At the dawn of the twenty-first century, in a time of momentous change — from the Arab Revolutions to the Occupy Wall Street movement that inspired protests across the globe — few scholarly contributions have proved more enduring or of greater contemporary relevance than the landmark interventions of Giovanni Arrighi, who passed away on 18 June 2009. The range of Arrighi's prodigious contributions, from the study of white settler colonialism in Southern Africa, to the rise of Chinese-led East Asia, to his analyses of the global system, world inequalities and antisystemic movements from the late medieval period to the present, represent a truly impressive achievement (Arrighi et al., 2010; Reifer, 2009).

Born in Milan in 1937, Arrighi went from studying neoclassical economics and running his father's business to working for the Dutch multinational Unilever, and then on to a teaching post in Southern Africa. It was in Rhodesia (today's Zimbabwe), from which he was eventually deported for his work in the anticolonial movement, and subsequently in Dar es Salaam, that Arrighi (2009: 64) helped pioneer what came to be known as the ‘Southern African Paradigm on the limits of proletarianization and dispossession’, in the whole macro-region of Africa that Samir Amin (1974: 317–33) called ‘the Africa of the labour reserves’. Here, Arrighi and colleagues emphasized the extreme racialized proletarianization through dispossession of the black African peasantry necessary to create a low-wage transnational migrant proletariat for the mines and manufacturing industries of Southern Africa. ‘Stretching from South Africa, through Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi, to Tanzania and Kenya, this region was characterized by a combination of great mineral wealth, a white settler agriculture with no parallel elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, and a chronic shortage of labor’ (Arrighi et al., 1989: 412).

During those heady days of the 1960s, Arrighi met and worked with people such as Basker Vashee — later head of the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute, an international fellowship of committed scholar-activists which continues today — as well as other leading scholar-activists, notably Walter Rodney — of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa fame — and Immanuel Wallerstein. This period thus initiated Arrighi's long-standing work and collaboration with world-systems founder Wallerstein that would result in Arrighi becoming one of the perspective's chief, most original and prodigious proponents. World-systems analysis came out of the social movements of the 1960s, especially the world revolution of 1968, bringing together a fecund synthesis of Marxism, Third World radicalism and critical currents in world social science, from the geohistory of the Annales school to the German historical school.

This intellectual movement critiquing mainstream social science emerged boldly on the scene with the publication of Wallerstein's (1974) landmark The Modern World-System (Goldfrank, 2000). As William Martin (2005) once noted, the world-systems perspective, like the capitalist world economy, has deep African roots. Thus, not surprisingly, early adumbrations of world-systems analysis can be seen in the work of black African diaspora intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Aime Cesaire, Oliver Cox, Walter Rodney, Eric Williams and Bernard Magubane (Reifer, 2009: 120). As for Arrighi's closest co-conspirators, as they sometimes referred to themselves, Terence Hopkins and Immanuel Wallerstein were sympathetic with the student movement that occupied parts of Columbia University during the student uprising of 1968. Soon thereafter Hopkins and Wallerstein established the institutional base of world-systems analysis at SUNY Binghamton in New York, complete with the formation of the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems and Civilizations, and its journal Review. Arrighi, after returning to teaching and social activism in Italy, subsequently joined the Binghamton faculty in the late 1970s. A host of the world's leading Africanists also taught there, most notably Bernard Magubane and Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch.

Around the same time, Arrighi published his The Geometry of Imperialism, which he eventually came to reconceptualize as a ‘preface…to a theory of world-hegemony’ (Arrighi, 1983: 172). This rethinking became the basis for the book for which Arrighi is justly most famous, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times (1994/2010), in a landmark analysis later elaborated and expanded upon in his brilliant and iconoclastic Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century (2007). Then, in the last decades of his life, Arrighi returned to the work on labour reserves and geo-economic regions that formed his earliest and most notable intellectual contributions, as he sought to understand the bifurcation in the global system into regions of growing wealth and poverty beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in this era of the counter-revolution in development policy with its Washington Consensus.

