The Evolution of Economic Institutions:

City-states and forms of imperialism since the Bronze Age

Circular seal from Dilmun

draft v.3-28-15 13932 words

Christopher Chase-Dunn, E. N. Anderson,

 Hiroko Inoue and Alexis Álvarez

Institute for Research on World-Systems

University of California-Riverside

This is IROWS Working Paper #79 available at

To be presented at the International Studies Association 2015 annual meeting, New Orleans, Friday February 20, 4 pm, Panel title: “Imperialism in World Regions” 


Abstract: This paper is part of a larger project that studies the evolution of exchange and exploitation within an anthropological framework that includes small-scale polities and interpolity systems composed of sedentary foragers as well as states and empires.[1] The cases surveyed are considered for their importance in understanding the evolution of economic and political institutions and modes of accumulation.  The evolutionary world-systems perspective sees semiperipheral development as an important cause of human sociocultural evolution.  In this paper we discuss  the literature on the evolution of economic institutions in prehistory and consider the roles that semiperipheral trading polities have played in sociocultural evolution since the emergence of cities and states in the early Bronze Age. We trace the emergence and spread of Bronze Age land-based and maritime city-states that specialized in trade as progenitors and promoters of commodification. We examine how city-states that were controlled by those who gathered their wealth mainly from trade rather than taxation may have acted as agents of the expansion and intensification of commercial trade networks and how a concentration of such city-states in parts of Europe, and the relative weakness of tributary empires after the decline of Rome, led to the emergent predominance of capitalism as a logic of social reproduction and development. We also examine the extent to which thallasocratic city-states pioneered a new form of colonial imperialism that eventually replaced the older pattern in which states had conquered their adjacent neighbors to form empires.


Semiperipheral Polities and the Commodification of Wealth, Land, Labor and Goods Since the Bronze Age

            Our theoretical perspective is the institutional materialist evolutionary world-systems approach.[2] This perspective focuses on the ways that humans have organized social production and distribution, and how economic, political, and religious institutions have evolved in systems of interacting polities (world-systems) since the Paleolithic Age. We employ an underlying model in which population pressures and interpolity competition have always been, and still remain, important causes of social change, while the systemic logics of social reproduction and growth have gone through qualitative transformations (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997: Chapter 6). Thus we are both continuationists and transformationists.

            The topic of the evolution of economic and political institutions over the long run of human sociocultural development is far from finding consensus among social scientists. A heated debate about how to best characterize the continuities and transformations since the age when all humans were nomadic foragers emerged with modern social science and is quite as contentious now as it has always been despite huge advances in our ability to obtain scientific evidence about human life in the past. Part of the reason for continued controversy is that it is difficult to determine the nature of sociocultural institutions with archaeological evidence alone. And another main factor is that characterizations of the human past have implications for current debates about human nature and what is possible for the human future. In the past this debate was described as between “formalists” who contend that all human societies share a common economic logic based on individual decision-making and competitive bargaining, whereas “substantivists” claim that economic actions are always embedded within normative and institutional orders and that there have been qualitative transformations in the logic of social integration in the prehistory and history of the emergence of sociocultural complexity.

            Recently a significant and articulate group of archaeologists have remounted the attack on Karl Polanyi’s substantivist characterization of the development of qualitatively different modes of socioeconomic integration. Polanyi described a developmental sequence of institutional arrangements that were said to characterize the economies of whole societies. His main forms of economic integration were reciprocity, redistribution and market exchange.  His most important contention was that market trade is not a natural and universal logic of social interaction but is rather an institutional invention with a history that can be studied. Polanyi claimed that land, labor and goods are not naturally exchanged as commodities but they become commercialized and  monetized in the development of human societies.[3] This is not necessarily a smooth or continuous process. There are waves of commodification and decommodification. Some things are more difficult to commodify than other others. It is easier for standardized goods to be treated as commodities or money than it is for labor or land to be commodified. And so the prehistoric and historical processes of commodification of goods, labor and land were uneven across time and space. And though commodification spread and deepened,  no societies, even our own, commodify all human interactions.  Normatively regulated sharing and reciprocity and politically regulated taxation and tribute continue to exist, but they exist in a context in which the market economy and commodified property and labor are the predominant forms.[4]

Polanyi’s ideas were employed by a whole generation of economic anthropologists as well as world historians and sociologists, and this entire corpus has been attacked as having used ideological blinders to force human societies into theoretical categories that obscure reality. A succinct expression of this critique is contained in a recent article in the Annual Review of Anthropology by archaeologists Gary Feinman and Christopher Garraty (2010). This article summarizes the main points contained in a collection of essays edited by Garraty and Barbara L. Stark (2010; see also Blanton and Fargher 2012).  The archaeologists who have put together this most recent assault on Polanyi are mainly Americanists who have themselves done excavations and surface surveys in North, Central and South America. They make a convincing case that market institutions and the use of money were important institutions in the political economies that emerged in Mesoamerica and they note that this aspect of Mesoamerican societies has been somewhat ignored in the social science literature.[5]

The Feinman and Garraty article contains a helpful overview of the problems associated with the identification of market systems using only archaeological evidence. We know that Mesoamerican civilization made extensive use of markets primarily based on ethnohistoric accounts, not archaeological evidence.  Feinman and Nicholas (2010) propose a multiscalar approach to the problem of identifying market systems with archaeological evidence from the valley of Oaxaca and Stark and Garraty (2010) also present an overview of the challenges and possible solutions for the problem of identifying marketplace exchange when restricted to archaeological evidence. 

It is clear that Polanyi was wrong about particular cases in which he believed that markets were absent but later evidence emerged showing that they were present. The most famous of these instances is not mentioned in the Feinman and Garraty article but came to light in a previous round of attacks on Polanyi in the 1970’s. Polanyi had asserted that the recently discovered Kultepe tablets showed that a colonial enclave of Assur  in the town of Kanesh  in Cappadocia, showed that the colonists were operating as political agents of non-market “administered trade.”  In Polanyi’s theoretical scheme early states engaged in non-market exchange (gift-giving or tribute) that employed political agents of the king to carry out the transactions. This is called “administered trade.”

Later research based on a more complete reading of the Kultepe tablets confirmed that the Old Assyrians were true merchants calculating profits on their own accounts, not agents of the Assyrian state (Curtin 1984; and see page 8 below).  Polanyi and his students were also wrong about Mesoamerica, though they were not wrong about the Andes.  The problem is that some mistakes in the identification of cases is not enough to completely discredit a theory. Polanyi’s contention that most small-scale societies are based on mainly on reciprocity and sharing, especially as elaborated by Marshall Sahlins (1972), and that these institutional forms of exchange predate the emergence of proto-money, tribute-gathering and commodified market exchange remains accurate even if he was wrong about the timing  or location of the emergence of commodified forms. The article by Feinman and Garraty does not address this issue. But the extreme version of the “formalist” theoretical perspective claims that all human societies are based on the rational actor model and a bargaining form of exchange that is similar to market trade.  It remains quite plausible that there was indeed a transition from reciprocity/sharing to redistribution and then later to market exchange.  But these transitions may have taken place at an earlier and smaller level of complexity than Polanyi claimed.  If this is so it means that the ability to identify commodified forms of wealth, goods, property and exchange using archaeological evidence is more important that has been thought and so the efforts to do this contained in the Garraty and Stark (2010) are to be applauded. One problem with the existing efforts to develop purely archaeological evidence for market exchange is that they almost exclusively focus on the comparison between market exchange and redistributive integration which is presumed to be less efficient because it requires bringing goods to a central location and then redistributing them. Little attention has been given to the problem of distinguishing market exchange (and redistribution) from sharing/reciprocity, but this problem must be solved if we are to trace the important prehistory of commodification stateless societies. [6]

Our approach, elaborated below and in Chase-Dunn et al (2013), contends that early forms of commodification emerged within small-scale systems based on reciprocity (Chase-Dunn et al 2013)  and then slowly and unevenly within some of the tributary empires, and that city-states specializing in trade developed institutions and organizational forms and technologies that facilitated expanded and deepened commodification.

