The uneven and combined development of world capitalism

The debate between Marxists about the origins of capitalism has divided into two broad camps—World Systems Theory and Political Marxism. While each has its insights, they are both one-sided: the first calling attention to the external processes of commercial trade as the principle cause of the rise of capitalism, and the second to the internal transformations of class relations in the English countryside.

Both, however, only capture a part of Marx’s original sketch in Capital of how the system came into being. For Marx, the triumph of the capitalist mode of production over its feudal and tributary predecessors was an international process that combined geopolitics, commerce, class struggle within societies, bourgeois revolution, the conquest of the Americas and the system of plantation slavery, and colonialism. 

In their new book, How the West Came to Rule, Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu defend and develop Marx’s original account. Their book is a provocative and brilliant theoretical and historical explanation of how capitalism emerged in England and Europe through a dialectical inter-societal process.

One of their principle aims is to undermine a Eurocentric bias that has compromised both camps in the transition debate. Each wrongly grants priority to Europe, presumes capitalism emerged within it as a closed space, and depicts the system developing in a linear process throughout the rest of the world. They contend that these assumptions are neither theoretically nor empirically tenable and deny the agency and contribution of non-Western societies to the emergence of capitalism. 

They argue that while World Systems Theory describes the international process of commerce and plunder, it is plagued by several key problems. It remains within a Eurocentric framework that sees capitalism developing within Europe and then sweeping through the rest of the world. In the process they reduce non-Western societies to a passive role. 

Anievas and Nisancioglu also affirm Robert Brenner’s contention that World Systems Theory suffers from a Smithian definition of capitalism as simply commerce. Since trade is a feature of almost all human societies, World Systems Theory fails to grasp the specific nature of capitalism’s historical emergence, its class relations, and laws of motion. 

The authors show, however, that Brenner’s alternative case is compromised by problems of its own. Famously, Brenner contended that capitalism was the contingent result of class struggle between lords and peasants in the English countryside. That conflict transformed lords into agrarian capitalists and their former peasants eventually into wage laborers, both dependent for their social reproduction on the capitalist market. 

Brenner’s Political Marxism suffers from Eurocentrism, if not Anglocentrism. Anievas and Nisancioglu show how it excludes the international processes of trade, geopolitical competition between European feudal states and the Ottoman Empire, primitive accumulation in the Americas, and colonialism, all of which were decisive in establishing the conditions allowing for the capitalist breakthrough in Holland as well as England. 

To break out of the pervasive Eurocentrism in the debate, they turn to Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development.  Using unnecessarily opaque language, the authors argue that Trotsky’s theory 

uniquely interpolates an international dimension of causality as an intrinsic aspect of sociohistorical development itself. This then allows for the organic—rather than contingent or external—integration of the “geopolitical” and “sociological” determinations into a single, unified theory of sociohistorical change, sublating “internalist” and “externalist” theories of modal transitions.

Trotsky argued that the capitalist mode of production transformed the general law of uneven development, which holds that societies grow at different paces, some faster and others slower at various points in time. He maintained that capitalism’s unique expansionary qualities led it to penetrate precapitalist modes of production, subordinating their economies and states to its laws of development. It thus produced hybrid societies, combining the worlds most advanced and backward features.

His paradigmatic example was of course Russia at the turn of the twentieth century. It had been a backward, feudal society ruled by the autocratic tsarist state. European capitalism penetrated it toward the end of the nineteenth century, producing a hybrid formation that combined advanced capitalist development with backward feudal relations. 

Trotsky later generalized this capitalist law of uneven and combined development to the colonial world. Based on this analysis, Trotsky argued that workers even though a minority in such societies could lead the peasants in what he called a permanent revolution for socialism on the condition that it spread to the advanced capitalist world. Successful revolutions there could help them overcome their economic backwardness.

Anievas and Nisancioglu use uneven and combined development as a methodology to show how capitalism came into being through an international, inter-societal process. They demonstrate how more developed tributary modes of production in societies like China and the Ottoman empire suffered the “penalty of progressiveness;” their more advanced economic systems and stable states stifled the development of capitalism within their societies. 

By contrast the economic and geopolitical interaction between them and less-developed feudal Europe, in particular Holland and England, granted them the “privilege of historical backwardness,” as they incorporated more advanced productive forces from elsewhere. Moreover, under “the whip of external necessity,” Europe was forced to compete geopolitically with their more advanced rivals, a dynamic that provided the condition for the development of capitalism in Holland and England.

With this framework, Anievas and Nisancioglu radically recast the process of capitalist development as the result of the inter-societal interaction between European feudalism and the Mongol Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the conquest of the Americas, the establishment of the slave trade and plantations, and the colonization of Asia. This international history is perhaps their book’s most significant contribution.