Here, Arrighi spatiotemporally mapped the polarization between the world's rich and poor, focusing on regions of growing wealth, notably East Asia, along with those regions that were part of what he called the organic core of the capitalist world economy, contrasting them with the collapse of developmentalist efforts in Latin America, Africa, South Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. It was this period of the 1980s and beyond that revealed what Arrighi called ‘the developmentalist illusion’, as regions ranging from sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, as well as the Middle East and North Africa, fell further behind the world's rich in terms of income per capita. Here, the African crisis and tragedy stood in stark contrast to East Asia (Arrighi, 2002, 2007, 2010; Reifer, 2011a). Thus it was eventually to a comparative analysis of sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia that Arrighi turned his sights, in a lifetime journey that brought him from Africa to Asia (Austin-Holmes and Schmalz, 2011).


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In retrospect, Arrighi's (2002, 2009) method can clearly be seen as both a continuation and original reworking of the analysis of geo-economic regions previously adumbrated by the Annales school's Lucien Febvre and Fernand Braudel, and later revamped by world-systems founder Immanuel Wallerstein. Arrighi's (2002) own unique contribution here came from his laser-like focus on the geohistory of different world regions in terms of their pre-colonial heritage, colonialism (or uniquely, for Africa, the transatlantic slave trade), and the period after formal independence (Eltis and Richardson, 2010; Lovejoy, 2012; Mamdani, 1996; Nunn, 2007, 2010). What is especially interesting here is that Arrighi's work, most notably on labour reserves in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia, intersects with some of the most important classical and contemporary work comparing world regions, central to understanding capitalist development and underdevelopment, global inequalities and the prospects for a more egalitarian and democratic world-system today.

In recent decades, simultaneous with the resurgence of Chinese-led East Asia, there has been a pronounced renewal of interest in what is today referred to as the ‘great divergence’ between Europe, its white settler offshoots, and East Asia — themes all taken up in Arrighi's Long Twentieth Century and Adam Smith in Beijing. Today, it is increasingly recognized that the divergence in wealth and power between these two regions comes from a much later date than previously believed, specifically to the period after 1800. Here, Arrighi (1990a: 12–13) sharply critiqued commonplace understandings of the process of development and underdevelopment widely held by both dependency and world-systems analysts, specifically underscoring the limits of the concept of ‘unequal exchange’. For as he pointed out, equally or arguably even more important ‘have been two other mechanisms, which we may designate as unilateral transfers of labour, on the one hand, and of capital, on the other’, both forcible and voluntary, as the growth of the white settler states in what James Belich (2009, 2010) calls the Anglo-World and the black Atlantic slave trade so paradigmatically illustrate.

Arrighi's insights on the polarization of the world economy in the late nineteenth century were extended in his ‘Marxist Century, American Century: The Making and Remaking of the World Labour Movement’ (Arrighi, 1990b). Here Arrighi illustrated the way in which the contradictory theses of Marx and Engel's Communist Manifesto, describing on the one hand proletarian strength and on the other hand proletarian weakness, actually reflected exactly this late nineteenth century polarization of the world-system. During this period the world saw the rise of wages, complete with labour aristocracies tied via ethno-national race-ethnic status groups to the nation state through citizenship, with their attendant support of imperialism and the killing of workers of other nation states, nationalities and racial-ethnic groups during World Wars I and II in the core and semi-periphery. Simultaneously, most of the wretched of the earth and antisystemic revolutions were relegated to the periphery and semi-periphery.

As Arrighi (1990b, 1991) intimated, when ‘The Communist Manifesto’ was penned, on the eve of the world revolution of 1848, class position was determined to a significant degree by one's position within the nation state. Thus, although of course significant to large income gaps between nations and regions go back to the earliest centuries of the European-centred world economy, as Wallerstein and others have shown, as the nineteenth century progressed class position became increasingly determined by location, reflecting as it did the growth of inequalities between nations. This widening divergence of development trajectories is still very much with us today (Milanovic, 2010, 2012; Williamson, 2011). Arrighi (1990a, 1990b, 1991, 2002) chronicled this divergent polarization of the world-system over the longue duree, showing the worsening of the position of the majority of world regions, measured in terms of the percentage of GNP per capita relative to that of the First World and the organic core of the capitalist world economy (Arrighi and Zhang, 2011).