            A related controversy has reemerged over the question of the emergence of capitalism. Some world-systems theorists claimed that a “capital-imperialist” mode of accumulation that oscillated between state-organized and market-organized phases arose in the Bronze Age (Ekholm and Friedman 1982)  and that there was no transition to capitalism that occurred with the rise of European hegemony (Frank and Gills 1994).  This perspective does not claim to shed light on an earlier period in which market institutions were emerging, and neither does it address the issue of the relative predominance of commodification. It implies that capital-imperialism arose full-blown in the early states of the Bronze Age and that there has been no upward trend toward increasing commodification since then. Some of these same theorists (Frank and Gills) also claim that there was a single Eurasian world system since the emergence of early states in Mesopotamia, earning them the title of “ancient hyperglobalists” (Chase-Dunn, Inoue, Heimlich and Neal 2015).

Our stylized model of the evolution of economic institutions

This paper will focus mainly on the evolution of economic institutions and the roles played by semiperipheral polities in the long-term commodification of goods, wealth, labor and land. It uses the results of a research project that studies the development of settlements and polities by comparing regional world-systems and studying them over long periods of time.

We start with a brief stylized overview of our version of the evolution of qualitatively distinct economic institutions and then we will elaborate and qualify this model by examining different world regions and some particular cases. In small-scale and egalitarian systems social production is mainly based on shared conceptions of norms that designate obligations among members of kin groups. Anthropologists call this the kin-based mode of production (Wolf 1997).  It is based on consensual moral orders that are imbedded in the mother tongues that people learn from childhood.  The mobilization of social labor is primarily organized by means of family obligations based on sharing and reciprocity (Sahlins 1972). In some of these small-scale societies there is also ritualized (sacralized) gifting that reinforces alliances across households, settlements and sometimes across the boundaries of independent polities (Douglas 1990). Most of these small-scale systems are egalitarian in the sense that there may be some gender and age inequalities, but there are only small inequalities across households.

            As sociocultural systems became more complex, hierarchical kinship distinctions emerged that allowed elites to use institutionalized power to accumulate resources and to regulate the uses of land and other valuable natural resources. Classes, forms of property and prestige goods systems emerged that made it possible for the chiefly elite to appropriate some of the labor and goods produced by commoners. In some of these systems prestige goods emerge as a mechanism for symbolizing alliances among village heads. Under some conditions prestige goods evolved into proto-money that served as a more general symbol of value in trade networks. Intervillage and interpolity exchange allowed surplus food to be acquired by villages that were experiencing a temporary shortage without resort to raiding. In some systems prestige goods were monopolized by elites and used to reward subalterns and to regulate marriage, reinforcing the political hierarchy. These are called “prestige goods systems” in the anthropological literature. But some egalitarian systems had prestige goods or proto-money that mainly functioned to ensure the provision of goods for the general population during periods of shortage (e.g. the Wintu – see Chase-Dunn and Mann 1998).   Small-scale societies also differed in the extent to which private property existed. Many had only the usufruct in which procurement locations were allocated and reallocated by group decision-making (e.g. the Wintu), whereas others designated privately held procurement sites that were inheritable property (e.g. the California Athabascans). But even when privately held sites existed these were not commodified because they could not be bought or sold.

             In some systems specialized institutions of regional control emerged within polities[7] that were separate from, and over the top of, the kin-organized subsistence and political economy. These were the first states, and the larger political economy came to be based on various forms of tithing, taxation, labor-appropriation and tribute. The general term for this kind of political economy is the tributary mode of accumulation.  In some of the early states primordial versions of commodified exchange emerged such as lending money at interest and letters of credit, but most exchange continued to be regulated by customary or politically specified rules and rates of exchange (sharing, reciprocity and redistribution). Interpolity (foreign) trade was usually carried out by representatives of the state – what Karl Polanyi  (1957a) called “state-administered trade.” But there were also some early city-states that specialized in trade. The commodified institutions that emerged within early tributary states were surrounded by increasingly powerful state-based institutionalized coercion that regulated most of the economy, though there was still a sector in which kin-based reciprocity operated (Zagerell 1986). For thousands of years commodified forms of wealth, land, goods and labor existed and expanded within commercializing political economies in which institutionalized coercion was the predominant mode of economic regulation. Money, cylinder seals, the collection of interest on loans, sales of property, slave markets, indebtedness, commercialized sexual services, and wage labor all emerged during the Bronze and Iron Ages (Graeber 2011). There were waves of commercialization in which privately controlled enterprises played a greater role in economic production and distribution followed by periods in which states regained great control.  Tributary states became semi-commercialized and learned to extract taxes from business entrerprises rather than simply confiscating them. And more and more semiperipheral capitalist city-states specializing in trade and under the political control of those who made profits from commodity production emerged.

We define capitalism broadly as a mode of accumulation in which an elite class of owners and controllers of the major means of production derives most of its wealth from the production and distribution of commodities and manipulations of money. This presumes the existence of a market economy and so the Polanyian processes of the commodification of goods, wealth, land and labor are well advanced. But unlike Marx and many others we do not require that work be primarily or mostly mobilize in the form of wage labor.  Coming from the world-systems perspective, we note that coerced cash crop labor (serfdom and slavery) were fundamental and necessary parts of the development of modern capitalism, and we suppose that earlier forms of capitalism also mobilized labor in these and other ways. [8] The question of how labor was mobilized in the Bronze and Iron Age semiperipheral capitalist city-states is an important one that has not been much addressed by historians, but should be. A capitalist state is one in which the elites in control of the state accumulate wealth mainly by means of profit from trade and the production of commodities.

            Eventually a rather highly commodified system emerged in Western Europe during the period after the fall of the Roman Empire in which the power of tributary states was weak.  A large number of semiperipheral capitalist city-states concentrated first on the Italian peninsula and then spread across the Alps to the low countries and then to the North Sea and the Baltic. These were agents of an expanding Mediterranean and Baltic market economy. When territorial states once again emerged after the infeudation that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire,  the most powerful of them were shaped by the existence of this strongly commodified regional market economy. The emergent political elites were dependent on support from merchants and bankers to meet the costs of raising armies in this very competitive European interstate system. We agree with Wallerstein (2011:63) that the nature of European agriculture and class relations were important reasons why emergent European states were more dependent on capitalists than were states in China or other rice-growing regions (see also Palat 1995) .

The first core state (not a semiperipheral city-state) that was controlled by capitalists was the Dutch federation in the 17th century. This signaled the arrival of a capitalist world-system in which the logic of profit making instead of tribute gathering had moved from the semiperiphery to the core and to systemic predominance. The stylized model presented above needs examination regarding apparent exceptions and possible misconceptions. Hence we tell our story for different world regions and examine particular cases that may seem problematic,  paying special attending to the actions of states that specialize in trade and to the issue of “capitalist imperialism.”

