Was There a Precapitalist




                    Jane Schneider*







In his book, The Modern World-System, Immanuel

Wallerstein applies to Western Europe a theory

of social change that other scholars have been

developing to analyze the growth patterns of

Third World countries (e.g., Amin 1974; Baran

1957; Emmanuel 1972; Frank 1967).  This theo-

ry, rooted in global political economy, or

geo-political economy, contrasts markedly with

the unilineal models of social change that

dominated social science until recently.

Unlike a unilineal model, which posits inexo-

rable and orthogenetic progressions from

simple to complex, agrarian to industrial

organization, and unlike orthodox Marxism,

too, the new theory explains change in terms

of forces which originate outside of any

particular local region or nation, in the

dynamics of world economic organization.  The

unit of analysis is no longer the evolving

regional or national society in transition

from a traditional to a modern form but a

world economy, in which a few highly central-

ized core groups mobilize energy resources

from a vast peripheral domain.

   Wallerstein makes an important contribution

to the refinement of global political economy

by focusing attention on two interrelated

processes that __________________________

* Reprinted with permission from Peasant

Studies Vol. VI, No. 1,

  January, 1977, pp. 20-29.

derive from core-area energy mobilization and

that may be considered critical sources of

change.  The first process involves the defen-

sive and competitive strategies that interest

groups peripheral to a core-area generate when

they are directly, or even indirectly, affect-

ed by its expansion.  Peripheral groups that

are not well located from the standpoint of

geography and environment may submit to, and

even adapt to, external pressure.  Groups that

are more propitiously located, however, defend

against penetration to the point where under

some rather special conditions a defensive

strategy becomes an offensive one and a new

core area evolves.  Although, as Wallerstein

emphasizes, the enormous gaps in wealth and

power between core and peripheral populations

remain fixed for long periods of time, the

deprivation produced by these gaps and the

energy drainage that sustains them inevitably

lead to one or another form of resistance.

This, and the counter-resistance in which core

populations may subsequently invest, have

obvious implications for institutional, cul-

tural, and economic change within the regions

or nations involved.

   The second process that is inherent in

world economic organization and underlies

social change is the creation and maintenance

of interdependent relationships between vari-

ous national and regional entities.  The

concept, "regional differentiation," is the

key to understanding this process, according

to which particular populations come to play

particular roles, their economic, political,

and cultural institutions changing to meet the

demands of specialization.  Wallerstein pro-

vides a vocabulary with which to describe this

process.  He suggests that the "initial eligi-

bility" for a particular role is often decided

by an "accidental edge" related to past histo-

ry and current environmental resources and

geography.  Once the slight edge is estab-

lished, the operations of the world economy

"accentuate the differences, institutionalize

them and make them impossible to surmount over

the short run" (1974a: 403).  In this way,

"the slight edge is converted into a large

disparity..." (1974: 98).  He offers six-

teenth-century Poland as an example, relating

changes in that country's economic (especially

labor) organization, state institutions, and

religion to its assumption of the specialized

role of breadbasket for North Atlantic Europe.

   To summarize, a global theory of social

change hinges on two overlapping processes --

one of competition between various geographi-

cally localized populations of unequal power;

the other of differentiation, division of

labor, and interdependence among these same

units.  Both processes have an ecological

dimension since geography and environmental

resources influence the assumption of particu-

lar specializations, as well as the ability to

resist demands posed by external dominants.

Both are also historical in that past roles or

past resistance leave their imprint on a

population's resources and institutional

structure, thereby influencing its contempo-

rary ability to repel or adapt to new roles.

Wallerstein's comparison of Poland with Russia

-- the high point of the book -- shows how the

two processes intersect.  By virtue of its

accidental edge, Russia resisted incorporation

into the European-dominated world economy of

the sixteenth century.  Unlike Poland, it thus

remained internally diversified and capable of

establishing its own peripheral domain (1974:


   From the point of view of social science,

Wallerstein's most significant contribution is

the suggestion that processes of interaction

and unequal exchange might explain events not

only in Third World areas transformed by

European hegemony in the nineteenth and twen-

tieth centuries, but in earlier periods within

Europe itself.  This establishes a unity of

theory between Western and non-Western peo-

ples, the absence of which has long been

problematic in unilineal models of change

whose ethnocentricisms are consistent with

their inability to account for the disparity

between Europe's precocious advances and other

peoples' "lag."  It will be the point of this

essay, however, that The Modern World-System

suffers from too narrow an application of its

own theory.  For, although Wallerstein ad-

mires Owen Lattimore's description of the

differentiation process according to which

ancient Chinese civilization "gave birth to

barbarism," (quoted in Wallerstein, 1974: 98),

he does not view the precapitalist world as

systematically integrated through the opera-

tions of world economic forces.  Because most

of the book is dedicated to the rise of North

Atlantic Europe as the preeminent core area of

the world economy -- an event Wallerstein

equates with the emergence of the capitalist

world-system -- it unfortunately does not

benefit from the clarity of argument and

coherence of analysis that distinguish his

comparison of Poland with Russia.

