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Book Review


Frank, Andre Gunder. ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). 416 pp, $24.95.

     In ReOrient, Andre Gunder Frank challenges the prevalent Eurocentric discourse in the social sciences, and especially the historiography espousing the primacy of Europe in the early modern world. His main thesis centers on the appearance of a 'horizontally integrative' world system that emerged long before 1500 CE, the supposed watershed mark for the 'Rise of the West.' Frank persuasively argues that the pre-modern and non-Western 'world system' had roots in the Bronze Age. In this continuity of a structure that held the major reins of world affairs economically, Frank also recognizes a 'cyclical' element. The combination of the notion of a primordial world system together with its cyclical nature, where dominance and influence waxed and waned in different geographical situations, forms the core of Frank's contribution in this book. 1
     Wallerstein had initially defined world system as 'a world-economy' that is integrated through the market rather than through the agency of a political center. Two or more regions emerge interdependent in this scheme and one area is rarely the center. Wallerstein also posited that the organization of a world system leads to multicultural territorial division of labor – leading to a core and periphery. This background on Wallersteinian world system is necessary to understand the revisions and changes that Frank brings in his model of world system in ReOrient. For him, a single Afro-Eurasian world system goes back at least 5000 years. This continuity thesis also calls for 'a world economy' with long-distance trade relations forming the mainstay of this system as opposed to 'world-economy' characterized by European 'exceptionalism' starting from the 15th century. Frank further argues that alternation between hegemony and rivalry is characteristic of the world system and, finally, that long economic cycles of ascending and descending phases of prosperity lie beneath economic growth in the world system. This temporal extension of the world system and incorporation of the whole Afro-Eurasian boundaries within it does give a global entity to the concept of world system in contrast with Wallerstein's world system, where the scope was constricted both spatially and temporally. 2
     In Chapters 2 and 3, Frank reveals the true nature of the world economy and contends that in the period between 1400 and 1800, the world system was mainly dominated by China. This statement is also different from Wallerstein's idea of a world system 'controlled' by Europe after 1500. Frank takes particular care in differentiating between the concepts of 'control' and 'domination.' During this period, there was nothing exceptional about Europe in its ability to dominate world trade. For Frank, 'Europe was exceptional by its exceptional marginality.' The economic hegemony of Europe started in 1750 and is destined to be short lived. During the period 1400-1800, Europe was neither more important in world economy nor, advanced, nor, any 'core' of any world system. Frank advances 'resurgence thesis' of China and believes before long the present domination and control of Europe will be eclipsed by Chinese growth and hegemony. 3
     In Chapter 4, Frank demonstrates that some of the main items of trade were produced and controlled by Asia. India was the foremost textile producer until the middle industrial revolution and was only surpassed by China in the domain of silk production. Apart from silk, the Chinese also dominated the trade in porcelain and enjoyed positive trade balances over Europe in the exchange of commodities. After the industrial revolution, Europe did assume more power in world technological development. However, Frank recognizes the reasons behind this technological development in the structure of the world economy/system itself. Frank argues, 'it is not true that technological or any other "development" was essentially determined either locally. Regionally, nationally, or culturally.' (205) He recognizes this eventual anomalous technological imbalance to 'a world economic process.' Thus the eventual 'rise' of the West was 'the global, regional, and sectoral consequences of the structure and dynamic of the whole world economy itself.' (225) It is easy to confuse Frank's arguments as inherently biased and almost 'Sinocentric.' However, his insistence that the global economy/ system was continuous and a unified unit makes it clear that even local developments were manifestations of global fluctuations. This recognition of the global unit as an organic whole is Frank's stubborn and persistent message in this book. 4
     Frank vehemently argues that the eventual rise of the West in 1750 (not in 1500) was not due to European exceptionalism but rather due to factors lying outside Europe. This assertion bashes the traditional ethnocentric social science theory starting from Marx and Weber. These social scientists, followed by historians in the last century, saw an important and peculiar exceptionalism behind the rise of the West. In this view, Europe was superior and just required the 'bridging' brought about by the 'Age of Discoveries.' Frank argues that West 'rose' in 1750 precisely because that was the time when the Eastern empires fell simultaneously. The fall of the Safavids, the Mughals and the declining influence of the Chinese created a situation amenable for Europe to rise. At the same time the injection of American silver produced a positive feedback in the European economic system leading to the industrial revolution. Thus, the external contradictions of the world system brought about the global European influence. Reasons for European supremacy from the 18th century onwards, therefore, should not be sought in 'moral timbre' and 'protestant work ethics.' 5
      Frank contends that Asia declined in the eighteenth century because of the termination of a long 'A' phase in the economic cycle. While Asia entered the 'B' phase after 1750, Europe entered an ascending 'A' phase. According to Frank (drawing from Kondratieff Cycle and others), capital accumulation and changes in center-periphery positions within it are all cyclical. Frank identifies alternate 'A' and 'B' phases in the world system right from the 3rd millennium BC. In his opinion, during Asia's A phase, roughly between 1400 and 1750, the economic and social structure did not allow conditions amenable for a demand of mass products, making industrial revolution in Asia unnecessary. The influence of the alternate cyclical economic growth on different parts of the world at the same time, Frank argues, demonstrates a deeper structural unity of the world system. 6
     ReOrient's chief achievement is in its development of a consistent critique of both received Eurocentric historiography as well as of the Wallersteinian model of world systems. Frank's recognition of a continuous structural unity of the world from the Bronze Age envisions the global economy as an organic whole. His conceptual framework is an attractive way of looking at World History for the last 5000 years. However, in reality when connecting discrete localized historical data with this universalistic model, historians would be faced with a plethora of problems. Besides, Frank's contention that Europe's rise to eminence was accentuated by the cyclical ebb of Asiatic economic status is problematic. Since the cyclical nature of the systemic unity is used to explain concurrent global events, the simultaneous rise of the West and decline of the East cannot be explained by the same model. Frank himself recognizes this limitation but does not develop it any further. That said, ReOrient is a giant leap toward applications of world systemic apparatus to historical inquiry and makes significant historiographical and theoretical contributions to the field. ReOrient will be considered a classic by posterity. 7
Amitava Chowdhury
Washington State University

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