China's emergence

Image: Zhang Kaiyv


China represents an important possibility of transition to a new global order

Currently, it is clear that there is a generalized fear of the Brazilian ultra-right military and diplomacy, not to mention its North American allies, in relation to the emergence of China as a world power. The question would then become one of assessing the origins and mechanisms of this geographic refocusing of the world, from the United States to China, or the national and global social evolutions, which would give support as to the real existence of this “threat” from the East on the West. It is completed with the question of how this refocusing would affect countries like Brazil.

Answers to these questions could not be found in the quackery notion of “cultural Marxism” and in the fear of an ideological war with a view to global social change. But even if one resorts to real Marxism, imagining a social transition of “modes of production”, or, in other words, of social revolutions as having the centrality of this process of emergence of a new world order, does not seem so little. support yourself. So what kind of revolution would China envision that could affect the world and Brazil? Contemporary sophisticated theories seem to be able to outline the reason why China, without implying a revolution in the mode of production and the alien way of life, could still lead an important transition in the current model of globalization.

Indeed, the French historian Fernand Braudel, on the shoulders of a certain German and French economic geography, outlined a spatial architecture of the world-system (not just capitalism) that precedes, is appropriate for, and is likely to resist capitalism. This structure of the world-system, but also its dynamics, would help to explain the importance and core mechanisms of the Chinese emergence, which were very well understood by the Italian sociologist Giovanni Arrighi. Thus, despite Chinese “communism” reminding us of the profound heuristic virtue of Marxism for the analysis of social relations, it does not seem to us that this current would be the best way to pursue the (spatial) mechanisms that would sustain a supposed emergence and “threat” Global Chinese. Let's start with geography.

Geographic stratigraphy and system of globalization

Geography is a discipline whose intellectual instruments are claimed and known, almost always evoking a good dose of intuition. Obvious knowledge, as Lussault said, would become difficult to understand (2010). It is worth remembering that, despite this obviousness, it actually has powerful intellectual resources that are specific to a way of understanding space. Here a quick digression into intellectual history can be helpful.

The German and French geographies of the late 2002th century are children of the German historicism of the same period. After the Industrial Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, the trend later called historicism was one of the first intellectual reactions, since the end of the XNUMXth century, to the cultural values ​​imposed by the French Enlightenment on German culture (Mach, XNUMX).

German philosophers, such as Johann Gottfried von Herder, valued a sense of construction of history that started from the soil itself, as opposed to a more expansive and systemic sense of social construction (whose mechanism takes place on a level of horizontal relations) based mainly on exchanges or in the expansion of one culture over another. With this, they created a sense of society and culture that was profoundly historical and contextual, which referred to the situation and appreciation of the place.

Historicism created a sense of geographical history, which started from the soil itself. From the point of view of these first peripheries, it was as if the arrow of time no longer had an exclusively horizontal, expansive direction, which came from outside, but rather a vertical direction, starting from the ground, and pointing upwards, and therefore being , cumulative. Each people had its own history and its own destiny. As is known, these notions had a very powerful heuristic force.

I will not dwell on the intellectual transits that took place between Germany and France at the end of the XNUMXth century, which began at the time of the emergence of imperialism, as Lenin said. But the fact is that the French historian, turned geographer, Paul Vidal de la Blache, considered by his contemporaries as a man excessively sympathetic to the Germanic culture, after his training in history, re-elaborates this geohistorical vision. His ideas will serve the conceptions of the spatial framework of the world-system by Fernand Braudel and later by Giovanni Arrighi, who will seek to explain the Chinese emergence in this system of world integration.

What was essential for la Blache was to think of geography as a continuation of geology, in which the history of human settlement, in contact with the history of the earth itself, would dispose of natural, biological, ethnographic, demographic, agrarian, urban, economic and political processes, in this order, as if in layers, whose base was the singularity of the physical geography of each place and the top was the State (Lira, 2003). On top of this stratigraphic architecture, for La Blache, one could even admit a universalism of a worldwide understanding between notions, but which, by the way, should not be allowed to overlap with private economic interests, that is, those of colonialism. economic.