   Wallerstein has assembled a staggering

quantity and diversity of data pertinent to

the development of modern capitalism.  He has

analyzed processes of core-area expansion and

regional differentiation that unfolded in the

wake of this event.  His account of differen-

tiation usefully extends to a comparison of

state formation in core and peripheral areas,

while his discussion of forms of labor mobili-

zation in these respective areas is complex,

original, and stimulating.  It is when they

are measured against such examples of a global

theory at work that the lists of factors which

he has drawn up to account for various precap-

italist events are theoretically unsatisfying,

sometimes incomplete, and often confusing.

One wants to know why, for example, his analy-

sis of the "rise of England" does not focus

attention on that nation's environmental

resources, or on its essentially peripheral

status in relation to other continental pow-

ers, in particular Northern Italy.  I will

return to these points later on.

   This essay attempts to demonstrate that

Wallerstein's reluctance to apply the con-

cepts, "core" and "periphery," to precapital-

ist transformations is a product of the way he

views the luxury trade.  Before the emergence

of the capitalist world-system (which I too

will identify, for the sake of convenience,

with the rise to core status of England and

Holland), most exchanges between distant

places involved the movement of luxuries -- of

exotic goods or "preciosities" which were very

high in value per unit of weight and therefore

relatively easy to transport.  For many au-

thorities, Wallerstein among them, the differ-

ence between luxuries and bulk goods such as

food or timber goes beyond their transport-

ability.  They are implicitly categorized as

opposites: preciosities versus essentials or

utilities.  I suggest that this dichotomy is a

false one that obscures the systemic proper-

ties of the luxury trade.  In the following

pages, I will first outline Wallerstein's

argument that long distance trade in exotic

goods was of little relevance to intra-Europe-

an change.  I will then develop an alternative

interpretation according to which Europe as a

whole, and England in particular, were reduced

to peripheral areas by this trade.  I hope

that the alternative interpretation will

prepare the way for future analyses of precap-

italist events within a theoretical framework

consistent with Wallerstein's analysis of

Russia and Poland.

   According to Wallerstein, the capitalist

world-system differs from all previous imperi-

ums, which he describes as world-empires.  He

argues for this distinction on the grounds

that before capitalism, the political and

economic boundaries of empires coincided,

administrative control being extended through

tributary relations to the entire area from

which energy resources were mobilized.  In

contrast, the modern world-system is a world-

economy in which political integration is

intermittent.  At its center are strong, well-

knit and relatively homogeneous nation states,

whose spheres of political control have not

been isomorphic with their economic hegemony.

Rulers of these states manifest a great deal

more respect for mercantile and manufacturing

interests than did the despots of precapital-

ist states.  In addition they organize a

completely different kind of buffer between

the imperial center and the localized popula-

tions on whose energy this center draws.  Wal-

lerstein's elaboration of the concept "semipe-

riphery" establishes a mutually exclusive set

of dynamics for precapitalist and capitalist

empires, in which the former are stabilized

through the manipulation of middle sector

"cultural" or occupational groups, whereas the

latter depend for stability upon independent

political entities -- semiperipheral states --

that belong to neither the core nor the pe-

riphery (1974: 349-350; 1974a: 403-404).

   Consistent with these contrasts between

past and present, precapitalist and modern

empires, is Wallerstein's acceptance of the

view that the ancient empires of Near and Far

Eat were homeostatic and not dynamic (1974:

84-85).  For example, although he appreciates

that in the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries,

China and Europe had roughly comparable popu-

lations, and although he shares with Joseph

Needham a respect for Chinese technological

achievement, he nevertheless emphasizes Chin-

a's opposition to foreign commerce and the

Confucian suppression of early Ming explora-

tion and maritime activity.  China's overall

commitment, he suggests, was to internal

rather than external expansion and to the

development of whatever surplus it had into

defensive installations against Central Asian

"barbarians" on the northern and western

frontiers.  China blanketed, rather than

released, the forces of expansion (1974: 53-


   Wallerstein's assessment of China and, by

implication, of other precapitalist empires

suggests why these polities do not enter

theoretically into his analysis of the capi-

talist transformation in Europe.  Since, in

the Middle Ages, Europe was tributary to none

of them, none can be said to have interacted

with Europe in ways that were relevant to

systemic social change.  Chapter one of The

Modern World-System mentions that precapital-

ist Europe was a "very marginal area in eco-

nomic terms," (1974: 17) but marginality is a

concept distinct from periphery.  In contrast

to peripheral areas, marginal ones are disen-

gaged from processes of struggle and competi-

tion, differentiation, and specialization in

relation to much older and more developed

centers of civilization.

   Perhaps the most explicit statement of this

disengagement is Wallerstein's evaluation of

the significance of long distance trade, for

although Europeans did not deliver tribute to

the metropolises of world empires, they were

nevertheless in touch with them through trade.

