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How the West Came to Rule Reviewed

by Paul Cammack on February 1, 2017
Marxism Reading Group

How the West Came to Rule is an ambitious book that has three related components – a critique of existing accounts of the emergence of capitalism as Eurocentric, an alternative approach based on Trotsky’s concept of uneven and combined development (UCD), and a series of empirical illustrations, drawn from a wide range of secondary sources. Unfortunately, the critique is poorly founded, and the alternative approach is flawed in concept and execution. As a result, the empirical illustrations fail to convince. Beyond this, inconsistency over the primary objective, a persistent recourse to overstatement and wilful distortion, the derivative character of the critique of Eurocentrism, and a style of argument that allows itself a licence it denies to its opponents further weaken its credibility. All this is apparent from the first page, and plays out remorselessly through the rest of the book. In what follows, I first summarise the argument, then set out a critique in seventeen numbered points.

Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancioğlu (hereafter, AN) announce that they will provide new theoretical and historical perspectives on three questions: ‘Why was capitalism successful in supplanting other modes of production? What propelled it to global dominance? And, finally, what are its historical limits?’ (1). Their starting point is that the origins and history of capitalism ‘can only be properly understood in international or geopolitical terms’; that ‘this very “internationality” is constitutive of capitalism as a historical mode of production’; and that ‘existing conceptions of capitalism have hitherto failed to take this internationality seriously’ (2). In particular, they condemn accounts of the making of capitalism in Europe that treat it as ‘simply an intra-European phenomenon’, rather than one in which ‘non-European agency relentlessly impinged upon and (re)directed the trajectory and nature of European development’. Dominant theorisations of early modern Europe, they say, ‘have been constructed with non-European societies in absentia’:

Whether in the sphere of politics, economy, culture or ideology, the emergence of capitalist modernity is generally understood as a sui generis development unique to Europe. Where non-European societies do figure they are typically relegated to the status of a passive bystander, at the receiving end of Europe’s colonial whip, or a comparative foil – an Other – against which the specificity and superiority of Europe is defined. In short, the history of capitalism’s origins is an unmistakeably Eurocentric history (4).

Eurocentrism is defined (following Kamran Matin) as conceiving of the origins and sources of capitalist modernity ‘as a product of developments primarily internal to Europe’: ‘Based on the assumption that any given trajectory of development is the product of a society’s own immanent dynamics, [it] locates the emergence of modernity exclusively within the hermetically sealed and socio-culturally coherent geographical confines of Europe’ (4). This ‘internalist story of an autonomous and endogenous “rise of the West” constitutes’, they say, ‘the founding myth of Eurocentrism’ (5). Second, it entails a normative assumption of historical priority, ‘which articulates the historical distinction between tradition and modernity through a spatial separation of “West” and “East”’: ‘Through this method, non-European societies have been opposed to Europe as an ideological Other against which the specificity and distinctiveness of Western modernity has been and continues to be defined’. The combination of methodological internalism and historical priority turns the study of the origins of capitalism into ‘an exclusionary process in which the agency of non-European societies is erased or overlooked’, and, gives rise to a third characteristic of Eurocentrism, the predictive proposition of linear development or universal stagism: ‘the European experience of modernity is a universal stage of development through which all societies must pass’ (5).

Their original theoretical framework, drawing on and refining Leon Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development, ‘uniquely incorporates a distinctly international dimension of causality into its very conception of development’. They propose to deploy it against ‘the hardened division between “internalist” and “externalist” modes of explanation in contributions to the literature on the transition to capitalism, in which Dobb, Brenner and Wood focus on class conflict, or the internal contradictions of feudal European societies, and Sweezy and Wallerstein focus on exchange relations – the growth of markets, commerce and trade (7). They understand capitalism in ‘relational-processual terms’, rejecting the notion of a linear progression of clearly discernible stages, and seeing it instead as ‘a multiple, polyvalent one, irreducible to any singular process or social relation’. So capitalism is ‘best understood as a set of configurations, assemblages, or bundles of social relations and processes oriented around the systematic reproduction of the capital relation, but not reducible – either historically or logically – to that relation alone’ (8-9). The concept of UCD, they argue, allows them to capture the emergence and development of assemblages which were constitutive of capitalism both historically, and in that they ‘continued to function (albeit in different forms) over the course of subsequent centuries, and persist today’, as ‘social relations that capitalism cannot do without’ (10).

The introduction concludes with a similarly expansive discussion of geopolitics, and the need it implies for ‘a spatial widening of our analytical imaginary’ (11). They clarify that their focus is both ‘geopolitical’ (focusing on great power rivalries, colonialism and war) and ‘intersocietal’ (focusing on cross-cultural diffusions of trade, commerce, ideas, technologies and disease). The subtitle, however, ‘captures a fundamental point we are at pains to make throughout this book: that capitalism could only emerge, take root and reproduce itself – both domestically and internationally – through a violent, coercive, and often war-assisted process subjugating, dominating, and often annihilating many of those social forces that stood in its way – processes that continue to this day. In this sense, our book seeks to offer a “counter-history” to the many liberal-inspired narratives emphasising the fundamentally pacifying and “civilising” nature of capitalist development. They present a world where the spread of free trade and markets is equated with the promotion of a more cooperative and peaceful international order; one in which ‘globalisation’ is viewed as transforming contemporary international politics into a series of ‘positive-sum’ games whereby states can realise absolute gains; where increasingly integrated transnational circuits of capital and global market relations are in turn identified as advancing more liberal-democratic civic cultures, identities and norms’ (12).

