The Origins of Capitalism and the "Rise of the West"

The Origins of Capitalism and the "Rise of the West"

The Origins of Capitalism and the "Rise of the West"

The Origins of Capitalism and the "Rise of the West"


Eric Mielants provides a fresh, interdisciplinary interpretation of the origins of modernity in general and of capitalism in particular. He argues that, contrary to established thinking, the "Rise of the West" should not be examined through the lens of the Industrial Revolution or of the colonization of the New World but viewed through long-term developments that began in the Middle Ages. A fascinating overview of civilizations in East Asia, South Asia, and northwestern Africa is provided and then systematically compared to developments in Europe at the same time. Utilizing this analysis, the book addresses some of the most important current debates in world history, comparative sociology, political economy, sociological theory and historical sociology. Mielants uncovers the ways that existing theories (such as Marxism, World-Systems Theory, and Smithian Modernization Theory) have suffered from either Eurocentric or limited temporal and spatial analyses, preventing them from fully explaining the reasons behind the emergence of capitalism in Western Europe.


“Wealth is a social category inseparable from power.”

HEILBRONER, The Nature and Logic of Capitalism

WHY, HOW, AND WHEN did capitalism as a system first come into existence? At first glance, these questions may only seem relevant to an audience engrossed in academic (and, by definition, highly theoretical) debates. They are questions that certainly preoccupied the founding fathers of the academic disciplines that emerged in tandem with modernity itself: economics (e.g., Smith), sociology (e.g., Marx, Durkheim, and Weber), and history (e.g., Pirenne). A study of the origins of capitalism and the “Rise of the West” also tends to be polemical. Indeed, overthe last two centuries, various university faculties have found themselves embroiled in debate over whether capitalism can only be understood by studying the market (as economists advocate), or whether one must also look at its links with sociology, political science, and history. As David Landes recently reminded us, the answers to these questions can also have profound contemporary implications, namely, why it is that only a few in the modern world are incredibly wealthy while most are utterly impoverished?

Modern-day policies advocated by the World Bank and the IMF cannot be understood without putting the origins of capitalism into their proper context. Only by understanding why and how a certain area of the world became capitalist—while other highly successful civilizations in South Asia, China, or Northern Africa did not—can one understand the present situation. And only by understanding how, many centuries ago, a certain area of the world grew wealthier, can one begin to grasp how systematic policies of capital accumulation were derived from core countries' continuous processes of colonization, exploitation, and domination of the periphery.

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