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In examining the unfolding of the African crisis and tragedy in comparative perspective, while noting sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, North Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East's greater foreign debt, dependence on foreign capital and to varying extents, natural resource dependence relative to East Asia, Arrighi nevertheless underscored the limits of such factors as an explanatory framework, arguing instead for the centrality of geohistory. Here, Arrighi (1973) returned to his early critique of W. Arthur Lewis's (1954) article, ‘Unlimited Supplies of Labor’ — almost universally regarded as the single most important contribution to the growth of development economics as a field — and W.J. Barber's (1961) application of this thesis to Rhodesia. Lewis's article, which became a staple of modernization theory and led to him being awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics, argued that underdeveloped areas were characterized by ‘unlimited supplies of labour’. Lewis furthermore postulated a neoclassical free market theory of wage determination, where labour in the capitalist sector can indefinitely expand without necessarily increasing wages. The policy prescription was to promote industrialization, seen as synonymous with development, or what Arrighi (1990a) came to call the ‘developmentalist illusion’ (Tignor, 2006).

In this early tour de force critique of modernization theory and its dualistic model of two sectors, one traditional and one capitalist, Arrighi (1973) pointed out that this situation of unlimited supplies of labour never really applied to Africa. Moreover, Arrighi argued, neoclassical development theory — with its assumption of natural market forces stimulating African participation in wage labour — belied the reality of periodic labour shortages in the region. The theory was an ideological smokescreen, masking the historical reality of white settler colonial capitalism as a system of power and domination based on violence and coercion rather than the ostensible natural forces of the free market (Crais, 2002, 2011). In fact, white settler colonialism throughout Southern Africa and beyond was characterized by the racialized expropriation of livestock and the vast majority of black African land as a necessary concomitant to the forced proletarianization of the African peasantry, replete with the coercive political regulation of labour along with monopolistic white-dominated markets.

The scramble for and division of Africa with the rush to colonize, especially following the discovery of gold and diamonds (later to evolve into the region's minerals and energy complex), involved the creation of overpopulated native and extraterritorial reserves of labour throughout Africa. With the ejection of Africans by the brutal force of white settler colonial power and private chartered joint stock companies, these ‘Native reserves’ soon came to house the black African majority. This was made possible through so-called customary native authority with its system of ‘define and rule’, namely indirect rule via what Mahmood Mamdani (1996, 2012) calls decentralized despotism in rural areas, along with centralized despotism or direct rule in urban zones. This dual system included a host of measures, including forced taxation, pass laws and restrictions on African market trading and land acquisition, all leading to increasingly necessary African participation in wage labour irrespective of rising wages, in order to reproduce their livelihoods. These transformations were all part of Europe's underdevelopment of Africa. Though dating back to the beginnings of European conquest, this system reached its most extreme form in modern South Africa, where with the 1913 Land Act the African majority was confined to the so-called Bantustans or townships in some 7.3 per cent of the country, with millions subjected to forced removals as urbanization and industry grew and apartheid was increasingly formalized over the course of the twentieth century (Arrighi, 1973; Kelsall, 2013; Magubane, 1990, 1996; Terreblanche, 2002; Thompson, 2000).

Moreover, the import of guns and export of slaves which was the basis for African–European relations in the modern period and central to the making of the capitalist world economy, replete with restrictions on African market trading, made worse the structural shortage of labour that then existed in the continent. It also contributed to African overspecialization in the protection industry and lack of an entrepreneurial class as in Chinese-led East Asia. For during the Atlantic slave trade, as is often noted, West African chiefdoms prospered while Africa bled (Eltis and Richardson, 2010: Lovejoy, 2012). And yet, as Arrighi (2002) pointed out, even before the devastating consequences of the Atlantic slave trade, in sharp contrast to many other world regions, Africa's shortage was never that of land but instead a demographic deficit of people, or labour.