[1] AN assert at the start that since 2008 ‘capitalism and critiques of it have reentered the public discourse in ways previously unimaginable’ (1). Leaving aside all other pre-2008 literature, five of the six authors they reference in support of this statement themselves published comparable work before that date (the sixth, Owen Jones, was only 24 at the time). This tendency towards exaggeration for effect is a problem throughout.

[2] The authors then draw on the analysis in Lisa Jardine, Worldly Goods of Hans Holbein’s 1533 portrait known as The Ambassadors to identify some key themes: ‘a demographic crisis brought about by the Black Death; the Ottoman-Hapsburg rivalry; the discovery of the New World and its division along linearly demarcated spaces of sovereignty; the festering atmosphere of revolt and rebellion; the economic significance of colonisation’ (4). This is a gross distortion of the source. The ‘demographic crisis brought about by the Black Death’ is neither referenced by Holbein, nor mentioned by Jardine. She comments of the striking anamorphic skull in the foreground of the picture and the associated skull motif on Jean de Dinteville’s hat only that ‘The skull was a conventional “vanitas” emblem, a humbling reminder of death even amid splendour’ (p. 431). Of the ‘Ottoman rug’ draped across the upper shelf of the table, which AN identify as symbolic of Ottoman-Hapsburg rivalry, she does comment that it ‘reminds us that the power to be reckoned with in the 1530s, other than the Hapsburgs, was the Turks’, but goes on immediately to say: “It also reminds us what coveted items Ottoman commodities were in the circles in which Holbein and de Dinteville moved, worthy to be lovingly represented in a painting which celebrated the worldly success of the sitters” (429). The specific link to Ottoman-Hapsburg rivalry, as to the Black Death, is spurious. And while colonisation and the ‘discovery of the New World and its division along linearly demarcated spaces of sovereignty’ are clearly referenced, the ‘festering atmosphere of revolt and rebellion’ does not figure at all. AN comment that ‘in the immediate time of the painting, peasant revolts were sweeping through Christendom, leaving the ashes of serfdom in their wake’ (2), but there is no reflection of such events in the painting. Their ‘Holbein’ is a fake.

[3] At the same time, there is ambiguity from the start regarding the main themes and objectives of the book. The title promises an account of ‘how the West came to rule’; the subtitle links this larger question to the ‘geopolitical origins of capitalism’; and the initial statement of the theme addresses the rise and limits of capitalism as a mode of production. Then, in the course of the introduction,  the ‘emergence of capitalism’ shifts to the ‘emergence of capitalist modernity’ (4), and to ‘the specificity and distinctiveness of Western modernity’ (5). Despite the promised critique of liberal accounts of contemporary capitalism announced at the end of the introduction, the book closes in 1763. The ‘West’ and its ‘rule’ comes hazily into focus only at the end of the book, without any discussion of what these terms imply. So it is never clear whether the primary focus of the book is meant to be on capitalism as a mode of production, a broader conception of European or Western modernity, the different idea again of Western ‘rule’ and the histories of subjugation and exploitation that lay behind it, or the apologetic nature of liberal accounts of the emergence and character of capitalism. And to complicate things further, towards the end of Chapter Two (on UCD) a new version of the theme appears: ‘the historically distinct dynamics, scales and forms of uneven and combined development in no less than five modes of production: the nomadic, tributary, feudal, slave-based and capitalist’ (62).

[4] The ambiguity regarding the principal object of analysis is compounded by the manner of recourse to the concept of ‘Eurocentrism’. Following Matin, AN see it in terms of universalising Europe as ‘the originary and privileged space of modernity’, and embracing ‘endogenous and autonomous emergence’, superiority, and universalisation through ‘internal processes of development that unfold in stages, albeit with time-lags, in every society throughout the world’ (Matin, 2013: 354). Whatever its virtues in other contexts, this definition is anachronistic for most of the period with which they deal, over-rigid, and unhelpful for the issues they consider.  And when applied to their principal targets, Brenner and Wallerstein, as it is repeatedly, it is false in all respects.

[5] AN acknowledge its anachronism themselves (albeit in a footnote), informing the reader that ‘throughout this work the terms “Europe” and “European” are deployed with the problematic implications of anachronism and intra-European divisions firmly in mind. As such, they are used, unless specified, in a basic geographic sense, predominantly (but not exclusively) denoting the regions that would come to be known as England, France, the Low Countries, Portugal, Hapsburg Spain and Austria, Germanic principalities, Hungary, Russia and the Italian city-states’ (ft. 7, p. 283). But in defiance of their own caution, they ‘have contrived to read the concept of Europe into periods when it did not exist’, citing M.E. Yapp, ‘Europe in the Turkish Mirror’: 144).

[6] The rigidity of the conception of ‘Eurocentrism’ comes from the yoking together of endogeneity, priority, superiority and unilinearity. One can trace the origins of the capitalist mode of production back to a far wider space than ‘Europe’, or, come to that, depending on one’s understanding of its core content, to a far more limited one (Holland and England, for example, or Lancashire and West Yorkshire), and still argue that it reached its most advanced state of development for a period within a definable European space, with global consequences. This in fact seems to be the view the authors take. Then there is no reason to insist (indeed, it seems counter-intuitive) both that its emergence was endogenous and autonomous to Europe, and that it must become a universal model as non-European societies follow the same ‘stages of development’ in due course. To argue the opposite – that capitalism could not develop at all outside the unique ‘originary and privileged’ European core – would arguably be more consistent, and more purely Eurocentric. And crucially, there is no reason to link capitalism to any broader conception of modernity, or to regard it as a mark or source of superiority. Neither Wallerstein nor Brenner do so (quite the reverse). And in a passage which AN cite for other reasons (ft. 314, p. 336), Ellen Meiksins Wood has the following to say: ‘the emergence of capitalism is difficult to explain precisely because it bears no relation to prior superiority or more advanced development in commercial sophistication, science and technology, or ‘primitive accumulation’ in the classical sense of material wealth’ (in Larry Patriquin, The Ellen Meiksins Wood Reader: 44). They might have reflected on this, but apparently they did not.

