Global History: A View from the South

Reviewed by Sarah

Samir Amin, Global History: A View from the South

Samir Amin offers a comprehensive view of his work, bringing together his earlier publications into an analysis that moves from the introduction of his conceptual framework, through a presentation of the shape of the tributary and capitalist world systems, to explanations of the current capitalist structure and the role of China and Russia in this history. Underlying these analyses lies a recognition of the specificity of each global system and the complexity of relations among them.

Using historical materialism as his framework, Amin challenges Marx’s and Marxist Eurocentric approaches to world history. Instead of Marx’s five stages of development (communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism), he argues that the world has gone through communism, a tributary system, and capitalism, though there should be an eventual turn to global socialism. Between 300 BCE and 1500 CE we observe a tributary world system with core and peripheral areas. Five separate regions constituted the core: China, India, the Hellenistic region (including Byzantium, Sassanids, and the Caliphate), Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. Three regions constituted the periphery: Europe, Africa, and Japan. (The Americas were not yet included.)

Instead of the typical definition of core and periphery, which primarily focuses on the economic realm, Amin argues that the tributary system is best understood with a focus on the political and ideological realms. As such, under the tributary system, at the core were the regions with a strong, centralized form of government and a universal ideology. In the periphery were geographical areas constituted by smaller, decentralized powers, and non-universal worldviews. Core and periphery had various degrees of trade, with the Hellenistic region having the largest number of links to other regions, and peripheries having the fewest. More importantly, the tributary system did not contain the concept of domination that is observed in the capitalist one. Therefore, the relationship between core and periphery at the time was very different from what we observe under capitalism.

Within the tributary system, Europe, due to its feudalistic structure, was part of the periphery, looking toward China and other areas of the core for new ideas. It is this peripheral status that permits capitalism to take off more strongly in Europe than in the core. The fact that there is no centralized power under the European feudal structure permits the empowerment of capitalist forces that are otherwise choked in the core states. For Amin, it is important that each of these core and peripheral areas had specific characteristics, both internal and in relation to the world system. Attention to these characteristics helps us better understand how transitions from one stage to another take effect.

Toward the end of the tributary era, we observe signs that stagnation in the core’s ability to increase surplus was creating a push for the development of a new system. These were early expressions of capitalist structure. Although capitalism is not solely a product of Europe, it takes off more strongly there, as Europe’s peripheral character offered the necessary flexibility for the new system to assert itself.

Amin forcefully reminds us that a market economy is not capitalism. Under the tributary system there is significant market exchange; there is surplus production that leads to market exchanges not only within the regions, but also between them. Capitalism is distinct in that economic authority predominates; the law of value drives not just the economy but all aspects of social life.

The law of value operates in two dimensions, considering only the markets of goods and capital, but leaving aside the labor market. Unlike the tributary system, capitalism does create a polarization between the core and the periphery, and a structure where the growth of the core necessitates the underdevelopment of the periphery. Amin notes that European capitalist expansion implied a more rigid arrangement of land-ownership than was observed under the tributary system, resulting in a large exodus of the peasant population. Such a shift would not have been possible without the pressure valve of emigration from the core countries.

The process of colonization embedded in this shift is one of the particular traits of the capitalist system, that of accumulation by dispossession. This trait implies that development is not possible in the periphery. Europe can become the core in the capitalist economy only through regression or dispossession of the periphery. Capitalism begins and takes hold in Europe not because of Western superiority or because of a linear evolutionary necessity to expand markets, but rather due to the combination of a need to expand markets and Europe’s peripheral character within the tributary system.

In the current capitalist global system, the economic realm becomes inseparable from the political, and together they control the structures of accumulation. This creates a condition where the core has predominance in five zones of influence: trade, technological innovation, military, culture & language, and finance. Related to these are the five zones of control: finance, technology, natural resources, media, and weapons of mass destruction.

Within the capitalist system, from 1945 through 1990, monopolies and multinationals shift from being instruments of state expansion to freeing themselves from the states’ control. While the economic realm – production – becomes globalized, the political realm remains within the limits of the state. It reduces economic policies to crisis management. However, this approach will not resolve the internal contradictions underlying these crises. Hence, global financialization becomes locked in a regressive cycle. Even the European Union, ineffective in incorporating a social dimension, remains primarily a project of market integration. Hence the economic sphere continues to dominate the social, political and cultural spheres; yet it cannot completely suppress them, and they remain as sources of change. The capitalist structure’s internal contradictions create the push for a solution, one that that rejects polarization and proposes another globalization, a socialist globalization.

Amin offers some thoughts on this transition. First, just as European capitalism developed within feudalism, so we would see socialism developing within global capitalism, not as a parallel and separate system. Global socialism is observed in the internal conflicts within all societies. These conflicts pit anti-systemic forces against those that sustain existing structures. For him, the immediate step is to build a multipolar world that allows for the strengthening of anti-systemic forces, and hence the capacity to move beyond capitalism.

This global outlook from the South offers a powerful analytical tool both to understand the rise and fall of the core in various world system structures and to learn from these the possible venues for movement toward the next, socialist, humanist stage. While helping us understand the role of China and Russia in the capitalist global system, Amin gives hope for a global socialist transformation. This offers ample room for further discussion regarding the relationship between current anti-system movements around the world (from the Arab Spring, to protests in Greece, Britain, France, the United States, to the shifting policies in much of Latin America) and Amin’s vision of the road to global socialism.

Although the book is chronologically organized, moving from 300 BCE through current changes in global capitalism, the structure of the chapters leads to some repetition and incoherence. Chapter 4, for instance, while very enlightening regarding Amin’s disagreements with Andre Gunder Frank, and while it clarifies his theoretical outlooks, seems a bit off the logical progression in the presentation of Amin’s core arguments. This, in conjunction with the fact that Amin consistently suggests we read his earlier works, and the assumption of significant background in development theory, could frustrate the neophyte or undergraduate reader. But for graduate students or scholars in the field, Amin’s reference to both specificity and generality, his skepticism toward unidirectional and deterministic outlooks, and his consideration of not only the political, but also social, cultural, and ecological factors offer a beautifully complex understanding of the global system. This nice summary of his work is helpful for those not already acquainted with him.

Sarah Hernandez Division of Social Sciences New College of Florida