[Marxism] Eric Mielants: “The Origins of Capitalism and the Rise of the West”

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 16 10:52:33 MDT 2007

Eric Mielants’s “The Origins of Capitalism and the Rise of the West” is 
necessary reading for anybody following the “transition debate” as well 
as a thought-provoking comparative study of Western Europe and the East 
in the late Middle Ages. Like Janet Abu-Lughod’s “Before European 
Hegemony: The World-System, A.D. 1250-1350,” it challenges the reader to 
think about how one of the world’s backwaters in that 
period–Europe–became dominant.

Mielants’s title is carefully chosen since he understands that the 
questions of capitalist origins and world domination are interrelated. 
The country or countries that first made the transition to capitalism 
were also the first to become global powers. For Marxists or 
left-leaning scholars, the rise of the West has been a disaster, 
whatever their differences on the origins of capitalism. Robert Brenner 
and the late James Blaut disagreed on whether changes in the British 
countryside explain the rise of capitalism, but they agreed that the 
system must be opposed however it came into existence.

Despite Mielants’s outspoken opposition to the Brenner thesis, he does 
have something in common with his adversary. For Brenner, the British 
agrarian class transformations of the 15th century provided a spawning 
ground for capitalism found nowhere else in the world. For Mielants, the 
West European city-states of the medieval era provided a nursery for the 
new system that also could not be replicated elsewhere. In either case, 
you are dealing with a kind of European exceptionalism. For Brenner, the 
British landlords and lease farmers were critical players, while for 
Mielant it is the Western European merchant bourgeoisie. As opposed to 
James Blaut who saw possibilities for the rise of capitalism in the 
East, Brenner and Mielants make the case that it could have only 
happened in the British countryside or the trade-oriented city-states 
respectively. While Mielants concentrates his fire on the Brennerites, 
the book is a serious challenge to Blaut’s claim that capitalism could 
have just as easily developed in the “proto-capitalist” regions of 
India, China and elsewhere in the East.

With a 73 page bibliography, Mielants raises the bar for those who want 
to participate in the “transition debate.” As I mentioned to Mielants in 
an email, the paltry eight pages of references in Ellen Meiksins Wood’s 
“The Origin of Capitalism” pales by comparison. Originally a 
dissertation, the 162 pages of “The Origins of Capitalism and the Rise 
of the West” is brimming with footnotes. But it is not a dry work. On 
almost every page, there is an eye-opening historical observation in 
support of his overall thesis. As is the case with the best scholarship, 
you want to track down the sources and find out more. For example, 
chapter two, “The Political Economies of China and Europe Compared,” begins:

     HAVING LEARNED more about medieval Europe, the curious reader will 
undoubtedly ask: What about China? China has long been regarded as one 
of the most ancient and glorious civilizations. In the Middle Ages, 
China was probably the most developed of all regions— socioeconomically, 
politically, and militarily. Around a.d. 1100, it had a population of 
approximately 100 million people and the largest cities likely had up to 
a million inhabitants (Elvin 1973:159; Kracke 1969:11). “Medieval China 
witnessed considerable economic advance” (Hall 1988:22) such that it 
outshone anything in Europe. The economy certainly had a high level of 
monetization; for example, usage of paper money (huizi) issued in a.d. 
1160, written contracts, mercantile credits, checks, promissory notes, 
bills of exchange, and so forth. Militarily speaking, the Chinese 
emperor was probably the strongest overlord in the entire Eurasian 
landmass; in the 12th century, he could easily mobilize nearly 1 million 
soldiers. In comparison, when at the end of the 12th century, Britain’s 
King Richard I wanted to maintain a “regular army of 300 knights 
supported by taxation, [his attempt] sank without trace” (French 
1999:230) due to insufficient means.

Despite these seeming advantages, China failed to develop capitalism for 
the same reason that India and the city-states of North Africa failed. 
Although there was a merchant bourgeoisie, it did not enjoy a privileged 
status within the state. The Emperors and Kings of the East simply saw 
no advantage in promoting the interests of a merchant class. The source 
of their wealth was in the land and they saw no particular advantage in 
expanding beyond their borders to exploit the resources of 
less-developed regions.

While Brenner saw capitalism as originating in the British countryside 
and then diffusing outwards to the cities and then to the rest of the 
world, Mielants sees cities as the core. Capitalism begins in trading 
centers such as Venice or Flanders and then sucked in the countryside 
and peripheral foreign territories as merchants imposed their will on 
weaker economies, especially in Eastern Europe and the Near East. For 
Mielants, colonialism was as important an aspect of the medieval economy 
as it was for Lenin when WWI broke out. During the 13th century, Venice 
operated in the Mediterranean in the same way that the US operates in 
the Persian Gulf today. Commercial and military objectives complemented 
each other. The Byzantine Empire of the east was forced by the Italian 
city-states into a “subordinate position within the unfolding 
inter-regional division of labor.” In other words, the Italian 
city-states were imperialist just as Great Britain was in the 19th 
century and the US is today. A Dutch trader wrote to the directors of a 
VOC, a trading monopoly, in 1614:

     Your Honours should know that trade in Asia must be driven and 
maintained under the protection and favour of Your Honours own weapons, 
and that the weapons must be paid for by the profits from the trade, so 
that we can not carry on trade without war, nor war without trade.

If this differs from Thomas Friedman’s own recommendation in a March 28, 
1999 NY Times Magazine article, I fail to see how:

     The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden 
fist—McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer 
of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon 
Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy 
and Marine Corps.


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