Towards a Radical Critique of Eurocentrism: An Interview with Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu

1500s

Accord­ing to the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tive, the orig­in of cap­i­tal­ism was a Euro­pean process at its core: this was a sys­tem born in the mills and fac­to­ries of Eng­land, or under the blades of the guil­loti­nes dur­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion. Polit­i­cal Marx­ism or even World-Sys­tems analy­sis have not escaped from this Euro­cen­tric vise. In How the West Came to Rule: The Geopo­lit­i­cal Ori­gins of Cap­i­tal­ism (Plu­to Press, 2015), Alexan­der Anievas and Kerem Nisan­cioglu return to and recon­cep­tu­al­ize Trotsky’s the­o­ry of unequal and com­bined devel­op­ment in order to assess the deci­sive role of non-West­ern soci­eties in capitalism’s emer­gence. In this sense, they offer an inter­na­tion­al­ist the­o­ry of social change that is also not sole­ly focused on the role of indus­tri­al labor. 

Ben­jam­in Birn­baum: Your recent­ly pub­lished book How the West Came to Rule, starts with a crit­i­cal assess­ment of the Marx­ist-inspired the­o­riza­tions regard­ing the tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism such as World-Sys­tems The­o­ry or Polit­i­cal Marx­ism. Why are they insuf­fi­cient to account for how the West came to rule?

Alexan­der Anievas and Kerem Nisan­cioglu: Well, there are actu­al­ly two dis­tinct, albeit tight­ly inter­con­nect­ed, issues here. The first regards World-Sys­tem Analy­sis and Polit­i­cal Marx­ist con­cep­tions of the tran­si­tion from feu­dal­ism to cap­i­tal­ism and the sec­ond involves explain­ing the ascen­dan­cy of West­ern dom­i­na­tion. In the open­ing chap­ter of How the West Came to Rule, we real­ly only focus on the first ques­tion con­cern­ing the tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism vis-a-vis Polit­i­cal Marx­ism and Immanuel Wallerstein’s par­tic­u­lar ren­di­tion of World-Sys­tem Analy­sis, while in lat­er chap­ters we con­nect this issue to the “rise of the West” debate. We pro­ceed­ed in such a way because for both Polit­i­cal Marx­ists and the par­tic­u­lar form of World-Sys­tem Analy­sis put for­ward by Waller­stein, the­se two his­tor­i­cal ques­tions are large­ly con­flat­ed: the ori­gins of cap­i­tal­ism in cer­tain West­ern Euro­pean states (notably, Hol­land and Eng­land) explains how “the West” rose to a posi­tion of glob­al dom­i­nance.

This kind of approach is not so much wrong, as it is incom­plete. Clear­ly once the ini­tial break­throughs to cap­i­tal­ism were made in the Nether­lands and Eng­land, this led to increas­ing mate­ri­al dis­par­i­ties between the­se soci­eties and oth­ers. At the same time, how­ev­er, the advent of cap­i­tal­ism in North­west­ern Europe did not imme­di­ate­ly trans­late into the kind of hier­ar­chi­cal pow­er rela­tion that char­ac­ter­ized the nine­teen­th cen­tu­ry inter­na­tion­al order. While cap­i­tal­ist social struc­tures offered the pro­duc­tive poten­tial for increased tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions (par­tic­u­lar­ly with­in the mil­i­tary sphere) and supe­ri­or finan­cial and orga­ni­za­tion­al capac­i­ties, the devel­op­men­tal effects were not instant or undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed, but stag­gered and uneven. Indeed, had it not been for the Euro­pean “dis­cov­ery” of the New World and the sig­nif­i­cant mate­ri­al ben­e­fits accrued to Europe – the ben­e­fits of which were dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly dis­trib­ut­ed to the Nether­lands and Eng­land – this poten­tial may have gone large­ly unre­al­ized (cf. Chap­ter 5). Much the same can be said for the effects that the colonies in the East Indies had on Dutch cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment: were it not for the Dutch rul­ing class’ abil­i­ties to draw on this vast – albeit dis­persed – mass of labor-pow­er in Asia, its cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment would have been unsus­tain­able in the way oth­er “ante­dilu­vian” forms of cap­i­tal1 were like the North­ern Ital­ian city-states of Genoa and Venice (cf Chap­ter 7).

For the­se rea­sons, an account of the ori­gins of cap­i­tal­ism in North­west­ern Europe is in itself not enough to explain the sub­se­quent ascen­dan­cy of West­ern pow­er. Rather, cap­i­tal­ism should be con­ceived as hav­ing pro­vid­ed the con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­i­ty for North­west­ern Euro­pean states to even­tu­al­ly over­come and dom­i­nate their Asian rivals. Nonethe­less, it was only once cap­i­tal­ist Britain trans­formed itself into an indus­tri­al-cap­i­tal­ist pow­er that it was capa­ble of dom­i­nat­ing oth­er high­ly devel­oped Asian soci­eties such as Chi­na. More­over, Britain’s indus­tri­al­iza­tion was great­ly facil­i­tat­ed by both the New World “dis­cov­er­ies” and, per­haps even more impor­tant­ly, the col­o­niza­tion of the Indi­an land­mass which was only made pos­si­ble through a con­flu­ence of inter­nal and exter­nal pres­sures that severe­ly desta­bi­lized the Mughal Empire by the ear­ly eigh­teen­th cen­tu­ry (see Chap­ter 8).

So the reduc­tion of the ques­tion of “how the West came to rule” to an expla­na­tion of the tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism is, as we see it, a gen­er­al prob­lem com­mon to both Polit­i­cal Marx­ists and World-Sys­tem Ana­lysts such as Waller­stein and those who close­ly fol­low him. At the same time, there are num­ber of more speci­fic prob­lems with their respec­tive the­o­riza­tions of the ori­gins of cap­i­tal­ism (cf. Chap­ter 1). Briefly stat­ed, we high­light three par­tic­u­lar­ly prob­lem­at­ic and inter­con­nect­ed issues with Polit­i­cal Marx­ist expla­na­tions of capitalism’s emer­gence: first­ly, their com­mit­ment to a method­olog­i­cal­ly inter­nal­ist and Euro­cen­tric – or, more pre­cise­ly, for Brenner’s fol­low­ers, Anglo­cen­tric – analy­sis of the ori­gins of cap­i­tal­ism; sec­ond­ly, the result­ing defi­cien­cies in their exam­i­na­tion of the rela­tion­ship between the mak­ing of cap­i­tal­ism and geopol­i­tics; and, third­ly, their high­ly abstract and min­i­mal­ist con­cep­tion of cap­i­tal­ism. For the­se rea­sons, we argue that Polit­i­cal Marx­ist approach­es to the study of cap­i­tal­ism are both the­o­ret­i­cal­ly and his­tor­i­cal­ly unten­able, despite the many invalu­able insights and con­cepts they have to offer. Sim­i­lar­ly, while high­light­ing some of the impor­tant con­tri­bu­tions that Waller­stein and oth­er World-Sys­tem schol­ars have made to the study of capitalism’s ori­gins, we nonethe­less argue that this approach – espe­cial­ly Wallerstein’s ren­di­tion of it – remains lim­it­ed by two debil­i­tat­ing prob­lems: the unwit­ting repro­duc­tion of a cer­tain kind of Euro­cen­trism that eras­es non-Euro­pean agen­cy; and the inabil­i­ty to provide a suf­fi­cient­ly his­tori­cized con­cep­tion of cap­i­tal­ism.