Semiperipheral Capitalist City-States and Commercialization in the Bronze and Iron Ages

            We now examine ways in which semiperipheral capitalist city-states may have been agents of commodification in the Bronze and Iron Ages. We define capitalist states as those in which greater than half of appropriated surplus derives from profits from trade and the state is substantially controlled by those who obtain most of their wealth from commodity production or market trade. A city-state is defined as an autonomous polity in which the territory of sovereign control is limited to a single large city and some surrounding agricultural land.[9]  So a capitalist city-state is a city-state in which over half of the accumulated surplus is derived from trade or commodity production and that state is controlled by those who accumulate profits.  Our focus on these entities stems from Fernand Braudel’s (1984) discussion of “world economies” and from Frederic Lane’s (1973, 1979) historical studies of Venice and his conceptual essays about the nature of “violence-controlling enterprises.”  We have been further inspired by David Wilkinson’s (2014; 2015) consideration of the nature of capitalist empires. Wilkinson, also inspired by Braudel, starts with Venice, Genoa and the Hanseatic League and then looks for and finds similar entities in earlier ages and far-flung places.  We start with the early Bronze Age, and use Wilkinson’s insights and definitions in our examination of important cases. [10]

            The ancient states that emerged in Mesopotamia were all city-states, but they did not specialize in trade. We suspect that nearly all primary (pristine) states (states that emerge in a region in which there have not previously been states) were city-states in their early years. City-states that specialized in trade emerged in the early Bronze Age. We note that these specialized trading polities encouraged the production of a surplus for exchange and that the institutional innovations that they developed were often taken up by adjacent tributary states, which impelled internal commercialization. 

The capitalist city-state phenomenon is clearly a different kind of semiperipheral development from that of the semiperipheral marcher state.[11]  These states pursued a policy of profit making rather than the acquisition of territory and the use of state power to tax and extract tribute.  They emerged in the “interstices,” the spaces between the territorial states in world-economies in which wealth could be had by “buying cheap and selling dear” (merchant capitalism). One of their consequences was the expansion of trade networks because their commercial activities provided incentives for farmers and craftsmen to produce a surplus for trade with distant areas. Thus the capitalist city-states were promoters of commodification and inter-regional economic integration.

Most of the early capitalist city-states were maritime regimes that made profits by moving goods across the water[12] e.g. Dilmun. But the old Assyrian city-state used donkey caravans to move tin and bronze long distances (Larsen 1976). This paper examines the role that semiperipheral capitalist city-states played in the rising predominance of money economy, production for exchange, and state power used for the purpose of accumulating profits rather than taxes and tribute.

            Semiperipheral capitalist city states are autonomous states that pursue strategies of merchant capitalist trade and (often) the production of commodities. Before the emergence of the predominance of capitalism in the modern system these operated in the context of world-systems in which the predominant mode of accumulation was based on the extraction of tribute and taxes by means of state-organized institutionalized coercion.

            Polanyi claimed that true markets did not emerge until Iron Age Greece. But in ancient Southwest Asia and in Mesoamerica, all parties recognized certain neutral territories as international trade enclaves. These “ports of trade” (Revere 1957; Chapman, 1957) allowed international exchange to go on even during periods of warfare between states. Some of these neutral territories were small cities near the boundaries of larger polities. But each Mesopotamian city also had a port district within it, and these city districts were often also treated as if they were neutral free-trade zones (van de Mieroop 1999). Scholars disagree about whether it was primarily administered trade or market trade that occurred in these enclaves. Ratnagar (1981,: 226–227) contends that Dilmun (Bahrain) in the Persian Gulf performed this port-of-trade function in the exchanges between the Harrapan civilization of the Indus River valley and Mesopotamia. He also cites evidence that indicates that the Dilmunites later took on the functions of middlemen carriers operating between the great states, thus becoming early forbearers of the specialized trading city-states of the Phoenicians.

The rise of the early empires was accompanied by the continued expansion and deepening of trade networks (Jennings 2010). Periods of peace and the extension of imperial governance allowed trade to become more intense and goods to travel farther. The commodification of goods and wealth had long been emerging within and between the states of Mesopotamia. Contracts of sale of lands and interest-bearing loans were known from the Early Dynastic period, and prices were clearly reflecting shortages in the Ur III period

In the Old Babylonian period we find a clear instance of a semiperipheral capitalist city-state. This was the Old Assyrian merchant dynasty centered in the city of Assur on the upper Tigris (in what is now Syria), with its colonial enclaves of Assyrian merchants located in distant cities far up into Anatolia (what is now Turkey) (Larsen 1976, 1987). Assur was a land-based merchant capitalist city-state with a far-flung set of colonies in the midst of an interstate system in which most states were still extracting surplus from their own peasants and pursuing a strategy of territorial expansion by means of conquest. The Old Assyrians maintained an effective structure of self-governance and religious devotion to the God of Assur that allowed them to coordinate the activities of their central city and its distant colonies. This is an early instance of what Philip Curtin (1984) called a “trade diaspora,” in which an ethnic or religious group specializes in cross-cultural trade in a region of great cultural diversity.[13]

            The merchant capitalism of Assur, unlike that of most capitalist city-states, was not based on sea trade (as were, e.g., the Phoenician, Italian, and German city-states). But the Old Assyrians did occupy a key transportation site on the Tigris that enabled them to tap into profit streams generated by the exchange of eastern tin and Mesopotamian textiles for silver. Bronze was being produced in Anatolia using copper from the north and tin imported from Bactria (Afghanistan). The demand for tin was great, and the merchants of Assur were able to make large profits by negotiating trade treaties with the many states along the trade routes that allowed them access to markets at agreed-upon taxation rates. They also organized the transportation of goods over long distances by means of donkey caravans, and they maintained an effective structure of self-governance and religious devotion to the god of Assur that allowed them to coordinate the activities of their central city and its distant colonies.

            Much of the evidence that we have about the institutional nature of exchange carried out by the Old Assyrian city-state and its colonies comes from the Kultepe tablets at Kanesh, an archive of business records and letters that show how the merchants organized and governed their business activities (Veenhof 1995). The records show that the merchants were trading on their own accounts for profit. They were not agents of the Assyrian state carrying out administered trade akin to tribute exchanges among states. As mentioned above, Karl Polanyi (1957a) had used an early and inaccurate examination of the Kultepe tablets as evidence that the Assyrian trade was state-organized exchange rather than market exchange. Polanyi underestimated the antiquity of market-based exchange. But he was right to claim that market exchange was an invention that emerged slowly in the context of kin-based reciprocity and state-based administered trade.

 The later history of Assur is also an interesting case that is relevant for our understanding of semiperipheral development. The Old Assyrians and the city of Assur were conquered by Hammarabi, the Amorite king of Babylon in 1756 BCE. The Amorites were originally Semitic-speaking nomadic people from the mountains of Syria. But they conquered states in Mesopotamia and established kingdoms in the late Bronze Age. Thus the status of the claim that the Neo-Assyrians were a semiperipheral marcher state is based on the originally semiperipheral location of the capital far up the Tigris, and on the conquest of the capital by formerly peripheral Amorites.

