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Taking Off

The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century

edited by Geoffrey Parker, edited by Lesley M. Smith
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 283 pp., $20.00

In the first volume of Capital, Marx declares that “the modern history of capital dates from the creation in the sixteenth century of a world-embracing commerce and a world-embracing market.” This suggestion has recently been followed up by Immanuel Wallerstein, who achieved a considerable vogue in 1974 with his book The Modern World-System, an analysis of “the origins of the European world-economy in the sixteenth century.” The same argument has now been carried a stage further by Professor Andre Gunder Frank in World Accumulation, a survey of the whole period from the voyage of Columbus in 1492 to the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. The history of these three centuries, according to Frank, is a history of Europe’s successful “superexploitation” of the rest of the world, in the course of which the Western European “metropolis” expropriated the world’s wealth, established a global economy, and forced the “periphery” into a state of dependence from which it has only recently begun to unshackle itself.

The starting point of this grim saga is said to have been “the European quest for money” in the early sixteenth century. The Spanish began by pillaging the Mexican and Peruvian empires, seizing their bullion and carrying it home in vast quantities. As a result the cost of silver declined in relation to other commodities, thereby causing a severe price-inflation throughout Western Europe. This in turn brought a “sharp rise” in profits and an equally sharp “increase in exploitation” as real wages declined. By the end of the century the entrepreneurs of Western Europe were already reaping the dividends: the volume of trade and the accumulation of capital both began to increase at an unprecedented rate.

After the “sixteenth-century expansion” Frank sees a slowing-up in the “world process of capital accumulation” in the “general crisis” and depression of the seventeenth century. Spain declined, and the leadership of the metropolis eventually passed to England and France. The first half of the eighteenth century then witnessed a new wave of exploitation and accumulation as these two countries recovered and expanded at a ruthless pace. At first they vied with each other to extract the wealth of North America and the Caribbean. But as soon as the latter area began to decline in value as a source of capital, the English proved themselves to be the more resourceful imperialists. They immediately switched their attention to India, conquered and despoiled Bengal, exported its wealth to England, and so began their industrial revolution in advance of any of their rivals.

This analysis is governed throughout by an inflexible theory of economic determinism. Frank treats it as axiomatic that the only possible motive for European expansion was exploitation. For example, the English are said to have “dispatched” the Mayflower in 1620 as part of their strategy “to establish a monopoly position” in the markets of the New World. Similarly, he regards it as obvious that Europe’s political and cultural “superstructures” can only be explained as “determined parts” of the basic “process of capital accumulation.” This commitment clearly underlies the account he gives of the first nation states, which are said to have been formed “as a byproduct and servant of capital.” And the same assumption recurs in his embarrassing discussion of artistic and scientific change. We are told, for example, that “the decline of Spain produced El Greco,” and that it is “not simply a temporal coincidence” that Newton “published his Principia in 1679, that is, before the renewed economic upswing.” (In fact he published it in 1687, but that’s not the sort of detail to worry Professor Frank.)

The argument of World Accumulation is held together by three more specific claims, all of which (to put it mildly) are highly questionable. To begin with, Frank uncritically adopts the old-fashioned view that the price revolution of the sixteenth-century was primarily caused by imported bullion. But the mines at Potosí were not exploited on a large scale until the 1560s, by which time the rate of inflation in Spain had already passed its peak. Furthermore, the steepest rise in prices throughout the century was registered in basic foodstuffs, a fact which has prompted many economic historians to conclude that the fundamental cause of the inflation must have been a growth of population in Western Europe. Neither of these considerations is discussed or even mentioned in Frank’s account.

Next, Frank has to assume that “a single global crisis” afflicted the world economy throughout the seventeenth century. But it is of course extremely contentious even to speak of a global economy during this period, especially when China and Japan were so self-consciously cut off from the barbarian West. Moreover, it is simply not true to say, as Frank does, that the idea of a general economic crisis in the seventeenth century is “now being increasingly recognized.” Many scholars continue to argue that the crisis was political rather than economic in character, while others maintain that we ought to be looking for national and not for general explanations, such as the impact of war in the case of Germany or the role of the court in the case of England. Such doubts are prominently aired in several of the essays reprinted by Parker and Smith in their valuable new collection on The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, particularly in the contributions by Dr. Ivo Schötter and Professor J.H. Elliott. They are scarcely mentioned, however, in Frank’s account, and at no point are they allowed to interfere with his bewilderingly simple train of thought.

