Networks and blocs: metahistorical reflections

by Dr. Peter Hill (Northumbria University)


The reflections that follow are frankly metahistorical. I am fully conscious of the fact that, to be more than interesting speculations, they need to be dragged back into a fuller contact with empirical reality. But to me the most stimulating aspect of the discussion group in which they originated, and the aspect which marked this off most clearly from most discussions among historians, was precisely its meta-historical dimension. This, I think, has enabled to see, and question, some of the shapes within which our more empirical work generally moves – and also to play, speculatively, with these shapes. These reflections may still be read, of course, as presumptuous, irrelevant, or both. Many of the problems I point to are old news, and many of the things I propose historians have been doing, in empirical practice, for a long time. But I believe that an attention to the meta-historical can help to clarify our purposes as historians, and I hope that these suggestions will stimulate, if they do not convince.

I. Geography

One of the starting-points of the ‘Political Economy and Culture’ reading group was an earlier, now often forgotten and rather unfashionable, set of debates over ‘modes of production’, ‘world-systems’, and ‘dependency’. The main strength of these debates, in my view, was that they tried to grasp systems operating at a global scale (long before the more recent fashion for ‘global history’), and particularly the system of ‘capitalism’, understood as a ‘mode of production’. Their main weakness, as I have come to see it through our discussions, was that they tended to conceive of these systems, geographically, in rigid ‘blocs’. In Wallerstein’s world-systems analysis, for instance, it made sense to talk of the ‘incorporation’ of the Ottoman empire, previously a distinct bloc of its own, into the (growing) bloc of the capitalist world-system (Wallerstein, Decdeli et al. 1987). You were either in a bloc, or out of it. Similarly, in John Haldon’s impressive discussion of late Antique and medieval modes of production, it made sense to argue that, within the bloc of the Roman Empire, the dominant mode of production was not the ‘tributary’ one (of peasants paying tax or rent), but the ‘slave’ one (Haldon 1993). These theories had, of course, their heyday between the 1960s and the 1980s, during the Cold War, and this is not irrelevant. A basic, meta-historical assumption seems to have been that the world could be divided into ‘blocs’, along the lines of Cold War-era ‘blocs’ of states:

Cold War alliances mid-1975

Cold War “Power Blocs” c. 1975, via Wikimedia Commons Vorziblix / CC0

This way of seeing things has certain strengths. It forces a focus on the rigidity of structures – political, economic, cultural, or otherwise – which constrain the options of those within them. In that sense, it can still provide an antidote to the meta-historical assumption which to a great extent replaced it, with the rise of a new ‘global history’ in the 1990s and 2000s. This was the image of networks, protean, free-flowing, cutting across the supposedly rigid boundaries of blocks. Once again, it is doubtless relevant that this was the era of the downfall of one Cold War ‘bloc’ and the annunciation of a new world order of liberalisation and (especially economic) ‘free’ competition. (Cf. Patrick O’Brien’s manifesto for the Journal of Global History: O’Brien 2006.) At the same time, the network metaphor has definite strengths. For ‘global history’, it has encouraged, in the place of the rather Olympian bird’s-eye-view of the ‘world-system’, a detailed attention to the particularities of contacts, exchanges, and entanglements. But when scaled up into an account of the whole, these particular interactions could be seen as taking place within a flattened, frictionless world, and the image of networks tended to divert attention from whatever boundaries or constraining structures that world required to maintain it. In particular, what the earlier discussions had seen as ‘capitalism’, a structure constraining of human actions but itself (however significant) limited to particular geographical and temporal zones, could become a natural condition of all human existence. To reverse a metaphor of Hobsbawm’s, from being ‘something like a bank of clouds’, it could become ‘something like the sky’ (Hobsbawm 1964: 217. He said religion went through the opposite process in 1789-1848.)

I am not proposing, then, a simple jettisoning of the ‘network’ meta-image for world history, and this insights it has enabled, in favour of a reversion to the meta-image of ‘blocs’. But I think this earlier meta-image, and those eclipsed discussions of world-systems, dependency, and modes of production, are worth revisiting, and bringing into critical tension with more recent histories animated by ‘network’ metaphors. More specifically (and more speculatively) I propose a particular way of combining the insights of the two meta-images. This is based on the recognition that blocs, when operationalised, work like networks; and that networks, similarly, have a tendency to work like blocs. This is an abstract way of putting it, so let me explain.

Here is another global map, this time of the flow of air traffic:

This represents a network, in which nodes (airports) are linked by connecting lines. At the same time, it is a ‘heat map’, representing the densities of connection within given zones. Certain parts of North America, Europe, and East Asia clearly have denser connections, and so are redder in colour, than most others. Other swathes, especially of sea but also of land, largely retain their original blue, green, or sandy-pale colours, though still criss-crossed by thinner filaments of the air-traffic network.

