Fwd: BOOK REVIEW: _The World System_

Michael Cahill (MCBlueline@AOL.COM)
Tue, 19 Mar 1996 01:35:08 -0500

I am forwarding from H-State (social welfare history) this intriguing book
review written by Jerry H. Bently, University of Hawaii, for H-World. As
noted below, the work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper
credit is given to the author and the list.

Mike Cahill
Forwarded message:
From: carpw@PLU.edu (E. Wayne Carp)
Sender: H-STATE@MSU.EDU (H-Net List for 'Putting the State Back In')
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Date: 96-03-18 17:27:38 EST

Date: Mon, 18 Mar 1996 08:15:25 -0500 (EST)

Published by H-World@msu.edu (February, 1995)

Andre Gunder Frank and Barry K. Gills, eds. *The World
System: Five Hundred Years or Five Thousand?* Foreward by
William H. McNeill. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.
Pp. xxii + 320. $65.00.

Reviewed by Jerry H. Bently, University of Hawaii, for
H-World <jbentley@uhunix.uhcc.hawaii.edu>.

During the past two decades, world-system studies have
deeply influenced scholarship in several disciplines.
Elaborated as an alternative to modernization analysis, the
world-system approach originally seemed relevant
particularly to the modern world. Yet its main
premise--that individual lands and nations do not develop
in isolation, but rather in the context of a larger system
that shapes their political, economic, and social
experiences--might well have some application in premodern
as well as modern times.

Indeed, in *Before European Hegemony: The World System,
A.D. 1250-1350* (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989),
Janet L. Abu-Lughod argued that a world system quite
different from the modern capitalist variety influenced
political, economic, and social development throughout much
of the eastern hemisphere during the age of the Mongol

Andre Gunder Frank and Barry K. Gills accept Abu-Lughod's
argument, but they hold further that the notion of a world
system is applicable much earlier than the Mongol era.
Indeed, Frank and Gills argue that the world has generated
only one world system, that it originated about 3000 B.C.E.
with interaction between Mesopotamian and Egyptian
societies, and that it has expanded in size and scale ever

Thus Immanuel Wallerstein's modern capitalist world
system--now about 500 years old--represents only the latest
phase of a world system that reaches back some five
millennia. The volume under review brings together eleven
essays--seven of them reprinted, the other four published
here for the first time--that grapple with the notion of
premodern world systems.

Writing individually or jointly, Frank and Gills
contribute six of the eleven essays. K. Ekholm and J.
Friedman contribute an article, originally published in
1982, on imperialism and exploitation in ancient world
systems. David Wilkinson offers fresh thoughts on the
categories of civilization, core, world economy, and
oikumene. Samir Amin reprints an article of 1991
distinguishing between ancient and modern world systems.
Janet L. Abu-Lughod provides an essay, previously
circulated in manuscript, that recapitulates her
understanding of the world system of the Mongol era. And
Immanuel Wallerstein contributes a brief essay, originally
published in 1991, restating his contention that the modern
capitalist world system represents a historical phenomenon
qualitatively different from anything that preceeded it.

In the nature of things, the views of Frank and Gills set
the agenda for this volume, and they warrant particularly
close attention. Frank and Gills argue that the hallmarks
that Wallerstein attributes to the modern capitalist world
system--most importantly the process of capital
accumulation, the establishment of core-periphery
relationships, the operation of cycles of expansion and
contraction, and the existence of hegemony and rivalry
relationships--all apply equally well to premodern as to
modern times.

This contention leads them to deny the usefulness of the
long-revered categories of feudalism, capitalism, and
socialism, as well as the almost equally long-honored
effort to chart transitions from one to another. Since they
believe that these artificial constructs obscure more than
they clarify, Frank and Gills suggest that historical
scholarship should abandon them altogether and focus
instead on "center-periphery structures, hegemony/rivalry
within them, the process of capital accumulation, cycles in
all of these, and the world system in which they operate"
(p. xv). This complex of themes they trace back some 5,000
years to the beginning of regular interaction between
ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian societies.

A thesis as large and novel as the one that Frank and
Gills advance calls for detailed substantiation.
Unfortunately, in this volume, Frank and Gills do not
attempt to sketch even briefly the structure of their world
system. Their work thus differs considerably from that of
world-system analysts like Wallerstein and Abu-Lughod, who
described in some detail the economic and political
relationships that served as foundations for the world
systems they envisioned.

