[Marxism] Mielants

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Aug 17 12:09:45 MDT 2007

> Louis,
> What does Mielants say about the importance of the Atlantic trade? Intra
> European trade did not itself seem to have led to the consolidation of
> merchant power, institutional change and industrialization. Harman gives
> the example of the Medicis. But the Dutch and English merchants were able
> to revolutionize society, on the basis the power derived  from Atlantic
> trade against the backdrop of weak states. So perhaps the intra European
> network of relatively autonomous cities trading surpluses was not as
> important as Prem Shankar Jha and Saskia Sassen think it was to the rise
> of the West.
> Rakesh

Mielants's focus is *entirely* on the pre-1492 period. And anything 
afterwards is strictly concerned with Asia and North Africa. I, of 
course, have a problem with that. Here is the one place where he 
addresses the question. I leave in his citations, just to give a flavor 
of the depth of his research.

I do not challenge the fact that after 1500, capitalist logic 
intensified because of the "the great maritime discoveries" (See 
1928:41)96 and the subsequent profits based on increased trade and 
exploitation of "non-Europe."97 Nor do I deny the emergence of an 
inter-state system after 1500 or the shifts between different hegemonies 
(e.g., Arrighi 1994). How then can one accept general concepts of the 
world-systems analysis and explain the emergence of capitalism in the 
late Middle Ages?98 If one accepts the fact that merchant capitalism was 
already maturing in Europe prior to the 16th century, the development of 
a true World system after 1492 is not empirically challenged. What needs 
to be rethought and explored is the emergence of capitalism in medieval 
Europe before it expanded into a world-economy. This emergence could be 
seen in the exploitation of wage labor; class struggles; the 
reallocation of capital; the exploitation of a peripheral countryside by 
an urban core; the substitution of labor power with technological 
inventions (e.g., wind and water mills) in order to minimize labor costs 
and further the endless accumulation of capital; the commoditization of 
the material world; and the rationalization of the spiritual world. In 
short, modern features of contemporary capitalism found their roots in 
the Middle Ages. "As the high Middle Ages unfolded, European societies 
experienced impressive rates of economic growth in terms of real GDP per 
capita" (Snooks 1996:305). And it was precisely within the urban nexus 
of medieval Western Europe that this self-sustained economic growth was 
accomplished (van Uytven 1987:127).99

97.  It is clear that after 1492, "the combined output of central 
European and American mines supplied the treasuries of western Europe 
with large quantities of precious metals. The accumulated resources 
induced them to increase their commercial activities with the East. In 
due time, the influx of silver, coupled with the high value placed on 
this specie in the East, enabled Europeans to monopolize the trade of 
Asiatic countries and subordinate their economies, thereby laying the 
foundations of European domination and colonialism in the region. This 
domination ultimately enabled the Europeans to [channel] wealth and 
resources from every corner of that continent back to Europe" (Bozorgnia 

98. This must be done without using the extreme form of holism embodied 
in [A.G.] Frank's post-1990 research. When he claims that "our world 
system began thousands of years earlier," he does not seem to realize 
that while most of the historians he is quoting in his lengthy review 
talk about trade linkages prior to A.D. 1500, they do not claim that the 
Eurasian market "rested on a truly international division of labor with 
a unified monetary system" (Frank 1990:165, 197).

99. For Blockmans (1997:30), the 11th century is the moment that brings 
about recurring growth: The eleventh century gave Europe a new face and 
set in place a dynamic which was never interrupted and is still 
maintained on a global scale.... The continuous growth of production and 
if population, together with the formation of states and the development 
of a capitalist market economy, started in that period. In some areas 
these developments took place earlier than in eithers, but the trend was 
established.... Here and there there was stagnation and regression, but 
the dynamic of the system continued to be operative over the long term, 
and still is." Blockmans presents convincing evidence in his magnum opus 
on the longue duree. What is problematic, however, is his Eurocentrism. 
In dealing with ten centuries of European history, Blockmans hardly lays 
any attention to other civilizations or even to the issue of 
colonization, a neglect he legitimizes by stating that "with the 
exception of the effects of Arabic science in southern Spain and Sicily 
luring the Middle Ages, influences from outside Europe only became 
decisive in the twentieth century" (1997:30). Given that this was 
written in the late 1990s, it is an extreme "internalist" position.

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