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Capitalism in the Eyes of Eric Wolf

An overview of "Europe and the People Without History" by Eric Wolf

In his book “Europe and the People Without History”, Eric Wolf portrays a highly interconnected world that was an outcome of the European expansion that took place post the 1400’s. He describes this process in great detail by zooming in on the background and setting of the various regions of the world accessed and colonized by these European powers. He gives a history and an identity to those regions and their commodities that got encapsulated into the formation of a world economy. He attributes a lot of this to capitalism in Europe and its expansion across the globe.

Since capitalism was at the heart of this ‘globalized world’, he proceeds to delineate capitalism by introducing Marx’s concept of a ‘mode of production’ and categorizes capitalism as one of the modes of production throughout history in other cultures and societies. Marx used the term ‘production’ to denote the complex relationship between work, social labor, social organization and nature (Wolf, p.74).

The capitalist mode of production came last, prior to this; it was the tributary mode and the kinship mode that mostly existed across the world (Wolf, p.77). The capitalist mode gathered momentum in the 18th century and its rectification as a mode of production assumed hegemony only in the 19th century with the ushering in of the industrial revolution in England. There were certain factors that gave rise to the capitalistic mode, but it had to come out of the tributary mode which existed in Europe.

The tributary mode was basically a system where the producers had access and autonomy over the land, equipment, livestock or any other means of production, but would have to pay a form of tribute to the ruling party of that region (Wolf, p. 80). In this system the tribute takers often extracted tribute by means of employing a strong militia in the corresponding region giving them power over the people. This is most likened to ‘feudalism’ and the corresponding era when it was prevalent (Wolf, p.76). The tributary mode eventually gave into the capitalist mode, but it was a long and gradual process of change that occurred over a period of time.

Some of the other changes that accelerated the move away from the tributary mode towards a capitalistic mode were the introduction of new laws that protected private property, state investments into public transportation and communication, new forms of labor contract, and the state supporting fledgling industries to compete internationally with an overall state structure that encouraged the rise of capitalist enterprise (Wolf, p.265). One of the factors that paradoxically gave way for the capitalist mode to develop in England was the prohibition of mercantile investment in land.

As the upholders of the tributary system enforced this on merchants, the latter were forced to risk their wealth again in commercial activities rather than in real estate. This lead the merchants to invest further into the organization and development of production techniques associated with producing more and more marketable commodities for trade across the continents (Wolf, p. 268).

The advent of capitalism happened when mercantile wealth entered the realm of production. In order better explain this; Wolf highlights the distinction between ‘mercantilism’ and ‘capitalism’.

Mercantilism is when wealth remains outside of the realms of production, mercantile wealth is accumulated by selling the goods acquired from one place and selling it in another place for a profit. Wealth becomes capital only when it controls the ‘means of production’ (anything that is required to produce the goods) such as labor, equipment, resources etc. Another term used by Marx was ‘surplus’ which is the output that is extracted over and above the expenses measured against the wages of labor and the cost of the means of production. Under the capitalist mode the surplus belongs to the holder of wealth, creating a class difference between the ‘capitalists’ and the ‘laborers’. One way the capitalists can increase surplus is by investing in new technology and improving the organization of production. The system that evolved was such that, the greater the capital invested in technology and in organizing production, the greater the ability to accumulate surplus and expand production (Wolf, p. 78). This leads to the rapid industrialization and expansion of the capitalist mode which surpassed the wealth making ability of mercantilism. The textile industry of 18th century England proved to be the catalyst for the transition into the capitalist mode of production.

Wolf (p.267) quotes Polyani and Marx to describe this, “Up to the end of the 18th century, industrial production in Western Europe was a mere accessory to commerce, but now commerce became the servant of industrial production.”

The growth of this capitalism developed swiftly all throughout the European peninsula and expanded beyond into other parts of the globe. “It grew through its own internal ability to reproduce itself on an ever widening scale; it grew also by entering into working arrangements with other modes, siphoning off wealth and people and turning them into capital and labor power” (Wolf, p.79).

Since capitalism began in Europe and affected a lot of the world, there have been numerous theories analyzing its spread and its impact on the world. One major view was that of Andre Gunder Frank, an economist who put forth the idea that capitalism was inherently destructive in nature as it siphoned off surplus’ from the hinterlands and the satellites, and channeled it to the metropolis’ of the world. He termed this exploitative phenomenon ‘the development of underdevelopment’, where the metropolis’ subjugated the satellite regions and made them dependent on the metropolis’ leading to the eventual demise and underdevelopment of the satellites (Wolf, p.22).

Immanuel Wallerstein had another perspective similar to Frank’s but used the global economy, markets and the division of labor to explain the unequal exchange of goods that was traded across different geographical regions of the world. He designates these regions as the ‘core’ and the ‘periphery’, where the goods produced at the ‘core’ were highly capital intensive goods with high wage labor, low supervision and high profits while the goods produced by the ‘periphery’ consisted of low capital intensive goods with low profits, low wage and highly supervised labor. This unequal trade of goods between these regions obviously tilted the majority of the benefits and wealth to be accumulated in the core areas (Wolf, p.22).

According to Wolf, both Frank and Wallerstein focus their attention on the world capitalist system incorporating the interactions and interplays of the regions within the system, drawing the conclusion and understanding of how the core subjugated the periphery, but failed to document and study the reactions of these micro populations.

“Their choice of focus thus leads them to omit consideration of the range and variety of such populations, of their modes of existence before European expansion and the advent of capitalism, and of the manner in which these modes were penetrated, subordinated, destroyed, or absorbed, first by the growing market and subsequently by industrial capitalism. Without such an examination, however the concept of the ‘periphery’ remains as much of a cover term as ‘traditional society” (Wolf, p. 23).

Wolf thus follows the trail of micro-populations studied by ethno historians and anthropologists and gives a holistic view of how the world came to be globalized. In order to do this he goes back to the world of 1400 to set the scene and give a background of what happened during that period that resulted in the inevitable advent of capitalism. Although capitalism developed in England, he does not focus or credit it to just England or Western Europe for that matter, instead he draws upon the contributions of the world that was brought together by inter- continental trade, modes of production, labor and surpluses. He goes into the details of groups in various continents across the world and explains how the commodities they had to offer lead to the accumulation of capital and influenced Europe towards capitalism. He tactfully elucidates how European explorers discovered new lands, how the Iberians mined silver in the Americas, how fur trade influences the native populations of North America, how slave trade took people from Africa and transported them as commodities across continents, how the English got promoted from mere traders to the ruling elite in India and how illegal trading of opium into China tilted the balance of accumulation of wealth into Europe’s favor, which spurred the development of capitalism. Wolf also goes on to delineate the technological innovations that took place as part of the industrial revolution which fueled the growth and expansion of capitalism further and faster. The eventuality culminates in how commodities could be traded and shipped across the world with ease forcing communities and micro populations to interact with each other and the world, so these micro-populations may be given due weight and significance for the part they played, he aptly title’s the book, “Europe and the People Without History”. He credits these outposts and the periphery regions of the world to the rise of capitalism. In the words of the author, “In this account, both the people who claim history as their own and the people to whom history has been denied emerge as participants in the same historical trajectory” (Wolf, p.23).

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