Wallerstein does not argue that this trade was

ephemeral.  He recognizes that it provided

employment for thousands of people, profits

for middlemen, and revenues for states.  In

addition it contributed to the internal strat-

ification of entire populations, since exotic

goods imported from afar could be utilized in

the demarcation and maintenance of status

barriers (1974: 306-307).  But he does not

think that these effects of long distance

trade induced European development, either as

stimuli or as obstacles to be overcome.  On

the contrary, as if to underscore the irrele-

vance of the luxury trade for change, he

applies to Asia, Africa, and the Near East the

concept "external arena," because he feels

that these areas bore no systemic relationship

to Europe until the eighteenth or nineteenth

centuries, and then on terms defined by Euro-


   The distinction between periphery and

external arena rests upon the conceptual

separation of essential from luxury exchanges.



   This is to be sure a distinction rooted

   in the social perceptions of the actors

   and hence in both their social organiza-

   tion and their culture.  These percep-

   tions can change.  But the distinction

   is crucial if we are not to fall into

   the trap of identifying every exchange-

   activity as evidence of the existence of

   a system (1974a: 397-398).



   According to Wallerstein, trade in precios-

ities, unlike trade in essentials, is non-

systemic.  Each party "exports to the other

what is in its system socially defined as

worth little, and gets what is socially de-

fined as worth much."  Both partners to the

exchange reap rewards simultaneously.  Dis-

tinct from the profits that are made under

capitalism, these rewards are mere "wind-

falls."  One partner does not gain at the

expense of the other (1974a: 398).  Precapita-

list Europe traded a number of preciosities

with Asia; in particular, it exported precious

metals to pay for imported pepper, spices, and

silk.  Before the rise of capitalism, however,

primitive conditions in transportation re-

stricted the movement of bulk goods such as

food.  Because, by Wallerstein's definition,

only the latter type of exchange is systemic,

precapitalist trade was a secondary factor,

one among many, and not critical to social

change (1974: 20-21).

   How then does Wallerstein account for the

capitalist transformation?  In his view this

event was propelled by the need to overcome

the "crisis of feudalism" -- the wars and

plagues, economic collapse, and class conflict

that in the fourteenth century reduced the

population of Europe by a third to a half.  He

attributes the crisis to a conjuncture of

prior over-expansion, cyclical economic down-

turns, and (possibly) changing climate.  Of

these the most important was prior over-expan-

sion.  Between 1150 and 1300, demographic and

economic growth exceeded environmental capaci-

ty, given technologies available at the time.

Wallerstein considers but rejects Sweezy's

hypothesis that long distance trade stimulated

this growth.  Perhaps it was one factor, but

because it involved primarily luxuries, it was

less important than "food and handicraft

production," the multiplication of which

appears to have been spontaneous:



   ...the scale of this economic activity

   was slowly expanding, and the various

   economic nuclei expanded therewith.  New

   frontier lands were cultivated.  New

   towns were founded.  Population grew.

   The Crusades provided some of the advan-

   tages of colonial plunder.  And then

   sometime in the fourteenth century, this

   expansion ceased.  The cultivated areas

   retracted.  Population declined (1974:




This statement suggests that an endogenous set

of forces was at work, among them spontaneous

population growth -- the motor force in many

applications of unilineal models of change

(see Cowgill 1975).

   The crisis of feudalism found its resolu-

tion in the creation of the capitalist world-

system, two of whose central features we have

already encountered: the regional divergence

of eastern Europe, which under a re-gime of

highly coerced agricultural labor began to

grow wheat for export to the North Atlantic

core, and the formation of strong states in

this core.  The first feature of the system to

manifest itself, a pre-condition for other

developments, was, however, the "incredible

geographical expansion" that began with the

Portuguese discovery voyages in the late

fifteenth century.  Wallerstein has difficulty

accounting for these voyages.  The textbook

explanation that Portuguese navigators and

adventurers sought spices and gold satisfies

him only in part, for these are preciosities

and of secondary importance to an explanation

of change.  Yet the "motivations" of Portugal

are worth puzzling over, for they were motiva-

tions of Europe too.  Because Portuguese

expansion followed the demographic catastrophe

of the fourteenth century, it could hardly

have resulted from land shortage or over-

population.  Nevertheless Wallerstein suggests

that expansion may have been motivated by a

search for food.  Europe needed surplus food

to support increased development and urbaniza-

tion (1974: 41-42).

