How the West Came to Rule Symposium
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by Kerem Nisancioglu on September 5, 2016
Marxism Reading Group

In How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism myself and Alexander Anievas tackle a foundational myth of Eurocentrism – that capitalism was the invention of a uniquely European history and culture. In Eurocentric narratives, non-Western societies have been side-lined or, where included, presented as passive and devoid of agency. Europe or ‘the West’ is thus repeatedly reaffirmed as the prime mover of sociohistorical change. This is the narrative we aim to criticise, subvert and overcome in How the West Came to Rule, by bringing non-European societies and actors back to the centre of our history of capitalism’s origins.

WestAs we argue in the book, Eurocentrism functions through a certain methodological and ontological assumption – internalism. The internalist assumption places intra-European dynamics at the forefront of historical sociological analysis, which in turn lends itself to analyses that conceives the origins of capitalism as an exclusively European affair. Insofar as interactions between societies are a priori omitted, the extensive influences of non-European societies are erased from our historical narratives.

The problems of internalism are well known to students of International Relations (IR). As such we use our own disciplinary home of IR – long considered a discipline where history goes to die – as a privileged vantage point from which to reassess and rehabilitate histories of capitalism. More specifically, we deploy the idea of uneven and combined development (UCD) as a framework that is capable of overcoming strict distinctions between internal and external dynamics – between domestic and international. In doing so, UCD provides a way of theorising intersocietal interactions as constitutive of historical change. Such an approach is predicated on reading historical change from a multiplicity of spatial (or geographical) vantage points in a way that doesn’t reduce entire histories to the dynamics of any single society.

UCD therefore offers a way of analysing the interactivity between non-European and European societies and actors. What we find in How the West Came to Rule is that many of the foundational myths of the ‘transition debate’ are only truly intelligible when looked at through these intersocietal and non-Eurocentric histories. The breakdown of feudalism in the wake of the Black Death was not entirely an accidental shock specific to Europe. It was instead the product of intersocietal interactions generated by the Mongolian Empire, whose Westward expansion systematically integrated Europe into a nascent world system of socioeconomic and cross-cultural relations with Asian societies. This had the effect of boosting trade, urban growth and an increasingly complex division of labour within particular European locales. Similarly, the English enclosures of the sixteenth-century onwards were not exclusively the product of the ‘peculiarities’ of England’s internal development but conditioned by the geopolitical pressure of the Ottoman Empire on existing centres of power in Europe. This same Ottoman geopolitical pressure was also central to European states seeking alternative routes to Asian markets, leading to the so-called ‘discovery of the Americas’.

The widened sphere of activity afforded by the Atlantic subsequently constituted, in the words of Robbie Shilliam, ‘the deepest structural unevenness upon and through which the modern world order developed’. The wealth of Europe wasn’t built on some unique European entrepreneurial spirit. The industrial revolution was far from the product of an exceptional European ingenuity. Both were predicated on colonialism – the violent oppression of non-Europeans and the unequal extraction of resources found outside of Europe. Institutional creations such as joint stock companies, warehousing, and the stock exchange were not innovations of European rationality but were strategic responses to colonial interactions with societies, producers and ruling classes in South Asia.

Taking these dynamics together, the ‘Rise of the West’ was far from a self-propelling and unidirectional process emanating from Europe. It was the result of multiple yet intersecting interactions, struggles and oppressions that took place internationally. This also reminds us that the origins of capitalism were far from a peaceful or natural process. Capitalism came up out of the ground, ‘dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt’. The distinctly geopolitical violence of primitive accumulation was the foundation upon which a new global proletariat was built. And the existence of this new proletariat was predicated on the intersocietal construction of new methods of social control and violence – the nation-state, modern patriarchy and racism.

How the West Came to Rule thus offers what could be called a non-Eurocentric history of Europe; a re-reading and re-theorisation of European history that decentres Europe and reintroduces the experience and agency of the marginalised. In so doing, we hope our book offers fertile ground on which to conduct further non-Eurocentric enquiries into the histories of capitalism. We also hope that it opens new debates in the present, about how we go about dismantling capitalism and the global intersections of oppressions that it is built upon.

 

Kerem Nisancioglu

Kerem Nisancioglu is Lecturer in International Relations at SOAS, University of London. His research focuses on Eurocentrism in international relations, and how this Eurocentrism can be subverted in both theory and history. In particular, his research has explored the ways in which non-European societies have been constitutive of European social relations in the early modern period. His current research seeks to uncover the international origins of whiteness as a form of social control. Kerem also blogs at The Disorder of Things.

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