Century

The second book for my master thesis Giovanni Arrighi's The Long Twentieth Century definitely was one of the more difficult books I have ploughed through (quite suitable for someone quoting Marx frequently I guess). I also found it to be very interesting even if I am having a hard time figuring out how it applies to my master thesis' specific topic (see today's earlier post). Trying to sum this book up in one blog post seems like a highly audacious task (if not to say vain), but I will try.

Arrighi develops a hegemonic theory based on economic aspects mainly (capital accumulation to be precise). The rise and fall of hegemonic powers according to him relates directly to the development of the capitalist system. Thus, the predominance of high finance determines political power on a world scale. He details this through the rise and fall of (in this order) Genoa, the United Provinces, the United Kingdom and finally the USA. (Just as a sidenote, I will not even pretend to be truly capable of explaining his whole economic argumentation. I have not read Marx, nor Braudel, both of whom he quotes extensively. Plus I went through the book looking for juicy thoughts and ideas that would help me in writing my thesis. Talking about a failed endeavor.) All in all, I have a better understanding of Italian city states as well as the Dutch and British empire than I ever thought necessary. Most interesting is his argument of cyclical hegemons being brought about by the distribution of high finance with the pinnacle of hegemonic power equaling the beginning of the decline. This high point according to him is reached when the respective hegemon increaingly refrains from commerce (trade and industrial production) and instead relies on investments (FDIs in modern terms) as its main source of income. This he calls the stage of financial expansion which "in some sense announce[s][...] its [the hegemons] maturity: it[s] sign of autumn."

Ignoring this historical development, the question is how this applies to today's world. Clearly, American hegemony is in decline (or is anyone still trying to argue with this?) and Arrighi agrees with this. Yet, according to his theory the United States at this point should be financing the rise of some possible new hegemon (China, India? Arrighi focuses on Japan which at that time (1994) made a lot more sense than it does now). Evidently, this is not the case, instead Japanese, Chinese and Arabic investments finance American consumption (and thus indirectly their own growth through gigantic trade imbalances). While this is similar to American support for its hegemonic predecessor during the First and (even more so) Second World War, it Arrighi (as far as I am concerned or maybe better: the way I understood it least) does not succeed to solve this inherent dilemma of a hegemon receiving capital instead of "flows of capital [going] from declining to rising centers." Arguably, the US became the hegemon at some point during the First World War and it was before then that British capital had flowed into the USA. The argument that American hegemony during the 1980s had already declined as much (not brought forward by Arrighi either) as to compare it to the imperial overstretch of Britain after the Second World War runs counter to anything I ever heard about this. Thus, either my understanding of Arrighi is lacking here or his argument is missing an important point.

Finally, Arrighi brings up the interesting development of a separation of military and economic hegemony. He does not focus on this, it is really just a suggestion for a possible future that he brings up, but it seems like a very sensible projection considering the dominance of the American military.

Summing up, I do not really know how this helps me with my thesis. There are interesting ideas in the book, but few of them seem to be directly applicable. Hopefully my next read will be more helpful.


Thomas Oatley said...

I have not read this, but your description and summary make it sound like an attempt to apply Lenin's thesis to all of world history. I might see how it might apply to your thesis.

There is one confusion in your thinking, I think. Capital is a stock of saved income, not a flow of funds. Thus, the fact that China lends to the US is an indication that they have accumulated financial capital. Thus, we are not "receiving capital", they are lending us theirs, which we must repay (plus interest). I am not certain how this is different from US lending to the UK in 1914-1950.

Second, on the living on interest argument. It seems that the US earns a higher average return on its overseas assets than it pays on the debt it owes to foreigners. The gaps is large enough such that our total earnings on foreign assets is greater than our total payments on US assets owned by foreigners. Thus, the US does to a large extent live off returns on accumulated foreign assets, even though we are a net debtor.

It seems, therefore, that the US has become a very large intermediary--borrowing short from the rest of the world and then lending this money back to other borrowers at a longer term and higher rate. Good work if you can get it. But, it does make us vulnerable to "rapid changes in market sentiment." (google: From World Banker to World Venture Capitalist: The US External Adjustment and The Exorbitant Privilege).

Sorry this is so long. Your summary just got me thinking.

Sensemania said...

I thought that the UK invested heavily around the world more before the 1st World War, than after it. While it was still the hegemon thus and not after it had effectively lost this position. If the UK after 1914 still lent money to the US that of course wouldn't be any different, I just didn't know that that was the case.

The way I understood the argument was that the declining hegemon lends money to the rising one. And that would be different nowadays. Except of course that I had no idea that this interest gap exists, even if it clearly makes sense considering that most of the inflows go into government bonds (right?), Ferguson mentions that in his book too actually.