The Amorites became the ruling class, though they adopted the language and some of the religion of the Assyrians. Their much later re-emergence as the Neo-Assyrian Empire was a fascinating instance in which what had earlier been a semiperipheral capitalist city-state eventually adopted the marcher state strategy of conquest,[14] and their success in this latter venture created an empire upward sweep that was larger than any other that had been before it in Southwestern Asia (Inoue et al 2012).

Capitalist city-states and ports of trade

            Sabloff and Rathje (1975) contend that the same settlement can oscillate back and forth between being a “port of trade” (a neutral territory that is used for administered trade between different competing states and empires – see Polanyi et al 1957) and a “trading port” (an autonomous and sovereign polity that actively pursues policies that facilitate profitable trade). This latter corresponds to what we have meant by a semiperipheral capitalist city-state.  Sabloff and Rathje also contend that a trading port is more likely to emerge during a period in which tributary states within the same region are weak, whereas a port of trade is more likely during a period in which there are large and strong tributary states.[15] Sabloff and Rathje carried out an archaeological investigation of Cozumel, an island off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Their project on Cozumel was designed to try to test the hypothesis that it had been a trading state with a cosmopolitan and tolerant merchant elite during the so-called Late Post-classic period of the Mayan state system just before the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century (see also Kepecs, Feinman and Boucher 1994). There had long been a busy coastal trade network based on transportation in large dugout canoes among Mayan and Mexican polities along Caribbean coast of Mesoamerica (McKillop 2005 and see Figure 3).   If Sabloff and Rathje are right autonomous trading ports (semiperipheral capitalist city states) are more likely to emerge during the fall part of the cycle of rise and fall of empires that all state systems seem to exhibit.

     Figure 1: Linda Schele's drawing from an incised bone found at Tikal, showing a number of Mayan paddler gods carrying a maize god in a dugout canoe. © David Schele, Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.

            This general idea also corresponds with the notion that world-systems have oscillated between periods in which they are more integrated by horizontal networks of exchange versus periods in which corporate and hierarchical organization is more predominant (Ekholm and Friedman 1982; Blanton and Fargher 2012)).  Such oscillations may have been based on the alternative successes and failures of tributary marcher states and capitalist city-states.

           The upward sweeps of empires in which very large empires emerged in regional world-systems for the first time were probably facilitated by the actions of specialized trading states. By extending trade networks local producers were encouraged to produce for exchange and for export. This increased the value of territories for expanding states.  The ground was prepared for the upward sweeps of empire conquest by the activities of capitalist city-states. If this is true upward sweeps in which larger states emerged to encompass regions that had already been unified by trade should have occurred after a period in which semiperipheral capitalist city-states had been flourishing. [16] Regarding upward sweeps of the population sizes of cities, these generally followed upward sweeps of empires because it was empires that built the largest cities as their capitals. The settlements of semiperipheral capitalist city-states were usually much smaller than the capital cities of empires. As we shall see below, Carthage was the only capitalist city that became the largest city in a world-system until the rise of London.

More Capitalist City-States: the Phoenicians in the Eastern Mediterranean

In the Eastern Mediterranean the Minoans on Crete and the Mycenaeans in the Aegean had carried on an early sea-going trade.  During the late second millennium BCE the Mediterranean was upset by migrations from the north, peripheral peoples who the Egyptians called the “Sea Peoples.”  These sea-going raiders disrupted the sea-borne trade relations between Egypt and the Levant.  The early Lebanese town of Byblos had long been a tributary supplier of cedar to Egypt, but the arrival of the Sea Peoples interfered with this trade (Cline 2014).

       Eventually the new peoples settled on the Lebanese and Palestinian coast and mixed with the older Semitic tribes there.  Out of this admixture the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon emerged, transforming piracy into merchant capitalism, an instance of what ecologists call the emergence of mutualism from predation.  The Phoenicians specialized in trading across the whole Mediterranean, especially in exchanging with primitive peoples to whom the products of the old East were, at first, preciosities (prestige goods).  They also maintained a degree of autonomy as carriers of goods between empires, especially the Egyptians and the Assyrians.  The Phoenicians established a colony for the production of copper on Cyprus, and began a manufacturing industry that provided inexpensive glass vases to mass markets throughout the Mediterranean.  They had stolen the Egyptian secret of glass production and improved upon it for use in the carrying trade (Frankenstein 1978; Herm, 1975; Markoe 2000).

      Thus the Phoenicians expanded the “exchanging unequals”, in which trade occurs between peoples that have not previously been integrated by exchange and so the items have values that are unrelated to those of the separate economic spheres (Amin 1980).  With repeated and increasing exchanges the formerly separate regions become integrated into a single system of economic value.  Buying cheap and selling dear (arbitrage) was the specialized purpose of the Phoenician city-states. These independent temple-cities of coastal Lebanon were early examples of autonomous capitalist states in which profit-taking through commerce was the dominant raison d’etat (purpose of the state).  Their success led to “hiving off” in which groups of Phoenicians would to abroad to establish new city-states. They eventually spread as far as present-day Cadiz (Gades) on the Atlantic coast of Spain, and they traded down the Red Sea to East Africa and India and down the west coast of Africa, where they had a port at Moghador in what is now Mauretania.  The Phoenicians also had alliances with the land-based Hebrew states of Judah and Israel, building the temple at Jerusalem under contract.

There are intermediate forms between a completely uncommodified exchange network and one in which commodification is the predominant form.  Land, wealth and labor are never perfect commodities in any historical system, even in the present.  Rather commodification is a matter of degree.  The Phoenicians engaged in merchant capitalism by buying and selling the products of different, relatively isolated areas around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. In doing this they brought the separate economies of these areas into interaction, subjecting the division of labor within each to the market forces generated in the network as a whole.  The Phoenicians also produced manufactured goods for export, and these were not only prestige goods. Of course one of their most important exports was a prime example of a prestige good. They knew the secret of how to die cloth with a brilliant purple derived from sea snails and so they had a monopoly on “imperial purple” which every king and emperor needed to symbolize power. They also specialized in producing cheap copies that could expand market demand by lowering prices. The Phoenician glass implements industry and the textile industry were not just merchant capitalism, but rather production capitalism in which imported technical knowledge was applied to the mass production of commodities (Herm, 1975: 80).  We do not know how the logic of costs operated regarding raw materials, built environment and labor in the cities of Tyre and Sidon where these industries were located.  The commodification of labor power may have been constrained in many ways, by kin networks or state regulation.  But it seems reasonable to assume that these forms of labor control, however they were organized, were influenced by the competitive logic of the larger Mediterranean political economy.

The other great contribution that the Phoenicians made to the culture of the Central PMN was the phonetic alphabet. The Phoenicians seem to have adapted earlier phonetic alphabets from Egypt and Ugarit and spread their version all over the Mediterranean.  A phonetic script allows sounds to be represented by symbols. Hieroglyphic writing represents ideas instead of sounds, so that thousands of characters must be memorized in order to achieve literacy. Phonetic alphabets can represent language with only several dozen symbols. This makes reading and writing possible without having to spend years memorizing characters that represent ideas.  This implementation of a new technology and its adaptation to everyday life was a huge contribution of the Phoenicians and was an important part of their contribution to the spread of market exchange in the Mediterranean.  Semiperipherality seems to facilitate implementation of new technologies and organizational forms rather than the original invention of those forms. The genius of both semiperipheral marchers and semiperipheral capitalist city-states is in knowing which innovations borrowed from elsewhere to invest in.

Figure 2: Phoenician war galley c.700 BCE

       Dominant powers at sea, the Phoenicians built their cities on promontories or islands where they could be protected from land attack.  Tyre was built on a rocky reef that was separated from the the mainland by open water. It was only conquered after Alexander's army built a causeway to it (Markoe 2000). Although fairly autonomous, as mentioned by Diakonoff above, the Phoenicians were not averse to paying tribute to whichever land-based empire was currently responsible for the peace. They allied with the Persians in their war against Greece, thereby gaining the permanent enmity of the Greeks, who characterized them as “pirates.” The Phoenicians never achieved political unity amongst their far-flung cities, and one of their split-off groups founded Carthage, to become the center of a largely  independent trade network in the Western Mediterranean. The Carthaginians long battled with the Greeks over Sardinia, and in one of their temporary conquests of a Greek colony they discovered the superior art and craft products of Greek culture.  After this, statues of Greek gods appeared in the gardens of Carthaginian aristocrats, although when they were direly pressed by a Greek conqueror from Sardinia, they flooded back to their old religion, carrying out a massive human sacrifice to try to appease their old gods.

Figure 3: Greek and Phoenician colonies in the Mediterranean, 4th century BCE . Source:  Griechischen und phönizischen Kolonien.jpg. Gepgepgep

The rise of Carthage was due to the successful trading enterprises of its Phoenician founders.  Carthage became the largest city in the Central PMN[17] in terms of population size (Inoue et al 2015), whereas earlier and later semiperipheral capitalist city-states were more usually smaller cities specializing in the carrying trade between the larger capitals of territorial empires. Carthage began as a typical Phoenician city-state specializing in trade rather than conquest, but it shifted toward the territorial strategy and this may be why the city became so large (Ameling 2011). Though Carthage did develop a sizeable territorial empire, it was not large compared with earlier or contemporary largest empires. But its combination of trade and conquest produced an urban population size upsweep.  Regarding the issue of capitalist imperialism, Walter Scheidel’s (xxxx) essay on Carthage points out that the politics of empire involves strong contradictions because an expanding empires granting of rights to conquered territories necessarily reduces the value of the rights of older citizens. 

          The Greek city-states invented a new type of polity that combined sea-borne trade with advanced commodity production in agriculture (Roztoftzeff 1941). The Phoenician temple-cities were so specialized in trade that they did not usually concern themselves with revenues or profits from agricultural land, preferring to import most of their food. Their colonies in the Western Mediterranean, like the original cities on the Lebanese coast, were set up on promontories, and oriented toward the sea.  The Greek polies, on the other hand, were associations of landholders. Their uniqueness was not in their autonomy from imperial rule. This was shared by other autonomous cities of Western Asia and the Mediterranean.  What made the Greek cities different was the small and inconsequential nature of the state sector compared with the private sector (Diakonoff, 1982).  Sparta, of course, was a notable  exception. 

      The polity of most of the Greek city-states was primarily an association of private landowners rather than itself a major landowner and economic sector. This, and the high level of commodity production, was the main feature that made Greek society different.

      Unlike the Phoenicians, who, with the exception of Carthage,  only set up ports of trade, the Greeks had more traditional attitudes toward expansion and conquest.  The purpose of conquest was booty and the purpose of colonies was to settle citizens who could farm, and provide food for the mother city.  The cultural disapproval of merchants did not prevent Greeks from engaging in trade, but it may have partly accounted for the large number of foreigners (metics) who lived in

Athens.  While most Greek colonies were established for the purposes designated above, there were a few that specialized in trade (Curtin, 1984).  And as the cultural Hellenization of the Central PMN proceeded, many Greeks became long-distance traders.

Karl Polanyi argued in favor of the existence of price-setting markets at Athens in his essay entitled “Aristotle Discovers the Economy” (Polanyi 1957b:87).  He contended that coinage in small denominations indicates a real peoples’ market in which it had become possible to buy a prepared meal on the street. Greek generals undertook to provide meals for their troops on the road by encouraging local provisioners to set up markets ahead of the army's arrival. Polanyi saw these as indicators that a generalized commodity economy had emerged within the Greek sphere of influence.

How should the political economy of the early Central System be described? Within the great empires trade and production for exchange grew, but two tendencies limited both.  As of old, empires tried to monopolize exchange. This was accomplished by trying to convert long-distance trade into tribute-taking and local trade into royal monopolies by which the king  could extract surplus product from a dependent population.  But private trading and markets tended to emerge and to grow. They were often constrained by a shortage of generalized media of exchange (money).  Shortage of money stimulated and was reinforced by usury (very high interested loan-making), and by the tendency of emperors and kings to horde money.

          In the interstices between the tributary empires, as along the Lebanese coast, and in other peripheral and semiperipheral areas, market trade was less constrained. This is where the capitalist city-states emerged, the purest cases being the autonomous Phoenician cities of the Eastern Mediterranean.  The Greeks, especially at Athens, demonstrated that even an agricultural state can expand market market exchange and can benefit from it. This trick, the coexistence of a tributary mode of accumulation with a large measure of commercialization, was pioneered in semiperipheral Athens, but was later learned by some of the large commercializing empires (Sanderson 1995).

            The literature on the Italian and German city-states is vast. Fernand Braudel (1984) defined a “world economy” as rotating around a single economically central city. Frederic Lane’s studies of Venice led him to examine the relationship between state power and profits. He developed the idea of “protection rent” by which he meant the differential return to capitalists due to having the support of a state that provided protection at cost or with less overhead (Lane 1979). The profit difference between this and that of capitalists in competing states that were less efficient is termed protection rent.  This idea is still important in the notion of “the lean state.”

            Giovanni Arrighi (1984) saw the original hegemony that led the emergence of predominant capitalist in Europe as due largely to an alliance between Genoa and Portugal. The Genoese supported Portugal’s effort to circumnavigate Africa as a way of going around the Venetian monopoly of spices from the East Indies.

Semiperipheral Capitalism in Other World Regions

It is important to ask about the existence of  capitalist city-states in other world regions. What happened to capitalist efforts to gain state power in South Asia, East Asia and South East Asia? Commercialization was occurring in these regions as it did in the West. The tributary states were developing commodified wealth (money), markets, and small commodity production within the tributary states. The Sung Dynasty in China is famous for its use of paper money and that vast scale of its steel industry. Melakka, a city-state in what is now Malaysia, was a semiperipheral capitalist city-state in the sea-borne carrying trade and allied with China (Curtin 1984). But there was also a maritime capitalist state in Fujian and Taiwan that emerged in the 17th century transition from the Ming to the Qing dynasties (Arrighi 2007:333-4; Hung 2001). Koxinga was the local nickname of the adventurer Zheng Chenggong who took Taiwan from the Dutch and tried, for a time, to maintain autonomy from the Qing dynasty as a semiperipheral capitalist city-state. Instead he returned to the mainland in an effort to depose the Manchus, but failed.  The semiperipheral capitalist city-states in the East were not as densely concentrated as they became in Europe, where the Italian and German Hanse city-states flourished to create a regional maritime economy that influenced the emergence of national states. Capitalists were not absent from the stage in East Asia, but neither did they succeed in conquering the commanding heights of state power as they did in some of the emerging powerful states in the West.

