The beginning of it all . . .

Mon, 03 Mar 1997 19:41:53 -0500
Salvatore Babones (


I have looked up Prof. Bergesen's seminal posting on capitalism, and,
begging Prof. Bergesen's pardon, I am going to reproduce it below.


WSNers and others: This began as a reply to Joya Misra who asked
about the role/importance of "capitalism" in the operation of the
world system. The more I wrote the more I expanded and the more I
thought it would make a good post and hopefully start some

There are alot of things going on at the same time and they are all
true. States have more or less different structures. And, at some level,
things change too, so the world economy has to be somewhat different now
than then. Agreed. The question is of all this change, difference, etc.
which parts to we pick out to hinge our causal logic on: what becomes the
independent and what the dependent variable. The sociological impulse has
always been to look for systemasticity the collective the corporate
totality of parts, the house rather than the bricks, the forests rather
than the trees. Further, we have always believed that the blueprint of
the house dictated the shape, location, and function of the rooms;
understand the collective blueprint and you understood a good part of the
structural relationship of rooms to rooms, windows to rooms, doors to
rooms, connecting hallways, and so forth. National societies were the
first blueprint--that gave us sociology as we professionally know it.
Classes, groups, statuses, organizations, communities, families, etc. were
the rooms in the house of society. The most powerful blueprint was
Marx and variations thereof, about classes, stratification, economic
condition, how ideas and politics followed these class struggles,
etc. Then dependency and then IW's world system theory pushed the house
up a notch--at the time we thought it was the final home, but it turned
out it wasn't, but we have only now begun to understand this. IW made two
fundamental errors: (i) he stretched the logic of the societal blueprint
to fit his now widened European based/originated world system, calling it,
appropriately, the capitalist world system. The blueprint for a single
house was now, in effect, thought to explain a whole city block of houses,
and while the match wasn't exactly perfect (the core doesn't hire the
periphery for a wage to extract surplus value) it served as a sort of
moral indictment of the world system (the core exploits the periphery,
like the capitalists in society exploit the workers), and the extraction
mechanism was fiddled with to create the absolutely incomprehensible
notion of the theory of unequal exchange and the transfer of surplus value
through such trade. It is often repeated yet no one has to date been
able to clearly explicate exactly what all that means or how it
actually works, let alone gather any evidence as to its operation. Social
science is a world of rather loose fitting models, so the idea of a
capitalist world economy was conceptually satisfactory. (ii) The other
problem was origins of the new larger house--the world system. IW made
the error of having it arise from activities of what turned out to be a
sub-part of a larger world system, the now oft mentioned Afroeurasian
world system of many centuries existence. IW, in a still sociological
mode of thinking, had class relations change in a lone peninsula of a huge
land mass (the crisis of Fedualism) that in turn led to the expansion of
that peninsula to form a European based international economy that then
grew/expanded in concentric circles "incorporating" ever new areas into
its sphere of influence and subjecting them to its operational logic--the
now stretched idea of capitalism. At the time no one thought of this as
Eurocentric, or racist. It all seemed so natural. Even its opposition in
European thought, Max Weber, did not challenge the "peninsular thesis", he
just emphasized a different aspect of peninsular life--religion. It was,
he said, the Protestant Ethic that made the difference and gave birth to
something endogenously exceptional from the rest of the world, which
became the code word for peninsular exceptionalism--"Capitalism". The
peninsula had it and no one else did. Of almost mythical proportions it
was both good and bad; good, said Marx, because it swept away earlier
formations and was so powerful that it would be the battering ram to knock
down the walls of fedualism, tradition, and the general sluggishness of
others off the peninsula, captured in the word the "Asiatic mode of
production" It was bad because it was the highest form of inequality and
had to be over come. But what the pensinula had wrought was unique inthe
world; for Weber no one else in the world had the mental set, culture,
habits of mind--well, rationality, to conduct business except the
peninsula people; for Marx no one else in the world had the forms of
sociial organization of production, from factory to manager/boss, called
"capitalist", to class relations, and even political forms, the
"bourgeoise state". Everyting on the peninsual was different from the
rest of the world. If someone was a psychiatrist they might describe such
patterns of thought as delusional, thinking they were apart from a larger
world with which they clearly interacted, had trade relations, and wanted
to be a part of. For how many centuries did the peninsula people try and
make contact with the larger world of Asia and the East. From Marco Polo
to Christopher Columbus they tried and tried to make contact and to get
what they had.

