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Giovanni Arrighi Finds Adam Smith's Capitalism in China's Emerging Economic Might

Michael Northrup
THE ACCEPTABLE FACE: Giovanni Arrighi promotes.

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 3/5/2008

Symposium on Giovanni Arrighi's Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the 21st Century

2640 Space March 5 at 7 p.m.

Adam Smith--a Scottish economist whose most famous treatise, The Wealth of Nations, was published in 1776--has long been the patron saint of capitalism. So it's more than a little surprising that Giovanni Arrighi, a sociology professor at the Johns Hopkins University, argues that the country that is fulfilling Smith's vision today is not the United States but China. In his 2007 book, Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-first Century, Arrighi makes a case for Smith as a thinker more concerned with well-functioning markets than unbridled capitalism.

"The way we read classic texts of all time is always influenced by what's happening in our times," says Arrighi, who discusses his book at 2640 Space March 5 on a panel that also features City University of New York professor of anthropology David Harvey, New York University professor of comparative literature and East Asian studies Xudong Zhang, and Hopkins sociology professor Joel Andreas. Sitting in his two-room office at Hopkins' Homewood campus, Arrighi looks younger than his 70 years. "What has happened most recently has been the resurgence of East Asia and China. I have been teaching The Wealth of Nations for 25 years. But this time I reread it to see what Adam Smith had to say about China."

Arrighi found that Smith, like other Western thinkers of the time, was intrigued with China precisely because he found that the country successfully used markets to get things done. "Contrary to widespread opinions, markets are quite crucial as instruments of government, but particularly in countries the size of China," Arrighi says. "This is a crucial insight of Adam Smith."

Unlike sociologists who take the pulse of a society for the five- to seven-year length of a book or dissertation project, Arrighi takes a much longer view of world history. Although Smith in Beijing is primarily concerned with events since the 1970s, with a focus on the failure of U.S. military power under the George W. Bush presidency, these events are set within a larger economic and political history. But the macro-historical approach also leads Arrighi to draw some interesting conclusions. For example, he dismisses critics of China who claim that the country isn't democratic by arguing that the government's scale and use of market forces make it as democratic as the West in certain respects.

"One has to be careful in thinking that the forms of democracy and freedom of expression we have in our country should be the standard by which all others should be assessed," he says. "People forget that if the population of Latin America, North America, and Western Europe is put together, they still don't add up to the population of China." Then he cites low voting rates in the United States. "It's only a quarter of the U.S. population that decides what the Western world is going to go through."

China, on the other hand, may not be democratic in a Western sense, but recent reforms in the country are moving the country in that direction. "People think that the Chinese masses are pushed around and repressed," he says. "They may not have unions, but they're being far more active and rebellious than the American working class or the European working class has been in the last 10 or 15 years."

Arrighi cites the "war on terror" as the prime example of a conflict that has been carried out without the support of people living in the West. In his book, he predicts that the financial cost of the war will hurt the U.S., giving China the opportunity to gain political power. "The old joke was that Japan had won the Cold War, and the new joke is that China is winning the war on terror," he says. "This is no joke, because this has been a typical outcome of wars of imperialism in declining hegemony. It doesn't really matter if the wars are won, militarily or whatever. The longer that the U.S. stays there and is bogged down, the weaker it gets financially and politically, and the greater the space is for China to empower themselves."

Although China has not used its military power to enter conflicts, it has been criticized in recent years for financially supporting the Sudanese government that has caused the genocide there. Arrighi brushes aside these criticisms, noting that as reprehensible as they are, they are no different than the actions of the West. "I have a big problem with this exclusive focus," he says. "In Iraq, 10 percent of the population are refugees, and we don't know how many hundred thousand civilians have died.

"If you look for genocide and chaos, you can't just single out specific cases. I have no sympathy for these militias in Sudan or the Sudanese government, but why not then single out India? India's been in conversation with the Sudan. It all becomes very suspect when it all links up with the issue of who is challenging Western power."

While American politicians and business leaders fret about the rise of China as a world power, Arrighi argues that the United States has nothing to worry about. "There is no necessity for the welfare of the people to be reduced if the rest moves up," he says. "What's going to change is power relations. Europe and North America go around telling people what to do. They won't be able to push people around [in the future]."

The United States will remain influential in the world, but it has to use that influence carefully, Arrighi explains. Excessive use of military power will bankrupt the country, and attempts to export the American lifestyle, especially personal automobile ownership, to China and India will make those countries even more polluted than they are.

"The world is far from flat, but it may be flattening in terms of power relations," he says. "There is nothing to be afraid of, provided we can get over our addiction to war and to consumption patterns that cannot be generalized."

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