Globalizing the History of Capital: Ways Forward

How the West Came to Rule book cover

The following article by Jairus Banaji is part of a forthcoming symposium on Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu’s How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism (Pluto, 2015) to be published in Historical Materialism. Anievas and Nisancioglu’s work has been recently awarded the International Political Economy Working Group Book Prize of 2016 (British International Studies Association) and International Political Sociology Best Book Prize of 2017 (International Studies Association). If you enjoy Banaji's piece, please do make sure to check out the entire symposium once it's out in print.

Jairus Banaji is Research Professor in the Department of Development Studies, SOAS, University of London. He published Exploring the Economy of Late Antiquity: Selected Essays (Cambridge, 2016) earlier this year and is currently writing a book called A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism.

Jairus Banaji

How the West Came to Rule is a welcome contribution to Marxist debates on capitalist origins not just for its sharp focus on the issue of Eurocentrism in the way capitalism is written up historically and conceived popularly,[1] but also because it sets out to develop an alternative framework to those histories. The essential feature here is its subsuming of large parts of the world outside and beyond ‘Europe’ and the general argument that it is impossible to understand the true origins of western capitalism without assigning a central place to those areas of the world. Stated in this way the argument is unexceptionable, since no Marxists have seriously disagreed with Marx’s view that western capitalism (capitalism as it emerged in Britain and more widely in ‘western’ countries) would have been impossible without the preceding or accompanying histories of colonial subjugation, Atlantic slavery and the world market more generally.  The debates have always been about how much all of that mattered and whether capitalism can really be said to have ‘started’ in a single country, notably England, and somehow spread outwards from there.

Both the critique of Eurocentrism and the call for a more integrated historiography of capitalism have the potential to steer future Marxist scholarship and debate away from the problematics and framing guidelines of the transition debates, not least of the one dominated by the work of Brenner and the perspectives of what is called “Political Marxism”. But for this shift to new ways of thinking about capitalist origins to come about How the West needs at least a preliminary critique that rids it both of its residual formalism (as I see it) and of the one or two confused characterizations this leads to. Whether ‘combined and uneven development’ really does work as a framework of explanation at the level of generality at which the authors situate it (that is, beyond the dynamics of a capitalist world dominated by a mounting sense of nationality) is a separate issue that I shall leave aside for others to take up.

Narratives of origins

It may help to start by laying out some leading examples of historians’ models of capitalist emergence and growth:

1. Capitalist emergence as a dynamic of accumulation that creates a self-sustaining, integrated national economy (Wood);

2. Capitalist emergence as a dynamic of accumulation that creates an expanding world economy (Braudel et al.);

3. Anievas and Nısancioglu’s geo-political model where the dynamic of capitalism figures less as ‘many capitals’ than in the transmuted form of ‘many states’; and finally,

4. Beckert’s recent global history of the cotton textile industry.

Here the first two ‘models’ are largely if not purely economic, the third is mainly political, and the last (Beckert’s) is both economic and political.  In 1. the key role devolves on ‘agrarian capitalism’, in 2. on merchant capitalism,[2] in 3. on dialectically conceived interactions between sectors of an evolving world economy (‘uneven and combined development’), and in 4. on the way what Beckert calls ‘war capitalism’ helped pave the way for industrial capitalism in the shape of a leading industrial sector. Moreover, in consonance with 2. but in a more contextualized way, perhaps, Beckert actually demonstrates the links between merchant capital and industrial capitalism, the evolution of the latter out of the former, in the one sector usually seen as leading Britain’s industrial expansion.

The least convincing of these models is the first. Ellen Wood’s critique of the so-called ‘commercialization model’ hinges on a notion of large-scale trade that divorces it radically from production, as if big merchants were uninterested in either accessing supply sources or ensuring financial control over producers. Moreover, she seemed to think, astonishingly, that ‘the long-distance trade characteristic of pre-capitalist economies [was not] driven by competition’.[3]  On the issue of whether world economy mattered to capitalism (= England), her response was ‘capitalism indeed in one country, albeit within a network of international trade’,[4] which is a bit like saying, okay, let’s throw in international trade for good measure. Even after the seventeenth century, ‘nowhere, neither in the great trading centers of Europe nor in the vast commercial networks of the Islamic world or Asia, was economic activity…driven by the imperatives of competition and accumulation’.[5]  The world market that fuelled the rise of the West was founded on ‘non-capitalist commerce’.[6]  To Wood, the East India Company epitomised ‘non-capitalist extra-economic exploitation in the form of tax and tribute’,[7] which contrasts sharply with Cain and Hopkins’ altogether more accurate description of the company as an ‘advanced form of commercial capitalism’.[8]  Wood’s is a world without mining, shipbuilding, textiles, domestic industry, putting-out networks, sugar plantations, etc. None of this matters to her because all of it belongs to a world where markets are quintessentially ‘non-capitalist’ (not driven by the imperatives of competition and efficiency) and no true capitalists exist, since true capitalism only starts in the English countryside in some vague interval between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Not only is this an abstraction from substantial swathes of history, but it is an abstraction from the way markets themselves are organized and from the way they ‘work’.

