How the West Came to Rule


Kerem Nişancıoğlu & Alexander Anievas discuss the emergence of capitalism, arguing that the origins of capitalism have clear geopolitical contexts and that an analysis of history from a multiplicity of spatial and nonlinear vantage points is crucial in understanding how the west came to rule. This interview was adapted from the first issue of Base Publication, offering a summary of the ideas within the book and dealing with thoughts which were raised by our reading of the text.

Your methodology throughout ‘How the West Came to Rule’ leans heavily upon Trotsky’s theory of Uneven and Combined Development. Can you explain what this is, how you use it and why you think this is such a good analytic lens through which to understand this period of history that sees the emergence of the capitalist mode of production?

K & A The dominant wisdom among Marxists in the time Trotsky was writing was that societies all pass through the same stages of development in a linear fashion (from slave, to feudal, to capitalist, to communist). Trotsky’s idea of Uneven and Combined Development (UCD) was originally used to break from this stadial conception of history and demonstrate the multilinear and international (or intersocietal) character of all social development.

In effect what UCD does is introduce the ontological premise of social multiplicity into our conception of historical change. All of human history has been marked by the co-existence of multiple societies. As a consequence no society develops on its own, hermetically sealed off from others. Rather, interactions between societies are constitutive of historical development and social relations however defined. In and of itself this is not an especially controversial claim, but it is remarkable how much classical sociology is marked by internalism, that is, social theory derived from the dynamics internal to any given society.

Indeed, when building his theory of the capitalist mode of production Marx explicitly and intentionally abstracts from international relations. And although ‘the international’ figures empirically in Marx, there are only sporadic traces of what this intersocietal interaction means for understanding capitalism. So we wanted to take some of these empirical referents to the international and see how their theorisation might change the way we think about capitalism.

For understanding the emergence of capitalism specifically, we found UCD to be useful in two ways. Firstly, with societal multiplicity as its basic ontological premise, UCD demands that history is studied from a multiplicity of spatial or geographical vantage points. By breaking the boundaries of internalist analysis we were able to move beyond the Eurocentrism that pervades the study of this period. Deploying UCD in this way therefore also helped us to uncover how interactions between these societies were constitutive of capitalism – the primitive accumulation of capital, for example, took place through a set of international dynamics involving cultural and technological diffusion but also war, conquest and intersocietal violence. This was a truly global history in which actors from Asia, the Americas, Africa and Europe were all present and involved (if in uneven ways).

Secondly, the use of UCD helped us to consider how non-waged forms of exploitation and social control act as constitutive parts of the functioning of the capitalist mode of production. More substantially, we argue that various non-waged forms of exploitation and oppression undergirded the sort of wage exploitation that orthodox Marxists have tended to privilege historically and theoretically. In making this claim, we sought to integrate rather than disconnect histories of colonialism, patriarchy, racism and the violence of the state more broadly into our understanding of how capitalism came into being.

How do you define development in the present context, where both so-called ‘advanced economies’ and ‘emerging economies’ (“the west” and “the rest”) struggle to expand their interdependent regimes of accumulation? The concept of development – as it is normatively understood – would need to be radically subverted or overhauled if an alternative project to capitalism is to take place. What critical purchase does the term ‘development’ have as we encounter this present crisis point in historical capitalism?

K & A Development has typically been used to denote three things: (1) linear historical change over time – i.e. society developed from time A to time B; (2) a level or measure of wealth or power – i.e. country A is more developed than country B; (3) a particular normative claim on the value of (1) and/or (2) – i.e. it is ‘better/ desirable’ for country B to developmentally catch up with country A. Enlightenment thought tended to use development to mean all three at once and such discourses have been a central plank in colonial relations ever since. The problem with this conception was that it cloaked power relations and contested normative claims with the language of teleological historical change. This had the effect of legitimising and obscuring those very power relations and norms. For example, the civilising mission was considered a historical necessity, a burden on white men to drag ‘backward’ countries into the civilised world. The result was colonial violence and genocide but what is remembered in the British national memory is that the empire built railroads in India.

After WWII the same logic was articulated through ‘modernisation’ as an explicit strategy of US foreign policy to keep decolonising movements in check. Indeed, the subtitle to Walt Whitman Rostow’s famous theorisation of ‘The Stages of Economic Growth’ was ‘A Non-Communist Manifesto’. Today the language has slightly changed and people talk about growth and development but the basic premise remains – that societies must conform to social norms set by the Global North and if they don’t the Global North is entitled to intervene (violently if needs must).

At the same time, the post-Marxist left seem unanimous in agreement that it will be through the development of the productive forces – automation specifically – that an alternative to capitalism will be established. Labour and value will be abolished and we’ll have machines to do the bulk of production while we pursue personal projects on a universal basic income. Frustratingly such perspectives tend to be plagued by Eurocentrism (or West-centrism) both in their understanding of the development of productive forces and what a post-capitalist society would look like. Specifically, it suffers by turning away from colonial violence, historically and in the present day – the natural resources that fuel automation are usually found in the global south, and are accessible to the global north thanks to war, hyper-exploitation, displacement and environmental degradation.