[7] As a way out of this rigid frame, AN allow weak and strong versions of the Eurocentric thesis to sit side by side, and exploit the flexibility this provides throughout. At one end of the spectrum we have modest formulations such as ‘developments primarily internal to Europe’, and at the other ‘the emergence of modernity exclusively within the hermetically sealed and socio-culturally coherent geographical confines of Europe’, or Europe ‘conceived as the permanent “core” and “prime mover” of history’ (4, 5). AN denounce unspecified ‘essentialising, self-aggrandising narratives of an internally generated “European miracle”’ while themselves invoking the thoroughly essentialised notion of ‘the “West” itself’, ‘only formed in and through its interactive relations with the extra-European world’ (6); and they invent a ‘hardened division’ between ‘internalist’ and ‘externalist’ explanations of the origins of capitalism (7), creating imaginary boundaries, and monstrous giants that they can subsequently slay. At the same time, they confess that they study non-European societies ‘only insofar as they are relevant to European development’, and argue that ‘something unique did happen in Europe that propelled it to global dominance at the expense of non-European societies’ (10) while absolving themselves entirely of the taint of Eurocentrism; yet they level the charge against their principal targets, Brenner and Wallerstein, who are innocent of it in every aspect of the strong sense they deploy.

[8] They cannot find any source for the extraordinary notion that modernity emerged ‘exclusively within the hermetically sealed and socio-culturally coherent geographical confines of Europe’, although they claim to do so in relation to cultural history in the sentence that follows this formulation, citing Jacob Burckhardt ([1860] 1961) in support of the idea that the flowering of the Renaissance is presented in cultural history as a ‘solely intra-European phenomenon’ (4). They should have read the book. Burckhardt describes Emperor Frederick II, ‘the first modern man to sit upon a throne’, as closely and intimately acquainted ‘with the internal condition and administration of the Saracenic states’, and modelling his commercial activity and administrative reform on ‘Mohammedan’ practice, thereby treating the emergent ‘Western’ state as borrowing modern practices from the ‘East’; he highlights the propensity of Italian city states to make alliances with ‘the Turk’ against their European rivals and particularly the Hapsburgs, thereby addressing the supposedly ‘anti-Eurocentric’ theme of Ottoman-Hapsburg rivalry; and he offers the following summary of Italian attitudes towards Islam:

The knowledge and admiration of the remarkable civilisation that Islam had attained, particularly before the Mongol inundation, was peculiar to Italy from the time of the Crusades. This sympathy was fostered by the half-Mohammedan government of some Italian princes, by the dislike, even contempt, for the existing Church, and by constant commercial intercourse with the harbours of the eastern and Southern Mediterranean. It can be shown that in the thirteenth century the Italians recognised a Mohammedan ideal of nobleness, dignity and pride, which they loved to connect with the person of a Sultan (Burckhardt, 1961: 41-2, 97, 347).

So much, then, for the cultural history as a ‘solely intra-European phenomenon’. The same passage is repeated verbatim later, with the assertion that ‘dominant theorisations of early modern Europe have been constructed with the Ottomans in absentia’ (92). The lines that follow, a toxic mix of pretentious terminology, unsupported claims directly contradicted by the authors themselves, and verbal chicanery, fully expose the frailty of both method and argument:

A consequence of the epistemological separation (or epistemological exteriority) of ‘Eastern’ from “Western’ societies, Eurocentrism articulates and situates the developmental (and in some cases normative) distinction between tradition and modernity through a spatial separation of ‘West’ and ‘East’. As such, the study of the origins of capitalism has been an exclusionary process in which the agency of the Ottomans has been erased or overlooked. This is not to say that in studies of the 16th century the Ottoman Empire have (sic) been heedlessly avoided’ (92, emphasis mine).

Footnote 13 (p. 312) then clarifies the distinction between heedless avoidance and erasure: ‘For example, the two giants of European historiography, Fernand Braudel … and Leopold von Ranke … insisted on the inclusion of the Ottomans within the Europe (sic) in the age of Philip II and Charles V respectively’.

No works are cited to substantiate the claim of erasure. The works that are cited frontally contradict it. And the glaring contradiction is addressed only by empty verbal gymnastics. Worse, the other reference in the paragraph, a suggestion that the Ottoman Empire ‘has been largely considered a “social formation apart … largely a stranger to European culture, as an Islamic intrusion on Christendom”’, appearing to be cited from a (very good) article by Yapp (1992), is actually an unattributed confection from Anderson’s Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974: 361, 398), made up of phrases taken from the opening lines of the chapters in question. This is ‘scholarship’ of the poorest kind, with the most basic standards conspicuously in absentia.

[9] Similar ‘methods’ pervade the shameful treatment of the two major targets of their critique, Immanuel Wallerstein and Robert Brenner. These are authors of multi-faceted, original, exhaustively researched and deservedly massively influential bodies of work, and AN owe it to themselves and their readers to review them accurately. They do not.

