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The 1970s in World History: Economic Crisis as Institutional Transition

Lauren Benton
New Jersey Institute of Technology


      This paper seeks a narrative framework for global institutional shifts in the 1970s, the decade that brought us post-modernism and its scorn for narrative frameworks.  Rather than treating this irony as colorful background to the subject at hand, I would like to take its challenge rather more seriously and begin with a discussion of the theoretical problem of representing global historical shifts.  In brief, my position here is that it is important for us to seek to characterize such historical shifts and that the decade of the 1970s came toward the beginning of an extended move away from a world interstate order and toward a more fractured global institutional regime.  To take this position requires, however, a revised understanding of earlier global shifts and a defense of macrohistorical narratives that does more than simply reject the insights of post-structuralism.

      The theoretical problem is by now perhaps familiar.  The post-modernistsÉ debunking of master narratives, most notably in LyotardÉs The Postmodern Condition, has in turn been attacked by critics for containing its own compelling, if implicit, grand narrative, one that features an oppositional cultural logic in which hegemony constructs and reconstructs itself against representations of otherness.1  Versions of post-modernism that avoid this pitfall, in Terry EagletonÉs view, turn history into °a matter of constant mutability, exhilaratingly multiple and open-ended, a set of conujunctures or discontinuities which only some theoretical violence could hammer into the unity of a single narrative.Ë2  Thus critics such as Eagleton wish to turn us back toward historical narratives that are both structural and, in the narrowest sense of the term (and, for Eagleton, in its Marxist sense), progressive. 

      The task proposed is hardly easy.  No one is advocating that we ignore the insights of a generation of historical research influenced by post-structuralism or retreat even partially from a vision of historical process as °exhilaratingly multiple and open-ended.Ë  Nor should we.  The interplay between representations of dominance and subordination, the social construction of categories of difference, the deep cultural logic and imprint of institutional practice, the mutability and multiplicity of texts  ╦ these are not insights that should be left behind, or merely obscured by the scale of macro history.

      I would like to take up here the problem of representing global historical changes in a single decade, the 1970s, in addressing this larger question of reconciling post-structural approaches to history with the writing of world history.  Regardless of oneÉs perspective, it is clear that the decade of the 1970s marked a striking set of conjunctures.  The deep recession of 1973-75, by some measures as severe as the Great Depression,  and the second recession of 1979 prompted a round of global economic restructuring and signaled a reexamination of the institutions and strategies of the °oldË economy, well before the outlines of the °newË one were visible.3  The United StatesÉ withdrawal from Vietnam coincided with the Portuguese Revolution and the formal end to colonialism in EuropeÉs oldest overseas empire.  New forms of developing-country association made a noisy entry; OPEC played a large role in prompting and magnifying the effects of the economic crises while both Europeans and third-world leaders, though certainly prematurely, hailed the 1975 Lom╣ Convention as a turning point in north-south relations.  While global cold war politics consumed international strategies, it was the failure of these strategies to offer long-term stability that was most striking: the ill-fated Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the brutal, U.S.-sponsored coups in the Southern Cone, the multi-sided and ideologically blurry conflicts in Angola and the Horn of Africa.  Historical accounts of the decade have managed so far neither to show the relation among such trends nor to agree upon their impact.  Some observers found in the 1970s the seeds of °the end of the state,Ë while others noted the crucial role of the state in guiding responses to the global economic downturn, arguing for the analytical move of °bringing the state back in.Ë4

       And to complicate matters still more, we have in the 1970s the rise of post-modernism.  What sort of (global) phenomenon was this?  It was in part a movement that responded to the defeat of a leftist agenda at the end of the 1960s.  Post-modernism has had both leftist proponents and, on balance, a leftist aura, given its association with the rejuvenated interest in the cultural histories of gender, race, and ethnicity, and of oppositional cultures in general.  But critics have also portrayed post-modernism as itself a refurbished and even sanitized form of Orientalism ╦ a new story that the West tells itself about its own cultural uniqueness.5 

      We must take an interest in sorting out such claims because post-modernists have also offered one of the few explanations of the relation between cultural and economic change in the 1970s, and this proposal is not one that we can ignore in a search for explanatory frameworks.  The post-modern vision of this relation connects post-industrialism to post-modernism.  It does so crudely, without a doubt.  In its basest form, the connection relies simply on the coincidence of the rise of the °information economyË with the post-modern cultural turn.  In LyotardÉs words, this conjuncture comes about because °knowledge has become the principle force of production.Ë6