   Europe's search for food is well documented

in Wallerstein's account of the transformation

of eastern Europe into a breadbasket (although

except for a footnote on page 218 and a brief

reference on page 221 he virtually ignores

southern Italy and Sicily, which were func-

tionally specialized to produce surplus wheat

as early as Roman times).  His documentation

of a food quest by Portugal is less convinc-

ing.  Committed to the proposition that "in

the long run, staples account for more of

men's economic thrusts than luxuries," (1974:

42) he wants to find staples in the cargoes of

Portuguese ships.  There was indeed a modest

quantity of cereals, imported from the Atlan-

tic islands off the Portuguese coast, but this

represented only a minor segment of the total

trade and only one component of the island

trade as well.  Sugar imports were more sub-

stantial, but was sugar essential?  Waller-

stein argues that it provided calories (1974:

43), but so did honey which was widely avail-

able in Europe.  In the Renaissance courts of

Italy the fascination of sugar was such that

it was eaten with virtually anything and

fashioned into decorative sculptures (Root

1971: 36-40; Tannahill 1973: 223).  Sugar went

to make rum and later chocolate, which Waller-

stein characterizes as "highly appreciated"

drinks, but by what criteria were they staple

foods?  He also mentions dyestuffs and wine

which other authorities would similarly clas-

sify as luxuries (1974: 43).

   It seems to me that dyestuffs and wine,

sugar and rum, should not be separated from

the textbook explanation for Portuguese (and

hence European) geographical expansion.  The

explorers were searching for luxury goods,

especially spices and precious metals, the

latter to exchange for more luxuries from the

Orient (1974: 39-41).  If wine was a useful

beverage, then pepper was a useful spice, yet

both also indulged the fancies of a status

conscious aristocracy.  Are we to conclude

then that the capitalist transformation began

with a caprice?  Wallerstein is right to avoid

so absurd a position.  The way around the

dilemma, however, is to discover the relation-

ship between luxuries and essentials, not to

make sugar and wine into staple foods.

   In a recent article on long distance trade,

Robert M. Adams, the archaeologist, argues

that even in antiquity trade was a "formidable

socioeconomic force...in spite of its being

confined largely to commodities of very high

value in relation to weight and bulk due to

the high transport costs, and in spite of its

directly involving only a small part of the

population" (1974: 247).  Rejecting the as-

sumption that change in precapitalist society

was an endogenous process that moved popula-

tions irreversibly from simple to complex

levels of integration, he proposes that we

assume for the past as well as the present a

model in which more complex societies "domi-

nate weaker neighbors, coalesce, experience

predation, develop and break off patterns of

symbiosis and all in dizzyingly abrupt

shifts."  The need to adapt to such shifts is

"the most single overwhelming selective pres-

sure to which societies are exposed" (1974:

249; see also Wolf 1967).  Marshalling evi-

dence from a number of case studies, some

ethnographic and others archaeological, Adams

argues that there is a close connection be-

tween predation and trade.  On the surface

benign, the luxury trade could induce massive

alterations in technology, leadership, class

structure, and ideology within trading popula-

tions and in "relay" populations on the tran-

sit routes.  In addition to promoting symbio-

sis, trade was also "partly aggressive, and

sometimes dangerously competitive" -- a turbu-

lent process (1974: 249).

   Adams' argument challenges the idea that

luxuries served little purpose other than to

satisfy the whims and desires of aristocrats

and enable them to maintain distance from

status inferiors.  This idea is illustrated by

Wallerstein's remark that European aristocrats

"made (spices) into aphrodisiacs, as though

[they] could not make love otherwise," (1974:

41) which implies that the consumption pat-

terns of the very rich were, if not laughable,

then harmful only to themselves.  Following

Malinowski and Mauss on the power of the gift,

a case can be made that luxury goods served

more fundamental ends.  The relationship of

trade to social stratification was not just a

matter of an elevated group distinguishing

itself through the careful application of

sumptuary laws and a monopoly on symbols of

status; it further involved the direct and

self-conscious manipulation of various semi-

peripheral and middle level groups through

patronage, bestowals, and the calculated

distribution of exotic and valued goods.

   A good analysis of the relationship between

gifts and power is Luigi Graziano's comprehen-

sive essay on clientelism (1975).  Suggesting

that the principle of the gift consists in

"the calculated and productive use of generos-

ity," Graziano argues that:



   One gives because in highly stratified

   societies an effective way to control

   conflict is to establish a network of

   personal obligations; one gives, at the

   same time, in order to crush clients and

   rivals with onerous obligations sanc-

   tioned by the personal submission of the

   defaulting debtor.  One gives, in summa-

   ry, because this is a rational means for

   accumulating power...(1975: 27).



Where there is a clear imbalance of power, but

juridical and coercive institutions are absent

or weakly articulated, gift-giving performs

the function of contract enforcement.  As

Graziano points out, the subordinate learns

that "the only way to continue enjoying the

protection and other resources monopolized by

the powerful is to loyally return benefits

received.  The restitution will consist of

personal services and, in order to compensate

for disparity in resources between patron and

client, in compliance to the former's will"

(1975: 25).

   Patron-client relations, established and

maintained through the exchange of gifts and

favors, contribute in different ways to the

mobilization of energy.  By virtue of the

obligations created by his bestowals, the

patron can often claim a portion of the sur-

plus labor of his dependents.  But patrons do

not simply lay claim to the energy resources

of their clients.  Their most significant

claims are levied against outsiders to this

paternalistic tie.  Often, in fact, the intent

in constructing a clientele is to defuse

organized opposition, class antagonism, and

class struggle (e.g., Blok 1969, 1974).