[10] Wallerstein is charged with relegating non-Europe to an exploited and passive periphery (5 and ft. 15, p. 284), and with ‘the unwitting reproduction of Eurocentrism that erases non-European agency; and the inability to provide a sufficiently historicised conception of capitalism’ (14). He explains the specificity of the capitalist world-system, they say,  through a negative comparison with the social form that preceded it, world empires’, whose collapse made way for the constant expansion of production and trade based on ‘an ever-increasing regional specialisation and a world division of labour’ (15). The core of their critique rests on the claim that his focus remains internalist, in the sense that:

Falling prey to the ‘fallacy of the domestic analogy’, WST [World-Systems Theory] leaves the distinct determinations arising from the coexistence and interaction of a multiplicity of differentiated societies (“the international”) untheorised as their own unique domain of social interactions. Instead, these intersocietal determinations are functionally subsumed under the overriding operative logic of a singularly conceived world-system. This inside-out method is replicated in WST’s study of history. Despite the high degree of emphasis on exogenous, global factors, WST cannot get away from an ontologically singular Eurocentric ‘logic of immanence’. Consequently, Wallerstein reproduces the typically Eurocentric view that the transition from feudalism to capitalism took place uniquely and autonomously within the clearly demarcated spatial confines of Europe (16-17).

The final sentence here is supported only by reference to the comment, made in passing (Wallerstein, 1984: 23), that ‘we could talk for example of the “crisis of feudalism” in Europe in the period 1300-1450, a crisis whose resolution was the historic emergence of a capitalist world economy located in that particular area’. Typically, ‘uniquely and autonomously’ and ‘clearly demarcated spatial confines’ are authorial comment not present in the source. The question of their validity requires a closer engagement with a fuller version of Wallerstein’s argument (or at least the first paragraph of Chapter One (Wallerstein, 1974: 15), which warns that  ‘it is hard to speak of boundaries’); so does the claim that he subsumes inter-societal determinations under the ‘overriding operative logic of a singularly conceived world-system’. This is unlikely on the face of it, in relation to the emergence of the system, as it would involve the claim that it was already in place before it emerged, but it could still be true. It isn’t. The reference to ‘a negative comparison with the social form that preceded it, world empires’, unwittingly conceals the fact that Wallerstein’s account of the emergence of the European world-economy actually accords a crucial role to something AN make central to their own framework – the multiplicity of states, which is the positive side of the collapse of world empires. This is such a prominent theme in the first chapter of Wallerstein’s first major discussion of the modern world-system that it is odd that AN do not acknowledge it. As Wallerstein argues it, there had been previous ‘world-economies’, but the European one was the first that did not evolve into a ‘world-empire’; and whereas empires were mechanisms for collecting tribute, states were ‘means of assuring certain terms of trade in other economic transactions’ (Wallerstein, 1974: 16). In other words, states organised and managed markets. The resulting system of multiple states proved more conducive to capitalist enterprise, competition and increased productivity, and it brought about a new inter-state (or intersocietal) dynamic. Wallerstein’s account of the determinants of interaction between states, far from following the logic of a singularly conceived world-system, fits neatly into a UCD framework; and he highlights the emergence of a geopolitics arising from ‘competition and geographical limits’ (33, citing Victor Kiernan, 1965: 36), just as AN do. His nuanced discussion bears no relationship to the caricature they present, and absolutely does not revolve around exchange relations alone. The key is ‘the appropriation of a surplus which was based on more efficient and expanded productivity (first in agriculture and later in industry) by means of a world market mechanism with the “artificial” (that is, nonmarket) assist of state machineries, none of which controlled the world market in its entirety’. Wallerstein identifies three factors essential to the establishment of a capitalist world-economy: ‘an expansion of the geographical size of the world in question; ‘the development of variegated methods of labour control’; and the ‘creation of relatively strong state machineries’ – the second and third dependent on the success of the first (38). Varying patterns of class relations play an important explanatory role. And, crucially for the charge of Eurocentrism, he ascribes the leading role taken in the emergence of a ‘European world economy’ by Portugal not only to its location, its experience in long-distance trade, its ability to call on Genoese capital, and the strength of its state machinery, but also to another distinctive feature:

There was one other aspect of the commercial economy that contributed to Portugal’s venturesomeness, compared to say France or England. It was ironically that it was least absorbed in the zone that would become the European world-economy, but rather tied to a significant degree to the Islamic Mediterranean zone. As a consequence, her economy was relatively more monetised, her population relatively more urbanized’ (50).

And having identified the leading role of Portuguese agency with its Euro-Islamic Mediterranean location, Wallerstein warns that “Europe” must not be reified (51).

The significance he attaches to ‘Europe, with its multiplicity of sovereignties’ (61) is brought out best in a little book he published in 1983, Historical Capitalism – a book whose conclusion incidentally consists of a tirade against the idea that capitalism can be described as progressive, or superior to previous systems (Wallerstein, 1983: 97-110; cf. 40). Wallerstein describes historical capitalism as ‘that concrete, time-bounded, space-bounded integrated locus of productive activities within which the endless accumulation of capital has been the economic objective or “law” that has governed or prevailed in fundamental economic activity’ (18); highlights the slow pace of global proletarianisation, the continuing prevalence of semi-proletarianised households, and the existence of horizontal and vertical commodity chains that traverse state frontiers from the sixteenth century onwards; and notes ‘the seeming separation in the capitalist world-system of the economic arena (a world-wide social division of labour with integrated production processes all operating for the endless accumulation of capital) and the political arena (consisting ostensibly of separate sovereign states, each with autonomous responsibility for political decisions within its jurisdiction, and each disposing of armed forces to sustain its authority)’ (31). Far from ‘effectively [denying] the necessity of the wage-labour side of the capital relation for his definition of capitalism itself’, his approach corresponds exactly to the notion of ‘a set of configurations, assemblages, or bundles of social relations and processes oriented around the systematic reproduction of the capital relation, but not reducible – either historically or logically – to that relation alone’ (AN, 8-9).