      Some scholars have sought a more empirically grounded and theoretically more complex connection.  Such an approach centers on the assertion that the economic crisis of the mid-1970s was in part a crisis of over-production in advanced markets, more specifically, the saturation of markets for mass-produced goods and the fracturing of those markets into niches characterized by differences requiring flexibility and decentralization in production.7  This fragmentation of markets and the restructuring of production that followed from it have, at the very least, a striking resonance with the fragmenting images and disjunctures of post-modern culture.  As David Harvey writes, °the more flexible motion of capitalism emphasizes the new, the fleeting, the ephemeral, the fugitive, and the contingent in modern life, rather than the more solid values implanted under Fordism.Ë8 And more succinctly, Jameson argues that post-modernism marked the rise of a new phase of advanced capitalism.9

      This line of attack appears promising for our purposes.  It has the advantage of seeking to relate the economic crisis to cultural and political shifts.  Yet, while pointing us in the right direction, the approach has its own limitations for world historians.  The most notable is that the relation suggested between post-industrialism and post-modernism is discussed mainly in the context of the advanced economies.  The economic crisis of the mid-1970s is represented as a crisis of advanced capitalism and only as a °globalË phenomenon to the degree that increased competition from newly industrializing economies exacerbated the fragmentation of markets or that lower wage opportunities in the developing world made productive restructuring a global practice.   The world economy, in this view, is the economy of the advanced industrial core, with a crucial but supporting role being played by the developing world.

      It seems worthwhile to try to preserve the insight that late-twentieth century cultural shifts were linked to the emergence of new patterns of production and exchange without at the same time reproducing a narrative centered on economic transformations in the West.  The models available for broadening our analysis of this shift offer their own hazards, however.  A range of Marxist and liberal views of nineteenth and early-twentieth century imperialism have asserted the central importance in supporting capitalist growth in the West of economic ties to Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  The common roots of such arguments are in crisis theory: imperialism has been represented alternatively in Marxist thought as a way of postponing crises of overproduction or as insurance against underconsumption in the advanced economies.10  Dependency theory offered a less crisis-driven variant, with its emphasis on the relative stability of flows of surplus from the periphery to the core.  In interpreting global economic change in the 1970s, though, Marxist and neo-Marxist views became noticeably troubled.  World systems theorists became mired in the task of explaining and understanding °dependent development,Ë as industrial growth of non-classic patterns surged in newly industrializing countries.11  Others trumpeted the continuities between colonialism and post-colonialism, making the valuable observation that trade patterns and elite interactions continued to tie former colonies closely to former metropolitan powers.  This view, too, in emphasizing structural continuities, has proven rather unhelpful in analyzing trends that appeared in fact to be new, both within developing economies and in their ties to world markets.

      Indeed, if anything is striking in interpretations of the crises of the 1970s, it is their fundamental similarity to post-modern perspectives in their insistence on continuity: the macro-narrative of Western dominance and non-Western exploitation.   But at the same time that macro-historical understandings of the 1970s have been disappointing, middle-ground analyses of economic changes in the 1970s have made impressive headway.  I will return to these in the last section below, for it is these analyses ╦ with their grounded investigation of global relations of production and cultural change ╦ that hold some of the keys to fashioning a more comprehensive world historical treatment of the decade.

      These more grounded analyses operate at a level of sophistication that is a world away from the assertions of post-modernists about the economic transformations of the 1970s.  Though perhaps prescient in signaling ties between economic and cultural change in the 1970s, the post-modernists have gotten the economy wrong in several ways.  The first mistake, most notably, is that they attribute an implausible causality to the rise of the information economy.  The economy they describe as primordial in the transition to post-industrial sensibilities was a later phenomenon than they propose and was, by many measures, only in its infancy in the 1970s.12   Second, and more seriously, the post-modernists miscast productive decentralization as, on the one hand, market shift and, on the other, a simple move to outsource in order to cheapen the costs of labor.  The restructuring of production and the search for flexibility were more complex processes that involved not just a fragmentation and decentering of Fordism but also the formation of new cultural and institutional contexts for production.  In fact, a very modern-seeming search for shared meanings and trust animated many regional economic adjustments.13

      At least part of the problem of fashioning a theoretically compelling understanding of the converging global trends of the 1970s, then, calls for adjusting macro-historical perspectives to reflect better the studies of micro political, economic, and cultural processes.  But this is no mere exercise in application or scanning from micro to macro levels.  The various more-or-less standard theoretical approaches to world historical shifts fare poorly and require not just amendment but replacement.  At a deep level they fail to account for structural change at all. 