The­se prob­lems with Polit­i­cal Marx­ism and World-Sys­tem Analy­sis turn out to be quite big when exam­in­ing the his­to­ry of cap­i­tal­ism. With­out a strong under­stand­ing of the broad­er inter­so­ci­etal or geopo­lit­i­cal con­texts in which Euro­pean soci­eties (notably with­in the North­west) first made the tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism, you sim­ply can­not explain how cap­i­tal­ism first emerged. The mak­ing of cap­i­tal­ism in Europe was not sim­ply an intra-Euro­pean phe­nom­e­non, but a decid­ed­ly inter­na­tion­al or inter­so­ci­etal one, which saw non-Euro­pean agen­cy relent­less­ly imping­ing upon and (re)directing the tra­jec­to­ry and nature of Euro­pean devel­op­ment. Trac­ing this inter­na­tion­al, often extra-Euro­pean dimen­sion in the ori­gins of cap­i­tal­ism and the so-called “rise of the West” is one of the key themes of the book.

While our empha­sis on the­se inter­na­tion­al sources of capitalism’s emer­gence may seem rather obvi­ous to some, it’s strik­ing how few the­o­ret­i­cal approach­es (Marx­ist or oth­er­wise) actu­al­ly provide a sub­stan­tive his­tor­i­cal soci­o­log­i­cal the­o­riza­tion of “the inter­na­tion­al.” Whether the approach in ques­tion con­cep­tu­al­izes the pri­ma­ry “unit of analy­sis” as oper­at­ing at the domes­tic or world lev­el – as exem­pli­fied by Polit­i­cal Marx­ism and World-Sys­tem Analy­sis, respec­tive­ly – the prob­lem remains the same. By work­ing out­wards from a con­cep­tion of a speci­fic social struc­ture (be it slav­ery, feu­dal­ism, cap­i­tal­ism, etc.), the the­o­riza­tion of “the inter­na­tion­al” takes the form of a reimag­in­ing of domes­tic soci­ety writ large: an extrap­o­la­tion from ana­lyt­i­cal cat­e­gories derived from a soci­ety con­ceived as a uni­tary abstrac­tion. This then van­ish­es what is unique to any inter­so­ci­etal sys­tem: a super­or­di­nat­ing “anar­chi­cal” struc­ture irre­ducible to the his­tor­i­cal­ly var­ie­gat­ed forms of soci­eties con­sti­tut­ing any given sys­tem.

This is a par­tic­u­lar­ly debil­i­tat­ing prob­lem for Marx­ism because one of the hall­marks of Marx­ist the­o­ry is a strong claim to be able to provide a gen­uine­ly holis­tic con­cep­tion of social struc­tures, which requires a the­o­ret­i­cal inter­nal­iza­tion of the inter­de­pen­den­cy of each ele­ment with­in it “so that the con­di­tions of its exis­tence are tak­en to be part of what it is.”2 If such a claim is to be tak­en seri­ous­ly, then the the­o­ret­i­cal stand­ing of “the inter­na­tion­al” for a his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ist approach to the ori­gins of cap­i­tal­ism requires a direct engage­ment with the ques­tion of what is “the inter­na­tion­al” under­stood and the­o­rized in its own sub­stan­tive his­tor­i­cal and soci­o­log­i­cal terms. In oth­er words, how can one offer a prop­er­ly “soci­o­log­i­cal def­i­n­i­tion” of “the inter­na­tion­al” – mean­ing “that dimen­sion of social real­i­ty which aris­es specif­i­cal­ly from the coex­is­tence with­in it of more than one soci­ety” – which “for­mu­lates this dimen­sion as an object of social theory…organically con­tained, that is, with­in a con­cep­tion of social devel­op­ment itself?”3

Our the­o­ret­i­cal answer to this prob­lem­at­ic – and the Euro­cen­tric mod­es of analy­ses it often gives rise to – is a crit­i­cal recon­struc­tion of Leon Trotsky’s con­cept of uneven and com­bined devel­op­ment (UCD) which has seen a recent revival in the dis­ci­pline of Inter­na­tion­al Rela­tions thanks in large part to Justin Rosenberg’s work.4 By posit­ing the mul­ti­lin­ear char­ac­ter of devel­op­ment as its “most gen­er­al law,” uneven devel­op­ment pro­vides a nec­es­sary cor­rec­tive to the onto­log­i­cal sin­gu­lar con­cep­tion of soci­eties and the atten­dant uni­lin­ear con­cep­tion of his­to­ry that under­pins Euro­cen­tric analy­ses. By posit­ing the inher­ent­ly inter­ac­tive char­ac­ter of social-polit­i­cal mul­ti­plic­i­ty, com­bined devel­op­ment in turn chal­lenges the method­olog­i­cal inter­nal­ism of Euro­cen­tric approach­es whilst fur­ther sub­vert­ing its strong stag­ist mod­el of devel­op­ment.

BB: Polit­i­cal Marx­ists offer a sharp dis­tinc­tion between feu­dal extra eco­nom­ic forms of sur­plus extrac­tion and cap­i­tal­ist non-coer­cive forms of sur­plus extrac­tions. Thus, they get close to an ide­al-type abstrac­tion. Yet, Marx doesn’t seem to use such a sharp dis­tinc­tion as he con­sid­ered – for exam­ple – slav­ery in the Amer­i­c­as as at least par­tial­ly cap­i­tal­ist because it is part of a wider set of inter­na­tion­al cap­i­tal­ist eco­nom­ic rela­tions. How do you deter­mine cap­i­tal­ism?

AA and KN: We’re in absolute agree­ment with your assess­ment of Polit­i­cal Marxism’s con­cep­tion of cap­i­tal­ism; it is far too abstract and Pla­ton­ic to be very use­ful in under­stand­ing cap­i­tal­ism (past or present) as it excludes or exter­nal­izes so many socio­his­tor­i­cal process­es that were – and con­tin­ue to be – inte­gral to the devel­op­ment and repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ism. This has some impor­tant polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions. The exter­nal­iza­tion of “extra-eco­nom­ic” forms of exploita­tion and oppres­sion from cap­i­tal­ism ulti­mate­ly leads Polit­i­cal Marx­ists to exclude the his­to­ries of colo­nial­ism and slav­ery, an exam­ple you cor­rect­ly point out, from the inner work­ings of cap­i­tal­ism, argu­ing instead that such prac­tices were root­ed in the feu­dal or abso­lutist log­ic of geopo­lit­i­cal accu­mu­la­tion. While we would not go as far as to claim that Polit­i­cal Marx­ists ignore colo­nial­ism and slav­ery per se – for exam­ple, Char­lie Post has a num­ber of excel­lent works5 on the­se issues, even if we dis­agree with his the­o­ret­i­cal con­clu­sions – they do nonethe­less view the­se his­to­ries as sit­ting out­side the pure “log­ic” of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment.