In addition, there would be an opposition between a sense of local evolution and a sense of systemic, diffusionist interaction. In turn, this last view has a more positivist bias, creating a kind of intersection in geography. As a historian of geography put it: “He [Vidal de la Blache] insisted on the discontinuity between the local principle, linked to the soil, and the principle of horizontal dependence, which governs economic exchange and political organization”[I] (Ozouf-Margnier, Robic, 1995).

French geography thought about the disposition of human and social processes through a stratigraphy of reality (as geology did with the depths of the earth), in a reasoning that combined geographic, historical, hierarchical intellectual resources, at the base, but also systemic, in a top layer. In a local sense, a hierarchical historical accumulation from the uniqueness of physical geography. In a systemic sense, from the very relationship between different spaces and peoples. It was as if Vidal la Blache and the French geographers had imagined the world in many ranges of realities and evolutions that departed from the singularity of nature, attributing variety to it in terms of history and in terms of relationships between regions.

Historian Fernand Braudel admired the work of German and French geographers and, in particular, the geography of Vidal de la Blache. his work, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Felipe II (1983), written during the German prison he lived during the Second World War, published in its first edition in 1949 and in the second in 1969, made extensive use of la Blache's analyses, made under the theoretical bases described above, based on the relationship geographical model, between mountain and plain in the Mediterranean (Lira, 2003). The most impressive result was the elaboration of a new geohistory, a long duration of the world, but also a dialectic of duration (which I will not dwell on) and a stratigraphy of physical geography, economic geography and, finally, of politics. From here, progress was made towards a geographical type conception of the world-system, in which capitalism is inserted, also in a geographical conception.

Braudelian world-system and capitalism

the world-system[ii] would thus possess, for Braudel, a spatial armature prior to the capitalist world-economy and probably subsequent to it. Geography safeguards the ability to generate social processes that are not transcendent to it. Others are, as Durkheim will argue. This becomes clear when Braudel will categorically state that imperial Beijing was subject to the same tendential rules of space as capitalist Florence, Venice or Seville in the sixteenth century, but that Beijing lacked the development of an “autonomous” bourgeoisie. Autonomous from the State, but also from the geographic environment itself, over which the social “accumulation” this State represented the most superior layer in relation to geography (Braudel, 2009).

Braudel's work was written in the post-war world, that is, the promises of liberalism's world well-being had failed, but Marx's prediction that capitalism would fatally collapse in Europe had not come true either (Marx, Engels, 2008). Neither had Lenin's, for whom the phase of imperialism was superior, but also agonizing (Lenin, 2011).

At the same time, some countries, such as China, seemed to be making an almost direct transition from Empires to communism, without going through capitalism. The peripheries would also have emerged with their own history, without the modes of production having necessarily developed from feudalism to capitalism, and succeeded. After imperialism, wars and decolonization processes, but also, in some way, the survival of imperial structures, Braudel felt the need for a notion of the world, a world-system, and of capitalism itself, geographically much more comprehensive. In the era of extremes, while liberals rushed to save free competition in times of imperialism, and Marxists were concerned, beyond revolutions, to associate the laws of capitalism with peripheral social formations, Braudel looked at all this a posteriori.

Inspired by La Blache, the most elementary spatial structure of the world-system was understood by Braudel as a hierarchical accumulation, which started from physical geography, associated with a systemic relationship, the relationship between center and periphery. That is, centers and peripheries would have local histories, hierarchically organized, but whose degrees of “elevation” of their “superior” forms (the words are purposely topological) would be found in different degrees of evolution. Because of this, the systemic relationship of these world-system poles is always unbalanced.

From this imbalance, flows and exchanges would arise, but, above all, capture processes over the top. The “superior” forms, topologically and hierarchically speaking, are systemically related to formations “below” them. Through its condition of superstructure and its forms of capture, by systemic movements and by extra economic institutes, these superior forms are always installed at the top.

