Every cosmology, every religion, every philosophy has its myth of creation. The monotheistic faiths have the book of Genesis, the pre-Socratic metaphysicians had their accounts of primordial forces, even modern secular science has its “big bang” theories. These narratives are always somewhat speculative, and often times impossibly esoteric, yet they are crucial because they establish the ontological properties and analytical categories by which the whole intellectual system is made meaningful.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the debate over the origins of capitalism has been amongst the most contentious in critical political economy. For some, such questions might seem unduly academic, remote and detached from the very real struggles against austerity, precariousness and poverty that are at the heart of twenty-first century anti-capitalism. However, in responding to Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu’s excellent How the West came to Rule, in this blog post I will suggest the effort to overcome Eurocentrism in our stories of the birth of capitalism is inseparable from the effort to overcome a debilitating Eurocentrism in the political struggles to transcend capitalism.
Eurocentrism in Political Marxism and World Systems Theory
The foundational claim of How the West Came to Rule, holds that the dominant narratives of the birth of capitalism have been distorted by a pervasive Eurocentrism, a privileging of the European experience as the centre of universal human history. In particular the book focuses on two opposed theoretical positions, the Political Marxist approach associated with the work of Robert Brenner and the World System theory of Immanuel Wallerstein. For Robert Brenner the birth of capitalism emerges out of the transformation of “social property relations” in England during the 15th century. This period saw a dramatic break down in feudal social relations resulting in the dispossession of the peasants and the establishment of a distinctive new social class – the proletariat – compelled by necessity to sell their labour on the free market. For Anievas and Nisancioglu, this account constitutes a form of Eurocentrism that understands the birth of capitalism “as a product of developments primarily internal to Europe” that is then universalised as the process through which all society`s must pass “Based on the assumption that any given trajectory of development is the product of a society’s own immanent dynamics”.
In contrast to the internalist focus of Brenner, Immanuel Wallerstein focuses on an external impetus for the birth of capitalism. According to Wallerstein the world prior to the sixteenth century was made up of various regionally enclosed feudalistic systems. The decisive moment in unifying these various regional systems into a single world system was the Spanish “discovery”, invasion, occupation and exploitation of the Amerindian world(s). In so doing a world market began to be established (including a world division of labour) based upon a global relationship of exploitation which developed Europe as the core of the new world economy, while simultaneously condemning the peripheral regions in the Americas, Africa and Asia to permanent structural-systemic underdevelopment. For Anievas and Nisancioglu, while this World System approach avoids the Eurocentric internalism of the Brennerian approach, it falls into a second form of Eurocentrism which reduces the non-West to its difference, it becomes simply “the other” of Europe – homogenous and passive to a “Europe (which) is conceived as the permanent ‘core’ and ‘prime mover’ of history”.
There are, of course, certain objections which might be raised against both these critiques. In particular with regard to the criticisms of World Systems Theory, in focusing on Wallerstein`s approach, the authors largely avoid potentially more complicated engagements with various strands of dependency theory – for example Andre Gunder Frank or Janet Abu-Lughod who have long spoken of the eastern origins of capitalism prior to the sixteenth century. Equally, we might enquire as to why the authors begin their study with the 13th century, rather than tracing back further to the decline of the Roman Empire and the bifurcation of the Mediterranean between an imperial east and a tribal west, a Christian north and an Islamic south.
Uneven and Combined Development against Eurocentrism in the Emergence of Capitalism
These questions notwithstanding, the authors key point is extremely powerful – the stories we tell ourselves about the ascendency of the West at best marginalise and homogenise the non-West, at worst they ignore it altogether. The indigenous peoples of the Americas condemned to work the silver mines of Potosi or the Africans brutally enslaved on the plantations of the Caribbean are entirely absent from the Brennerian account, whereas in the World System narrative they are understood purely in terms of passive victims of European developments. For Anievas and Nisancioglu, the challenge of writing a post-Eurocentric history of European ascendency is the challenge of finding an alternative theoretical paradigm for understanding the development of capitalism, which will restore the constitutive agency of the non-West. The alternative paradigm the authors propose to achieve this is the approach known as Uneven and Combined Development – a Marxist model first developed by Leon Trotsky in order to explain the unique historical conjuncture surrounding the 1917 revolution in Russia. The great value of this approach is that in focusing on the uneveness of development, the authors are able to move beyond the homogenisation of the non-West, instantly the non-West becomes diverse and plural. And yet while development is understood as uneven, the element of combination allows the authors to avoid the dangers of methodological internalism, by emphasising how all societies are inter-connected within a holistic analysis of the local particular conjunctures of a unified global capitalism. As such the Uneven and Combined Development approach allows the authors to restore constitutive agency in the making of capitalism beyond Europe, through the infinitely complex social relations that are constructed around the capital relation. Through this approach the authors develop rich empirical analyses (which they readily acknowledge are only ever exploratory, requiring specialist further investigation) in which the non-West ceases to be a passive, homogenous “other” and becomes instead exterior, multiple, diverse and actively engaged in ways that are complex and contingent in the geopolitical construction of an uneven and combined global capitalist system of social relations.
