Samir Amin, Eurocentrism (trans. Russell Moore) (Monthly Review Press, 1989).
The awakening of the Third World and the formation of nation states in the former colonies has brought about a liberalizing philosophy of cultural affirmation of local traditions. One could conveniently characterize this process as a reaction to Western cultural domination from the colonial era. Samir Amin argues that “Eurocentrism” today operates not only as a form of external domination but also as a mechanism of cultural formation within non-European cultures.
Eurocentrism appears at a time of growing concern about cultural relativism, the decline of humanistic universalism, and the critique of the Western project of rationalization and modernity. “Eurocentrism,” meaning a mode of understanding the culture of the other purely in terms of Western cultural principles and forms of domination, has provoked several critiques: a) an epistemological conceptualization of cultural relativism; and b) a reaffirmation of objectivism and the universality of Western humanitarian, cultural principles.
Amin’s perspective, both Third Worldist and Marxist, is unique and peculiar. At one time, these views would not have appeared contradictory, but Third Worldism today endorses cultural relativism while Marxism remains anchored in humanistic universalism. Amin’s Eurocentrism is an attempt to bridge this gap.
Following lines drawn earlier in his economic writings, Amin argues for a universal pre-capitalist tributary mode of production and culture. “Eurocentrism” he defines as the dominant culture reformulating capitalism, in opposition to a polycentered multiculturalism built on the globalism of the communication patterns already created by capitalism.
Yet Eurocentrism remains rather vague, with no reference to earlier attempts to understand “Occidentalism” and its modes of cultural domination. Amin criticizes Islamic fundamentalism, but gives little attention to more recent attempts to theorize cultural relativism in Third World countries. A systematic discussion of these concepts would have helped us to understand better how Western mechanisms of cultural domination today operate within all cultures, and are no longer restricted to Europeans and North Americans. Amin restricts Eurocentrism ideologically to the antagonism between capitalist culture and local cultural traditions, defining it as “a distortion — albeit a systematic and important one — from which the majority of dominant social theories and ideologies suffer.” It is a meta-theoretical and meta-scientific “paradigm” which enters by disguise “in the gray areas of seemingly obvious facts and common sense.”
Amin proposes a non-Eurocentric reading of the world’s cultural development and aims to give “another vision of this history, at least for the period to which the mythological and real Europe belongs, from Greek antiquity through the Middle Ages.” This alternative remains tied to Amin’s Marxist evolutionism, viewing human history in terms of transitions from primitive communalism to a tributary mode of production to capitalism. The tributary mode of production — Amin’s innovation and distinct contribution to Marxist theory — is presented here as a general structural pattern of the pre-capitalist world, in which religion plays a predominant role. Amin argues that the emergence of Islam in the Mediterranean world meant a tributary reconstruction of the social structure prevalent in Egypt in late antiquity. This reconstruction, and its spread to the West, led to the universalization of class structures and belief systems represented both in Islamic orthodoxy and in the scholasticism of medieval Christianity.
Amin then tries to show how the cultural classes of late antiquity — the gnostic elite with its mastery of reason and claim to divine inspiration, the popular masses adhering to formalistic interpretations of religion, the intermediate class able to reconcile religion with reason but rejecting divine inspiration — were ideologically integrated into the social structure of the Middle Ages both in the Christian world and in Islam. Drawing on Martin Bernal’s thesis that nineteenth-century historical criticism was fundamentally inspired by “Hellenomania,” Amin shows how the classifications for separating Eastern and Western roots of cultural development in antiquity were present in modem historicism and thus formed a pattern of modem Western cultural authentication.
In the chapter on capitalist culture, Amin again avoids concepts like modernity or more critical notions like commodity and mass or consumer culture. He argues instead for an all-embracing notion of capitalist culture which includes the transformation of scholasticism by nascent capitalist relations, a separate dynamic of religious authentication of Christianity through Protestantism and, linked with this, the construction of Eurocentric culture and science along with the capitalist ideology of Eurocentric economism. Against this dynamic, Amin proposes “that development must take place by means of a rupture with everything that submission to the law of international value implies…. Development within the world capitalist system remains, for the peoples of the periphery, an impasse.”
Despite his obvious preference for humanistic universalism, Amin argues, in the end, for economic encapsulation of the Third World, and a “reconstruction of social theory along truly universalist lines.” This paradox, like Amin’s optimistic “teleology” for the Third World separate from capitalism, is the result of his otherwise fruitfully and temptingly applied “critique.”
This book attempts to understand the mechanisms of how religions and theories of social order are reshaped within a recurrent process of cultural globalization. Much of the analysis, however, remains fraught with structuralist antagonisms. Amin remains puzzled that peoples today, perhaps as a result of globalization, are integrating their desires for ideas and commodities, and that this commingling finds a lively expression in the economic cultures of Third World countries which have started to encompass alternative forms of modernity. Eurocentrism in this respect represents an interesting and stimulating, but nevertheless somewhat outdated, conceptual framework.