To explain this process of superior capture, Braudel uses the metaphor of how artists and artisans manage to transport a piece of marble: “Let us take a block of marble, chosen in the quarries of Carrara by Michelangelo or by one of his contemporaries: a giant for its size. weight, which, however, will be removed by elementary means, then displaced thanks to certainly modest forces: a little gunpowder long used in quarries and mines, two or three levers, a dozen men (if that much), ropes, animals trailers, logs for eventual rolling, a unified plan – and it's done! It's done because the giant is pinned to the ground by its weight; because he represents an enormous, but mobile, neutralized force. And isn't this mass of elementary activities cornered, captive, tied to the ground and therefore more easily maneuvered from above? The devices and levers that allow these feats are a little hard money, white metal that arrives in Danzig or Messina, the tempting offer of credit, a little 'artificial' money, from the mercantile chains, the high prices are continuous incitements: a signal and everything sets in motion”. (Braudel, 2009, v.3, p. 34).

Thus, the geographic architecture of the world-system allows the upper forms to capture and mobilize on top of the other “heavy” parts of the world below them. The productive economic dimensions of these societies, as well as all other dimensions, are only weakly transformed. The most important thing is to capture the result of these social constructions by a superior layer, that is, everything that can be placed within the scope of a world market and that can generate profits, regardless of the social relations that are established in their own logic. Profit itself, Braudel would say, would not be something inherent to capitalism, but the way to capture it. More than a mode of production, capitalism is a superior form (financial and monopoly) of geographic capture, favored by the architecture of the world-system.

The economic analysis of capitalism for Braudel also has a stratigraphic structure. At the base, more linked to physical geography, to the fight against nature and to the types of life (Vidal de la Blache's concept), a material life, under the flows and influxes of a biological life of man, an Ancient Biological Regime, which dominated until the XNUMXth century. This Regime strongly affected demography, the main weapon of societies against this imposing nature. It is a zone of opacity and routine, of struggle for survival, habits, elementary techniques and little economic surplus.

Superior to this material life would be the markets. A rudimentary market, below, and a more sophisticated market, above, populated by fairs, coins circulating in cities and controlled by states and princes. Parasitic, fleeing regulations and above this market, or these, capitalism, supported by exchanges, credit and monopolies, these truly global, acting on the whole world from a dynamic, flexible superstructure, which seeks profit, wherever it is, or however it has been socially produced. He is a nocturnal visitor, said Braudel, or perhaps he meant, a nocturnal thief.

The Chinese emergence and a new type of superstructure

Braudel's economic model was designed to observe a global economy, with centers and peripheries, which had prevailed between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries. Braudel avoided talking about the period after the Industrial Revolution, but he implies that it was not so revolutionary from a long-term point of view. By projecting the action of banking capital (this one fully capitalist) to a proven domination that spreads little by little over the entire globe since the XNUMXth century – what Lenin, at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, had called the superior phase – it becomes clear that the Industrial Revolution is just one chapter in this long history of capitalism and that Braudel's model had heuristic strength to think about contemporary capitalism.

Indeed, Giovanni Arrighi declares in the Preface of The Long Twentieth Century (1996) who agrees to be driven by a ship sailed by Braudel. Arrighi draws from the idea of ​​the world-system, and from the very idea of ​​Braudelian capitalism, the most seminal notions to think about the diptych of North American decline at the end of the XNUMXth century and the emergence of China in the XNUMXst century. Therefore, Arrighi makes use of ideas other than those of Marxism, albeit in dialogue, to explain the global revolution that the world would possibly go through, from a new hegemonic transition, he says, to be commanded by communist China.

The essential thing for Arrighi was to use, in Adam Smith in Beijing (2008), this separation elaborated by Braudel between market and capitalism, one below, the other above. National markets could develop regardless of whether they were capitalist or territorialist (statist). Capitalism was an upper layer (Western) and there were national histories, mainly in the East, in which this upper layer was not necessarily developed with the same characteristics. Without going into the details that would explain the origins of the Chinese Revolution, the fact is that the Chinese State, throughout its development, would have prevented this upper layer of capitalism from taking over the whole of the national economy.

