How the West Came to Rule: Book Review

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What role if any did non-Western nations played in the emergence of the West as a dominant historical force? This seems to be the key question the comprehensive book by Anievas and NIsancioglu attempts to answer. The problem is undoubtedly closely related to that of the emergence of capitalism in Western Europe and the role it played in vanquishing other regions of the world, the part that, we should not forget, is still continuing today.

According to the authors, existing socio-economic and historical research seems to agree that the emergence of the West was primarily the result of internal factors, with the UK taking the lead in the late 18th century, soon to be followed by other Western European countries in the 19th century.

capitalismFeudalHowever, our authors argue, all these perspectives take a Eurocentrist approach and thus tend to ignore almost in its entirety the long-term impact of the international dimension in the process.  The authors see Eurocentrism as comprised of three distinct layers: 1. Europe’s historical development was mostly an internal process; 2. This process is seen as historical priority vis-a-vis any other comparable process; and, 3. This historical evolution is universal to all countries in the globe who will eventually follow the same path.

It is thus necessary to revisit the historical process that led to the rise of the West to avoid the Eurocentrist trap, so to speak. This demands that at least three issues be considered: 1. The debate on the transition from feudalism to capitalism; 2. The constraints imposed on the subject by the mainstream international relations frameworks (which de facto assumes the superiority of the West); and 3. The need for an alternative theoretical framework that can shed new light into the overall historical evolution not only of the West but of the World.

The transition debate gets the first chapter in the book and presents a new critique of Brenner’s perspective which our authors deem Eurocentric, at least when it comes to the internal origins of capitalism in Europe. Postcolonial theory is also considered here as offering new insights but still unable to break from the Eurocentrist view. World Systems Theory is acknowledged too with the now well-known caveats.

In terms of theory, the authors adopt and adapt Trotsky’s uneven and combined development framework which, we are told, has two core features, ontological and epistemological,  features that can effectively provide a way out of the Eurocentrist dilemma. As a matter of fact, the whole logic of the book hinges on this approach:

“We argued that the first two features, on their own, do not constitute a theory. The latter can only be generated by linking more abstract categories to more concrete, determinant, historically specific ones. That is, it is only at the level of any given mode of production that we can speak about a theory. But we have also argued that uneven and combined development goes beyond mode of production analysis by capturing the surplus of determinations created by the interaction of different modes of production or social formations. Finally, we have argues that due to the inseparability of theory and history, uneven and combined development also refers to concrete historical processes.” (pg. 63).  

The articulation of modes of production thus defines the third dimension which seems to give the theory of uneven and combined development solid ground. With this in hand, the authors conclude this theory is capable of capturing the  “extra-European, intersocietal origins of capitalism over the long dureé” (ibid.).

The book then proceeds into an impressive and detailed analysis of historical events starting with the long 14th century, the so-called Pax Mongolica, continuing with the Ottoman-Habsburg confrontation, the discovery of  America, the so-called bourgeois revolutions and ending with the Dutch colonization of Southeast Asia in the 17th century.

The last chapter  of the book summarizes the main findings and concludes:

“Utilising this ‘international vantage point, our approach has identified a multiplicity of interacting ‘casual chains’ emanating from different uneven spatiotemporal vectors of development that combined in he various conjunctures examined in this book” (pg 277).

I see two main issues with the arguments made in the book.

One is the apparent overemphasis on the theory of uneven and combined development. I am not convinced such theory provides new explanatory power to the issue at stake. One could think for example that Rosa Luxemburg’s thesis on the sheer need of capitalism to subsume non-capitalist modes of production for its own survival could yield similar results. It seems to me that the critical issue here is to distinguish the reproduction of capitalism and its incessant drive for new markets and products from the factors that led to its historical genesis. Having a “multiplicity of casual chains” calls for revisiting the old transition debate in terms of the so-called “prime mover” of the transition to capitalism.

This point is related to the second issue I want to raise. The definition of capitalism used by  the authors is indeed unique: capitalism (or capitalisms as they suggest)  is  “best understood as a set of configurations, assemblages, or bundles of social relations and processes oriented oriented around the systemic reproduction of the capital relation (emphasis in original text), but not reducible -either historically or logically- to that relationship alone” (pg. 9). This reinforces my previous point but also brings on new issues.

This definition  allows the authors to argue that slavery, for example, was a form of early capitalism: “Plantations thus functioned as sites of significant capitalistic experimentations in agro-industrial  (?!)  combinations of productive forces, and are best characterised as ‘transitional forms’ of social relations, combining complex amalgams of capitalist and non-capitalist relations, production techniques and practices” (pg. 158).

I find this problematic as it reminded me of World Systems Theory and its overemphasis on markets rather than on social relations of production, which our authors rightly criticized in the early chapters of the book. We must analytically keep production separate from distribution and exchange to ensure we can detect core social relations. The fact that the products of slave-based plantations were sold in the “world market” does not make them capitalistic when it comes to their internal social relations. Again, the genesis of capitalism cannot be equated with its tremendous drive for infinite expanded reproduction. That the latter provides a powerful dynamic lever to the former in undeniable but that does not necessarily mean it is its primary driver at the very onset.

Eurocentrism, however, should continue to be challenged and this book is an essential contribution in this regard.

Anievas, Alexander & Kerem Nisancioglu. 2015. How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism. London: Pluto Press. ISBN: 978-0-7453-3615.

Cheers, Raúl