Journal of World History 13.2 (2002) 500-504
[Access article in PDF]
The Emergence of the Global Political Economy
The Emergence of the Global Political Economy. By WILLIAM R. THOMPSON. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. Pp. xi + 252. $25.99 (paper).
This is a provocative book which seeks patterns in political conflict and dominance in the global political economy—both patterns of evolution, in which the twentieth-century world can be seen as emerging from the dynamics of the system in an earlier period. Thompson argues that we have had a "world system" in some meaningful sense since the [End Page 500] tenth century, when Song China's commercialization touched off ripples across Eurasia. He also says that the rhythms of this world economy can be explained by Kondratieff waves, which last roughly sixty years and result from spurts of technical innovation. This last claim does not persuade me, but a brief review is not the place to debate it, and this book is quite interesting even if one doubts this piece of its foundation.
In Thompson's view, the innovations that touch off waves of growth give a particular society an opportunity for political/economic dominance based on their leadership in, or even monopoly over, the cutting edge sectors(s). (No distinction is made here between monopolies based on technological leadership in the usual sense and those based on forcible control of territory.) But in the long run, such dominance is always vulnerable; secrets leak, new technologies emerge, leading powers overextend themselves, and so on. There are likely to be multiple contenders for the role of new hegemonic power. Thompson emphasizes that the ultimately successful one has often not been the one who launched the most forceful frontal attack on the old leader, but one which allied with the old leader, in part because they perceived certain commonalities between themselves when compared to some other challenger: he cites the Anglo-American alliance against Germany and the Anglo-Dutch one against France, calling both cases of "maritime-commercial" powers allying against a "continental/territorial" threat. He also argues that there are often important links between the successors to leadership in terms of migration, investment, and shared orientations—including, of late, democratic tendencies that facilitate commercial and technological creativity.
Thompson provides an interesting account of what John Wills once called "the interactive emergence of European dominance," which builds on work by Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Christopher Bayly, and others to show that the emergent centrality of Europe can only be explained as the result of a larger interacting system. While I have some quarrels with the argument—especially its failure to separate a very partial European hegemony before 1800 from the much larger gap in wealth and other capabilities that emerged thereafter—there is much to praise here. Thompson is particularly good when he looks sympathetically but skeptically at the claims made by many of the new world historians that the "specialness" of early modern Europe had been exaggerated—for instance, his account of what was and wasn't similar in the relationships between commercial/maritime states and land-based empires in Europe on the one hand and the Indian Ocean world on the other was quite illuminating. Also helpful was Thompson's [End Page 501] emphasis on certain kinds of continuities between what are sometimes thought of as distinct "eras" in world history: The ways in which he shows the continued importance of "eighteenth-century mercantilist" concerns, such as the balance of payments, and of "eighteenth-century mercantilist" techniques, such as licensed monopolies, forced labor, and armed trading, into the nineteenth-century era of "liberal" empire are quite important and salutary. At the most general level, his efforts to find some patterns of evolution in the development of the world system—not law-like recurrences, but not radical singularity for each period, either—seems quite reasonable, and builds in an interesting way on the work of Stephen Sanderson and others.
Nonetheless, I was left with many unresolved questions. First, I was not satisfied by Thompson's justification for such a strong focus...