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Network Origins of the Global Economy. East Vs. West in a Complex Systems Perspective

Hilton L. Root
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2020
ISBN 9781108488990 (hb)

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Reviewed by Ammar Malik
Harvard Kennedy School, Cambridge, MA

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Hilton Root’s Network Origins of the Global Economy contributes unique new perspectives for understanding the political economy of institutional change. In Root’s signature fashion, network science and complex systems thinking is applied to explore the evolution of political power structures in Europe and China, linking them to contemporary realities in the international arena. He leads us through a fascinating journey, combining economic history, institutional analysis and network science, that explores the evolution of the power structures of the historical regimes of Europe and China. Readers not familiar with the historical contexts of the European and Chinese political system, will find plenty of context in the rich narrative which draws on a deep understanding of the traditional literature in economic history and institutions.

In comparing Chinese and European political power structures at the systems level, Root’s main argument is that China’s centralized hub and spoke model while efficient is more brittle, whereas Europe’s seemingly messy but evenly matched and perpetually competing power brokers induced greater resilience. The multi-level analysis of power structures as networks adds rich insight on key factors relevant for today’s international order, such as stability at the level of the international system. He makes a strong case for why understanding the anatomy of power structures, in this case through network science, is critical for sensing expected outcomes related to the pace of evolution and stability. Besides theorizing how these structures get created, what factors push their evolution and how their stability is determined, and then elaborating them through historical examples, Root also introduces new analytical tools for political economists and policy wonks.

The social simulation community will find many opportunities for theory-building and hypothesis testing on foundational issues in political economy that could also shed light on contemporary policy debates. Applying computational methods and simulation to the robust theoretical underpinning offered here, it would be possible to create rules of interaction among agents and then test observations of system-level outcomes against predictions. Multiagent models could be constructed to explore how components of the system evolved into their current forms. Such models could add rich new insights into the stability of China’s growth miracle or potential for Europe to accelerate innovation and thus economic progress. For example, Root’s exposition of how Europe’s fragmented power centers created system level resilience could be further explored by creating multiple layers of agents, and exploring the specific interactions to determine what conditions create system resilience. We can also ask as China asserts its economic dominance around the globe, will its internal power structures have the resilience to withstand shocks, such as economic crises or pandemics? Readers will see that viewing China’s evolution into a market economy through a cold war lens is both inadequate and misleading.

In Network Origins, Root has made another strong contribution to showcase ways in which complex systems thinking and network science in particular can be deployed to refresh longstanding debates on major questions in political economy and economic transformation. If further developed by multi-agent modelers in the social simulation community, some of his key ideas could become the foundations for further hypothesis generation and theory building, which could in turn enrich ongoing academic debates.


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