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How the West Came to Rule? Challenging Eurocentrism

by Andreas Bieler on October 4, 2016
Marxism Reading Group

The notion of uneven and combined development (U&CD), introduced by Leon Trotsky in his assessment of the Russian political economy and the possibilities of transformation toward communism in the early 20th century, has gained increasing attention within International Relations. In this blog post, I want to engage critically with the recent book How The West Came To Rule by Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancioğlu, which draws extensively on U&CD in its analysis of the emergence and spread of capitalism.

The international dimension of capitalist expansion: key contributions

WestThis is a highly important contribution to the burgeoning literature on U&CD, which makes at least four key contributions. First, while many discussions have often remained within the purely abstract, the two authors provide a fascinating empirical analysis of the history of capitalism by drawing on the underlying dynamics of U&CD.

Second, the book is exemplary in its focus on the international dimension of capitalism. All too often the spread of capitalism is purely understood as a European phenomenon, driven by Europe’s internal dynamics. Anievas and Nişancioğlu convincingly demonstrate how it was, for example, the opportunities offered by the Atlantic expansion post-1492, which ensured the success of British capitalism. Similarly, Dutch capitalism may have collapsed, had it not been able to draw on labour reserves in East Asia.

Third, the book reasserts the brutal force of capitalist expansion in gaining dominance at the international level including slavery and violent subjugation by military force. Ultimately, it was the superior military power fuelled by the possibilities of the industrial revolution, which ensured Western, and here especially British dominance. This is nowhere more visible than in the British colonisation of India. ‘In 1750, India produced approximately 25 per cent of the world’s manufacturing output. By 1800 India’s share had already dropped to less than a fifth, by 1860 to less than a tenth, and by 1880 to under 3 per cent. It is therefore no stretch of the imagination to claim that Britain’s industrial ascent was to a large degree predicated on India’s forced deindustrialisation’.

Finally, the book clarifies that capitalism itself is not an ideal abstraction, but always a mixture of different labour regimes. Hence, when reflecting on the emergence of capitalism, ‘a distinction must be made between “capital” and “capitalism”. While capital … refers to a social relation defined by the relation between capital and wage-labour, capitalism refers to a broader configuration (or totality) of social relations oriented around the systematic reproduction of the capital relation, but irreducible – either historically or logically – to the capital relation itself’. Hence, the fact that wage labour may have existed earlier and elsewhere in itself does not imply that capitalism as a mode of production had been established outside Europe.

Challenging Eurocentrism

The main purpose of the book is a challenge to Eurocentrism. Thus, it examines ‘the “extra-European” geopolitical conditions and forms of agency conducive to capitalism’s emergence as a distinctive mode of production over the longue durée’. It is this challenge, with which I want to engage critically in more detail. For this purpose, I distinguish between a strong challenge to Eurocentrism and a weak challenge to Eurocentrism. And while I agree that the authors have been successful in relation to the latter, I will argue that they failed as far as the former is concerned.

Strong challenge to Eurocentrism 

In its strong challenge to Eurocentrism, the authors ‘argue that the origins and history of capitalism can only be properly understood in international or geopolitical terms, and that this very “internationality” is constitutive of capitalism as a historical mode of production’. In other words, the very emergence of capitalism is understood as having been conditioned by developments outside Europe. Capitalism, is defined by the authors ‘as encompassing historically specific configurations of social relations and processes’. And while they critically engage with the work of Robert Brenner and other ‘political Marxists’ for overlooking the potential amalgamation of different modes of production within a social formation, ultimately their definition very much follows Brenner’s understanding of the social relations of capitalism as being based on wage labour and the private ownership of the means of production.

In Chapter 3, Anievas and Nişancioğlu argue that the Mongol empire impacted on the emergence of capitalism in Europe in two distinctive ways. First, the Mongols disrupted Asian and here especially Chinese development while ensuring long distance trade routes from Asia to Europe. Second, it was the Mongol advances into the West, which brought with it the plague, empowering in turn the peasantry in European class struggles with the nobility against the background of widespread depopulation. Clearly, long distance trade routes implied wealth. Nevertheless, this wealth resulted from the trade in goods, which were produced in feudal social relations of production. Hence, wealth on its own cannot be related to capitalism, defined as a social relation by the authors. The plague was crucial for class struggles empowering peasants across Europe. Nevertheless, the link with the Mongols, even if they did bring the plague, is spurious, as it would simply have been a freak, outside impact. Moreover, the question still remains of why capitalism emerged in England, rather than France or Spain, which had equally suffered from the plague.

