Regular readers of this magazine will know that one of our defining characteristics has been a commitment to understanding the Middle East in terms of political economy: the relationship between forms of political power and the social relations of production and distribution at the local and international levels. Edward Said’s literary critique of Orientalism and the search for theoretical alternatives to Marxism in the wake of the defeat of the social movements of the 1960s, the intellectual demise of dependency theory and the political demise of the Soviet Union have rendered such historical materialist approaches unfashionable. Instead, cultural studies of gender, race and ethnicity have become the favored intellectual activity of the Anglo-American left. It was necessary, sobering and productive to discard scientistic and teleological approaches to social theory. However, the now dominant tendency bends the stick too far towards textualist agnosticism, studying diffuse relations of domination and subordination and the mutual and reciprocal exercise of power. This orientation has tended to eliminate social class and economic exploitation as analytical concerns.

The realization that our knowledge must be historically and culturally contingent has frightened many into abandoning attempts to understand society. Instead, they have focused on interpreting texts and exalting the possibilities of local knowledge and individuals’ experiences.

In Frans J. Schuurman, ed., Beyond the Impasse: New Directions in Development Theory (Zed, 1993), an eclectic group of contributors reviews neo-Marxist development studies and surveys new approaches, including the emergent school of international comparative political economy. Much of this work follows Peter Evans’ pathbreaking study, Dependent Development: The Alliance of Multination, State and Local Capital in Brazil (Princeton, 1979), whose title articulates a thesis in opposition to the predictions of dependency theory. None of the contributions to Beyond the Impasse, and none of the leading figures of the new comparative political economy school, deal with the Middle East. It is, therefore, encouraging that comparative international political economy is finding its way to the Middle East, building on the work of Fred Halliday, Roger Owen and Sami Zubaida (all contributing editors of this magazine).

Simon Bromley”s Rethinking Middle East Politics (Texas, 1994) offers a comprehensive reconceptualization of modern state formation and the historical development of the social relations governing surplus appropriation. He provides a synthetic overview of the political economic transformation of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire and (more sketchily) Iran from tributary empires to national states. In the process, he presents brief critical summaries of Orientalist culturalism (exemplified by the work of Patricia Crone and Michael Cook) and Weberian modernization theory (with special attention to the work of Ernest Gellner), as well as an introduction to Aijaz Ahmad’s critique of Edward Said.

Bromley agrees with Halliday, Owen and Zubaida that the Middle East is not best understood primarily in terms of the specificities of its geography and culture (whether conceived as Islam or Arabism), or the historical role of tribes in the region. But he criticizes them for neglecting the process of “dependent state formation” and its relationship to forms of surplus appropriation. In an era of the hegemony of neoliberal magical thinking about economics, it is worth recalling that Bromley’s central analytical point derives from Marx: National markets and national states are mutually constitutive. (This insight is also the starting point of Kiren Aziz Chaudhry’s aptly titled article, “The Myths of the Market and the Common History of Late Developers,” Politics and Society 21 [September 1992].)

Robert Vitalis adopts a similar approach in his meticulously researched and empirically rich case study of Muhammad Ahmad ‘Abboud Pasha and the business elite of Egypt from the 1920s to the 1950s, When Capitalists Collide: Business Conflict and the End of Empire in Egypt (California, 1995). By examining the career of ‘Abboud, the most successful entrepreneur of monarchical Egypt, Vitalis develops a bold revisionist critique of Marxist-nationalist interpretations of twentieth-century Egyptian social history. He repudiates the categories of “comprador bourgeoisie” and “national bourgeoisie” and rejects common understandings of the linkage between capitalist development and nationalist politics. His exposition intelligently challenges the work of many who have been close to this magazine, myself included, by arguing that:

the politics of investment in Egypt were ultimately less a struggle between foreign and local capital than a conflict among local investors [indigenous Egyptians and foreign and minority permanent residents] for access to resources and control over the rents represented by industry building. (p. xii)

Though his historical investigation stops short of the 1956 Suez war, Vitalis’ analysis of the early Nasser regime is relevant to current debates over economic and political liberalization in Egypt and elsewhere.

Because Bromley and Vitalis both self-consciously present their work as revisionist polemics, they tend to bend the stick too far in the direction of monistic materialism. Bromley attributes too much to the relationship between state formation and surplus accumulation in the Middle East. Even in the US and Europe, capital accumulation, market regulation and the formation of business classes were inextricably linked to legal and military practices of states: expanding federalism in the American West; the unification of Germany in the nineteenth century; and the Marshall Plan and the restructuring of Europe after World War II. The particularities of the Middle East should not be set off against a pristine and pure model of Euro-American capitalism. Moreover, as Timothy Mitchell and Roger Owen have argued, states are not quite the tangible and fixed institutions they present themselves to be. [1]

Bromley’s method leads him to explain both Arab nationalism and political Islam as effects of dependent state formation. His insistence that these are variegated movements embedded in local specificities is a valuable corrective to the historic and current hysterical explanations prevalent in the West. But an analysis that does not seriously consider cultural particularity cannot be completely satisfying.

Vitalis, too, in his persistent drive to uncover unpredicted and incongruous alliances and rivalries based on personal or sectoral economic interest, virtually ignores culture and ideology. Tal‘at Harb, the founder of Bank Misr, was surely not the paragon of national industrial capitalism that Nasserist economic historians and he himself claimed. But it cannot be irrelevant that Harb was a devout Muslim and an ardent nationalist, in contrast to a large group of entrepreneurs whose cultural commitments were explicitly cosmopolitan. Rather than insinuate that Tal‘at Harb was a hypocrite or that ‘Abboud was actually more successful in carrying out Harb’s putative project (both of which may be true), it may also be useful to take seriously the tension between Harb’s articulated beliefs and the structural constraints of the international market.

The approach suggested here does not constitute a comprehensive replacement model for the analyses of Bromley and Vitalis or from the excellence of their work. Bromley and Vitalis are excellent polemicists, and these books should enhance the categories of political economy in discussions of the Middle East. But single-factor analyses are unlikely to provide entirely adequate accounts of the history and structure of society. Understanding that our categories of analysis are not unmediated reflections of social reality should not deter us from deploying as many of those categories as possible.


[1] Timothy Mitchell and Roger Owen, “Defining the State in the Middle East,” Middle East Studies Association Bulletin 24/2 (December 1990), pp. 179-183; Roger Owen, State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 4-6; Timothy Mitchell, “…The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics,” American Political Science Review 85/1 (1991).

How to cite this article:

Joel Beinin "Categories of Power," Middle East Report 196 (September/October 1995).

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This