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The End of the Long 20th Century

by Beverly J> Silver and Giovanni Arrigh Wednesday, Mar. 09, 2011 at 2:49 PM

The US no longer has the necessary financial means to maintain its worldwide military machine (which now drives the US deeper in indebtedness to the international financial markets). The failure of the Project for a New American Century shows the US has not succeeded in subjecting the world


By Beverly J. Silver and Giovanni Arrighi

[This excerpt from the book “Vielfachkrisen” in financial market capitalism, edited by Alex Demirovic/ Julia Duck/ Florian Becker/ Pauline Bader in cooperation with the advisory council of Attac Germany published 2/9/2011 is translated from the German on the Internet]

Nearly 20 years ago after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the British historian Eric Hobsbawm pointed to a widespread feeling of insecurity. In what direction will the world develop? We seem to be groping through a “global fog.” At the end of the 20th century, the citizens of the world only knew with certainty that one historical age had ended. We did not know much more than that.” [1] In the two decades since this was written, the new age has taken form but the “global fog” is not cleared.

The estimates on the direction of global change went wildly to and fro. At the end of the 1990s, the US looked back on a long phase of economic recovery and no one could seriously question the global military power of the US. A “second American century” would come. This was prattled everywhere. Such prognoses reached their peak in the time after the 1997 Asian crisis. But then the page turned when the stock market bubble of the New Economy burst in 2000 and 2001. The US foundered in Iraq and the Bush administration broke down and came down to nothing with its “Project for a New American Century.”

The rumor of a “second American century” disappeared with the 2008 financial crisis starting from the US and China’s continuing rapid economic growth. Instead people began speculating about an imminent “Chinese century.” The possible decline of the US-American global hegemony was now a theme which had not happened since the 1970s when the US defeat in Vietnam, the oil shock and the economic stagflation created the feeling of a deep crisis.

What sense can we make of these extremely changeable judgments regarding the newly dawning age of world history? In this article we will show that the comparison with similar past phases of upheaval can help understand the changeable judgments and clear out the global fog still surrounding us. [2] With which earlier historical time should we compare the present? Today the similarities between the beginning and end of the 20th century are usually underscored. In both cases, financial capital gained a dominant position over industrial capital in the global economy. The financialization of economic activity had destabilizing effects every time which led to serious crises particularly in 1929 and 2008. These two phases of financialization are comparable. However the world of finance did not only soar to the dominant sector of world capitalism at the end of the 19th and at the end of the 20th century. The French historian Fernand Braudel emphasized that the financialization of capital has been a recurring phenomenon in historical capitalism since its earliest beginnings. Writing in the 1970s (before the start of the last financialization phase), Braudel identified three phases of system-wide financial expansion with three different centers: in the Italian city-states in the middle of the 16th century, in Holland in the middle of the 18th century and in the United Kingdom at the end of the 19th century. Comparing the present (fourth) phase of system-wide financial expansion with these three earlier cases seems very sensible.

Long phases in which the global economy expanded materially when capital flowed in production and trade and less in financial speculation preceded the present financialization phase like the three earlier long phases. One after the other Genoa, Holland, Great Britain and the United States gained worldwide superiority as the motor of a material growth thrust of the global economy (see for example the Golden Age of Fordist Keynesianism in the 1950s and 1960s initiated by the US). At a certain point, these material expansions reached their limit (for reasons that we will discuss). When that happened, the leading power of the respective epoch began a system-wide shift of investments in production and trade to financial mediation and speculation.