Finally, the denouement of Frank’s story requires him to lay an altogether implausible emphasis on the role of international trade in explaining England’s “take-off” into sustained economic growth. (It is ironic that he relies on W.W. Rostow’s terminology.) Doubtless the rape of Bengal played a part, but we surely need to be given some sense of its interaction with other and more local factors, such as the revolution in agriculture, the growth of population, the availability of raw materials, and the development of banking techniques—none of which is systematically discussed at all. Here and throughout his narrative, Frank’s indictment of Europe’s wickedness—which is often very salutary—tends to be sadly weakened by his willingness to substitute demonology for argument.

As a contrast to the outlook of Frank, Wallerstein, and the other “dependency theorists,” Professor Reinhard Bendix’s enormous new book Kings or People is instructive. He too is principally concerned with Europe’s legacy to the rest of the world. And one of his main aims is to challenge the thesis that social change must eventually be explained in economic terms. His book has already won the hearts and minds of several distinguished scholars who evidently read it before publication, and whose plaudits now cover its dust jacket. (“A brilliant achievement,” “equal to the grandeur of its subject,” etc.) After all this, and after all the sheer ignorance and vulgarity of Frank’s analysis, one turns with the highest hopes to see what Bendix has to say.

It soon emerges that his argument can be stated with disconcerting simplicity. He begins by considering the “common features” of “the major societies of the world” in the period “before 1500.” These were ruled by “the authority of kings” who “rested their claims on divine sanction” and “owned the whole realm.” Next we learn about the “basic pattern of institutions” that developed in Western Europe out of the “circumstances of early kingship.” The “norm,” we are told, was one of “royal supremacy and aristocratic dependence.” By the end of Part I, we have reached the point at which “an initially unstable royal authority” is said to have succeeded in dominating “an aristocratic culture,” thus replacing the disunities of feudalism with an increasingly absolutist style of government.

By this stage one already feels inclined to ask a lot of questions. Can we really generalize in such broad terms about “the authority of kings” in ancient societies? What about Athens? Although highly inegalitarian, this maintained a form of democracy throughout the whole period of its cultural preeminence. And what about Rome? This rose to its position of hegemony in Italy only after the expulsion of its kings and the foundation of a Republic which then lasted for over 400 years.

Does it even make sense to generalize about the increasing “stabilization and centralization of monarchy” in Western Europe during the Middle Ages? What about Germany? So far from witnessing a concentration of royal authority, the German Empire remained elective, gradually split up into hundreds of princely units, and eventually dissolved into a confederation in 1648. As Bendix more or less has to concede, this doesn’t fit his model at all. And what about Italy? For most of the Middle Ages the Regnum Italicum was largely governed not by kings but by committees of leading citizens presided over by elected magistrates. Admittedly Bendix remarks in his introduction that he proposes to omit Italy (and Spain too) on the grounds that he has “not mastered their historical experience.” But this hardly seems a satisfactory answer when one reflects that the history of Italy represents a virtual inversion of the pattern which Bendix is chiefly concerned to point out.

Finally, can we really speak of a general movement toward royal absolutism by the start of the sixteenth century? What about England? Bendix refers confidently to “Tudor and Stuart ‘absolutism,’ ” arguing that Henry VIII’s reformation in the 1530s brought about a “rise of monarchical authority” which was finally “superseded” when “the supreme authority of king-in-parliament” was established in 1688. However, Bendix never examines the implications of the fact that the entire Henrician reformation was carried out by the authority of Parliament. Nor does he mention that Henry VIII, far from proclaiming his authority to be absolute, declared in a famous speech to the Commons at the end of his reign that “we at no time stand so highly in our estate royal as in the time of Parliament, wherein we as head and you as members are conjoined and knit together into one body politic.” One could hardly wish for a clearer admission of the supremacy of king-in-parliament, even though Bendix insists that the idea was only adopted after the constitutional upheavals of the next century.