Finally, the logic of the larger world--or better just the world--of which
they had always been a part (marginal but a part) shifted. The
Afroeurasian blueprint shifted and the center declined and the peninsula
people had an advantage, which they took. Labor saving devices were the
economic thing to develop (where Asia had enough labor that saving labor
was not the economical thing to do) and so they did. But the peninsula
people saw this as their own doing, their own inventions (the Industrial
Revolution), their own culture (Weber) their own struggles and class
relationships (Marx), and they gave it their own designation "capitalism"
which they had and no one else in the world did. They were the self made
people, a sort of collective rational choice theory; the peninsula willed
itself up, they called it the "Rise of the West" and began to generalize
about it, and that became contemporary social science. First it started
with them--belief changes (Weber) or social relation changes (Marx) or
political changes (the Political/Democratic Revolution of the 18th
century). Second, it was so unique, so infectous, so powerful, that it
was unstoppable. It would--they all predicted--travel around the world,
knocking down the walls of other arrangements and modes of thinking. As
time went on it got even more like theology and was generalized even more,
now called "modernity" and what they devised, created, invented, came
upon, all by themselves, was the "modern world", "modern man", economic
rationality and rationality in their culture and only they wanted to, or
were forced to, accumulate capital. It all continues into the 20th
century. Walt W. Rostow speaks of their "take off" to sustained growth,
North and Thomas go on again about the "rise of the west" (North even wins
a Nobel prize)

It was a tremendous vanity: I mean think about it: here is a whole world
economy, existing for eons, with a center and a lot of edges, and one of
the edges, an outpost peninsula, comes to the conclusion that only they
"want money for the sake of money". All others, they tell you in their
social science theories, do business for other non-economic reasons.
Somehow we have come to believe that only peninsula people
calculate, save, rationalize, and want money for the sake of money,
and exploit their workers through the difference between what they
pay them and what they get for the products. From this point of
view, why did the Chinese make all that porceilin and ceramics and
silk? Why did the people of India make all those textiles,
calicoes, cloth? Just for themselves? Just for their "use value"
because they were "traditional" because they couldn't "accumulate"
capital, because they they were embedded in these religion dominated
sluggish family and traditional dominated "asiatic modes of
production"? Most of this stuff they produced, better, manufactured, they
sold, for a profit, they produced, for a profit, they got rich from, for a
profit, they calculated--rationally, economically--for a profit. But to
the peninsula people, when their time came to ascend in this Afroeruasian
system, to be a temporary center--1750 to 2050--they wrote it up as
something they did on their own, by themselves, independent of the larger
world system--their protestant ethic, their relations of production (which
they coined the term "capitalism"--as if only they were interested in
accumulating capital), their capitalist state, their modern outlook, their
individualism, their initiative, while the rest, they were "traditional"
(Daniel Lerner), they had "huadralic/bureaucratic modes of production"
(Wittfogel), they did business by "redistributing" (Polanyi) not
trading/exchanging, they had "no rationality" (Weber), they had the
sluggish, resistant to innovation, resistant to change, the same for
centuries, totally controlling, stifflying, "Asiatic Mode of Production"
(Marx), and then, most recently, from Braudel and Wallerstein comes the
notion that the very Afroeurasian world economy of which they had been the
center was itself a by-product, a consequence, an outcome of, changes in
the social organization of an outer peninsula. Instead of seeing it
correctly that the cyclic dynamics of the Afroeurasian world economy led
to the rise of the European "world-system", they reversed it, and had one
room of the larger Afroeurasian house, the European "world-system" give
rise to the larger world-economy. Thats nerve.

Well, we believed it. Its sociology, its Marxism, its development
studies, its PEWS, its IW's world-system, its about everything. But its
wrong. The peninsula is a consequence of the larger system; it is not its
cause. The peninsula's theories of itself from Marx to Weber to
Wallerstein mistakenly place the peninsula's changes as the cause of the
larger system, when it is just the opposite. It is then no accident that
at the window of faltering in Asia that allowed the Peninsula's rise (the
rise of the west) was also a window in which the "theory of the
peninsula's rise was written" and it constitutes the classics of social

>From Marx to Weber to things about Modernity it is one story of
exceptionalism, and makes the error of taking a shift of centers and
relative advantage and transforming it into a theory of origins. Europe
is the dependent, not the independent variable. And so to with the
European world system of IW, and so too with the mythical "capitalism" of
Marx, and its mythical "spirit of capitalism with Weber, and so too with
the mythical "modern world".

Why do we realize this now? Good question. I don't fully know, to tell
you the truth. I suspect that much of this has to do with the return to
Asian presence in the world economy going into the 21st century. Most
still see this as the "rise of asia" when in fact it is the end of the
EuroAmerican interlude (1750-2050) and the return to where the center of
world economic activity had been for eons.

What this means in terms of social theory is that the theoretical edifices
that arose during the EuroAmerican Interlude, are, in retrospect, wrong.
And a deep wrongness at that. The issue no longer is Marx vs. Weber, for
both were peninsular exceptionalists, such that, from a truely world point
of view, both are the same, just touching on different parts of peninsular
experience and claiming priority for the part they touched. The
underlying assumption of such exceptionalism, though, is their common
fatal flaw, making their differences in empahsis pale in comparison. What
the sequal to the theory of EuroAmerican Exceptionalism will look like is
at this point open. But what is clear is that to continue with the
categorical ediface of the 1750-2050 Interlude is now a fetter to further
theory and progressive thought in general.

One place to start is to read A.G. Frank's manuscript "The Silver Age:
World Development 1400-1800" that is under consideration at a number of
presses, or the various article versions that work at this thesis. It is
the best their is at moving us forward and an absolute must for anyone
concerned with understanding our world, where it has been, and where it is

Albert Bergesen
Department of Sociology
University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona 85721
Phone: 520-621-3303
Fax: 520-621-9875