Dog Days Classics: Revisiting the Long Twentieth Century

Today we begin to look at more recent works that influenced us — at least “recent” in historians’ terms, which in this case means 1994.  Last week we looked at classics like The American Political Tradition (1948) and Orientalism (1978).  Today we go all the way back to Renaissance Genoa to find the origins of the current capitalist death-spiral (or, as the Germans say, the pharfignewton) in Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times (1994).

Historians have a habit of expanding and contracting time to suit their schema – there is the “short twentieth century,” the “long sixties,” and so forth, to capture a cultural or political moment that does not quite fit a temporal boundary like a decade or century. Americans may be more prone to this than others, given our obsession with defining history in terms of decades, even when the actual events and trends of history don’t conform – certainly, the years between 1965 and 1975 or 1978 and 1988 seem to have more in common than the years of the Sixties or Seventies do as a cohesive unit. Similarly, the depressive, grungey early Nineties have never seemed to be of a piece with the teenybopping, tech-booming late Nineties.

The late Giovanni Arrighi, a star of the political economy scene at SUNY-Binghamton and Johns Hopkins, was the kind of guy who had no taste for decadism. A Marxist with an eye for the big picture, he followed the lead of Fernand Braudel by framing history in terms of grand processes and huge tracts of time. He also collaborated with Immanuel Wallerstein, the sociologist who coined the term “world-systems” to describe the coherent, interrelated web of dependency and exploitation that characterizes the world economy in any given era; as the balance of powers and the sources of wealth shift, one world-system gives way to a new one. Arrighi belonged to the school of thought that saw incidents like the Cold War or the Scramble for Africa as mere political episodes in the much bigger scheme of capitalism’s development since it emerged as an economic system in the Italian city-states of the Renaissance and gradually moved its center of power to the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and finally the United States. “The long twentieth century” was the era when the US rose and fell as the fulcrum in the capitalist world economy, with 1970 allegedly the moment when US power went into terminal decline and American capitalism turned from productive growth to cannibalize its own wealth through financial speculation – just as the British and Dutch had done before them.

If this sounds like heady and grandiose stuff, that’s because it is. Especially for a first-year grad student who knew Marx 101 and not a lot more. I encountered Arrighi’s book in Carol Gluck’s “Telling the Twentieth Century” class at Columbia, in my first semester. It was paired for the first week with Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes, the fourth in his brilliant series on world history since the eighteenth century. Gluck chose these two because Hobsbawm coined the idea of the “short twentieth century,” arguing that a distinct historical epoch stretched from 1914 (the beginning of the world war that would spawn the Bolshevik Revolution) to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Everything after was the start of a new era, while the outbreak of WWI shattered the belle époque of capitalist expansion and relative peace that had reigned in Europe for much of the late nineteenth century (i.e. “the long nineteenth century”). In the same way that you might say the Sixties didn’t really begin until the March on Washington or the Beatles performed on Ed Sullivan, the twentieth century did not really begin until the triumph of Communism in Russia began to define the course of world events for the rest of era. For Hobsbawm, a committed partisan of the British Communist Party, history was defined ultimately in political terms, in the troubled life of the Marxist project and the ultimate failure of its contest with Western capitalism. As a Marxist, he still saw big economic processes driving change all over the world, but as a historian he framed time politically.

For Arrighi, long economic cycles of growth, expansion and speculation were what really shaped history, while the fortunes of presidents, nations and empires unfolded as a rich pageant in the foreground. For instance, the Vietnam War was an epic tragedy cooked up by politicians and generals in Washington, DC, not by vast economic forces; but failure in the war was the midwife of a near-inevitable decline, which showed that the US economic model had exhausted its productive possibilities and American hegemony over the world’s political and economic affairs was no longer assured. In an age of rising competition and diminishing returns, “financialization” ensued, as money was reinvested in money over and over again, creating the fictitious, debt-driven kind of growth of the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush years – the bubble that just burst, with such ruinous effects on people throughout the world.

