Gunder Frank comment on W-S in REVIEW (fwd)

Sat, 14 Mar 1998 10:06:46 -0500 (EST)
Gunder Frank (

Andre Gunder Frank
University of Toronto
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---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sat, 14 Mar 1998 09:54:03 -0500
From: "A. Gunder Frank" <>
To: Andre Gunder Frank <>
Subject: Gunder Frank comment on W-S in REVIEW


University of Toronto

96 Asquith Ave. Toronto, Ont. Canada M4W 1J8
Tel:416-972 0616 Fax:416-972 0071
e-mail: & curric/gunder.html

R E V I E W XXI, 1 1998 brings several articles on
"world-systems analysis,"its history, conceptualization
and procedures in which I have also taken an interest
for some time and am now moved to comment.

The third article by Forte on Anthropology (A Research
Review) cites my work the most, perhaps because it is
itself by far longest. However, it is the one on which
I am least moved to comment other than to agree with
the author's critique of the work by the oft cited
Roland Robertson, which I have found less than helpful
to say the least in analyzing the world-systems
analysis or indeed the real world itself. I would just
add that in my experience and opinion, if we must chose
between identifying and emphasizing uniqueness and
differences on the one hand and holistically searching
for similarities and especially relations and
commonalities, we do best - and can only do 'science' -
by doing the latter rather than following Robertson's
and others' predilection for identifying uniqueness and
stressing differences. Indeed, what is most 'unique'
is the one world that we all [must!] live in, whose
structure and dynamic itself attract attention to the
virtual exclusion of the underlying and of determinant
commonalities and relations. So we cannot - indeed
mostly do not even want to - see the common forest for
focusing on the individual trees.

That brings me to the first article on the
"continuationist/ transformationist debate" regarding
"how many world-systems?" or trees or groves of trees
there were by Debra Straussfogel. She rightly pigeon-
holes me and my some-time co-author Barry Gills among
the 'continuationists' and virtually everybody else,
including Wallerstein and Chase-Dunn & Hall, among the
'transformationists.' Of course, the answer to the
question Gills and I pose in our book The World System:
Five Hundred Years or Five Thousand? is consistent
with the holistic and continuationist position. That is
so even if some parts of the world were only belatedly
[but contra Wallerstein certainly well before 1750]
incorporated into the structure and logic of a system
that itself began thousands of years earlier and still
'continues' today.

Straussfogel, like Wallerstein and I as well, appeals
for help to chaos and complexity [also dubbed
'chaoplexity'] theory associated with Prigogine and
others. And she suggests that at least its perspective
if not its analysis can help us "put system into world-
system theory" and offer an answer to the
continuationist/transformationist question of "how many
world-systems?". Alas in this article, she never does
arrive at or offer an answer to that question. Instead,
she limits herself to attempts to 'operationalize' the
distinction through identifiable criteria and evidence
of 'transformation.' She rightly argues that both
trends and cycles are quite compatible with
continuation, and that we need "to be able to identify
the existence of bifurcation points ... [that] indicate
qualitative differences in structure and function" of
the development of the system to transform from one to
another, and that at least their identification, if not
also explanation, is incumbent on transformationists.
So far so good. She seems to join Chase-Dunn and Hall
in their claim that we can and must identify a few such
bifurcations, from kin-based, to tributary, to
capitalist 'systems', and even for what they call -
after Wilkinson and Frank/Gills - the 'central world

But Straussfogel also goes on to claim quite wrongly
that for continuationists like me "there have been no
bifurcation points in the general process creating
human social structures" while for transfomationists
"the argument would be that bifurcation points have
been crossed resulting in a sequence of recognizably
distinct types of world-systems" [p.22]. Alas, neither
of these statements is empirically true in fact; and
their either/or juxtaposition is a logical non-
sequitur. I can and do recognize bifurcation points,
which the chaos theory and its non-reversible arrow of
time to which she also appeals can help us to identify
and understand. But it is decidedly false that these
bifurcations and how they discriminate between paths
taken and not taken by the world system must result in
a "sequence of recognizably distinct types of world-
systems." Why and how so?

