Cycles of Accumulation and Hegemony Between Private Accumulating Classes and State Accumulating Classes

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Barry K. Gills and Andre Gunder Frank:

"The perpetual "symbiotic conflict" between private accumulating classes and state accumulating classes is indicative of cycles of accumulation. The oscillation between unitary hegemonies and multi-actor states systems is indicative of cycles of hegemony in the world system. Cycles of accumulation and cycles of hegemony are probably causally interrelated. This causal interrelationship appears to date frvery early in world system history in various parts of the world system.

These cycles and their interrelationship are the central phenomena of the world system's longest cumulative patterns. These cycles have partly been analyzed by Gills's (1989) analysis of synchronization, conjuncture, and center shift in the cycles of east Asian history. Briefly, prior to the industrialization of production, the phase of accumulation in which private accumulating classes become dominant seems to be closely associated with the decline of hegemonies and their political fragmentation. That is, decentralization of accumulation affects the decentralization of political organization. These processes may be called "entropic." Phases of accumulation in which the bureaucratic state elite is dominant seem to be associated with the consolidation of hegemonies. That is, the centralization of accumulation affects the centralization of political organization, and vice versa. However, rising and declining hegemonies also call forth opposing (and also temporarily supporting) alliances to thwart existing and threatening hegemonial powers. Shifting alliances seem to promote some kind of "balance of power." All this may seem obvious, but the cyclical dynamic of hegemony (also through political conflict and shifting alliances) in relation to the process of accumulation has not previously been given the attention it, deserves.

Implosion from the hinterland upon the center appears to be most likely to occur in entropic phases of the system. The hinterland, and perhaps the periphery, take advantage of weakness or entropy in the center to restructure the structure of accumulation. This may occur by usurping political power at the center, or by "secession" from the center altogether.

Too much attention has been given to the political and strategic aspects of long cycles of war and leadership with the exclusion of the underlying dynamics of accumulation. General war, as Modelski (1987) argues, does indeed produce new sets of victors who go on to establish a new order. However, one should not merely examine the political and military aspects of these cycles. The new victors, without exception, also proceed to restructure world accumulation. This and not mere political realignments or "order" alone is the ultimate end of such general conflict. The intense military rivalry that proceeds hegemony may stimulate production, but much of the economic benefit is consumed in the process of rivalry and war. Typically, a new hegemony is followed by a period of infrastructural investment and economic expansion, which is "the hegemonic prosperity 'phase" of accumulation. A unified hegemony usually reduces or even eliminates previous political obstructions to the greater integration of the economic nexus. This has a tremendous impact on the process of accumulation.

We must contemplate the existence, and study the development, of a wider world system farther back in world history to find answers to a host of questions about the dynamics of states systems and cycles of accumulation and hegemony. Particularly important are questions about the existence of world system wide accumulation processes and shifts in the centralization of accumulation from one zone of the world system to another. How do such shifts affect cycles of hegemony? What are the real patterns and "laws" of the world system's overall expansion, transformation, and decay?


The historical process of economic surplus management and capital accumulation is so interregional and inter-"societal" as to lead to the conclusion that it constituted a process of world accumulation in the world system over the millennia. A privileged position therein, in which one zone of the world system and its constituent ruling and propertied classes are able to accumulate surplus more effectively and concentrate accumulation at the expense of other zones, could be called "super-hegemony."

Thus, super-hegemony is also a class position in the overarching world-accumulation processes of the world system. A research agenda would be to examine the causes of possible super-hegemony, positional shifts from one zone to another, and the degree to which super-hegemony is transformed into further economic and political power within the world system. While hegemony is built up of center-periphery-hinterland complexes, super-hegemony occurs in the largest field possible, that of the entire world system and all its constituent hegemonic structures.

Super-hegemony links all the constituent hegemonies into one overarching systemic whole. Of course, the degree of institutional integration among distinct hegemonies is not as great as the degree of integration within each hegemony. Nevertheless, contemporary and/or contiguous hegemonies are not autonomous if interpenetrating accumulation exists. In the entire class structure of the world system, in whatever mode of accumulation, the super-hegemonic class position is the most privileged and the ultimate "center of centers" in the world-accumulation process.