By con­trast, in How the West Came to Rule, we exam­ine the­se his­to­ries as inte­gral or con­sti­tu­tive aspects of the for­ma­tion of cap­i­tal­ism as the glob­al­ly dom­i­nant mode of pro­duc­tion (see esp. Chap­ters 5, 7 and 8). We also look at the inter­twined and var­ie­gat­ed for­ma­tion of racial, gen­der and sex­u­al hier­ar­chies intri­cate­ly bound up and con­sti­tu­tive of the mak­ing of cap­i­tal­ism. With the­se issues in mind, we argue in the book that cap­i­tal­ism is best under­stood as a set of con­fig­u­ra­tions, assem­blages, or bundles of social rela­tions and process­es ori­ent­ed around the sys­tem­at­ic (re)production of the capital–wage-labor rela­tion, but not reducible – either his­tor­i­cal­ly or log­i­cal­ly – to that rela­tion alone. By plac­ing an empha­sis on such con­fig­u­ra­tions and assem­blages, we aim to high­light how the accu­mu­la­tion and repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal through the exploita­tion of wage-labor pre­sup­pos­es a wider array of dif­fer­ent social rela­tions that make the­se process­es pos­si­ble. The­se social rela­tions may take numer­ous forms, such as coer­cive state appa­ra­tus­es, ide­olo­gies and cul­tures of con­sent, or forms of pow­er and exploita­tion that aren’t imme­di­ate­ly given in or deriv­a­tive of the sim­ple cap­i­tal-wage-labor rela­tion, such as racism, patri­archy and unwaged labor. To be a bit more con­crete, the exam­ple you give of slav­ery in the Amer­i­c­as – and, sim­i­lar­ly, the forms of slav­ery in the Dutch colonies in East Asia – is exact­ly the kind of con­fig­u­ra­tion which was geared toward the sys­tem­at­ic repro­duc­tion of the capital–wage-labor rela­tion with­in Eng­land, but is nonethe­less not reducible to that rela­tion itself (see Chap­ters 5 and 7).

BB: On the one hand, Chakrabar­ty states that His­to­ry 1s are “con­sti­tu­tive­ly but uneven­ly mod­i­fied” by His­to­ry 2s, on the oth­er hand accord­ing to Chib­ber “Chakrabar­ty over­es­ti­mates the pow­er of His­to­ry 2 to desta­bi­lize His­to­ry 1, he vast­ly under­es­ti­mates the sources of insta­bil­i­ty with­in His­to­ry 1.” How does the the­o­ry of uneven and com­bined devel­op­ment (UCD) con­tribute to under­stand the process­es of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion with­in the uni­ver­sal­iz­ing dynam­ics of cap­i­tal­ism?6

AA and KN: There is a lot of con­fu­sion over Chakrabarty’s dis­tinc­tion between His­to­ry 1 and His­to­ry 2. Some quick def­i­n­i­tions then:

  • His­to­ry 1 denotes a past pre­sup­posed by cap­i­tal, “a past posit­ed by cap­i­tal itself as its pre­con­di­tion” and “its invari­able result.”7 Although Chakrabar­ty leaves this large­ly unspec­i­fied, it is clear that what he has in mind is abstract labor.
  • His­to­ry 2 denotes those his­to­ries that are encoun­tered by cap­i­tal “not as antecedents” estab­lished by itself, nor “as forms of its own life-process.”8 His­to­ry 2s are not “out­side” of cap­i­tal or His­to­ry 1. Instead, they exist “in prox­i­mate rela­tion­ship to it,”9 whilst “interrupt[ing] and punctuat[ing] the run of capital’s own log­ic.”10 His­to­ry 2s may well include non-cap­i­tal­ist, pre-cap­i­tal­ist or local social rela­tions and process­es, but the con­cept is not exhaust­ed by the­se, and can refer to uni­ver­sal and glob­al cat­e­gories, social rela­tions and process, includ­ing com­modi­ties and mon­ey – two uni­ver­sal cat­e­gories cen­tral to the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ism.11

Now, on the one hand, we would argue that Chakrabar­ty doesn’t under­es­ti­mate the sources of insta­bil­i­ty with­in His­to­ry 1. In Provin­cial­iz­ing Europe, Chakrabar­ty devotes an entire sub­sec­tion titled “Abstract Labor as Cri­tique” where he analy­ses pre­cise­ly those sources of insta­bil­i­ty with­in His­to­ry 1 (what is com­mon­ly known among Marx­ists as the “mov­ing con­tra­dic­tion”). On the oth­er hand, Chakrabar­ty in no way over­states the sig­nif­i­cance of His­to­ry 2. That is, the mis­take lies with Chibber’s inter­pre­ta­tion; by reduc­ing His­to­ry 2 to “local cul­ture,”12 it is clear that Chib­ber doesn’t under­stand what His­to­ry 2 actu­al­ly means. This becomes espe­cial­ly evi­dent when Chib­ber invokes the “uni­ver­sal strug­gle by sub­al­tern class­es to defend their basic human­i­ty” and “the inter­est in well-being” as a “fun­da­men­tal source of insta­bil­i­ty to cap­i­tal.”13 From the above def­i­n­i­tions, we can see that when Chib­ber invokes “well-being” and “basic human­i­ty,” he is para­dox­i­cal­ly invok­ing His­to­ry 2s as the “source of insta­bil­i­ty to cap­i­tal.” If any­thing Chib­ber is guiltier of the prob­lem he attach­es to Chakrabar­ty than Chakrabar­ty him­self.

The quag­mire of mud­dle fash­ioned by Chib­ber shouldn’t hin­der us from read­ing Chakrabar­ty sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly, or indeed read­ing him as a Marx­ist. Like Marx, Chakrabar­ty empha­sizes the ten­den­cy for cap­i­tal to uni­ver­sal­ize and dif­fer­en­ti­ate in equal mea­sure. But where Chakrabar­ty goes beyond Marx is iden­ti­fy­ing uni­ver­sal­is­ing and dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing ten­den­cies out­side of but relat­ed to the pristine log­ic of cap­i­tal (though he’s not alone in doing this). This brings into our under­stand­ing of glob­al cap­i­tal­ism forms of oppres­sion but also agen­cy and resis­tance that can reside out­side of the wage-rela­tion. This opens the the­o­ret­i­cal, his­tor­i­cal and polit­i­cal space to acknowl­edge the ways in which repro­duc­tive and/or affec­tive labor, or anti-racist, anti-caste strug­gles are  inte­gral to anti-cap­i­tal­ist pol­i­tics. It brings into view indige­nous strug­gles over land or the earth as vital com­po­nents of glob­al resis­tance.

How­ev­er, there is an addi­tion­al source or field of uni­ver­sal­iza­tion-dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion that Chakrabar­ty doesn’t dis­cuss – the inter­so­ci­etal or inter­na­tion­al. One of the key insights of UCD is to demon­strate how the exis­tence of mul­ti­ple soci­eties – mul­ti­ple states – under cap­i­tal­ism is at once an indi­ca­tion of its uni­ver­sal­is­ing ten­den­cy and its ten­den­cy towards dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion and frag­men­ta­tion. That is, the nation-state func­tions as a uni­ver­sal stan­dard of what form a polit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty can and should take. At the same time, con­crete process­es of uneven and com­bined devel­op­ment con­sti­tute one of the biggest sources of con­tin­u­ing dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion between nation-states.