There is no reason in theory to anticipate such
different types and there is also not much evidence
that it has happened in fact in fact in our 'central
world system' any more than in our universe,
independently of whether it is expanding [like the
world system] or not or whether there may or may not be
other universes out there [as we may wish to argue
that for several thousands of years there may have been
one or more 'world-systems' in the Western hemisphere].
It is perfectly logical and I believe empirically
verifiable to argue that our 'world system' has been
transformed by and in some major bifurcations and even
revolutions, such as the neolithic one of
agricultural/state society, the 'encounter' between
'two worlds' in 1492, and the industrial revolution or
evolution with its global ecological consequences [and
also 'causes' as Ken Pomeranz and I argue]. However,
none of these transformations need theoretically have
been nor in fact were from anything that
transformationists can operationally identify as
having been from 'recognizably' tributary, much less
'feudal,' to capitalist/ic "types of world-systems."
Any and all such claims literally make NON-sense.

The reason appears clearly in the fourth article by
Giovanni Arrighi. He dissects two "non-debates" that
went or are still going on "at cross purposes" between
critics or partial dissenters of world-systems theory
and Wallerstein. The latter himself in the third
article denies that there is any such 'theory' but
prefers the more modest 'analysis,' on which I prefer
to comment on only after examining Arrighi's.

The first debate that Arrighi summarizes is between
Wallerstein and Theda Skocpol who wants to "bring the
state back in" and with Robert Brenner who defends the
primacy of class relations over all else. Both,
according to Arrighi, attack the Achilles heel of
world-systems theory, which is "Wallerstein's failure
to account plausibly for the emergence of capitalism in
the modern world" [116]. I agree, but for reasons that
go well beyond those mentioned by Arrighi. He rebuts
Skocpol's charge that Wallerstein fails to deal
adequately with the state per se, but he accepts her
argument that Wallerstein does not show how the state
accounts for the developmental breakthrough of
capitalism. Brenner for his part argues that only class
structure and its transformation can account for that
same development, and not the world-system. Even less
so can the core-periphery relations and cyclical A-B
phases that Wallerstein attributes to it, particularly
in the 'long sixteenth century' from 1450 to 1620 or
1640. Indeed, none of these theorists, including
Skocpol, Brenner and Wallerstein do or can explain
'the rise of capitalism in Europe.'

The other "non-debate" is between Wallerstein and
Fernand Braudel from whom Arrighi especially cites "the
well-known passage in which he confesses
to not sharing 'Wallerstein's fascination with the
sixteenth century'.... Braudel's interpretation of the
rise of the capitalist world economy in Europe departs
in key respects from Wallerstein's" [123]. In
particular, in Braudel's "account there is not a word
about a 'crisis of feudalism' ... nor about the
transition from feudalism to capitalism, which is
central to Wallerstein's account. The focus is instead
on how a world-economy centered on city-states was
transformed into a world-economy centered on
territorial states ... [which] expanded... to encompass
the entire globe" [125]. For his part, Arrighi
criticizes both theorists for missing what he himself
regards as the real point: Wallerstein offers an only
"implausible account of the emergence ... of
competitive pressures" because he looks for them in the
wrong place. And "Braudel offers no account at all"
even though he points in the right direction for the
seat of capitalist transformation: the city states and
the intercity-state system that anticipated the
Westphalian inter 'national' state system by two
centuries and "originated in the interstices that
connected those larger territorial organizations to one
another and their totality to other 'worlds'." [126].

Yet however magistral and prize-winning Arrighi's own
Long Twentieth Century analysis of this development is,
it also remains essentially irrelevant to - or yet
another 'non-debate' about - the [cause of the] real
world rise of what all of the above like to call the
'European world-economy' and/or the 'modern capitalist
world-system.' The reason for this failure emerges
from the theoretical one already given by Straussfogel,
that is the continuity in the world economy and system
and the incumbency on transformationists to
demonstrate, not to mention account for, some
bifurcation that led to some different type of world-

Yet as Arrighi rightly argues, none of the above do or
within their parameters even can demonstrate any such
thing: not Braudel with his city-states in the
'European world-economy,' not Wallerstein with his
core-periphery relations and cycles in the 'modern
world-system,' and also not their critics Skocpol by
bringing the state back in nor Brenner with his class
analysis in even smaller social 'systems.' But neither
and no more so does nor can Arrighi himself! For in the
real world of course, there was a well structured and
fully functioning world economy and system, primarily
in Asia, of which any and all of Europe was no more
than a quite marginal peninsular outpost. Indeed, the
very Italian city states that 'fascinate' Arrighi and
Braudel derived their very existence and life-blood
from their quite dependent trade relations with Asia,
as Braudel himself recognized, Modelski and Thompson
(1996) now demonstrate, and Arrighi also admits in
fact. Alas, that fact also pulls the empirical and
theoretical rug out from under the entire argument from
Marx and Weber, to Braudel and Wallerstein, and still
from Arrighi himself.