The work of Frank and Gills differs also from that of
economic historians like Philip D. Curtin, K.N. Chaudhuri,
and S.D. Goitein, all of whom reconstructed trade networks
that helped to integrate large-scale economic zones in
premodern times. Frank and Gills deal with real historical
experiences--as opposed to analytical recommendations,
methodological suggestions, or theoretical reflections--in
only a single, jointly written essay that charts eight long
cycles that they believe drove the economic and political
history of the eastern hemisphere between 1700 B.C.E. and
1700 C.E.

Their identification of cycles, however, is largely
unpersuasive. They rarely introduce economic data when
discussing their eight cycles, but rather depend almost
exclusively on the rise and decline of imperial states as
an index to cyclical expansion and contraction. Indeed, the
criteria for identifying cycles are so loose and
uncontrolled that it would be possible to make a case for
either cyclical expansion or cyclical contraction for
several of the eight cyclical periods proposed here.

Furthermore, Frank and Gills rely on scholarship that is
long out of date (works by E.H. Warmington, Frederick
Teggart, V. Gordon Childe, and others) or even downright
unreliable (Luc Kwanten's study of nomadic empires) when
seeking to ground their cycles in historical experience. As
a result of these problems, the notion of eight system-wide
cycles remains an interesting hypothesis, but one that will
require thorough investigation and solid documentation
before scholars can accept the cycles with any degree of

Quite apart from these cycles, of course, other features of
the proposed 5,000-year world system that do not receive
any detailed attention here at all--institutions, trade
flows, economic and political relationships, and the
like--also call for documentation that this volume does not

Another general problem with the thesis of Frank and Gills
has to do with the term "system." The authors never offer a
precise definition of the term, but they associate it most
closely with inter-societal transfers of surplus
production: "if different `societies,' empires, and
civilizations, as well as other `peoples,' regularly
exchanged surplus, then they also participated in the same
world system. That is, `society' A here could and would not
be the same as it was in the absence of its contact with B
there, and vice versa" (p. 93).

The world system of Frank and Gills is thus a much looser
affair than that of Wallerstein, which always exhibits an
axial division of labor that distinguishes the core,
periphery, and semi-periphery from each other. It differs
also from Abu-Lughod's world system, which featured
multiple cores, but which stood on the foundations of the
Mongol empires and long-established trade routes linking an
archipelago of cities from China and southeast Asia to
western Europe and north Africa.

Many historians would agree that cross-cultural interaction
was a prominent feature of the premodern world. Some would
agree further that premodern trade in luxury goods had much
larger significance than Wallerstein would allow. Even at
that, however, the term "system" may seem rather strong for
the relationships that Frank and Gills have in mind. In any
case, their usage certainly dilutes the term: it is clear
that the world system of Frank and Gills was a creature
very different indeed from those described by Wallerstein
and Abu-Lughod. Even if the term be allowed for the past
5,000 years, it demands more careful thought and more
thorough elaboration than it has so far received.

A third general problem with the world system of Frank and
Gills is that it does not deal very well with change over
time. Most scholars would recognize the expansion of
European influence in the larger world and the process of
industrialization as major turning points in world
history, and most would consider processes of
cross-cultural interaction in modern times qualitatively
different from those of premodern times. Apart from their
cycles of expansion and contraction, however, Frank and
Gills have little if any apparatus to explain European
prominence and industrialization.

Frank and Gills have sought diligently to avoid Eurocentric
conceptions of the past--including the residual
Eurocentrism that many historians find in Wallerstein's
vision of the modern capitalist world system--and it
certainly makes excellent sense to take a problem-centered
rather than a Eurocentric perspective on cross-cultural
interactions. Yet a vision of world-system history that
ignores European prominence in modern times and the process
of industrialization--a vision that jettisons the notions
of feudalism, capitalism, and socialism and offers nothing
in their place to help conceive, analyze, or explain
large-scale historical change--is inadequate.

In spite of these general problems--as well as a number of
smaller difficulties with their argument--Frank and Gills
have provided a valuable service by initiating a debate
about cross-cultural interactions before modern times and
before the Mongol era. My own opinion is that the notion of
a single, 5,000-year world system is not persuasive.

Yet there remain many dimensions of cross-cultural
interaction in premodern times--including long-distance
trade, imperial expansion, mass migrations, biological and
ecological exchanges, and the spread of cultural and
religious traditions--that historians have only recently
begun to examine seriously. Even if it is excessive, the
bold thesis of Frank and Gills may stimulate additional
useful research on cross-cultural interactions and their
effects in premodern times.

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work may be copied for non-profit educational use if
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