IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | General

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ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age

by Gunder Frank


The book ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age outlines and analyzes the global economy and its sectoral and regional division of labour and cyclical dynamic from 1400 to 1800. The evidence and argument are that within this global economy Asians and particularly Chinese were preponderant, no more 'traditional' than Europeans, and in fact largely far less so. The historical documentation poses an 'emperor has no clothes' challenge to all received Eurocentric historiography and social theory from Montesquieu, Marx, and Weber, or Toynbee, and Polanyi, to Rostow, Braudel, and Wallerstein.

The books' global economic analysis offers a more holistic theoretical alternative. 'The Rise of the West' was not due to any 'European Miracle exceptionalism' that allegedly permitted it to pull itself up by its own bootstraps as Weberians have contended. Nor did Europe build a 'European world-economy around itself' a la Braudel and thereby as per Marx and Wallerstein initiating a European centred 'Modern Capitalist World-System' primarily by exploiting the wealth of its American and African colonies. Instead, Europe used its American silver to buy itself marginal entry into the long since existing world market in Asia, which was much larger, more productive and competitive, continued to expand much faster until 1800, and was able to support a rate of population growth in Asia that was then double that of Europe until 1750. Then changing world economic, demographic, ecological relations and relative factor prices in the competitive global economy resulted in the temporary 'Decline of the East' and the opportunity for the also temporary 'Rise of the West'. Europe took advantage of this world economic opportunity through import substitution, export promotion and technological change to become Newly Industrializing Economies after 1800, as is again happening today in East Asia. That region is now regaining its 'traditional' dominance in the global economy, with the Chinese 'Middle Kingdom' again at its 'centre'.

ReORIENT may be summarized as follows: It suggests that received historiography and social theory fall seriously short of what we need. Marx and Weber or Parsons and Rostow and their many disciples are too Eurocentric, and Braudel and Wallerstein also are still not nearly holistic enough. None of them is able, or even willing, to address the global problematique, whose whole is more than the sum or its parts. The book outlines the productive division of labour and the multilateral trade framework, as well as the sectoral and regional inter-connections within the global economy. ReORIENT signals how American and Japanese money went around the world circulatory system and provided the lifeblood that made the world go round. It further examines the resulting world population, productive, income, and trade quantities, the related technological qualities and institutional mechanisms, as well as how several regions in Asia maintained and even increased their global preponderance therein. The book proposes a global macrohistory that treats the Decline of the East and the Rise of the West as related and successive processes within and generated by the global world economic structure and dynamic. It is studied how Asia's world economic advantage between 1400 and 1800 turned to its disadvantage and to the (temporary) advantage of the West to face the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. World-encompassing macro- and micro-economic analysis is used to account for The Rise of the West in global instead of the received Eurocentric terms. The concluding chapter then builds on the historical evidence and argument of this book to derive theoretical conclusions about how to analyse this global whole. Only a globally holistic analysis can permit a better comprehension of how the whole world economic structure and dynamic shape, and differentiate its sectoral and regional parts East and West, North and South. Recourse to a more holistic global historiography and social theory suggests how Asian, and particularly Chinese, predominance in the world economy through the eighteenth century presages its return to dominance also in the twenty-first century.

Panel discussions of the book are taking place at the annual meetings of the American Historical Association, the American Sociological Association, the International Studies Association and at the Third Pacific Centuries Congress. A three week long e-mail debate in May-June 1998 with over a hundred contributions from around the world discussed and contrasted ReORIENT with David Landes' The Wealth And Poverty Of Nations and was carried simultaneously by the nets of H-World, H-Asia, Economic History, and World System Network. The complete debate is still accessible by Internet on some of their electronic archives.


Professor André Gunder Frank was a Senior Visiting Fellow at the IIAS Amsterdam Branch Office between June and July 1998. During his stay at the IIAS, he delivered the 9th Annual CASA Wertheim lecture, and participated in the ICAS Conference with a panel on his latest book Reorient; Global Economy in the Asian Age. The book was published by the University of California Press, 1998, ISBN 0-520-21129-4 (hb), ISBN 0-520-21474-9 (pb), 416 pp.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | General