Gurminder K. Bhambra
This is an important book on an important topic; the significance of the issues it raises are attested to by the vigour of the responses it has generated. It is hard to dislodge longstanding disciplinary formations and sometimes difficult to see how they continue to operate even when being disavowed. It is especially difficult when disciplinary formations are associated with canonical figures, such as Weber or Marx. From at least the time that Weber first set out the need to account for the ‘world historical’ significance of the ‘Rise of the West’, social scientists have been focused on variants of that question – from normative attempts to account for the ‘miracle of Europe’ to, more descriptively, seeking to account for the ‘miracle in Europe’. Both forms of the question, however, maintain an exceptionalism of the West as something that needs explanation in its own terms, thereby incorporating Eurocentrism into the understanding of the ‘capitalist modernity’, which was the very ‘world historical’ outcome that Weber believed to be bequeathed by Europe.
At the forefront of the bourgeoning field of International Historical Sociology has been the effort to overcome Eurocentric conceptions of world history. This review article reconsiders the issue of Eurocentrism by critically engaging with Alex Anievas and Kerem Nı̇şancioğlu’s How the West Came to Rule, which is the most recent and arguably one of the most sophisticated contributions to the anti-Eurocentric turn in International Relations. How the West Came to Rule provides a critique of Eurocentrism through a systematic inquiry into the question of the origin of capitalism. Despite its originality, I argue that the book remains hamstrung by a number of methodological issues, which ultimately undermine the authors’ effort to go beyond the existing literature on Eurocentrism and provide a truly non-hierarchical international historical sociology. A clear specification of these problems, which haunt most anti-Eurocentric approaches to IR, provides us with the preliminary outlines of an alternative non-Eurocentric approach to world history.
How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism by Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancıoğlu is a remarkable book that offers much needed correctives to mainstream accounts of the emergence of capitalism. Working generally within the “uneven and combined development” framework as first articulated by Leon Trotsky, Anievas and Nişancıoğlu argue that “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” (2015, 9). Seen as such, its emergence cannot be explained by studying national histories alone. This insight gives rise to the two main contributions of the book. On the one hand, the authors advance very compelling criticisms of other influential Marxist inspired accounts of the emergence of capitalism, such as that of Wallerstein and Brenner, as being Eurocentric.On the other hand, the authors offer their own substantive account of the emergence of capitalism, pointing to factors heretofore either ignored or under-scrutinised in the literature: “a demographic crisis brought about by the Black Death; the Ottoman-Habsburg 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). Especially significant in their account is the ‘contributions’ of the Mongolians and the Ottoman Empire to the development of capitalism.
Anievas and Nı̇şancioğlu’s text, How the West Came to Rule, attempts to offer not only an insightful critique of a contemporary consensus within Orthodox Marxist historiography, but also explores the incomplete narratives embedded within postcolonial studies and world-system analysis. In this contribution I argue that they succeed more in the former challenge than in the latter and suggest that a careful analysis of recent world system research is really less Eurocentric than Anievas and Nı̇şancioğlu claim. Extending their analysis into the present would make their theoretical model less divergent from Wallerstein’s approach than they suggest. As they point out, a myopic and biased interpretation of the Rise of the West is not only related to a rigid adherence to obsolete theoretical models, but also to the creation of separate disciplines within the modern university system which tends to (re)produce Eurocentric epistemology about past, present and future conditions.
Scholarly learning often challenges one’s politics. For example, we wanted to diagnose the ills of capitalism so we turned to Marx. In his work we found a profound critique but also an appreciation of capitalism’s progressive credentials. Indeed, we now believe it is Marx’s generosity to capitalism that allows his deep diagnosis.1 In modern society, Marx claims, humans individuate themselves within a system that constitutes them as legal equals and constructs a sphere of individual freedom. Simultaneously, capitalism expands and differentiates needs while producing material capacities that satisfy those needs (Marx 1973: 156, 241-3, 496). These possibilities are linked to capitalism’s greatest achievement: a process of expanded wealth production. As Marx puts it, “Capital’s ceaseless striving towards the general form of wealth drives labor beyond its natural paltriness, and thus creates the material elements for the development of a rich individuality, which is the as all-sided in its production as in its consumption” (Ibid: 325). Yet the promise of rich individuality is thwarted where “this complete working out of the human content appears as a complete emptying out, this universal objectification as total alienation, and the tearing down of all limited one-sided aims as the sacrifice of the human end-in-itself to an entirely external end” (Ibid: 488). That external end is capital accumulation. Here, Marx strikes a delicate balance. His critique is ruthless, but his analysis is nuanced: the gains associated with capitalism are real relative to past social formations but they are limited by the organization of capitalism itself and bought only dearly.
In How the West Came to Rule (HWCR) we conclude with a call for ‘readers to address, research and fill out… the gaps made evident in this study… as there remains a great deal more to say’ (278). We are flattered and privileged that in this symposium our call1 has been taken up with such enthusiasm and sincerity by our colleagues Gurminder Bhambra, Ayse Zarakol, Eren Duzgun, Eric Mielants and David Blaney and Nayeem Inayatullah.2 In particular, we are grateful for the care and patience with which our arguments have been read, as well as the force of the criticisms posed. As with all good critical engagements, the pieces in this symposium are demanding. They have pushed us to clarify or refine our arguments and in some cases compelled us to revise them. Where we have disagreed with our critics, their criticisms have offered us the opportunity to develop responses and clarifications that we would have been unable to do otherwise. It is in this spirit of productive engagement set by our interlocutors that we reply.