Reading “A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism”

I’ve been excitedly awaiting Jairus Banaji’s A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism for some time. His book Theory as History is one of the most interesting works of Marxist scholarship concerning modes of production, divisions of labour, and agrarian studies to date. I find his work particularly interesting because he stresses both the importance of engaging with theory to produce meaningful frameworks of analysis, as well as engaging with empirical research, primary sources, and archaeological data. Even if one takes issue with his analysis, it is rewarding, and often I find that taking issue with his work is rewarding because he is provoking me into researching something new. One reason I was particularly excited for Commercial Capitalism is that it is not a collection of essays. Aside from his Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity and the very hard to find Beyond Multinationalism (neither of which I have read) most of Banaji’s work is produced in collections or journals. I was excited to see what he could develop in a longer form with a single subject. Unfortunately, I feel that the monograph format was not used to its advantage. While full of information I find the book’s structure very odd, and the writing is prone to condensing many, many facts onto a page without explaining their significance. I’m not too interested in dissecting Banaji’s description of “commercial capitalism” or its validity. I’m only going to focus on how useful I found this book in terms of its structure, readability, and the information it conveys.  

One problem that seems prescient is that of precursors and transitions. This has been noticeable in Banaji’s work before, most noticeably in his writing on tributary states like “late Rome in the fourth century, the eastern empire under Justinian, China in the expansive phase of the Southern Sung and Mughal India in the seventeenth century” where little discussion is given to say just what came before the defining tributary logic of these states and empires.[1] What of the earlier empires of Mesopotamia (Ur III in particular being noticeable for its extensive administration system; essential, if geographically limited, institution-tied trade; use of grain-based wages; and both institutional and non-institutional loans of credit back in the 22nd century BC)?[2] What of the Delian League? What about the opening of the Silk Road by the Han Dynasty in 130BC? Is there a possibility for another mode of production not touched upon? Banaji’s seeming disinterest in – though not explicit dismissal of – a “slave mode of production” makes Marx’s original “ancient mode” an uncertain category. Likewise, in this new work, we don’t get much sense of how commercial capitalism or historic capitalism was supposed to have developed or emerged. Nor do we get a clear discussion of categories or distinguishing features that explain why the commercial capitalism in this book might be distinguished, if at all, from prior forms of extensive trade. Is it merely a matter of scale? Or is there something truly, qualitatively, different that leads Banaji to start where he does? It isn’t quite clear.

After the first chapter – which mainly attempts to show the importance of the concept of commercial capitalism in other historical research by Pokrovsky, Braudel, Eric Williams, etc. – we jump straight to descriptions of trading centers and extensive markets throughout the world. Banaji writes with the frustrating tendency, most prominent in chapters 2-4, to jump in time and place very rapidly. Chapter 2 mentions 11th century Guangzhou, 13th century Alexandria, 19th century Tunis, 16th century Smyrna, and 19th century London all within the first three pages! A rush of summaries and lists dominate these chapters, and therefore some 70 out of the 140 pages of historical material (I exclude the endnotes, bibliography, etc.) Banaji has been known to apply many, many facts and sources in quick succession, but this is a book, not an essay. A bit more patient analysis and contextual meat would be appreciated.

True, this is intended to be “a very short history,” but this information is conveyed as a summary of many facts, sometimes without any kind of proper transition between locations or eras. This is particularly frustrating given Banaji’s background and his provocative theoretical work on the “inner logic” of modes of production and the deployment of labour. Here such a logic is buried beneath the sheer amount of historical summarizing. It doesn’t help that some sections draw too heavily upon one or two scholars for their sources. Most notable are chapter 3’s sections on “Dutch Primacy” (pages 47-53) where Jonathan Israel’s Dutch Primacy in World Trade constitutes 33 out of 60 citations, and on “England’s Rise To Dominance” (pages 53-64) where 44 of 96 citations come from three monographs, none of which are primary sources.[3] Relying heavily on other research, especially when doing comparative or global history, is not a sin in-and-of-itself. What is troublesome, however, is how little explanation is given as to why all these different summaries (that, again, move between the 12th and 19th centuries) matter, or what they add up to. If the point is merely to illustrate the great amounts of wealth and great distances that constituted pre-industrial trade, then it succeeds. If it is supposed to illuminate the particular logic of this system, or extrapolate on the characteristics and categories of this system, many a reader will feel dissatisfied with the first half of this book. Without more original theory or elaboration to connect these facts together, one might wonder why they don’t simply read Jonathan Israel instead. Banaji has elsewhere discussed the importance of examining the extent of commercial capitalism and its implications for historical materialist work. We are certainly offered an examination, but a proper definition of this commercial capitalism remains elusive, and the implications are not spelled out. Perhaps it is just that I have yet to reach Capital Vol. III (I am still making my way through II) where Marx explicitly discusses commercial capital? But one would expect “a brief history” to perhaps make a bit more effort to elaborate on its framework for a new reader, especially when Banaji has done so much to produce new theoretical material elsewhere.