Pitting some against others, gift-giving

promotes the co-optation of class enemies,

making the patron-client relationship a force-

ful political adjunct to energy capture.

   Clientelism also operates at the societal

level where it facilitates the mobilization of

energy resources through the creation and

maintenance of client states whose respective

economic contributions may be less significant

than their political loyalty.  Descriptive

accounts of the Chinese tributary system, for

example, attribute to such states the same

role Wallerstein assigns to semiperipheral

states under capitalism.  These accounts also

portray the fundamental contribution that

luxuries made to clientelism on this level.

For centuries China wove a vast network of

tribute bearing kings and princes across its

northern, western, and southern frontiers and

garnered their submission through "imperial

compassion," including the bestowal of gifts.

The emperor or his deputies gave presents to

envoys during their visits, upon their depar-

ture from the Chinese court, and through

ambassadorial missions to tributaries in their

own lands.  Gifts ranged from silver coins and

rolls of silk to Chinese princess brides for

rulers (Fairbank and Teng 1941; Wiens 1967).

   Many Western historians have commented on

the lavishness and generosity of Chinese

gifts, which often matched or surpassed the

value of the tribute delivered to the emperor

by the client state.  Indeed, tributary obli-

gations rarely constituted a significant

surplus, but were instead a token sampling of

unique local wares.  Wallerstein utilizes this

characteristic of the tribute system to sup-

port his distinction between precapitalist and

capitalist empires, noting that, under the

former, tribute was sometimes a "disguised

form of trade disadvantageous to the empire"

(1974: 60-61).  In a footnote he urges compar-

ison between "this self-defeating political

arrangement [and] the frank colonialism Portu-

gal and other European countries practiced on

the overseas barbarians" (1974: 61, n. 162).

   Yet, gift-bestowal was just an instrument

of Chinese foreign policy, the crux of which

was expansion.  Over the many centuries of its

existence, the Chinese Empire, like other

empires of the precapitalist world, mobilized

energy resources, displaced neolithic cultiva-

tors, captured metals and slaves, beyond as

well as within its frontiers.  The demographic

and territorial expansion of the Han Chinese,

who pushed back these frontiers, was in fact

phenomenal, and, although it was much more

gradual than the European expansion of a later

period, it may turn out to have been more

enduring.  For China, as for other great

empires of the precapitalist past, the tribu-

tary system made expansion possible.  Energy

was mobilized around as well as through it,

often with the blessing and outright assis-

tance of the client states, minimally with the

expectation that there would be allies to

provide support, including food and other

essentials, should the empire or its represen-

tatives be attacked.  Because the tribute

system was maintained through the distribution

of luxuries, these goods were also "essential"

-- not only in the narrow sense that, through

cultural definition of tastes, people became

addicted to them, but also in the broader

sense that imperialism necessitated "winning

distant people with kindness" as well as

hitting them over the head.  The same princi-

ple applies to foreign policy today.

   Precapitalist tribute systems at first

glance give the impression that reliance upon

luxury goods for the creation and maintenance

of allies was indiscriminate.  Anything a

potential ally might consider valuable or,

through court ceremonial and ritual, might be

influenced to consider valuable, could consti-

tute a gift capable of obligating him to the

donor.  In fact, however, the various precios-

ities that circulated in long distance trade

differed in the degree to which they could

readily be converted into other resources.

The greater an object's perceived value over

both time and space, the greater was its

potential to bind allegiances, and thereby

promote energy capture.  Goods with high

durability, quality control in their produc-

tion, a widespread reputation for fineness and

integrity, and a high degree of natural scar-

city were -- with remarkable consistency --

among the most coveted valuables across much

of the Old World.  Of these, gold and silver,

first coined (in alloyed form) in the seventh

century B.C., led the list "not so much be-

cause they were money as because they were

treasured" (Neale 1976: 45, 51).

   Those who held gold and silver, whether

they ruled states, religious bodies, aristo-

cratic families, or whatever, could feel

confident of the stability of their hoards in

the future as well as the present, at home as

well as abroad.  As these magnates, especially

the rulers of states, harnessed bureaucrats

and soldiers to their service, they found them

unwilling to accept as pay anything but pre-

cious metals.  From a very early time, more-

over, the military capability of a state

depended not only on numbers and weapons, but

on having a storehouse of treasure to bribe

allies, ransom prisoners, purchase supplies,

pay indemnities, and so on (Grierson 1959).

In Neale's words, "one cannot have a pig feast

with goat meat, and Charles II and Louis XIV

could not conduct a war" without gold and

silver (1976: 55).

   Wallerstein is aware that bullion provided

"a monetary base for circulation within Eu-

rope" (1974: 41), but does not fully appreci-

ate its significance for war and diplomacy.

