‘How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism’ reviewed by Tony Mckenna

Reviewed by Tony McKenna

About the reviewer

Tony is a novelist and philosopher, author of Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist …


One of the most intriguing areas of Marxist scholarship centres around the ‘transition debate’: that is, the controversy surrounding the way capitalist relations developed out of the old world, and the processes by which they achieved ascendency. The debate spans from Marx’s own fragmented observations – which suggest that capitalist relations were cultivated first in Northern Italy, only to be prematurely stifled – to the development of Political Marxism a century later, which tended to be more emphatic and Anglo-centric in tone (especially among its later followers), emphasising the role and significance of the English countryside in the 14th century. Coeval with the geographic question, was the way capitalist social relations developed ontologically, so to speak: Were they – in the old Marxist parlance – incubated in the womb and contradictions of the old (feudal) order – or was the set of relations of the feudal-agricultural world increasingly corrupted and ‘capitalised’ by the rise of trade, external markets, and the corroding imperatives of exchange value? The latter debate was, of course, famously hashed out in the pages of the journal Science and Society, by Sweezy, Dobb and others way back in the 1950s.

But wherever you stand on these issues one thing seems clear, that is – the ‘transition debate’ has been conducted, in the main, on firmly European ground.  Other issues have been referenced: the role of the Atlantic slave trade on the processes of European primitive accumulation, for example, is heavily underscored in Marx’s Capital and has recently received detailed treatment by Robin Blackburn among others, but the attempt to provide a totalising analysis, which seeks the complex web of interactions between older modes of production and capitalist trends on a world scale; an analysis which is designed to demonstrate just how heavily the emergence of modern capitalism was dependent on the interactions between older empires, newer powers – and the subsumption of a variety of forms of labour which came to provide, so to say – capital’s amniotic fluid: such an analysis has yet to reach fruition.  Alexander Anievas and Kerem Ni?anc?o?lu’s How the West Came to Rule is an exciting and engaging effort precisely because it goes a good way toward providing this type of account.  Specifically, it utilizes the Trotskyist analytical method of uneven and combined development as a means to unpick some of the deadlocks the more localised accounts of the transition problem have yielded.

In this book the authors first provide a summary of the history of the transition debate, paying particular attention to the eurocentrism (or later Anglo-centrism) of political Marxism and the tendency toward ahistoricity which is built into World-System Theory. Other chapters involve a consideration of the Mongolian Empire and the way in which it facilitated a trade network from the more developed East to the European backwaters, and how the effects of the plague it also helped transmit would significantly alter the value of peasant labour – undermining the balance of class forces in feudal Europe – and leavening the way for spots of capitalist development thereby.   The authors go on to consider the Ottoman-Habsburg rivalry of the ‘long sixteenth century’, and the manner in which it provided a breathing space for the development of those countries on the European periphery whose economic trajectories were already developing in a capitalist direction – like England and the Northern Netherlands.

The ‘discovery’ and colonisation of the Americas (itself partially a result of the Ottoman ascent and its seizure of Constantinople in 1453) – is given detailed consideration, in terms of both the subjugation of African slaves on an international level, and the decimations of the indigenous populations which took place in both North America and Latin America; alongside the hybrid social systems which pertained in the aftermath, and the way their economic activity fed back into shaping the political landscape of the European nations.  Likewise the relationship between the European nations and their counterparts in the East is examined in depth; specifically the way the Dutch were able to subsume South Asian regions like Singapore and Indonesia in a world market which was directed by the Dutch Republic, and which provided a vital impetus for the further development of capitalism in the United Provinces – and also the way British capital was able to subordinate the Indian market to itself in and through the imperial conquest of the remnants of the Mughal Empire.  In addition, the book provides an examination of the concept of bourgeois revolution, focusing in particular on the English, Dutch and French variants.