On the politics of historical capitalism, Waleerstein could not be more clear: ‘The structure of historical capitalism has been such that the most effective levers of political adjustment were the state structures, whose very construction was itself … one of the central institutional achievements of historical capitalism’ (48). In the ensuing pages, Wallerstein highlights the interaction of territorial jurisdiction, the movement of goods, money-capital and labour power across frontiers, the different strategies adopted by more and less efficient capitalists, state regulation of the social relations of production at home to force or limit the commodification of labour, the innovative use of taxation to ‘assist the process of capital in favour of some groups rather than others’ (53), and the use of armed force internally and externally for the same purpose. This leads to a detailed discussion of the manner in which ‘states developed and were shaped as integral parts of an interstate system, which was a set of rules within which the states had to operate and a set of legitimisations without which states could not survive’ (56-7) – a discussion that entirely refutes the claim that he ‘leaves the distinct determinations arising from the coexistence and interaction of a multiplicity of differentiated societies (“the international”) untheorised as their own unique domain of social interactions’.

The characteristics Wallerstein identifies from this point are (1) the constant incentive for competitive entry in the accumulation of capital, and the resulting dispersion of profitable productive activities; (2) the propensity for capitalists to utilise their own state structures to assist them in the utilisation of capital and to make external alliances as levers of control against their own state structures; (3) the tendency for hegemony to shift following military defeat, but (4) for the deeper reasons for such shifts to lie in what can quite appropriately be described as the ‘privilege of backwardness’ and the penalty of priority’:

The primary reality was economic: the ability of accumulators of capital located in the particular [hegemonic] states to outcompete all others in all three major economic spheres – agro-industrial production, commerce, and finance. Specifically, for brief periods, the accumulators of capital in the hegemonic state were more efficient than their competitors located in other strong states, and thus won markets even within the latter’s “home” areas. Each of these hegemonies was brief. Each came to an end largely for economic reasons more than for politico-military reasons. In each case, the temporary triple economic advantage came up against two hard rocks of capitalist reality. First, the factors that made for greater economic efficiency could be copied by others – not by the truly weak but those who had medium strength – and latecomers to any given economic process tend to have the advantage of not having to amortise older stock. Second, the hegemonic power had every interest in maintaining uninterrupted economic activity and therefore tended to buy labour peace with internal redistribution. Over time, this led to reduced competitiveness thereby ending hegemony. In addition, the conversion of the hegemonic power to one with far-flung land and maritime military “responsibilities” involved a growing economic burden on the hegemonic state, thus undoing its pre-“world war” low level of expenditure on the military (59-60).

‘At any given time’, Wallerstein concludes, ‘the “market” represented a set of rules or constraints resulting from the complex interplay of four major sets of institutions: the multiple states linked in an interstate system; the multiple “nations”, whether fully recognised or struggling for public definition (and including those sub-nations, the “ethnic groups”), in uneasy and uncertain relation to the states; the classes, in evolving occupational contour and in oscillating degrees of consciousness; and the income-pooling units engaged in common householding, combining multiple persons engaged in multiple forms of labour and obtaining income from multiple sources, in uneasy relationship to the classes’ (ibid).

And he concludes by reminding the reader that while ‘we have underlined the crucial role of the multiple states – at once the most powerful  political structures, and yet of limited power’ (65), ‘the politics of historical capitalism was more than the politics of the various states. It has been the politics of the interstate system as well’ (70).

The principal explanatory variable here is not exchange, but ‘the relentless pressures of the drive for the endless accumulation of capital’ (71). The ‘distinct determinations arising from the coexistence and interaction of a multiplicity of differentiated societies (“the international”)’ are not ‘untheorised as their own unique domain of social interactions’. They are not ‘functionally subsumed under the overriding operative logic of a singularly conceived world-system’; and there is no ‘ontologically singular Eurocentric “logic of immanence”’. The approach is neither ‘internalist’ nor ‘externalist’, but both mediated and systemic. Beyond that, Wallerstein does not treat the emergence of capitalism as endogenous to Europe. He does not treat either capitalism, or modernity, or Europe as superior in any way, but quite the reverse. And he does not argue that all states must in turn follow the same succession of stages of development. In sum, there is not a shred of truth in the critique of Wallerstein offered by Anievas and Nişancioğlu. Like their Holbein, their ‘Wallerstein’ is a fake.

[11] The account of Brenner is even worse, and can be dismissed more briefly. AN know perfectly well that Brenner does not present an internalist account of the origins of capitalism, or neglect the roles of colonialism, slavery, and imperialism, or insist that all states must follow through the same stages of development, but they pretend in Chapter One that he does, only to reverse themselves completely later. They initially follow James Blaut (1994) in basing their critique only on the articles that became the core of the ‘Brenner debate’ (Brenner, 1976, 1982), and his critique of ‘neo-Smithian Marxism’ (1977). So their first reference describes him as placing the origins of capitalism as a social system ‘squarely in Western Europe’ (5), while the second suggests that he ‘locate[s] the generative sources of capitalist social relations in the internal contradictions of feudal European societies, and particularly England’ (7). When they turn to his work in detail, they accuse him of a ‘commitment to a methodologically internalist and concomitant Eurocentric (or Anglo-centric) analysis of the origins of capitalism’ (14). Now, Brenner’s first published article, on English commercial expansion from 1550-1650 (Brenner, 1972), not only addressed the wider context beyond changing relations of production in England, but also identified a crucial break in the development of merchant classes, contrasting ‘the new eastward drive of the Elizabethan era, which was accomplished by elite merchants under controlled conditions designed to minimise the need for risk and innovation, with the more typically “entrepreneurial” thrust by “new men” which characterised the emergent colonial commerce under the early Stuarts’ (362). In Chapter Five, AN accuse ‘Eurocentrists’ of neglecting of the role of plantations as ‘significant capitalistic experimentations in agro-industrial combinations of productive forces’ (158), accuse ‘Political Marxists’ of denying that merchants could become capitalists (170), and immediately quote Brenner (‘the “founder” of Political Marxism’, 171) at length in their support:

