Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 16, 2007

Eric Mielants: “The Origins of Capitalism and the Rise of the West”

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 4:48 pm

Eric Mielants’s “The Origins of Capitalism and the Rise of the West” is necessary reading for anybody following the “transition debate” as well as a thought-provoking comparative study of Western Europe and the East in the late Middle Ages. Like Janet Abu-Lughod’s “Before European Hegemony: The World-System, A.D. 1250-1350,” it challenges the reader to think about how one of the world’s backwaters in that period–Europe–became dominant.

Mielants’s title is carefully chosen since he understands that the questions of capitalist origins and world domination are interrelated. The country or countries that first made the transition to capitalism were also the first to become global powers. For Marxists or left-leaning scholars, the rise of the West has been a disaster, whatever their differences on the origins of capitalism. Robert Brenner and the late James Blaut disagreed on whether changes in the British countryside explain the rise of capitalism, but they agreed that the system must be opposed however it came into existence.

Despite Mielants’s outspoken opposition to the Brenner thesis, he does have something in common with his adversary. For Brenner, the British agrarian class transformations of the 15th century provided a spawning ground for capitalism found nowhere else in the world. For Mielants, the West European city-states of the medieval era provided a nursery for the new system that also could not be replicated elsewhere. In either case, you are dealing with a kind of European exceptionalism. For Brenner, the British landlords and lease farmers were critical players, while for Mielant it is the Western European merchant bourgeoisie. As opposed to James Blaut who saw possibilities for the rise of capitalism in the East, Brenner and Mielants make the case that it could have only happened in the British countryside or the trade-oriented city-states respectively. While Mielants concentrates his fire on the Brennerites, the book is a serious challenge to Blaut’s claim that capitalism could have just as easily developed in the “proto-capitalist” regions of India, China and elsewhere in the East.

With a 73 page bibliography, Mielants raises the bar for those who want to participate in the “transition debate.” As I mentioned to Mielants in an email, the paltry eight pages of references in Ellen Meiksins Wood’s “The Origin of Capitalism” pale by comparison. Originally a dissertation, the 162 pages of “The Origins of Capitalism and the Rise of the West” is brimming with footnotes. But it is not a dry work. On almost every page, there is an eye-opening historical observation in support of his overall thesis. As is the case with the best scholarship, you want to track down the sources and find out more. For example, chapter two, “The Political Economies of China and Europe Compared,” begins:

HAVING LEARNED more about medieval Europe, the curious reader will undoubtedly ask: What about China? China has long been regarded as one of the most ancient and glorious civilizations. In the Middle Ages, China was probably the most developed of all regions— socioeconomically, politically, and militarily. Around a.d. 1100, it had a population of approximately 100 million people and the largest cities likely had up to a million inhabitants (Elvin 1973:159; Kracke 1969:11). “Medieval China witnessed considerable economic advance” (Hall 1988:22) such that it outshone anything in Europe. The economy certainly had a high level of monetization; for example, usage of paper money (huizi) issued in a.d. 1160, written contracts, mercantile credits, checks, promissory notes, bills of exchange, and so forth. Militarily speaking, the Chinese emperor was probably the strongest overlord in the entire Eurasian landmass; in the 12th century, he could easily mobilize nearly 1 million soldiers. In comparison, when at the end of the 12th century, Britain’s King Richard I wanted to maintain a “regular army of 300 knights supported by taxation, [his attempt] sank without trace” (French 1999:230) due to insufficient means.

Despite these seeming advantages, China failed to develop capitalism for the same reason that India and the city-states of North Africa failed. Although there was a merchant bourgeoisie, it did not enjoy a privileged status within the state. The Emperors and Kings of the East simply saw no advantage in promoting the interests of a merchant class. The source of their wealth was in the land and they saw no compelling need to expand beyond their borders in order to exploit the resources of less-developed regions.