The impact of the Ottoman empire on the emergence of capitalism is assessed in Chapter 4. Both authors correctly argue that the rise of the Ottoman empire interrupted trade routes through the Mediterranean with the East, pushing Europe towards looking for alternatives around Africa (Portugal) and across the Atlantic (Spain). Moreover, the external threat had significant impact on power struggles between European powers, with England being left on its own on the periphery as a precondition for the rise of capitalism. In response, if new trade routes had been decisive for the emergence of capitalism, then it should have emerged in Spain and Portugal. Moreover, considering that the authors later in the book claim that capitalism emerged in England and the Low Countries, then the isolation of England cannot have been a determining factor, as the Low Countries had been for most of the time at the very heart of inter-European power rivalry.

Chapter 5, in turn, discusses the discovery of the Americas and its impact on the emergence of capitalism. The authors assert, again correctly in my view, that a definition of us versus them, the advanced civilisations of Europe against the civilisations in the backward stage of nature, sets the stage for Eurocentrism. Equally, the conquest of the Americas and their carving up into distinctive territories with clear borders was crucial for the emergence of the inter-state system in Europe itself. Nevertheless, this too has not caused the emergence of capitalism. As Teschke (2003) and Lacher (2006) have demonstrated, the formation of absolutist states and a European inter-state system came first, the emergence of capitalism occurred later.

In sum, of course, developments in feudal Europe were influenced through the interaction with developments and powers outside Europe. The way European feudalism was shaped, we can argue, was conditioned by developments elsewhere. In itself, however, these interactions did not result in the emergence of capitalism as defined by the authors themselves.

Weak challenge to Eurocentrism 

It is their Brennerian definition of capitalism, introduced above, which ultimately prevents them from mounting a strong challenge against Eurocentrism. At the beginning of the book, the authors ‘insist that something unique did happen in Europe that propelled it to global dominance at the expense of non-European societies’. Hence, the origins of capitalism have to be rooted within Europe. The way capitalism expanded outward, however, was heavily influenced and shaped by developments elsewhere and especially the way non-Europeans responded to this outward expansion.

Anievas and Nişancioğlu have provided important examples in this respect. First, Europe benefitted from the Atlantic expansion following Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the Americas in 1492. ‘If it were not for the specifically international conditions created by Europe’s expansion into the Atlantic, it is likely that capitalism would have been choked off by the limits of English agrarian capitalism’. The American colonies provided both markets for surpluses, which could not be sold in Britain, as well as super-profits resulting from plantations based on slave labour for re-investment into the industrial revolution. ‘In the late 18th century, income from colonial properties in the Americas was equal to approximately 50 per cent of British gross investment. Since much of this would have been reinvested in British industries, it provided a significant input into British industrialisation’. In other words, the full establishment of the capitalist mode of production was conditioned by the opportunities afforded through the Atlantic expansion. ‘The formation of “free” wage-labour and the real subsumption of labour under capital – that is, the “maturation” of capitalism as a mode of production – in Britain was driven by and dependent on slave labour in the Americas’.

A second example is the expansion of Dutch capitalism. In the late 16th century, Dutch agriculture was increasingly characterized by large farms worked by wage labour. ‘Crucially, one outcome of this process was an increase in the demand for labour-power concomitant with a reduction in its supply in the 17th century, as population growth could not keep pace with economic growth’. Unlike in Britain, this bottleneck was not overcome through rapid technological innovation. Instead, Dutch capitalism drew on the availability of labour power in Asia in its expansion. ‘By incorporating labour-power on a global scale, Dutch capital acquired a power of expansion it hitherto did not possess’. Importantly, rather than occupying territory and levying taxes as feudalist Spain and Portugal did in Latin America, Dutch capitalism focused on controlling production processes. ‘Dutch preponderance rested on intervening and eventually establishing control over production and thus also labour-power. The integration of intra-Asian trade, therefore, facilitated for the first time the organization of “a hierarchy of capitals connecting a dispersed mass of labour-power” on a “global” scale’. Resistance by local people was again crucial in the way this process played out. In order to get a foothold in South Asia, Dutch capitalism either integrated into existing networks or relied on blistering violence. At times surplus labour was provided for free as in the case of clove production in Moluccas, for example, while rebellions against clove production elsewhere were suppressed with brutal force.

Clearly, outward capitalist expansion and the full development of capitalism in Britain and Holland was conditioned by the opportunities offered in the Americas and East Asia. Nevertheless, the fact that it was Britain and Holland, rather than Spain or Portugal, where capitalism was first fully established, indicates that the prior reconfiguration of the social relations of production around wage labour and the private ownership of the means of production in these two countries was crucial for their ability to absorb the opportunities offered in other areas of the world. As the authors conclude, ‘those countries where protocapitalist relations were emerging or had already emerged – Holland and England – made much more productive use of the bullion than did Spain, which was set on a course of empire-expanding geopolitical accumulation congruent with its feudal relations of production’.

In short, the emergence of capitalism is a European phenomenon, but one which was conditioned by opportunities and resistance it encountered elsewhere in its outward expansion.

It is this weaker form of challenge to Eurocentrism by Anievas and Nişancioğlu, with which I am in full agreement.

Andreas Bieler
Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Nottingham and Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ).

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