In marked contrast to the established London trades, colonial operations required investment in commodity production, not merely in commodity exchange. The growth of American commerce depended in the first instance upon plantation development, and it was difficult to participate in the former without financial involvement in the latter. The nascent plantation economy needed constant injections of outside capital to get it started and to keep it going. Thus, at least in the early years of development, merchants interested in trading on a large scale normally could not avoid taking some part in the productive process. Merchants might purchase and directly operate their own plantations. Otherwise, they could enter into partnership with colonial planters, supplying them with land, tools, and servants and marketing the final product (Brenner, 1972: 377, cited p. 171).

‘Most important of all’, Brenner adds later, ‘many of these merchants entered directly into the combined industrial-agricultural activities required for the production of sugar’ (ibid: 382). Not only that, but AN quote Brenner (2001: 215-16) again later (226-7) on the role played by merchant capitalism in Holland in raising productivity and leading to the substitution of capital for labour. All this notwithstanding, they continue to insist that Political Marxism ‘denies any … possible role for merchants’ in becoming capitalist or promoting capitalist developments (170), and tends ‘to treat the activity of merchants prior to capitalism as a single and unchanging type’ (ft. 322, p. 337).

This abject confusion may derive from a misunderstanding of the use of the term ‘merchant capitalism’. Maurice Dobb, in the excellent Studies in the Development of Capitalism ([1946] 1963), states that ‘we cannot speak of a special period of “Merchant Capitalism”, as many have done. We must look for the opening of the capitalist period only when changes in the mode of production occur, in the sense of a direct subordination of the producer to a capitalist’ (17). But he is careful to add, as a footnote at this point: ‘Some seem, however, to have used the term “Merchant Capitalism” to apply not to the mere existence of large capitals and specialised merchants in the sphere of trade, but to the early period of Capitalism when production was subordinated to the “merchant manufacturer” under the putting-out system. The strictures in the text do not, of course, refer to this usage of the term’ (ibid, ft.1). This is coincidentally the same Maurice Dobb, identified as wedded to an internalist account of the emergence of capitalism, who says later in the same volume, in the course of a powerful critique of the iniquities of colonial practice, that ‘the Mercantile System was a system of State-regulated exploitation through trade which played a highly important role in the adolescence of capitalist industry: it was essentially the economic policy of an age of primitive accumulation’ (209).

At the heart of the classical Marxist conception of capitalism is the compulsion upon the worker, deprived of direct access to the means of subsistence, to sell their labour power to the capitalist. But Brenner does not reduce the history of capitalism’s origins to the conceptual moment of the freeing of labour, nor does he confine its genesis to a single geographical region – the English countryside, ‘immune from wider intersocietal developments’ (24). His ‘transition debate’ articles acknowledge the significance of demographic and commercial changes, but make the argument, against those who focus on supply and demand and ignore class, that ‘it is the structure of class relations, of class power, which will determine the manner and degree to which particular demographic and commercial changes will affect long-term trends in the distribution of income and economic growth – not vice versa’ (Brenner, 1976: 11). In his work overall he identifies the systematic reproduction of the capital relation as crucial, but gives a broader account of its context and antecedents, precisely as AN do; and they denounce Brenner’s insistence on the centrality of ‘market dependency’ as a ‘near Platonic’ theoretical abstraction (29-30), while themselves placing the ‘systematic production of the capital relation’ at the centre of their own understanding (9). Throughout, the water is muddied by their failure to keep clear the distinction between the origins and the defining features of capitalism, and between centring the latter on or reducing them to a particular element. Brenner, beyond doubt or dispute, attaches as much importance to absolute private property as to market dependence, and accords the emergence of commercial rents for land a key role in his account of the emergence of capitalism in England (see for example Brenner, 1993, 638-673, esp. 649), as AN are perfectly aware. And he specifically identifies a prior history of Norman colonisation as fundamental for the subsequent course of class-state relations and class conflict, as part of a broader pattern of uneven and combined development. AN accept Brenner’s analysis and present it as adopting a UCD logic, but arbitrarily dismiss the latter as an ‘ad-hoc addendum to an essentially “internalist” analysis of the changing balance of class forces and state formation’ (24, and esp. 88-89), while conceding at the same time that ‘an emphasis on the origins of capitalism in Europe, or the English countryside à la Brenner would constitute one of many spatiotemporal vectors of uneven and combined development – one that must be complemented and combined with other determinations analysed from alternative vantage points’ (61). To cap all this, they later argue, entirely in line with the argument they earlier criticise, that ‘the long-drawn out process of socio-economic stratification among the peasantry was an integral aspect of the story of how capitalist relations of production first emerged in Europe, and particularly in the English countryside’ (84). Their ‘Brenner’ is not exactly a fake, but the use made of it is fraudulent.