They begin by demonstrating how the Mongol Empire spurred the development of merchant capital throughout Europe. The Pax Mongolica opened up the Silk Road, dramatically increased trade, and transferred the Empire’s higher development of its productive forces to backward Europe. This encouraged the formations of cities, which had a gravitational pull on peasants to leave the countryside and become wage laborers especially in the Italian city-states. 

The Mongol Empire was also the source of bubonic plague that caused the Black Death in Europe, which decisively changed the balance of class forces in England, driving lords to become capitalist farmers and peasants to become rural laborers. Thus the Pax Mongolica forms an international precondition for the rise of English agrarian capitalism recounted by Brenner. 

But, Anievas and Nisancioglu contend, without the geopolitical competition from the Ottoman Empire Holland and England would never have undergone the transition to capitalism. The Ottoman’s more advanced tributary mode of production buttressed a more stable, unified state compared to Europe’s squabbling feudal states. As a result, they were able to deploy a far larger military force against their rivals in Europe. 

The most powerful state in Europe, the Hapsburg Empire, had no choice but to deploy a disproportionate amount of its forces against the Ottomans. The geopolitical rivalry between the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans facilitated Holland and England’s capitalist development in two ways. First it offered their merchants significant trade opportunities. Second it provided them the geopolitical space to develop capitalism and complete their bourgeois revolutions. 

With the Hapsburgs preoccupied, Holland managed to successfully carry through the Dutch Revolt and establish the first capitalist nation state. In England, the Hapsburg’s preoccupation with the Ottomans ensured their isolation from any threat, and led to a relative demilitarization of the feudal lords, thereby weakening their power over the peasantry and compelling some of them, in the wake of the Black Death, to adopt a capitalist agriculture. 

However, without the conquest of the Americas and the development of plantation slavery, Anievas and Nisancioglu argue, the new capitalist powers could have been strangled in their cribs and certainly would not have undergone capitalist industrialization. The Ottoman’s were the principal reason that the European societies reoriented from the Mediterranean to the so-called New World. And once they did, the plunder of the region reinforced the differential patterns of development between the feudal absolutist powers like Spain and those of the newly capitalist Holland and England. Driven by its feudal military preoccupation of competing with the Ottoman’s, Spain used its horde of gold and silver to pay off loans it had taken out to pay for its military. Much of that treasure ended back in Holland and England to expand their new system. 

Anievas and Nisancioglu also show how the colonial slave trade and the hybrid labor regime of plantation slavery, which fused capitalist pressures of production for the market with precapitalist relations of production, provided the raw material for industrialization—cotton for example being the basis for England’s textile boom.

The combination of these inter-societal dynamics thus made possible capitalist development in Holland, England, and eventually the rest of Europe. But this was not an evolutionary process. They argue bourgeois revolutions were necessary to establish capitalist states to defend and reproduce capitalist class rule internally against the exploited classes and internationally against both capitalist and pre-capitalist rivals. 

Anievas and Nisancioglu adopt a consequentialist theory of the bourgeois revolutions, pioneered by many, but most fully developed by Neil Davidson in his magisterial How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions. They show how a combination of capitalist lords, merchants, industrialists, and their bourgeois representatives, such as lawyers, led the revolutions in countries like Holland, England, and France. In later bourgeois revolutions, precapitalist classes often carried them out from above in Germany, Japan, and elsewhere. But all built new states that facilitated capitalist development. 

Once established in the European metropole, they argue, capitalism could still have been strangled by its own contradictions, in particular its internal tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The European capitalist powers, in particular Holland and England, overcame these and other obstacles to capitalist development through their penetration of markets in the Americas and Asia. With these obstacles overcome, the European powers achieved a decisive advantage over the previously dominant tributary powers like China and the Ottomans that they carved up through imperial warfare. Thus, the West came to rule. 

Anievas and Nisancioglu have written an innovative and brilliant work of historical sociology. Unfortunately its academic language is opaque at points making it unnecessarily difficult to read. Beside that there are some serious questions to be asked about their argument. 

Many have rightly challenged their expansion of Trotsky’s law of uneven and combined development to analyze pre-capitalist societies like the Mongol Empire and its interaction with European feudalism. Trotsky mainly argued that this law applied to capitalism, since as a mode of production it is uniquely expansionary compared to other modes of production, and therefore has the capacity to subordinate and transform development. For the most part, Anievas and Nisancioglu might be better served by seeing the pre-capitalist interactions through the law of uneven development, since in the main they do not reveal genuine hybrid social formations in their discussion of these societies, but a dynamic of competition, commodity exchange, and transfer of productive forces.

In their discussion of capitalism, they endorse Dipesh Chakrabarty’s argument in Provincializing Europe as a superior way for understanding the differences between advanced and developing capitalist societies than that of Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. Chakrabarty divides capitalism’s history into two parts: History 1 encompasses the system’s universalizing tendency to subordinate all laborers to its laws regardless of national particularity; and History 2 includes all the social particularities in each and every society like, in Chakrabarty’s words, human being’s “bodily habits,” religious “gods and spirits,” and “unselfconscious collective practices” that are “constantly interrupting the totalizing thrusts of History 1.”

