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Prophet of the Decline of U.S. Hegemony

Remembering Giovanni Arrighi

by STEVEN COLATRELLA

Giovanni Arrighi, one of the pioneers of World Systems analysis and more recently one of the most cited and influential thinkers on the fate of US hegemony and the direction of world politics and economy, passed away on June 18th, after a protracted struggle with a tumor. He is survived by his life partner, Beverly Silver, a major thinker in her own right on working class movements and globalization.

I studied with Giovanni Arrighi at Binghamton University, in the Sociology/World System/Comparative Studies Ph.D. program there, in the early 90s. I won’t pretend to have been close friends with Giovanni, nor to have known a lot about his personal life, though I think we were always friendly and had mutual respect for one another. We spent some time together one a couple of occasions that he and Beverly visited Padua, Italy, where I live, for speaking engagements. Anyone wanting to know more about his life is encouraged to see the amazing interview he did with David Harvey for New Left Review’s March-April 2009 issue.

So I want here just to mention a few memories I have of him as a teacher, and a few things about the importance of his work. He was the best lecturer I ever heard in the classroom with the exception of my undergraduate professor John Gerassi who was a very different kind of teacher. Gerassi ,who is completing his book on Conversations with Sartre, whom he was very close to, is full of anecdotes, of brilliant insights and moral force, a magnificent storyteller. Arrighi was all analysis, but was equally spellbinding. He was very unsentimental in his approach to theories and historical episodes, no wishing things had turned out differently or nostalgia for better times was ever apparent. Marx, Braudel, Wallerstein, Lenin, no one was exempt from deserved criticism for the failings of their theories to conform to stubborn reality. It was great training for Doctoral students and would be scholars. I think probably my own sentimental attachment to movements, theorists or events was the one particularly irritating thing about me in the classroom from his point of view, not my disagreements with parts of his analysis, which he took in stride with the same lack of pretension to being exempt from criticism.

He was a very, very good teacher. I recall that some classmate or other had presented a criticism of some reading, a fairly convincing one I think we all thought after hearing it. Arrighi commented, “You have only criticized that theory for its weaknesses. You can’t defeat an argument by attacking its weaknesses, you have to attack its strengths. And if you can identify the weaknesses it only means that you yourself could construct a better version of the same argument, so you have a responsibility to first construct that better version and then attack that one.”

There were not a lot of professors I ever really cared about pleasing, and whatever my own faults, obsequiousness has never been one of them. I warred with Charles Tilly and Aristide Zolberg at the New School when studying for a Masters there, and even gave Eric Hobsbawm, whom I admired greatly and who was always kind to me when I was studying with him there, a hard time in the classroom, though typically he was always more gracious than Tilly or Zolberg both of whom I found vindictive. Arrighi was not vindictive – the department at Binghamton was severely divided – personally and politically – during the years I was there, between World Systems and Comparative Studies and the two groups couldn’t even stand to be in the same room for department meetings with each other. But Arrighi always voted for me to keep my stipend, despite the fact that I was either identified with neither camp or later on when I had to choose a thesis advisor, chose one from the opposed camp. Despite my usual lack of concern with pleasing my professors, it was precisely Arrighi’s fair-mindedness and lack of sentimentalism or personal favoritism that led me to take some pride in two moments when things I said in class ended up repeated by him later on in lectures: after reading Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, which Arrighi was certainly instrumental in helping to make one of the most important texts for those opposing neoliberal capitalism, I suggested that the left might need to support working class ancien regimes against capitalist perestroika, or in plain English, to defend common rights and usages against “reform” that means privatization and greater marketization. He liked that. He also liked that I seemed to grasp a particularly good lecture in which he discussed the limits of traditional Marxist ways of conceiving the end of capitalism, saying that if I understood him correctly, the end of capitalism should be understood more like the Fall of Rome than like the French Revolution.

He has died at a time when his star never shone more brightly. He had completed what in retrospect was his life work, the trilogy of books tracing the relationship of dominant hegemonic powers in international affairs to the changes in capitalism and the struggle against it. The Long Twentieth Century, Chaos and Governance in the World System (co-written with Beverly Silver), and Adam Smith in Beijing – the latter just published in the past year, stand as the most thorough, coherent and systematic explanations of the shaping of the modern world of politics and the world economy yet written. His main argument in these works is that the geographic shift in what power is dominant politically is a crucial part of how capitalism survives. But that shift in power also, and here he went beyond Wallerstein’s traditional World Systems approach, led in each case to vast changes in how business was organized and run, in how work was organized, in what kind of working class developed, in what kinds of social struggles and demands arose and in what opportunities there were for both reform and revolution. So he analyzed the historic shifts in power from the Dutch to the British, from the British to the Americans. Finally, he addressed the question of what happens as world power shifts from the Americans to either worldwide chaos (as Hobsbawm foresees or at least fears), to Chinese hegemony, or to some other arrangement involving greater parity among nations and greater room for diversity in the forms of economic system each region adopts – a hopeful conclusion that Arrighi, ever unsentimental, did not predict, but argued systematically is not out of the question as an outcome today.

His work was often criticized – it was my criticism of his work when his student, though I think the last two books in the series moved our positions closer – that labor, movements for change, revolutionary possibilities – played a minor role in his theory. In part, this was possible because of the extent to which he and Beverly Silver were a team – he book Forces of Labor remains the definitive statement that globalization has not ended class struggle, nor reduced the power of the working class worldwide per se, merely reduced or devastated it in some areas, like Detroit, or Turin, or the North of Britain, while increasing it dramatically in places like South Korea and China.

Arrighi argued that capitalism had its laws of development as shifts in economic and political power led one hegemon after another to gain the upper hand in production, commerce, and finally finance, the latter stage being, to use Braudel’s famous phrase that Giovanni was fond of quoting, “a sign of autumn”. This view of finance enabled him to be among the very few who foresaw the current crisis and the form it has taken, of a financial bubble that has burst definitively. But it also led him to be able to identify October 1979, when Paul Volker, now dismayingly an advisor to President Obama, prefigured the Reagan-Thatcher destruction of the power of labor by raising interest rates four full percentage points, leading to the financialization of US capitalism and the beginning of the end for its dominance in the world, though that was far from apparent at the time.

His analysis also allowed Arrighi to grasp that while the crisis of the 70s was a sign of fading US hegemony, it is only the current crisis, which has followed the Clinton-era belle époque fin de siècle that signals the definitive end of US dominance in the world. What that means for world society is not clear, but Arrighi made very clear that it means that whatever comes next it cannot be what we have just had for the past 30 years, nor even what has been the case for the past century or even two. Western hegemony as such is over, and among the contending economic approaches, the self-regulated free market, with unlimited growth and concern only for profit is almost certainly no longer among the contenders. So the two main foundations of modern “civilization” – western dominance and the global free market based on unlimited profit-seeking are finished. Adam Smith in Beijing, his last book, argued that while the historical jury is still out, the outcome depends on what we do, what the leaders of the US, China and elsewhere do, and that while disaster cannot be ruled out, there is more reason to hope that a better world can be constructed out of a failed system that can no longer function than there has been in many years, or even generations. That hope, that out of the systematic, unsentimental study of world history, we could still find the possibilities for a better world and an economy that existed for the livelihood of the people instead of the reverse, never left Arrighi’s vision of the world, and is present in every page of his writing. He will be sorely missed, but his work will remain to help us to better understand whatever it is that happens next.

STEVEN COLATRELLA, a longtime member of the Midnight Notes Collective, teaches International Affairs at John Cabot University in Rome. He can be contacted at stevencolatrella@gmail.com.