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 …

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