Having set up his model of the “Western European experience” of kingship, Bendix turns in Part II of Kings or People to examine “the transformation of these structures beginning in the sixteenth century.” The essence of the transformation is described in terms of the well-worn contrast between “traditional” and “modernized” societies. And Bendix equates the process of “modernization” with the gradual undermining of “the rule of kings” by “governments of the people.” (Though this formula is soon replaced by the very different claim that authority in modernized societies is typically exercised “in the name of the people.”)

Two arguments about the “modern revolution” are then proposed. The first is that the English began it all: we owe to their revolutions in the seventeenth century both “the major modern development of popular mandate” and the fact that “noble birth and inherited wealth have ceased to guarantee authority.” (Apparently Bendix simply refuses to believe in the continued existence of the House of Lords.) His second claim is that “once the English king had been overthrown,” the rest of the world self-consciously decided to follow the English example. To put the point in the prevailing jargon (as Bendix unerringly does) the process of “modernization” has resulted from the efforts of elites in “backward” countries to imitate the “demonstration effects” provided by a sequence of more advanced “reference societies.” Thus the French imitated the English; the German imitated the French; and Japanese imitated the Germans; and even the unfortunate Russians did their best to Westernize, though in their case the “fateful legacy of autocratic rule” prevented them from doing as well as the rest of us, and left them instead with a dictatorship in which “the characteristics of tsarist autocracy” have been “greatly intensified.”

These arguments are remarkably inaccurate as well as oversimplified. The basic contention that “rule in the name of the people was a principle first articulated in seventeenth-century England” is straightforwardly false. In fact the belief that the people’s representatives have a right to set up and set down their rulers had already become a central feature of scholastic as well as civil law theories of political society in the course of the Middle Ages. And the same arguments were then adopted and carried to a new peak of revolutionary development in France and the Netherlands as well as in England as early as the middle years of the sixteenth century.

As for the assumption that Western Europe can be viewed as a kind of bucket into which English and later French ideas were poured, this seems less of an anti-Marxist than a pre-Marxist form of argument. Apart from its naïveté as a theory of social change, it scarcely seems to work even on its own terms. Consider, for example, Bendix’s claim that an awareness of “the French model” was crucial to the process of modernization in Germany. The point at which the German princes became most interested in France was during the eighteenth century. But what interested them was the practice of absolutism, not the theory of popular sovereignty. When the French began to experiment seriously with the concept of a popular mandate after 1789, the ruling elites of Germany drew back in great alarm. They continued, moreover, to resist such “modernizing” ideas so successfully that even when the Imperial constitution was drawn up in 1871, it still contained no bill of rights. Bendix does not of course fail to mention such well-known facts; but it is hard to see how he can manage both to acknowledge them and to retain much faith in his own line of argument.

Surveying Europe’s contribution to the modern world, Professor Frank displays a deep sense of outrage, Professor Bendix an equally deep sense of complacency. Starting out from opposed ends of the ideological spectrum, they have ended up by writing equally silly books. So why bother with them? Both are important, I think, as instances of a widespread malaise in current historical sociology. As I have sought to indicate, the present state of our knowledge about the intellectual and economic development of modern Europe is quite sufficient to reveal that both “dependency theory” and “modernization theory” are completely inadequate as guides to the understanding of social change. Neither approach is even remotely capable of accommodating the known facts. If we are serious about using historical evidence in the construction of social theories, the only possible response to this situation must be to concentrate on the known anomalies and counterexamples in the hope of generating new and more powerful theories. At the moment, however, there is a disappointingly widespread tendency—which Frank and Bendix both exemplify—to gloss over the anomalies, to ignore the counterexamples and go on stridently reiterating a good deal of outdated scholarship.

We may not feel this matters, of course, since we may not mind our social theories degenerating into ideologies, especially if our real hope (as Frank expresses it) is to “have some influence on the course of history” rather than merely to map it out. Alternatively, we may not feel that objectivity is a possible goal, since we may think there are good theoretical grounds for supposing that all appeals to historical evidence are bound to be hopelessly contaminated by our own ideological perspectives. For those of us who still believe, however, that a better understanding of the past provides us with a genuine prospect of improving our explanations of social change, such books as those of Bendix and Frank are bound to seem little better than missed opportunities.

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