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Middle East and moral Dilemmas: The Problem of studying Capitalism

Kylie Broderick | University of North Carolina
Issue 02 - December 2020


    he Background

Those of us studying the history of capitalism in the Middle East are caught in a moral dilemma.


   It is a problem embedded in the very basis of studying the region itself. Orientalism, the study of the so-designated “Orient,” has been a powerful, trapping obstacle for anti-Orientalists to overcome. Its ideology that the Middle East is a static and backwards-facing civilization that is supposedly the antithesis of the industrious and forward-facing West has long been an addictive myth to European and US powers looking for the moral justification to dominate. Even today, the Middle East is frequently depicted by Western[1] politicians and popular media as being alien and adverse to the values of the modern era—arguments repackaging Orientalist rhetoric in new forms of socially acceptable racism. Entire patrimonial security and knowledge production industries have been built to explain what supposedly went wrong with the Middle East, what can be done, and who should be responsible for surveilling, policing, and educating the region.


    The power of Orientalism is that it often shrinks all possible discussions one might have about the non-West into one: it forces scholars to engage in bad faith arguments that have to take seriously the question about what kinds of people are “civilized.” As such, a moral priority for scholars of the Middle East is not only to contest this characterization, but to debunk it completely. Historians do so by presenting historical evidence showing the exact opposite—that, like everywhere in the world, the Middle East has never been static, that its intercommunal relations are multifaceted, that its societies are complex.


    The invention of capitalism—and particularly industrialized capitalism—is widely considered to be one of the core progenitors of “Western values,” alongside the Enlightenment, separation of Church and state, and other pithy brandings. As such, for those studying the history of capitalism, challenging the myth naturalizing Western dominance comes in the form of complicating the idea that capitalism was a European invention.


   But there’s a catch. On one hand, critical study of the political-economic development of places such as the Middle East seems to hold the answer to escape Orientalism. After all, if scholars can prove that the non-West was engaging in increasingly complex market activities, instead of barter and haggling, then scholars can prove that the West was not quite the monolithically modernizing force it smugly declares itself to be.


     But on the other hand, the way we tell this history tends to couple modernizing in the modern world as a synonym for progress. There is an implicit moral evaluation here: a society making progress along predetermined indices (infrastructure, rule of law, etc.) are valuable societies.  The problem is that our conception of the modern is always tightly linked to the development of capitalism. Societies that are locatable through advanced capitalistic economic practices—credit, money-contracts, futures, privatization, capital accumulation, and other practices suggesting capitalism is present—are modernizing, and hence, are making progress. How have we, as Neo-Marxist critics, inadvertently internalized the idea that the invisible hand of the market is guiding us toward a universally-applicable form of progress?


    On its face, the idea that Neo-Marxists would internalize the idea that capitalism denotes what societies are valuable seems impossible. Neo-Marxists, like the Marxists of old, are guided by analyses of material conditions that lay bare the barbarism, exploitation, and domination endemic to the very nature of capitalism. To the original focus on the natural global conflict between the proletariat and bourgeois, Neo-Marxists have added new categories to be studied as relevant to the expression of class struggles: gender, race, sexuality, and other status demarcations. Using all of these tools, Neo-Marxists rebuff the idea that capitalism has provided anything positive in our world. The man-made privations, dispossession, poverty, and destruction that capitalism has created is unrivaled in any period in history.


    And yet, it seems that Neo-Marxist scholars studying the Middle East have indeed been caught in a double-bind: on one hand, in reaction to a world hostile to the Middle East, we seek to show that the Middle East has contained advanced economic processes that predate sustained European intervention in the region stemming from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. The Middle East, we say, did not need Europe to modernize. It did that on its own. On the other hand, however, based on a deep repugnance for capitalism, we seek to interrogate capitalism where we find it in the historical record. In other words, we want to prove that the Middle East did not need Europe to be modern (or, by implication, capitalistic) but we inadvertently also reify that the Middle East was indigenously “progressing” primarily by locating capitalistic practices in the historical record. There is currently no real definition of progress—of modernizing—that does not lean on capitalism. Repudiating Orientalism in the study of the Middle East, for now, largely requires that we rely on finding evidence of capitalism in the pre-Napoleonic Middle East.


     Equating modernizing to the presence of capitalism in society simultaneously endows capitalism with an implicit moral good. This article asks: how do we escape this bind in attempting to de-Orientalize the study of the Middle East? Is finding the presence of capitalism or capitalistic practices in modern-age societies the only way to evaluate whether those societies are progressing? Must we accept Eurocentric and Western-focused depictions of what makes society good and advanced, or are there other ways to track the progress of societies outside of the Western world?


