Tuesday, July 12, 2016

ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age - A Review


"Do not repeat tactics just because they have gained you one victory. Let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances." - General Sun Tzu, "The Art of War"

Frank, Andre Gunder. ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

        A global economy and the concept of Globalization are not European inventions. Simply consider this one idea, Cristobo Colombo was not sailing westward trying to get to the East because he already had everything that he felt he needed. He was trying to find a quicker way to the East because he, and others like him, were looking for things that they felt they needed but did not have. If the Europeans were the ones that invented the world economy, they would not have been going elsewhere for items that they considered essential to their survival. People from other parts of the world would have been coming to them. It is, thus, important to know why Europeans, like Colombo, were so eager to reach Eastern markets. When Rome was the master of the Mediterranean, trade with the East was conducted both by land, and by sea, via the Red Sea and the eastern shores of Egypt. When the western half of the Roman Empire collapsed, the Eastern Roman Empire, known to history as the Byzantines, was able to maintain control of this trade. However, in the early part of the seventh century, the religion of Islam unified the Arab tribes in the Middle East. In just over one hundred years, the Arab Empire had seized control of the Eastern trade routes. The collapse of the Western Roman Empire, combined with the rise of the Arab Empire, cut most of Europe off from the Eastern trade routes because the prices for trade goods from the East went through the roof. This was the result of trade tariffs imposed by the various sultanates within the Arab Empire. 
        By the end of the eleventh century, Europe, racked by internal war, disease, and economic depression, sought a way to end this problem, thus, European leaders, with the Roman Catholic Church at the lead, began the Crusades. These were not holy wars. They were trade wars, and four just about two centuries, the Crusader kingdoms were able to control the trade with the East. This control ended, however, when the Saracen Turks retook the last of these lands at the end of the thirteenth century. They immediately reimposed the taxes on European trade that had existed prior to the Crusader conquests. By the end of the fifteenth century, the Ottoman Turks had control of the Eastern trade routes, who because they had stronger control over their empire, rose the cost of goods coming from the East even more. Which brings Colombo's mission back up. His mission was to find a way to circumvent the traditional Eastern trades routes, all together. The point of all this remains the same. People from the East were not fighting for access to the West. The Europeans were fighting for access to the East, the real historical source of the Global Economy.
        In his book, ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age, Andre Gunder Frank, an economist who was born in Germany, addressed this issue head on. He clearly argued that not only did the global economy first develop in the East, with China at its center, but that it was also dominated by China not up to 1492, as many scholars, to include himself, had argued earlier in the twentieth century. Rather, it was dominated by China well past that, up to the end of the eighteenth century. Furthermore, because of this, as Frank suggested, it is possible that the capitalist system of economics is also not native to Europe. In this case, the West is instead operating according to the standards of a system that predates them and that operates according to standards that they never truly understood from the outset. This would explain the glaring flaws in the capitalism that was developed in Europe. Frank also argued that this makes Europe's control of the global economy illusory, at best. He also very clearly argued that as the Chinese recover from what is really only a cyclical downturn in the global economy, they will and are slowly regaining the role as the central power in the global economy. Their former control, which many Western historians have seemed to forget, included the whole of the modern world. Their fleets traded with the west coast of the Americas, the whole of the Pacific, all of South and Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Europe was connected through traders in the Middle East. China was, in fact, the first real global economic superpower.
        What does this mean for the Western nations as their dominant role in the world economy declines? Will they be able to continue putting pressure on other nations to get the resources that their individual economies require, or will China, combined with other nations like India, and Japan that will find it easier to identify with an Asian world power, reverse the process and begin placing pressure on the nations of the West? Could Russia be in the process of developing a closer connection with Asia, as they see economic trends moving eastward? After all, they are members of the Asian Union. China is already nudging its way into markets that have traditionally, at least over the past two centuries, been dominated by Western interests, i.e. Africa, the Pacific, and Southeast Asia. Will this trend continue and possibly lead to economic dominance of the West by China and its allies?
