Karl Marx formulated an intellectually powerful and spiritually moving vision that discerned meaning and purpose in human history. It focused primarily on the development of systems of production and technology and the structures of domination that emerged from them. Marx viewed technological development as tending to increase the level of domination, but also as establishing new possibilities for human progress. Accordingly, he believed that the unfolding economic and social forces of his time were creating unprecedented forms of human exploitation and alienation, but they also were establishing the conditions that would make possible a new era of human emancipation.
Marx saw technological development as integral to the transition from one stage in human history to the next: the invention of agriculture led to the transition from tribal (hunting and gathering) society to ancient society; the invasion by “barbarians” led to the emergence of feudal society; the invention of the factory established the foundation for capitalist society; and the development of automated industry would establish the conditions for the transition to socialism.
Marx, therefore, sought to understand human history in order to discern meaning in it, and in order to project possibilities for the future. As we confront profound challenges today, it is an example that we who do intellectual work should appreciate.
When Immanuel Wallerstein arrived to the understanding that the necessary unit of analysis is the world-system (see “We must overcome the colonial denial: Wallerstein versus the woke,” May 14, 2021), he not only sought to understand the historical development of the modern world-system, he also explored the extent to which world-systems previously had emerged in human history. He concluded that there have been many social systems with political-economic structures and ideologies that transcended political and cultural boundaries. In calling them “world-systems,” Wallerstein did not mean that they encompassed the entire planet; he used the hyphenated “world-system” as two nouns joined to convey the notion of a system that forms a world, a political-economic-ideological world.
Wallerstein sustains that there have been two types of world-systems: world-empires and world-economies. Both are characterized by a dominating center that controls peripheral regions. In a world-economy, the center transforms the economic institutions of the peripheral regions, so that they function to promote the economic interests and provide for the productive needs of the center.
In contrast, the empire represents a more limited form of domination, in that the economic systems of the peripheral regions are not restructured. The center has political authority and jurisdiction over the peripheral regions and requires them to pay a tax or a tribute, but it does not seek to transform the economic activities of the periphery. The tribute from the periphery functions to maintain an administrative bureaucracy in the center. As the empire expands, the center tends to absorb much of the tribute in lavish lifestyles, rather than maintaining effective administrative control. The over-weighted and gluttonous center is unable to control the peripheral regions effectively, and some of the nations in the periphery are able to assert their autonomy and break free of the empire. Thus empires have a historic tendency to expand until they become unable to control their peripheral regions, at which time they are vulnerable to conquest by other empires or to disintegration.
So the rise and fall of empires is common in human history. Most of the great civilizations of the pre-modern Middle East and South Asia as well as those of pre-conquest America and pre-colonial Africa were world-empires. World-economies are much less rare and tend to be shorter in duration. The ancient Chinese civilizations, however, were long-lasting world-economies. Many of the pre-modern world-systems lasted several centuries, but all were confined to a single region of the world.
Implicit but not emphasized in Wallerstein’s account, just as it tends to be implicit but not emphasized in most history and anthropology textbooks, is the central role of conquest in human history, since the agricultural revolution. Conquest of neighboring societies and peoples has been the basis for the formation of kingdoms and empires, which made possible great advances in commerce, science, technology, philosophy, literature, and art. So the apparently opposed phenomena of conquest and civilization are intertwined: advances in civilization make possible conquest, which stimulates further advances in civilization, which makes possible further conquest, and so on. Thus, these has been an important tendency in human history that could be called “the dialectic of domination and development.”
Reflecting on the central human tendency toward conquest, Jared Diamond has maintained that the conquering nations have been those that had turned earlier to food production, driven to do so by population growth and/or environmental factors. This necessary conversion from sedentary food gathering to food production enabled these societies to support full-time specialists, such as soldiers, state administrators, artisans, and priests, who played important roles in wars of conquest. The conquered peoples were not inferior, Diamond maintains. Rather, the conquering nations had a more advanced capacity with respect to the components necessary for conquest, as a result of having been forced by population pressure and environmental factors to turn earlier to food production.
The “dialectic of domination and development” attained advanced expression in the modern era, and the modern nation-state played a pivotal role. Cuban political scientist Armando Cristóbal describes the modern nation-state as characterized by centralization of political authority and by unity established on the basis of common nationality identification. Centralization had been a significant force in Western Europe from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries, pushed by monarchs and merchants, because of their common interest in overcoming the local power of feudal lords. Nationality identification emerged in Spain, England, and France, Cristóbal maintains, as a result of wars of conquest reinforced by natural geographical boundaries. In the case of Spain, it was a matter of re-conquest in reaction to the Moorish conquest, whereas England and France had continuous wars with each other. Thus emerged during the fifteenth century the modern nation-state, characterized by centralization, a defined political boundary that coincided with the cultural frontiers of nationality, a capital city, income taxes that are used to maintain a professional army and public functionaries, freedom of movement within borders, the promotion of the domestic market, and the separation of the monarchy and the Church. These conditions enabled the three nations to advance the historic human tendency toward conquest to a new level.
The modern European domination of the world was initiated by the Spanish conquest of America during the sixteenth century. In addition to the factors that had forged the Spanish nation-state, the Spanish conquest of America was aided by the lack of horses and iron in America and the limited resistance to disease among the indigenous populations, as a result of their relative geographical isolation. The gold and silver appropriated in the Spanish conquest stimulated the expansion of manufacturing in England and France, further advancing their capacities for conquest, such that they would soon join Spain in the first stage of the European conquest of the world.
The peoples of Spain, England and France were neither culturally superior nor in some innate sense more intelligent. Like other conquerors in the ten thousand years of human conquest, they were more advanced with respect to the components necessary to conquer their adversaries, benefitting from particular factors that to some extent were accidental.
The modern European conquest of the world was the culmination of central tendencies in human history since the agricultural revolution. In the next posts, I will be providing details of this four-century-long conquest.
But to anticipate where we are going, I ultimately will try to show that the human tendency toward development through conquest has reached its limits today, because the conquered peoples and nature have declared, in word and in deed, that a world-system built on conquest and characterized by competing imperialism is no longer politically, ecologically, nor morally sustainable. This reality compels humanity to search for an alternative road to development, without conquest or imperialism; and the socialist nations of the Third World plus China are providing examples of the necessary road.
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