This relates to another of Arrighi's themes, namely his comparison of Europe, East Asia and Africa. As Arrighi (2002) argued, Western Europe and its settler offshoots developed along what Adam Smith (1776) called the unnatural path of development, namely an extroverted militarized form of state–corporate capitalism focused on labour-saving technology, foreign trade and high finance, relative to East Asia's relatively introverted natural market-based path, which in contrast engaged in labour-absorbing rather than labour-saving technology, until the fusion of these paths to a significant extent in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Yet even with white settler colonialism, as Arrighi (2002) emphasized, it was only on the backs of 12.5 million enslaved Africans — some 10 million of whom were exported to the Americas — that the lands of new white settlement were built. This process exacerbated an already pronounced demographic deficit in Africa, furthering the continent's underdevelopment and Western Europe and North America's development (David Davis, 2006, 2010; Eltis and Richardson, 2010; Nunn, 2007, 2010; Thornton, 2012). Here, too, Arrighi (2002) touched upon the radically different paths of state formation throughout much of Eurasia and Africa. Africa's pre-modern demographic deficit and subsequent state deformation and overspecialization in violence-controlling enterprises furthering African underdevelopment was greatly exacerbated by the Atlantic slave trade and European colonial rule, neocolonialism, and Cold War militarization thereafter (Anderson, 1990; Goody, 1971; Herbst, 2000; Young, 1994).


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Arrighi developed these insights so as to chronicle the bifurcation of the world-system in the period of the late 1970s and beyond, ‘between the deteriorating performance of Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and to a lesser extent the Middle East and North Africa, on the one hand, and the improving performance of East and South Asia on the other… The African collapse was a particularly extreme manifestation of this divergence’ (2002: 16).

In explaining how the African crisis of the 1970s turned into the African tragedy of the 1980s and beyond, simultaneous with the rising wealth of East Asia, Arrighi turned to the crucial importance for both Africa and East Asia of the changing fortunes of the US hegemony in the 1970s, 1980s and beyond. To explicate this argument, one must turn to Arrighi's The Long Twentieth Century (1994/2010). For it was here, in his magnum opus, that Arrighi showed how capitalism evolved through periodic interrelated systemic cycles of accumulation and hegemonic cycles over a series of long centuries, characterized by material and then financial expansions of the capitalist world economy. Here, financial expansions are taken to be the signs of the autumn of a particular stage of global capitalist development and of the world hegemonies of which they are an integral part. In a stunningly original argument that synthesized the work of Marx, Weber and Braudel in new and unique ways, Arrighi noted that during these autumns, there is an intensified interstate competition for mobile capital, which dictates to states the conditions under which it would assist them to power, thereby leading to ever greater concentrations of capital in a rising hegemonic centre.

This intensified demand for mobile capital in the context of a crisis of overaccumulation and an overabundance of surplus capital created the requisite supply and demand conditions for recurrent financial expansions. These financial expansions, while temporarily reflating the power of the declining hegemon, leading to successive belle époques, over time only exacerbated the global crisis of capital accumulation and world hegemony. Most recently, of course, the world has seen an interrelated succession of speculative bubbles from the 1980s to the present, ending with the global financial crisis and accompanying Great Recession of 2008 and the related European sovereign debt crisis in the context of massive austerity programmes (Kindleberger and Aliber, 2011; Reifer, 2009–10).

As these recurrent crises deepened in space and time, this then ushered in periods characterized by the growing polarization of wealth, increasing systemic chaos, global wars, the rise and eventual defeat of continental challengers and the increasing concentration of capital in ever bigger and more comprehensive hegemonic containers. This provided for a new systemic cycle of accumulation, complete with an organizational revolution and the coming together of a new bloc of business and governmental organizations under the leadership of a rising hegemonic power. These rising hegemons represented the formation of politico-economic structures ‘endowed with ever-more extensive and complex organizational capabilities to control the social and political environment of capital accumulation on a world scale’ (Arrighi, 2010: 15). Successive hegemonic powers then remake the modern world-system on new and enlarged social foundations, in a cycle of ever more global hegemonies that went from Venice to the United Provinces, the UK and US (Reifer, 2009).