[more on specialized trading cities in East Asia (Osaka) and the story of capitalism in Japan told by Randy Collins and Stephen Sanderson]

Southeast Asian Trading City-states

Indian and Indonesian commerce made the Indian Ocean a very busy place from the Roman Empire times on. The Roman Empire had a huge spice trade from India and Indonesia (Miller 1969; Crone 1987 disputed the size and importance of this trade, but archaeology has since proved Miller right).  India and Indonesia had huge voyaging and trading enterprises in their own right.  East Africa was explored by Indonesians during Roman times, and Madagascar was colonized from Borneo and to a lesser extent other Indonesian islands by 500 CE. 

It has been noted that the south Indian coast is littered with Roman coins and other goods, but none occurs in China (Hansen 2012), and in fact there are almost no Indian imports in China either.  Later, however, trade from west to east became extensive.  Medieval records show that China was importing quite large amounts of frankincense and other items.  Apparently the rise of the Islamic empires was more important than Rome, in large part because southeast Asia was so undeveloped in Roman times that it could not serve as a major throughput zone.  However, after 600, the southeast Asian cities managed a good deal of throughput trade and voyaging, bringing such goods as “frankincense, storax…, myrrh,…dragon’s blood [resin], glassware,…ivory, gems,…rosewater and dates” (Heng 2009:32). 

            The first known city-state in the region was called Funan in modern Chinese, representing what was originally probably the Khmer word Phnom, as in Phnom Penh.  This kingdom was more or less the modern Khmer area: Cambodia and far south Vietnam.  It was evidently Khmer-speaking, and had ties with India, beginning the heavy influx of Indian high culture to the area.  It flourished ca. 100-600 CE.  Meanwhile, China was conquering northern Vietnam, bringing its own influences.  This was the beginning of the cultural mix that led to the region being called “Indo-China.”  The city Oc Eo was a trading city in the southern area of Funan, and probably a key trading city.  The whole kingdom seems to have depended on rice agriculture, but also on the India-China trade and on Southeast Asian trade with both.  Almost completely unknown city-states south of it are barely recorded in Chinese records from China’s time of disunion in the 3rd-7th centuries.

Later, there were countless local trade-based states and city-states, mostly in the area from southernmost Vietnam and Cambodia through Malaya to Sumatera and Java, with outliers (late, mostly) in the Philippines, Borneo, Sulawesi, and the Moluccas.  There were similar city-states (mostly much earlier) in south India.

Interestingly, East Asia never had trade-based city-states.  The nearest approach was the Ryukyu kingdom with its capital at Naha, but even the Ryukyus were agrarian, producing a wide variety of foodstuffs.  The Chinese world always privileged agriculture over trade.  The lowest farmer was theoretically superior to the highest merchant, though in reality “money talked.”  Chinese and China-influenced East Asian polities were all agrarian, based on land rents (in the broad sense, including taxes) from large hinterlands. 

            Shadowy references to “polities” (small city-states, quasi-independent cities, or local tribal groups) exist from the 600s, with Chinese names like Holotan, Pota, Pohuang, Holing and Shepo assigned to them (Heng 2009:23-5).  More identifiable is Malayu, which at least has its own name—it developed into Srivijaya.  The general Chinese term for the region, or part of it, was kunlun, confusingly the same as the name of a mountain range in central Asia.

Srivijaya flourished from the 7th to the 13th centuries and included Sumatera, much of Java, and the coasts of Malaya.  Srivijaya was an expansion of the Palembang city-state in the 600s or thereabouts.  It lasted, with migration of the capital to Malayu-Jambi, till around 1300, and even after that Palembang and Malayu-Jambi survived as trading cities.  It seems to have been a sort of Venice of Indonesia: holding maritime lands but basically a trading urban complex (see also Wilkinson 2015).

At its peak it conquered the coastal areas of most of today’s Indonesia, and it is thus hailed as an ancestor of Indonesia.  It developed and spread the Malay language.  It was trade-based and centered on port cities, especially Jambi (the early capital) and Palembang (later capital, and major city) on the southern east coast of Sumatera across from (and south of) modern Singapore.  The capital later reverted to Jambi (Malayu).  This was a very powerful empire and a major player in world trade.  It had very extensive trade connections with the Tang and Song Dynasties.  (It became Sanfoqi in modern Chinese, reflecting a medieval pronunciation something like Samfokay.)  In spite of its theoretically large landholdings it qualifies as a trade-based city-state empire, the way Venice in the 15-17th centuries does.  Its success had much to do with its lack of coherence and monolithic rule; it could adapt, contract or expand, change, delegate local authority to local rulers, and otherwise live an amoeboid life (Lieberman 2009:779).  Even after it fell, Malayu-Jambi continued as an important trade city.

Contemporary was Mataram, in Java, but it was land-based and a more normal (for the time) agrarian state.  It was replaced by Majapahit, based in Java, which lasted around 1293-1600 and included basically the modern Indonesia (less New Guinea but including also at least some influence over Malaya and neighboring areas of Thailand, and also up into the Philippines).  Its last dwindling power fell to Europeans.  Its successor state, Mataram (the second; fl. 1580-1670), was like its predecessor of the same name in being a land-based state centered on interior Java.

Major Malayan ports including Tambralingga, Ligor, Langkasuka, Kelantan, Trengganu, Pahang, and Temasik (now Singapore) were theoretically under Srivijaya, at least most of the time (see map, Heng 2009:105).  Some of these probably spoke Mon-Khmer languages rather than Malay.  They must have operated fairly independently most of the time, given the difficulties of shipping.  On the other hand, we know from records and wrecks that shipping was incredibly well-developed, both technologically and economically, in those centuries.  It was very far ahead of European shipping in terms of marine technology, with fore-and-aft rigging, stern rudders, watertight compartments, outriggers, efficient rigging management, possibly the compass, and other advanced things not known in the west.  The extent of trade is shown by the fact that a local outbreak of violence in Guangzhou in the 9th century led to the deaths of thousands of traders from an “Arab” trading settlement thought to number 200,000 people; most were local Chinese or southeast Asians, but there were indeed very large numbers of Arabs and Persians.

            Later independent city-states included Singhapura (Singapore) and Melaka (fl. 1377-1511, then a Portuguese colony, then Dutch, then English). 

Marco Polo came home to Italy by the sea route, and considered it a routine trip; Buddhist monks had left earlier records, showing that travel was very difficult in the early 7th century but had become routine and fairly safe by the 8th. 

            Meanwhile, many independent city-states and river-basin statelets flourished in Malaya and elsewhere.  Melaka (Malacca) in particular rose around 1400 and lasts to this day, after various conquests and wars.  It is now basically a tourist city.  When co-author E.N. Anderson was there in 1971 it was a fascinating town—a sleepy backwater that preserved the glorious architecture of the 16th-19th centuries.  It was a real time-warp. 

