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Uneven and Combined Development: What role for the Super-Structural?

by Jokubas Salyga on September 19, 2016
Marxism Reading Group

It was through the method of rational abstractions that Marx sought to delineate the formal structures of the capitalist mode of production, which informs his major aim in Capital. Except the section on primitive accumulation, his analytical object was ‘a pure construct of a capitalist society free from all disturbing accompanying circumstances’ rather than an historical extrapolation of capitalism’s rise in England. For Marx, the establishment of capitalist social property relations generates its own laws of motions, including the capitalist’s compulsion to accumulate, the tendency towards perpetual technological revolutions, the insatiable thirst for surplus-value extraction, the inevitability of class struggle, the tendency towards social polarisation and finally periodic crises. These laws are expressed and realised through the specific relations of capitalist production at different levels of the social process of production.

WestYet, Marx’s analysis of capitalism did not provide a comprehensive account of how the expansion of capitalism across the world – in his terminology ‘expanded reproduction’ – proceeds. In the preface to the first edition of Volume 1, Marx famously notes that ‘[t]he country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed the image of its own future’. Such contention has invited a great deal of criticism against Marx’s understanding of history and more specifically, precipitated the debates on the emergence of capitalism. It is in this context that myself and Kayhan Valadbaygi argue in this blog post that How the West Came to Rule constitutes one of the most advanced and convincing attempts at theorising the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

In contrast to Eurocentric historiographies – capitalist development, understood through an uneven and combined development thesis, is no longer unilinear, homogeneous or homogenising, expanding in its pure form, but ‘interactively multilinear’, that is, dialectically related to the single world-historical process. While we are very sympathetic to the authors’ intention of developing Trotsky’s thesis in order to embark on the important and ambitious project of stimulating something akin to the ‘connected histories’ of capitalism’s emergence via multi-faceted vectoral intersection of both Western and non-Western agencies, we do feel that such task still suffers from a limited engagement with the super-structural elements of the mode of production analysis advanced throughout their work.

In the most general terms, our main concern about the book relates to the role ascribed to super-structural elements in the uneven and combined development thesis. In the chapter on the Ottoman-Habsburg rivalry – the authors provide a nuanced interpretation of what qualifies at least analytically, as an economic base in their account. It is convincingly shown how the base-superstructure dialectic cannot and should not be separated. Hence,  it is claimed that a ‘mode of production should be seen not as a simple economic relation, or merely a form of exploitation … but rather as a composite totality of social relations that encapsulate certain conditions of production – be they political, cultural, or inter-societal’ (emphasis added). In some regards, such interpretation closely approximates anti-structuralist tradition in historical materialist thought, for example, in positing that social relations do shape but do not determine extra-economic institutions and ideational configurations that are involved in the processes of capitalist development.

The book therefore, deserves to be complimented for engaging with great nuance with political dimensions of taxation mechanisms, issues of land distribution between the ruling classes and other devices of class reproduction more generally. Furthermore, How the West Came to Rule provides convincing explanations about the role of inter-societal linkages that precipitated the rise of the West. This is especially well developed in the chapters documenting a) how Europe’s expansion into the Atlantic reordered the configuration of agrarian capitalism and prefigured the rise of Industrial Revolution in Britain as well as its rise to the global dominance; and b) how the reproduction of the capital-wage-labour relation was dependent on, and built upon, the exploitation of ‘unfree’ labour in the case of Dutch colonisation of South East Asia that provided an impetus for overcoming labour shortages at home.

However, it is our view that the role of cultural elements comprising any given mode of production be it capitalist or otherwise is partially assumed away in authors’ use of the uneven and combined development thesis. On the one hand, following the distinction made with regard to ‘capital’ and ‘capitalism’, wherein the former denotes the relation between capital and wage-labour and the latter the totality of social relations that are specific to the modern epoch, but also those that precede it – thus involving, most importantly ‘consensual apparatuses’ such as specific cultures, ideologies, subjectivities, consciousness, psychologies and conducts – we feel that the engagement with how cultural elements come to reproduce, for example, the Dutch mode of production in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is explained in a rather limited way. This is the case, in the discussion on the spread of Reformation in the Netherlands, which is accounted for on the basis of the Dutch receptiveness to its ideological diffusion and the fact that Reformation found its great support in the highly urbanised as opposed to feudal parts of the Empire. On the other, and perhaps more importantly, we do wonder whether there is a need to account in greater detail for the role of religion (as well as other cultural aspects configuring historical modes of social organisation) that function alongside the transformations of social definitions of property, value, customs and rights in the case of non-Western agencies studied in the book. Hence, there are at least three questions that need to be asked:

First, given the fact the Ottoman Empire was a religious Empire and the Sultan was the Khalifa of the Muslim world – what role did such important ideological-religious element play in explaining military and economic expansion of the Ottoman Empire?

Second, while authors deserve a commendation for a rich account of political and inter-societal aspects of the Nomadic mode of production, it remains unclear what role did the cultural, religious and ideological factors play, besides fostering communal relationships of ‘companionship and comradeship’ in the Mogul Empire?

Third, and more generally, then, it is apposite to ask, what role should be accredited to the super-structural elements within the uneven and combined development thesis, and to what degree is the latter capable of productively incorporating cultural manifestations of the studied modes of production?

In our view, it remains to be seen whether the task of incorporating super-structural dimensions of the mode of production analysis can be accomplished within the confines of uneven and combined development thesis. At least one potential way of overcoming the identified limitation, would be through an engagement with Gramsci’s notion of ‘common sense’, that could be utilised to incorporate the themes of taken-for-granted beliefs, superstitions, opinions, ways of seeing and acting – whether in popular folklore or customs, religious beliefs, or practices that come to intersect in manifold ways in non-Western and Western developmental encounters. While there might be potential objections to such deployment of the concept, Gramsci has always cautioned against mechanistic readings of history. Hence, used as a criteria of interpretation for historical research, ‘common sense’ might open up new analytical ways of incorporating issues surrounding the ways in which given mode of production comes to be socially and culturally constituted and articulated, thereby benefiting theorisations of the long history of domination, oppression, colonisation and conquest – at the same time enriching the inter-societal (combinational) aspect that the uneven and combined development thesis is well-geared to productively tackle.

We would like to congratulate Alex and Kerem with an astonishing academic achievement, the result of which is the book that marks a definitive reference point for future studies of international historical sociology research and surely further beyond the field.

Jokubas Salyga
Jokubas Salyga is a doctoral candidate in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham and a fellow of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ). His research focuses on the political economy of post-communist transitions in the Baltic states.

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