We describe a phase of material expansion followed by a phase of financial expansion as a long century or as a systemic accumulation cycle. Four long centuries or systemic accumulation cycles that partly overlap can be distinguished: first, a Genoa-Spanish cycle lasting from the 15th century to the beginning of the 17th century, second a Dutch cycle from the end of the 16th to the end of the 18th century, third a British cycle from the middle of the 18th to the beginning of the 20th century and fourth a US-American cycle is named (and defined) according to the specific complex of state and business agencies that brought the capitalist system to material and subsequent financial expansion. Each formed a long century. In all three cases described by Braudel, the respective leading capitalist country strengthened its power in a dramatic way through financial expansion and returned to economic prosperity (as Holland experienced its second Golden Age and Great Britain its Victorian belle époque). But in each o the cases, the regaining of power and the economic recovery were only of short duration. Braudel saw the redirection of investments from production and trade to the financial sector introduced from a certain moment one after another by Genoa, Dutch and British capitalists. The sign for that redirection was that the material expansion reached “a stage of development” and announced “the fall “so to speak. [3] Each time the financialization turned out to be the foreplay of a final crisis of global hegemony and the rise of a new geographic center for worldwide economic and military power.

Is this pattern repeated again today? Are we witnessing the “fall” of US-American world hegemony? In this article, we will show the 2008 financial crisis represents one of the last indications that this thesis is correct. When massive material expansion on a world scale based on Fordist Keynesianism struck its limit in the 1980s, US capital increasingly shifted to financial businesses and withdrew from industry and trade as Genoa, Dutch and British capital had done. Through this alignment to the financial sector, the US successfully attracted capital from the whole world and financed the long-lasting boom on the stock market and its extreme military rearmament. Under this pressure, the Soviet Union collapsed while the US experienced its belle époque under Reagan and Clinton. The remembrance of the crisis of the 1970s faded at the end of the 1990s and people began speaking about the approaching “second American century.”

From the perspective developed here, the pundits of the “second American century” were taken in by a misunderstanding. They stylized the “fall” of the US-American world hegemony as a “new spring.” Thus we witness the end of the long 20th century extending from the financialization phase at the end of the 19th century to the present inflation of the financial sector. This long century covers the rise, flowering and decline of the US-American age of capitalist world history. In addition, we will pursue the question whether the “spring” of a new hegemonial power will be seen retrospectively in the “fall” of the global economic and military power of the US, as was the case in the three preceding financialization phases.


In three steps, we will compare today’s financialization phase with earlier phases and the long 20th century with the preceding long centuries. In this section, we will stress similarities between the three earlier phases of financialization and underscore the pattern of repetition. In the next section, we will refer to the pattern of development or evolution. The long centuries should not be understood in the first place as recurring (cyclical) phenomena. While each of the financial expansions marked the beginning and end of a long century, the world system was reorganized in a fundamental way. An evolutionary pattern arose out of these repeated reorganizations which describes the increasing size, power and complexity – including social complexity – of the dominant state-business complexes. With the help of this pattern of repetition and development, the future alternatives before us can be narrowed down. In the last section of this article, we will see that the past pattern of repetition and development can not be simply projected into the future. In the conclusion, we will refer to significant anomalies that suggest a deviation of future development from earlier patterns and finally discuss “possible future scenarios.”

* * *

In the second and third volumes of his three-volume social history of the 15-18th centuries, Fernand Braudel says repeatedly that periodic upswings of the world of finance have characterized historical capitalism since its earliest beginnings. “Financial capitalism,” Braudel writes, “did not first appear around 1900.” There were at least two previous waves of financial expansion when financial capital was strong enough “to usurp the place of trade and rule – for a while – the whole business world.” [4] The first wave of financialization began in 1560 when leading groups of the Genoa business Diaspora gradually withdrew from trade and specialized in financial businesses. The second started around 1740 when the Dutch abandoned trade and became “credit dealers” for all Europe.” [5]