Clearly it is hard to delimit what we see here into definite ‘blocs’. We might draw a line around one or other zone on the map, take an average ‘temperature’ across it, and define it as ‘high’, ‘medium’, or ‘low’ in density. But isolating one zone would ignore the obvious fact that the system as a whole operates across the boundaries of zones and unites them: it cannot be limited, for instance, to zones of high density. And there is no obvious and absolute boundary between zones of high and low density: the positioning of any line (like the selection of colours for the map) would be to some extent arbitrary. On the other hand, it is equally clear that this is not either a protean or a ‘flat’, egalitarian network. It is, rather, a hierarchically structured one, to which the relational oppositions of world-systems analysis – such as ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ – are relevant.

The air-traffic map shows us how a network which is able to ignore many obvious boundaries between blocs (such as national borders) nonetheless tends to a ‘bloc-like’ structure. The story of another map helps us see how the creation of ‘bloc-like’ characteristics in a given zone depends on a network. The original chloropleth map (of shaded densities) was created by Charles Dupin in 1826:

Carte figurative de l'instruction populaire de la France

Carte figurative de l’instruction populaire de la France, by Charles Dupin (1784-1873) / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

It showed the varying ‘density’ of education across France, averaging the number of pupils relative to population for each département and shading it accordingly. It revealed, of course, unevenness between regions, and especially between country and city. Seven years later, the Loi Guizot was enacted. This aimed to create evenness, via a unified system of primary education for the entire country. France would become, ideally, a uniform bloc; the map of France would be of a single shade. But the means of achieving uniformity was, precisely, a (hierarchical) network: a national law and curriculum, regional Écoles normales to train teachers, instituteurs (primary-school teachers) in each commune or village, all bound together by the movements of schoolbooks, rules, plans, and school-inspectors across the map of France. This particular network stops abruptly, of course, at the borders of the French state.

The ambition to create of ‘bounded uniformities’ like this one is critical to almost any aspect of ‘modernity’. States, systems of money and law, religious groupings, literary languages, have all been constructed on a similar, bloc-like model. The means of doing this has been, though, the construction of networks, so that (whatever the ideal ambitions for the ‘bloc’) the actual distribution of the desired characteristics has remained uneven as it remains on an educational map of France today. At the same time, these uniformities have tolerated – or enabled – the growth of theoretically unbounded, non-uniform networks – like global air-traffic, or global trade both within and across their borders. These networks, for all their lack of limitation within fixed boundaries like those of the French héxagone, tend to have hierarchical, ‘bloc-like’ tendencies, such as unevennesses between ‘core’ and ‘periphery’.

II. Time and function

That then is one suggestion for a synthesis, or creative tension, between the ‘bloc’ metaphor of world-systems or modes-of-production analyses, and the ‘network’ metaphor of more recent global histories. Both metaphors are, of course, spatial ones, and I have so far been discussing them in terms of actual geographical space. But they may also have relevance to other dimensions of the human world: historical time, and to what might be called the ‘functional spheres’ of the social whole.

In discussions of modes of production, the temporal counterparts of ‘blocs’ were ‘epochs’. The ‘transition’ from one to another – most commonly, the epoch of feudalism (or something else) to that of capitalism – was as much discussed as the relation between different ‘modes of production’ or parts of a world-system, within geographical space. Epochs were, again, bloc-type entities. You were ‘in’ feudalism or ‘in’ capitalism, and transition could in theory be assigned a particular moment (perhaps a revolution) (See Sweezy et al. 1976). As with spatial blocs, there is much to be said for this image, as an antidote to the one which frequently replaced it: that of an eternal free-market economy, as part of humans’ natural constitution and destiny. Rather than a protean force which might manifest itself at any point in history, the notion of epochs called attention to capitalism as a constraining structure which was limited to a particular historical phase. But it also encourages a rigid impermeability of boundaries, which makes it hard to see how one can get from one epoch to another; and it tends to reduce capitalism to a limited fixed characteristic or characteristics (as, for Robert Brenner, wage-labour), which risks excluding other relevant areas entirely (slave or ‘tributary’ production, social reproduction, etc) (Brenner 1977). We might suggest that a version of the spatial models outlined above could help in grasping ‘transition’. We might see a distinct polarity between the high ‘density’ of capitalism in historical period A and its much lower ‘density’ in historical period B, while recognising that many filaments stretch out across the putative boundary between them (and form an essential part of the whole, ‘capitalism’), and also that the placing of this boundary is uncertain and arbitrary.