The remnants of formalism

Thus the agenda of a specifically Marxist historiography of capitalism remains misshapen by spurious claims to orthodoxy and intoxicating doses of formalism, teleology and residualism. By ‘residualism’ I mean the tendency, among Marxists especially, to treat major strands in the earlier history of capitalism as a dress rehearsal for industrial capitalism. ‘Multiple’ or ‘coexisting’ modes of production, ‘transition’, ‘primitive accumulation’ and the characterization of merchant capital as ‘antediluvian’ are all signs of this thoroughly conventional but unhelpful framing of capitalist origins and can, alas, all be found in How the West , although they coexist here with a perspective that constantly pulls away from this obsolete problematic. Thus Wallerstein is accused of his ‘inability to theorise the coexistence and interaction of multiple modes of production’ (p. 18) without stating what a ‘mode of production’ is for the authors themselves. ‘Combined development’ is sadly defined at one point as ‘an amalgmation of differentiated modes of production within a social formation’ (p. 30-31), something that Trotsky himself certainly never had in mind!  The Caribbean plantations are said to ‘amalgamate’ different modes of production (p. 162), a characterization that owes more to Robin Blackburn’s ambiguities than to Marx himself, and the Mughal empire of the late seventeenth century is said to have embodied a ‘combination in which two differentiated modes of production coexisted’, which is a first in terms of any of the standard Marxist discussions of medieval India that I’m aware of. The plantations are also described as ‘transitional forms’ (p. 158), when it is not clear precisely what they were transitions to, and at one stage the whole focus of the book is described en passant as ‘the long transition to capitalism’ (p.29); which capitalism? how long?  Developments in sixteenth-century England are summarily described as ‘English primitive accumulation’, (p. 116ff.) and French development in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is likewise described, summarily, as ‘the process of primitive accumulation’ (p. 200). Even Dutch capitalism at its apogee is summed up as a ‘combined form of primitive accumulation’ (p. 243). But Marx’s famous passage on primitive accumulation is intended to underscore the violent nature of capitalist expansion and to suggest, of course, that industrial capitalism as it emerged in Britain was inconceivable, historically, in isolation from the convulsive developments that tore up the globe even as they started integrating it.

 The residualism is residual, the debris of problematics that have become progressively more dilapidated, less and less capable of steering discussion in ways fruitful of history, as the decades elapse.  To look at some of the more substantive historical issues raised by How the West, the argument that the Mongols ‘proved decisive to the emergence of capitalism’ (p. 88) depends on what ‘emergence of capitalism’ is supposed to mean, that is, on the time scale used for understanding this complex, multi-stranded process. When Marco Polo’s family set out for the East, Venice was already, in Giorgio Cracco’s description, a republic ruled by a strong ‘capitalist oligarchy’, a leading centre of the new capitalisms that had emerged from the commercial revolution of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. If so, the Mongols surely were no more ‘decisive’ to the emergence of capitalism than, say, Islam and the role Islam played in revitalizing the Mediterranean by contributing decisively to the revival of Italian trade thanks to the links established with the rich Muslim markets of the south and the east.  

The Mongol rulers certainly ‘sought to promote trade’ (p. 74), but they did so even more in terms of Qubilai’s aggressive maritime policies and the expanding sea trade,[9] and Marco Polo’s own description of Yuan China leaves one in no doubt that the coastal regions were among the most prosperous in the country. Three features are especially striking in that account: the resilience of Chinese domestic markets, the revenue the Great Khan extracted from commerce, and the vitality of the maritime links to South Asia. For example, he notes that ‘for one spice ship that goes to Alexandria or elsewhere to pick up pepper for export to Christendom, Zaiton [Quanzhou] is visited by a hundred ’.[10]

A&N are good on the nature of the Ottoman state, seeing the tributary mode of production as characterized by the subordination of potentially subversive aristocracies and seeing territorial expansion (‘geopolitical accumulation’) as an intrinsic feature of this mode. It doesn’t follow that rebellions were any less characteristic of tributary regimes – Byzantium, China and the Mughals all prove otherwise.

The argument that European states were more dependent on merchant capital than the tributary regimes raises the fundamental but grossly understudied issue of the relation between forms of Absolutism and capitalist trade. A&N see the Ottomans as largely uninterested in commerce and ‘exercising significant control over merchant activities’ (p. 105). If so,[11] this, again, is not a feature that can be generalized to other tributary states. Both the  Safavids and tsarist Russia were vitally interested in their external commerce. Pokrovsky quotes Collins, court physician to Tsar Alexis, as saying, ‘The tsar is the first merchant in his realm’, and adds ‘Enumeration of the tsar’s monopolies [whisky, caviar, furs, silk, etc.] gives us an interesting picture of the concentration of Russian exports that laid the foundation for native commercial capitalism…’.[12]  In the seventeenth century ‘the tsar’s trade with Persia was undoubtedly the greatest commercial enterprise of Muscovite Russia’, referring of course to the trade in raw silk.[13]  On the Iranian side of this global circuit, Vladimir Minorsky could even describe the Shah as the ‘largest capitalist’.[14]  Once the ‘unruly feudalism of the tribes and local dynasties [had been] replaced by centralisation’, ‘The Shahs [were] now the largest capitalists’. ‘They amass goods in their Buyûtât; they attract and court European merchants; they use their Armenian subjects as their trading agents for disposing of the chief exportable commodity, namely silk’.[15]  These interventions are strongly reminiscent of Portugal’s ‘monarchical capitalism’[16] and of Mousnier’s even more scandalous description of the ‘absolute monarchy’ of the early sixteenth century as ‘a sort of large capitalist enterprise’.[17] Here is a field that badly needs new research and solidly comparativist perspectives.

No one can deny that the Atlantic was decisive to European dominance in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, laying out the first foundations of a more integrated global economy tied together in part through its massive flows of silver. Marx noted that the ‘great revolutions that took place in trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries…rapidly advanced the development of commercial capital’ and saw the colonial companies as ‘powerful levers for the concentration of capital’ (Marx passages cited p. 147) The point of interpreting these passages in newer ways is surely that the building of an Atlantic economy was not just a ‘precondition’ for the growth of capitalism in Europe or Eurasia but embodied the embrace of capital through its own forms of capital accumulation.  Even the slave trade generated the networks of merchant capitalism studied in such detail by Jospeh Miller.[18]  For the plantations that were the markets for that trade the point seems obvious to me. Without doubt the least fortunate pages in How the West are those dealing with the slave plantations (pp. 158–62). The plantations are characterized both as ‘“transitional forms” of social relations combining complex amalgams of captalist and non-capitalist relations’ (p. 158), as the ‘interlacing and systemic fusion of different relations of production’ (p. 160), and as productive units ‘geared specifically towards capitalistic (sic) production’ (p. 158) which ‘operat[ed] according to distinctly capitalist rules of reproduction’ (p. 161). Now both characterizations cannot simultaneously be retained, for if these enterprises really were ‘geared specifically towards capitalist production’, then they embodied capitalist relations of production even if exploitation in them was based on slave labour. No teleology prescribed that those slaves would eventually be transformed into wage workers employed by the same owners or by others.

Here as elsewhere in the book the eclecticism of seeking to accommodate the widest possible range of Marxist writers and perspectives even when these conflict with each other simply ends up contributing to a lack of clarity, if not (see below) to downright mischaracterization. In this instance Robin Blackburn’s own hesitations in The Making of New World Slavery are combined with that strand in the literature, largely U.S.-based,  which sees New World slavery as unambiguously capitalist. As I have written elsewhere:           

In his debate with Frank, Laclau took the stand that ‘in the plantations of the West Indies, the economy was based on a mode of production constituted by slave labour’, characterizing the use of slave labour as a ‘mode of production’ when Marx himself had stated explicitly that a capitalist mode of production ‘exists’ in the slave plantations. That was in 1971. By 1997 when Blackburn published The Making of New World Slavery, the same orthodoxy persisted but now in a much less confident form. ‘The American slave planter of the seventeenth century and after was not a capitalist — in the strict sense of the term, the species was only just coming into existence — but neither was he as far removed from capitalism as the feudal lord or the Ancient slaveowner.’ (Making, p. 376) Again, ‘the undoubted fact that neither the feudal estates of Eastern Europe nor the slave plantations of the Americas can properly be regarded as capitalist enterprises should not lead us, as it has led some writers, to regard them as equivalently distant from the capitalist mode of production’. (Making, p. 374) The hesitation expressed in these passages stemmed presumably from Blackburn’s deeper historical understanding of the Caribbean plantations. They were ‘run according to business principles which were very advanced for the epoch’; ‘The construction of slave plantations did indeed require large fixed investments’; ‘The performance of the early eighteenth-century sugar plantation embodied technical improvements in nearly every aspect of cultivation and processing’; and finally, ‘the high capital value of a Caribbean slave plantation put pressure on the planter to maximize output from a given crew’. (Making, p.379, 336, 343, 339). All of which was a considerable advance over Laclau’s blunt assertion of a ‘mode of production constituted by slave labour’.

The ‘insatiable thirst for slave labour in the Americas (p. 157) was a thirst for surplus-labour, as Grossman points out in The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System.[19]  Through the plantations commercial capitalism fed into the mass of surplus-value extracted and available for accumulation.  Curiously, this is a point more clearly stated for Dutch control of the Asian markets (in Chapter 7) than it is for Atlantic slavery. ‘By incorporating labour-power on a global scale, Dutch capital acquired a power of expansion it hitherto did not possess.’ (p. 227) But exactly the same logic worked in the Atlantic, which is why Marx referred to ‘capital invested in the colonies’ (cited p. 163; my italics). And this was the point of Eric Williams’ argument ‘The commercial capitalism of the eighteenth century developed the wealth of Europe by means of slavery and monopoly’.[20]  Thus formulations like ‘outlet for capitalists to absorb the surplus population created by the expulsion of peasants from agrarian production’ (p. 150-51) or that plantation slavery ‘provided an array of inputs (sic) that contributed to the Industrial Revolution’ (p. 169) simply fail to describe the essential function of New World slavery in the expansion of capitalism. Those perspectives remain fundamentally teleological, as if either England or industrial capitalism were the forces driving the ‘rise of a new capitalism’[21] fuelled by the Atlantic economy. 