Moreover, it was exactly in this context of the US competition on the global capital markets from 1979 onwards and the reflation of world demand on the West that the crucial demographic realities of East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa discussed earlier came to the fore. As Arrighi (2002: 22) showed, the effects of this switch in US policy, intimately related to decline and crisis of US hegemony in the 1970s, ‘split word regions into two groups’: those that were able to benefit from producing commodities to meet the reflated demand in the West, and those that were unable to take advantage of this new conjuncture in the global system.

On the one hand there were the relatively greater debt burdens and foreign direct investment (FDI) of many Second and Third World regions relative to East Asia. On the other hand, among the greatest advantages of the latter region, relative to the former, was the crucial role of land reform, productivist-based accumulation structures, limitations on open markets and FDI, along with virtually unlimited supplies of labour. Additionally, there was the abundance of entrepreneurial talent, most especially via the overseas Chinese diaspora, with deep geohistorical roots in the Chinese tributary system. All of this stood in sharp contrast to Africa, which owing to the pre-modern demographic deficit, the disruptive effects of the slave trade, as well as the colonial and neocolonial legacy, had none of these geohistorical advantages (Arrighi, 2002, 2007).

Thus, with East Asia and to a lesser extent South Asia — India in particular — again being notable exceptions, the counter-revolution of development policy expressed in the rise of the neoliberal Washington Consensus and Wall Street–Treasury nexus saw a generalized collapse of developmental efforts in the 1980s, in what came to be called the lost decade of the (global) South. During this period stretching from 1980 to 1988, Latin America's GNP relative to the organic core dropped some 46 per cent, the Middle East and North Africa by 27 per cent, Western and Eastern Africa by 66 per cent and Southeast Asia by 35 per cent (Arrighi, 1991: 51). When measured by GNP per capita as a percentage of world GNP per capita, the changes from 1960 to 1999 make sub-Saharan Africa's collapse the world's worst, with a decline of some 47 per cent, though this is almost entirely due to changes after 1975 (Arrighi, 2002: 15–16).

In terms of GNP per capita as a percentage of the First World's, from 1960–2005, sub-Saharan Africa's fell from 5.6 to 2.3 per cent, South Africa's share fell from 25.9 per cent to 12.7 per cent, Latin America's from 19.7 to 11.2 per cent, while East Asia's per capita GNP, in stark contrast, rose substantially (Arrighi and Zhang, 2011: 28; Arrighi et al., 1989: 413). The startling fact is that, on average, most of African states’ per capita income in 2000 was not much more than in 1960, and was lower than in 1975. During this same period (1960–2000), Africa was the world's slowest growing region (Ndulu et al., 2008; Noman and Stiglitz, 2012: 7). Increasingly, black Africa has become synonymous with global poverty, while Western Europe and North America, and increasingly East Asia, are instead synonymous with global wealth (Milanovic, 2005; Reifer, 2011).

The economic performance of so-called Communist states in Eastern Europe mirrored that of most other world regions, with the mirage of development eventually giving way to the reality of continued underdevelopment and failure to catch up, despite higher levels of welfare compared to other regions with similar GNP per capita (Arrighi, 1991; Berend, 1996). And yet, with the application of neoliberal shock therapy in Eastern Europe after the collapse, much of the Second World was relegated once again to its original Third World role. Here, the numbers of those living in ‘extreme poverty…rocketed from 14 million to 168 million: an almost instantaneous mass pauperization without precedent in history’, while poverty in the former USSR increased from some 6–10 per cent of all families to some 60 per cent (Mike Davis, 2006: 166; see also Berend, 1996).