A cen­tral fac­tor per­pet­u­at­ing this uneven devel­op­ment, man­i­fest­ed in ter­ri­to­ri­al­ized and geo­graph­i­cal forms, is the con­struc­tion of spa­tial­ly-embed­ded phys­i­cal infra­struc­tures (e.g. trans­port facil­i­ties and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies) nec­es­sary for the expand­ed repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal. Invest­ments in such built envi­ron­ments come to define region­al spaces for the cir­cu­la­tion of cap­i­tal. Cap­i­tal thus demon­strates a clear ten­den­cy towards con­cen­trat­ing in speci­fic regions at the expense of oth­ers, pro­duc­ing a some­what porous but nev­er­the­less iden­ti­fi­able “ter­ri­to­ri­al log­ic of pow­er” – region­al­i­ty – inher­ent­ly aris­ing out of the process­es of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion in time and space.14

This form of uneven devel­op­ment is unique to the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem. The effect of the­se ten­den­cies is that they will per­pet­u­al­ly act to under­mine any uni­fi­ca­tion of “many cap­i­tals” into a sin­gle frac­tion of “glob­al cap­i­tal.” As Marx said, “Cap­i­tal exists and can only exist as many cap­i­tals and its self-deter­mi­na­tion there­fore appears as the mutu­al inter­ac­tion of the­se upon one anoth­er.” It must then by neces­si­ty “repel itself from itself.” Con­se­quent­ly, a “uni­ver­sal cap­i­tal, one with­out alien cap­i­tals con­fronting it, with which it exchanges – is there­fore a non-thing.”15

More­over, as David Har­vey has shown, the repro­duc­tion and spa­tial expan­sion of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion pro­duces and neces­si­tates the cre­ation of rel­a­tive­ly immo­bile and con­cen­trat­ed orga­nized ter­ri­to­ri­al con­fig­u­ra­tions. Dense spa­tial con­stel­la­tions of cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions can there­by provide the ter­ri­to­ri­al foun­da­tions of states by both com­mand­ing and sup­ply­ing the nec­es­sary resources to sus­tain a func­tion­ing state appa­ra­tus. In this sense, the uneven and com­bined char­ac­ter of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment rein­forces and per­pet­u­ates ter­ri­to­ri­al frag­men­ta­tion which, in its con­tem­po­rary modal­i­ty, takes the form of a plu­ral­i­ty of sov­er­eign nation-states. In our view, this ter­ri­to­ri­al­iz­ing and deter­ri­to­ri­al­iz­ing geopol­i­tics of cap­i­tal­ism is unac­count­ed for in Chakrabar­ty; a geopol­i­tics that we think is cru­cial to under­stand­ing the ori­gins of cap­i­tal­ism and its con­tin­ued con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous repro­duc­tion.

BB: You under­line a weak­ness shared by both Euro­cen­tric and post­colo­nial accounts:the pre­sup­po­si­tion of a “her­met­i­cal­ly sealed Euro­pean his­to­ry in which moder­ni­ty was cre­at­ed before being sub­se­quent­ly expand­ed glob­al­ly.”16 What are the main ideas of the “inter­na­tion­al­ist his­to­ri­og­ra­phy” of cap­i­tal­ism which is sup­posed to abol­ish that weak­ness?

AA and KN: What we mean by an “inter­na­tion­al­ist his­to­ri­og­ra­phy”17 is this: that the ori­gins and his­to­ry of cap­i­tal­ism can only be prop­er­ly under­stood in “inter­na­tion­al” or inter­so­ci­etal terms, and that this very “inter­na­tion­al­i­ty” is con­sti­tu­tive of cap­i­tal­ism as a his­tor­i­cal mode of pro­duc­tion. Although this may seem intu­itive­ly obvi­ous to many read­ers, in the book we demon­strate how exist­ing con­cep­tions of cap­i­tal­ism have hith­er­to failed to take this “inter­na­tion­al­i­ty” seri­ous­ly, lead­ing to prob­lem­at­ic the­o­riza­tions of its ori­gins and devel­op­ment that lim­it not only our his­to­ries of cap­i­tal­ism, but also our cri­tiques of the present.

While there have been many stud­ies that empir­i­cal­ly point to this “inter­na­tion­al” dimen­sion of capitalism’s his­tor­i­cal emer­gence and devel­op­ment, they by and large fail to the­o­ret­i­cal­ly incor­po­rate the speci­fici­ties of “the inter­na­tion­al” as an organ­ic com­po­nent of social devel­op­ment (see above). In oth­er words, the inter­na­tion­al or geopo­lit­i­cal sources of devel­op­ment are rel­e­gat­ed to the sphere of con­tin­gen­cies, exoge­nous “shocks” and/or oth­er unthe­o­rized exter­nal­i­ties attached in an ad-hoc way to a pre-formed the­o­ry of soci­ety con­ceived as a sin­gu­lar abstrac­tion. In over­com­ing the the­o­ret­i­cal and empir­i­cal weak­ness­es of such approach­es, the book offers a the­o­ret­i­cal recon­struc­tion of Trotsky’s idea of UCD which unique­ly incor­po­rates a dis­tinct­ly inter­so­ci­etal dimen­sion of causal­i­ty into its basic con­cep­tion of devel­op­ment. For implic­it in Trotsky’s orig­i­nal for­mu­la­tion was a fun­da­men­tal rede­f­i­n­i­tion of the con­cept and log­ic of devel­op­ment itself: one inscribed with a “more-than-one” onto­log­i­cal premise that is miss­ing in oth­er social the­o­ret­i­cal approach­es.18

Such a per­spec­tive not only widens the spa­tial scope of analy­sis to cap­ture the dis­tinct deter­mi­na­tions aris­ing from the coex­is­tence and inter­ac­tion of mul­ti­ple soci­eties (i.e. “the inter­na­tion­al”), but also allows for a res­olute focus on the var­ie­gat­ed rela­tions of inter­con­nec­tion and co-con­sti­tu­tion between “the West” and “the Rest” in their joint, if uneven, mak­ing of the mod­ern cap­i­tal­ist world. From the eco­nom­i­cal­ly regen­er­a­tive effects of the expan­sion of the Pax Mon­goli­ca over the Long Thir­teen­th Cen­tu­ry to the Ottoman-Hab­s­burg “super-pow­er” rival­ry dur­ing the Long Six­teen­th cen­tu­ry to the “dis­cov­ery” of the New World and its’ divi­sion along lin­ear­ly-demar­cat­ed spaces of sov­er­eign­ty to the broad­er eco­nom­ic and strate­gic ben­e­fits accrued from the colonies span­ning the Atlantic to Indi­an Ocean, all the­se his­tor­i­cal process­es and devel­op­ments were absolute­ly cen­tral to col­lapse of feu­dal­ism and the emer­gence of cap­i­tal­ist moder­ni­ty (cf. Chap­ters 3-8).

BB: Marx wrote that “the veiled slav­ery of the wage work­ers in Europe need­ed, for its pedestal, slav­ery pure and sim­ple in the new world.“19 How did the new world “dis­cov­er­ies” con­tribute to the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism and the mod­ern ter­ri­to­ri­al­ized state sys­tem?

AA and KN: Indeed, the 1492 “dis­cov­er­ies” were cru­cial to the for­ma­tion of mod­ern cap­i­tal­ist Euro­pean soci­eties, con­sti­tut­ing a fun­da­men­tal vec­tor of uneven and com­bined devel­op­ment through which the mod­ern world order was born. In How the West Came to Rule, we exam­ine a vast array of dif­fer­ent process­es and devel­op­ments in which the “New World” impact­ed the dif­fer­en­tial devel­op­men­tal tra­jec­to­ries of the “Old World” in their var­ie­gat­ed tran­si­tions (and non-tran­si­tions) to cap­i­tal­ist moder­ni­ty.