[1] By using this term, I’m sensitive to repeating “the West and the rest” binary. It’s not my intention here. I am shorthand using the term “West” NOT to show cultural or historical unity between the various European countries and the settler colonies of the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and others. That grouping is arbitrary—there never has been a culturally/experientially homogenous West, and it is not a civilization. I am specifically following Wallerstein’s world-systems theory, which sees these nations as grouped together as “core.” I will explain more on that farther down.

Edward Said Orientalism

Edward Said, author of 'Orientalism'

The Literature

Early work that sought to challenge the idea that capitalist practice arose in the West and was unilaterally impressed upon the Middle East through subsequent military imperialism began in the 1990s. Many of the works published innovated on Wallerstein’s world-systems theory. World-systems theory maps a history of capitalism onto a modern world in which certain areas are the “haves,” and some are the “have-notes.” The haves consolidated political-economic power through socially exploiting other areas roped into the newly arising world-system through military imperialism and colonialism, or through inaugurating favorable trade relationships which were exploitative of Europe’s partners.[1] The places able to become dominant, the core, followed the general contours of Europe and eventually linked to the United States. The have-nots, or the places that entered the modern age as exploited, physically transformed to be geared toward European consumption needs by becoming producers of key raw materials like cotton and rubber, became the periphery.[2]


   Using this framework, many scholars agree that the Ottoman empire was becoming peripheralized throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and was completely peripheralized by the mid-19th to 20th centuries—meaning, at this point, the Ottoman Empire had been fully pulled into an unfavorable political, economic, and social relationship with Europe. However, scholars of Middle East capitalism reject the idea that Europe was able to impose capitalism unilaterally. Archival evidence shows that the many societies in the Ottoman era were already engaging in capitalistic practices prior to Europe’s sustained presence. This explicitly rejects Orientalist tropes but reifies capitalism as a morally valuable historical force.


    Studying capitalism in a local context reveals the ways Middle Eastern peoples were agents in crafting their own histories. In their respective scholarship, Kenneth Cuno and Beshara Doumani both reach back into the 18th century and discovered that complex socioeconomic practices—capitalistic ones—were already indigenously embedded in the social, economic, and political environment of Egyptian (Mansoura) and Palestinian (Nablus) societies. By reading Islamic court records, Cuno finds that before the Ottoman Empire was incorporated into European system, it was already capitalistic: Ottoman-governed peoples were engaged in moneylending and advanced internal trade networks, had courts mediating private usership of land, and were experiencing arising class striations. The interjection of Napoleon halfway through the history Cuno tells does not fundamentally change the direction of Egyptian society—it was already becoming capitalistic with distinct forms of class consciousness among discretely-organized classes of workers, merchants, and the owners of capital. Europe perhaps only hastened the process of completely embracing capitalism.

     Using family archives as well as Islamic court records, Doumani similarly finds that “many of the institutions and practices assumed to be the products of an externally imposed capitalist transformation existed before European hegemony and may, in fact, have helped pave the way for both European economic expansion and Ottoman reforms.” (4) In the two centuries that Doumani takes as his study, he finds that capitalistic practices came from within the Ottoman Empire by the early 19th century, including that “the processes of peasant differentiation, urban-rural integration, commoditization of land, and monetization of the rural economy—all increasingly driven by pervasive money lending practices—came to dominate everyday life...” (169) Europe created nothing by way of capitalist developments in the Ottoman Empire. Here again, Europe merely eased its own ability to quickly peripheralize the Ottoman sphere—or, rather, Europe took advantage of an Ottoman Empire that peripheralized itself.


    Similarly, Peter Gran traces the impact of developing capitalist practices by studying intellectual life in Egypt from 1740-1860. The book tracks how the complicated political, economic, and social interactions between the Ottoman Mamluk beys and the indigenous Egyptian bourgeoisie—themselves made up of an Egyptian merchant class (which made its money through trade with Europe), privileged ‘ulama, and Sufi orders—gave rise to a secular milieu that was supportive of the development of capitalism. Much like Kenneth Cuno, this proto-capitalist culture primarily arose from the interactions between local forces and Ottoman ones.