As mentioned earlier, central to East Asia's rising fortunes, and in sharp contrast to Africa's increasing misfortunes, were fundamentally different demographic realities, namely the former's seemingly unlimited supplies of healthy, well-educated labour, a legacy shaped in significant part by both the region's long history of labour-absorbing rice cultivation and the subsequent achievements of the Chinese Communist revolution of 1949 (Arrighi, 2007; Dreze and Sen, 2002). In sub-Saharan Africa, the burden of a demographic deficit as well as an exponential increase in epidemic diseases such as AIDS, the combination of the full proletarian condition, as well as poor education and health, are related in turn to the region's migrant labour system (Arrighi et al., 1989; Marais, 2011). These factors combined here to ensure an astonishing median age of death of under five years in the region, in a stunning reversal of what has been the near universal increase in life expectancies over much of the twentieth century (Sen, 2005: xi). Over the last three decades some 30 million people have died of AIDS, a large percentage of them in South and sub-Saharan Africa, where some 22 million people are today living with HIV/AIDs — approximately 68 per cent of the world total, according to UNAIDS, UNICEF and the World Health Organization.

In contrast to Africa, East Asia's economic performance and healthy and well-educated labour force meant that this region, more than any other, came closest to Lewis's ideal type of unlimited labour supplies — although in recent years, with its massive stimulus package in response to the Great Recession, even China has begun to see labour shortages and a corresponding increase in wages. Moreover, as Arrighi pointed out in Adam Smith in Beijing, East Asia's centuries-old practices, related to rice cultivation, of an industrious revolution incorporating its large supplies of labour, stood in stark contrast not only with the labour-saving industrial revolution in Western Europe and its settler offshoots, but also with the processes of accumulation via coercive dispossession in the Africa of the labour reserves. Here, proletarianization via the violent dispossession of the black African peasantry through forced removals, limiting the African majority to a tiny portion of the land so as to create a labour force for the mines and industry, eventually created massive barriers to capital accumulation and corresponding categorical inequalities of race and class that continue to exist and have even widened since the fall of apartheid (Mamdani, 1996, 2002; Marias, 2011; Terreblanche, 2002). By 2008, South Africa's richest 10 per cent came to garner some 58 per cent of the total income, up from 54 per cent in 1993 (OECD, 2010: 39).

Arrighi drew too on the important work of Gillian Hart (2002, 2009) to further develop the notion of Southern Africa as a paradigmatic outlier, illustrating the extreme racialized forcible dispossession and proletarianization of the African peasantry as opposed to the divergent East Asian story of accumulation without dispossession, but with radically redistributive land reforms, township village enterprises, an integrated programme of industrial upgrading and continuing ties to the land, all of which economized on labour costs. These entwined factors, combined with what Wallerstein called ‘development by invitation’, sharply contrasted the Japan- and later Chinese-led East Asia region with the Southern Africa of the labour reserves (Arrighi, 2007; Arrighi and Zhang, 2011).


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Today, the globe seems to be witnessing a perfect storm of human-induced environmental catastrophes, growing socio-economic polarization and related violent conflict (Mike Davis, 2010). In the last decades of his life, Arrighi (1990b, 1991, 2002, 2009, 2010) addressed many of the critical questions associated with today's growing inequalities across the time and space of the capitalist world economy. Yet it is important to note that here, even in the context of deep crisis — of both the capitalist world economy and the world socialist movement — Arrighi saw reason for hope and even cautious optimism. Some twenty years ago, for example, in his ‘Marxist Century, American Century’, and ‘World Income Inequalities and the Future of Socialism’, Arrighi (1990b, 1991) argued that many of the major political upheavals of our time were rooted in the transformation of the global system by states, peoples and regions attempting to catch up or to maintain the riches associated with the oligarchic wealth of the organic core of the capitalist world economy. Yet after decades of such developmentalist efforts, the crises of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s have revealed that for most world regions — as Arrighi's close friend and collaborator Wallerstein long argued — the promissory note of development and modernization is but a cruel illusion. These short-term false hopes were time and time again subject to periodic reversals, like that of the 1980s and beyond, in which a seemingly iron-like stability of global income inequalities was starkly revealed for all to see.

