Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World Economy in the 16th Century

Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World Economy in the 16th Century

by Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780127859200
Publisher: Elsevier Science & Technology Books
Publication date: 05/28/1974
Series: Studies in Social Discontinuity
Pages: 410

Read an Excerpt

The Modern World-System I

Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century

By Immanuel Wallerstein


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-12-785920-0



In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, there came into existence what we may call a European world-economy. It was not an empire yet it was as spacious as a grand empire and shared some features with it. But it was different, and new. It was a kind of social system the world has not really known before and which is the distinctive feature of the modern world-system. It is an economic but not a political entity, unlike empires, city-states and nation-states. In fact, it precisely encompasses within its bounds (it is hard to speak of boundaries) empires, city-states, and the emerging "nation-states." It is a "world" system, not because it encompasses the whole world, but because it is larger than any juridically-defined political unit. And it is a "world-economy" because the basic linkage between the parts of the system is economic, although this was reinforced to some extent by cultural links and eventually, as we shall see, by political arrangements and even confederal structures.

An empire, by contrast, is a political unit. For example, Shmuel Eisenstadt has defined it this way:

The term "empire" has normally been used to designate a political system encompassing wide, relatively high centralized territories, in which the center, as embodied both in the person of the emperor and in the central political institutions, constituted an autonomous entity. Further, although empires have usually been based on traditional legitimation, they have often embraced some wider, potentially universal political and cultural orientation that went beyond that of any of their component parts.

Empires in this sense were a constant feature of the world scene for 5,000 years. There were continuously several such empires in various parts of the world at any given point of time. The political centralization of an empire was at one and the same time its strength and its weakness. Its strength lay in the fact that it guaranteed economic flows from the periphery to the center by force (tribute and taxation) and by monopolistic advantages in trade. Its weakness lay in the fact that the bureaucracy made necessary by the political structure tended to absorb too much of the profit, especially as repression and exploitation bred revolt which increased military expenditures. Political empires are a primitive means of economic domination. It is the social achievement of the modern world, if you will, to have invented the technology that makes it possible to increase the flow of the surplus from the lower strata to the upper strata, from the periphery to the center, from the majority to the minority, by eliminating the "waste" of too cumbersome a political superstructure.

I have said that a world-economy is an invention of the modern world. Not quite. There were world-economies before. But they were always transformed into empires: China, Persia, Rome. The modern world-economy might have gone in that same direction—indeed it has sporadically seemed as though it would—except that the techniques of modern capitalism and the technology of modern science, the two being somewhat linked as we know, enabled this world-economy to thrive, produce, and expand without the emergence of a unified political structure.

What capitalism does is offer an alternative and more lucrative source of surplus appropriation (at least more lucrative over a long run). An empire is a mechanism for collecting tribute, which in Frederic Lane's pregnant image, "means payments received for protection, but payments in excess of the cost of producing the protection." In a capitalist world-economy, political energy is used to secure monopoly rights (or as near to it as can be achieved). The state becomes less the central economic enterprise than the means of assuring certain terms of trade in other economic transactions. In this way, the operation of the market (not the free operation but nonetheless its operation) creates incentives to increased productivity and all the consequent accompaniment of modern economic development. The world-economy is the arena within which these processes occur.

A world-economy seems to be limited in size. Ferdinand Fried observed that:

If one takes account of all the factors, one reaches the conclusion that the space of the 'world' economy in Roman antiquity could be covered in about 40 to 60 days, utilizing the best means of transport.... Now, in our times [1939], it also takes 40 to 60 days to cover the space of the modern world economy, if one uses the normal channels of transportation for merchandise.

And Fernand Braudel adds that this could be said to be the time span of the Mediterranean world in the sixteenth century.

The origins and the functioning of such a 60–day European world-economy in the sixteenth century is our concern here. It is vital to remember, however, that Europe was not the only world-economy at the time. There were others. But Europe alone embarked on the path of capitalist development which enabled it to outstrip these others. How and why did this come about? Let us start by seeing what happened in the world in the three centuries prior to 1450. In the twelfth century, the Eastern Hemisphere contained a series of empires and small worlds, many of which were interlinked at their edges with each other. At that time, the Mediterranean was one focus of trade where Byzantium, Italian city-states, and to some extent parts of northern Africa met. The Indian Ocean–Red Sea complex formed another such focus. The Chinese region was a third. The Central Asian land mass from Mongolia to Russia was a fourth. The Baltic area was on the verge of becoming a fifth. Northwest Europe was however a very marginal area in economic terms. The principal social mode or organization there was what has come to be called feudalism.