For exam­ple, we look at how the inter­so­ci­etal inter­ac­tions, con­flicts and strug­gles between Euro­peans and Amerindi­ans that took place in the Amer­i­c­as were crit­i­cal to the emer­gence of mod­ern con­cep­tions of ter­ri­to­ri­al sov­er­eign­ty and the devel­op­ment of Euro­cen­trism, sci­en­tific racism and the mod­ern insti­tu­tion of patri­archy. We exam­ine in par­tic­u­lar how the Span­ish jurists of the six­teen­th cen­tu­ry sought to rec­on­cile the increas­ing gap between Chris­ten­dom as an all-encom­pass­ing uni­ver­sal ide­ol­o­gy and the encoun­ter with non-Chris­tian peo­ples in the Amer­i­c­as. The jurists’ respon­se to the­se prob­lems invit­ed a recon­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of uni­ver­sal­i­ty, based on an onto­log­i­cal dis­tinc­tion between Euro­peans and “Indi­ans.”

Thus, whilst colo­nial­ists were con­duct­ing the “great­est geno­cide in human his­to­ry”20 in the Amer­i­c­as, the­se ide­o­logues in Europe were busy­ing them­selves with tear­ing down an author­i­ty – Chris­ten­dom – that was prov­ing inca­pable of artic­u­lat­ing New World expe­ri­ences. It was out of the resul­tant debris that the twin con­cep­tions of the Euro­pean Self and the non-Euro­pean Oth­er would emerge, paving the way for an ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tus – Euro­cen­trism, racism, patri­archy – that would serve to both legit­imize the hor­rors of colo­nial­ism and spur the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism. The colo­nial encoun­ter in the Amer­i­c­as also wit­nessed (for the first time in his­to­ry) the devel­op­ment of lin­ear forms of sov­er­eign­ty ter­ri­to­ri­al­i­ty (cf. Chap­ter 5).

We fur­ther show how the plun­der of Amer­i­can pre­cious met­als and resources by Euro­peans fur­ther exac­er­bat­ed an already nascent diver­gence between the feu­dal­ism of the Iberi­an empires and the incip­i­ent cap­i­talisms of North­west Euro­peans. Indeed, the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism in Eng­land was itself depen­dent on the widened sphere of activ­i­ty offered by the Atlantic. As we demon­strate, it was only through the soci­o­log­i­cal com­bi­na­tion of Amer­i­can land, African slave labor, and Eng­lish cap­i­tal that the lim­its of Eng­lish agrar­i­an cap­i­tal­ism were even­tu­al­ly over­come. Not only did the widened sphere of cir­cu­la­tion implied by the high­ly lucra­tive transat­lantic tri­an­gu­lar trade offer numer­ous oppor­tu­ni­ties to Eng­lish cap­i­tal­ists to expand their sphere of activ­i­ty, but the com­bi­na­tion of dif­fer­ent labor process­es across the Atlantic enabled the recom­po­si­tion of labor in Britain through the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion. The bru­tal exploita­tion of slaves on the plan­ta­tion offered an array of “inputs” that con­tribut­ed to the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion. It was in this respect, among oth­ers, that the real sub­sump­tion of labor under cap­i­tal in the British fac­to­ry, and the estab­lish­ment of “free” wage labor in Europe, “need­ed” as its fun­da­men­tal pre­con­di­tion “the unqual­i­fied slav­ery of the New World as its pedestal.”

BB: Neo-Webe­ri­an schol­ars con­sid­er geopo­lit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion as the dri­ving force behind state for­ma­tion in Europe. There­by, in a real­ist man­ner, they sup­pose that inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics take place with­in a con­text of anar­chy. If anar­chy is not the dri­ving force behind pol­i­tics what explains the war-prone nature of the Euro­pean feu­dal state sys­tem?

AA and KN: In short, the answer lies in the speci­fici­ties of feu­dal rela­tions of pro­duc­tion which, over the course of the late Medieval and ear­ly mod­ern peri­ods, descend­ed into a gen­er­al­ized sys­temic cri­sis. At first sight, this might seem like an illic­it return to the kind of inter­nal­ist Euro­cen­tric the­o­riz­ing we crit­i­cize through­out the book. How­ev­er, when widen­ing the analy­sis beyond Europe, it is impor­tant to rec­og­nize that Europe’s feu­dal social rela­tions – and the geopo­lit­i­cal sys­tem emerg­ing there­with – along with their tech­no­log­i­cal, mil­i­tary, and ide­o­log­i­cal com­po­nents all bore a dis­tinct­ly inter­so­ci­etal orig­in as we show in the book (cf. Chap­ters 3, 4, 6, 8)

While keep­ing the­se inter­so­ci­etal, extra-Euro­pean sources of the mak­ing of Euro­pean feu­dal­ism in mind, how then did feu­dal­ism gen­er­ate such a com­pet­i­tive and war-prone geopo­lit­i­cal sys­tem? Here we par­tial­ly fol­low Robert Brenner’s work on the sub­ject. In the absence of the kind of unprece­dent­ed eco­nom­ic dynamism afford­ed by cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions, war was an expe­di­ent mode of expand­ing the sur­plus­es avail­able to the rul­ing class­es under feu­dal­ism. Feu­dal pro­duc­tive rela­tions offered few incen­tives for either peas­ant or lord to con­tin­u­ous­ly and sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly intro­duce more pro­duc­tive tech­no­log­i­cal meth­ods, par­tic­u­lar­ly as peas­ants had direct access to their means of pro­duc­tion and sub­sis­tence. Con­se­quent­ly, lord­ly inter­ests lay in extract­ing more sur­plus­es by direct­ly coer­cive means. This could be done by push­ing the peas­ants to the lim­it of their sub­sis­tence or by seiz­ing the demes­nes of oth­er lords. The lat­ter course result­ed in a process of “polit­i­cal accu­mu­la­tion” amongst the lords them­selves – a war-dri­ven process of state for­ma­tion.21

This con­di­tion meant that the aris­to­crat­ic rul­ing class required the polit­i­cal, ide­o­log­i­cal, and mil­i­tary means in order to exploit the peas­antry and extract a sur­plus for the pur­pose of lord­ly con­sump­tion. How­ev­er, unlike the trib­u­tary empires in Asia, the­se means were not con­trolled by – or con­cen­trat­ed in – a cen­tral­ized and uni­fied state, but instead dis­persed across the nobil­i­ty. This dis­per­sion of coer­cive capa­bil­i­ties meant that polit­i­cal author­i­ty in Europe was frag­ment­ed, par­cel­lized and there­fore also high­ly com­pet­i­tive, with height­ened intra-lord­ly strug­gle tak­ing place over ter­ri­to­ries both with­in and out­side of feu­dal “states” (see Chap­ters 4, 6,and 8).

The lords left stand­ing at the end of the process of geopo­lit­i­cal accu­mu­la­tion formed the basis for the abso­lutist state. Rep­re­sent­ing a “rede­ployed and recharged appa­ra­tus of feu­dal dom­i­na­tion,”22 the abso­lutist states sys­tem of ear­ly mod­ern Euro­pean remained dri­ven by the sys­temic imper­a­tives of geopo­lit­i­cal accu­mu­la­tion that came to inter­act – and in some cas­es fuse – with the emerg­ing log­ic of com­pet­i­tive cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion accom­pa­ny­ing those states already mak­ing the tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism in part explain­ing the endemic state of war-mark­ing the epoch. What made this era of per­ma­nent war so intense was the gen­er­al­ized cri­sis of feu­dal pro­duc­tion rela­tions beset­ting Europe.

