Arrighi: “The Long Twentieth Century”


Richard Moore

Giovanni Arrighi, "The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the 
Origins of Our Times", Verso, UK, 1994, paperback.

10 May 2007  -  "ARRIGHI: Hegemony Unravelling - 2" (written in 2005)


If you want to understand capitalism, and how it has evolved 
historically, then I highly recommend Arrighi's material. The article 
"Hegemony Unravelling -2" gives a good introduction to his thinking, 
and also brings us partly up to date, vis a vis the rise of China. 
The book describes the systematic process of capital accumulation 
that began to dominate global affairs in the 14th Century, and traces 
the process up to 1994.

Here's a review from the Amazon website:
Giovanni Arrighi's text is the most under-rated as well as the most 
brilliant of all theoretical works on historical capitalism and its 
futures. Unlike the claims of recent scholars like Hardt and Negri, 
the text is NOT about one historical cycle succeeding another. Such a 
claim is one of the worst examples of intellectual misrepresentation 
that I have ever come across. Their own work ('Empire' and then 
'Multitude') are vain and failed attempts to come to terms with 
Arrighi's work.

As a student of Marx, Braudel, and Schumpeter, Arrighi knows better 
than most that no two systemic cycles are ever the same. Each one not 
only ruptures the world system, it also creates conditions for its 
own supersession, in what Arrighi, drawing upon Braudel, calls 
'financial expansions', and what David Harvey following Arrighi, 
calls 'accumulation by dispossession'. By drawing insightful 
comparisons between four long systemic cycles starting with the 
medieval Genoese financial expansion, Arrighi demonstrates the 
novelty of the cycle underlying the long twentieth century as well as 
pointing to what lies ahead.

This is an absolute must read for anyone interested in capitalism, 
the interstate system, the social movements (though here the text is 
somewhat deficient), and the possibility of a future different from 
the lackluster present. Arrighi's work is simultaneously historical 
and theoretical (theory after all comes from a deep grasp of 
historical currents). Although much misunderstood, misinterpreted, 
and misrepresented, and often appropriated without adequate 
acknowledgement, The Long Twentieth Century is destined to become the 
classic work of the 21st century.

Ten years after it first came out, almost all of Arrighi's 
predictions are turning out to be accurate, so much so that his 
school of imitators is becoming as vast as his train of never-ending 
admirers. To those who like large meta-narratives that combine 
spatial dynamics with temporal rhythms - and there are only a few out 
there (Marx, Weber, Braudel, Schumpeter, Perry Anderson, Michael 
Mann, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Charles Tilly)- Arrighi's work will 
be the unsurpassable horizon of our times. Arrighi is a 
master-synthesizer. One of the challenges he raises is the question 
of synthesis itself. What is entailed in the act of synthesizing 
without distorting particulars, is the capacity to give each 
particular its due (as if that were ever possible!). Arrighi's deep 
compassion for the struggles to bring about a different global future 
guide much of his architecture. Unlike many who call themselves 
socialists, Arrighi carries none of their presumptuous and often 
ridiculous baggage.

To read this text is like experiencing a breath of fresh air after so 
many sterile polemics on the Left. It is a tall order to go beyond 
the Long twentieth century. Future attempts will invariably find 
themselves repeating an insight already developed in some obscure 
page of the Long Twentieth Century. It is the challenge of the 21st 
to come up with something at least as good as the offering of the 
Calabrian maestro.

* Dominance vs. Hegemony

Arrighi makes an interesting distinction between "dominance" and 
"hegemony". A "hegemon" not only dominates affairs, but also provides 
a leadership that is recognized, to some extent, as being beneficial 
to the powers that are being dominated. During the Cold War era, for 
example, the US was hegemonic -- the leading powers of the 'Free 
World' saw the US as playing a stabilizing role, and offering 
protection from expansion of the Communist block. Since 9/11, and the 
unilateral invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has remained 
dominant, but its role as hegemon has been rapidly deteriorating.