Again, we might raise certain questions – in particular there seems something of a tension between the authors empirical project of telling the story of the ascendency of Europe and their theoretical commitment to moving beyond Eurocentrism. Certainly the book offers powerful accounts of contextual processes and contestations from beyond the West, but by necessity these are always related back to telling the story of the ascendency of the West – as such Europe always remains at the centre of the story being told. Indeed, we might go further and ask if the authors very ontological categories are not themselves Eurocentric – for example the category of “class” might be imagined differently in non-western contexts where it intersects with experiences of tribe or caste. Perhaps, however, it is a contribution of the book that it encourages us to think about these questions: would it be possible, and if so what would it mean to tell the story of the birth of capitalism from within Bantu, Aymara or Buddhist cosmological categories?
Uneven and Combined Development in the Contemporary World
The great value of the theoretical approach proposed by Anievas and Nisancioglu is, therefore, the capacity for engaging with complexity that it introduces. Brenner remained narrowly focused on the universalisation of a particularly European form of social relation, while Wallerstein remained focused on a permanent structural binary between core and periphery. The uneven and combined approach, by contrast, offers an ontology that is full of dynamism and fluidity, capable of capturing the multiplicity of resistances, accommodations and intersections across global space and time. Clearly such an approach has an intuitive appeal in a period where there appears to be a blurring of the binary opposition between a developed global north and an underdeveloped global south. During the 1970s, when the Brenner-Wallerstein debate was in full flow, the world could still easily be divided between the largely liberal democratic, affluent, industrial and technologically advanced economies of the global north and the largely authoritarian, impoverished, rural and extractive economies of the global south. Today the spatialities of capitalism seem much more fluid, China has become the industrial “workshop of the world” while Bangalore has emerged as a high-tech “Indian Silicon Valley” – giving rise to a new combative working class as well as a new young bourgeoisie across the global south. Equally, since the 1980s large swathes of the global north have been subject to deindustrialisation, the flexibilisation of labour contracts, the disciplining of welfare regimes and the emergence of a new and growing “precarious” social class on the margins of the formal economy. What is more, during the 1970s the idea of a consensual-democratic global north and a coercive-authoritarian global south reinforced the idea of global difference.
However, over the past three decades countries in the global south such as Brazil, Chile and South Africa have enjoyed sustained periods of democratic government by parties of the centre-left. While in the countries of the global north there has been a gradual erosion of democratic rights, with the emergence of the prison-industrial complex in the United States, the anti-trade union laws in the UK and most recently the emergence of xenophobic, far-right parties across Europe.
Against Eurocentrism in the Transcendence of Capitalism
The major political question we might ask, therefore, in reflection on the critique of Eurocentrism in the theories of the emergence of capitalism, is just how might we overcome Eurocentrism in our theories of the transcendence of capitalism? Brenner`s focus on production relations and proletarianisation was reflective of his commitment to the industrial working class as the gravedigger of capitalism, the social class destined to abolish class society. This analysis reflects a particular historical moment, the apogee of the European labour movement, at a time when it was capable of willing and winning momentous concessions from capital, as it had done in France in 1968, even of overthrowing governments, as it had done in Britain in 1974. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, those great progressive victories of the European working class seem distant memories. The most recent struggles have been overwhelmingly defensive, as with the UK miners strike of 1984-5, or the French public sector strikes of 1995 or most recently the mass mobilisations of the European labour movement against austerity. The Dependency theory of development was also a reflection of the times, emerging in response to the heroic struggles of the national liberation movements across Asia, Africa and Latin America during the 1950s and 1960s. For these movements the critique of dependency offered an intellectual rationale for the formation of national-popular movements, drawing together the urban poor, the rural masses and the progressive elements of the native bourgeoisie.
The result in countries such as China, Algeria, Egypt, South Africa, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua and Iran was a distinctive form of “Third Worldist” politics built on the collective agency of “the people” against foreign imperial domination. And yet again, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, these national-popular liberation movements seem a distant memory. In some cases such as the ANC in South Africa or the Communist Party in China there has been a broad accommodation with various forms of neoliberal capitalism, while in others, such as the FLN in Algeria, the Baath in Syria or Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe the movement has given way to a nationalist authoritarianism. In both theoretical approaches the Eurocentrism of the analysis of the emergence of capitalism, gave rise to forms of Eurocentrism in the imagination of the transcendence of capitalism. For the proponents of the European industrial working class, this social agent became something of a dogma, detached from the historical specificity of its particular geopolitical articulation, its relations with the unwaged, the unemployed, the excluded.
Equally, for the proponents of the non-European model of popular nationalism, the difference from Europe served to homogenise and delegitimise any differences within the non-European, “the people” became ideological cover for the project of the national bourgeoisie or the party-state. The great challenge for contemporary movements seeking to transcend capitalism, is thus, to understand transformative social agency in the contemporary world in a way that does not fall back into these Eurocentric patterns. As Anievas and Nisancioglu demonstrate the complexity and multiplicity of the emergence of capitalism, so also we should embrace the complexity and multiplicity, the dynamism and fluidity of the transcendence of capitalism, moving beyond Eurocentrism means moving beyond any universal social agent, but instead recognising the necessary contingency and uneven and combined character of what Gramsci called the subaltern classes.
In this task, How the West came to Rule is not only a fascinating and rewarding history of the emergence of capitalism, it is an important political intervention that should be of value to all those engaged in the struggle to transcend capitalism.