The per­sis­tence of armed con­flict through­out the peri­od was not just a result of the usu­al struc­tural dynam­ics of the feu­dal mode – the ten­den­cy toward (geo)political accu­mu­la­tion – but, rather, because the process of rul­ing class repro­duc­tion was itself in cri­sis and under threat as feu­dal­ism had vir­tu­al­ly exhaust­ed all pos­si­bil­i­ties for fur­ther inter­nal expan­sion (i.e. with­in Europe). This in turn pre­cip­i­tat­ed a sharp fall in seignio­r­i­al rev­enues, itself fur­ther exac­er­bat­ed by the plague-induced demo­graph­ic cri­sis, lead­ing to a dra­mat­ic rise in peas­ant revolts and class strug­gles more gen­er­al­ly (see Chap­ter 3). This per­ilous sit­u­a­tion was fur­ther exac­er­bat­ed and “overde­ter­mined” by the per­sis­tent geopo­lit­i­cal threat ema­nat­ing from the Ottoman Empire (see Chap­ter 4). Under such con­di­tions, a near con­tin­u­ous state of war – includ­ing both intra-rul­ing class strug­gles and the inces­sant efforts to crush peas­ant rebel­lions – became a soci­o­log­i­cal “neces­si­ty” (cf. Chap­ter 6).

BB: Again­st Polit­i­cal Marx­ist accounts insist­ing on the inter­nal rea­sons for the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism in Eng­land you under­line the deci­sive role of exter­nal fac­tors via “the priv­i­lege of back­ward­ness” or “the whip of exter­nal neces­si­ty.” What exter­nal fac­tors con­tribut­ed to the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism in Eng­land and how are the linked to inter­nal fac­tors such as the class strug­gle between lords and peas­ants lead­ing to agrar­i­an cap­i­tal­ism?

AA and KN: Polit­i­cal Marx­ists have cor­rect­ly iden­ti­fied the exis­tence of a rel­a­tive­ly homoge­nous Eng­lish rul­ing class as an expla­na­tion for England’s pecu­liar tra­jec­to­ry to agrar­i­an cap­i­tal­ism. In con­trast to the French, where the state and the nobil­i­ty com­pet­ed over peas­ant sur­plus­es, the Eng­lish rul­ing class act­ed in unison to expro­pri­ate the peas­antry and enclose land. By “free­ing” the peas­antry from land in this way, and by con­cen­trat­ing the means of pro­duc­tion in the hands of the rul­ing class, we see the emer­gence of a dis­tinct class of cap­i­tal­ists, on the one hand, and wage-labor­ers, on the oth­er. But why did Eng­land specif­i­cal­ly exhibit this pecu­liar rul­ing class uni­ty? For Per­ry Ander­son, among oth­ers, the answer lies in the rel­a­tive demil­i­ta­riza­tion of the Eng­lish rul­ing class dur­ing the six­teen­th cen­tu­ry. Where­as ear­ly mod­ern abso­lutist states in the rest of Europe were cen­tral­iz­ing and expand­ing their mil­i­tary capac­i­ties in the form of stand­ing armies and invest­ment in arms, Eng­land was regress­ing mil­i­tar­i­ly.

The obvi­ous expla­na­tion for this demil­i­ta­riza­tion is England’s rel­a­tive iso­la­tion from geopo­lit­i­cal pres­sures – they didn’t need an army because they were com­par­a­tive­ly insu­lat­ed from the mul­ti­ple wars engulf­ing Europe at the time. We argue one of the key rea­sons – arguably the sin­gle most impor­tant rea­son – for England’s iso­la­tion was that it was unim­por­tant to the ambi­tions and con­cerns of the major geopo­lit­i­cal pow­ers of the time – it was con­sid­ered “rel­a­tive­ly back­ward,” a north east­ern back­wa­ter that was irrel­e­vant to the repro­duc­tion of Chris­ten­dom and impe­ri­al feu­dal­ism. In the six­teen­th cen­tu­ry, the sin­gle most impor­tant threat to the great pow­ers of Chris­ten­dom was found to the south­east, in the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottomans were mak­ing rapid incur­sions into south east Europe and tak­ing pos­ses­sion of the east­ern Mediter­ranean – at this time the piv­ot of Euro­pean geopo­lit­i­cal inter­ests. The Ottomans thus act­ed as a kind of buffer, or geopo­lit­i­cal cen­ter of grav­i­ty, that sucked the most pow­er­ful state in Europe into its orbit, leav­ing Eng­land rel­a­tive­ly iso­lat­ed from the machi­na­tions of the Hab­s­burgs, the Papal states, Ital­ian city states and (to a lesser degree) the French. And it was the iso­la­tion wrought by the Ottoman buffer that homog­e­nized the Eng­lish rul­ing class, enabling it to under­take such uni­fied action again­st the peas­antry. The his­to­ry of the enclo­sures there­fore can only be ful­ly under­stood when viewed from an Ottoman van­tage point.

BB: Accord­ing to André Tosel, 1991 was not the end of Marx­ism but the end of Marx­ism-Lenin­ism which also con­tained a deter­min­is­tic, stag­ist per­spec­tive of his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment. How do you explain the re-emer­gence of UCD in Marx­ist the­o­ry?

AA and KN: Trots might cry: “Re-emer­gence? Pah! We always spoke about UCD!” How­ev­er, it is inter­est­ing that despite Trot­sky­ists’ invok­ing UCD, it is only in the last decade or so that there has been such a res­olute and inno­v­a­tive use of the idea, either the­o­ret­i­cal­ly or his­tor­i­cal­ly. Per­haps, more inter­est­ing­ly, many of the­se inno­va­tions are com­ing from peo­ple who long aban­doned Trot­sky­ism as a polit­i­cal project (or who were nev­er part of it in the first place). This, inci­den­tal­ly, is why we would resist John Hobson’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of UCD as “neo-Trot­sky­ist.”23

But the ques­tion of UCD’s very own his­toric­i­ty is extreme­ly impor­tant and one we only par­tial­ly broach in the book. Though we do rec­og­nize the con­text of its emer­gence in debates among rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, we don’t real­ly exam­ine its recent re-emer­gence. And although we his­tor­i­cal­ly sit­u­ate the study of cap­i­tal­ism in the post-2008 con­text, the his­to­ry of UCD as an intel­lec­tu­al project has a dif­fer­ent pulse. From a rather insu­lar, aca­d­e­mic per­spec­tive, the cur­ren­cy of the idea of UCD is root­ed in a set of intel­lec­tu­al prob­lems that Marx­ists (and sub­se­quent­ly non-Marx­ists) were grap­pling with­in the dis­ci­pline of Inter­na­tion­al Rela­tions – specif­i­cal­ly, “why is there no inter­na­tion­al his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­o­gy?” or, more gen­er­al­ly, why has been so dif­fi­cult to bridge between soci­o­log­i­cal and geopo­lit­i­cal mod­es of the­o­riz­ing.24 UCD struck many of us as a remark­ably use­ful way of answer­ing the­se ques­tions. But there is a wider his­tor­i­cal and polit­i­cal con­text that is worth expli­cat­ing.

For starters, yes, 1991 and the fall of the Sovi­et Union put paid to any rem­nants of sta­di­al the­o­riz­ing (with­in Marx­ism at least). But it also opened up a set of polit­i­cal ques­tions that tore at many of the old (and prob­lem­at­ic) cer­tain­ties of the Marxist(-Leninist) left. We see in this peri­od the tri­umph of neolib­er­al­ism, the chang­ing nature of the state-form, the grow­ing vagaries of so-called glob­al­iza­tion and the increas­ing sub­sump­tion of social life under the aus­pices of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion. All of the­se devel­op­ments opened very new polit­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties and neces­si­ties that the “old left” – with its attach­ment to the iden­ti­ty of “the work­er” – could not ade­quate­ly engage with. Reflect­ing on this polit­i­cal and intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry then, it is not sur­pris­ing that UCD emerges in a con­text in which the­o­ret­i­cal con­structs derived from sin­gu­lar expe­ri­ences of oppres­sion – derived from sin­gu­lar van­tage points – were becom­ing increas­ing­ly irrel­e­vant if not down­right use­less to the lived expe­ri­ences of the glob­al pro­le­tari­at.

Con­cur­rent­ly, the increas­ing cur­ren­cy of post­struc­tural­ist, post­colo­nial, crit­i­cal race, fem­i­nist and queer con­cep­tions of the way in which cap­i­tal­ism – and pow­er more gen­er­al­ly – oper­ates placed a greater con­cep­tu­al need to engage with ques­tions of lim­i­nal­i­ty, hybrid­i­ty, inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty and so on. Many of the more dog­mat­ic trends of Marx­ism tend­ed to ignore, side­line or be open­ly hos­tile to the­se dif­fer­ent approach­es, and many con­tin­ue to do so (think of the var­i­ous lazy dis­missals of “iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics” that con­tin­ue to per­vade var­i­ous polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions that lay claim to lib­er­a­tion and rev­o­lu­tion). UCD is an idea that is – the­o­ret­i­cal­ly at least – more sym­pa­thet­ic to and more in com­mon with the­se “post-pos­i­tivist” trends (or rather that’s the way we see it). At the same time, it is an idea that remains wed­ded in many (not nec­es­sar­i­ly all) respects to a his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ist approach, class analy­sis and Marx(ist) writ­ings. To our minds, UCD there­fore might con­sti­tute a frame­work through which the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal gaps between Marx­ist and non-Marx­ist crit­i­cal approach­es might be pro­duc­tive­ly bridged. For exam­ple, in How the West Came to Rule, we seek to open a dia­logue with post­colo­nial approach­es, rather than dis­miss them.

BB: Michael Löwy states that “the pol­i­tics of com­bined and uneven devel­op­ment” con­sists of three dialec­ti­cal­ly linked prob­lems: the pos­si­bil­i­ty of pro­le­tar­i­an rev­o­lu­tion in “back­ward” coun­tries; the unin­ter­rupt­ed tran­si­tion from the demo­c­ra­t­ic to social­ist rev­o­lu­tion; and the inter­na­tion­al exten­sion of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary process.25 What role does the unin­ter­rupt­ed inter­na­tion­al rev­o­lu­tion­ary process play in your analy­sis, where UCD is con­sid­ered to be tran­shis­tor­i­cal, or – to be pre­cise – trans­modal?

AA and KN: Per­haps it’s worth clar­i­fy­ing what we mean by UCD oper­at­ing trans­modal­ly.  When used at a gen­er­al, trans­modal lev­el, UCD is best under­stood as a basic premise or ontol­ogy of human his­to­ry. Put dif­fer­ent­ly it iden­ti­fies an abstract set of deter­mi­nants which describe a gen­er­al con­di­tion con­front­ed by all soci­eties irre­spec­tive of his­tor­i­cal con­text. There­fore, when used at this trans­modal lev­el, UCD doesn’t actu­al­ly tell us much about con­crete his­tor­i­cal process­es and cer­tain­ly explains very lit­tle about the­se process­es. At this lev­el of abstrac­tion it does not con­sti­tute the­o­ry. How­ev­er, this is not the only way in which UCD can be used. In the book, we also use it method­olog­i­cal­ly. From the trans­modal onto­log­i­cal premise we can derive a set of ques­tions for research, in par­tic­u­lar an atten­tive­ness to: (1) the mul­ti­plic­i­ty of soci­etal devel­op­ment; (2) inter­ac­tions between soci­eties aris­ing out of that mul­ti­plic­i­ty; and, (3) the com­bined forms of devel­op­ment that emerge out of the­se inter­ac­tions. But, the­se gen­er­al onto­log­i­cal and method­olog­i­cal assump­tions tak­en on their own, still do not con­sti­tute a the­o­ry as such – at least not in the specif­i­cal­ly Marx­ist sense. That is, the­o­ry is only pos­si­ble at the more his­tor­i­cal­ly speci­fic-lev­el at which the onto­log­i­cal and method­olog­i­cal coor­di­nates of study are con­nect­ed to more deter­mi­nate, con­crete, his­tor­i­cal-soci­o­log­i­cal cat­e­gories. We think this is use­ful in that we can con­sid­er UCD in its his­tor­i­cal speci­fici­ty, as some­thing that is dif­fer­ent in dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal con­texts, with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly aban­don­ing the trans­modal premise. (This is in fact pre­cise­ly how the Marx­ist idea of “mode of pro­duc­tion” works).

Return­ing to Löwy, his exca­va­tion of the pol­i­tics of UCD takes place at a con­crete lev­el of analy­sis, one which is inflect­ed by the trans­modal con­cep­tion of UCD, but not derived from it. The prob­lems Löwy there­fore iden­ti­fies are speci­fic to a set of his­tor­i­cal prob­lems (in par­tic­u­lar those per­tain­ing to the 20th cen­tu­ry) that do not nec­es­sar­i­ly hold in dif­fer­ent con­texts, be it today or the ear­ly mod­ern peri­od (which is the focus of our analy­sis). Whether the­se prob­lems are con­sti­tut­ed in dif­fer­ent epochs is the work of his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­o­gy and polit­i­cal activ­i­ty, and can­not be derived from any trans­modal claims alone.

Were Löwy’s prob­lems present or observ­able in the focus of our analy­sis (i.e. the ori­gins to cap­i­tal­ism)? Well, some of his claims – specif­i­cal­ly the exis­tence of a pro­le­tari­at and the ques­tion of tran­si­tion from demo­c­ra­t­ic to social­ist rev­o­lu­tion – pre­sup­pose cap­i­tal­ism, and there­fore can­not be con­sid­ered as part of the his­to­ry of its ori­gins. The way the third prob­lem – the inter­na­tion­al exten­sion of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary process – is framed is itself prob­lem­at­ic. It pre­sup­pos­es some inter­nal – domes­tic – rev­o­lu­tion that sub­se­quent­ly extends out­wards – inter­na­tion­al­ly. Such a per­spec­tives suf­fers from the sort of inter­nal­ism (or method­olog­i­cal nation­al­ism) that UCD is used to over­come.

