By Amin, Samir | Monthly Review, July-August 1992 | Go to article overview
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Amin, Samir, Monthly Review

If I were required to pick a date to mark the birth of the modern world, I should choose 1492, the year in which the Europeans began their conquest of the planet--military, economic, political, ideological, cultural, and even, in a certain sense, ethnic. But the world in question is also the world of capitalism, a new social and economic system, qualitatively different from all previous systems in Europe and elsewhere. These two traits are inseparable, and this fact calls into question all analyses of and responses to the crisis of modernity that fail to recognize their simultaniety. From this perspective, the dominant "social science" can be seen to be handicapped by its Eurocentrism, which in my opinion prevents it from correctly relating these two aspects of the modern world and its contradictions.

1. The modernity that began in 1492 put an end to 2000 years of prior history for the majority of humanity. Until then the great regions of civilization had remained quite alike, marked by fundamental traits which I have called "tributary," by analogy to their modes of production.

This mode of production arose in the fifth century B.C., when Zoroaster in Iran, Buddha in India, and Confucius in China almost simultaneously formulated ideologies adequate for the tributary system in question. It was a matter, as I have tried to show elsewhere, of a metaphysics that could legitimate power and inequality in states that exceeded the scale of the village and tribal communities of earlier times, and with that end to reconcile supernatural belief and rationality. In the region in which Europe was to arise, this tributary ideology took the forms of Hellenism and then Christianity, while on its mideastern flank it took the form of Islam.

But if the majority of humanity inhabiting Eurasia and Africa partook of a common form of civilization during the 2000 years before 1492, it was fragmented into relatively autonomous cultural worlds. The forces of production of the tributary mode, while superior to those of earlier epochs, were vastly inferior to those of industrial capitalism and therefore imposed a limit on exchange among the various regions of the world. Such exchange existed and had a certain importance, but I believe it was more significant on the level of transfer of knowledge, technology, and ideas than on the economic level in the narrow sense. There was no world division of labor in essential products as there is in the world of today. The tributary mode was defined by the dominance of its ideology and politics, which served to legitimize social reproduction; the regions that made up the ancient world effectively understood themselves in relationship to its main cultural currents: Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity.

The event of 1492 put into motion the erosion of this cultural diversity, whose import would be considerably reduced by the progressive subjection of all regions of the planet to the expansion of capitalism through European conquest.

2. If the crossing of the Atlantic would always be regarded as a singular and accidental event, the transformations of the world that came after 1492 could not. What followed the discovery of the New World was, in effect, the acceleration of the construction of capitalism, and the conquest of the globe which began with the Americas was entirely subject to its logic. In the face of a variety of problems of interpretation, various social thinkers have adopted one or another of three positions:

(i) One group attributes the novelties that arose in European society (the philosophy of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the extension of trade relations, the bourgeois revolutions and democracy, etc. ) to antecedents specific and peculiar to Europe, minimizing the conquests of America and the rest of the world, considering them to be at most contributors to the acceleration of the irresistible ascension of Europe.

(ii) A second attributes to the luck of the discovery and conquest of America, and to several other fortuitous events of the same nature, a decisive role in the construction of the modern capitalist world, unified by European conquest.

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