Sunday, March 28, 2010

Book Review: Before European Hegemony

Book Review: Before European Hegemony
by Janet L. Abu-Lughod

This book presents a world systems theory analysis of the period that preceded the development of the modern system. It covers the period roughly between A.D. 1250 - 1350, though some parts of the system require analysis over slightly different periods of time. Some of the most interesting features of this analysis is that it portrays a world system whose discrete units portray a much wider variety of organization than do those that compose the modern system. A second notable aspect of this work is that in this theory world systems aren't destroyed and replaced but instead they are restructured as the features of the organizing components change. This is notable because it presents the development of the modern world system described by Wallerstein as being a reorganization of an existing system. It is also notable that there are multiple possible configurations of the world systems, that referred to as the modern world system and that described in this book being just two of them.

Throughout the system there are world cities, such as Venice, Cairo, Malacca, and Canton, which are more integrated into world trade than their surrounding hinterland and form the basis for long distance trade. These cities form what is referred to as an archipelago of towns and their success, or decline, was transmitted to the rest. The system in the years around 1300 proved to be especially beneficial for the cities involved. Multiple routes existed connecting the system together driving down the costs of trade and spurring the prosperity of each component. As these routes declined due to a variety of shocks, including the Black Death, the system went into decline until the rise of the modern system led to a reorganization of the system as a whole.

In addition to the over-arching world system there are several distinct sub-systems. There are eight interlinked systems, organized into three circuits, that are described in the book. These three systems are the European, Middle Eastern and the Far Eastern. Each chapter examines a distinct sub-system and discusses lessons to be learned from each system, such as the different roles of the world cities in the international system. The effects these sub-systems had on each other, and thus on the system as a whole, are also discussed showing the importance of this interconnectedness on the system as a whole, and its maintenance. When the system begins to collapse by the middle of the 14th century the importance of the connection between regions becomes visibly important to the success of each.

That's enough of a basic summary, I hardly do the book as a whole justice, but this is a blog, not a formal review. So, on to the various small details I found particularly interesting and worthwhile to point out. The first of these is that the west lagged behind the rest of the world and how advanced the trading system was. While this is commonly observed in any history examining the world outside Europe, it really can't be pointed out enough because of the persistence of Eurocentrism. What was fairly new to me was the discussion of the complexity of commercial transactions and methods of organization. Methods of sharing risk, credit, and banking were already highly developed and several advances that are generally associated with the rise of developed capitalism already seemed present outside the west. While this is peripheral to the main message of the book, I cannot help but observe that the importance of economic factors to the rise of the west seems greatly exaggerated once the rest of the world is examined. Too many of these supposedly essential and unique developments were already highly evolved outside of Europe for these factors to be determinate in isolation. Another important point is the high development of technology outside the west. Too often the story is one of European technical dominance. This also holds up poorly given the highly developed technology of the Chinese which remained much more developed even as Europeans rearranged the world system to their liking.

Other interesting sections were the discussion of private merchant groups in countries such as Egypt. Notably the Karimi merchants which attained great power and wealth while still being outside of state control. In other portions of the book the success of varying economic systems stand out. This is not a story where emphasis on private vs. state control wins out, the development of the system is more complex than this. Even with Europe, the greater emphasis on private enterprise in Genoa as opposed to Venice doesn't provide a marked contrast in the success of each. Too many other variable are in play and this particular one seems to be fairly low down on its ability to drive development. Other sections discuss the role of industry in trade as well as the role that basic resources play. The diversity of roles, and the effect this has on the development of the various world cities whose stories are told here, is an important aspect of this book and something to be remembered. Another great feature of the work is that it is able to tell the story of an important systemic force on world history without making it seem determinate. Too many authors make their favored systemic explanation play an outside role. Here the importance of local factors continues to exist alongside the systemic nature of the system.

Well, there's a lot more to say about this book, and I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the development of modernity or curious to expand their horizons. It provides a valuable additional perspective on how world systems develop and it is always refreshing to read a book not bound by Eurocentrism. This will have to be enough writing on this book for now, this is already a long blog post. The somewhat random nature of this post will be a regular feature of these reviews, it is meant to reflect my basic thoughts on the book rather than be a review meant to give an accurate picture of the book. Hopefully someone will find this quasi-review useful despite that.

Next, I'll be doing a review of Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. I expect to have a lot to say about it given my reaction to the first few chapters.


  1. Great review :)!

    A few questions do: The supposed technical superiority of the "non-West", how long was that supposed to last according to author (because as far as I know, the West was vastly superior in at least metallurgy, shipbuilding and navigating and optics by late 15th century, not to mention the advances in printing during the 16th century)? And what about GDP per Capita during the period? I knew I read that Europe surpassed "the East" around the 14th century, would be interesting to hear if the author commented upon that.

    Happy Easter


  2. That sounds very interesting. If you haven't read it, you might also like Europe and the People Without History by Eric Wolf. (I am not here from Amazon, just saying.)

  3. Jakob,

    The author doesn't take her history far enough forward to have to deal with where the west overtakes the east in terms of technology. She does however, mention Arab navigation around Africa well before the Portuguese did so and advanced Arab and Chinese knowledge of navigation on the main trade routes. She also makes brief mention of the Arab's knowledge of using citrus to prevent scurvy which the Europeans did not learn till much later. So going into the period of European dominance she does present eastern technology as being generally superior though she makes no claims as to how long this lasted.

    From other sources I get the impression that area specialists believe that the technology in China and Southeast Asia remained superior to Europe's in most areas up until sometime in the 16th century, and probably 17th century for China though development in individual disciplines was uneven. Specialists point to the presence of cannon that impressed European explorers (there is a problem in that much of the available evidence comes from Europeans since very perishable materials were used for writing in the area, virtually none of which has survived) as well as very large and advanced ships that existed in the region prior to European contact. The ships at least disappear quickly because they are too vulnerable to European piracy and the cannon, while technically advanced, are ill suited to defend against the type of warfare Europeans brought. I have no idea if specialists in the history of technology are impressed by these arguments or not. What isn't in dispute is that Europeans had much different ideas about trade, warfare, and territoriality that gave them a great edge when the expanded into this part of Asia. Generally, I think a substantial debate has developed recently over whether older ideas about the role of technology in the early rise of the west need to be reassessed.

    As far as GDP, the author makes no attempt to calculate it. She does mention the standard belief that living standards in Europe became much greater as a result of the Black Death in the 14th century and labor shortages linked to this. She also mentions that rice cultivation is much more labor intensive but results in higher yields giving a somewhat different picture of the relation of labor to land as determinants of output than occurred in Europe. Generally, the picture is that living standards remain much higher in the east than the west throughout the period (though the Black Death impacts this towards the end) but I think this would be highly sensitive to the assumptions you used to calculate GDP in this area. My impression is that this is an area under substantial reconsideration right now so I would expect a lot of disagreement between authors, though Abu-Lughod does not weigh in with a particular view of her own.

    Happy Easter.

  4. Doug, that book sounds interesting, I may have to add it to my reading list. I couldn't tell from the Amazon reviews exactly which areas it is covering. Is it primarily focusing on less developed areas such as Africa, the Americas, and the more remote regions of Asia or is he also examining more city based cultures (such as India or Malacca) as well?

  5. Hi again Tzimiskes.

    Thanks for your answer, it was more than I could ask for :)!

    Need to buy that book I think.