[12] As noted above, both Wallerstein and Brenner offer analyses that fall implicitly or explicitly into a UCD framework. In their own approach, AN (following Justin Rosenberg among others) propose UCD as a general framework, rather than one specifically tied to the development of capitalism. The basic problem with this is that it reduces UCD to a sensible but relatively toothless alternative to a mythical approach that would insist that states ‘develop’ along parallel but separate trajectories. The concepts of unevenness and combination, abstracted away from the specific context of the development of capitalism (in Russia or elsewhere), do address directly the multiplicity of states and their non-linear, connected development. But that is all they do. They do not rule out the first mover status or historical priority of any particular set of states for any particular phenomenon, nor do they either entail that a ‘unified theory of how societies interact, of how they change, and the relationship between these historically dynamic processes’ (44) must accord priority to ‘the whip of external necessity’, and ‘the privilege of historic backwardness’, or suggest the form these might take or the response they might evoke in specific contexts. If the ‘whip of external necessity’ is ‘conceived not as a unidirectional structural imperative, but as one that operates in a co-constitutive and multilateral fashion’ (46), and across all time, it becomes an all purpose ad hoc explanatory device, with its limits set only by how determinist one chooses to be. In short, their UCD framework is emptied of theoretical specification and critical content by its reconstitution as a universal across all time – it can be filled with more or less anything – materialist, institutionalist, structural, post-structural, idealist, or what you will – and it tells us only that there are lots of different countries in the world and they affect each other. The authors are aware of this possible critique, and respond that UCD is not a theory in itself, but ‘a methodological fix – or more precisely, a “progressive problem-shift” – within the broader research programme of historical materialism’, ‘to be explicated by more concrete categories and determinations accompanying a mode of production-centred analysis’ (61). This takes them from the frying pan straight into the fire: if all societies exhibit complex and unique mixes of modes of production (the product of unevenness), and cannot be treated as complete and internally coherent units (the product of combination) the mode of production cannot be a starting point.

[13] Except for Chapter Six on ‘classic’ bourgeois revolutions, chapters 3-7 follow a pattern in which topics linked to a specific mode of production are explored in order to show the ‘non-European’ contribution to the emergence of capitalism, the ‘interactive, differentiated, and multilinear – that is, intersocial – aspects of human development as a whole’ (62), and the merits of the ‘UCD’ approach. So Chapter Three, on the nomadic Mongol empire, argues that ‘the historiography of nomads is marked by a persistent and, we argue, problematic, erasure of nomads from the history of capitalist modernity’ (65); Chapter Four argues that ‘dominant theorisations of early modern Europe have been constructed with the Ottomans in absentia’ (92); Chapter Five explores the decisive role played by the New World, from ‘discovery’ to the slave-based plantation economy; and Chapter Seven argues, with reference to the Dutch East India Company (VOC) that the emergence of capitalism was ‘necessarily dependent on, and built upon, the exploitation of “unfree” labour’ (222). Anyone who is unaware that the Mongolian Empire ‘facilitated cross-cultural flows of commerce, trade, technologies, ideas and more’ (66); that the Ottoman Empire loomed very large in the sixteenth century; that New World plantations were in some ways incubators of capitalist organisation of production; or that the VOC became involved in production as well as trade will learn something. But the arguments advanced are not new, and where claims are made for a ‘Eurocentric’ consensus, the evidence is lacking. So the authors quote Di Cosmo (2005: 392) as saying that there is ‘agreement, at least in principle, that the role of the Mongols was central to the commercial efflorescence that, in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, allowed Europe and Asia to come closer and know each other better than ever before’ (ft. 68, p. 306); they offer no instance of the ‘erasure’ of the Ottoman Empire; on the New World, they note the ‘long tradition in Marxist thinking [starting with Marx] emphasising the profound impact the 1492 “discoveries” had on the development and consolidation of capitalism as a world system’ (142); and on the VOC they rely on thoroughly standard sources.

[14] But it is in their intended theoretical contribution that these chapters are most disappointing, largely because of the divorcing of UCD from the specifics of capitalist development. AN boost the idea of non-European agency, and deploy the concepts of the ‘whip of external necessity’, the ‘privilege of historic backwardness’, and the ‘penalties of priority or progressiveness’ to flesh out the dynamics of unevenness and combination. But the concepts are applied as general terms to describe any external pressure, or to discrete areas of activity with no consistent relationship to the dynamics of capitalist development itself, and ‘agency’ is not consistently active, or direct. We end up with a vocabulary that is applicable to practically everything, but takes us no further than the starting-point of interactive, differentiated and multilinear development. Even if we grant, for example, that if the Mongols had not restored old trade routes, the black rats (the actual agents) that carried the plague might not have made it to Europe, or that Ottoman-Hapsburg confrontation created a space in which England could develop in relative isolation and Northwestern Europe could flourish, it is not clear how such ‘unwitting’ or ‘inadvertent’ outcomes among countless others in world history tell us much about agency.

It is the issue of ‘backwardness’ that is most fraught. In the most flagrant case in point, the Ottoman Empire is judged to be advanced in terms of administrative and war-making capacity, in relation to Europe, as a consequence of its unified imperial structure and the subservience of the landed nobility to patrimonial authority. But the more one accepts, as AN do, the differences between ‘tributary’ and ‘feudal’ modes of production, the more wrong-headed the analysis appears. On their account, the unity of the Ottoman empire contrasts with the multiplicity of states in Europe; the relative stability and security of the peasantry contrasts with its exploitation and crisis in Europe; and the subservience of the landed aristocracy and the merchant class to the imperial state contrasts with their greater degree of autonomy in the more fragmented political structures in Europe. As they summarise, ‘through their contradictory relations to production, the state, provincial ruling classes and the peasants, as well as more marginal groups such as merchants and religious foundations, were overwhelmingly geared towards the reproduction and expansion of the state and its functions’ (101). In contrast, ‘the dispersion of coercive capabilities meant that political authority in Europe was unusually fragmented, parcellised and therefore also highly competitive, with heightened intralordly struggles taking place over territories both within and outside of feudal “states”’ (104). These are of course staples of conventional accounts of the emergence of capitalism. In the Ottoman case, the absence of independent landed and merchant classes and an ‘over-exploited’ peasantry blocked the accumulation of capital in private hands and the development of the forces and social relations of production. So the comparison of ‘Ottoman strength’ and ‘progressiveness’ with the relative ‘backwardness’ of ‘European structures of ruling class reproduction’ (106) overlooks the fact that the class structure of Europe, in the crucial sense of capacity to pursue class interests, was more advanced. The same can be said of the description of England and Holland as reaping the ‘privileges of backwardness’ vis-à-vis Spain in Atlantic trade (146); and neither the privilege of backwardness nor the penalty of priority seem to apply in the Mongol Empire, the New World, or the VOC’s activity in Southeast Asia.

