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Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 111-114

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Book Review

ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age

ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age. By Andre Gunder Frank. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Pp. xxix + 416. $55 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

We have long been indebted to Andre Gunder Frank for giving us unforgettable concepts--terms that we cannot do without, even when our "take" on them is not exactly his, and even when he has not always been their originator--to wit: "the development of underdevelopment," "dependency and underdevelopment," "the lumpenbourgeoisie." In ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age, he now gives us the brilliant "Re-Orient," an incisive bon mot that not only steers us away from Eurocentric history but emphasizes the persistence, even [End Page 111] during the so-called period of European hegemony, of Asia's vigor and significance.

The book is written in the classic iconoclastic and synthetic style we expect from Frank, who is so skilled a debater that he not only makes strong arguments on behalf of his own position but anticipates all possible criticisms, refuting them before his opponents have a chance to open their mouths. Like Muhammad Ali, Frank floats like a butterfly (raising all possible objections) and stings like a bee (reserving his sharpest jabs for those with whom he shares the most).

In support of his position he has assembled a prodigious amount of evidence from secondary sources, even if he occasionally distorts their findings to advance his argument or commits a rare (and excusable) blunder. (Not to be picayune but only to suggest a correction to be made in the next edition, one might point out that Suraiya Farouki is a she, not a he.) The bibliography alone is worth the price of the book, although I missed a reference to the often neglected work of Lefton Stavrianos (Global Rift: The Third World Comes of Age [New York: William Morrow, 1981], which contains a long section [pp. 33-168] on the period between 1400 and 1700). Inevitably, however, despite his commitment to escape primary dependence on Western sources, Frank is limited, as we have all been, by insufficient original works from other parts of the world. Primary research from non-Western scholars will undoubtedly require future revisions, but we must recognize that these sources will also be as flawed (ethnocentric) as our own. I return to this issue below.

But first, what is Frank's argument? I extract from his own summary to capture both the tone and substance of his thesis: Focusing on the centuries immediately preceding 1750-1800, Frank argues that Asia's economy not only persisted but still overshadowed that of Europe.

Contrary to the mistaken allegations of Braudel and Wallerstein... our study...leads to the inevitable conclusion that early modern history was shaped by a long since operational world economy and not just by the expansion of a European world system. [This] worldwide division of labor was made operational through chain-linked trade relations and (im)balances, [of which monetary flows were its] lifeblood....[Not only was Asia] preponderant in this global economy, but...its technology and economic institutions and processes were derivative from and adaptive to the world economy itself. [Thus], the real world economy/system...cannot be squeezed into the procrustian structure of Wallerstein's European-centered "modern world-system," for the globe-encompassing world economy/system did not have [End Page 112] a single center but at most a hierarchy of centers, probably with China at the top (pp. 327-28).

Those familiar with my previous work (Before European Hegemony [New York: Oxford, 1989]) can immediately see why I am predisposed to endorse his formulation, which not only extends the period of "before European hegemony" well beyond the thirteenth century, but also compresses the West's period of imperial and technological dominance to a briefer two centuries. (In this, Frank revises his earlier World Accumulation, 1492-1789 [New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978].)

Does this mean that nothing remains for later scholars to do? Hardly! Although Frank...