Seen this way, the financial expansions that began at the end of the 19th century and again at the end of the 20th century are the third and fourth waves of a repeated process on the world system plane. When it was clear that “the fantastic experiment of the industrial revolution” had produced an over-abundance in money capital during and after the Great Depression from 1873 to 1896 which lacked lucrative industrial investment possibilities, the Brits increasingly withdrew from industry and specialized in financial deals. When Braudel wrote his trilogy, the fourth present wave of financialization had not yet started. Today a repetition of the same phenomenon occurs. When it turned out in the last decades of the 20th century that the Golden Age of Fordist Keynesianism had created a surplus in money capital which lacked profitable industrial investment possibilities, US capital shifted its center of gravity from industrial production to the financial sector. The share of profit realized by banks, insurance companies and real estate businesses (the so-called FIRE-sector: finance, insurance and real estate) in the total worldwide profit of US businesses increased so much by the middle of the 1990s that it exceeded the share of industry. [6]

Braudel’s findings on the cyclical resurgence of financial capital can be expressed in Marx’ general formula of capital that describes the investment decisions of individual capitalists. [7] In the hope of getting back an enlarged sum at some future time, capitalists put their money capital in commodities used for production (machines, workers and so forth). Production is not an end-in-itself for them. If they can expect enlarging their money capital through investments in production or if this exploitation is disappointed in a systematic way, they will withdraw from production and turn to more flexible (more liquid or disposable) forms of investment.

Marx’ formula can also be understood as a description of a systemic logic. There are times when capitalists inclined to invest the bulk of their money capital in production and trade leading to phases of extensive material expansion. However the success of such material growth thrusts produced an over-accumulation of capital and thus a decline of profit rates in the businesses that first drove the material expansion. Profits fall under pressure and capitalists change their strategy. They keep an ever-larger part of their capital in liquid form and create the presuppositions on the supply side for a financial expansion in the whole system. Therefore financialization thrusts are symptomatic for a situation where investing in the expansion of trade and production is no longer as expedient as pure financi8al dealings for the goal of boosting the money flow for the strata of capitalists.

The past financial expansions temporarily helped the leading capitalist state of the respective epoch to power and wealth (as recently seen in the belle époque of the Reagan-Clinton era). How did this happen? The slowing down of material expansion connected with the emergence of financial expansion puts the state under fiscal pressure. In a countermove, this provokes a sharper competition around the mobile capital accumulated on the financial markets and pushes financial expansion on the “demand side.” Thanks to its central place in the networks of high finance, the respective hegemonial world power (Netherlands, Great Britain and the US) was able to exploit the intensified competition over mobile capital to its advantage and create a privileged access to the surplus capital accumulated on the world financial markets. This was clear in the 1980s and 1990s when the US successfully lured mobile capital from the whole world which gave the US a long-lasting boom and grave debt crises to other parts of the world. The first great debt crises occurred at the beginning of the 1980s in Latin America. The United Nations described the consequences as “a lost development decade.” Debt crises followed in Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia.

In the past, the material expansion in the whole system always first picked up steam when a new hegemonial power could create the necessary global institutional presuppositions (in the financial, geopolitical and social regards). Then the capitalists usually reinvested their profits in the further expansion of production and trade as in the 1950s and 1960s when the global institutions endowed by the US could guarantee a certain measure of security and foreseeability. But the creation of such global institutions is not a fast or simple process. In the past, the falling powers lost their ability to maintain the necessary global institutional conditions before rising powers could or would assume a leadership role. Therefore the transitions from one long century to the next were periods in history of great wars and deep crises. This was very clear in the first half of the 20th century in the passage from British to US hegemony. The world today faces a similar dilemma.

Interestingly an historical pattern occurred to Marx in his discussion of “original accumulation.” The inflation of the credit system repeatedly played a central role for the transfer of surplus capital from the falling to the rising geographic center of capitalist production and trade… Financial expansions were indispensable for the start of a new systemic accumulation cycle. [9] In other words, the financial expansions in history were times of hegemonial transitions in whose course a new leading power formed in the spaces of the old system. Since this new power gradually reorganized the system, it created the presuppositions for a new worldwide material expansion. Financialization thrusts were not only the “fall” of the existing hegemon. They also marked the “spring” of a new cycle of extensive capitalist development under a new leadership, the beginning of a new long century with another geographic center. Financial expansions culminated in long-lasting phases of widespread systemic chaos since this process in no way ran quietly and simply.