      In looking for new theoretical moves and, simultaneously, new empirical questions that will push theory forward, we can profit from arguments over past world historical shifts.  I do not have space here to discuss the alternatives in detail but will instead outline one theoretical approach and an example of its application to past institutional shifts in world history.  Working from these examples by way of analogy, I will then return to the problem of reconceptualizing the 1970s as a decade of important institutional restructuring on a global scale.

Institutional world history

      World history as a field has revolved around a single paradigm until recently: the study of world history as the history of the global economy.  What is meant by the world economy has varied, both over time and from scholar to scholar.  The mapping of global trading patterns, shifts in the global organization of production, and changes in (and exchanges of) technology and its impact on trade and production ╦ these themes recur and form the center of debates about broader narratives.  More recently, attention to ecological and biological dimensions of world history has suggested a paradigm shift, though just as often, it seems, such factors are studied within the framework of patterns of economic exchange facilitating the movement of disease, plants, and animals.

      The dominance of the economic and, now, biological themes in world history has had the ironic effect of turning a field that is at its heart necessarily about cultural difference and change into one with a tentative relation to cultural studies.  Timing has not been kind, either.  When swept from the stage of world historical studies, culture exited in the form of civilization studies, draped unmistakably in cloth cut from Orientalism and its variants.  It now makes its entrance in the form of post-colonial and post-modernist cultural studies.  More multi-cultured and multi-colored, more attuned to difference and transgression, this figure of culture is also badly matched with the stolid and systems-centered economic history.  The central theoretical problem of world history becomes a variant of the old structure-and-agency problem of social theory more generally: how to relate culture to economy, fluidity to continuity, local improvisation to global structure.

      I have argued elsewhere that institutional world history holds promise as a path towards a perspective that can hold both culture and economy on a single stage.  Post-structuralism offered not just a vision of culture as fluid and discursive but also elevated cultural practice and strategic cultural moves to a more visible analytic plane.  At the same time, political economists were embracing a broader view of economic change that emphasized the determining possibilities of social conflict.  Institutional world history invites the study of cultural practice and conflicts as they shape and interact with the structures of global political order.14  Rather than attempting to bridge local and global levels of analysis, the approach relocates the study of global change at the local level ╦ in doing so, it insists on the importance in world history of comparative analysis.  Rather than giving more detail to this profile, I will turn to an example from my own work.  I do not propose this example as a new master narrative ╦ nor even a new paradigm ╦ for world history, but I do think it provides an illustration of the promise of institutional world history as a research field.

      Until a few years ago, it was hard to miss the conspicuous absence in world historical writings of attention to law and to legal institutions.  The reluctance to study law in world history seemed to follow from an assumption encouraged by legal scholars, viz., that law is best understood within national political settings.  Surprisingly, even many comparative treatments of legal history stressed the imperviousness of law to cultural or social trends, thus reinforcing the view of legal institutions as developing logically out of relatively immutable legal sources.15  Alternatively, more vibrant regional traditions of legal historical studies tended to insist on the civilizational boundaries of particular ways of viewing law; Islamic legal historians kept to themselves, and historians of canon law in the West, while recognizing its role as an early form of transnational law, emphasized its culturally unique qualities.16

      Several elements of law in early modern societies, though, appear strikingly similar across a broad range of cultures and regions.  One is that legal institutions contained routines for the recognition of cultural and religious difference.  Examining the history of the Islamic empires, on the one hand, and the Iberian overseas empires, on the other, one finds more similarities than differences in the legal status of religious and cultural others.  These essentially structural similarities, in turn, promoted an important degree of institutional continuity across diverse regions ╦ what I have called an international legal regime ╦ in an era before the formal recognition of international law or the vision of an interstate order.17  Further, rather than growing organically out of legal sources, routines for organizing and recognizing difference developed out of conflict and practice.  Debates about cultural difference at the local level, in other words, generated the institutional structures that comprised order at the global level.18