            The other states of West Malaysia are also based on old trade centers:  Johore, Kelantan, Trengganu, Pahang, Perak, Perlis, Kedah.  The only exceptions (of sorts) are Penang, developed by the British, and Negri Sembilan, populated by relatively recent immigrants from Sumatera—but they were following trade routes.  In Indonesia, Aceh, now a terrible thorn in Indoesia’s side because of its Islamic extremism and constant rebelliousness, was a major trade center, being the first port that Arab and Indian traders would hit when they sailed east.  Aceh was a major player in Southeast Asian politics for centuries, and without its extreme brand of Islam might have been the great modernizing force in the islands.  (Instead, Minangkabau came nearest to having that distinction.)   Aceh’s resistance to the Dutch was one of the most incredible stories in the annals of colonialism; total unity, superb guerrilla competence, dauntless courage, incredible ability to maneuver politically, and undying hatred of outside interference kept it independent during a 25-year war that was one of the costliest and bloodiest ever faced by the Netherlands.  The Dutch were fought to a draw; they occupied Aceh but never managed to govern the place effectively.  The great Dutch Islamist Snouck Hurgronje (1906) wrote a book at the time about Aceh and the war; it is fascinating because Hurgronje could not help doing a thorough job and showing a grudging admiration for Aceh courage, but at the same time his pen literally dripped hate because of what the Acehnese had done to his country and some of his friends.  This fascinating read in totally UN-objective history has just been issued in a new version (2009-10).

Surabaya, Banda, Jakarta, and other major coastal cities of western Indonesia all have trading heritages.  The Riau-Lingga islands, now inconsequential, were a center of activity for a time, because of their centrality on trade routes.  In the Philippines, Manila developed as a center of Chinese trade, and had hundreds or thousands of Chinese traders when the Spanish took the islands in 1571.

            The scope of trade in these cities was incredible.  They sent countless vast ships around the islands, and carried on active trade in huge ships and flotillas with India, China, and even farther afield.  Arab and Indian traders swarmed to them.  Chinese began to settle in the “Nanyang” (“Southern Ocean,” i.e. the areas bordering the South China Sea and Indonesian waters) in the Song Dynasty or earlier, and this turned to a flood in Ming, following the great fleets led by Zheng He.  Settlements of thousands of Chinese were in the area by 1600, and continued to grow and thrive.  Bangkok is probably largely Chinese by descent, and tens of millions of people of Chinese descent live in Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia.  In Indonesia the Chinese tended to marry into the local societies, the resulting population being the Peranakan (“those who have become children [of the land]”).  (First-generation Chinese were called Totok, in contrast.) 

The local states were, however, mainly involved in exporting local luxury items.  Especially important were many types of plant gum and wood used for incense: sandalwood, gharuwood, Barus camphor (named for the port of Barus in western Sumatera), eaglewood, aloeswood, etc.  Other items included tin (generally mined by Chinese immigrants), rhinoceros horn, local ivory, gems (including rubies and sapphires from Burma—late, at least), hornbill casques, animal pelts, and, later at least, edible birds’ nests (from Collocalia swiftlets), sea cucumbers, specialty fish, and other foods (Tagliacozzo and Chang 2011).  In return, there was an enormous import of silks and porcelain from China, and all sorts of fabrics from India, along with some metal goods.  Fabrics were the great luxury and art form in island southeast Asia, and imported fabrics were the symbols of wealth.  (This is recognized in the wry Malay proverb on poverty:  “Even though ten ships come, the dogs have no loincloths but their tails.”)  China’s rather inferior, but cheap, cast iron was popular (Heng 2009:106).  So were its copper coins.  Porcelain from China, Thailand, and Vietnam flowed everywhere in the region, especially in the 14-16th centuries.  The extent of this trade has been revealed only recently, as shipwrecks have been found; it is now known that ships loaded with many tons of ceramics were regular on the seas of the area.  Even the east African coast has turned up many early Ming sherds. 

The Ming Dynasty pulled steadily back on trade after 1420, but could not stop it.  The fall of Ming and the chaos from 1630 to 1644 (and even after) slowed trade, but it revived in the 18th century.  However, by then, Europeans were out-competing local people.

The common thread of all these city-states and local empires is that they were the antithesis of Genoa, Venice, Amsterdam or London.  They never innovated or developed much economically. Majapahit and presumably Srivijaya were amazing cultural centers; the last faint gasps of Majapahit glory, in Jogyakarta and Surakarta, were as aesthetically brilliant as Venice in its glory.  But this did not translate into new science or technology.

Why did the Southeast Asian city-states and thalassocra tic empires not anticipate Venice, Genoa, and Amsterdam, and invent capitalism?  Early European observers of the Indonesian city-states had no doubts.  Marsden (1966, orig. ca. 1800) and Raffles (1965, orig. ca. 1820) both have long, thoughtful, well-supported analyses of why southeast Asia was behind the times, and they both concluded that the problem was the heavy-handed, top-down control by kings and bureaucrats.  This had also stifled China’s trade.  The rulers in southeast Asia (like the emperors of China) were more interested in maximizing their take of wealth by gouging the merchants, and in maintaining their power by keeping merchants and other independent souls down.  Of course one might argue that European monarchs tried this too, and sometimes succeeded.  As far as the southeast Asian cities were concerned, the real difference, the “story behind the story,” lies in the nature of the trade:  luxuries from the rainforest, as opposed to state-of-the-art manufactured goods.  They imported everything requiring much knowledge and skill.  China, then as now, could and did beat out everyone else at producing consumer goods cheaply and efficiently.

            The European city-states generally were in the position that China occupied in Asia: trading manufactured goods for raw materials from the periphery.  Value-added always wins the game.  Anybody can farm, and anyone with a rainforest can extract precious woods and gums, but only a developed state with a major institutional, educational, and physical infrastructure can indulge in cheap mass production of manufactured goods.  It will thus have an advantage.  The more value added, other things being equal, the more the advantage.  The southeast Asian city-states drew on tributary states and undeveloped hinterlands for forest products.  They were at the very bottom of the value-added chain.

            The costs of being a primary-products exporter are serious.  It makes sense for the elites to keep the people as backward, ignorant, and divided as possible.  This makes them easy to exploit, and prevents them from getting ideas—such as progress, or freedom, or rebellion.  The “resource curse” is well known in modern societies, and it was, if anything, worse a thousand years ago, when local rulers had a freer hand and primary production was really primitive technologically in southeast Asia.  (It was already sophisticated in China by that time.)  The only advantage the ordinary poor people had a thousand years ago was that the implements of repression were not so developed as now, and the elites depended on a fair number of educated and fairly free-to-act courtiers, clerks, and local headmen as well as on a large minimum-wage labor pool.  They thus could not indulge in genocide, mass political murders, and other traits of the modern primary-production state.  (Some states outside Southeast Asia tried, and quickly fell.  Southeast Asia, always tolerant and imbued with local and Buddhist values, did not try, until postcolonial regimes imitated their former masters.)  

            Conversely, China, though much less free than post-Enlightenment Europe, had neither the will nor the means to repress education and educated people.  The empire depended on having a numerically huge number of educated people, and did not have the tax revenues to create a true autocracy—though that meant that it also did not have enough tax revenues to hire many of the educated, or to do much to develop.  In any case, China remained the metropole, and the Southeast Asian city-states were classically peripheralized, like the east Baltic and Black Sea cities in medieval and Renaissance Europe.

