Writing in Foreign Affairs, Jeremy Adelman reviews three recent books on the origins of capitalism. Two espouse an "internalist" story, locating capitalism entirely within the West and the third, Empire of Cotton, by Sven Berkert, tells an "externalist" story, locating capitalism in a complex set of relations between Europe and the rest of the world.
A narrative as capacious as this threatens to groan under the weight of heavy concepts. In fact, Beckert dodges and weaves between the big claims and great detail. His portrait of Liverpool, “the epicenter of a globe-spanning empire,” puts readers on the wharves and behind the desks of the credit peddlers. His description of the American Civil War as “an acid test for the entire industrial order” is a brilliant example of how global historians might tackle events—as opposed to focusing on structures, processes, and networks—because he shows how the crisis of the U.S. cotton economy reverberated in Brazil, Egypt, and India. The scale of what Beckert has accomplished is astonishing.
Beckert turns the internalist argument on its head. He shows how the system started with disparate parts connected through horizontal exchanges. He describes how it transformed into integrated, hierarchical, and centralized structures—which laid the foundations for the Industrial Revolution and the beginnings of the great divergence between the West and the rest. Beckert’s cotton empire more than defrocks the internalists’ happy narrative of the West’s self-made capitalist man. The rise of capitalism needed the rest, and getting the rest in line required coercion, violence, and the other instruments of imperialism. Cotton, “the fabric of our lives,” as the jingle goes, remained an empire because it, like the capitalist system it produced, depended on the subjugation of some for the benefit of others.
Adelman notes that, in general, sorting out causality is tough:
To explain why some parts of the world struggled, one should not have to choose between externalist theories, which rely on global injustices, and internalist ones, which invoke local constraints.
Indeed, it’s the interaction of the local and the global that makes breakouts so difficult—or creates the opportunity to escape. In between these scales are complex layers of policies and practices that defy either-or explanations. In 1521, the year the Spanish defeated the Aztec empire and laid claim to the wealth of the New World, few would have predicted that England would be an engine of progress two centuries later; even the English would have bet on Spain or the Ottoman Empire, which is why they were so committed to piracy and predation. Likewise, in 1989, as the Berlin Wall fell and Chinese tanks mowed through Tiananmen Square, “Made in China” was a rare sight. Who would have imagined double-digit growth from Maoist capitalism? Historians have trouble explaining success stories in places that were thought to lack the right ingredients. The same goes for the flops. In 1914, Argentina ranked among the wealthiest capitalist societies on the planet. Not only did no one predict its slow meltdown, but millions bet on Argentine success. To find clues to success or failure, then, historians should look not at either the world market or local initiatives but at the forces that combine them.
I suspect, and certainly hope, that a good formulation of cultural evolutionary processes will help sort out the causal mechanisms. Just why I believe this is not so easy for me to formulate, but it has to do with thinking about social groups as "transmitters" of economic and political forces, the flow of goods, labor, and control. It's about scale, from individuals to companies, and states.