Post-development writers have long called for people to abandon discourses of development. Perhaps they are right, perhaps what is needed is less a radical redefinition of development and greater anti-development mobilization; as we write protesters in North Dakota have stopped the plans to build a pipeline on sacred Native American lands.

The book provides rich histories of non-European empires such as the Mongols, Ottomans and Mughals. You explore how at different points these were the more dominant powers and argue that they had significant agency over the development of capitalism and modernity in Europe. Could you share some examples that illustrate these claims?

K & A Whether it was in terms of military capabilities, levels of technological development or material wealth, we find that the tributary Asian empires such as the Ottomans and Mughals were the envy of European states up until around the late 17th or early 18th century and, in some cases, after that period. For example, the exceptional war-making of the Mongolian Empire established dense networks of intersocietal interaction across Eurasia, plugging European actors into this widened sphere of activity to an unprecedented degree. This integration had the effect of unifying these continents by disease – the Black Death and subsequent demographic crisis would eventually contribute to the breakdown of feudal social relations in Europe. Similarly, throughout the 15th and 16th centuries the Ottoman Empire’s military strength, imperial expansion and seemingly stable socio-political system was a source of both admiration and fear for Europeans.

Luke Cooper’s work has shown that in military technique, Asian kingdoms could still outgun Europeans in the 18th century. Hyder Ali used the Mysorean Rocket against the British East India Company in the 1780s to devastating effect. In a notable example of combined development, the British subsequently appropriated and then adapted the Mysorean designs and eventually deployed these rockets against the Chinese in their subsequent 19th century conflicts.

You don’t have to agree with every detail or argument made by the now vast revisionist historiography of the early modern period to recognise that the traditional story of an always somehow latent Western power going back as far back Roman or early Medieval times is based upon myths that were developed in the high age of European imperialism often as justifications for colonial domination and oppression. And contemporary attempts to rehash such flawed Eurocentric narratives reek of imperial nostalgia.

The section on the history of the Atlantic slave trade and chattel slavery in the New World is particularly strong. You also explore the complex relations between European and West African societies that led to the explosion of the slave trade. Can you tell us a bit about this – particularly a distinction you make about the role slavery already played in those West African kingdoms and the specific transformation of these social relations through an encounter with mercantilist European societies?

K & A There is a comparative and interactive element to this argument. Comparatively speaking, modern European slavery was of a different form to slavery found outside of Europe prior to modernity. Although chattel slavery did exist before the period of the transatlantic slave trade, the acquisition of chattel slaves was generally not what drove the logic of enslavement in West Africa. Rather people were enslaved in order to: (a) populate a peasant class in a context where quasi-communal land ownership predominated; and (b) populate the ruling class. In the case of (a), the experiences of West African slaves would have resembled more a relation of tribute than the forms of hyper-violent and hyper-exploitative chattel slavery experienced by enslaved Africans in the Americas. In the case of (b) – in the Songhay and Kongo kingdoms for example – the enslaved were also elites, that is members of the state administration, the military and so on.

None of this is to say that non-European forms of slavery were okay. These were violent, exploitative class relations used to enrich a ruling class and buttress state power. Rather what we argue is that there are sociological and historical specificities in the functioning of slavery in different historical contexts. An awareness of this historical specificity is crucial to properly understanding what was peculiar and new about the modern slavery conducted by Europeans.

There are two implications in particular. Firstly, the existence of slavery should not be seen as antithetical to capitalism – it is not some pre-modern or pre-capitalist relic that is swept away by the ‘liberating’ force of the market. Rather it constitutes a form of social control that can be deployed for different purposes, depending on the specificity of the wider social relations in question. This brings us to the interactive component. The use of slaves from Africa was a conscious strategic decision made by Europeans based on the geopolitical challenges they faced at the time – specifically, a labour shortage crisis in the ‘New World’ colonies. Firstly, experiments with using European wage-labour failed in the New World primarily because they couldn’t be controlled – workers were able to regularly flee the exploitative conditions they found themselves in. Secondly, the super-exploitation of indigenous peoples and the attempts to impose social control on them led to acts of resistance, flight among indigenous populations, but also mass genocide carried out by Europeans through war, famine and disease. Whether through flight or death, the consequence for the European rulers was an exhaustion of labour supply found in existing populations. Thirdly, closer to home, surplus populations shed by technological developments and the enclosure of land in countries like England were being gobbled up as wage-labourers by nascent capital formation.

These conditions intersected with early modern interactions between Europeans and West African communities. Unlike the ‘New World’ where Europeans were able to penetrate, control and eventually destroy indigenous communities, in West Africa Europeans found it difficult to unilaterally impose their will. As a consequence, they couldn’t simply occupy territories and exploit labourers wherever they encountered them. Enslavement, and more specifically the movement of the enslaved – their circulation – in the form of the transatlantic slave trade was the horrific ‘solution’ to the European colonialists’ problem of access to exploitable but also controllable labour. And with the construction of racial categories – blackness, whiteness – and their identification with class categories – ‘slave’ and ‘free’ respectively – Africans became even more ‘desirable’ to colonialists as a hyper-exploitable and hyper-controllable class of labourers.