With this economic stratigraphy, Arrighi would have solved the apparent contradiction, much debated today, of the fact that the Chinese market economy is very developed and the strength of the Chinese communist party as well. Market, for them, is simply not capitalism. At the same time, Arrighi analyzes all the refocusing that occurred in the world-system, from the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth century (from Florence to Genoa, from Genoa to Amsterdam, from Amsterdam to London and from London to New York – I have not shown the reasons for these refocusing), to verify that the Chinese emergence would be the first in which the modern world-system would be commanded by a territorialist political and economic force (purposely referring to geography) and not a capitalist one. In this sense, China represents, in fact, an important possibility of transition to a new global order. An order in which the type of superstructure changes, but not necessarily (or rapidly) the social formations below it. To conclude: what about the peripheries of this order? How to insert Brazil in these evolutions and spatializations?


If the geographic models of the world-system, of capitalism and of the emergence of a non-capitalist global city could be projected into the future of our societies, Chinese interests would relate to other spaces from their upper layers, their superstructures, relating from above, whether this constitutes a capture or an alliance. At least in the beginning, one does not envision transitions in modes of production, social revolutions, processes that true Marxism understands very well. Cultural Marxism as revolutionary ideological propaganda for wide-ranging social change would be largely dismissed. The question is to understand what kind of relationship the Chinese superstructures would establish with the national economic blocs that would be below them. Really understand what kind of superstructure this is: whether it is the Chinese state itself or the companies it controls.

Another issue would be to understand the relationship between this new global city and its new peripheries. It is known that the center-periphery relationship, in capitalism, takes place under an unequal exchange. While the satellites of the central zones of the world-system compete and copy the mechanisms of the global city, the peripheral economies suffer. In the world-system led by capitalism, transitions between hegemonic centers are much more likely than moving up the ladder from the periphery. It is much easier to gain leadership when you are already rich than to stop being poor. What will be the relationship between a hegemonic center with a territorialist, statist and communist superstructure and its peripheries? Are there peripheries? These and many other questions are pertinent to think about the Chinese emergence from the world-system theory.

*Larissa Alves de Lira, and pvisiting professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).


ALVES DE LIRA, Larissa. Vidal de la Blache's Mediterranean: the first draft of the geographical method (1872-1918). Sao Paulo: Alameda, 2013.

ARRIGHI, Giovanni. Adam Smith in Beijing: origins and foundations of the 2008st century. São Paulo: Boitempo, XNUMX.

ARRIGHI, Giovanni. The long twentieth century. Rio de Janeiro: Counterpoint, 1996.

BRAUDEL Fernand. Material, economic civilization and capitalism: XV-XVIII century. Volume 3: The Time of the World. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2009.

BRAUDEL, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Felipe II. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 1983.

LENIN, Vladimir. Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. Campinas, Unicamp, 2011.

MAH, Harold. German historical thought in the age of herder, Kant, and Hegel. In: KRAMER, Lloyd; MAZA, Sarah (eds). A Companion to Western Historical Thought. Malden, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002, pp. 143-165.

MARX, Karl; ENGELS, Friedrich. Manifesto of the Communist Party. São Paulo: Popular Expression, 2008.

Michel LUSSAULT, « Ce que la géographie fait au(x) monde(s) », traces. Revue de Sciences humaines [En ligne], #10 | 2010, posted online November 30, 2012, retrieved July 16, 2021. URL:; IT HURTS :

OZOUF-MARIGNIER, Marie-Vic. ; ROBIC Marie–Claire. La France au seuil des temps nouveaux. Paul Vidal de la Blache et la régionalisation. L'information géographique, Paris, 2, pp. 46-56, 1995.


[I] “Il insists sur la discontinuité entre le principe local de lié au sol et le principe de dépendance horizontale qui gouverne l'échange économique et l'organisation politique”.

[ii] Braudel prefers the term “world-economy”. Allow me an update here, since the idea of ​​world-economy was a territorial and regional economy. Despite the maintenance of the territorial character, the idea of ​​world-system escapes from the regional aspect, being therefore more contemporary.

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