His classification of precious metals as

preciosities, and the distinction he makes

between these and essential goods, cancel out

the few passing references to this critical

function (e.g., 1974: 197).  As a consequence

he overlooks an old and fascinating, and

perhaps systemic, pattern in long distance

trade.  Since antiquity, expanding empires

have acquired precious metals and other highly

valued luxuries, not only by plunder and

piracy, but by exporting finished goods, above

all cloth.  Adams, for example, describes how

ancient Mesopotamia acquired lapis-lazuli,

pearls, rare woods, ivory, gold, and silver

from the "barbarian" interior of Anatolia.

The major export to this backward area was

woolen cloth, so much that, in addition to the

roughly 50,000 sheep it raised, Mesopotamia

imported raw wool (1974: 246-47).  Similarly,

in the early Christian centuries, Indian

traders extracted precious metals and spices

from the evolving kingdoms of Southeast Asia,

whose divine right rulers were ceremonially

inducted into the Kshatriya caste by immigrant

Brahmin priests.  Committed to the intensifi-

cation of production within their respective

territories, these rulers imported status

goods, among them beads and cloth (Wheatley


   The theme of precious metals for cloth had

its counterpart in ancient China where the

imperial court periodically declared that

payments of all kinds should be made in silk

and porcelain, brocade and lacquerware, rather

than in bullion or coin (Fairbank 1969: 75;

Servoise 1966; Yang 1952).  Like India, China

was one of the great civilizations that over

the centuries stockpiled precious stones and

metals against an impressive outflow of fin-

ished textiles.  To borrow Braudel's imagery,

civilizations like these produced no metals

but drained them from the whole world (1973:


   It should be no surprise, then, that Euro-

peans were historically preoccupied with the

outflow of silver and gold, (much of it ac-

quired through trade and plunder, some of it

from European mines), and that they too saw a

connection between this movement and the

movement of cloth.  In A.D. 14-37, Tiberius

prohibited wearing (imported) silk in Rome,

his regulation, according to Needham, closely

following a series of Chinese reforms (A.D. 9-

23) in which gold coins were called in to be

exchanged for bronze causing a "drain on world

gold circulation" (1954: 109).  Over the next

several centuries, rulers throughout Europe

similarly passed sumptuary laws in part to

stem the export of metals, restricting even

the textiles produced by their European neigh-

bors (e.g., Miller 1969: 218-20; Miskimin

1969: 149-150).  In addition to providing the

coinage these rulers needed to pay loyal

dependents and bureaucrats, treasure was the

"sinews of war" -- a point well illustrated by

the predicament of the late medieval Duke of

Burgundy who had difficulty ransoming his son

from the Turks because too many gold coins had

been drained off to England to purchase Eng-

lish cloth, which this Duke had unsuccessfully

tried to ban from his realm (Munro 1972: 53-


   The familiar mercantilist doctrines of the

seventeenth and eighteenth centuries also

pointed to a connection between cloth and

gold.  Belaboring the dangers that were inher-

ent in the export of precious metals, the more

farsighted economists proposed that public

policy should bolster up textile industries,

cheapen labor and other factors of production,

and promote the export of manufactures instead

of bullion (e.g., Heckscher 1955: 188).

   Wallerstein's treatment of the secular, if

uneven, export of metals from Europe is con-

tradictory.  In addition to citing Andrew

Watson's reference to the "strong power of

India and China to attract precious metals

from other parts of the world" (quoted in

1974: 39-40), he suggests in a footnote that

readers consult the "remarkable collaborative

article" by Lopez, Miskimin, and Udovitch in

which "they argue very convincingly that the

years 1350-1500 see a steady outflow of bul-

lion from north-west Europe to Italy to the

Levant to India" (1974: 40, n. 85).  Yet

Wallerstein cannot explain why England and

France "complained bitterly" about this out-

flow, nor why Europeans passionately hoarded

bullion at the same time that they exported it

extensively to the East (1974: 329-330).  At

one point he calls attention to the distinc-

tion between "bullion as money" and "hoarded

bullion" or treasure (1974: 333); but else-

where simple formulae obscure the complex uses

of precious metals: "the bullion flowed east

to decorate the temples, palaces, and clothing

of Asian aristocratic classes and the jewels

and spices flowed west" (1974: 41) -- an

innocuous exchange of windfalls, irrelevant to

competition for energy among great powers.

   To the extent that, contrary to Waller-

stein, the flow of precious metals was not

benign, but was related, however indirectly,

to energy mobilization, it is possible to

hypothesize a precapitalist world-system, in

which core-areas accumulated precious metals

while exporting manufactures, whereas periphe-

ral areas gave up these metals (and often

slaves) against an inflow of finished goods.

As in the modern world-system, most areas fit

neither of these categories but constituted

either external arenas, or semiperipheral

"layers within layers."

   Given the hypothesized system, precapita-

list Europe was not simply marginal to the

older, better established civilizations of the

Levant and Asia; it was peripheral to these

civilizations whose development it partially

supported through the export of metals and, in

the early Middle Ages, also of slaves (Verlin-

den 1955).  As such its trajectory of develop-

ment might fruitfully be compared with that of

other bullion-losing, textile-importing areas

such as Southeast Asia and West Africa, rather

than exclusively with energy-gaining China as

is often done.  Another parallel to explore is

that of the handful of twentieth-century

underdeveloped countries which, by accident of

geography and environmental resources, are

well enough situated to withdraw from external

pressure, successfully defend against subse-

quent penetration, substitute for imported

manufactures, and eventually export manufac-

tures in lieu of energy (Seers 1970).

   For Europe, the hypothesized conversion

from periphery to core took many centuries

during which serious reversals and a great

deal of internal competition occurred.  At

various points different regions held the

initiative in the conversion process, and as a

result, they functioned as minor core areas

within Europe itself.  Northern Italy, Flan-

ders, and (eventually) England are the prime

examples.  Yet the complexity which resulted

from the simultaneous expansion of several

incipient centers of development also had a

certain coherence if one accepts the existence

of a precapitalist world-system.  For that

system points to cloth manufacture as the

central element in the transition from a

dependent to a dominant relationship with the

Levant and Far East.  It suggests that there

were successive, cloth-centered, European

strategies to retreat from, then match, and

finally to undermine the textile-producing,

Oriental areas toward which bullion was mov-

ing.  The most successful strategies over the

long run, if not the short run, appear to have

been based on wool -- and for good reason.

Until Europeans finally penetrated India,

which was not until the eighteenth century,

cotton was an Asian specialty and, as Pirenne

once wrote, to carry silk to an Oriental

monarch was "like carrying water to the river"

(1909: 310, n. 2).  When Marc Bloch, in Feudal

Society, referred to the "revolution which saw

our Western countries embarking on the econom-

ic conquest of the world by way of the East,"

he had in mind the explosion of export-orient-

ed woolen cloth manufacturing in towns and

cities all over the map of Europe (1961: 70).

   Textiles figure importantly in Waller-

stein's account of numerous precapitalist

events.  But they figure as factors among

other factors, rather than as central ele-

ments.  As such it is difficult to appreciate

the extent to which textile manufacturing, in

and of itself, contributed to the fundamental

processes of regional differentiation and

inter-regional competition prior to the capi-

talist breakthrough.  Wallerstein's treatment

of the rise of England illustrates this point.

A presumably exhaustive presentation of fac-

tors assembled to account for this critical

juncture identifies textiles as "the hub

of...export trade," but it does not assess the

significance of England's abundant and rich

pastures for the competitiveness of its cloths

in foreign markets (1974: 228-235).  In the

context of analyzing the failure of Spain to

consolidate its empire, Wallerstein many pages

earlier alludes to the natural advantage of

English pastures (1974: 91); and an unrelated

footnote somewhat later quotes Bowden: "It was

England's fortune that she possessed a quasi-

monopoly of long-staple wool" (1974: 280, n.

268).  Yet the only factor of environmental

significance to figure as an "accidental edge"

in the actual analysis of England's rise is

the nation's unusual insularity.

   Regarding England's relationship to more

developed, continental European powers, Wal-

lerstein is also unfocused.  At one point he

describes this nation as industrially back-

ward, even in the mid-sixteenth century, and

as having been a virtual colony in the Middle

Ages (1974: 227).  Data pertinent to these

characterizations, however, are not brought to

bear on the argument, but are scattered throu-

ghout the book.  A summary in Chapter One of

the factors that produced the crisis of feu-

dalism mentions, almost in passing, that

"within Europe, there were at least two small-

er world-economies, a medium sized one based

on the city-states of northern Italy and a

smaller one based on the city-states (sic) of

Flanders and northern Germany" (1974: 36-37).

Although he suggests that "most of Europe was

not directly involved in these networks,"

subsequent footnotes reveal that before the

mid-fourteenth century, the principle markets

for England's raw wool were the cloth indus-

tries of Italy (1974: 150, n. 73) and Flanders

(1974: 229, n. 21).

   Another footnote quotes Postan, who drew a

connection between the early fourteenth-centu-

ry "collapse of Italian finance...the breeding

of the new cloth industry (in England)," and

the Hundred Years War (1974: 28, n. 44).

Wallerstein, however, does not pursue the

implications of this note, using the Hundred

Years War only as one of the factors that

intensified the crisis of feudalism by forcing

states to adopt war economies, and hence to

increase taxes (1974: 21, 28-29).  Nor does

his analysis bring out the subsequent phase of

Italian imperialism in England.  As the devel-

opment of the English woolen industry intensi-

fied competition for raw wool on the conti-

nent, north Italian cities increasingly spe-

cialized in the manufacture of silks, bro-

cades, and velvets, and in the transhipment of

Oriental luxuries acquired through long dis-

tance trade.  Wallerstein, borrowing Postan's

phrase, refers to the "precocious mercantil-

ism" of the rising English who, in the fif-

teenth century, squeezed out "alien merchants,

the Italians in particular..."  But this

reference, embedded in the analysis of the

rise of England and coming on page 229, is

detached from an explanation for anti-Italian

sentiment.  The explanation is implicit in the

footnote on page 40 (mentioned above) which

concerns the "steady outflow of bullion from

northwest Europe to Italy to the Levant to

India," an outflow that moved against Italian

and Oriental wares (Holmes 1960).

   In other words, The Modern World-System,

notwithstanding its contribution to elucidat-

ing a global economy, contains no sustained

discussion of the relationship between the

colonial pressure exerted over England by

Flanders and northern Italy, and England's

resistance to this pressure as manifested in

the expulsion of Italian financiers and mer-

chants, the development of an indigenous

textile industry, the enactment of endless

sumptuary laws, and the pursuit of war, just

as there is no concentrated assessment of the

environmental conditions that permitted this

relatively small but fortunate nation to raise

both sheep and armies at the same time.

   Wallerstein contributes significantly to

the refinement of a new theory of change by

providing concepts and illustrations that

clarify the two fundamental processes upon

which applications of the theory depend: the

processes of regional differentiation and

inter-regional dominance, resistance, competi-

tion.  In addition, by applying the theory to

Europe, his work pushes social science toward

an understanding of change in which Western

and non-Western, traditional and modern,

peoples are subject, if not to similar out-

comes, then at least to similar laws.  Overall

the book is supportive of a position, ex-

pressed well by William McNeill, that "surely

the assumption of uniformity in the range of

human behavior has more to recommend it than

any assertion of systematic difference between

civilized and uncivilized, rational and non-

rational, Western and non-Western modes of

conduct" (1974).  It appears, however, that

Wallerstein's analysis of England's transfor-

mation, as of many of the precapitalist events

he explores, departs from this position.

Leaving out environmental variables of signif-

icance to the process of regional differentia-

tion, and failing to examine the full implica-

tions of inter-regional dominance, it does not

raise the question whether the rise of England

can be understood within the same intellectual

framework as the fall of Poland.

   This essay has suggested that, to discover

laws that apply to precapitalist as well as

capitalist social change, it is necessary to

view the luxury trade not merely as a stimulus

to production, or an adjunct to stratifica-

tion, but also as a series of long distance

exchanges of relevance to the capture of

energy.  Because before the capitalist trans-

formation, primitive means of transportation

restricted the flow of bulk goods, we are

inclined to think that energy was stagnant

too.  If, however, some luxuries, and in

particular gold and silver, were readily

convertible into energy resources across much

of the Old World, their movement constituted a

disguised transfer of essential goods.  The

movement of slaves (not discussed here) often

paralleled the movement of gold, and was also

an energy flow.  Slaves ate for ten to twenty

years in their homeland before raiders or

traders took them off.  In effect this elimi-

nated the difficulty of transporting an equiv-

alent amount of food, especially as most of

them walked from their neolithic villages to

civilization (e.g., McNeill 1964: 28-29;

Wilbur 1943).

   There is no question that slaves and pre-

cious metals conferred status upon their

owners and can be classified as luxuries.

But, when the concept luxury is opposed to the

concept utility, the power and energy dimen-

sions of a rich man's, or a rich institut-

ion's, "things" fade from view.  Notwithstand-

ing their luxury status -- in fact precisely

because they were highly valued -- gold and

other preciosities often served a political

end, either in war or in the construction of

great patron-client chains.  As such they were

no less critical than food to resource mobili-


   The idea that one should conceptually

oppose luxuries to essentials is central to

The Modern World-System.  Difficult to main-

tain with consistency, I think that it ac-

counts for the book's confusing approach to

precapitalist social change.  Wallerstein,

however, is hardly alone to insist on it.

Rather, the implied opposition seems closely

related to other dualisms that are profoundly

ingrained in Western social thought: between

spirit and matter, mind and body, work and

play.  When placed in such a dichotomous frame

of reference, the word "luxury" conjures up

the profligate excesses that are suggested by

its Latin connotations, lasciviousness and


   In conclusion, I would like to propose that

thinking about a precapitalist world-system

will help clarify the Western intellectual

tendency to drive a wedge between necessities

and luxuries; the same wedge that separates

God from the Devil.  The self-confident ideol-

ogues of a core-area like Byzantium would not

have felt the need to stigmatize luxuries, nor

would culture brokers in peripheral areas

which over the centuries accommodated to the

demands of external dominants.  But in Western

Europe which, although peripheral, was prop-

itiously located to resist predation, vigi-

lance would have made sense.  If so, then

Wallerstein's categorical claim that luxuries

are non-essential -- read dangerous and cor-

rupting -- originated as the ideological

aspect of a secular movement from import

restriction and import substitution to eventu-

al industrial development.  Such a conclusion

puts The Modern World-System at a threshold.

While not yet giving us culture-free answers

to such "big" questions as "Why Europe?" and

"Why England?," it nevertheless offers the

intellectual tools for a new and much broader

understanding of this part of the world than

social science has had in the past.  One

anticipates that it will stimulate undertak-

ings, among historians too, that will push

familiar arguments to another level.