[15] Chapter Six, which examines the ‘causal role of “the international” in the making of the “classical” bourgeois revolutions in Holland (1566-1648), England (1640-1689) and France (1787-1815), does not fit into this sequence at all, and seems out of place in the book. It is framed as a critique of IR theory, and its suggestion that a focus on international factors is novel is curious, given that the Dutch emergence from the Hapsburg Empire, the takeover of England by William of Orange, and the Napoleonic wars are fundamental elements of these cases. AN struggle, too, to differentiate themselves from ‘Political Marxist’ arguments they are keen to challenge: for example, they repeatedly question the contrast drawn by Brenner and others between the English and French cases, but still conclude that ‘capitalist social relations were not yet dominant in pre-revolutionary France, as feudal methods of extra-economic domination and exploitation remained salient’ (203); and they draw heavily on Brenner for the Dutch and English cases.

[16] Finally, it is only in Chapter Eight, as the book draws to a close, that we get a glimpse of the ‘rise of the West’ – said rather mystifyingly to ‘figure prominently (if implicitly) in Marx’s studies and within Marxism ever since’ (245). In a style that is now familiar, the authors critique ‘self-aggrandising narratives of Western exceptionalism’ imbued with the ‘notion of a uniquely self-propelled “rise of the West”’, making the exaggerated claim that ‘there was nothing endogenous about Europe’s cultural, socio-economic and political development that necessarily led it on the path to global pre-eminence’ (246, emphasis mine). They argue that there was something unique about Europe, then bring up an entirely new claim – that ‘if there is a single conjunctural factor or moment explaining Britain’s – and later Europe’s – rise to global supremacy, it was Britain’s colonisation of India’ (247).

On the first of these points, their conclusion is entirely compatible with the work that has been condemned as Eurocentric throughout:

The answer [to the unique character of the European states system] lies in Europe’s feudal relations of production. At first sight this answer might seem an illicit return to the kind of Eurocentric theorising we have been at pains to avoid. Yet when widening the analysis beyond Europe, it is important to recognise that while feudal social relations and the geopolitical system emerging from them were unique to Europe, their technological, military and ideological components all bore a distinctly intersocial origin (254).

And who are the authorities invoked in support of this thesis? Prominent among them are Perry Anderson, Robert Brenner and Benno Teschke, primary targets of criticism throughout. The perils of setting up over-inflated and unsupported claims of purely endogenous development behind hermetically sealed borders become fully apparent, as do the folly of invoking broader ideas of modernity and superiority in the context of a discussion focused on the emergence of capitalism, and the cardinal error of replacing the idea of backwardness in the development of capitalist relations of production with that of backwardness in a broad general sense. It can fairly be said that the sense of ‘Eurocentric’ they endorse is a weak one, but the same, at most, is true of the writers to whom they direct the bulk of their critique.

On the colonisation of India, AN claim that it has been ‘generally unappreciated’ in debates surrounding the ‘rise of the West’, then go on characteristically to cite a string of authorities who signal its importance. Colonisation itself is then discussed in a scant three pages – bringing the story to a close in 1757-63, with the merest of hints about the significance of this moment for the two-and-a-half centuries of ‘Western dominance’ still to come.

[17] What are we to make of this very puzzling book? There is nothing new in uncovering the ‘histories of subjugation and exploitation’ (10) that lay behind the rise of the West, or in insisting that while capitalism cannot exist without wage-labour, it can benefit (and still benefits) enormously from the exploitation of unfree labour in conditions where this is possible, desirable or necessary’ (169). Obviously, fully capitalist social relations of production could not do other than emerge in the context on non- or pre-capitalist relations of production. But UCD is neutral with respect to issues of origins, emergence and dominance in specific locations across multiple, differentiated spaces. The issue of endogeneity to ‘Europe’ is poorly chosen – if you set out to trace the varied processes that eventually brought capitalism into being as a distinctive mode of production through centuries in which ‘Europe’ was not clearly bounded either as an idea or as a geographical space, it is unthinkable. As for ‘Eurocentrism’, on their own admission, AN do not offer ‘a genuinely non-Eurocentric theorisation of capitalism’s genesis and development’ (11). In short, it makes sense to talk of Eurocentrism when the notion of capitalism as somehow ‘European’ in its final and perfect form (an odd one to cling to these days) is unambiguously linked to the claim that an associated ‘modernity’ is also distinctly European, and the resulting ‘civilisation’ is superior to any other. It doesn’t make any sense to talk of it in the way that Anievas and Nişancioğlu do.

As with previous reviews by Paul Cammack published on PPE, this post was first published on his critical political economy site What’s Worth Reading

Paul Cammack
Paul Cammack graduated in English Literature in 1971, went to Chile (1971-3), got into studying and teaching Latin American and Third World Politics and shifted into global political economy, most recently at the University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University and City University Hong Kong. He is currently Honorary Professorial Research Fellow in the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester. Recent publications are available at https://manchester.academia.edu/PaulCammack, and recent book reviews at http://whatsworthreading.weebly.com.

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