        In ReOrient, Frank painted a picture of a global economy in which the Chinese have thousands of years of experience in a system of their own making, rather than one of Western origin that the Chinese would just be entering. He offered an image of a China that rather than being akin to the Egyptians, as described by Lord Balfour, is fully aware of what is gong on. They understand the up and down trends that tend to affect the global economy and thus, as the global economy shifts, they have an advantage over the West who, it can be suggested, has only recently come onto the global stage. Having been on that stage for possibly five-thousand years, rather than just five-hundred years, like the West, the Chinese realize that as the cycle continues, their next turn is just weighting for them right around the corner. This knowledge gives them what they need to be able to easily recover from what is really only a recent downturn in the world economic cycle.
        Something that should also be considered is the fact that for the past or two hundred years so, while China was experiencing its cyclical downturn, the Western powers did not exactly conduct affairs in a cordial manner. They very rarely made equitable trade agreements with the Chinese or any of the other Asian peoples, for that matter. They, more often than not, took what they wanted and then forced those peoples to operate according to a program that was beneficial only to the West and ignored the needs and rights of the peoples that were being taken advantage of. Furthermore, this theft was almost always accompanied by the use of force if even the slightest form of resistance was encountered; consider the Boxer Rebellion, the Opium Wars, and the many conflicts that took place in India. This cycle of violence and extortion extended to Africa and the Americas, as well. This has bred a very deep seeded resentment in around the world that could very possibly lead to a complete role reversal. This reversal would put the West on the negative end of some inequitable trade agreements. Further, they would not be able to control the downfall, as they see their power and influence wane in favor of a much more mature China. This, of course, would be at the hands of a China that has a much better understanding of how the system that they created really works. Imagine. then. China converging with nations like Japan and India, who have reason to harbor similar grudges against the West. The Asian Union, which includes Russia, may be the center of power in the future, and with a deep grudge to settle, the Chinese would not establish a system that was interested in attending to the conveniences of the West.
        It would seem that with such a prospect looming over their heads, governments in the West would look more towards placing themselves in a position to be a team player on the world stage, rather than persisting with the notion that it is their place to rule all. Frank has suggested that in the world system that presently exists, there really does not need to be an overall ruler. He, rather, suggested that an egalitarian global structure is what is more in order, one in which the West is but one cog in the global machine. He argued that in fact, such a system is in the best interests of not just the West, but really, the whole world. Frank predicted that if the West persists with the idea that they should be the dominant power, the result will, very likely, be costly and destructive wars that could lead to an outcome that would endanger, not just the interests of the West, but also those of China and its allies. As such, the Chinese and their allies would most likely find it much more beneficial to avoid such conflicts. They have been around long enough to know that such conflicts, in the long run, are bad for business, as they tend to limit buyer’s resources and to constrict seller’s markets.
        Frank also addressed the possibility of an economic and military alliance being formed against the West. The Chinese, as they regain their former position, could very possibly form an alliance with the Middle East, an area that has been harassed by the West for centuries. This would give the Chinese a great advantage, as their vast population, and their greater access to resources, the most obvious being oil, would put them far ahead of the West. With such an alliance forged, where will the rest of the world go? Frank argued that it would be much more in their interest for the Western powers to adopt a more egalitarian policy towards their role in the global economy. He argued that attempting to maintain a global hegemony that it can be argued, when considering their late arrival on the world stage, they do not really fully understand, would be suicidal. If the West fails to get on board with the program, they could find themselves surrounded by people that they have taken advantage of in the past. Such people would not be all that interested in playing nice with their former imperial masters, and further, these people would now be accompanied by an old friend who would be prepared to back them up. This is not a situation that the West, one can be sure, would find very comforting.
        As far as the implications that this book may have towards general historical theory, what affect will ReOrient, and other books like it, have on the type of historical literature that is published in the United States in the future? The hope is that this book will prove to be part of a paradigm shift towards a more global history, one that is more inclusive rather than exclusive. It would be interesting to see it stand as a sort of vanguard toward the death of local exceptionalisms or centrisms, like those of Europe or the United States. As the day to day connection between human beings around the world continues to strengthen, and old political, racial, and other antiquated social boundaries continue to fade, such writing will not only hopefully be popular, but it will also, hopefully, be required to be considered acceptable mature scholarship. This is not to say that the text is perfect. It does have its flaws, but one hopes that it can serve as the beginning of a new, Human History.

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