We must be very clear what feudalism was not. It was not a "natural economy," that is, an economy of self-subsistence. Western Europe feudalism grew out of the disintegration of an empire, a disintegration which was never total in reality or even de jure. The myth of the Roman Empire still provided a certain cultural and even legal coherence to the area. Christianity served as a set of parameters within which social action took place. Feudal Europe was a "civilization," but not a world-system.

It would not make sense to conceive of the areas in which feudalism existed as having two economies, a market economy of the towns and a subsistence economy of the rural manors. In the twentieth century, with reference to the so-called underdeveloped world, this approach has gone under the label of the "dual economy" theory. Rather, as Daniel Thorner suggests:

We are sure to deceive ourselves if we think of peasant economies as oriented exclusively towards their own subsistence and term "capitalist" any orientation towards the "market." It is more reasonable to start by assuming that, for many centuries, peasant economies have had both orientations.

For many centuries? How many? B. H. Slicher van Bath, in his major work on European agrarian history, marks the turning point at about 1150 A.D.. Even before then, he does not think Western Europe was engaged in subsistence farming, but rather from 500 A.D. to c. 1150 A.D. in what he calls "direct agricultural consumption," that is, a system of partial self-sufficiency in which, while most people produce their own food, they also supply it to the nonagricultural population as barter. From 1150 A.D on, he considers Western Europe to have reached that stage of "indirect agricultural consumption," a stage we are still in today.

What we should envisage then, when we speak of western European feudalism, is a series of tiny economic nodules whose population and productivity were slowly increasing, and in which the legal mechanisms ensured that the bulk of the surplus went to the landlords who had noble status and control of the juridical machinery. Since much of this surplus was in kind, it was of little benefit unless it could be sold. Towns grew up, supporting artisans who bought the surplus and exchanged it for their products. A merchant class came from two sources: On the one hand, agents of the landlords who sometimes became independent, as well as intermediate size peasants who retained enough surplus after payments to the lord to sell it on the market; on the other hand, resident agents of long-distance merchants (based often in northern Italian city-states and later in the Hanseatic cities) who capitalized on poor communications and hence high disparities of prices from one area to another, especially when certain areas suffered natural calamities. As towns grew, of course, they offered a possible refuge and place of employment for peasants which began to change some of the terms of relationship on the manor.

Feudalism as a system should not be thought of as something antithetical to trade. On the contrary, up to a certain point, feudalism and the expansion of trade go hand in hand. Claude Cahen suggests that if scholars have often observed this phemonemon in areas other than western Europe, perhaps they have failed to notice the same phenomenon in Western feudalism because of ideological blinkers. "Having thus noted the possibility of convergence, up to a certain stage of development only, of the development of feudalism and of commerce, we ought to reconsider, from this point of view, the history of the West itself."

Yet a feudal system could only support a limited amount of long-distance trade as opposed to local trade. This was because long-distance trade was a trade in luxuries, not in bulk goods. It was a trade which benefited from price disparities and depended on the political indulgence and economic possibilities of the truly wealthy. It is only with the expansion of production within the framework of a modern world-economy that long-distance trade could convert itself in part into bulk trade which would, in turn, feed the process of expanded production. Until then, as Owen Lattimore notes, it was not really what we mean today by trade:

As late as the time of Marco Polo (at least) the trade of the merchant who ventured beyond his own district depended delicately on the whims of potentates.... The distant venture was concerned less with the disposal of goods in bulk and more with curiosities, rarities and luxuries.... The merchant sought out those who could extend favor and protection.... If he were unlucky he might be plundered or taxed to ruination; but if he were lucky he received for his goods not so much an economic price as a munificent largesse.... The structure of the silk trade and that of much other trade was more a tribute structure than a trade structure.

Thus, the level of commercial activity was limited. The principal economic activity remained food and handicraft production traded within small economic regions. Nonetheless, the scale of this economic activity was slowly expanding. And the various economic nuclei expanded therewith. New frontier lands were cultivated. New towns were founded. Population grew. The Crusades provided some of the advantages of colonial plunder. And then sometime in the fourteenth century, this expansion ceased. The cultivated areas retracted. Population declined. And throughout feudal Europe and beyond it, there seemed to be a "crisis," marked by war, disease, and economic hardship. Whence came this "crisis" and what were its consequences?