For a time, the rise of East Asia and the collapse of actually existing socialism in 1989 and beyond, and then the 1997 Asian economic crisis, concealed to varying degrees the developmentalist illusion and instead upheld the neoliberal ideology of the Washington Consensus. More recently, the world has seen the rise and growing importance of Chinese-led East Asia in the global political economy, along with that of the other BRIC countries, Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa. These changes have been accompanied by the movement of capital to the South and an increasing percentage of women, immigrants and persons of colour making up the labour force in the core. These manifold transformations, Arrighi argued, held out the possibility for the remaking of the global system on more egalitarian, democratic, peaceful and ecologically sustainable social foundations (Arrighi and Zhang, 2011).

Such a remaking of the global system on new, enlarged and more egalitarian, democratic and ecologically sustainable social foundations was the only way, Arrighi argued, towards a more solidaristic future. For as Arrighi (1990a, 1991) argued at the time of the collapse of much actually existing socialisms in the East, the wealth of the modern world-system has been based on oligarchic wealth. Development in this sense is an illusion, as it presupposes the continued exploitation, exclusion, ecological appropriation and despoliation of the human and natural resources of the majority of the world's population for the benefit of a relatively small minority in the core, and their wealthy counterparts in the periphery and semi-periphery (Bassey, 2012; Mike Davis, 2010; Roberts and Parks, 2007). On the one hand, Arrighi (1991: 65) analysed possible attempts to shore up the inequalities of the global system through new forms of global (mis)governance. On the other hand, Arrighi explored his preferred alternative: the possibility of a future world society based on the ideals of liberty, ‘human solidarity and equality that constitute the essence of the socialist creed’. To be sure, Arrighi noted:

In an age of rampant greed and the collapse of the socialist projects of the past, the endeavour naturally looks hopeless. Yet, take another fifteen-year step forward — this time into the future…[as]…systemic chaos…will have escalated to the point where the pursuit of oligarchic wealth will begin to appear to many as what it has always been: a highly destructive endeavour that shifts the costs of the prosperity and security of a minority (no more, and probably less, than one-sixth of the human race) onto the majority and onto the future generations of the majority itself. (Arrighi, 1991: 65)

In a lengthy meditation on the history and future of socialism and capitalism in light of Francis Fukuyama's (1992/2006) The End of History and the Last Man, Perry Anderson (1992) of New Left Review noted at the same time that the increasing combination of ecological and social crisis to which Arrighi alluded could create a new international agenda for social reconstruction. ‘Were … [humanity] … able to respond effectively to … [these challenges] … socialism would not be so much succeeded by another movement, as redeemed in its own right as a programme for a more equal and liveable world’ (Anderson, 1992: 375; see also Reifer, 2011a, 2011b).

Arrighi (1990b, 2007, 2009) argued that the spread of austerity, mass misery and changing demographic composition of labour at the core, the rise of the BRICS and the growth of trade between them, opened up the possibility of a new Bandung (UNHDP, 2013). Today, the world is witnessing both the widening of within-country inequality, and the slow but nevertheless significant evening of world income inequalities, when China and India are factored in. Yet global inequalities are likely to increase in the next few decades or so unless future growth extends beyond the boundaries of these two massive states (Hung and Kucinskas, 2011). If there are new programmes of transnational solidarity between the global South and North, East and West, however, different possible futures, including that of a new Bandung, may indeed open up (Arrighi, 2009; Arrighi and Zhang, 2011).