References to ‘merchant capitalism’ and ‘mercantile capitalists’ only emerge at the very end of the Atlantic chapter and then appear with less sense of hesitation in the two chapters that follow. A&N’s uncritical endorsement of Perry Anderson’s view of the absolutist state as a ‘recharged apparatus of feudal domination’ (pp. 186, 256) generates a second, even less tenable argument, namely, the baffling suggestion that the ‘political autonomy, power and influence of merchants’ in medieval Europe flowed from the feudal nature of the state in those societies, and that feudal states were ‘particularly sensitive to merchant interests’ since their innate drive for expansion and the ‘reproduction’ of the ruling class in them depended on ‘the wealth drawn from merchants and financiers’ (p. 256). Here the absolutist state is collapsed into feudalism à la Anderson (in contrast to the more mature conception represented by Hilferding, Pokrovsky and other Marxists which stresses the autonomy of the state and its alliance with capitalist interests), and the term ‘feudalism’ bandied about with such fluency that Scotland and the mercantile republics of northern Italy are all bastions of this unreformed ‘mode of production’. But if Scotland was still an outpost of some residual feudalism in 1707, why did the Agency Houses that pioneered the commercial expansion of Britain in the eighteenth century consist of so many Scots?[22] And how can anyone sensibly characterize Venice and Genoa as the sites of a ‘feudal ruling class’ and of ‘feudal power’ (p. 218) when the aristocratic cliques (consorterie) that dominated both communes were so deeply immersed in commerce and industry, ran Mediterranean-wide networks of business, and were driven by a passion to defend existing markets and conquer new ones, usually in fierce competition with each other?[23]  ‘State-backed forms of commercial expansion’ (p. 258), the ‘fusion of political and mercantile interests’ typical, say, of the ‘capitalist Dutch Republic’ (p. 257) flowed not from the ostensibly feudal nature of the absolutist state but from an Absolutism wedded to mercantilist notions and to its alliance with capitalist interests. ‘Capitalism and the state in league’ was how Braudel described this peculiar nexus between state and merchant which became a central feature of all the European mercantile capitalisms of the twelfth to nineteenth centuries.[24] Thus the quote from Coen that ‘trade cannot be maintained without war, nor war without trade’ (p. 257) reflects something closer to what Beckert calls ‘war capitalism’, not the ‘feudal war-making’ that A&N think was driving the dominance of mercantile interests (misled, it’s worth repeating, by Anderson’s erroneous characterization of Absolutism).

In Chapter 7 A&N provide a succinct description of two key features of the Dutch model of commercial capitalism, its integration of Asian markets as its core business strategy and the drive to enforce tighter control over production in those commercial circuits. The theoretical implication of these pages is that the division between circulation and production is not invariant across levels of abstraction and cannot simply be transposed from ‘theory’ to ‘history’ without ending in the rut of formalism. The quote from de Andrade Arruda that the Dutch ‘went beyond the limits of circulation’ (p. 243) seems to be driving at this but does so in a potentially misleading form. Circulation continued to ‘dominate production’, as Marx said precisely with respect to the VOC, that is, the organization and control of labour were a function of the expansion/accumulation of mercantile capital. (The fact that merchant capital ‘intervened’ in production didn’t make it industrial capital.)  The point is obvious when, as in the Banda Islands, the VOC extorted surplus-value from plantation-organized slave labour, perhaps less so when textile villages and weavers were subjected to control by rival European companies operating, say, along the east coast of India in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Here the ‘subsumption’ of labour worked through the advance system, which means that patterns of accumulation were necessarily complex and took the form of (commodity?) chains that were more compressed/distended or less so depending on the way they were organized.[25]

 In any case, A&N are quite right to conclude that ‘colonialism explains the emergence of capitalism’ (p. 244; italics theirs), a position I fully endorse as long as we see that colonialism was a form that the expansion of mercantile capital took, starting in the later middle ages with the north Italian domination of Byzantine and East Mediterranean markets, then extending outwards into the wider expanses of the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean as the scale of accumulation was itself enlarged and new centres of capitalism emerged in northern Europe. The expansion of capital was an intrinsically global process, not least because it was spearheaded by the most liquid and mobile forms of wealth which, strangely, Marxists have been reluctant to deal with and prefer to dismiss as ‘antediluvian’.

 Surveying the argument as a whole, the geopolitics of its dominant perspective injects a valuable dimension into debates about capitalism, both by foregrounding the international basis of capitalism’s history and by showing that no history of capitalism can be written which doesn’t accord a central place to the state itself and to ‘many states’. But, as my remarks above have repeatedly suggested, what is missing in this account is a more coherent picture of the history of capitalism itself, that is, a more decisive break with the teleology implicit in notions like ‘primitive accumulation’ (evoked throughout the text, if only sporadically) and in seeing the major developments of the earlier centuries simply as ‘preconditions’ for some later capitalism, ‘developments toward capitalism’. Their critique of Political Marxism is welcome and trenchant in places, but it simply doesn’t go far enough.

A missing capitalism

This is not the place to write the missing Marxist history of merchant capitalism, but since this looms large in the comments above, some remarks are in order. ‘[S]ome of these statements were simply illiterate (on a number of points). Such an illiterate expression was, for instance, the phrase “merchant capitalism”. Capitalism is a system of production, and merchant capital produces nothing’, wrote Pokrovsky in the Recantation he was forced to publish in the tenth edition of his Brief History of Russia (1931).[26] Of course, Pokrovsky himself had been a leading exponent of the view that ‘commercial capitalism’ had been a major strand of Russia’s economic and political history, arguing in fact that capitalism had become dominant in Russia by the sixteenth century. As Barber notes, as late as 1929 Pokrovsky believed ‘commercial capitalism played a huge role in the creation of the Russian monarchy. It created this Russian absolute monarchy…’.[27]  That this was not a completely novel idea is shown by the early pages of Mehring’s Absolutism and Revolution in Germany. ‘With merchant capital, the revolutionary force of the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries’, Mehring wrote, ‘new life came into medieval society…’. ‘Revolutionary merchant capital not only created modern absolutism but also transformed the medieval classes of society’. And Mehring referred to these centuries as the ‘age of merchant capital’.[28] But the Stalinist backlash against Pokrovsky[29] led British Marxist historians to drive ‘merchant capitalism’ out of the ‘Marxist’ mainstream in Britain itself and then throughout the Anglophone countries, leaving a legacy of timidity in the face of spurious orthodoxy (Anderson would refer to ‘mercantile capital’ but not ‘mercantile capitalism’) and further spurious assertions of orthodoxy (as with Brenner’s completely false antithesis between production and exchange and his Aunt Sally of ‘circulationism’).[30]  ‘The notion of “merchant capitalism” as a specific mode of production…reduces to an absurdity’.[31] Again, in the same childish vein, ‘[I]f “Merchant Capitalism” is intended merely as a descriptive term for that first and early stage of capitalism prior to the Industrial Revolution and to the arrival of machinofacture – then one need not quarrel simply about a word. But if the use of the term is intended to imply…the existence of a distinctive, and in some sense intermediate, system of production and of social relations of production (subsequent to feudalism but prior to the arrival on the scene of capitalism proper), then I suggest that this kind of classification is mistaken and misleading’.[32]