We might also, more tentatively, extend the metaphor into the complex area of ‘functional’ spheres within a society. This was yet another preoccupation of the modes-of-production debates, or some parts of them, and bore on the definition of a mode of production itself. What was this sphere of the human-social world called ‘production’, or in some notations ‘the economic’, and how should we identify its forms or roles in different geographical areas or periods of history? Again, this exercised participants in the old debates, especially those dealing with times and places where these categories seemed to fit imperfectly. Maurice Godelier was concerned to explain how, in societies studied by anthropologists, kinship could occupy a place within a ‘hierarchy of functions’ similar to that which ‘the economy’ occupies in capitalist society (Godelier 1986). John Haldon was at pains to show that, in late Antiquity and medieval societies, state or religious institutions could fulfil ‘economic’ functions which we might (on capitalist experience) expect to be fulfilled by ‘the market’ (Haldon 1993). Once again, the alternative seemed to be the abandonment of distinctions between spheres, or of the attribution of causal primacy to a particular sphere (for Marxists, generally, ‘the economic’, or ‘production’), and the loss of any sense of why societies should be structured in particular ways, or why these structures should change over time. As David Bell argues, a history animated by the ‘network’ metaphor has found it easy to show connection, but not causation (Bell 2013). But a creative tension between the ‘bloc’ and the ‘network’ may help us – more than Bell’s suggested solution of turning away from the global scale to focus on ‘small spaces’ – to restore analytical precision and of causality, without imposing mechanical rigidities. Functional spheres are like blocs: approximations, averaged-out densities of what appear, on closer examination, more like networks. The filaments of each ‘sphere’ extend all over the social whole, deep into the domain of other ‘spheres’. As Edward Thompson once observed, ‘law’, far from remaining confined to one (ideological) ‘level’ of society, is at ‘every bloody level’ (Thompson 1978: 96). But this does not mean that we must utterly dissolve the definition of the logic which had defined the ‘sphere’ (a logic of production, ideology, law, etc). Retaining the analytical clarity of that definition, we can examine its interactions and symbioses – as well as its conflicts and causal effects – on other, similarly-defined logics.

This brings me to another theme: the nature of historico-social logics, and their combinations or ‘bundling’. It will have been noted that I have assumed, throughout the above, that we are in need of models, or metaphors, of such logics. And also that some of these should comprehend a large, even grand, scale – that of ‘mode of production’, ‘world-system’, or ‘capitalism’ – and not only on the smaller scales that can grasp more granular or piecemeal logics. I have no space to defend this position here, though I hope to return to it in a future contribution. For now, I can only assert that I find convincing Jeremy Adelman’s description of our world as one characterised, on a global level, by interdependence and inequality (or unevenness) (Adelman 2019). I think, further, that the truth of this description has been brought home very forcibly since Adelman was speaking, late in 2019, by the course of the coronavirus pandemic. I think that historians, as well as other students of the human social world, ought to rise to the challenge of understanding such a world, and that this will require, among other things, large-scale explanations.

This piece is part of a series on Political Economy and Culture in Global History, derived from a collective discussion project of the same name, supported by the Past & Present Society (among others). You can read an introduction to the series here.These pieces accompany a virtual special issue of the journal Past & Present, which will be published in October 2020.


Adelman, Jeremy. 2019. ‘History and Public Policy’. Lecture at Convergence/Divergence: New Approaches to the Global History of Capitalism Conference, 28-29 September 2019.

Bell, David A. 2013. ‘This Is What Happens When Historians Overuse the Idea of the Network’. The New Republic, 26 October 2013.

Brenner, Robert. 1977. ‘The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism’. New Left Review 104: 25–92.

Godelier, Maurice. 1986. The Mental and the Material: Thought Economy and Society. Translated by Martin Thom. London: Verso.

Haldon, John F. 1993. The State and the Tributary Mode of Production. London: Verso.

Hobsbawm, E. J. 1964. The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848. New York: New American Library.

O’Brien, Patrick. 2006. ‘Historiographical Traditions and Modern Imperatives for the Restoration of Global History’. Journal of Global History 1 (1): 3–39.

Sweezy, Paul M., et al. 1976. The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism. Edited by Rodney Hilton. London: New Left Books.

Thompson, Edward Palmer. 1978. The Poverty of Theory & Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel, Hale Decdeli, and Resat Kasaba. 1987. ‘The Incorporation of the Ottoman Empire in the World-Economy’. In The Ottoman Empire and the World-Economy, edited by Huri Islamogu-Inan, 88–97. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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