The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Samir Amin, Global History and the critique of Eurocentrism

Samir Amin is regularly put together with three other progressive, left academic intellectuals, Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank and Giovanni Arrighi. And indeed, he collaborated closely with them especially during the 1970s, when they were known within academia as the ‘Gang of Four’. Nevertheless, his book Global History: A View from the South (Pambazuka Press, 2011) makes clear that Samir Amin has adopted independent positions on a number of key issues, which differentiate him from the others and provide the basis for an important criticism of Eurocentrism.

First, he highlights the significance of the industrial revolution in England, identified as the advanced form of capitalism since 1800. While Immanuel Wallerstein dates capitalism back to the long 16th century starting around 1450 (e.g. Wallerstein 1974: 399) and Giovanni Arrighi downplays the industrial revolution completely in the rise to international dominance by Britain (Arrighi 1994: 209-10), Samir Amin captures its systemic importance. ‘The capitalist system only reached its advanced from with the establishment of the mechanised factory in the 19th century (modern industry), a base which was essential to the deployment of the law of value specific to the capitalism mode of production’ (Amin 2011: 71).  

Second, Samir Amin’s definition of capitalism is equally different from Wallerstein’s and Arrighi’s market based definitions. For Amin, ‘the development of historical capitalism is based on the private appropriation of agrarian land, the submission of agricultural production to the requirements of the “market” and, on this basis, the continuing and accelerating expulsion of the peasant population for the benefit of a small number of capitalist farmers’ (Amin 2011: 172-3). In other words, when assessing the transition to capitalism in Europe, there is an emphasis on enclosures in England and the constitution of private property, i.e. the way the production process is organised. 

Third, in his broad historical sweep, Samir Amin identifies several parallel tributary systems from 500 BC to about 1500 AD, based on direct, politically enforced surplus extraction from peasant activity, and dominated by ideological authority and the existence of a universal ideology. He highlights India, China and the Islamic Orient as the three major core tributary systems plus several less significant tributary systems in the periphery including, for example, Europe (Amin 2011: 85). Nevertheless, in contrast to Andre Gunder Frank (e.g. Frank and Gills 1993), who thinks in terms of an integrated world system reaching back up to 5000 years, Samir Amin does not conclude that the trading links between these different tributary systems implied that they were part of one and the same overall system. In this sense, ‘the capitalist mode of production represents a qualitative rupture with systems that preceded it’ (Amin 2011: 123).  

Importantly, Samir Amin employs the concept of ‘tributary system’ as a tool for a non-European interpretation of universal history (Amin 2011: 137). In his analysis of the period between 500 BC and 1500 AD, he outlines that Europe was little more than a barbarous and backward periphery lacking behind major tributary systems such as India, China and the Islamic Orient and their scientific, intellectual and general civilizational achievements. ‘Eurocentrism is thus in effect an ideology that enables its defenders to conclude that “modernity” (or/and capitalism) could only have been born in Europe, which subsequently offered it to other peoples (“the civilising mission”)’ (Amin 2011: 154). However, a modern bureaucracy, the recruitment to which was based on competitive examinations, and the establishment of a secular society, in which it was understood that it was human beings, not God, who made history – both key ingredients of capitalist modernity for Samir Amin – had already been present within China long before similar developments in Europe. Ultimately, this implies that China too could have led the transition to capitalism.  

Overall, this volume constitutes scholarship of the highest quality. The breadth and depth of this study is amazing and testimony to Samir Amin’s status as internationally leading progressive scholar of the left. It helps us to understand better where we are from a non-Eurocentric perspective and thus provides indicators of how we can resist and overcome the exploitative pressures of global capitalism.  


Amin, Samir (2011) Global History: A View from the South. Cape Town et al: Pambazuka Press.

Arrighi, Giovanni (1994) The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times. London/New York: Verso.

Frank, Andre Gunder and Barry Gills (1993) The World System: Five Hundred Years Or Five Thousand? London: Routlege.

Wallerstein, Immanuel (1974) ‘The Rise and Future Demise of the World Capitalist System: Concepts for Comparative Analysis’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol.16/4: 387-415.

Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK

Personal website:
24 May 2012

1 comment:

  1. Nice piece! :-) Did you see this article by Kamran Matin, on Eurocentrism, postcolonialism and uneven development?


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