In t6he preceding section, we concentrated on the similarities between the long centuries. After starting from these patterns of repetition, we concluded that we are now in the “late fall” of the US world hegemony and witness the “early spring” of a new long century with another geographic center (possible East Asia). We must be somewhat alarmed that we are falling into a more or less long phase of systemic chaos that will entail enormous human suffering. But we can only draw very limited conclusions from the patterns of repetition to today’s situation and the foreseeable future because the global system has continued to develop in the course of time. In this section, we concentrate on the pattern of development…

When Genoa stood at the center of material expansion, the Genoa republic was a city-state. It was small, simply organized, deeply divided socially and could hardly defend itself militarily. Compared to all the great powers at that time, it was a weak state in almost every regard. Since Genoa represented a tempting target of conquests on account of its wealth while the city had no appreciable military power, Genoans were dependent on the Spanish monarchs from whom they “bought protection.” In contrast the Dutch republic was a larger and far more complex organization than the Genoa republic. During the material expansion starting from Holland, the republic was strong enough to win its independence from the Spanish crown. Build a very profitable empire of business establishments and avoi8d the military challenges from England and France. Unlike Genoa, the Netherlands did not have to “buy” any protection from other states. The Dutch “produced” their own protection. The Netherlands “internalized” the protective costs that Genoa had externalized.

During the British phase of material expansion, the United Kingdom was a fully developed nation state with a worldwide commercial and territorial empire that facilitated an unparalleled control over human and natural resources of the world for its leadership groups and its capitalist class. Like the Dutch, the British capitalist class was also not dependent on protection by foreign powers (both internalized the protective costs). However as the “workshop of the world,” Great Britain did not depend on others producing the goods on which the profitability of its trading companies was based. Different from the Netherlands, the Brits also internalized protection costs.

Lastly, the United States was a military-industrial complex of continental size with the strength to effectively protect itself and threaten its enemies in a credible way with economic strangulation or military destruction. In connection with the size, island character and natural wealth of the United States, this power of the capitalist class could internalize the protective and production costs as the British capitalist class did previously. The US capitalist class could also internalize the “transaction costs,” the markets on which the self-exploitation of its capital rested.

Starting from the development patterns presented here, we concluded the state-business organization form necessary for a future systemic accumulation cycle must surpass the US in size and complexity. No particular country comes to mind. Despite several decades of rapid economic growth, China is very large but still very poor.

The linear trend of increasing size and complexity is partly weakened by another aspect of the historical pattern (presented in Fig.1 as a pendulum movement) between “extensive” and “intensive” accumulation regimes. The US multinational firms were formally more complex than the British family businesses. The worldwide success of US capital rested on strategies and structures in newer and more complex forms than Dutch business capitalism.

What can we say about this pendulum movement between “extensive” (cosmopolitan-imperial) and “intensive” (business-national) regimes that displaces the linear trend of increasing complexity and about today’s development perspectives? If this pattern continues, the next long century must be led by a state-business complex that has an “extensive” character compared to the “intensive” regime of the US – with greater formal complexity than during the material growth phase of the world system in the 19th century starting from England. The multilayered system allied with Fordism and other forms of flexible production (formed in East Asia) could be signs of a pendulum movement back in the “extensive” direction. [11]

Extending this linear trend into the future is problematic. This is clear when we realize the present tension between control over global financial resources and control over global military resources. While the former is concentrated in East Asia, the latter lies in the US. Such a division never existed in the past. In the next section, this division will be discussed.