      What of the transition to a world order invoking the model of a multiplicity of autonomous states claiming territorial sovereignty?  Prominent narratives of political science and historical sociology situate state formation in the dynamics of competing European polities.19  World historiansÉ attention to the decisive forces of expanding global capitalism has meanwhile had the effect of relegating the formation of the interstate order to the status of a sideshow within world history.  Capitalism either prompted institutional shifts or required them.20  Again, a look at law and at particular legal conflicts suggests a different process of change.  Legal politics repeatedly centered around defining and redefining the relation of multiple legal authorities ╦ and cultural entities ╦ in plural legal orders.  This was an undisguised cultural politics.  People fought about legal boundaries precisely because they understood them to signify cultural boundaries, and they often framed legal conflicts in cultural terms rather than with reference to the material benefits of positioning within the changing political economy.  In case after case, we find that the colonial state emerged not as the simple imposition of colonial powers or at the behest of foreign investors, but out of a complex politics in which local litigants and non-elite actors conjured up the colonial state as a legal authority even before it had juridical substance.21

      Rather than taking space here to provide detailed examples of this interaction, I wish to instead explore its theoretical implications.  Culture in this narrative matters, not as an alternative framework for a story about civilizations, nor even as a purely discursive complement to structural forces, but as an element in the creation of institutional patterns congruent with those forces.  I suppose this move could be viewed as one that is intended to bring global forces to bear on cultural representation.  But it can also be understood as a move in the other direction, a way of observing the structural consequences of cultural tensions repeated at many locations.  The shift from a more fluid legal pluralism and of law in diaspora to a hierarchical model of state law dominating non-state legal authorities took place within the logic of a replicating cultural politics, and on a global scale.

Back to the future: the 1970s

      How does this example of institutional world history help us with the puzzle of finding the most fruitful approach to understanding the decade of the 1970s?  In many ways, the challenge of characterizing the global changes underway in that decade is similar.  Attempts to portray the decade as one of economic restructuring have, like the narratives of global economic change for earlier periods, told a Western-centered narrative about a crisis of advanced capitalism.  This analysis has featured either the marginalization of cultural and political conflicts or a crude pairing of post-industrialism with post-modernism.  How can the study of institutional shifts help to move us beyond these disjointed and superficial approaches?

      Surely one important lesson of institutional approaches to world history is to adjust certain expectations about the timing of global shifts.  The realignment of legal institutions outlined in the last section ╦ the shift toward state-centered law ╦ took place largely over the course of the long nineteenth century.  Important adjustments, however, clustered in particular decades; thus, for example, colonial and national legal policy staked new claims to sovereignty (rather than more limited suzerainty) over indigenous populations in a wide variety of settings in the 1820s and 1830s.  By the loosest analogy, it is helpful to adjust our expectations about the global import of the 1970s in the changes we observe in the last decades.  They formed only part, albeit a particularly important part, of a longer process of institutional change that continues to this day.

      But change in what?  Once we adopt a perspective that views the state as historically contingent and produced by a series of broadly cast conflicts, it appears a flawed choice as a unit of analysis.  Some world historians have responded ╦ insistently, in the case of Frank ╦ that the only meaningful unit of analysis is the world system itself.  This move is resolutely anti- or atheoretical, and it leads us from narrative to posturing ╦ to the simple assertion that patterns of global economic exchange °proveË a favored understanding of world order.  An institutional perspective invites us to shift attention both from global economic exchange and from states to a broader institutional map ╦ to shifting locations of authority, redefinitions of cultural boundaries, the refashioning of political identities, and changing patterns of coercion.  Such processes are constitutive of the political economy and percolate in ways that are productive of global ordering.  They can also ╦ and this is no small virtue ╦ be compared, yielding greater analytical rigor, revealing synchronous shifts, and offering a way of translating the study of local conflicts into the study of global change. In the framework of the 1970s, then, the goal must be not to reproduce the usual narrative of economic crisis and supplement it with stories about political conflict and cultural discourse, but to fuse these analyses into one.  

      And here the institutional history that I have sketched in the last section is of more specific help.  The degree to which the state ever fully consolidated control over its subjects, established legitimacy, or exercised territorial sovereignty has varied greatly.  Consistently, however, states have asserted such claims since the emergence of a global interstate order over the long nineteenth century, and they have been assisted by the attentions of other states operating on the shared assumption of this role of political dominance and control over bounded territories, designated peoples, and finite political processes.  Without asserting a progressive imperative in history, we can begin to see a change ╦ with the decade of the 1970s serving as one of its important axes ╦ toward a different and more complex institutional patterning.