While Brenner saw capitalism as originating in the British countryside and then diffusing outwards to the cities and then to the rest of the world, Mielants sees cities as the core. Capitalism begins in trading centers such as Venice or Flanders and then sucked in the countryside and peripheral foreign territories as merchants imposed their will on weaker economies, especially in Eastern Europe and the Near East. For Mielants, colonialism was as important an aspect of the medieval economy as it was for Lenin when WWI broke out. During the 13th century, Venice operated in the Mediterranean in the same way that the US operates in the Persian Gulf today. Commercial and military objectives complemented each other. The Byzantine Empire of the east was forced by the Italian city-states into a “subordinate position within the unfolding inter-regional division of labor.” In other words, the Italian city-states were imperialist just as Great Britain was in the 19th century and the US is today. An official of the Dutch East India Company wrote to the board of directors in 1614:

Your Honours should know that trade in Asia must be driven and maintained under the protection and favour of Your Honours own weapons, and that the weapons must be paid for by the profits from the trade, so that we can not carry on trade without war, nor war without trade.

If this differs from Thomas Friedman’s own recommendation in a March 28, 1999 NY Times Magazine article, I fail to see how:

The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist—McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

The Chinese merchants simply lacked the power to use the state on its own behalf as was the case in Western Europe. The Portuguese and the Dutch were far more aggressive in their trade relations with foreign countries. By contrast, the Chinese royalty was solely interested in controlling its own vast territory, which was subject to invasion from nomadic tribes, particularly the Mongols. In a fascinating discussion of the Mongol invasion, Mielants notes that 35 million Chinese died at the hands of occupiers in the 13th century and that the economy never recovered. The net effect of the invasion was to open up trade from the West (this was the period of Marco Polo) to the disadvantage of the Chinese. When reading this, I thought of the Nazi invasion of the USSR. Despite the fact that the Soviet economy was more progressive than that of the capitalist invader, the long-term consequences of the war was to weaken and eventually destroy the foundations for socialism. If there is a third world war and generalized nuclear annihilation, the end result will be a retreat to barbarism. In order to understand history’s grand narrative, we must never forget that war can act as a terrible deus ex machina–a time machine stuck in reverse.

Turning now to a consideration of whether capitalism could have evolved in the East, a review of Jim Blaut’s “The Colonizer’s Model of the World” is a good place to start. In chapter three (“Before 1492”), there’s a section titled “Protocapitalism in Africa, Asia, and Europe.” Blaut shares Mielants’s emphasis on urban trading centers, but does not believe that the European city-states were that much different from their Eastern counterparts.

The protocapitalist port cities of Europe were not more highly developed than those of Africa and Asia in the fifteenth century. This holds true regardless of the kinds of criteria chosen as measures. European cities, first, were not larger in absolute or relative population. In fact, urbanization in Europe was probably less advanced than urbanization in China, India, the Arab region, and no doubt many other non-European areas. The urban population in early Ming China was perhaps 10% of the total population. In the Vijayanagar Empire of southern India it must have been at least as high: the inland capital alone held about 3% of the population—comparable centers in Europe, such as Paris, may have had half that percentage—and the coastal port cities were both numerous and large. Second, the development of the techniques of business was fully as advanced, fully as complex, and fully as wideflung in space among the merchants and bankers of Asia and Africa as among those of Europe. (Tome Pires said of Gujarati businessmen in 1515: “They are men who understand merchandise; they are . . . properly steeped in the sound and harmony of it” and “those of our people who want to be clerks and factors ought to go there and learn, because the business of trade is a science.”) Third, the technical and material means of production seem to have been at about the same level of development in many mercantile-maritime centers of all three continents, allowing for differences in the volume of production and trade, the kinds of merchandise, and the like. Maritime techniques were also comparable across the hemisphere: though they differed from ocean to ocean, it cannot be said that ships of one ocean were technologically more advanced than those of the others. Manufactures in port cities and other industrial centers of Europe, Africa, and Asia were also roughly comparable in gross scale and level of development. Fourth, the urban class composition of Asian and African centers appears to have been similar to that of European centers: in all regions there existed a powerful class of protocapitalists and a wage-earning class of workers, with or without involvement also of other classes such as feudal landlords, slaves, and so on. And finally, the old European myth, codified by Weber—that European cities were somehow more free than non-European cities, which were under the tight control of the surrounding polity—is essentially an inheritance from classical Eurocentric diffusionism, which imagined that everything important in early Europe was imbued with freedom while everything important in Asia (not to mention Africa) was ground under a stultifying “Oriental despotism” until the Europeans arrived there and brought freedom. The so-called “free cities” of central Europe were hardly the norm and were not central to the rise of capitalism. The partial autonomy of many mercantile-maritime port cities of Europe, from Italy to the Baltic, was of course a reality, and usually reflected either the dominance by the city of a relatively small polity (often a city-state) or the gradual accommodation of feudal states to their urban sectors, allowing the latter considerable autonomy for reasons of profit or power. But all of this held true also in various parts of Africa and Asia. Small city-states were common around the shores of the Indian Ocean, in the Maghreb, and in Southeast Asia; also common were quasi-independent cities, giving loose allegiance to larger states.

Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer struck down Jim Blaut before he had a chance to complete his trilogy on Eurocentrism. His third volume would be an attempt to develop a history that incorporated the viewpoint of what Eric Wolf called “the people without history.” I am sure that he would have taken great relish in responding to the case made by Eric Mielants on behalf of European exceptionalism. To be sure, Mielants has nothing in common with those that characterize early Europe as being “imbued with freedom while everything important in Asia (not to mention Africa) was ground under a stultifying ‘Oriental despotism'”. Mielants warns specifically against creating an “ideal-typical dichotomy between dynamic ‘mercantilist’ trading states on one hand and static ‘inward-looking’ states with antimercantile practices on the other.”

As convincing as Mielants’s data is, I am still somewhat bothered by a certain gap in his book between the Middle Ages and the period generally associated with full-blown capitalism–the late 18th and early 19th century. It is the same unease I have had with the Brennerites who after examining 16th century British farming conclude that the industrial revolution was inevitable. Unless you trace the economic processes that led from either the “agrarian revolution” or the urban mercantilism of the same period to Manchester textile mills of Engels’s time, you are left with a kind of historical erasure–to use postmodernist jargon.

Specifically, I wonder whether Great Britain’s more “advanced” mode of production had more to do with the colonization of India than military superiority. Mielants states, “Why were the Europeans ultimately able to colonize and ‘underdevelop’ India, and not the other way around? In my opinion, the answer lies not in the often-discussed events of 1757 or 1857 [Battle of Plessy and Sepoy Rebellion] but rather, in the combination of these extremely important yet often-ignored events that made peripheralization possible; that is, the prelude to de facto annexation.”

In light of Mielants’s analysis of the impact of the Mongol invasion of China, I am not so sure. Isn’t it possible that the answer does lie in 1757, when a superior British military force’s victory opened the doors for further encroachment? For all of Great Britain’s much-vaunted capitalist development, it took cannons to achieve its goals.

In a polemic directed against Ellen Meiksins Wood titled “Colonialism and the Rise of Capitalism,” Pakistani Marxist scholar Hamza Alavi notes that British superiority was not so clear-cut:

India’s strength vis-a-vis Manchester seemed to lie mainly in its ability to produce fine yarn. Much effort was directed in Britain to improve spinning machinery. Crompton’s mule, developed in the 1780s, went some way to improve spinning technology. But as it yet could not match Indian quality. Indian textile industry was not easy to finish off. Contrary to the conventional wisdom (shared universally by Marxist and non-Marxist historians alike) that it was machine production in England that killed the Indian textile industry, we can identify three factors that combined to bring about its steady decline. All three related to the choking off of demand for Indian textiles. First of all, as pointed out above, Britain imposed heavy protective duties and administrative measures to keep Indian textiles out of the British market. The second factor, no less important, was that this coincided with the period of the Napoleonic Wars. The British imposed cordon sanitaire around Europe closed off the European market for Indian textiles entirely. Its importance can be gauged from the fact that in 1789 85% of the calicoes imported into Britain were re-exported to Europe and 60 % of muslins were re-exported. (Baines,1966:330) Simultaneously with the closing of the British and European markets, there was also a collapse in internal demand for textiles in India. In pre-colonial India, taxes collected from the peasant supported a large urban population, including the ruling elite. When, after the British conquest, these taxes were appropriated by the East Indian Company and used to pay for the export of Indian textiles, the Indian urban classes were suddenly dispossessed. There was a massive de-urbanisation. For example, according to Charles Trevelyan, the population of Dacca, the ‘Manchester of India’, dropped from 150,000 to 30,000.(quoted by Palme Dutt, 1970:120) The weavers were driven out of the towns, to seek a livelihood in villages. The Urban elite and middle classes, the consumers, were gone too. The internal demand for Indian textiles collapsed almost simultaneously with the closure of its outlets abroad.