The historically unique geographic division of military and financial power represents a remarkable anomaly. US multinational corporations invested massively in China and repeated the historical pattern noticed by Marx. Surplus capital is transferred from the falling to the rising centers. In clear deviation from the past pattern, the net flow this time ran from surplus capital led by the US since the beginning of the financialization from the rising to the falling economic center – especially in the form of massive East Asian, first Japanese and later Chinese purchases of US government bonds. As in earlier hegemonial transitions, the falling hegemonial power (the US) lost its position as the leading worldwide creditor and became a debtor nation. In the case of the US, this process was carried out with a speed and to an extent that is historically unparalleled.

The military capacities of global significance are concentrated in the hands of the US. Nothing suggests that any of the up-and-coming economic powers – including China – has any intention of directly challenging the military might of the US. However even without a direct threat, the US no longer has the necessary financial means to maintain its worldwide military machine (which now drives the US deeper and deeper into indebtedness to the international financial markets). The failure of the “Project for a New American Century” has made clear the US has not succeeded in subjecting the world to its will through demonstrations of its military prowess or in countering the escalation of system-wide social and political crises.

A future scenario with the formation of a world state presupposes the world state in some way would have access to the global capital surplus that is largely in the global South, particularly in East Asia. This presupposition is more or less openly recognized through the recent inclusion of several large countries of the global South in the G-7 summit of the rich nations (for example the G-20 summit. A world-state project dominated by the West or the North (based on an alliance between the US and Western Europe) is not a realistic option any more. For the first time, the West is lacking one of the two most important components for its five-hundred-year success history – access to surplus capital. This is a clear anomaly in relation to earlier hegemonial transitions that were always exchanges of power within the West and the global North.


If the organization of a world state ruled by the West is unlikely, could China become the center of a new material expansion of capitalism on the world plane in the 21st century? Firstly, we should leave aside considerations that are irrelevant for this question. After the East Asian financial crisis of 1997/98, many saw China’s rise as pure illusion. Today we hear everywhere that China will soon face a financial crisis which will show forecasts about China’s ascent to be exaggerations. Whether China will experience a serious economic crisis is still in the stars. Such a crisis would hardly be important for the question whether the center of worldwide capital accumulation has shifted and will continue shifting toward China. In the last chapter on “Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System,” we pointed out the newly arising centers of worldwide capital accumulation were struck by the most serious financial crises – London in 1772 and New York in 1929 – because much of their financial potential lagged behind the institutional capacity for managing the swelling capital streams. It would be silly to claim the crash on Wall Street from 1929 to 1931 and the subsequent Great Depression show that the epicenter did not shift in the first half of the 20th century to the US. Drawing conclusions from the financial crises in East Asia at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century would also be silly.

In the past system-wide phases of material expansion always occurred when the rising economic power could become hegemonial in Gramsci’s sense – outfitting the world with new global institutional arrangements (on the financial, geopolitical and social planes) to create security and dependability necessary for a material expansion on a broad basis. These global institutions have fundamentally changed from century to century because the world develops in a fundamental way from one to the next long century.

Today as at that time, the barriers in the way of a new material expansion have a social and economic nature. In “Chaos and Governance,” we showed how every new hegemon must be able to adjust to the demands of a broad spectrum of social movements. The development pattern of increasing size, extension and complexity includes the growth of social complexity. The permanent establishment of US hegemony after the Second World War (and the start of the system-wide material growth thrust) was not only based on the superiority of its economic and military power. Political measures were also required with which the socialist worker movements and national liberation movement6s supported by the broad masses could be at least partly immobilized. The solutions suggested by the US – a social pact of mass consumption for workers in the global North, de-colonialization and the promise of development for the global South – could only function temporarily because they were not acceptable in the long run in the framework of historical capitalism. The complete conversion of these solutions would have led to a profit crunch on account of their considerable redistribution effects.