     All three of these works are considered to be essential in how to innovatively use archival sources and read them against the grain. They are at the base of an intellectual mode that rejects the dominant Orientalist model insisting that the West brought modernity to the Middle East by Napoleon’s sword. For Neo-Marxists, these three works are considered the canon upon which many future studies of capitalism were based, as they challenge the assumption that capitalism arose in a self-contained Europe. And yet, none of these works challenge that finding capitalism is the way in which scholars prove that the variously-conceived “Islamic world,” Ottoman Empire, or Middle East was evidently keeping up with the West. Capitalism in each of these tales remains the central evidence denoting each society was changing, progressing, and becoming more advanced. This is the moral dilemma: if capitalism is the only way to measure that a society is progressing, then we must find it in the historical record or else concede that Europe was the original and only force of progress. But accepting this logic implies that capitalism is doing something valuable and is contributing something positive in the societies in which it appears. In the literature I have so far described, historians of capitalism have chosen to prioritize the first point—rebuff Orientalism, show that the Middle East was never backwards by showing it was engaging in the ultimate modernizing practice: capitalism. They have neglected to untangle the second point, which is that they are therefore unintentionally endowing capitalism with a moral good by allowing capitalists to define what is progress.


     Newer histories of the political economic development of the non-West often contend with the complicated reality of studying capitalism in the pre-18th century non-West. John Tutino’s The Mexican Heartland (2017) challenges the flattening historical hegemony of capitalism, carried on European ships and imposed on the New World—in this case, the Mexican heartland at the core of his story. As he summarizes, “Heartland communities shaped, supplied, and subsidized capitalism—commercial, industrial, and national—until urbanization stripped them of the autonomies that for half a millennium had allowed them to sustain themselves, the city of Mexico, mines and global trade, local and national industries.” While the book again asserts that capitalism is a European invention, capitalism is no source for good in The Mexican Heartland. Tutino also studies the ways the indigenous people created syncretic forms of capitalism. Tracking these autonomies throughout the ages allows the author to understand how capitalism as a socioeconomic organizing model was alternatively rebuffed or accepted over the centuries. Interestingly, Tutino explicitly ties what one might consider morally or socially derogatory elements to the emergence of capitalism, particularly the expression of patriarchy. “Heartland capitalism thrived when it sustained patriarchal families and the communities that grounded their autonomies; it faced challenges when predatory drives for profit threatened the stabilizing mix of patriarchy, family, and community autonomies.” (16) As such, Tutino’s book offers key evidence aiding how one might study the history of capitalism in the non-West in ways that might undermine the connective tissue linking progress to capitalist modernity. The assertions of this book challenge the idea that capitalism is a source of progressive, future-oriented organizing. Among a good deal of other factors, it could only become powerful by tapping into the stabilizing force of patriarchal domination. It fully succeeded by the 20th century when it impoverished the vast majority and destroyed traditional autonomic organization by ushering people into sprawling urbanities. If these conditions truthfully denote the status of modernity, then it seems difficult to label them as evidence of “progress” that alludes to a common good.


     Meanwhile, Timur Kuran offers an interesting, albeit unanticipated, rejoinder to the interrogation of Middle Eastern capitalism.[3]  In it, Kuran argues that, despite the fact that the Middle East economically advanced around the 10th century, it subsequently fell behind Europe’s ability to pool resources, coordinate productive activities, and conduct exchanges. Although by the start of the 20th century, the region had firmly adopted capitalism, it still struggles to play catch-up. He suggests that Islamic institutions were the cause of the delay in the Middle East’s ability to adopt capitalism. “The institutions that generated evolutionary bottlenecks include: 1) the Islamic law of inheritance, which inhibited capital accumulation; 2) the strict individualism of Islamic law and its lack of a concept of corporation, which hindered organizational development and contributed to keeping civil society weak; and 3) the waqf, Islam’s distinct form of trust, which locked vast resources into organizations likely to become dysfunctional over time.” On its face, this seems to reiterate some of the Orientalist tropes cloaked in contemporary rhetoric: it asserts that Islam (or Islamic practice) is antithetical to capitalism and, therefore, to modernizing and modernity. Yet, if we take seriously the idea that Islam challenges capitalism by the very root of its institutions (itself a fraught assumption), a Neo-Marxist might take this as a positive sign. If we understand capitalism to be a sign of social decay, physical destruction, and socio-economic greed, rather than of building, sustainability, and creation—of what I would call progress—then obstacles to it are intrinsically good. Weber asked what it was about Protestants that made them especially good capitalists, and so it follows that one might therefore ask, per Kuran, what it is about Muslims that make them especially good challengers to it.


     To be sure, this question invites a reductively simple binary (and one that dog whistles to a supposed civilizational clash). After all, the works mentioned in this section have gone to great lengths to show that wherever capitalism has appeared in the region, it has not appeared all at once from one source, nor has it impacted all communities in equal ways. Not all peoples and places have been obstacles. Attitudes toward capitalism have also, as Tutino shows, changed over time. Yet, I think the question nevertheless suggests that a different kind of analysis might be in order for those who study capitalism in the non-West: if capitalism is not a sign of progress, but rather a sign of decline, then what are objects, trends, and concepts that show a continuity of resistance to capitalism? What are some that knock capitalism off as the prime force of analysis at all?


