A Review of How the West Came to Rule

An interesting idea presented as a masterclass in bad academic writing. Although the basic premise of How the West Came to Rule (2015) is relatively simple, the authors seem to have great difficulty expressing it. Basically, Anievas and Nisancioglu argue that the development European capitalism can only be understood by looking at the web of international relations between Europe and the rest of the world. Rather than treating Europe as an autonomous, discrete region, we must broaden our scope and study the world-system as a whole. What follows is a brief summary of their argument.

In the “long thirteenth century”, the Mongolian empire stitched together previously unconnected regions of the world, developing trade routes which Europe was later able to take advantage of. Similarly, the Ottoman Empire was an ever-present geopolitical force during Europe’s transition to capitalism. The authors argue, quite persuasively, that Ottoman aggression acted as a catalyst for European development – a “whip of external necessity”. Furthermore, the Ottoman threat redirected the attention of the Habsburgs away from Western Europe, which created geopolitical buffer space for Western Europe to develop while Eastern Europe was bogged down fighting Ottoman incursions.

From here, Western European states, most notably England, France and Holland, spread across the Atlantic and began developing colonial empires. Anievas and Nisancioglu attribute great importance to the colonisation of the Americas in explaining Europe’s rise to global dominance. Basically, American gold and silver financed the expansion of European trading networks. Moreover, slave-run plantations in North America provided extremely cheap cotton, which was exported back to Britain, enabling the British cotton industry to gain a globally competitive advantage.

Another central theme in How the West Came to Rule is that we must avoid portraying other regions of the globe as passive in the face of European expansion. The most interesting example deployed in favour of this argument is the development of the Atlantic slave trade. Rather than European states preying on helpless African victims, many African societies actually willing participated in the slave trade. This is because the “mode of production”, if you’ll excuse the Marxist jargon, of said societies was slave-based accumulation, rather than land-based accumulation. Whereas European states went to war to acquire more land, African states went to war to acquire more slaves. This meant that African rulers had surplus slaves which they traded to the Europeans. Of course, this doesn’t excuse slavery, but it does correct the infantilising view of non-Europeans as lacking any historical agency and being completely incapable of resisting European expansion.

Leon Trotsky’s theory of “uneven and combined development” is the theoretical framework used to thread together what is perhaps an overly ambitious historical work. Again, Trotsky’s theory is not that hard to understand, but it is painstakingly explained over and over again in every chapter. The fundamental point is this: societies of vastly different development levels coexist at the same time. Furthermore, these developmentally uneven societies interact with one another, facilitating the transfer of goods, people, culture and technologies. It is tempting to assume that the transfer would run from the more ‘advanced’ societies to the more ‘backwards’ ones. Not so, according to Trotsky. The transfer is very often bidirectional. This means that societies develop in tandem with one another (combined development), in ways that can sometimes reinforce existing power relations and at other times upset them. Another crucial point is that ‘backwards’ societies can absorb more advanced technology without changing their social relations. Japan is a perfect example of this. During the Meiji restoration, Japan dispatched emissaries to Europe and the United States to study their societies. Japanese rulers quite consciously modernised themselves while taking great care to preserve their unique Japanese cultural identity.

See, all of that wasn’t so hard to explain, was it? This is a fascinating book severely hamstrung by its hugely inaccessible (and unnecessary) academic mode of writing. I hesitate to even call the writing ‘academic’, because there are many academics who express complex ideas concisely and clearly. Anievas and Nisancioglu are not among them. For that reason, I would not recommend this book.

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