Multinationals and Global Capitalism: From the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century

By Geoffrey Jones | Go to book overview
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2 Multinationals and globalization

2.1 Antecedents

Flows of people, trade, and capital across political borders have occurred for thousands of years. According to Moore and Lewis (1999), international trade began to develop in the Near East around 3500 bc. They identify the first 'multinationals' appearing in the Old Assyrian kingdom shortly after 2000 bc. Family-owned firms headquartered in the capital of Ashur opened branches in other political jurisdictions spread over what became the modern states of Syria and Iraq. Between 1000 and 500 bc ancient Phoenician merchants, especially those located on the island of Tyre, which is located off the coast of today's Lebanon, created firms which traded in silver from Spain, tin from Britain, ivory from Africa and textiles from all over the Mediterranean.

Over following centuries empires rose and fell, and trade routes were opened and closed. The integration of world civilization was never a continuous process, but one in which there have been numerous shocks and discontinuities, as well as periodic backlashes. Between 50 bc and ad 500 the Roman Empire controlled the Mediterranean region, which was linked by roads, harbors and a common currency. For nearly 1500 years from before the beginning of the Christian era, trade routes known as the Silk Route joined Europe, the Middle East and China. From the sixth century Islam spread outwards from Arabia into Asia, Africa and the Iberian peninsula. This provided a political and ideological basis for the growth of trading connections and flows of knowledge. Islamic cities in Spain, such as Cordoba, flourished as clusters of knowledge at a time when much of Europe was technologically stagnant. During the fifteenth century Chinese ships reached the Arabian Gulf and east Africa, but soon afterwards political developments shifted China in a more inward direction.

The Voyages of Discovery of Spanish and Portuguese explorers to the New World and Asia in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw transfers of technology—and deadly diseases—on a new scale. Entire American civilizations, including the Aztecs and the Incas, were destroyed by European armies and germs. At the end of the fifteenth century Portuguese explorers discovered the water route between Europe and Asia via the Cape of Good Hope, transforming the possibilities for trade between the two continents.

Although merchants were trading between different political sovereignties for centuries, a strong case can be made that the use of the word 'multinational' is anachronistic before the modern idea of the nation state took hold. Political scientists traditionally identify the origin of the modern system of nation states to the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War in Europe in 1648. This replaced the European medieval

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