To what extent did this overarching super-hegemony rest or operate on more than the mere outward exercise of political power and the radiation of cultural diffusion? In particular, to what extent and through what mechanisms did such overarching super-hegemony include centralized (super-hegemonic) capital accumulation? Was accumulation fed through the inward flow and absorption of economic surplus generated in and/or transferred through other (sub)-hegemonic centers? The answers to both questions are in general affirmative, for which we can find ample historical evidence if we only look for it. For instance, William McNeill (in conversation with Frank) suggests that China itself accumulated capital by absorbing surplus and capital from the West in the several centuries before 1500 ad. Was China therefore super-hegemonic? Prior to China, India was possibly super-hegemonic in the world system. In the period of the eighth and ninth centuries ad, the Abbassid caliphate, with its great metropole at Baghdad, may have been super-hegemonic. The development of European domination over the Mughal, Qing, and Ottoman empires should however also be understood in terms of the conjuncture of European expansion and these regions' entropic phases of accumulation and hegemony. In the nineteenth century, Great Britain is a candidate for super-hegemonic status, followed by the United States in the mid-twentieth century, and possibly Japan in the very late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Thus, super-hegemony need not be limited only to the capitalist world economy, but may have existed at other times in the history of world system development. Super-hegemony is more flexible than empire, or imperialism. Super-hegemony operates not only through political and interstate levels of diplomacy, alliance, and war, but also and maybe more importantly, through super-accumulation.

If super-hegemony existed before recent times, how, when, and why did the super-hegemonic center of the world system, the most favored locus of accumulation, shift around the world system? What effects did such shifts in super-hegemonic centers have upon, and what "functional" role, if any, did they play in, the world system's development? For instance, the super-hegemony of the Abbassids in the eighth century was reflected in their ability to defeat Tang China at Talas in 751, their treaty of alliance with the Tang in 798 ad, and their continued ability to control Central Asia. Perhaps the super-hegemony of Britain contributed to its ability to arbitrate the balance of power on the continent of Europe and to defeat bids to impose a unitary hegemony, such as that by Napoleon? The super-hegemony of the United States after 1945 allowed it to restructure the international order and greatly expand its economic and military influence in the world system. It remains to be seen whether or how Japan might translate super-hegemonic status in world-accumulation processes into further political and economic power in the world system in the twenty-first century.

Cumulation of accumulation

How long, then, has there been an overarching and interpenetrating world system process of capital accumulation, which affected the structure of the structures of which it is composed? In other words, how long has there been a cumulative process of capital accumulation on a world system scale? The (occasional and temporary) existence of super-hegemony also implies super-accumulation at those times, as noted above. Even in the absence of super-hegemony, however, the process of accumulation in one zone of the world system would not have been the same without the linkages to the process of-accumulation in another zone or zones of the world system. Therefore, even competing hegemonies and linked structures and processes of accumulation could have contributed to the world system wide cumulation of accumulation. Indeed, such an overarching structure of accumulation and the resulting process of cumulation of accumulation implies that there may be a unitary "logic" of systemic development.

The cumulation of accumulation in the world system thus implies not only a continuous, but also a cumulative, historical process of ecological, economic, technological, social, political, and cultural change. Cumulation of accumulation involves or requires no uniformity among these processes throughout the system or its parts, no unison among its parts, no unidirectionality of change in either the pans or the whole, and certainly no uniformity of speed of change.

On the contrary, both the historical evidence an our analysis suggest unity in diversity (to use the phrase Mikhail Gorbachev used at the United Nations). The unity of the world system and its cumulative process of accumulation are based on the diversity of center-periphery-hinterland, mode-of-accumulation, and hegemonic differences we have emphasized. Of course they also rest on the variety of social, gender, racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, ideological, and other differences, which characterize humankind. Historical change in both the whole (system) and its parts takes place in many "progressive" and "retrogressive" directions, and not unidirectionally or even in unison between here and there.

For this reason among others, historical change also takes place and even cumulates, not uniformly, but at changing rates, sometimes fast, sometimes slowly, sometimes (degenerating) in reverse. Indeed, as in physical transformations and in biological evolution, historical change suddenly accelerates and/or bifurcates at critical junctures. More than likely, contemporaries are rarely aware that they are living and acting in such "special" periods - and many at other times who think they are, are not. Hindsight seems to throw more light on history than foresight or even contemporary side-sight or introspection. Yet even historical hindsight has a long way to go, especially in grasping the dynamics and variability of historical change. We briefly return to these problems below under the subtitle "dynamics."