There are many high spots in the analysis. The account of the class relations and the historical development of the Ottoman Empire is clear but also profound.  The authors demonstrate persuasively how its tributary mode of production entailed all sorts of advancements on the feudal empires it was pulled into contact with on its western flank.  The extraction of the surplus product of peasant labour was achieved through ‘the preponderance of taxation as a mechanism … regulated by regional and central agents of the Ottoman state’ (99).  This had several consequences, not least of which was that the power of the upper classes based on the land was substantially weaker than that of its western feudal counterparts, for its access to the surplus product was directly mediated by the central state, ‘almost all land was formerly owned by the Sultan, while military fiefs – timars – were predominantly nonhereditary, changeable, and regularly rotated’ (99).  The power of a landed ‘nobility’ could not congeal in the way it might in feudal terms, and thus the Ottoman tributary system was essentially more stable, less prone to fragmentation in the way the more parcellized, competing elements of ruling class feudal power were.

But it was precisely its advanced character which, at a certain point, placed the Ottoman state at a distinct disadvantage with regard to its feudal opposition.   From within the fragmented polities of feudal power, forms of private property could be more effectively cultivated.  A class of merchants were allowed to develop whose commercial activities attained a relative independence from the centralised state – in contrast to the Ottomans where the ‘subordination of merchants to the tributary state was also evident geopolitically’ (105). The Ottoman state, according to the logic of its own mode of production, had to capture and tightly regulate the tributaries by which the surpluses flowed from the exploited subaltern territories.   Such acts of conquest and taxation were facilitated by complex ‘mechanisms of social reproduction’ (103), which included a highly centralised army and bureaucracy that operated by ‘controlling coin circulation, production and prices’ (105).  Market relations were not unheard of, but they were severely regulated and even stifled – ‘anti luxury laws were deployed to confiscate merchant fortunes’ (105).

The suppression of the market had far-reaching consequences in the way in which the Ottomans waged war; the funds were often extracted from the peasantry directly and en masse, whereas feudal lords were more liable to bolster intensive, concentrated forms of direct exploitation with loan agreements with wealthy merchants or international banking houses, and thus the logic of a market economy, of exchange value, could more fundamentally penetrate the means of social reproduction.  Finally, because the means of exploitation were ‘dispersed across the nobility’ (104) in the feudal case, the peasant tended to have little legal recourse against the lord who was directly exploiting him, a lord who could often set the legal limits of that exploitation. In a centralised bureaucratic state this was less so, the peasants had greater access to their own surplus product, and this often meant they were less rebellious then their western European counterparts; the contours of class struggle, therefore, were somewhat less pronounced.   This would prove significant, of course, in light of the peasant rebellions which broke out throughout the 14th century in particular, and were part and parcel of the way peasant labour was able to detach itself from its feudal premise.

The authors’ analysis of the ‘encomienda’ – the legally enshrined framework of exploitation which arose in the aftermath of the colonisation of Latin America – is likewise highly impressive.   They articulate the way in which the Spanish preserved many of the productive relations which had characterised the pre-Colombian world.  In Mexico, for instance, the tributary form of the Aztec Empire was largely maintained – a form “in which the direct producers retained access to the means of production and formal vestiges of kin-based, ‘communal’ social relations persisted, while indigenous elites extracted surpluses from these producers through ‘extra economic’ means”(130).  Rather than impose its own style of Iberian feudalism, the Spanish crown granted parcels of land – or encomiendas – to those conquistadores whom it favoured, and the latter were then allowed to extract a tax in terms of goods, money or labour services from the Amerindian inhabitants who fell under the remit of the given territory.  The granting of an encomienda did not confer on the trustee any property rights (which still accrued to the crown) and its period of use was merely temporary.  Just like under the Ottomans, the central state (the Spanish Crown) could rotate its imperial functionaries, and thereby curtail their power.  The encomienda, then, was the product of an uneven and combined development – which arose from the combination of the old tributary forms with the nature of Spanish colonialism – specifically the tension between the colonists and the crown, as the latter sought to limit the power of the former.  Amerindian Slavery too was abolished in Latin America, precisely because the danger of private property accrued through the ownership of persons could well bolster the power of the colonists at the expense of the crown.

Following Marx, the authors note how the plundering of the Americas was key to capitalist development in England in the run up to the industrial revolution.  As Marx noted, capital invested in the colonies allows for a profit rate which ‘is generally higher there on account of the lower degree of development, and so too is the exploitation of labour through the use of slaves and coolies, etc… there is no reason why the higher rates of profit … should not enter into the equalization of the general rate of profit’ (Cited 163).  Consequently the higher rate of exploitation which more backward forms of labour offered in the colonies could be refracted back into the colonial heartland and thereby counteract the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, while also providing an outlet by which a surplus population who had fallen through the gaps during the centuries of long, interminable and painful processes of primitive accumulation could be absorbed. In other words, the colonies were the key by which the limits of England’s domestic agrarian capitalism were to be transcended, and the breakthrough to industrial capitalism was to be secured.