* Systemic Cycles of Accumulation

The core of Arrighi's analysis is what he calls "systemic cycles of 
accumulation". There have been four of these cycles, with hegemony 
centered first in Genoa, then Holland, Britain, and the US. The 
cycles overlap with one another -- the declining phase of one cycle 
becomes the birth phase of the next. The last quarter of the 19th 
Century, for example, was simultaneously the "grand moment" of 
Britain, and the beginning of power transfer to the US. The US is now 
in its declining phase, and a new cycle of accumulation is beginning 
-- with China as the new potential hegemon.

Each cycle is both the same and different than the preceding ones. 
All cycles are the same, in that they begin with an expansion of 
production and commerce, and decline when the hegemon begins to focus 
on financial manipulations. All cycles are different, in that each 
successive cycle is centered on a larger-scale hegemon, and each 
introduces a new organizing principle for the global economy.

Genoa rose to the level of hegemon through a synergistic relationship 
with Spain. Spain had the armies and fleets and did the conquering, 
while Genoa provided the financing and disposed of the silver being 
brought in from the New World. Genoa itself was always a very small 
power, a mere city state. Hegemony over the global economy was 
exercised not by Genoa as a 'state', but rather by a network of 
Genoese bankers and merchants who were spread throughout Europe. On 
the surface, it appeared that Spain was the dominant power, and 
that's how historians generally describe that era. But in fact it was 
the Genoese diaspora that made the system work, and who accumulated 
most of the gains.

Eventually, and this happens in every cycle, the very success of the 
Genoese created the circumstances that led to their decline. The 
scale of the global economy grew to the point where the Genoese were 
no longer in a position to control it. While the Genoese continued to 
be financial players, hegemony passed to the Dutch Provinces.

The critical difference between the Genoese cycle, and the Dutch 
cycle, is what Arrighi calls the "internalization of protection". 
While Spain provided "protection" for the global economic system 
during the Genoese cycle, the Dutch had their own fleets and army, 
and were able to provide their own "protection". With their larger 
scale, and their own protection, the Dutch were better able to manage 
the expanded global economy that the Genoese were instrumental in 
creating. The transfer of hegemony was assisted by the Genoese 
themselves, as they increasingly found that investing in the Dutch 
Provinces offered the most profitable financial returns.

In the transition to British hegemony, the critical new element was 
"internalization of production". While the Dutch had engaged in 
commerce and finance, and had their own protection, they did very 
little production of their own. Britain meanwhile was emulating the 
successful practices of the Dutch and, with its own growing 
production capacity, Britain eventually came to be in a better 
position to take control of the still-expanding global capitalist 
economy. And as with the Genoese before them, the Dutch assisted in 
the transition as more and more Dutch capital was drawn to London, 
where the highest returns could be obtained.

In the transition to US hegemony, the critical new element was the 
"internalization of transaction costs", enabled by the 
vertically-integrated corporation, of which John D. Rockefeller's 
Standard Oil was the archetype. By managing every transaction within 
the corporation, from the acquisition of raw resources through to the 
distribution of final products, this new corporate form achieved a 
decisive competitive advantage. As in the previous cycles, Britain 
itself provided much of the investment funding that led to the 
emergence of US hegemony.

The latest cycle of accumulation, increasingly centered on China, 
emphasizes the incorporation of cheap labor. This is by no means a 
new element in capitalism, but as cheap labor becomes increasingly 
important in the global economy, Asia has a clear competitive 
advantage. Again, the new potential hegemon (China) is much larger 
(geographically and in population) than the preceding one (the US). 
Again, it is the US that created the global economic environment that 
has nurtured the rise of China. And again, we see the new 
accumulation center arising with a focus on production and commerce, 
while the declining capitalist clique depends increasingly on 
financial manipulation for its economic survival.

* Capital Accumulation vs. State Power

Over the lifetimes of these cycles, Arrighi traces the relationship 
between capital accumulation on the one hand, and "state making" and 
"war making" activities on the other.  The Genoese were exclusively 
capital accumulators, with no state powers of any consequence. The 
Dutch had a respectable scale of state powers, but it was the British 
who developed the capacity to directly administer a global-scale 
empire through the exercise of state power and war making, while at 
the same time functioning as the global center of capital 
accumulation. The US in its turn did not actually conquer a global 
empire, rather it gained hegemony over the empire Britain had 
developed, but under modified regimes of economics and management.

