Magazine article Monthly Review

Economic History and the 'East Wind': Challenges to Eurocentrism

Magazine article Monthly Review

Economic History and the 'East Wind': Challenges to Eurocentrism

Article excerpt

Framing the Problem

Given the breathtaking speed of contemporary geopolitical and geoeconomic turmoil and strategic realignments, the task is to understand the process and to project the contours of the future world structure.1 This is especially difficult, as global neoliberalism and rentier capitalism have gained a monopoly position in the realm of economic thought and implementation.

Playing a significant role in this evolution were the demise of the Soviet Union and the transition to "socialism with Chinese characteristics" following the death of Mao Zedong. Former ways of interpreting capitalism, imperialism, and socialist construction have not yet recovered from the "victory" of neoliberalism. Nevertheless, the way we frame the existing world order/disorder determines our understanding of the ongoing transformations that are bound to shape the future global landscape.

Methodologically, such an assessment cannot be a neutral endeavor, since scholars are products of specific intellectual environments and sociopolitical norms. The attempt by the German sociologist Max Weber to establish "value-free" (Wertfreiheit) social science was duly deconstructed in the 1960s by the Swedish development economist Gunnar Myrdal, who argued that neutrality in social sciences is impossible, and that researchers should acknowledge as much.

Economic history, like other social sciences, is dominated by competing ideological agendas that in turn reflect power relations. History evolves as an objective process, but is necessarily interpreted in an ideological and normative manner.

The ongoing historical process that points to a decline of Western dominance over the capitalist world system and the concurrent rise of Asia demands a deconstruction of the accepted wisdom concerning "historical capitalism" as the product of the "European miracle." The competing narrative to this hegemonic discourse concerning the trajectory of Western capitalism is still in its early stages, but has regained heuristic validity with the evolution of the Asian challenge in recent decades.

The Historical Ascendency of Western Capitalism

In our view, any analysis of the rise of "historical capitalism" has to begin with the dialectical relationship between the "West" and the "rest" that took shape from the very beginning of capitalism. Even though this assumption has found few adherents in the European cultural sphere, it is crucial to establishing an epistemology of contemporary global political economy.

Here it is worth remembering that no less a figure than Adam Smith acknowledged, in The Wealth of Nations (1776), that Europe had been a latecomer in social development compared to the Middle Kingdom in China, and that both had been moving along a similar trajectory. Smith also realized that contact with the non-European world had driven the early development of the capitalist world system: "The discovery of America, and that of the passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the greatest events recorded in the history of mankind."2 At the same time, he expressed skepticism with regard to the rewards this contact would bring to the non-European peoples. Modern economic history has not invalidated this insight: "To the natives, however, both of the East and the West Indies, all the commercial benefits, which can have resulted from these events have been sunk and lost in the dreadful misfortunes which they have occasioned.... What benefits, or what misfortunes may hereafter result from these great events, no human wisdom can foresee."3

At the opposite end of the ideological spectrum and almost a century later, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels considered capitalism as capable of releasing productive forces on a scale never seen before that would incorporate the entire globe. This is clearly expressed in The Communist Manifesto.

Nevertheless, both authors of The Communist Manifesto, as anticapitalist scholars, also expressed the dialectical notion that the inclusion and development of the Chinese nation, while reinforcing capitalism in the short term, would threaten it in the longer term. …

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