In other words, the British conquest was not a function of having an entrepreneurial class tightly integrated with the state, but old-fashioned coercion. While it is difficult to imagine India colonizing Great Britain, one has to wonder whether Britain could have imposed its will without its powerful army and navy. Without its massive cavalry, the Mongols could not have imposed its will on the Chinese. And how was the British navy and army financed? While it is extremely difficult to track the revenues and expenditures of Great Britain in the 16th to 18th century, it seems quite plausible that it was through the capital accumulated in the New World through a combination of plunder and extortion–or what Karl Marx calls primitive accumulation. For Jim Blaut, 1492 is critical for understanding the rise of the west and I tend to agree with him, despite the rigor of Eric Mielants’s logic and the depth and breadth of his research.


  1. Wow–$50 for a 256 page book (of which only 162 are text). I guess that illustrates the triumph of capitalism. Looks like one I will have to borrow from the library.

    “In other words, the British conquest was not a function of having an entrepreneurial class tightly integrated with the state, but old-fashioned coercion.”

    Why is this an either/or? One might think that it was precisely because the British bourgeoisie was integrated with the state that it was able to rely on old-fashioned coercion. As Nick Robins argues in Imperial Corporation, the British East India Company was the first multinational, which between 1757 and 1857 became more and more an agent of the British state.

    Comment by Phil Gasper — August 16, 2007 @ 5:34 pm

  2. Actually, Robins’s book is next in my queue.

    I tend to agree with you on the either/or question, but I guess I was pointing to a lack of clarity on Mielants’s part. By dismissing 1757 and 1857, he leaves the impression that it was something other than military superiority that led to the colonization of India. I must add that I am by no means an expert on China or India. My focus has always been mostly on the New World and role of slavery and dispossession of native peoples.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 16, 2007 @ 5:41 pm

  3. Chris Harman’s review: http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=348&issue=115.

    Harman concludes: “Mielants has pulled together a vast mass of material and challenges hypotheses that have been in danger of being repeated as unquestionable dogmas in some circles. But he ultimately fails to provide a coherent alternative view.”

    Comment by Phil Gasper — August 16, 2007 @ 5:43 pm

  4. Actually, you would not be doing violence to Robins to say that the state was a appendage to the East India Company.

    Michael Perelman

    Comment by mperelman — August 16, 2007 @ 5:51 pm

  5. I never suspected it would have any utility, but a couple of years ago, I read The Anglo-Maratha campaigns and the contest for India : the struggle for control of the South Asian military economy by Randolf G.S. Cooper. The book conerns the Maratha campaign of 1803 when the British conquered what remained of the Mughal empire in northern India. Cooper presents a stolid military science account of the organization and performance of the Indian troops. He argues with considerable battlefield evidence that there existed no appreciable difference between the levels of training, equipment and performance of the Indian and British troops. In fact, he argues for the superiority in technology, doctrine and application of the Indian artillery. He concludes that the British superiority lay in their ability to finance their forces. The Indian troops were professionals, but mercenaries whose employment strained the logistical and fiscal resources of the Indian states. He attributes the British superiority in financial organization, if I recall correctly at this point, to the experience and expertise on those lines of the East India Company. If this account is correct, the Indians adapted rapidly to the military challenge, but could not adapt as well to the organizational technique of the capitalist mode of ‘production.’