First, in what sense was there a crisis? Here there is some disagreement, not so much as to the description of the process as to the emphasis in causal explanation. Edouard Perroy sees the issue primarily as one of an optimal point having been reached in an expansion process, of a saturation of population, "an enormous density, given the still primitive state of agrarian and artisanal technology." And lacking better plows and fertilizer little could be done to ameliorate the situation. This led to food shortages which in turn led to epidemics. With a stable money supply, there was a moderate rise in prices, hurting the rentiers. The slow deterioration of the situation was then rendered acute by the beginnings of the Hundred Years War in 1335-1345, which turned western European state systems toward a war economy, with the particular result that there was an increased need for taxes. The taxes, coming on top of already heavy feudal dues, were too much for the producers, creating a liquidity crisis which in turn led to a return to indirect taxes and taxes in kind. Thus started a downward cycle: The fiscal burden led to a reduction in consumption which led to a reduction in production and money circulation which increased further the liquidity difficulties which led to royal borrowing and eventually the insolvency of the limited royal treasuries, which in turn created a credit crisis, leading to hoarding of bullion, which in turn upset the pattern of international trade. A rapid rise in prices occurred, further reducing the margin of subsistence, and this began to take its toll in population. The landowner lost customers and tenants. The artisan lost customers. There was turn from arable to pasture land because it required less manpower. But there was a problem of customers for the wool. Wages rose, which was a particular burden for small and medium-sized landowners who turned to the State for protection against wage rises. "The disaggregation to manorial production, which becomes ever more severe after 1350, is proof of a continuous slump ... [of] mediocrity in stagnation."

Stagnation is, on the face of it, a curious consequence. One might have expected the following scenario. Reduced population leads to higher wages which, with rents relatively inelastic, would mean a change in the composition of demand, shifting part of the surplus from lord to peasant, and hence ensuring that less of it would be hoarded. Furthermore, a reduction of population in an economy that was largely agricultural shoud have led to parallel reductions in demand and supply. But since typically a producer will normally reduce production by eliminating the less fertile plots, there should have been an increased rate of productivity, which should have reduced prices. Both of these developments should have encouraged, not discouraged, trade. Nonetheless trade "stagnated" in fact.

What went wrong in the calculation is the implicit assumption about elasticity of demand. North and Thomas remind us that, given the state of the technology and the range of the volume of international trade, transactions costs were very high, and any reduction in volume (due to a decline in population) would set in train a process of rising costs which would lead to a further reduction in trade. They trace the process like this:

[Previously] merchants found it profitable to reduce transactions costs by stationing factors in a distant city to acquire information about prices and possible trading opportunities; as the volume of trade shrank, this was no longer expedient. Information flows dried up and trade volume was further reduced. It is thus not surprising that economic historians have found depression (for them meaning a decreased total volume of economic activity) even in the midst of this world where higher per capita income would presumably have followed the relatively increased real wage that peasant and worker must have been experiencing.

R. H. Hilton accepts Perroy's description of events. But he takes exception to the form of analysis which makes the crisis comparable to one of the recurrent crises of a developed capitalist system, thus exaggerating the degree to which financial and monetary dilemmas affect a feudal system in which the cash-flow element is so much smaller a part of human interaction than in capitalist society. Furthermore, he suggests that Perroy omits any discussion of another phenomenon which resulted from the events Perroy describes, and which to Hilton is central, that of the unusual degree of social conflict, the "climate of endemic discontent," the peasant insurrections which took the form of a "revolt against the social system as such." For Hilton, this was not therefore merely a conjunctural crisis, one point in an up and down of cyclical trends. Rather it was the culmination of 1000 years of development, the decisive crisis of a system. "During the last centuries of the Roman Empire as during the Middle Ages, society was paralyzed by the growing expense of a social and political superstructure, an expense to which corresponded no compensating increase in the productive resources of society." Hilton agrees with Perroy that the immediate cause of the dilemma was to be found in technological limitations, the lack of fertilizer and the inability to expand fertilizer supply by expanding the number of cattle, because the climate limited the quantity of winter forage for cattle. But "what we should underline is that there was no large reinvestment of profits in agriculture such that would significantly increase productivity." This was because of the inherent limitations of the reward system of feudal social organization.


Excerpted from The Modern World-System I by Immanuel Wallerstein. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations, ix,
Acknowledgments, xi,
Quotation Credits, xii,
Prologue to the 2011 Edition, xvi,
Bibliography, 358,
Index, 387,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews