The theory of the world-system applied to the Afro-Eurasian ensemble (4th century BC – 6th century AD)

Our today topic is world systems theory strengths and weaknesses.Like the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean has, over the centuries, formed a unified and hierarchized space through its exchanges. Based on geographical and historical data, these exchanges – maritime and land – were carried by merchant networks, politico-military networks and information networks. All these exchanges have contributed to unifying a geographical space that extends well beyond the Indian Ocean, from China to Europe and Africa, where regional events and developments appear interdependent. The synchronization observed between the evolutions of the different regions of the Old World connected by exchanges constitutes an indication (not sufficient in itself) of the systemic character of these relations.

World systems theory strengths and weaknesses

The concept of system-world was introduced by Wallerstein [1974] for the modern era. Among its characteristics, Wallerstein points to an incessant accumulation of capital, a transregional division of labor, growing phenomena of dominance between “heart” and “periphery”, the alternation – within the heart – of periods of hegemony exercised by a power with phases of rivalry between several powers, and the existence of cycles. The division of labor implies the introduction of unequal exchanges in which the centers of the system, based on an efficient mobilization of the labor force, their capacity for innovation and their politico-military power, produce and sell manufactured goods on markets by establishing more or less monopolistic situations. The peripheral regions, on the contrary, are forced to sell mainly raw materials and slaves in competitive markets. Intermediaries between centers and peripheries, semi-peripheries mix organizational forms of these two ends of the hierarchy of the system.

For Frank and Gills [1993], these characteristics have in fact been present for several thousand years in a Western Afro-Eurasian world-system. Moreover, according to these authors, the role of capital accumulation, market and individual enterprise in old societies has been largely underestimated.

The critics

Frank can, however, be reproached for having sought explanation only at the level of totality. The evolution of the different parts of the system is in fact the result of the articulation of local, regional and global dynamics. Moreover, beyond the economic, political and ideological domination, the relationship between the heart and the periphery can be accompanied by “co-evolution” phenomena, and the peripheries have never remained “passive”; certain peripheries at least showed a real “negotiating capacity” with the dominant centers, to which Frank paid too little attention.

I also departed from Wallerstein on at least two points. For him. “The so-called pre-modern world system” only exchanged luxury goods and not commodities, and therefore could not know the “axial division of labor” characteristic of the modern world. In fact, raw goods are part of the trade in old times. The archaeological data and texts clearly show this for the beginning of the Christian era. Moreover, Wallerstein’s idea that trade in luxury goods does not have significant systemic effects is debatable. Other authors have emphasized the structuring effects of the circulation of luxury goods because of the dominance of these goods by the dominant elites: any change in their flows affects political hierarchies [Schneider, 1977]. It is therefore possible to consider the existence of world-systems before the modern period, but an Afro-Eurasian system is doubtless formed only at the beginning of the Christian era.

The geography of the world system

From the 1 st to the 16 th century, this world system is structured around five “hearts”, sometimes multi-centered:

(1) China,

(2) India,

(3) Western Asia,

(4) Egypt,

(5) Mediterranean Europe and then North-West Europe.

Geography and trade networks draw three large areas in the maritime areas: the China Sea, the East Indian Ocean and the Western Indian Ocean, the latter having a dichotomy between the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.

In the construction of the system, it is necessary to underline the crucial role of cities, especially metropolises, located at the nodes of the networks, the metropolises that direct production and exchanges, according to a hierarchical structure. Ocean areas at the intersection of two subsystems also enjoy a privileged location, such as South-East Asia, South India and Ceylon, in part because of the monsoon system. The development of maritime trade depends, in part, on the relations established between the coast and the hinterland.

The pulsations of the world-system

Since its inception, the Afro-Eurasian world-system has developed and restructured throughout a series of centuries-long economic cycles that coincide with political and religious developments, often with climatic cycles [Beaujard, 2009 ]. Until the 17 th century, four cycles can be distinguished on a curve with increasingly accentuated slope. They mark a progressive integration of the different parts of the system, with an overall growth of demography, production, volume of trade, and urban development. These phenomena are accompanied by technical progress and a growing investment of capital.

Each upward phase is accompanied by advances in agriculture, technical innovations and expansion of trade. Ideological and institutional innovations also play a crucial role. The growth phases saw the crystallization of large political entities – in China in particular, China, which has played a leading role in the system since its formation – which initially contribute to growth through investment; then we see the disintegration of these political entities in period of global withdrawal.

The mechanisms of cycles

Where do these phases of withdrawal come from? No doubt the cycle is inherent in the structure of the system itself (see below). The causes appear to be multiple: internal contradictions of states and societies, a policy unfavorable to production and trade, political struggles … More generally, the increase in complexity – economic and socio-political – is accompanied by an increase in costs, and any society or set of firms eventually reach a threshold beyond which marginal returns to investment decline [Tainter, 1988]; the complexity then becomes less attractive, and a process of disintegration tends to engage; a decline in investment returns and a loss of competitiveness would ultimately lead to decentralization and century BCE). The reduction in available resources (wood, metals, etc.) is also responsible for an increase in costs and a decrease in investment. In addition, the states of the hearts have in vain prevented the dissemination of techniques which, on the one hand, founded their pre-eminent position. As a further factor in reversing the cycle, the population growth that accompanies periods of economic progress leads to environmental problems and social tensions. Contacting remote areas also promotes the outbreak of epidemics [McNeill, 1998]. Moreover, the ecological changes and the cycles themselves are correlated with climate changes initiated by solar cycles.

In the recessionary phases, the world system does not disappear, but requires a restructuring of networks, as well as interconnected states and societies. On the whole, a set of combined forces thus causes a pulsation of the system, the overall movement following an ascending line.

I will try in a future article to follow the process of unification of the Indian Ocean in the light of these mechanisms, in the training phase of the world-system and during its first cycle, which ends in 7 th century .
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