    Comment by Chuckie K — August 16, 2007 @ 8:50 pm

  6. […] Eric Mielants: “The Origins of Capitalism and the Rise of the West” Eric Mielants’s “The Origins of Capitalism and the Rise of the West” is necessary reading for anybody following the “transition debate” as well as a thought-provoking comparative study of Western Europe and the East in the late Middle Ages. Like Janet Abu-Lughod’s “Before European Hegemony: The World-System, A.D. 1250-1350,” it challenges the reader to think about how one of the world’s backwaters in that period–Europe–became dominant. […]

    Pingback by Darwiniana » Another transition book — August 16, 2007 @ 9:16 pm

  7. If I’m not mistaken the British East India Company, not only enjoyed protection from the British Army & Navy, they had their own ships chartered from the government(East Indiamen) carrying cargo & passengers. Most if not all of these ships were very well armed with heavy cannon(not sure if the officers and crew were on loan from the Royal Navy) but it raises the question of a commercial mercenary force which acts outside the jurisdiction of government, legalized priracy?!

    Comment by m.c. — August 19, 2007 @ 9:45 pm

  8. You comment that “I am still somewhat bothered by a certain gap in his book between the Middle Ages and the period generally associated with full-blown capitalism–the late 18th and early 19th century.” In a sense, this gap can be fairly readily filled. In the first place Brenner’s Merchants & Revolution (on the origins of the English civil war and the postcript on 1688) is fairly clearly incompatible with the more general ‘Brenner thesis’ and fits better with Wielant’s thesis as you describe it. Secondly, it is tolerably clear from the general historiography that 1688 produces for the first time a state which is effectively subordinated to capital (by the combination of the “rule of law”, which the Dutch republic did not really achieve, with deficit financing using a central bank & financial markets). The resulting British state for the first time has the financially backed military power to e.g. gradually conquer India. In contrast, urban economies elsewhere are hampered by the persistence of old *state forms*: e.g. that in China is very similar to the Roman state in late classical antiquity.

    Comment by Mike Macnair — August 23, 2007 @ 3:05 pm

  9. Re; comment 7 (by ‘m.c.’):

    (a) the East Indiamen were _commercial_ ships, built commercially for the East India Company. They were the largest ships in the merchant fleet. True, they were armed, but the guns were bought by the Company, who also hired the gunners. English merchantmen routinely went armed even on Mediterranean voyages, from the 17th century onwards. Guns & gunners were part of the cost of fitting out a ship for each voyage.

    Warships are _not_ well adapted to commercial use at all. In the days before there was a Royal Navy, merchantmen were simply conscripted for military use. This didn’t work very well, so as revenues rose, Navy ships were built specially.

    (b) Why on earth would the British Army & Royal Navy be sent to Asian waters at _vast_ expense? Esp. when the enemy were directly across the Channel? And it took upto a year to sail back from India?

    The Company raised its own regiments as needed, on the spot in India. The soldiers were all Indians from the various localities involved; the officers were British. The Royal Navy turned up only on occasion when fighting with the French in Europe, spilt over into the French & the Company territories in India. That was also when regiments from the British Army were sent out. If the Company wanted to use these regiments, it had to pay the Army for the privilege.

    Comment by Sudha Shenoy — August 25, 2007 @ 3:07 pm

  10. “When reading this, I thought of the Nazi invasion of the USSR. Despite the fact that the Soviet economy was more progressive than that of the capitalist invader, the long-term consequences of the war was to weaken and eventually destroy the foundations for socialism.”

    Funniest thing I’ve read all day. Got any evidence for that statement? And this is despite the fact that the Nazis had the most powerful militarized economy in the world, despite the fact that the Soviet Union’s economy had recovered to pre-war levels by the early 1950s, and despite the fact that the Soviet Union obtained the whole Eastern bloc post-war?

    ‘Destroyed the foundations of socialism’. Funniest thing I’ll probably read in a long time.

    Comment by Ben — November 28, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

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