[1] Often, in the case of the Ottoman Empire, through concessions.

[2] Or the semi-periphery, depending on their degree of independence.

[3] Timur’s use of the word “underdeveloped” alludes to sympathies to capitalism-as-progress canon. One critical of the use of the word underdeveloped asks who is being developed towards what, exactly?


Anti-Capitalist Protesters in Trafalgar Square, London.

The Task

What is at stake here?


     To Neo-Marxists—and Marxists of old—our basic undergirding ideology is that the embrace of capitalism was and is a bad thing. It is a bad thing both in terms of ethics—capitalism drives the suffering of most of the world for the benefit of a thin band of global privileged—but it is also bad in terms of the material world. Capitalism has systematically alienated people from their lands, forced the world into a relation of mass exploitation in which the majority of people toil for the rich, erased traditions of sustainability and kinship, and has created a growth mechanism that is causing planetary climate change that will kill us. Measuring modernity—or “progress”—by synonymizing it with finding capitalism or capitalist practice in non-Europe prior to Europe’s sustained intervention diffuses our ability to pinpoint who and what were responsible for the world-destroying ideology of capitalism.


     On the flipside, however, re-centering the Middle East in the telling of global history does the work of de-centering the West as the maker of history. We are undoubtedly living in the capitalist age, and one with a clear hierarchy of power. If capitalism is supposedly the source of strength that allows the Western world (for now, mostly the US) to dominate the political, economic, and social mechanisms of the world order, then it makes sense to prove that capitalism is not only the child of the self-contained West but is, instead, a product of globally-converging forces and tendencies.


     Challenging the West on its own terms by confronting what it has mythically deemed to be its source of power and dominance—the rise of industrialized capitalism—is an important strategy. As popular histories of the world economy have shown, like Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton and Raj Patel and Jason Moore’s A History of the World in 7 Cheap Things, it was not the advent of industrialism that led to European conquest—it was Europe’s willingness to massacre and enslave. Revealing the violent underbelly powering the expansion of capitalists clearly challenges the popular capitalism-is-a-force-for-good argument. However, as I’ve suggested in this article, an unintentional consequence of this approach is that Neo-Marxist scholars are perhaps, at times, internalizing its values by doing so. Whether one is critical of capitalism or embraces it as a force for good, if the scholar does not challenge the coupling of capitalism with progress, then one is unconsciously augmenting that coupling.


     So, what can we do? Scholars of decolonizing, decoloniality, and indigeneity have much to offer to us here. They suggest that studying the endurance of family ties, collectives, solidarities, traditions, and sustainability are the ways forward to a truly progressive future. Capitalism is a degrading interruption that has sought to destroy what it cannot consume—in contrast, the decolonial future builds on, enhances, and harmonizes its past. Neo-Marxist scholars of capitalism in the post-colonial world ought to take a cue from this approach. Studying capitalism is the study of decay and we must be explicit about it, not invite comparisons about how the adoption of capitalistic practice allowed the non-West to keep up. Moreover, studying the absence of capitalism, resistance to it, and autonomies are the study of true human progress. These approaches must be kept at the forefront of our project to rebuff Orientalism and, in doing so, undress and demystify the unnatural dominance of the imperialist world order.



Further Reading:

  • Banaji, Jairus, “Islam, the Mediterranean and the Rise of Capitalism,” Historical Materialism, 15 (2007).

  • Beckert, Sven, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Penguin Random House, 2013).

  • Cuno, Kenneth, The Pasha’s Peasants: Land, Society and Economy in Lower Egypt, 1740- 1858 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

  • Doumani, Beshara, Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700-1900 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

  • Gran, Peter, The Islamic Roots of Capitalism: Egypt, 1760-1840 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998).

  • Kuran, Timur, “Why the Middle East is Economically Underdeveloped: Historical Mechanisms of Institutional Stagnation,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18:3 (2004).

  • Patel, Raj and Jason Moore, A History of the World in 7 Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018).

  • Tutino, John, The Mexican Heartland: How Communities Shaped Capitalism, a Nation, and World History, 1500-2000 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

Kylie Broderick is a PhD student and Mellon Fellow in modern Middle East history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is the Managing Editor of Jadaliyya and the Co-Coordinator for the Think Tanks Database of the Knowledge Production Project  Her interests are in the political economy of the Middle East as it intersects with gender, social mobilizations, socio-economic class construction, and transnational leftist networks.


Twitter: @kylie_broderick

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