Cutting the Gordian Knot of World History: Giovanni Arrighi's Model of the Great Divergence and Convergence

  • Jan-Frederik Abbeloos Ghent University
  • Eric Vanhaute Ghent University


This essay evaluates the new road Giovanni Arrighi paves in Adam Smith in Beijing (2007) in relation to the scholarly debate on Europe's Great Divergence and the remarkable resurgence of East Asia in the global economy at the end of the twentieth century. At the center of Adam Smith in Beijing is the argument that the probability has increased that we are witnessing the formation of an "East Asian-centered world-market society, " rivaling the historical "capitalist world-economy ". We show how Arrighi 's discovery of East Asia has led him to supplement the analysis of historical capitalism he presented in The Long Twentieth Century (1994). This brings about uncertainties and problems. On the one hand, Arrighi is clear in his view on the different paths of economic development followed by the Europe-centered capitalist world-system, and the Chinese-centered market-oriented world-system. These paths remained largely separate until deep into the nineteenth century. On the other hand, Arrighi is less clear on how the Asian market-oriented legacy survived its incorporation into a globalizing capitalist world-economy, a crucial precondition for Arrighi's political message. Characterized as a process of subordination, hybridization, or fusion, it remains difficult to extract from Arrighi an unambiguous understanding of the place of China and East Asia within the capitalist world-system. It is just as hard to understand the nature of that "interstitial" system itself These conceptual and theoretical uncertainties suggest a central question and problem that hangs over Adam Smith in Beijing: What remains of the capitalist world-system as an analytical category that allows us to understand economic history and our possible futures?
How to Cite
Abbeloos, J.-F., & Vanhaute, E. (2011). Cutting the Gordian Knot of World History: Giovanni Arrighi’s Model of the Great Divergence and Convergence. Journal of World-Systems Research, 17(1), 89-106.
The World-Historical Imagination: Giovanni Arrighi's The Long Twentieth Century in Prospect and Retrospect