Yet as has also been pointed out, whether the world will become more equal in terms of the greater representation and weight of the global South, or just as or even more unequal, albeit with a greater Southern contribution to global governance and the world political economy, significantly depends on social movements across the global South. In addition, the focus on GNP per capita, however important, should not turn our attention away from the pronounced race, class and gender inequalities within states. For example, in South Africa, whites, though only 2 per cent of the population, still own roughly 80 per cent or more of the land, similar to their position at the end of apartheid. As in many other world regions where land ownership is heavily concentrated, there is the necessity for serious land reform, a greater share of benefits to the population from mineral wealth and associated redistributive programmes focusing especially on health and education. Yet in South Africa, despite some impressive gains since winning power, the ruling ANC has largely kept to the rules of the now discredited Washington Consensus, while Africa is today witnessing a massive new wave of land dispossession, not land reform (Arrighi et al., 1989; Atuahene, 2010, 2011; JAC, 2013; RoAPE, 2011; Sen, 2000; Terreblanche, 2002, 2012; UNECA, 2012; World Bank, 2008).

In addition, as the Occupy movement intimates, it also looks possible, as Arrighi (1990b, 1991) argued, that the increasingly endemic crisis of capitalism envisaged by Marx and Engels, combined with the global ecological crisis unforeseen by them, could unleash the conditions that would herald the transition to a new, more egalitarian, democratic and peaceful world-system. An important addition to Arrighi's analysis here is that of Mike Davis (2010) who has noted that:

In a warmer world…socio-economic inequality will have a meteorological mandate [with the rich countries primarily responsible for climate change least affected while those experiencing the greatest adversity from global warming are overwhelmingly in the Global South]…worldwide adaption to climate change, which presupposes trillions of dollars of investment in the urban and rural infrastructures of poor and medium-income countries, as well as the assisted migration of tens of millions of people from Africa and Asia, would necessarily command a revolution of almost mythic magnitude in the redistribution of income and power.

The combination of these intersecting trends, including the growing power of select regions of the global South, could, in the context of the ongoing global crisis — most especially the unstable financial and environmental foundations of the contemporary global system — put on the agenda, as Arrighi (2001, 2009) and his co-conspirators hoped, new and urgent proposals for the making of a more humane world-system based on respect for nature and human beings. Here, the recent revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa, the pink tide in Latin America and related processes of alternative regionalisms, as well as the global spread of the Occupy Wall Street movement, with its clarion call, ‘we are the 99 per cent’, appear to indicate that such possibilities will in fact continue to present themselves in the context of these deepening crises of the twenty-first century. Naomi Klein's recent observation, that there no longer seem to be rich nations, only rich people, while exaggerated, is of particular relevance in capturing the present moment in the debate on world inequalities.

Indeed, among the most hopeful signs of the present is that the Occupy movement — some of the leaders of which, notably the founder of the Occupied Wall Street Journal, were inspired by Arrighi's Long Twentieth Century — continues the age-old debate on the ultimate purposes of wealth that has gone on for millennia (Reifer, 2011b). The new assertiveness of immigrants and the related immigrant rights movements in the US and across the globe, to which Arrighi drew attention, not to mention the growing number of women and persons of colour in the labour forces of the core, are also raising the pressing issue of what Seyla Benhabib (2004) calls ‘the rights of others’, most especially global migrants seeking to escape global income inequalities and related woes, along with related and more encompassing questions of global peace and justice as a whole (Milanovic, 2012). These developments may create additional possibilities for the new political projects that Arrighi hoped for, aimed at overcoming the oligarchic wealth on which the present order is based and allowing instead the spread of democratic wealth, so as to create (a) more democratic, egalitarian, peaceful, ecologically sustainable and solidaristic world-system(s). In these struggles, intellectual and political, the life work of Giovanni Arrighi will continue to be a great inspiration for scholars and activists as we try to understand the trajectory of the global system, while working to transform it in more humane and hopeful directions. A luta continua!


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  7. Biography
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  1. Top of page
  7. Biography
  • Tom Reifer is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Affiliated Faculty in Ethnic Studies at the University of San Diego (e-mail:, as well as an Associate Fellow at the Transnational Institute, an international fellowship of committed scholar-activists. He has published widely on development, global inequalities, and the world-system, as well as on related questions of human evolution over the longue duree. He is currently completing a book, Lawyers, Guns & Money: Wall Street & the American Century, due out in 2014.