In France, by contrast, a rich tradition of historiography emerged from the 1940s that made ‘merchant capitalism’ central to its understanding of that ‘first and early stage of capitalism’ but stripped of any stagist connotations such as the passage from Dobb implies, and the revival of interest in the subject from the 1980s, both in the Anglophone countries and elsewhere, was entirely due to the influence of this tradition. Kriedte, Peasants, Landlords and Merchant Capitalists (German orig. 1980), Ormrod, English Grain Exports and Agrarian Capitalism (1985), Ingham, Capitalism Divided? (1984), Shenton, The Development of Capitalism in Northern Nigeria (1986), and Miller, Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade (1988), were all major contributions from the 1980s and dealt centrally with a non-standard form of capitalism, much as many-valued logic challenged ‘classical’ orthodoxies about two-valued logic.[33] The analogy is less far-fetched than it seems, since the production/circulation binary was a key line of defence of ‘orthodoxy’ against the heresy of ‘circulationism’. To cite just one example, Ellen Wood discounts merchant capitalism completely on the prejudice that only industrial capital is productive of value (cf. Pokrovsky in his Recantation!). But what about the ‘capital invested in the colonies’, as Marx called it? Was that not productive of surplus-value? How would it feed into the mass of profit otherwise? And if so, would we have to call it ‘industrial’ or argue instead that ‘productive’ capital is instantiated in more complex (non-standard) ways than Wood implies? In fact, the division between circulation and production is based on a misunderstanding of Marx’s method, since Marx wouldn’t have wanted to deny that merchant capital, especially advanced forms of it like the VOC and the East India Company, might ‘dominate production’, that is, enforce the production of, and extract, surplus-value, even when it lacked any specific interest in reorganizing production or altering the labour process in any way.

As it happens, merchant capital created new forms of production both in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, so that Drescher was quite right to state that for Eric Williams Atlantic slavery was a ‘phase of commercial capitalism’, not some autonomous or transitional mode of production or an aberration thrown up by God’s design for a future industrial capital.[34]   Indeed, since sugar was the most heavily capitalized of the plantation businesses,[35] it would make sense to see the Caribbean plantations as industrial enterprises but dominated by the commercial capitalism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This was a capitalism that invested widely in a range of economic sectors beyond commerce in its narrower definition. ‘It was commerce that gave birth to industry’, Verlinden wrote about the textile and sugar industries of Antwerp.[36] At Genoa, industries were ‘dominated by the merchants of the city’. Heers calls this ‘industrial capitalism’, knowing full well that the capitalists who controlled these industries were merchants.[37] In Amsterdam, ‘much of the initiative and presumably much of the capital [for industrial development] was supplied by merchants’, says Barbour.[38] And London merchants ‘invested in provincial manufacturing on a large scale’.[39]    

Yet even when the subordination of labour took less direct forms, merchant capital ‘dominated’ production, that is, extracted surplus-value from living labour, for example, in the vast putting-out networks that sprawled across the European countryside as part of a dispersed and unmechanized manufacturing industry turning out what Goubert for the Beauvaisis calls ‘enormous’ quantities of textiles. Here ‘powerful merchants’ dominated labour drawn from households with minuscule holdings, yet sustained a thriving woollen industry with markets extending across the Atlantic.[40] Indeed, despite the dreadful conditions that defined the lives of millions of outworkers, the Verlaggsystem, Braudel argued, led to the ‘concentration and expansion of industry, a more rational division of labour, and increased production’.[41] But it thrived essentially on the flexibility it allowed capital and on the low wages endemic to the system. A passage in the Grundrisse describes this economic regime of rural manufacture dominated by merchant capital and integrated into ‘large-scale commerce’ as a major part of the story of the evolution of capitalism, and Marx clearly implies that the weavers and spinners subject to the merchant’s control have been ‘brought under his command as wage labourers’.[42] Here putting-out merchants were exploiting a mass of artisans/household workers as wage labourers, hence creating wage labour, as the European companies tried to do with weavers in the Indian textile villages from which they sourced substantial quantities of piecegoods in the eighteenth century.[43]  Between them, the large-scale capitalism of long-distance trade and the Verlag system absorbed vast amounts of capital in the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries, much of this tied up in Beckert’s ‘empire of cotton’ which, more than any other industry, welded these forms of merchant capitalism into a unified and increasingly integrated economic system.

