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Karl Marx between Two Worlds: The Antinomies of Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing

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image of Historical Materialism

Adam Smith in Beijing is a huge and sprawling book, but Giovanni Arrighi has done a great service with his world-historical vision of today’s capitalism and the growing rivalry between a fading American empire and the rising power of China. This is a task beyond most of us, and one bound to put the writer at risk of criticism from many quarters. The book shines in two regards. One is to make geographical dynamics central to world-history ‐ which means seeing the global economy as more than the sum of development-histories of many places or, worse, the spread of capitalism from one country to another. A second virtue is embedding economic history in the politics of the international state-system, featuring the use of force, imperial expansion, and the role of hegemonic powers. Nevertheless, Arrighi’s economic-geographic analysis fails to convince on a number of critical points, such as the origins of industrial revolution, why Europe overtook China in early modern times, why the US economy faltered after 1970, why finance has run amuck in our time, how Japan grew so enormously after World War II, or why China is expanding so prodigiously today.

Affiliations: 1: University of California-Berkeley, Email:


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