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Adam Smith in Beijing

by on 2013/12/26

My good friend Shan gave me this interesting book for my birthday. It is put together by Giovanni Arrigh who is Prof of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University. I say ‘put together’ because at least in the large first part of the book it is quite derivative, drawing heavily on scholars like Sugihara, Pomeranz, Gundar Frank, Huang, Brenner, Braudel, and Harvie, among others. Basically it is about the rise of Asia and the fall of the West, and it calls on Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (and to a lesser extend Theory of Moral Sentiments) to trace the ‘great divide’ between the development paths of Asia and W Europe/N America since the 18th C, and to argue that Asia is following a different development path, with Smithian elements. Arrighi is far from the first to point out that much contemporary and recent interpretations of our great Scottish economist have been completely off track, and much distorted by such as the so-called Adam Smith Institute, the writings of which would certainly maker Smith turn in his grave.  But he does make some original contributions in his argument that the form of State led development in China is vastly different from the path taken by western capitalism, and “may soon become again the kind of noncapitalist market economy that Smith described”. And of course, the path of rural development (whether or not people are separated from their means of subsistence; the role of small rural industry) as well as the use of military force to create ’empire’ or extract tribute are all important elements in the story.

I need to read it again more slowly, and probably more selectively, to make a better assessment, but it seems to me that this is an important book, and one that is helpful to understanding our contemporary world, and the play of actors within it. I also like the large comparative perspective, and of course the discussion of Smith which owes something to my own teachers on history of economic thought at Glasgow University – Skinner, Wilson, Winch, among others.

Is anyone else reading this book?


From → Rural policy

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