How in the world can it still be maintained that a
fundamental transformation occurred in the mere
interstistecies of territorial states, or in their
formation as part of an alleged transition from
feudalism, or in the transformation of class structure
and dynamic in any of the above in any parts or even
all of Europe? For after all is said and done, Europe
remained for several hundred years still totally
marginal to the structure and development of the great
bulk of the world economy, which was in Asia. All the
less so can any of these arguments have even the
slightest empirical or theoretical merit as long as
the alleged transformations in Europe or its national
or city states or even their entire "European world-
economy" and "modern world-system" were themselves
derivative from and dependent on events and
developments across all of Eurasia and especially those
at its far eastern end. It is surely not for nothing
that the very voyages of Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and
Maglellan - like the European Crusades before them -
were themselves motivated and generated by the economic
development especially of China and India.

Still nearly three centuries later, Adam Smith
recognized these regions as agriculturally,
industrially, technologically, and commercially still
far more developed than any or all of Europe.
Moreover as Smith also emphasized, they remained far
more competitive on the world market. On what
imaginary European basis then can any of the above
cited analysts offer the "plausible account of the
competitive pressures that have promoted and sustained
the capitalist transformation of the European world-
economy" that Arrighi rightly demands? Rather
obviously on almost no European basis whatsoever,
except that of its competitively quite disadvantaged
place and role among the competitive pressures that
emanated from and primarily impacted on various parts
of Asia and only very marginally so in Europe, or
rather which they long continued to marginalize still
further from where the major economic and demographic
action, not to mention political, social, and cultural
action was.

That is why all these, alas still including Arrighi's,
'non-debates' about the [reasons for] the alleged rise
of capitalism in Europe make literally NO sense at all,
any more than how many imaginary European 'capitalist'
or other angels could dance on the head of the marginal
European pin. To make even minimal sense out of any of
this, we must search for it in the structure and
transformation of the real world economy and system,
the motor force of whose economic and technological
development remained in Asia, and especially in China,
until at least 1800, and not in any imaginary 'European
world-economy" or 'modern world-system.' To the extent
to which there was any such, it was certainly part and
parcel of a real world economy and system [without a
hyphen!], of which developments in the 'European world-
economy' including its American outliers were in
reality far more derivative effects than they were
imaginary causes.

So Wallerstein is probably right in the third article
in predicting the 'demise of world-systems theory ...
from the eventual exhaustion of its utility.... We are
clearly moving in the direction of such a demise"
[108]. But Wallerstein remains wrong in the reasons
to which he attributes the exhaustion of utility and
the demise of his world-systems theory. His list of
'fundamental questions' [111] may be important;
Wallerstein's (1996) Gulbenkian Commission critique of
the alleged universalism of our nineteenth and
twentieth century heritage is certainly well taken; and
the call for Opening the Social Sciences instead may
well be innovative.

Yet none of the above cited theorists including
Wallerstein himself even recognize let alone seek to
replace the still ingrained Eurocentric provincialism
of the historiography that underlies and underpins all
of their social theory from Marx Weber to Braudel and
Wallerstein, still including Arrighi [who is now
turning to study China and East Asia].

In a world that is itself rapidly ReOrienting and
pulling the rug out from under Eurocentric theory, that
is the underlying real world reason for the exhaustion
of all that 'world-systems' theory. That is also why
our multiple choice must be NONE OF THE ABOVE.

ASIAN AGE [University of California Press, April 1998]
is a modest effort to help begin also to reorient our
historiography and social theory.

All are invited to a critique of this ReORIENT book by
Giovanni Arrighi, Ed Farmer, George Modelski, and David
Wilkinson, with a response from myself at an ISA/IPE
Roundtable Panel chaired by Sing Chew on Thursday C-16,
from 1:45 to 3:30 PM on March 19 [followed by the IPE
Section panel and then the reception both honouring
Immanuel Wallerstein] at the ISA Meetings in
Minneapolis. I will also be at the PEWS meetings from
March 21 to 24 in Evanston, Ill., where Immanuel
Wallerstein will also give a lecture at Northwestern
University and also discuss his Golbenkian Commission