      A good deal of attention ╦ mainly by political scientists ╦ has indeed been given to the internal transformations of the state since the 1970s and the external realignment of states that has been coupled with these internal changes.  If this line of study has failed to cross disciplinary boundaries ╦ or even to build a convincing consensus within one field ╦ it is partly because, I think, many of its practitioners are looking in the wrong place.  We should not narrowly examine the state itself for signs of the demise, or transformation, of the state, but instead (again following the lessons of an institutional history for earlier periods) explore the conflicts shaping state and non-state political authorities and their relation.  The search focuses on replicating sets of conflicts that pull at the boundaries of the state and in doing so reconstitute political authority and legitimacy.

      Let us be more specific, and return to the actual historical changes of the 1970s.  I would like to offer three examples, all of which have been amply studied and documented, though without the connection to world historical change I wish to make.22  The first phenomenon of note is the reemergence of diasporas as important economic and political forces.  World historians are perhaps most familiar with two approaches to the study of diasporas.  One centers of the work of Philip Curtin about the importance of diasporas in long-distance trade in the long period before the rise of the interstate order.23  The second is the study of the cross-regional cultural continuity provided by diasporas ╦ the African diaspora in the Atlantic, for example, or the Chinese diaspora of the Asian-American world.24  An institutional approach to the study of diasporas adds several dimensions to these approaches.  As Adam McKeownÉs work on Chinese migrants has shown, it is important to begin to understand the ways in which diasporas intersected with, and helped to create, structurally similar political conflicts in diverse settings where members of ethnic diasporas settled.25  Making the same point in a different way, I have argued that diasporic communities in the early modern Atlantic fit into and helped to reproduce a fluid legal pluralism that gave semi-autonomy to foreign communities within host polities.  This process generated institutional continuity across diverse regions and protected and promoted opportunities for cross-cultural exchanges.26  Extending this attention to the political framework for, and consequences of, diasporas, we must recognize a shift in the character of diasporas in the post-1970s world.  After a long period of relative political weakness, they reemerged with greater political ╦ and economic ╦ force.  Alejandro Portes has made this argument specifically for Miami Cubans, and he has made it more generally for what he terms °immigrant enclavesË in the advanced economies.27  Communities housed in these enclaves emerged in the 1970s with new political clout and a rejuvenated transnational economic function based on the vitality of small, immigrant-owned firms and the enhanced technological supports for multi-national residence.28

      I will return to the significance of this trend and its particular meanings in the 1970s in a moment.  Let me turn briefly first to another phenomenon, that of economic re-regionalization, the enhanced vitality of subnational economic districts.  Again, this trend has been studied mainly in connection with its role in productive restructuring and in the search for blueprints for economic development.  The premise of this work is that those regimes that weathered the downturns of the 1970s best did so because they benefited from geographical concentration (or re-concentration) of production, often accompanied by local deconcentration and the proliferation of small, niche producers.29    The phenomenon has been studied in sectors as diverse as the Brazilian shoe industry and the Los Angeles film industry.30  Studied as a product of global economic crisis, the phenomenon has been the subject of an interesting debate about whether it generated new forms of labor or reproduced older patterns of worker exploitation.31  In a broader (and global) institutional perspective, re-regionalization also generated an array of transnational connections taking place without, or at the margins of, national states.  Before the 1970s, for example, it would have been rare for a subnational region to possess a foreign policy; after the 1970s, this was not rare but in many places expected.   Not surprisingly, re-regionalization is also closely linked with movements of ethnic and/or regional autonomy, so that patterns of political-economic restructuring merge neatly with the politics of cultural representation.

      A third phenomenon that also had roots in the period before the 1970s but underwent important change is that of transnational sectoral restructuring.  Whereas earlier analyses focused on the importance of transnational firms in shaping global markets and curtailing state authority, a broader institutional analysis examines not firms but sectors.  Its students have traced commodity and production chains both connecting differently situated world regions and spanning the formal, °legalË spheres and the informal (underground) spheres of advanced and developing economies.32  While most attention has focused on the ways in which such structures assisted capital accumulation and enhanced flexibility, and therefore intensified as strategic responses to the global downturn of the 1970s, an equally important implication is institutional.  Informal sector production decentered state authority and reinvigorated non-state regulatory arrangements.  Further, both political authorities and producers learned quickly that they had a stake in the regulatory frameworks of distant places ╦ and not just at the level of the state, since national bodies could not reliably provide information about, or ensure the stability of, decentralized regional producers.33

      Are we right to see the 1970s as a strategic point in the development of these processes, and in what sense do they (and other transnational processes connected with them) constitute an institutional shift of world historical proportions?  It is, of course, impossible to make the connection to the 1970s without reference to the global economic downturn and its study.  It is possible, though, to characterize economic transformations as also fundamentally social and cultural.  That is, rather than portraying the economic shift as one that simply set these changes into motion, we can see the locally based sets of conflicts shaping them as important structural ingredients of global institutional change. 