The question now before  us, and Arrighi develops this theme in the 
article cited at the top, is whether or not we will see the full 
development of another cycle of accumulation. From a capitalist 
perspective, the US cycle is clearly in a state of irreversible 
decline. While the de-industrialized US runs up record deficits and 
adverse trade imbalances, China, with immense cash reserves, is 
moving to the fore as the center of global production and commerce. 
 From this capitalist perspective, the baton of hegemony is rapidly 
moving from West to East.

However, from a state-power perspective, the US still retains 
overwhelming military superiority. In addition, Washington continues 
to exercise considerable leadership within elite Western capitalist 
circles (as reflected in Bilderberger activities). Can US elites 
resist the tides of capitalist dynamics? Can they retain global 
dominance using the raw military power of the Pentagon? Can they 
regain hegemony with the help of their elite European allies?

(At this point I depart from Arrighi and continue with speculations 
based partly on Arrighi, and partly on other sources.)

When the neocons took over the White House, by means of election 
fraud, they came in with a two-part strategy aimed at global 
dominance. Part 1, enabled by their 9/11 project, was an attempt to 
gain decisive control over global oil supplies using their war-making 
capabilities. Part 2, under the rubric of 'UN reform', was an attempt 
to create  a US-dominated one-world government using their diplomatic 
influence and state-making capabilities.

Part 1, aka 'Agenda for a New American Century', has been so far a 
dismal failure. Iraq has turned into a quagmire, the CIA-sponsored 
'colored revolutions' have been partially reversed, and China and 
Russia have responded by forming a close alliance. Note:

     10 May 2006   Engdahl: USA's "geopolitical nightmare"

Part 2 (one-world government), in the face of Chinese and Russian 
opposition, has little chance of success.

US elites, however, show no signs of giving up their attempt to 
retain / regain dominance. Rather than abandoning their military 
aggression, they are seeking to develop a first-strike nuclear 
capability to be used against Russia and China. We see this in their 
space-weapons programs and in their missile 'defense' installations. 
These missile 'defenses' would be of little value in a nuclear 
exchange -- unless the Pentagon succeeds in wiping out most of the 
opposing strategic capability by means of a first strike. Note:

     21 Feb 2007   * William Engdahl: Putin and the Geopolitics of the 
New Cold War *

     28 Apr 2007   US Must Maintain Superiority In Space Says General Hamel

This first-strike strategy is by no means certain of success. Russia 
retains a formidable strategic capability and is keeping a close eye 
on US developments. China is rapidly upgrading its own weapons 
systems, with an emphasis on asymmetric warfare. China has also 
demonstrated recently the ability to knock-out satellites. We are in 
the midst of a new arms race, and it is not clear that the US can 
achieve a decisive lead, enough to pull off a first strike without 
suffering unacceptable damage. The outcome of this race remains in 

It now appears that the US is also pursuing a backup strategy, based 
on its state-making capabilities, but falling short of a one-world 
government. Part of this strategy is focused on North America, and 
part on the EU. In North America, and ignored by the corporate media, 
a union of Canada, the US, and Mexico is being rapidly stitched 
together. This union would of course be dominated by US elites, and 
it is an attempt to slightly lessen the scale advantage of Asia, vis 
a vis the US.  Mexico brings in a mass of cheap labor, and Canada 
brings in considerable natural resources.

With regard to the EU, and with the help of its Bilderberger friends, 
US elites are seeking to bring the EU closer to the US orbit, and to 
prevent the EU from developing closer ties with Russia and China. It 
was Bilderberger support that got Merkel into office in Germany, and 
the new right-wing, US-leaning leader in France seems to have gotten 
there by means of voter-machine election fraud (ditto the recent 
Scottish elections). These covert methods are necessary because the 
US agenda makes little sense for the EU generally, although it may 
make sense to European capitalist elites who seek to retain Western 

This state-making backup strategy, if it succeeds, would result in 
two major power blocks, Russia + China, and Enlarged US + Europe. It 
would presumably also result in an end to cycles of accumulation as 
we have known them.



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