Huri Islamoglu-Inan, ed., The Ottoman Empire and the World Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, and Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 1987).

Şevket Pamuk, The Ottoman Empire and European Capitalism, 1820-1913: Trade, Investment and Production (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

These books, one a collection of 17 articles and the other a monograph, offer a significant new interpretation of Middle Eastern history and, more broadly, contribute to the discussion of the origins of capitalism in the Third World.

Until recently, Orientalism and modernization theory dominated the historiography of the modern Middle East. Both perspectives characteristically posited a “traditional” or “Islamic"” Middle East distinct from the “modern” or “secular-rational"” West, and explained developments in terms of the impact of the West on the Middle East. Such interpretations have been criticized (correctly, in my opinion) as reductionist and ahistorical. Huri Islamoglu-Inan’s introduction to the book she edited is a useful synopsis of these criticisms.

As an alternative framework for interpreting modern Middle East history, these authors posit the peripheralization of the Ottoman Empire in the capitalist world economy. Their starting point is the world system perspective of I. Wallerstein (a contributor to the Islamoglu-Inan book), who argues that a Eurocentric capitalist world economy came into existence around 1500, and that subsequently other lands were incorporated into this world economy as its peripheral and semi-peripheral components. Incorporation destroyed the integrity of self-contained world empires, including that of the Ottoman dynasty which governed southeastern Europe and the Middle East. The world system perspective, unlike that of the Orientalist and modernization schools, views the development of the center (Europe) and the underdevelopment of the periphery (Asia, Africa, Latin America) as a single interrelated and mutually reinforcing process.

Like Wallerstein, other contributors to Islamoglu-Inan date the beginning of Ottoman peripheralization from the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The Ottoman world empire saw its trade and production diverted to European markets, and the state lost control over merchant capital engaged in European trade. This diversion occurred first in the Balkan provinces and later extended to the Middle East. Commercialization of agriculture and the consolidation of landed estates by provincial notables characterized this development in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Three authors — Richards, Inalcik and Pamuk — however, place greater importance on the rupture that occurred when products of European industrial capitalism invaded Ottoman markets in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Implicitly or explicitly, these authors argue that the Ottoman world empire finally disintegrated only when Manchester cottons breached its borders and opened the way for a flood of cheap European manufactured goods. This invasion set back domestic craft production and encouraged commercial agriculture. While these developments immiserated artisans and hurt merchants active in internal Ottoman trade, they enriched import-export merchants (the kernel of the comprador bourgeoisie) and commercial landowners (latifundists).

Nowhere in the Middle East were these developments more dramatic than in Egypt. Alan Richards locates the peripheralization of the Egyptian economy within the “primitive accumulation” phase of capitalism that accompanied 19th-century state formation. Peter Gran argues that indigeous capitalist development led by merchant-entrepreneurs was already underway in 18th-century Egypt, only to be aborted by the more powerful forces of European industrial capitalism in the following century.

These apparently conflicting explanations of how and when capitalism entered the Middle East suggest that one must, for analytic purposes, separate peripheralization from the development of capitalist relations of production inside the peripheral society. A social formation such as the Ottoman empire can become peripheralized within the capitalist world economy while preserving within itself pre-capitalist modes of production. One may date the beginnings of peripheralization from the 16th century, but peripheral capitalist development only got underway in the 19th century under the combined effect of the “imperialism of free trade,” which disrupted Middle Eastern networks of production and trade, and of the export of European capital in the form of loans and investments. This exported capital created capitalist enterprises and led to European control over debtor governments’ finances.

The fate of the silk industry in Bursa (Anatolia) and in Mount Lebanon is instructive. M. Qisakga demonstrates that the Bursa silk-weaving industry was already affected by the European economy at the end of the 16th century, while Donald Quataert’s contribution suggests that not until the 19th century did this industry become capitalist, characterized by European investment and the support of the European-run Ottoman Public Debt Administration. Roger Owen argues that a form of peripheral capitalism also developed in the Mount Lebanon silk-reeling industry in the 19th century. It remained labor-intensive, technologically backward and entirely dependent on the demands of the international (especially French) market.

Şevket Pamuk’s tightly argued historical monograph shows in detail the nuances attendant on the incorporation of the Ottoman empire into the industrial capitalist world economy of 1820-1913. Using foreign trade and terms-of-trade statistics, Pamuk demonstrates that the rate of Ottoman incorporation was uneven and was linked to changing levels of economic activity in the capitalist center. He notes regional variations in Ottoman integration, between coasts and their hinterlands, for example, and the critical role of railroads in “opening up” the interior. Temporarily and locally, incorporation might even be reversed.

Integration not only varied geographically, but the development of capitalist relations of production appears to have differed sectorally between manufacturing and agriculture. Pamuk demonstrates that Ottoman incorporation into the world economy did not lead to a widespread growth of capitalist relations of production in farming. Small peasant farming predominated even in the most highly commercialized regions. This Pamuk attributes in part to the concern of the Ottoman bureaucracy to preserve the small peasantry (who formed the bureaucracy’s tax base) and to prevent their proletarianization. If Pamuk had extended his investigation to include relations of production among artisans, especially the urban weavers who were profoundly affected by the invasion of European goods, he might have found elements of a capitalist transition in the manufacturing sector.

The question of the state’s role in societies undergoing peripheralization, to which many of these authors refer, is fertile ground for future research. The autonomy of the Ottoman state vis-à-vis the capitalist world economy is a major theme in Pamuk’s and Sunar’s contributions. Their accounts caution against overdeterminism in the study of peripheralization. Although the world-system perspective offers a promising framework for understanding Middle Eastern history, the ways in which Middle Eastern states and societies mediated or resisted the demands of the world economy determined the particular features of peripheralization.

These books will certainly interest students of Middle Eastern political economy, but are also useful for comparative studies of Third World development. Historians will appreciate that the authors are on the cutting edge of Middle East historiography as they seek a better understanding of the dynamic relationship between state and society in the Ottoman empire. Many contributors have used Ottoman archives, revealing both the richness and the limitations of the socioeconomic date these records contain.

How to cite this article:

James A. Reilly "Capitalism and the Ottoman Empire," Middle East Report 157 (March/April 1989).

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