comments on Blaut, Frank, Sanderson et al

Tue, 04 Mar 1997 22:05:20 -0500 (EST)

TO: WSNers, with or without the hyphen, with or without the
RE: Blaut-Sanderson discussion & Gunder vs everyone on Asia
[tongue in cheek]

Chris has been frantically finishing our ISA paper, I've been
buried with getting the Pews Roundtables together, although
Patricio has done the lion's share of the work there, and buried
with developing a home page in a lull in the onslaught of papers
and tests that come with my position at Depauw.

So finally, I'll toss my 2 cents in the fray, Chris, may add 2
more later.

Though my sympathies are with the Blaut & Gunder sides of these
discussions, I think, as they have been flying through WSN, they
are a bit overstated. Joya and others are right, much of the
discussion hinges around different usages of terms, and different
measures of changes, and whether various changes are quantitative
or qualitative (e.g.,Central Asian merchant systems vs Dutch
stock market).

Chris and I argue in Rise & Demise [now out, separate posting on
that coming], that peninsular west Eurasia, or Afroeurasia as we
call it, was part of a large world-system for at least 2000
years, possibly more. For most of this time it was a peripheral
backwater. What was new there typically came in from elsewhere
[this latter is true back to the Bronze Age, as Sherratt argues].
But in the long-twelfth century (a la Abu-Lughod) things began to
change. Trade and commercialization as Sanderson, Frank, Blaut,
and others agree had been increasing, and all over the
Afroeurasian world-system capitalist-like features were
developing. Yet, contra, Gunder, the overall system was largerly
tributary in its overall logic. In the 13th c the Mongol
conquest disturbed this mightly, connecting the ends of Eurasia
as they had never been connected, and opening East Asia to trade
in ways that had heretofore not occurred, or a minimum not
occurred with such intensity.

The tributary form is, in our view, highly variable, and prone to
cycles. At one extreme are highly centralized states, at the
other are highly fragmented states, European feudalism a la Marc
Bloch, and the feudalism of Japan. Part of, but only part, of
what keeps both in the more decentralized mode is the extreme
positions on the ends of trade networks. This is what we add to
Sanderson's discussion of this issue.

In the long sixteenth century the far western end of Eurasia
began to catch up a little bit with other parts of the system due
to a combination of internal and external factors and processes.
Highly fragmented terrain helped keep political organization
fragmented; spread of a west Asian world religion (christianity)
facilitated communication and trade across contested regions
[frontiers or borders], spread of new technology, especially the
moldboard plow, helped make areas that could formerly at best
support horticultural adaptations capable of supporting more
surplus producing agrarian adaptations. Inventions of seafaring
capabilities along the Atlantic, once perfected gave these
peninsular dwellers a modicum of advantage, primarily over those
sailing the Mediterranean lake.

They pursued, not in concert to be sure, a "cut out the
middleman" trade strategy, taking an end run around Africa, and
what they thought was the backdoor to Asia, bumping into a 'new
world' where old diseases did most of the dirty work of
displacing natives and opening the door to new wealth in silver
and gold. Meantime, Chinese sailors had been forced home, both
to keep coastal areas from gaining too much power (wealth &
population) over the center, and a fear of Mongol resurgence.
[What early historians missed for a long time was that this fear
was reasonable, afterall look what Chinggis and his sons &
grandsons had done!]. Thus, these semi-barbarians from at best a
semiperipheral region sailed into a lucrative trade system which
had been vastly disrupted in the overland circuits, and which had
minimal competition on the oceanic routes [note minimal, not no

Accustomed as they were to fighting their way into anything,
including each other, they entered these trading circuits with a
fierceness and zeal that had long since been absent [because
heretofore not necessary for centuries] on the oceanic routes,
and where ferocity would not gain entry, silver and gold pilfered
from the Americas would. They were able to capitalize on their
advantages to gain the upper hand and dominate the system.

In the process, the wealth passing through traders, first in 18th
century Dutch Republics, and later England, allowed capitalists
to seize state power and build the first capitalist system in the
world. The story from there on for a few centuries is the one
Wallerstein & Arrighi have been telling us.

What is new here? Not the pieces, they've been around for quite
a while. It is the overall assembly and contextualizing these
events and processes with a Afroeurasian wide world-system. The
west europeans followed what we have called a typical marcher
state strategy: sitting on the edge, so they did not face
competitors on all sides, sufficiently in the system to acquire
its gains in technology and to some extent organizational
innovations, but sufficiently disarticulated from the system to
not be fully engulfed in its cycles--that is they were

So, where does this put us on these debates. Clearly, reading
out from the European experience, and looking only within Europe
leads to distorted theorizing. Eurocentrism is not bad because
it is bad form, but because it is bad theory--it misses the
entire point why the sometimes touted advantages of Europe
'worked' was precisely because it was part of, in a loose way, a
much larger system. That is close to the Frank-Blaut position.
But with some exceptions:
1) contra Gunder, there was a shift in mode of accumulation, and
something new came out of western, peninsular Afroeurasia. In
short, there was not one 5,000 year old world systems, but many
world-systems, which eventually became Eurasia about 2000 years
ago [or possibly a few centuries earlier.]
2) East Asia was surpassed for several centuries
3) Many parts of subsaharan Africa may have been on a par with
west Eurasia as late as the 12 or 13th century, but then they got
left behind. This is where we disagree with Blaut. [Here I not
sure if this is a major disagreement, or quibbling around the
edges of dates]. Again, system processes are key. Trade with
west Africa, across the Sahara and along the west coast go back
at least to the 9th century, but the trade is limited; ditto for
trade down the east coast. Once the slave trade picks up, all of
Africa is disturbed, disrupted, distorted, and disjointed. It
suffers backwash, or underdevelopmental effects.
4) If the pattern, not universal, but quite common, of semipheral
marcher succession continues, East Asia will not regain dominance
because of some return of the center of gravity of the political-
economy to its old home, but because some new form of
organization arises that can outcompete what is now conventional
multinational capitalism. Whether Deng's bastard hybrid of
socialism and capitalism is that new form remains to be seen.

Some caveats:
1) this is 2 page summary of about a two hundred page argument--
I've left out a lot of details;
2) the 'waffle words' [e.g. at least as far back as] reflect
BOTH: a) lack of good data [which unfortnately may never be
remedied], and b) that transitional periods, and inchoate forms
are, of necessity, fuzzy [precise terms applied to a fuzzy
situation are a distortion];
3) we reserve the right to change our minds and our arguments on
the basis of new evidence;
4) there is a great deal of unearthed evidence that may cause all
of us to change our arguemts. Some of the lack of evidence stems
from the Eurocentrism that Blaut and Frank have been pointing
out. There are other street lamps who regions of luminosity have
been only slightly explored. To use a positivist metaphor, I
think it would be useful to look at the so-called European
miracle as a 'dependent variable' built by a large system, rather
than the 'independent variable' which rebuilt the world.
tom hall
more on R&D soon, or check out

Thomas D. [tom] Hall
Department of Sociology
DePauw University
Greencastle, IN 46135