Re: Modelski's comments

Tue, 4 Mar 1997 16:20:37 -0800 (PST)
George Modelski (

Replying to James M. Blaut, with some more general comments:

It's good we can agree on one half of the problem. But
we cannot settle merely by an appeal to authority the other half, about
the evolutionary potential, if any, of Asian alternatives.

If evolutionary potential is not just potential for
growth, or productive capacity, but potential for world system upgrade (or
restructuring) (that in our context means a change from the antique and
narrow-gauged Silk Roads system to a broader, oceanic one) then such
potential consists of responsiveness by innovation to global problems (as
shown i.a. by active epistemic communities), alliance-capability (among
equals), navies capable of global reach (for security), and autonomous
traders, producers, and markets open to risk. Not any one of these
necessary conditions, but a combined set of them all, at the right place
and at the right time. More technically we might describe tat set as
consisting of conditions that favor the evolutionary mechanisms of
variation, cooperation, selection and amplification.

Where e, in Asia, might world system evolutionary
potential be found ca. 1200-1450? Not, I think you would agree, in the
Mongol world empire that ca. 1300 dominated Eurasia. It rose swiftly, by
conquest and terror, and collapsed just as quickly, into war, famine, and
pestilence. Nor in the more short-lived but, if that is possible, in the
even more devastating empire of Timur ca. 1400.

But what about China? Not, of course, Mongol China but
Ming China that ca. 1400-1450 was still recovering from the devastations
wrought by the Mongols, its population having dropped some 40 per cent
between 1200 and 1400. Despite naval potential, it soon settled into an
authoritarian and isolationist mood of Neo-Confucianism; the set of
necessary conditions just was not there.

That leaves what I call the
Venice-Egypt-Gujerat-Calicut-Malacca consortium that controlled the Spice
Route and peaked about 1450, one that Janet Abu-Lughod makes so much of.
This was basically an Arab cartel (with Venetian participation at the
western end) that became a major source of revenues for Egypt. True, its
trading practices were well advanced, and the cooperation practiced over
long distances was noteworthy. But it had one fundamental flaw: it had
a vested interest in the status quo and had no incentive to innovate.
When the test of selection arrived, ca. 1510, it broke down under the
attack from a new strategic design, naval organization, and alliances of
Portugal on Calicut, Gujerat and Malacca, of its partners on Venice, and
of the Ottomans on Egypt. But this was not a victory of Europe over Asia,
but rather of Atlantic Europe over Mediterranean Europe, and the Arab
cartel, as interpreted in evolutionary perspective.

This bring me to the wider question raised by Al Bergeson in his
call for new theory. His critiques are well taken, but where is the new
theory. Is its main proposition to be that Asia is more important than
Europe? Or that changes in manufacturing capacity are the chief
indicators of world system transitions (how about shares of science
output, such as journal articles?). Those much impressed by recent Asian
economic growth might do well to follow the debate started by Krugman's
article "The myth of the Asian economic miracle" (In Foreign Affairs).
In my view, and to this day, the evolutionary potential of China, or
Japan, remains weaker than might be indicated by manufacturing capacity or
GNP. As for theory, it must be evolutionary. Only an evolutionary
theory can frame these questions in a consistent fashion. GM

On 27 Feb 1997, James M. Blaut wrote:

> Dear George Modelski:
> Everything you say about Europe's "evolutiionary potential" in 1250-1450 is
> correct, but you are, in my opinion, wrong in saying that various other regions,
> including India and China, did *not* have that potential. See Janet Abu-Lughod's
> very definitive argument. I talk about these things in my book, also.
> Jim Blaut