Slavery and Capitalism, Kerem Nişancıoğlu & Alexander Anievas

What are your criticisms of the historical treatment commonly given to this subject in terms of naturalising blackness as inevitably and transhistorically ‘suited’ to slavery?

K & A There is a worry that some accounts – even radical or critical ones – read back into very different historical contexts present day relations of domination and oppression in way that naturalises these relations. Africans were not naturally or physically more suited to chattel slavery than people from other parts of the world. We know this because until the late 15th century, Europeans made up the overwhelming majority of the slave population in Europe. We also know that European domination in Africa was not automatic and only really became self-evident in the 19th century. Until then African kingdoms, empires and communities had successfully resisted the sort of totalising colonial encroachment that was seen in the Americas.

So the equation of slavery with blackness (and conversely freedom with whiteness) was the product of long durational, violent and contested histories. It was a product or effect of racist practices not its cause.

Who would you name as the feminist writers who have most influenced your critique of the capital-labour relation?

Silvia Federici was (and still is) a huge influence. Caliban and the Witch remains, in our view, the best book on the origins of capitalism. Its emphasis on the gendered and racialised violence behind the construction of the capital-labour relation significantly transformed the way we were initially going about theorising capitalism. Then there is Maria Mies’ Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale. Although theoretically somewhat at odds with our own analysis her historical work does a great job of showing how developments in class, gender and race outside Europe was constitutive of capitalism

It’s probably worth acknowledging that our own engagement with a gendered critique of class was largely grounded in history and theoretically speaking largely embryonic. So we tended to draw on those authors whose focus was historically similar. For this reason our theoretical engagement could be significantly built upon and indeed since completing the book we have been looking into deepening this critique. The work of black feminists in particular have been especially instructive. Claudia Jones, Angela Davis, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins immediately come to mind.

Finally, there are authors who work on similar histories that we wished we’d come across sooner. For example, María Elena Martínez’s Genealogical Fictions shows how the development of modern relations of race and class in Iberian colonies were deeply imbricated with the construction of patriarchal relations. Specifically, racialised anxieties about miscegenation fed into emergent conceptions and relations of property (and class as such). Recovering such histories is crucial to breaking from theories of oppression that see different vectors – class, race, gender – as somehow disparate and discrete.

You state in the conclusion: “The forms of oppression mobilised by the capitalist mode of production have been, from capitalism’s very origins, ‘intersectional’.” This argument is developed by exposing the attempt of theoretical traditions – such as ‘Political Marxism’ – to narrow the historical origin of capitalism and in turn, privilege the capital-labour relation as the universal arbiter of power relations. Other theoretical projects analysing capitalism as we find it today, such as Endnotes, reassert the capital-labour relation as central to the intersection of struggles. Do you see any tension between these respective political conclusions?

K & A Depends what you or others mean by ‘central’! One of our primary interests in How the West Came to Rule was to show how a geographically decentred history of the origins of capitalism might also decentre the singular emphasis or priority given to the capital-labour relation in certain approaches (such as Political Marxism). That being said, we in no way wanted to throw the baby out with the bathwater – an understanding of how the capital-labour relation operates is of course ‘central’ to understanding the operation of the capitalist mode of production. What we argue is that to properly understand the operation of the capital-labour relation we need to look beyond it and beyond social relations that are reducible to it. So to say that racism, patriarchy and state violence are crucial to the operation of the capital-labour relation (but not reducible to it) at once decentres that relation but also provides a fuller understanding of its operation. For what it’s worth, the reverse is also true – any attempt to theorise racism today without looking at how it relates to the operation of patriarchy or capital will be self-limiting.

So the key thing really is looking at how various, seemingly disparate, social processes relate to one another; it’s not about trying to establish one social relation as some historical or political prime mover. In the case of Endnotes there are instances of them doing both (or at least publishing people who do both) so


Since 2008, we have seen very different global struggles interact and combine. Where today can you see struggles interact over geographies while still focusing attention on the specific determinations that each locale must necessarily confront?

K & A It’s worth firstly thinking about the combination of global struggles in terms of the conditions in which they emerge. It’s difficult to find any political movement that is limited by borders today whether we’re talking about the Arab Spring or the new social democracy we see from the US to Europe.

If we’re talking about how movements interact and combine, the recent emergence of Black Lives Matter in the UK is perhaps a useful example. So we see a slogan and an organisational form that originated in the US subsequently ‘combining’ with already-existing (and in some cases new) anti-racist organising locally. Despite the obvious inspiration from what US activists are doing, UKBLM have been explicit that there is a need to address the specificity of the UK context, not least post-Brexit. Alongside this domestic focus, the specificity of British racism, with its deep colonial history and ongoing commitment to the policing of borders, necessitates a concomitant focus on ‘the international’. It is really interesting that a UKBLM-specific line is ‘the struggle is global, and so must be the solution’; worded to demonstrate that Black Lives Matter outside of the US too, the appeal to the ‘global’ is made to carve out a legitimate space for ‘local’ (UK) organising.

You can read How the West Came to Rule here.


About Author

Ruairi Wood

English Dirtbag. Read the Bread Book, Google Murray Bookchin.