“The emergence of predominant capitalism: the long 16th century”

The Modern World-System I:  Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century, by Immanuel Wallerstein, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. paper ISBN 978-0-520-26757-2

v. 7-19-11  1568 words

Christopher Chase-Dunn, Sociology, University of California-Riverside

The new edition of Immanuel Wallerstein’s Volume 1 of The Modern World-System, originally published in 1974,  is more beautiful than the original both because of its cover, and because 37 years of subsequent scholarship and world historical events have demonstrated the scientific and practical utility of the theoretical approach developed in this seminal work. If you care about human social change you need to read this book.  If you have already read it, you should read it again, as I just have.

The world-systems perspective is a strategy for explaining institutional change that focuses on whole interpolity systems rather than single polities. The tendency in sociological theory has been to think of single national societies as whole systems. This has led to many errors, because the idea of a system usually implies closure and that the most important processes are endogenous. National societies (both their states and their nations) have emerged over the last few centuries to become the strongest socially constructed identities and organizations in the modern world, but they have never been whole systems. They have always existed in a larger context of important interaction networks (trade, warfare, long-distance communication) that have greatly shaped events and social change. Well before the emergence of globalization in the popular consciousness the world-systems perspective developed by Wallerstein, Samir Amin, Andre Gunder Frank and Giovanni Arrighi, focused on the world economy and the system of interacting polities, rather than on single national societies. This has now become taken-for-granted, but when Volume 1 was written this was not so. This book helped to change the intellectual landscape and to make all the subsequent world-systems research possible.

Wallerstein’s new Prologue responds to several of the major criticisms that have been made of Volume 1. Critics said that the book was too economistic, ignoring politics and culture. Marxists said that Wallerstein ignored class relations. Wallerstein’s approach to world history is evolutionary, though he does not use that word. He compares regions and national societies with each other within the same time periods, but he also compares them with earlier and later instances in order to comprehend the long-term trajectories of social change and to explain the qualitative transformation in systemic logic that began to emerge in Europe in the long 16th century (1450-1640 CE). His theoretical framework contemplates a “whole system” and how that system has changed or remained the same over time while expanding to become a single Earth-wide integrated network. The questions asked derive from this orientation, but the questions are answered in Volume 1 by a critical review of controversies among economic historians.[1]  

Why was it Portugal that began the second wave of European expansion in 1415 CE?[2] What was it about Portugal’s position in the European world-economy in the early 15th century, its class structure, the nature of the Portuguese state, and its alliance with Genoese finance capitalists, that led it to rewire the long-distance trade network with the East by going around Africa? Wallerstein discusses differences in cultural and political institutions and how these interacted with demographic pressures, epidemic diseases, and climate changes that affected the production of “food and fuel.”[3] This kind of attention to agriculture, demography, production, and class relations is what is missing in Giovanni Arrighi’s version of the evolution of the Europe-centered system as presented in his The Long 20th Century (1994).  But Arrighi’s focus on “the shadowy realm” that constitutes the collaboration between finance capital and hegemonic state power is also largely missing in Wallerstein’s approach.[4] They complement each other and both need to be read for a complete understanding of the emergence of modern capitalism.

            Wallerstein’s analysis of East-West similarities and differences that account for the rise of predominant capitalism in Europe and the continued predominance of the tributary logic in East Asia is presented in Chapter 1. Summing up his detailed discussion of the main factors that account for the East/West divergence, Wallerstein says:

The essential difference between China and Europe reflects once again the conjuncture of a secular trend with a more immediate economic cycle. The long-term secular trend goes back to the ancient empires of Rome and China, the ways in which and the degree to which they disintegrated. While the Roman framework remained a thin memory whose medieval reality was mediated largely by a common church, the Chinese managed to retain an imperial political structure, albeit a weakened one. This was the difference between a feudal system and a world-empire based on a prebendal bureaucracy. China could maintain a more advanced economy in many ways than Europe as a result of this. And quite possibly the degree of exploitation of the peasantry over a thousand years was less. To this given we must add the more recent agronomic thrusts of each, of Europe toward cattle and wheat, and of China toward rice. The latter requiring less space but more men, the secular pinch hit the two systems in different ways. Europe needed to expand geographically more than China did. And to the extent that some groups in China might have found expansion rewarding, they were restrained by the fact that crucial decisions were centralized in an imperial framework that had to concern itself first and foremost with short-run maintenance of the political equilibrium of its world-system. So China, if anything seemingly better placed prima facie to move forward to capitalism in terms of already having an extensive bureaucracy, being further advanced in terms of the monetization of the economy and possible of technology as well, was nonetheless less well-place after all. It was burdened by an imperial political structure.

