This is the fifth contribution in the series Thesis Pieces featured on For the Desk Drawer written by my past and present doctoral studentsThis contribution from Cemal Burak Tansel starts with a focus on the discontent with global capitalism from the perspective of the alter-globalisation movement. He then moves on to explore the development of capitalism itself with a call to move beyond Eurocentric visions of modernity.

The spectre of a radical social revolution is still haunting the world two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and much to the dismay of those who have far too eagerly proclaimed the end of history. From austerity-struck, inequality-ridden ‘developed’ countries to the Global South wherein a vicious cycle of developmental catch-up has been implemented via colonialism, imperialism and brutal capitalist competition, the twenty-first century world map is riddled with incipient, yet markedly vivacious moments of such upheavals. Despite differences in the specific historical, social and political backgrounds from which they emerge, a common theme that crosscuts the recent wave of mass mobilisations and popular struggles is an unmanageable discontent with global capitalism. Recall the various currents of the alter-globalisation movement, peasant and indigenous struggles in Latin America and East Asia, anti-austerity protests and occupations in Syntagma, Puerta del Sol or ‘repossession by occupations’ in the US. Thus it is not unsurprising that we are witnessing a proliferation of debates revolving around the seemingly difficult question of how to envision a ‘life after capitalism’.

It is now more urgent than ever to critically engage with ‘real utopias’—concrete and often already existing scenarios which allow us to discuss the ways in which social, economic and intellectual production can be re-imagined beyond capitalist laws of motion. Yet where exactly do we begin fashioning such a discussion? How can we tease out which features of our contemporary socio-economic system would be preserved and which others would be dismissed in a post-capitalist society? Social development, of course, is not a voluntary exercise with which structures affecting the very nucleus of our lives can be cherry picked and chosen in accordance with their immediate necessity. Yet for the masses struggling against the myriad forms of oppression and inequality, components of these structures become concrete targets as they take on familiar appellations (globalisation, neoliberalism, corporate greed, etc.). Contextualising the emergence of such elements and practices (or the origins thereof) in global history can help us understand the developments through which they form a systemic whole (i.e. capitalism) and why they are so persistent in the face of popular resistance.

In my paper, ‘Wavering Demarcations: Geographies of Historical Capitalism’ presented at the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers Annual Conference 2012, I propose a modest reconceptualisation of the histor(ies) of capitalism based on both a reading of late Marx’s works and a number of recent publications drawing from a wide variety of historical materialist literature. The crux of the argument is that the trajectory of capitalist development can best be traced by mapping the spatio-temporally varied manifestations of social relations, institutions and legal practices that formed the basis of the capitalist mode of production. Thus I contend that the building blocks of the capitalist mode of production—from the commodification of human labour as wage-labour to the commodity production for a market structured by a systemic competitive logic—should be explicated in a global context that is receptive to the constitutive role of what Sanjay Subrahmanyam has called ‘connected histories’. By tracking down the longue durée of what we often uncritically assume to be modern capitalist social relations, I attempt to reconfigure what various theoretical-historical frameworks take as unwavering demarcations marking ‘capitalist’ and ‘pre-capitalist’ epochs, the essential descriptions of which, more often than not, tend to be divorced from history or equated with binary civilisational or geographical categories (East-West, Islam-Christianity, etc.). The paper, as such, is then not only an exercise in theory-building, but also an attempt to reinforce the critique of Eurocentric paradigms in historiography and knowledge production. It does so by neither negating nor withdrawing from Marxist theory of history; on the contrary, it is firmly rooted in Marx’s oeuvre and complements the former with contemporary historical research.

Despite the significant role England plays in Marx’s analytical and historical sketch of industrial capitalism, his dispersed notes on the transition to capitalism reveal a broader geographical focus. As he succinctly explains in his letters to Nikolai Mikhailovsky and Vera Zasulich, Marx eschews the idea of unilinear development by maintaining that the theoretical framework he provided in Capital is not a ‘master key’ and that the analytical account is exclusively utilised to explain Western European trajectory. Yet even in the pages of Capital, Marx displays a strong awareness of the heterogeneous (yet still European) sources of the capitalist mode of production, describing Holland as ‘the model capitalist nation of the seventeenth century’, arguing that ‘capitalist production developed earliest’ in Italian city-states and highlighted ‘different moments of primitive accumulation’ in ‘Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and England’. These are not contradictory claims within his overall framework. On the contrary, they attest to his detailed periodisation within which such earlier instances are located as possible precursors to ‘modern’ capitalism. ‘Period of manufacture’ or ‘commercial capitalism’, then, are epithets to capture the variegated geographies and timescapes wherein ‘modern’ capitalist development took root in what Marx called ‘the womb of the feudal order of economy’. It is here that the constitutive social relations of the capitalist mode of production are present separately or emerging in germinal forms. But was this an exclusively European phenomenon?

It is here I broaden the horizons of the concept of ‘historical capitalism’ by incorporating the non-Western sphere into the constitutive networks of commerce, agriculture and production. The particular focus is on Pax Islamica and the reciprocal interaction of commercial capital in the axes of the greater Mediterranean basin and Indian and Atlantic oceans. The role of ‘Islamic’ commerce is vital as it engendered and promoted practices such as mudāraba (commenda) that were adopted by European traders in the Middle Ages and early modern period. The widespread utilisation of such business practices which extensively employed capital investment, credit and other apparatuses that ‘fulfilled the economic function of an interest-bearing loan’ gave rise to an increasingly ‘capitalist’ conception of trade, the ultimate aim of which was described by the great historian Ibn Khaldūn as ‘striving for profit by means of the expansion of capital’. As Jairus Banaji has highlighted, Islam

preserved and expanded the monetary economy of late antiquity and innovated business techniques that became the staple of Mediterranean commerce (in particular, partnerships and commenda agreements), and also because the seaports of the Muslim world became a rich source of the plundered money-capital which largely financed the growth of maritime capitalism in Europe.

More examples can be given with regards to the increased employment of wage-labour as a form of labour control, the domination and supervision of production by commercial capital represented by merchants and the transformation of direct producers to wage-labourers dependent on competitive markets. The point is, these are all globally manifested phenomena which took different forms in different times and places, yet ultimately laid the foundations of the capitalist mode of production. Where indigenous configurations did not create similar conditions and practices, they were forcefully imposed or artificially engineered via imperialism and colonialism.

The above exposition should not be read as an attempt to portray capitalism as a transhistorical phenomenon, a socio-economic system coterminous with human history itself. Retracing the development of capitalism should not lead us to the dismissal of its radical difference or to its naturalisation as an evolutionary organism. Nor should it lead to the conclusion that imperialism and colonialism did not play any role in its expansion as embryonic ‘capitalist’ relations were present in many societies. What it should lead to is a deeper understanding of the global processes and practices that constituted and consolidated its development. This will also help us to examine better the ways in which it can ferociously endure and reproduce itself even amidst severe crises. The question of the origins of capitalism can be irrelevant for some who are more interested in creating the conditions with which to bring its demise, but understanding the circumstances and processes in which it developed and expanded is equally vital for imagining a world after capitalism.

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