Nonethe­less, in some for­mal sense, you could argue that there are numer­ous ways in which “inter­na­tion­al rev­o­lu­tion­ary process­es” played some sig­nif­i­cant role in the peri­od we look at the in the book. Take for exam­ple, the cri­sis of Chris­ten­dom. We have in Europe the break­down of feu­dal­ism and peas­ant upris­ings, artic­u­lat­ed along the lines of reli­gious revolt. At the same time, peas­ant revolts again­st Chris­ten­dom facil­i­tat­ed the expan­sion of the Ottoman Empire into Chris­tian ter­ri­to­ries, fur­ther weak­en­ing the Papa­cy and the Hab­s­burg Empire. We have simul­ta­ne­ous­ly in the Amer­i­c­as a series of revolts by indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties again­st Iberi­an impe­ri­al­ism. Mean­while, in Asia, local com­mu­ni­ties were resist­ing attempts at colo­nial set­tle­ment by the Iberi­ans and, lat­er, Dutch pow­ers.

We argue that the­se inter­na­tion­al, often non-Euro­pean, uneven yet inter­sect­ing his­to­ries were cru­cial to break­down of social order in Europe. It was sub­se­quent­ly out of the wreck­age of this crum­bling social order that alter­na­tive meth­ods of exploita­tion and social order emerged – name­ly cap­i­tal­ism, racism and mod­ern forms of patri­archy. More­over, such new meth­ods were used specif­i­cal­ly to crush and/or con­trol the­se inter­na­tion­al insur­gent move­ments. I guess the point here is a more basic one – the onto­log­i­cal premise of a trans­modal UCD and the method­olog­i­cal point­ers it gives rise to helps us under­stand class strug­gle and sub­al­tern agen­cy in inter­so­ci­etal rather than domes­tic or method­olog­i­cal­ly nation­al­ist terms. UCD helps us rec­og­nize how uneven, mul­ti­ple, insur­rec­tionary process­es might inter­sect and com­bine glob­al­ly. And this is of rel­e­vance today, just as much as it was when Löwy was writ­ing.

This inter­view was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Péri­ode.


  1. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume III, trans. David Fern­bach (Har­mondsworth: Pen­guin, 1981), 728. 

  2. Bertell Oll­man, “Marx­ism and Polit­i­cal Sci­ence: Pro­le­gomenon to a Debate on Marx’s Method,” in Social and Sex­u­al Rev­o­lu­tion: Essays on Marx and Reich (Lon­don: Plu­to Press, 1979), 99-156, 105. 

  3. Justin Rosen­berg, “Why Is There No Inter­na­tion­al His­tor­i­cal Soci­ol­o­gy?,” Euro­pean Jour­nal of Inter­na­tion­al Rela­tions, Vol. 12 No. 3 (2006): 307–340, 308. 

  4. See esp. Rosen­berg, “Why Is There No Inter­na­tion­al His­tor­i­cal Soci­ol­o­gy?.” See also this list of some of the con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture on uneven and com­bined devel­op­ment. 

  5. See esp. Char­lie Post, The Amer­i­can Road to Cap­i­tal­ism: Stud­ies in Class-Struc­ture, Eco­nom­ic Devel­op­ment, and Polit­i­cal Con­flict, 1620–1877 (Lei­den: Brill, His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism Book Series, 2011). 

  6. Dipesh Chakrabar­ty, Provin­cial­iz­ing Europe (Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2008, 2nd Edn.), 70; Vivek Chib­ber, Post­colo­nial The­o­ry and the Spec­tre of Cap­i­tal (Lon­don: Ver­so, 2013), 229. 

  7. Chakrabar­ty, Provin­cial­iz­ing Europe, 63. 

  8. Ibid., 63; Karl Marx, Grun­dris­se, trans. Mar­t­in Nico­laus (Har­mondsworth: Pen­guin, 1973), 105–106. 

  9. Chakrabar­ty, Provin­cial­iz­ing Europe, 66. 

  10. Ibid., 64. 

  11. “Cap­i­tal orig­i­nal­ly finds the com­mod­i­ty already in exis­tence, but not as its own pro­duct, and like­wise finds mon­ey cir­cu­la­tion, but not as an ele­ment in its own repro­duc­tion… But both of them must be destroyed as inde­pen­dent forms and sub­or­di­nat­ed to indus­tri­al cap­i­tal” (Marx quot­ed in Chakrabar­ty, Provin­cial­iz­ing Europe, 64). 

  12. Chib­ber, Post­colo­nial The­o­ry and the Spec­tre of Cap­i­tal, 235. 

  13. Chib­ber, Post­colo­nial The­o­ry and the Spec­tre of Cap­i­tal, 235. 

  14. David Har­vey, Spaces of Glob­al Cap­i­tal­ism (Lon­don: Ver­so, 2006), 102; Ray Kiely, “Cap­i­tal­ist Expan­sion and the Impe­ri­al­ism-Glob­al­iza­tion Debate: Con­tem­po­rary Marx­ist Expla­na­tions,” Jour­nal of Inter­na­tion­al Rela­tions and Devel­op­ment  Vol. 8, No. 1 (2005): 27–57, 41; David Har­vey, The New Impe­ri­al­ism (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2003), 103. 

  15. Marx, Grun­dris­se, 401, 421. 

  16. Alexan­der Anievas and Kerem Nisan­cioglu, How the West Came to Rule (Lon­don: Plu­to Press, 2015), 40. 

  17. Jairus Bana­ji, The­o­ry as His­to­ry (Lei­den: Brill, 2010), 253. 

  18. Justin Rosen­berg, “The Philo­soph­i­cal Premis­es of Uneven and Com­bined Devel­op­ment,” Review of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies, 39, 3 (2013): 569-597, 581-83. 

  19. Karl Marx, Cap­i­talVol­ume I, trans. Ben Fowkes (Lon­don: Pen­guin Books, 1976), 925. 

  20. Tzve­tan Todor­ov, The Con­quest of Amer­i­ca: The Ques­tion of the Oth­er (Nor­man: Uni­ver­si­ty of Okla­homa Press, 1982), 5. 

  21. Robert Bren­ner, “The Social Basis of Eco­nom­ic Devel­op­ment,” in John Roe­mer, ed, Ana­lyt­i­cal Marx­ism (Cambridge:Cambridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1986), 23-53, 31–32. 

  22. Per­ry Ander­son, Lin­eages of the Abso­lutist State (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1974), 18. 

  23. John M. Hob­son, “What’s at Stake in the Neo-Trot­sky­ist Debate? Towards a Non-Euro­cen­tric His­tor­i­cal Soci­ol­o­gy of Uneven and Com­bined Devel­op­ment,” Mil­len­ni­um, Vol. 40, No. 1 (2011): 147-166. 

  24. Rosen­berg, “Why Is There No Inter­na­tion­al His­tor­i­cal Soci­ol­o­gy?.” 

  25. Michael Löwy, The The­o­ry of Rev­o­lu­tion in the Young Marx (Chicago: Hay­mar­ket, 2010), 1; see also his The Pol­i­tics of Com­bined and Uneven Devel­op­ment: The The­o­ry of Per­ma­nent Rev­o­lu­tion (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1981). 

Authors of the article

teaches political science and international relations at the University of Cambridge. Most notably, he is the author of Capital, State, War (2014).

is member of the editorial committee of the French-language review Période and graduated from Sciences Po Paris.

is a Lecturer in International Studies at SOAS, University of London. He recently published The Ottoman Origins of Capitalism: Uneven and Combined Development and Eurocentrism (2014).