Beckert’s history of the cotton textile industry is, like the work of Anievas and Nısancioglu, an attempt to write the history of capitalism as a global story. This sets it apart from tons of literature that frames the issue of ‘origins’ purely in terms of transition and finds it impossible to think about capitalism without the sombre European legacy of its feudal past. Unlike Anievas and Nısancioglu, however, Beckert repeatedly underscores the decisive role of merchant capital in ‘creating modern capitalism’,[44] thus breaking down the artificial division between merchant and industrial capitalism and allowing for a more coherent history of capital. Merchant capitalists figure throughout the narrative in a major way, and the fluidity of their form of capitalism is extensively documented as a series of conventional antinomies (mechanized vs unmechanized industry, etc.) simply falls away as so many moments of a totalizing dialectic.[45] Beckert writes the history of capitalism as a ‘biography of one product’, showing the possibilities contained here.[46] Moreover, in one crucial respect there is an important overlap between the two studies, viz. both highlight the crucial role of the state in securing the victory of British and European capital over the rest of the world through ‘the military subjugation of competitors and a coercive European mercantile presence in many regions of the world’. [47]  The violence summed up in Marx’s notion of ‘primitive accumulation’ is unpacked and retotalized as ‘war capitalism’ (by Beckert) – ‘the violent expropriation of land and labor in Africa and the Americas’[48] and the practico-inerts, congealed violence, of slavery and colonialism. But as Beckert’s expression implies, violence was an instrumentality of capital more than a medieval inheritance. This is true even of the later middle ages. Although Portugal’s eventual expansion as a colonial power was scarcely the outcome of a preconceived plan, its successful emergence reflected the defeat of the ‘Castilian’ model favoured by the Portuguese nobility. (The maritime bourgeoisie supported the Crown in its struggle with this aristocracy.)[49] In other words, let alone the Dutch with their purely commercial outlook, even Portugal’s maritime expansion reflected a culture of violence more peculiar to the way the Venetians and other Italian merchants had behaved throughout the Mediterranean into the Byzantine Black Sea as they struggled to create their trading empires, especially from the twelfth century, than to the ‘war-prone’ nature of some quintessentially feudal continent. The violent nature of European commercial capitalism has unmistakeably Mediterranean roots that almost certainly predate the emergence of feudalism in Europe, and to this extent a form of ‘war capitalism’ may well be the best way of characterizing even Rome’s expansion and domination, secured initially through massive naval confrontations broadly reminiscent of the First World War.[50]

Reinstating merchant capitalism (that is, going back almost a century to the fluency with which Pokrovsky could write his Marxist history of Russia!) brings two benefits. It gives the history of western capitalism more coherence than it has currently, and secondly, it suggests that a form of capitalism was more widespread across cultures than the standard (two-valued, Eurocentric) account implies. Both perspectives chime well with the broad thrust of How the West in rejecting narratives of European exceptionalism on the one side, and isolationist or endogenist models of capitalist emergence, on the other. And between them they begin to allow us to write a history of the integration of world economy. The ‘large-scale capitalism’ of foreign trade both generated industries domestically (shipbuilding, transport, sugar, etc.) and plugged into whole sectors of the international economy such as textiles, plantation businesses, and industrial crops (jute, cotton, palm oil, tobacco, raw silk, indigo and so on). At these higher echelons of the ‘mercantile system’, profitability was crucially linked to economies of scale, vertical integration and the turnover of capital. For example, Lyashchenko described even banks and railways as ‘instruments of capitalist trade turnover’ and allowed for rapid turnover by purely capitalist commercial methods.[51]  A good example is the way the big Glasgow tobacco firms of the eighteenth century used the ‘store system’ to buy up American tobacco in advance to save on freight costs and turn over capital quickly ‘by selling tobacco rapidly in bulk to European customers’.[52]  This was a trade controlled by a small group of wealthy merchants organized into a handful of syndicates,[53] with the ‘vast proportion of company earnings […] ploughed back’,[54]  that is, accumulated as an expanded mass of mercantile capital. With foreign trading companies advances were ‘an essential means of maximizing their purchases of export produce’.[55]  Price domination, scale, and the velocity of circulation of merchant capital were thus equally important determinants of profitability, favouring the bigger capitals and showing why the commercial capitalism of the nineteenth century (‘colonial commercial capital’ in Suret-Canale’s expression) was largely run by oligopolies.[56] By then, the distinction between ‘industry’ and ‘commerce’ was even more tenuous in colonial territories like India, as ‘the Calcutta agency houses floated numerous jute, tea, and coal companies on the British and local capital markets…From the 1870s the involvement of the agency houses in manufacturing intensified’.[57]  The peculiar fusion of merchant and industrial capital reflected in the managing agency system meant that British merchant houses developed extensive interests in industries like jute, tea, coal and engineering, and elsewhere, outside India, in the rubber companies floated in London that started up estates in Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies. Here was a mercantile capitalism that spawned industries in a whole region of India even as it retained its essential character as merchant capital.

Indeed, long before the full blast of the ‘Industrial Revolution’, shipbuilding, mining, textiles, the silk industry,[58] Chinese porcelain,[59] and sugar refineries[60] were leading sectors of mercantile capitalism, to say nothing of finance, shipping, slaving, insurance, and the plantation trades. A ‘totalizing’ history that rejects the teleology of a capitalism waiting to happen (‘primitive accumulation’ in the bad sense) would have to look at the issue of investments and industrial organization for each of these leading sectors. It would also have to try and map the changing geographies of commercial capitalism, starting, say, with the Muslim Mediterranean and Near East and the networks they extended into the Indian Ocean. A combination of these perspectives (sectors, geographies) coupled, perhaps, with more ‘biographies’ like Beckert’s for cotton or Tully’s for rubber,[61] would offer a sound basis for tracking the evolution of ‘capital’ before ‘capitalism’, if, after all, one insists on retaining precisely these terms.