Arrighi wrote The Long Twentieth Century in 1994, and it has justifiably become considered a classic. By tracing capitalism’s arc from Genoa to Foggy Bottom, he seemed to forecast the epic collapse of 2008, pointing out the flimsy basis of much economic growth since the crisis of the 1970s. Yes, advances in telecommunications, particularly the Internet, did generate real gains in productivity during the 1990s, which Arrighi could not have foreseen when he was writing his magnum opus (gains that Tiny Tower and Facebook are steadily trying to erase); also, the opening of the Second World, the old Communist domain behind the Iron Curtain, created new vistas for capitalist accumulation that had previously been unavailable, offering a temporary, feel-good shot-in-the-arm to the world system. Capitalism is still hunting for the next source of unexploited wealth, and in the last book of his career, Adam Smith in Beijing, Arrighi gave a rather optimistic take on the shift of capitalist power from the West to the East, the beginning of a new and different cycle of production and speculation. (The new center of the world economy would not be Japan, as expected in the 1980s, but China.)

I quit Gluck’s class after the first week, but I failed to take Hobsbawm or Arrighi back to Labyrinth Books in time to get a refund. So the books sat on my shelf for several years before I decided to give them a try, and eventually The Long Twentieth Century‘s lovely cover image by Paul Klee drew me back in. I was writing about a long twentieth century of sorts, looking at the rise of music piracy since the dawn of sound recording in the 1880s, and I was keen to see a different interpretation on the period. Arrighi offered a grand synthesis of Marx, Braudel, Wallerstein, Schumpeter and many others who have tried to figure out how capitalism works; as Joel Suarez argued on this site before, Arrighi offers a radically different take than Judith Stein, who also wrote about the shift of the US economy toward finance in the 1970s and 1980s but attributed the change almost entirely to political machinations and the ins-and-outs of tax policy. Surely the amount of depreciation that the IRS lets companies write off on their manufacturing equipment is not the driving force of economic history – important, yes, but not the lever that moved the world.

On the other hand, Arrighi’s approach makes the policies of LBJ, Carter, or Reagan seem completely incidental to the grander sweep of economic forces, where one politician gets credit for the much longer evolving and almost predetermined turns of economic expansion and contraction that happen to occur during his term in office. I have heard conservatives like Rush Limbaugh argue that it takes “twelve years” for economic policies to have an impact – the point being that the economic boom under Clinton was obviously the result of Reagan’s policies – but Arrighi is thinking in far bigger terms, ones that make the twists of economics and domestic policy seem even crueler and more capricious. Certainly Barack Obama seems to be the prisoner of global economic forces beyond his control. As Arrighi would have it, he is merely overseeing the imperial decline of the US, where the animal spirits of capitalism have no more life in them and can no longer reawaken the domestic economy.

This approach is helpful to the extent that it causes us to take a step back and realize that every law that is passed or every election that is won or every social movement that emerges (hi, Black Power; hello, Tea Party) is the most important factor defining the subsequent course of events. As Braudel sought to show in his epic study, The Mediterranean, time moves at the level of daily politics, larger-scale economic shifts, and much vaster climatic and geological change all at once. But reading Arrighi one wonders what difference one president or one citizen can do to change anything, seeing as we are caught up in the centuries-long grinding of world capitalism. Not to get all chaos theory on the poor readers who have made it this far, but one really good sniper in Zawiyah tomorrow could take out a number of Libyan rebels, who might have been crucial for planning and executing an assault on Tripoli, which gives Muammar Gaddafi enough breathing room to shore up his forces and survive until NATO allies lose heart and give up the campaign, which humiliates Barack Obama and David Cameron and adds to the political misfortunes that ultimately result in their failure in the next election, which… you get the point.

Cyclically insignificant

There is some room, but not a lot, for such a sniper in The Long Twentieth Century. As excellent as the book is, it leaves a reader asking, “Is that all there is?” It also calls to mind Marx’s famous saying that men make their own history, but not under circumstances of their own choosing. Arrighi’s worldview might be better rephrased as, Economics makes its own history, but not with the men of its own choosing. In any case, there might be room for one really good sniper to make history in the long twenty-first century that has only now begun.

Past posts in this series include: