Bryan S. Turner, Capitalism and Class in the Middle East: Theories of Social Change and Economic Development (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1984).


This collection of essays represents a good introduction to the current debates on the theory of development, and will be mainly, useful to those already somewhat familiar with the terms of those debates. Turner’s central theme is that neither the purely “internalist” approach of Orientalism nor the purely ldquo;externalist” approach of dependency theory are adequate to the study of the Middle East. What is needed is an approach which places the internal structures of different societies in the context of global capitalism, without rendering them simply as effects of external forces.

Turner’s critique centers around his argument that England, which Orientalism takes as the model for development, is quite unique even in European history. Turner argues that strong central states do not appear only in the East, and in any case they do not inhibit capitalism. On the contrary, strong central states which directly assume the role of capitalist entrepreneur are characteristic of Europe and it is precisely the weakness of the state in the Orient which inhibited capitalist development there.

The entrepreneurial role of the state in much of the West also damages another of Orientalism’s central myths: that European capitalism developed through the initiative of independent middle-class entrepreneurs and that the “backward” Orient is characterized by “the missing middle class.” Turner argues that “the central role of the state, the absence of a powerful middle class and the rise of a new middle class in the Middle East does not appear to be as historically peculiar as commonplace. The really unique case remains Britain….” (p. 61)

Dependency theory is the most common variant of what Turner calls the externalist argument. Orientalism views the history of the East as an “expressive totality” in which literally everything worthy of note expresses the unfolding of an Islamic essence. (69) Dependency theory is equally essentialist in seeing the entire world since the 15th century as the expression of the unfolding of global capitalism. Turner calls for more attention to the internal social structures, and it is here that Capitalism and Class is most interesting and most problematic.

The most serious problem is Turner’s adherence to structuralist conceptualizations of societies and social change. In his introduction, Turner rejects structuralist determinism as “inadequate” and “too abstract to give any account of actual changes in the political and social organisation of modern societies.” (4) But in the essays which make up the body of the book, Turner adopts structuralism without reservation. He states bluntly in “Middle Classes and Entrepreneurship” that “social classes are the effects of the structures of modes of production.” (46) Politics appear throughout the book as epiphenomena of the more fundamental working out of “articulations” of modes of production and of contradictions internal to modes (the famous forces of production/relations of production dialectic). His structuralist theorizing detracts significantly from his often good accounts of class struggles and social change in the Middle East.

Turner’s introduction can stand as commentary on the text at this point. Structuralism is indeed inadequate. It is too idealist, too abstract, and too disconnected from real social struggle. The introduction is an indication that structuralism’s recent grip on Marxist theory is loosening. Capitalism and Class in the Middle East is both a good example of the problems with Marxist theories of development and a part of the movement forward.

How to cite this article:

Danny Reachard "Turner, Capitalism and Class in the Middle East," Middle East Report 141 (July/August 1986).

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