      For example, re-regionalization provided ethnic nationalism with a new, if quiet, source of legitimacy, and was in turn strengthened by strategies of regional elites seeking to reinforce their autonomy.34  Sectoral restructuring, including the growth of the informal sector, shifted in subtle but important ways economic actorsÉ perceptions of the state as the locus of regulation.  Undercutting the authority of other national political actors such as unions and cross-sectoral business associations, productive decentralization in many cases also reinvigorated local and regional neo-corporate alliances and drew renewed attention to non-state mechanisms for the regulation of the labor process: kinship relations, local producer associations, and community social networks.35

      Global political events, too, intersected with these processes.  Challenges to the state, and even prolonged violent conflicts over the control of the state, were associated with changes that also reconstituted state power.  Thus the uncertainty over political stability enhanced the importance of transnational communities as conduits for trade and as elements of order.  At a later period, Graham Smith notes the strengthening of the Russian diaspora in Baltic states in the upheaval surrounding the collapse of the Soviet Union.36  In the context of the 1970s, the Portuguese Revolution both marked an end to formal colonialism and strengthened the economic and political role of a Portuguese diaspora stretching across four continents.37  Reconstituting political authority and redefining cultural identity in such cases were homologous processes.

      The approach to post-1970s transnationalism outlined here is not the story of a coming global culture, nor even of a global cultural hegemony. It is a narrative about cultural conflicts and their consequences.  Diasporic communities do not obtain or hold their influence easily, nor (and we might remind ourselves of the Miami Cubans) should their enhanced influence prompt us to unreserved celebration of multi-culturalism.  Further, we must guard against the view that cultural outcomes have been somehow vaguely programmed by the nature of the new economy.  They have not.  As a work of institutional world history, our narrative focuses on the pervasiveness and repetition in diverse settings of structurally similar sets of conflicts and their influence, in turn, on cross-regional and world ordering.  In relation to the seventies, this is (at the moment) as much a research agenda as it is an opportunity for reassembling data already in our hands.

      What we seem to be observing are institutional shifts in two directions.  On one side, sub-national governance structures emerged with an enhanced importance in the restructuring global economy.  This statement may also be turned around to suggest that restructured regional governance guided some places to new forms of integration with transnational economic structures.  Such governance emerged out of a complex matrix of local alliances, the overlap of social networks and production, and the outcome of cultural conflicts over ethnic, gender, and class boundaries.  On the other side, new forms of association among states began to emerge in the 1970s: OPEC, the Lom╣ Convention, the first economic summit among advanced industrialized nations, early international trade accords.  Post-colonialism seeks to explain the lack of effectiveness and long-term stability of such arrangements and points instead to the continuities of interstate interactions.  But the intensification in the 1970s of the search for such associations is itself significant, and subsequent decades reveal more, not less, pressure for them to proliferate and succeed.  The interesting tension they create between association as a strategy to preserve state authority and the threat of subordination to extra-state power is also a cultural tension, as we see clearly in the politics of the British response to the EEC.  For in this trend, too, economic reordering is not an isolated cause producing structural adjustment and cultural response.

      While struggles over cultural boundaries and the complex process of forming new economic regulatory structures ╦ in short, the shift toward a new late-twentieth century international regime ╦ pulled forcefully in two directions on the state, the resulting trends also generated anxiety about, and interest in, preserving and strengthening state authority.  We see this, for example, in the national response to the threat of emerging infectious diseases, where despite their relative inability to stop the cross-border transmission of viruses and pathogens, national-level public health institutions have been called on to play their border-patrolling function more vigorously.38  We see it, too, in the unassailable and indeed growing confidence in the U.S. Federal Reserve to guide the U.S. national economy, even in the face of an increasingly international financial climate.  Also, the scurrying in response to international scenarios of °collapsed statesË or states in crisis ╦ Indonesia, Rwanda, Colombia ╦ suggests a firm commitment to the search for state authority of any variety so that intervention carries a modicum of legitimacy and some promise of stability.

      The emerging international regime that was so decisively initiated in the 1970s will likely be a modified interstate order that is nevertheless significantly novel in the depth and variety of non-state and extra-state transnational interconnections.  These connections have their roots in cultural practice and in routines for ordering cultural difference.  The 1970s did not give us this new order, but we will do well to look to the decade and the peculiar confluence of economic crisis and restructuring, cultural pluralism, and political conflict and transition as a pivotal time in the emergence of a historically new international regime.