The evolution of economic institutions and the transition from City-States to a World State

A Polanyian perspective on the emergence of capitalism depicts waves of deepening of commodification interspersed by periods of decommofication.  No human society has ever commodified everything. The moral and political orders shelter some aspects of life from market forces and privatization. But the history of the modern world-system has seen waves of commodification that correspond with changes in the nature of political power and the logics of exploitation and domination.  The issue of when capitalism became the predominant mode of accumulation is still contentious, but the notion of waves of expansion and deepening reduces this to quibbles about when to call a whole world-system capitalist.  Commodification expanded and deepened from the Stone Age on, and the modern Europe-centered system has become increasingly capitalist in waves of commodification and decommodification since the 13th century CE.  These waves of capitalism corresponded to the increasing size of the hegemonic core state, but also to changes in the structure of interpolity relations.  The old form of tributary empire that involved conquering adjacent territory and extracting tribute and taxes became supplanted by the emergence of thallasocratic colonial empires in which a “mother country” establish sovereignty over distant colonies in order to facilitate competitive commodity production and profit-making. Recall that colonial empires were pioneered by both Phoenician and Greek city-states, so the modern colonial empires were replicating a strategy that emerged in the Bronze Age, but was interstitial between the tributary empires (see Figure 4).

Figure 4:  Evolution of forms of imperialism

Waves of decolonization since the late 18th century have now transformed the system of colonial empires in to a system of neocolonialism in which global power is exercised through International Governmental Organizations, financial exchanges and property arrangements that allow actors in rich and powerful countries to exploit, if not dominate, non-core peoples.  This demise of the colonial empires creates a single global polity of formally sovereign nation-states and a system in which economic power is stronger than it has ever been at the level of a whole world-system. Such a system is ripe for the emergence of a true world state, though that has not happened yet and may not happen soon because the interstate system is highly institutionalized.

            Figure 5 depicts Giovanni Arrighi’s schematic representation of the evolution of economic and political institutions since the rise of the modern world-system. He sees a transition from city-states (recall his analysis of the key role of Genoa in the formation of the Europe-centered system) to nation-states and then to an eventual future world state. He also notes an oscillation in the forms of empire that may be analogous to earlier oscillations between horizontal networks and more corporate forms of organization noted by archaeologists, anthropologists, political scientists and world historians (e.g. Blanton, Ekholm and Friedman, and Wilkinson).  And Arrighi’s scheme also shows the deepening of commodification by the penetration of regulation into the political economy with the waves of hegemonic rise and fall. 

Figure 5:  Arrighi’s evolutionary scheme of the deepening of commodification and forms of political globalization. Source: Arrighi (2006: 206)

        Arrighi’s scheme raises new questions that are beyond our current focus on the importance of semiperipheral capitalist city-states, but it shows the general direction which we intend to go in our analysis of the evolution of institutions. We will eventually want to put our studies of semiperipheral capitalist city-states in to a larger comparative work that examines sociocultural evolution since the Paleolithic Age.

            Testable hypotheses by the EmpCit project on the growth and collapse of empires and cities since 4000 BCE are as follows:

(1 )cycles of tributary empire strength and weakness interspersed with periods in which there are more and larger capitalist city-states and capitalist empires.

(2) Capitalist city-state expansion of trade networks makes it possible to construct larger empires in the next round by strengthening transportation networks and encouraging the production of surpluses for exchange.



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[1] The project is the Polities and Settlements (EmpCit) Research Working Group at the Institute of Research on

World-Systems at the University of California-Riverside. The project web site is at

research/citemp/citemp.html World-systems are defined as being composed of those human settlements and polities within a region that are importantly interacting with one another (Chase-Dunn and Hall, 1997).

[2] Use of the word evolution still requires explanation. We mean long-term patterned change in social structures, especially the development of complex divisions of labor and hierarchy. We do not mean biological evolution, which is a very different topic, and neither do we mean “progress,” a normative notion that is unnecessary for the scientific study of social change.


[3] Marx (1967) defines a commodity as a standardized good produced for sale for profit for a price-setting market for which the inputs are also commodities and are subjected to the economic constraints of socially necessary labor time.

[4] The scientific study of commodification does not require taking a stance on the issue of whether or not it is good or bad.. Polany clearly thought that overcommercialization was a bad thing, but market trade is obviously functional for the integration of large, complex and multicultural groups of people but the long contention about the degree of commercialization is far from over.

[5] An essay by Charles Stanish (2010) in the Garraty and Stark collection discusses the case of the non-market system that existed in the Andes during the peak of the Incan Empire.  Stanish, an archaeologist who is famous for his research on Tiwanaku, a large city and polity on the Andean altiplano near Lake Titicaca, proposes that the Incan cities were comparatively small (relative to those that emerged in the Valley of Mexico) because redistribution is less efficient than market exchange (Stanish 2020:203-204). 

[6] Feinman and Garatty (2010) point out that commodification is not a one-way street. They give examples of decommodification. Followers of Polanyi have long made use of his notion of the “double movement” in which there are waves of marketization followed by periods of decommodification.

[7] We use the term ‘polity’ to denote a bounded realm of sovereign authority such as a band, tribe, chiefdom, state or empire. Following the cogent critique made by Michael Mann (1986) we use polities rather that societies as important subsystem units of larger world-systems because they are easier to spatially bound.  We also use settlements.

[8] Some Marxists have claimed  that world-systems analysis ignores class relations and focusses only on trade (circulation) (e.g. Brenner 1977). But Amin, Frank, Wallerstein and Arrighi and Silver all contend that there has been a systemwide articulation between different forms of labor control in the core and the non-core that has been and still is a systemic source of surplus appropriation.

[9] “City-states are highly centralized small states that are nucleated around a single walled city or town with small hinterlands, that have diverse/stratified populations, and in which a large fraction of the polity's inhabitants live in the city itself" (Hansen 2000: 16-17)


[10] David Wilkinson (2014, 2015) is examining a class of entities that he calls “capitalist empires” that were different from the classical territorial empires. In that category his example is the Roman Empire: “… toward its high point certainly contained capitalists (traders, merchants etc.) but was highly organized, centralized, structured for security and power in the first instance: an empire with capitalists, but not a capitalist empire” and “An opposite extreme would be capitalists without empires, consider the Radhanite network of the late 1st millennium AD, …: a network of cooperating traders, a capitalist, but apolitical formation carrying on economic activity under the protection of whatever territorial state the relevant trade routes traverse (2014). So Wilkinson describes a continuum within his typology that correspond with the degree to which capitalists utilize state power to back up their profit-making. This is an important contribution  to the study of semiperipheral capitalist city-states.


[11] The comparative evolutionary world-systems perspective contends that semiperipheral regions are often the sites of innovations and of implementations of technologies, institutions and organizational forms that transform the nature and scale of world-systems (Chase-Dunn et al 2015).

[12] Thallasocracy refers to a state with primarily maritime realms—an empire at sea, such as the Phoenician network of merchant cities.

[13] Gil Stein (1999) uses the concept of “trade diaspora” in a somewhat different way to apply to trading enclaves set up by the Uruk core state to supply itself with certain goods from a distant region. Curtin’s original idea applied to culturally specialized trading ethnicities rather than to trade outposts of urbanized core societies.

[14] Another instance of this kind of “niche switching” is the case of Carthage discussed below.

[15] Wilkinson (2015) mentions several versions of the idea of an oscillation between periods of territorial empire and periods in which trade networks and capitalist city-states predominate. He raises the issue of an alternation between land-based and sea-based organizations and quotes Thucydides and Homer on the pirates and strangers.

[16] This hypothesis will be tested by the EmpCit project on the growth and collapse of empires and cities since 4000 BCE.

[17] PMN refers to the political/military network, a way of spatially bounding world-systems by starting with a particular polity examining the links composed of fighting or alliances and allowing for two or three indirect connections.  This corresponds with what international relations scholars call “the international system.”