The sheer historical variegation of capital, especially commercial capitalists, over the centuries is striking – from the Roman capitalists who had ‘vast sums invested in Asia’, according to Cicero,[62] or the capitalists of Fars in southern Iran whom the geographer al-Istakhri described in the tenth century as ‘passionate’ about ‘accumulating capital’,[63] or the ‘large capitalists’ who drained the salt marshes east of Basra using slaves imported from East Africa,[64] or the ‘northern Kiangsu industrialists’ who invested in a booming iron industry employing thousands of wage labourers,[65] or the ‘merchant princes’ of late Song/Yuan China who owned massive shipyards and were both shipowners and international merchants at the head of ‘great business firms’,[66] or the Corner brothers of Venice who built substantial sugar interests in Cyprus on plantations that imported large copper boilers from Italy,[67] to the Dutch Calvinist merchants who emerged from the great Flemish dispersion of the seventeenth century to become the ‘economic élite of Europe’ and ‘the heirs of medieval capitalism’;[68] the big colonial merchants of London who would ‘accumulate sufficient capital to diversify investment around their core business into ship-owning, joint-stocks, insurance, wharf-leases, and industry’, when London expanded rapidly in the late seventeenth century;[69] the East India houses of the nineteenth century, old City firms with branch houses in India that speculated repeatedly in indigo, opium and sugar; the Beirut trading houses who exported raw silk to French commercial houses in Marseilles and Lyons in the early part of the twentieth century;[70] or, finally, big international merchants of our own period, like UAC, CFAO, and Metallgesellschaft. All or most of these groups epitomised distinctive regimes of mercantile capitalism peculiar to the historical circumstances of their societies and time. The Roman fine ware industry was organized on a capitalist basis,[71] but it doesn’t follow that Rome’s economy was driven by capitalism in the sense in which one would normally understand this. The same could be said of the place of capitalism in the Islamic world[72] and, probably, in China.[73] However, enough has been said to show that there is a huge ‘scientific research programme’ awaiting the dedication of Marxist historians willing to think in new ways. 

Final remarks on the problematic of origins

Marx identified the capitalist mode of production with the self-expansion of industrial capital and seemed to suggest that the manufacturing period was one of an emerging industrial capitalism. He ascribed major importance to commercial capital (he refers, for example, to the ‘overwhelming influence’ it exercised ‘in the period of the rise of modern production’)[74] but nowhere integrated it into a coherent view of the long-term history of capitalism itself. Not only does the ‘development of commercial capital’ thus remain distinct from the capitalist mode of production, but (unlike Engels) he makes no attempt to ask if a history of capitalism might not allow for the possibility that the growth of industry was bound up, initially, precisely with commercial capital. The underlying assumption always was that the subordination of production to capital was simply tantamount to industrial capitalism. On this assumption, the whole late medieval/early modern period would for Marx have involved the rise of industrial capital and therefore of the capitalist mode of production.

 Yet Marx himself described mercantilism as the ‘first scientific theoretical treatment of the modern mode of production’.[75] With the Mercantile System, he writes elsewhere, ‘it is no longer the transformation of commodity value into money that is decisive but instead the production of surplus-value’.[76] And in another passage, this time from the Grundrisse, he describes the Mercantile System as an ‘epoch where industrial capital and hence wage labour arose in manufactures’; but here he adds the fascinating aside: ‘Industrial capital has value for them [the Mercantilists], even the highest value, as a means…because it creates mercantile capital and the latter, via circulation, becomes money’.[77]

If, as Marx believed, the manufacturing period involved an expansion of industrial capital, then of course these were industries largely controlled by merchants. We can always call this industrial capitalism, but today historians would doubtless prefer to see these early forms of industrial capital as simply one aspect of the wider system of merchant or commercial capitalism that expanded in the late medieval/early modern world. In his brilliant monograph on the Venetian silk industry Luca Molà points out that in Vicenza by the end of the sixteenth century ‘the silk mills belonging to merchants alone were well over 100’.[78]  Merchant capitalists extended control over production in multiple ways. But they also dominated a host of major economic sectors such as foreign banking, trade, shipping, government finance, tax farming, and so on. In any case, regardless of where they invested, we have to abandon the tautology which claims that ‘The independent and preponderant development of capital in the form of commercial capital is synonymous with the non-subjection of production to capital…’,[79] an assertion which ignores Marx’s own remarks about the role of merchants in the luxury industries.  

If the capitalist mode of production is broadly defined as an era characterised by the increasing subordination of production to capital, we can frame the problem of origins by asking when and where production began to subordinated to capital, and asking questions about the kind of capitals involved in those developments. Against the dichotomy between ‘capital’ and ‘capitalism’ favoured by A&N, we can then argue that the triumph of capitalism as a mode of production hinged as much on the early, commercial forms of capitalism as it did on the eventual triumph of an industrial capitalism emancipated from its mercantile past.



[1] Hobson 2004, Darwin 2008, Mielants 2008, etc. redress the balance in interesting ways.

[2] Braudel 1969 p. 53–4, where he refers to capitalisme marchand as an ‘economic system’ that ‘survived more or less intact from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries’.

[3] Wood 1999, pp. 20–21.

[4] Wood 1999, p. 40.

[5] Wood 1999, pp. 71–2; my italics.

[6] Wood 1999, p. 72.

[7]  Wood, Empire of Capital, cited Anievas and Nısancioglu, p. 28.

[8] Cain and Hopkins 2002, p. 88. As to how we should define merchant/commercial capitalism, Frédéric Mauro offered broadly similar definitions throughout the sixties, e.g., ‘in a system of pure commercial capitalism, the control and the profits of production should both be in the hands of a merchant class distinct from the workers’ (Mauro 1961, p. 2).

[9] Sen 2006, pp. 427ff., ‘aggressive maritime policy’.

[10] Marco Polo 1958, p. 237.