      As these narratives of 1970s institutional change unfold, we need not choose between the insights of post-structuralism and the certainties of narrative history.  If to some degree post-modernism forms part of an ideology of cultural hegemony disguised as a recognition of diversity, it also illuminates elements of cultural discourse that correspond to new forms of conflicts with global dimensions.  At the same time, positing and exploring major shifts in world history should not be left to economic historians or world systems theorists.  Understood broadly, institutional shifts are linked in specific ways to cultural discourse and political economy.  The study of these connections offers a theoretical opening for merging analysis of culture and economy, as well as a lens for viewing simultaneously the reorganization of local and global political authority in world history.


1 Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A report on Knowledge.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

2 Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Post-Modernism.  Oxford: Blackwell, 1997, p. 46.

3 Dow makes this point for Great Britain, where the fall of output from previous levels was larger than the drop during the Depression of the 1930s, and he speculates that the same would be true for other advanced economies.  J.C.R. Dow, Major recessions : Britain and the world, 1920-1995.  Oxford  and New York : Oxford University Press, 1998.

4 The classic work on the second of these themes is Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueshemeyer, and Theda Skocpol, Bringing the State Back In.   Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

5 See Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, °Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: An Introduction,Ë pp. 1-30 in Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (eds.), Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

6 Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. 5.

7 This was not solely a Marxist position.  Institutionalists such as Michael Piore and Charles Sabel also depicted the economic crisis as one caused mainly by the saturation of markets in advanced economies.  M. Piore and C. Sabel, The Second Industrial Divide. New York: Basic Books. 1984, Chapter 7.

8 David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, MA and Oxford UK: Blackwell), 1990, p. 171.

9 Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.  London: Verso, 1991.

10 The tradition stretches from LeninÉs On Imperialism to David HarveyÉs depiction of the roots of global economic restructuring in classic capitalist crises.  Harvey, we should note, also notes the rigidities of government policies and structures associated with Fordism as a contributing factor (Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity).

11 I do not mean to question the importance of these contributions, since the best of the studies of industrial growth in the semi-periphery carefully traced the changes in the relation of producers to global economic structures.  But the difficulties, at least within world systems theory, remained; perhaps the best indication of this was the weakness of the third volume of WallersteinÉs study of the history of the world economy.  For a more detailed critique of world systems theory, see Benton, "From the World Systems Perspective to Institutional World History: Culture and Economy in Global Theory." Journal of World History, 1996, 7 (2): 261-95.

12 This error is apparent in LyotardÉs footnotes to The Postmodern Condition, in which he relies on a curious mix of idiosyncratic and misleading economic indicators to illustrate his points about the information economy.  For example, he cites a rise in the percentage of white-collar workers, professionals, and technicians in the United States between 1950 and 1971 as evidence of the emergence of a knowledge-producing and consuming society.  These increases, though, are better explained as associated with the last decades of growth of Fordist firms.  The series of recessions between 1973 and 1982 had a devastating impact on the ranks of middle management and, as Bennett Harrison and Barry Bluestone have shown, the job categories of most explosive growth in the wake of those recessions were low-level service jobs such as janitors and cashiers.  Bennett Harrison and Barry Bluestone, The Great U-Turn: Corporate Restructuring and the Polarizing of America. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

13 See especially Charles Sabel, °Studied Trust: Building New Forms of Cooperation in a Volatile Economy,"Ëpp. 215-250 in Frank Pyke and Werner Sengenberger (eds), Industrial Districts and Logal Economic Regeneration.  Geneva: International Institute for Labour Studies.

14 For a more detailed discussion of institutional world history, see Benton, "From the World Systems Perspective to Institutional World History.Ë

15 See the work of Alan Watson,  for example Slave Law in the Americas. Athens. GA: University of Georgia Press, 1989.

16 In a much-heralded book, Berman argues forcefully that canon law was transnational and that its jurisdictional complexity produced institutional unity in Europe, but he also viewed these features as exclusive cultural properties of the West. Harold, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

17 Lauren Benton, Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History, 1400-1900 (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

18 See Lauren Benton, °The Legal Regime of the South Atlantic World: Jurisdictional Politics as Institutional Order.Ë  Journal of World History Vol. 11 (1) 27-56, 2000

