ReOrient:  Global Economy in the Asian Age.

by Andre Gunder Frank.

Berkeley:   University of California Press   1998


Prepared for International History Review,  by George Modelski, University of Washington



In this , his “best”,  book, Andre Gunder Frank sets himself a two-fold task:   to “challenge the Eurocentric historiography on which much of received ‘classical” and ‘modern’ social theory is based”, and to offer the “outlines of an alternative rendition of the world economy between 1400 and 1800”, “a global perspective on early modern economic history” (pp.3,4).


The argument opens with a sweeping critique of  Western history writing and “conventional” social science theory.   A long list of classical and modern authors - from Marx, Weber, and Wittfogel,   through economic historians, and including Braudel, Wallerstein and E.L. Jones (for The European Miracle 1981), all those who spread the false gospel of the European development of modern world capitalism, are, after  a brief trial, found guilty of “Eurocentrism”, tracable in turn to the “original sin of European ethnocentrism” (p.337).   Theirs being a failure to use a “holistic global perspective” (p.51) on world history,  Frank’s opening slogan is “Globalism, not Eurocentrism” (p.8).


The main body of the book offers not Asian or global economic history  but rather a mapping of the world economy between 1400 and 1800, such as to lay the basis for a new perspective on the rise of the modern world.   Chapter 2 depicts the richness and variety of regional trades especially in the Indian Ocean, and highlights the role of silver in “oiling” trade at the global level.   Chapter 3 assesses the large size of the Chinese and Indian economies in the world picture (using i.a. Paul Bairoch’s output estimates for 1750).    These lay the groundwork for the claim that, contrary to received wisdom, “Asian economy was dominant until about 1800” , producing a world economy that was, in fact, “Sinocentric” (p.126);  only then, rather suddenly, was the Orient   overtaken by the West.    But only “temporarily” so;   for now “the ‘center’ of the world economy seems to be shifting back to the ‘East’” (p.7).   Frank’s new perspective in effect replaces Eurocentrism with Sinocentrism.


This is a book with a strong argument supported by a full reading of contemporary research on Asian economic relations;   its thesis is  presented with verve, passion, and conviction, and its basic claim, that the Asian economies were big and productive is well taken.   But it pushes a good argument too far when it represents “Europeans” as some sort of come-lately peripheral barbarians who pushed themselves into an Asian-dominated world economy by using (what is implied was) illicitly acquired “American” silver.  Yet we also know that Rome, Alexandria, and Byzantium were essential parts of the transcontinental Silk Roads already in the classical era.


But if Asia was, as Frank claims, “dominant  between 1400 and 1800, how is it that its economy shrank so suddenly after 1800, such that at the beginning of the 20th, with about two-thirds of the world’s population it supplied only one-third of world’s output, and that proportion remains unchanged at the dawn of the 21st (in spite of the recent “Asian miracle”, currently so much less miraculous)?


Frank’s explanation of the collapse of the “East” is purely economic (as attributable to   the declining phase of a 500 year economic cycl (but why did that cycle have the opposite effect in the “West”?), and relies on an abrupt transition, and an “unforeseen” Industrial Revolution.   An alternative, evolutionary, explanation (as advanced by Modelski and Thompson, in Leading Sectors and World Powers 1996)  sees change as cumulative and incremental and posits an interaction of economic with political, as well as social and cultural factors.   It traces the reshaping of the world system, including that of its economy and polity, to the exhaustion of the evolutionary potential in Eurasia (chiefly due to the catastrophic results of the Monogol conquests) and to resurgence of that potential in the Italian Renaissance, through a series of innovative surges animated by Atlantic Europe, that led to the development of the Americas, and the creation of global-level institutions, including leadership, and  intercontinental trade and communications that have been not just a matter of dominance and subservience but did, overall, rebound to the general welfare.   By late 19th century, Europe was past its peak and the lead was already shifting to the United States.


As historiography, and social theory, Frank’s explanation is flawed because there is more, much more, to world history than the movements of silver bullion or the relative productivity of the porcelain industry.   Nor need we be so impressed by the false splendor of the Ming/Manchu, Mughal, Safavid, or Ottoman empires  that Frank (who does not understand seapower) claims, without evidence,  “carried so much greater political or even military weight than any or all of Europe” (p.5).   (Where are those empires to-day?).   Was “Oriental Despotism” “just a figment” of Marx’ or Wittfogel’s imagination, or was the term a pointer to the dearth of democratic potential that would tell greatly in the long run?  And what about religion?   (Weber was “even harder to understand than Marx”, p.17).    And what about a thriving world of ideas and learning, so central to a healthy global outlook?


Advocates of a new global historiography (and this reviewer has pleaded for a geocentric approach to world politics since at least 1972) need much more than a good picture of the global economy.   They need a multidimensional, balanced, and preferably evolutionary, conception that avoids simple East-West dichotomies, and accords their due place also to politics, society, and culture.