We now know much more about China because of the careful comparative work of the “California School” of world historians (e.g. Kenneth Pomeranz 2001) and Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing (2007) as well as the important collection of essays in Arrighi, Hamashita and Selden (2003). But Wallerstein’s analysis of the main elements explaining the East/West divergence is still the best because of its fruitful combination of millennial and conjunctural time scales.

            Those critics who say that Wallerstein ignores class struggle must not have read the book. Not only does he carefully analyze both rural and urban class relations, but he provides a fascinating analysis of the global class structure in the long 16th century (pp. 86-87), thereby deflating those in the “global capitalism” school who say that his “state-centric” analysis ignores system-wide class relations. His analysis of “coerced cash-crop labor” (the use of slave and serf labor to produce commodities for the world market) is fundamental to the most important element of the world-systems perspective – that modern capitalism has required an intersocietal hierarchy, an unequal division of labor between a system-wide core and periphery (p. 91). Wallerstein added depth to the analysis of core/periphery relations when he realized that formal colonialism was not the only way in which an unequal international division of labor had been structured. This had already been theorized by the dependency theorists using the idea of neo-colonialism, but Wallerstein discovered a similar case in the way that an unequal division of labor between Poland and Western Europe had underdeveloped Poland in the long sixteenth century.  His careful comparison of the “second serfdom” in Eastern Europe with the class structures emerging in colonial Latin America in the 16th century is fascinating, as is his analysis of the emergence of intermediate forms of labor control in the regions of Europe that were becoming semiperipheral.           Elsewhere I have contended that Wallerstein erred in using the “mode of production” criteria (capitalism) to spatially bound the Europe-centered system (Chase-Dunn 1998). Europe and its non-core regions were not a separate whole system in the 16th century. The European states were still fighting and allying with the Ottoman Empire in ways that greatly influenced the selection of winners and losers within Europe. Europe was a semiperipheral region to the old West Asian core and an instance of what Thomas D. Hall and I have called “semiperipheral development” (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997).  But Wallerstein is right that capitalism was emerging to predominance in the West, and his insightful focus on this evolutionary problem is what makes his approach to world history so useful. Both reading and rereading Volume 1 is a very rewarding experience. 

References Cited

Arrighi, Giovanni 1994 The Long Twentieth Century  London: Verso

______________ 2007 Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the 21st Century. New York: Verso.

______________ Takeshi Hamashita and Mark Selden (eds.) 2003 The Resurgence of East

            Asia: 500, 150 and 50 Year Perspectives. London: Routledge

Chase-Dunn, Christopher 1998 Global Formation: Structures of the World-Economy. Rowman and

            Littlefield: Lanham, MD.

Chase-Dunn, Christopher and Thomas D. Hall 1997 Rise and Demise: Comparing World-Systems.

            Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Goldfrank, Walter L. 2000 “Paradigm regained?: the rules of Wallerstein’s world-system

method.” In Giovanni Arrighi and Walter L. Goldfrank (eds.) 2000 Festschrift for

            Immanuel Wallerstein. Journal of World-Systems Research, Vols. 6, #2: 150-195.

Moore, Jason 2003 “The Modern World-System as environmental history? Ecology and the

 rise of capitalism” Theory and Society 32,3: 307-77.

Pomeranz, Kenneth 2001 The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern

            World Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.







[1] The best critical appraisal of Wallerstein’s method is Goldfrank (2000).

[2] As Wallerstein notes in Chapter 1, the first wave was the European effort to conquer the Holy Land, spurred on by militant Christendom and the Venetian desire to have cheaper access to the goods of the East.

[3] Jason Moore (2003) characterizes Wallerstein’s analytic narrative as an environmental history of the emergence of capitalism.  

[4] But on p. 49 and 52 Wallerstein discusses the relationship between the Portuguese state and Genoese finance capital that is the basis of Arrighi’s first “systemic cycle of accumulation.”