Anievas and Nisancioglu correctly criticize Chibber for claiming that Chakrabarty assigns the West to History 1 and postcolonial societies to History 2. Chakrabarty makes clear that both histories inhere in all capitalist societies. They also may have a point that Chibber’s emphasis on capitalist universalization weakens our ability to adequately explain how capitalism universally imposes its laws of motion on all societies and at the same time produces social differences between societies. 

But there is much to be lost in becoming hostage to Chakrabarty’s Heiddegerian mysticism and poststructuralist politics of difference between societies that posits a difference of kind between the West and the Orient. As Vasant Kaiwar warns in The Postcolonial Orient, with Chakrabarty, “we end up with a sentimental, postmodernist Third-Worldism.” 

Anievas and Nisancioglu would be better served by sticking with Trotsky’s law of uneven and combined development, a law that Chakrabarty, by the way, dismisses along with the law of uneven development as an obstacle to understanding the postcolonial world. In fact, it is a far better basis, as Anievas and Nisancioglu themselves demonstrate, for explaining capitalism’s tendency to impose its logic on all societies and at the same time produce peculiarities in each and every society it transforms. 

Anievas and Nisancioglu’s aversion to what they worry are ideal-typical or reductionist definitions of capitalism such as the Political Marxist’s market dependency or the more classical Marxist definition of the competitive exploitation of wage labor leaves them with a rather vague definition of capitalism. Thus they write, 

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. . . . These relations may take numerous forms, such as coercive state apparatuses, ideologies and cultures of consent, or forms of power and exploitation that are not immediately given in or derivative of the simple capital-wage-labor relation, such as racism and patriarchy.

This viewpoint—tacked on and undeveloped—likely leads them in their conclusion, whose political generalizations seem in contrast to the rest of their arguments, to some questionable criticisms of Marxist arguments about the revolutionary party, and class struggle and its relation to movements against oppression. 

They present a straw man conception of the revolutionary party, contenting that it is 

the organizational form, in which political differences are ironed out, unity among disparate parts realized, and a homogeneous political perspective pursued. In turn, the perspectives constructed by the leadership of parties and organizations are presented as the historical prime mover—the royal road—which simply needs to replicated everywhere for capitalism to be overthrown.

The authors also claim that the Left committed to building parties assumes that it has all the answers already, imparts them in a top down way to workers and the oppressed, and sees political differences as something that “must be directed onto the True Path” or “exiled as a ‘bourgeois deviation.’” What they are describing is a sect, not a party. Certainly there are such sects, but they very rarely, if ever, play a leading role in any kind of struggle, let alone revolution. 

Anievas and Nisancioglu’s vague definition of capitalism leads them to decenter the working class as the pivotal agent of socialist revolution. This is ironic since Trotsky used the law of uneven and combined development, which is the core of their book, as the scientific basis of his strategy of permanent revolution, a strategy that underscored the central role of the working class in leading the rest of exploited and oppressed in revolution. By contrast they go so far as to ask, “might it be time to rethink the privileged revolutionary subject (the proletariat) in broader terms than its traditional, singular association with waged labor?”

Drawing on theories of intersectionality, they want to dynamically integrate struggles against exploitation and oppression as all part of the anti-capitalist struggle. In doing so they rightly challenge Political Marxists like Ellen Meiksins Wood who argue that class exploitation is essential to capitalism while oppressions of race, gender, sexuality, and nationality are not. Instead, they argue that capitalism is equally dependent on class, race, gender, and other oppressions. They advocate, therefore, that all struggles pose equivalent threats to the system. 

They have a point but they take it too far. Capitalism rests on the competitive exploitation of wage labor; it is the basis of the entire system. At the same time, various oppressions are an inextricable part of it. For example, women’s oppression through their disproportionate burden in the social reproduction of labor is an essential part of capitalism today. 

Recognizing the constituent nature of capital-wage labor relation to the system does not diminish struggles against oppression. They are absolutely necessary to unite workers to overthrow the capitalist class, and within oppressed groups, which themselves consist of groups with different class interests, workers’ have the most interest in carrying the liberation struggle the furthest. Anti-capitalist struggles can start on any number of fronts, including against aspects of oppression, but if it does not win at the point of production, the system with all its sundry oppressions, cannot be overthrown. 

Regardless of these questions and criticisms, Anievas and Nisancioglu have made an enormous contribution to redressing the one-sided debates about the origins of capitalism and the West’s conquest of the planet. Their book should be read by anyone hoping to understand as well as challenge Eurocentrism, imperialism, and the capitalist system as a whole.

Issue #78

July 2011

Slavery and the origins of the Civil War

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