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.