19 For example, Charles Tilly, Coercion, capital, and European states, AD 990-1992. Cambridge,, MA : Blackwell, 1992.

20 On the one hand, Andre Gunder Frank has argued that institutions are uniformly pliable; on the other, Douglas North views the regulatory context for global transactions as a precondition for the spread of capitalism.  See A.G. Frank, ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998; and Douglass North, Institutions, Institutional Change, and Eocnomic Performance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.  For a critique of both perspectives, see L. Benton, °From the World Systems Perspective to Institutional World History.Ë

21 See Benton, L. Benton, °Colonial Law and Cultural Difference: Jurisdictional Politics and the Formation of the Colonial State.Ë Comparative Studies in Society and History.  (41) 3: 563-588, 2000.  In discussing state formation in Africa, Young points out this distinction between the actual and ascribed authorities of the state. Crawford Young, The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994.

22 The list is not exhaustive.  There is, for example, evidence that patterns of transantional elite ties have also undergone significant change, a transformation also begun on a large scale in the 1970s.  Specifically, whereas it was a long-standing practice under colonialism for elite families to send their children to metropolitan countries for formal education, new patterns involve a shift in both scale and destinations.  There has been a much more massive movement away from higher education in institutions of the developing world and a diversification of the flow toward an array of international destinations.  This phenomenon is made more significant by such trends as increased multi-national residence, the influx of highly trained immigrants in technological fields, and the increasingly rapid rate of technological and organizational copying across economically diverse regions.

23 Philip Curtin, Cross-Cultural Trade in World History. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984

24 For example, John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the making of the Atlantic world, 1400-1680. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992,

25 Adam McKeown, Chinese Migrant Networks and Cultural Change: Peru, Chicago, Hawaii, 1900-1936.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

26 Benton, °The Legal Regime of the South Atlantic World.Ë

27 A. Portes and K.L. Wilson, Immigrant enclaves: an analysis of the labor market experiences of Cubans in Miami,Ë American-Journal-of-Sociology 86(2): 295-319, 1980.

28  A. Portes, L.E. Guarnizo, and Patricia Landolt,  "The study of transnationalism: Pitfalls and promise of an emergent research field," Ethnic & Racial Studies, Mar99, Vol. 22 (2) 217-38.

29 There are many accounts of this process, but see especially Charles Sabel, Work and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

30 See Michael Storper, The Regional World: Territorial Development in a Global Economy.  New York: Guilford Press, 1997; and Kevin R. Cox (ed.) Spaces of Globalization: Reasserting the Power of the Local, New York: Guilford Press, 1997.

31 See Lauren Benton, Invisible Factories: The Informal Economy and Industrial Development in Spain.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990; and Bennett Harrison, Lean and Mean: Why  Large Corporations Will Continue to Dominate the Global Economy.  New York: Guilford Press, 1997.

32 On commodity chains, see Gary Gereffi, °Capitalism, Development and Global Commodity Chains,Ë pp. 211-231 in Leslie Sklair (ed.) Capitalism and Development.  London: Routledge, 1994.  On the informal economy, see Alejandro Portes, Manuel Castells, and Lauren Benton (eds) The Informal Economy: Studies in Advanced and Less Developed Countries.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

33 For a case study of this process in Spain, see Part IV of Benton, Invisible Factories.

34 In the case of Spain, the movement toward regional autonomy was given new life in the 1970s both as a result of national political transition and with the urging of regionally-based export sectors with semi-autonomous ties to global producers.  Benton, Invisible Factories.

35 On the implications of the informal sector for perceptions of legal pluralism, see Lauren Benton, "Beyond Legal Pluralism: Towards a New Approach to Law in the Informal Sector,"  Social and Legal Studies  1994, Vol. 3, 223-242.

36 Graham Smith, °Transnational Politics and the Politics of the Russian Diaspora,Ë  Ethnic and Racial Studies 22(3) 500-23, 1999.

37 On the Portuguese Revolution and its international context and consequences, see Kenneth Maxwell, The Making of Portuguese Democracy.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995; and Norrie MacQueen, The Decolonization of Portuguese Africa: Metropolitan Revolution and the Dissolution of Empire.  New York: Longman, 1997.

38 Nicolas King, °Tuberculosis, Race, and 20th-Century Geographies of Difference,Ë in Matthew Gandy and Alimuddin Zumla (eds) Return of the White Plague: Global Poverty and the New Tuberculosis, London: Verso, forthcoming (2001).



Copyright Statement

Copyright: ę 2001 by the American Historical Association. Compiled by Debbie Ann Doyle. Format by Chris Hale.

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