[11] Contrast Darwin 2008, p. 76: ‘Nor were Ottoman rulers indifferent to commercial objectives. Their naval expansion into the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, and their effort to assert sea power in the Indian Ocean, may have been intended to profit from the networks of trade just as much as the maritime enterprise of Portugal, Spain and later Holland’.

[12] Pokrovsky 1931, pp. 264–5.

[13] Pokrovsky 1931, p. 269.

[14] Minorsky 1943, p. 19.

[15] Minorsky 1943, p. 14.

[16] Dias 1963.

[17] Mousnier 1967, p. 98: ‘une sorte de grande entreprise capitaliste’.

[18] Miller 1988; cf. Vail and White 1980, p. 2: ‘mercantile capitalism’s most avaricious and rapacious agents, the slave traders’.

[19] Grossmann 1970, pp. 396–415.

[20] Williams 1994, p. 210.

[21] Braudel 1975, vol. 1, p. 510.

[22] Greenberg 1951.

[23] Giorgio Cracco in his classic study described Venice as a ‘state of big capitalists’ (Cracco 1967 p. 202). 

[24] Braudel 2002, vol. 2, pp. 443–4. The power balance between state and capital was never static, of course, cf. Tawney: ‘Before the [English] Civil War, “mercantilism”, if that word is to be employed, is a policy imposed by the executive on the business world; after, it is a policy imposed by the business world on the executive’ (Tawney, Lectures on Economic History 1485–1800, cited Ormrod 2003, p. 46).

[25] I have dealt with this ‘structure of capitalist accumulation’, as I call it, in Banaji 2016.

[26] Pokrovsky 1933, vol. 1, p. 282.

[27] Barber 1981, p. 61.

[28] Mehring 1975, pp. 1, 3, 7.

[29] See Barber 1981, also noting that Lenin greatly admired Pokrovsky’s work.

[30] See Ormrod 1984, p. 147.

[31] Fox-Genovese and Genovese 1983, p. 7.

[32] Dobb 1967, p. 15.

[33] Rescher 1969.

[34] Drescher 1977, p. 5: ‘…Williams’ sweeping thesis, that slavery was a phase of commercial capitalism which aroused opposition only when it had ceased to perform its function’.

[35] Pares 1960, p. 24.

[36] Verlinden 1966, p. 140.

[37] Heers 1961, p. 251.

[38] Barbour 1950, p. 67.

[39] Ormrod 2003, p. 16.

[40] Goubert 1960, pp. 131ff.

[41] Braudel 1975, vol. 1, p. 432. Cf. Lefebvre 2005, p. 42: ‘…millions of peasants worked for city merchants’.

[42] Marx 1973, pp. 510–11. See de Roover 1968. It is curious that a Belgian banker could discuss the extent to which ‘the Florentine woollen industry was capitalistic in character’, while latter-day Marxists repeat platitudes like ‘The main vocation of the large merchant was circulation rather than production’ (Wood 1999 p. 73, about the same industry). 

[43] Hossain 1988.

[44] Beckert 2014, p. 205.

[45] Beckert 2014, pp. 140ff., esp. ‘Eventually…merchants nearly everywhere would concentrate production in factories (p. 145).

[46] Beckert 2014, p. xxii.

[47] Beckert 2014, p. 37.

[48] Beckert 2014, p. xv.

[49] Thomaz 1989.

[50] This refers of course to the so-called Punic Wars of the mid-third century, see Abulafia 2014, pp. 178ff. and the comparison at p. 177.

[51] Lyashchenko 1998, p. 63.

[52] Devine 1975, p. 58.

[53] Devine 1975, pp. 72ff.

[54] Devine 1975, p. 92.

[55] Fieldhouse 1994, p. 121.

[56] The classic example is the domination of West Africa’s trade by four large firms, cf. Fieldhouse 1994, who also shows that it took the most advanced forms of merchant capital to think of consolidating in the face of overcapacity; by 1929, 93 separate companies had been brought into UAC!

[57] Jones 2000, p. 289.

[58] Poni 1976; Molà 2000; Tognetti 2002.  The Byzantine ‘Book of the Eparch’ refers to both silk merchants (metaxopratai) and silk manufacturers (serikarioi) employing wage labour.

[59] Xu and Wu 2000, pp. 308–26.

[60] Mauro 1960, p. 231; Furtado 1968, p. 9; Braudel 1975, vol. 1, pp. 154–5, ‘protected by a powerful capitalism’. Note Brenner’s reference to ‘West Indian sugar capitalism’, meaning the role of the English “new merchants” in developing the sugar economy there, Brenner 1993, pp. 159ff.

[61] Tully 2011.

[62] Cicero, Pro lege Manilia, 7.17–18.

[63] Al-Istakhri 1870, p. 138.

[64] Lewis 1966, pp. 103–4.

[65] Hartwell 1966, esp. p. 48: ‘The decisive factor was the existence of substantial capital in the hands of individuals and groups willing to invest it in mining and manufacturing…’.

[66] Lo 1970.

[67] Verlinden 1966, p. 168, who says ‘Les Cornaro exploitaient leurs plantations de manière capitaliste’.

[68] Trevor-Roper 1967.

[69]  Zahedieh 2010, p. 64.

[70] Firro 1990.

[71] Picon 2008.

[72] Rodinson 1966.

[73] Xu and Wu 2000.

74 Marx 1981, p. 455.

75 Marx 1981, p. 455. In editing Marx’s notes, Engels apparently removed the word ‘wissenschaftlich’ from Marx’s sentence.

76 Marx 1981, pp. 920–21.

77 Marx 1973, pp. 327–8.

78 Molà 2000, p. 237.

79 Marx 1981, p. 445.



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