-- for Paul
I wonder how many of you recall my post on Tyrian purple? I ended it with a question-- which I will copy here:
Something has been bothering me about the way the silk road is sometimes held up as a symbol of something worth emulating for today's times. We see, for example, scholars in Europe (UNESCO scholars) nostalgically discussing silk road exchanges as a "two way street" where, perhaps in contrast to monoculturalization or super-power monologues of today, silk road influence functioned more along the lines like true dialogue. (And, how much of this is being romanticized is not really the point as the interesting thing is not the historical accuracy, but rather what contemporary phenomenon it is being contrasted with).
In history books as well, there is a stress on the manner in which trade led the way for these exchanges. And, sometimes when I read, while I feel that there is an implied contrast at how things occur in today's world, I am left with questions.
Aren't international exchanges even today based on trade? Or has the financial world changed to such an extent that true two-way trade doesn't really exist any longer? But, we know that huge trade imbalances existed during Roman times. Pliny (I seem to recall) took pains to complain about Roman trade deficits with India. Purple silk was banned in part for this reason in ancient Rome (being reserved for the emperor). But, if it is not contemporary trade imbalances, what then is being implied?
Decades ago, "finance" was generally understood as financing something other than finance itself; that is, stocks and bonds and money were tied to the production and circulation of goods and services, which were for the most part tangible, or "real" in economic parlance. Beginning with at least the oil crisis of the 1970s, finance has been transformed, now stunningly overshadowing the "real" economy. Left academics have coined the term "Financialization" to get at these changes. How big has finance become? That is a difficult question but think about this kind of statement (from the above linked Wikipedia page):
Thus, [in 2006] derivatives trading – mostly futures contracts on interest rates, foreign currencies, Treasury bonds, etc had reached a level of $1,200 trillion, $1.2 quadrillion, a year. By comparison, U.S. GDP in 2006 was $12.456 trillion.
Indeed, this week "trillion" has become a common reference. How big is the market in credit default swaps? We hear reports in the tens of trillions. Government action valued in the hundreds of billions seems puny by comparison. Welcome to the world of financialization.
Sam asks, what would Mencius think? I think it's a good question.
I have finally gotten my hands on a book I've been wanting to read for several months now by Andre Gunder Frank, called The Centrality of Central Asia. The book remains an important work on both Central Asian history and on what is the more or less neglected field of "global history." The more I read about his life and his work, the more fascinated I become with Frank and this particular book is short but has all kinds of really interesting insights. And, being associated with the UNESCO scholars, he was for a time involved in UNESCO'S Silk Road Project.
One of Frank's main aims in the book is to bring out the way in which "trade both preceded and exceeded diplomacy;" so that the term "international trade" is probably unfortunate since it implies that international trade came into existence after nations did-- as some kind of trans-"national" trade. Frank says however, that in fact, ancient peoples-- with a few notable exceptions-- were organized along tribal loyalties with various shifting alliances which were not necessarily based on territory. And that even if the tribal groupings became organized within a larger empire, that people for the most part probably continued to associate along these more locally -based groupings.
(Perhaps an ancient times a man from the Kingdom of Shu would in fact have considered himself not as a Chinese but a man from Shu? But in any case in Central Asia today, it is probably true that people identify themselves by their ethnic association rather than by their national/territorial identity).
Based on these smaller groupings, Frank says, people actively traded with one another, so that kingdoms, empires and nomadic groups (ethic associations) were much more symbiotic with each other than is apparent by reading modern history books. This is part of Frank's world system thesis (500 years or 5000?). And, it's true that it is always awe-inspiring to read about the way luxery items were traded up and down the silk road or around the Mediterrean, for example. Silks, horses, dyes, teas, slaves (particularly on the Western side), jade, pigments... and with these items came philosophies and religions. The amazingly speedy spread Islam in particular is associated with trade, but so too was Buddhism.
It almost seems ironic to be harkening back to this time so far back in history for its robust international trade and cosmopolitanism in our own age of globalization. If Frank is correct, humankind has been closely linked (symbiotically in some cases) for some 5000 years. Parag Khanna too holds up the silk road as one exemplery model for cosmopolitanism. He contrasts this with the strategic rivalry and international competition represented by the infamous Great Game, asking, what it's going to be for us in the future-- the silk road or another Great Game?
Frank gives numerous examples of the way the ancient civilazations were linked and the manner in which events during certain periods would have a ripple affect across the map. Here he quotes Beckwith on the Tang:
It is a curious fact that, unlike the proceeding and following centuries, the middle of the seventh and eighth centuries--specifically the period 742-755-- saw fundamental changes, usually signalled by successful political revolts, in every Eurasian empire. Most famous among them are the Carolignian, Abbasid, Uighur, Turkik, and the anti-Tang rebellions, each of which is rightly considered a watershed in the respective national histories. Significantly, they all seem to have been intimately connected with Central Eurasia (1987)
And this leads to Frank's main point (as suggested by the title of the book) which is Central Asia has has a longtime central role in the history of the world, and that it remains--thanks to the massive amounts of oil and natural gas discovered there-- strategically key. Indeed, it sometimes feels as if all roads truly lead back to Oxiana.
So, these topics remain on my mind, and I still am not exactly sure how to approach them:
silk road trade versus contemporaray finance
silk road cosmopolitanism versus contemporary globalization
silk road international relations versus the Great Game
The Centrality of Central Asia (1992)/ Frank's website