The first crisis of US hegemony at the end of the 1960s and in the 1970s was a social-political event, triggered by a worldwide wave of social unrest in the first world and in the third world. The demand of these diverse movements was a faster fulfillment of the implici8t or explici8t promises of US hegemony. This crisis marked the end of the material expansion driven by the US and was an economic and a socio-political event. Both elements dovetailed. For capitalists of the US and the US state, the financial expansion at the end of the 20th century represented a temporary solution to these crises and led to the belle époque of the 1990s. The financialization, the massive withdrawal of capital from production and trade and its shift into financial and speculative businesses weakened the social movements worldwide – by the mechanisms of debt crises in the global South and by mass dismissals in the centers of worker movements in the global North.

A basic socio-political reorganization of the global system was the presupposition of all past long centuries – for example, the ending of the Atlantic slave trade under British hegemony or the end of official colonialism under US hegemony. What kind of fundamental reorganization would be necessary today if we start from the analysis presented here? Firstly, a new world hegemony (whether led by a single state, a coalition of states or a world state) must bring about a greater measure of equality between the global South and the North in view of the financial power of the global South.

If the trend of increasing social complexity continues, a partial equalization between North and South will occur in that a broader spectrum of the social movements starting from below will be integrated. (The widespread social unrest in China that developed in urban and rural regions at the end of the 1990s could be a precursor of a worldwide thrust and toward greater social complexity on the world scale.)

What will this mean concretely? This brings us to a third point that is underscored in the graph and to which we have not yet adjusted. All past world hegemons depended on externalizing the reproduction costs of workers and nature. In other words, in all past material growth thrusts, profitability involved treating the natural environment as a free input for production. Moreover only a stable minority of workers in the world will pay the full costs (or approximately full costs) for reproduction of their manpower. Rather a large part of the reproduction costs will be shifted to unpaid activities in the household and to communities (like subsistence economy or unpaid childcare, senior assistance and nursing the sick).

In the long 20th century, the reproduction costs of nature were externalized in an extreme way with the resource-hungry and wasteful model of mass production and consumption in the style of the “American way of life.” Development for all was an explicit promise of US hegemony (institutionally anchored in the development program of the United Nations). Everyone should attain the “American way of life.” The crisis in the 1970s and especially the oil shock showed this was a “false” promise.

In 1928 Mahatma Gandhi declared: “The economic imperialism of a single little island-kingdom (England) holds the whole world in chains today. If a whole nation of three-hundred million (India’s population at that time) would go the same way, the world would be eaten up like a plague of locusts.” [12]

Gandhi’s discovery over 80 years ago is still very important today. The rise of the West was based on an ecologically unacceptable model that could only function as long as the vast majority of the world’s population was excluded from this development path. In view of the geographic redistribution of economic power on the world scale, it is completely open how participation in this consumer style can be limited to a small percentage of the population. Any serious attempt to generalize the “American way of life” would inevitably lead to social, political and ecological conflicts that may form the basis of a long extended phase of systemic chaos rather than a new material expansion. [13]

On one side, it is not foreseeable how the 21st century can cope with the extreme global inequality that formed in the course of the last centuries politically, socially and economically. On the other side, that China (and the global South altogether) could rise again without transforming the historical capitalism as we know it in a fundamental way is hardly conceivable. Its further rise would require opening an alternative development path different from the resource-intensive western model of capitalist development – a path that wastes fewer resources and does not depend on excluding the large majority of the world population from its fruits. [13]

We have reached the end of the long 20th century. The accumulation-model driven by the material expansion of this century cannot be any basis for a new material expansion in the 21st century. A new worldwide material expansion requires a completely different social, geopolitical and ecological model different from the preceding long centuries, not only from the model of the 20th century. Therefore it is an open question whether we will be able to describe what will arise in a sensible way as another “long century” of historical capitalism or whether we will say retrospectively that we have reached the end of historical capitalism.


“Final Report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.” 576 pages pdf, January 2011

“Video: BookTV – The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission,” January 2011

Fred Schmid, “The Dollar Yuan Currency War”


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