The analysis of the Dutch Republic and its developing empire unfolds along similar lines.  Again, the use of the theory of uneven and combined development is integral to the account.  The Dutch mode of exploitation already revealed a significantly capitalist character in and through the creation of the ‘joint stock company’ (VOC), which, through its internalisation of protection costs, could become the pivot around which ‘the logics of territorialism and capitalism were united’ (223).  The VOC created a link between the investors and managers at home and the political decision-making process which sustained the empire and the logic of its imperialism abroad.  The form of exploitation which Dutch imperialism adopted more and more tended toward ‘going beyond activity in the circulation process and intervening directly in production, assuming both ownership and control of the direct production process’ (242).

The authors cite the example of a silk-reeling centre in Bengal which ‘initially employed over 3000 reelers before being reconstructed in 1715 to accommodate over 4,00 workers … while also providing them with equipment, working space and raw materials’ (242).  These techniques and methods deployed at the level of production – across the constellation of Dutch interests, which dotted the East Indies during the period –  were combined and fused with the indigenous forms of labour which they encountered there – ‘a multiplicity of uneven forms – advances, debt peonage, corvées, plantations and wage labour’ (243).  Such a fusion guaranteed the Dutch something of an integrated monopoly based on the control of the production of goods, and thereby allowed for the broader regulation of a world market where cheap production and labour costs could be exploited to the hilt.  At the same time, this also provided the means by which the domestic economy of the Netherlands – which was now based primarily on wage-labour, but suffered from a deficit of labourers – could be augmented by the surfeit of cheap labour abroad, and thus overall wages could fall.  All of this helped Dutch capitalism to pass the threshold of its own local limits.

How the West Came to Rule is an excellent, inventive and fascinating piece of scholarship; it is all the more remarkable because it is able to condense a complex of vast and contrary trends, in and through the lens of uneven and combined development, and to demonstrate how they intersect at the point of capital development.  It achieves this, for the most part, with clarity and conviction.  There are, however, occasional weak spots in the analysis.   The chapter on ‘pure theory’ – on uneven and combined development – at times lurches into the abstruse, clunky, Althusserian-type language which is so often considered a mark of distinction and profundity in academia today, and it indulges a certain relativism with regards to the objective economic categories of ‘backward’ and ‘advanced’. So, for example, we are informed that ‘a social formation such as the Habsburg or Ottoman Empire during the 16th century might be considered more “advanced” than, say, the emerging capitalist societies of the United Provinces or England’ (56).  Perhaps more significantly – although the authors have a very strong case in terms of rehabilitating the role of non-western European nations, territories and older labour practises in the development of capitalism – it is a case they are sometimes liable to overstate.  In my view, they overestimate the productive capacity of plantation slavery, and this leads them to misconstrue its relation to the ontological nature of capitalism.

For instance, they argue that ‘capitalism utilises exploitation and oppression – beyond the formally free exchange of labour power for wages … The violence that inheres in forms of exploitation such as slavery … is not external to capitalism, but constitutive of its very ontology’(278). This is highly problematic.  Developed capitalism and generalised wage-labour is antithetical to slavery – for in the long term, wage labour is always going to be more productive. In the processes of primitive accumulation, when the capitalist economy as a whole is still fragmented and disparate, and its level of productive technique still relatively immature, the immediacies of naked exploitation that the slave system offers can be key to pulling it (developed capitalism) into being.  But once the capitalist economy is established, it is compelled to abolish slavery; the methods of violence which underpin capitalist exploitation consequently lose the immediate ‘extra-economic’ essence which is characteristic of the slave mode of production. (I suppose one might make an exception for those cases of capitalism in acute crisis – Nazi militarism for instance – which actually revived and integrated slavery into its mode of production.)

Nevertheless, How the West Came to Rule is an exemplary scholarly achievement, providing a powerful riposte to Political Marxism, and an important step forward in a vital debate.

19 October 2015

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