The second half of the book has a more theoretical focus and I found much easier to follow. Where the first half really attempts to summarize the commercial activities of different regions over huge periods of time, the second half structures itself around particular practices and features of preindustrial commercial activity. Chapter 5’s discussion of the putting-out system, merchant manufacturing, and the methods of maintaining control over domestic production is rich with description, and pairs well with Banaji’s earlier work on the capitalist subsumption and deployment of different kinds of labour.[4] Chapter 6 also provides a fascinating look at the concentration and monopolization of trade well before the 19th century, suggesting the importance of such concentration for any international competitive market. It also provides a fascinating discussion about the velocity of trade and the importance of credit for maintaining rapid quick returns in commercial enterprises. While reading, I found myself wondering what the analysis of financial domination of domestic production – and it’s need for high-velocity turnover of many small profits very quickly – could suggest about financially-driven companies that dominate piecework through apps and contracted services. Banaji’s discussion of the importance of indigenous merchants in South Asia and China are also very enlightening, and perhaps provocative.

Finally, the book features an appendix on “Islam and Capitalism,” originally composed as an independent essay before the drafting of the book (the essay may be read for free online via Banaji’s page).[5] The essay offers a preliminary sketch for further investigation on early capitalist relationships in the Islamic world as far back as the 9th century. Banaji offers some much-needed insight on an often-overlooked region. He provides some intriguing – though perhaps controversial – translations of particular Arabic terms into different understandings of capital (Al-māl as “a commodity or mass of commodities”, māliyya as “commercial exchange value”, ras-māl as the “proper term for ‘capital’… frequently used in the plural to mean several distinct capitals[6]”). An intrigued reader should probably do further research, however, before relying solely on these singular pages for understanding this language and terminology in its historic context. After some short comments speculating on why the “symbiosis between tributary Muslim states and commercial capital” did not expand into an industrial mode of production, the essay ends with a description of contemporary political concerns and urges further investigation into the “subversive strand of Middle Eastern culture” that is so often ignored. It is fitting that this essay be added as an appendix, as it doesn’t fit properly within the prior chapters, but I am glad it is included. Though its focus is a bit different, it does relate to the topic at hand, so it doesn’t feel entirely out of place.

To sum up, I suspect that new readers will not be able to understand what is being described if they have not already studied economic history (and sometimes very particular economic history) in-depth. Experienced historians, or particularly knowledgeable nonprofessional, may certainly find many of the facts and sources here to be of use. But again, isn’t this supposed to be a short history? Even I found many of the facts and citations in the first half of the book more useful as a potential resource guide – telling me to go look at other books, articles, and translations – than as an account of history on its own. I by no means want to suggest that Banaji is a lazy scholar or writer, I have been deeply impacted by his work in Theory as History and by many of his independently published essays. However, this book does come as a bit of a disappointment. I was looking forward to reading a monograph that would explore commercial capitalism with a more structured approach. The unevenness of the topics and analytical logic, particularly in the first half, makes it difficult to interact with the material. The second half is much more engaging, but it is frustrating that it takes so long to get to the combination of theory and research that I would expect.

[1] See Jairus Banaji, “Introduction: Themes in Historical Materialism,” Theory as History (Chicago: Haymarket, 2010), 1-44.

Banaji describes the Tributary Mode – borrowing from Christopher Alan Bayly – as a “world-scale economy,” but precisely because Banaji’s focus is on showing the extent of trade in every period he examines, we never get a sense of what operates in a much more limited economy. With regard to Sung-era China he states that “the evolution of a modern-style autocracy in China followed a long period, many centuries, of aristocratic dominance.” (ibid 27) The state of Chinese production while this development occurs remains vague.

[2] Steven Garfinkle, “Shepherds, Merchants, and Credit: Some Observations on Lending Practices in Ur III Mesopotamia,” The Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 47, No. 1 (2004), 1-30.

Steven Garfinkle, ”Merchants and State Formation in Early Mesopotamia,” Opening the Tablet Box (Boston: Brill, 2010), 185-202

Robert Englund, “Equivalency Values and the Command Economy of the Ur III Period in Mesopotamia,” The Constriuction of Value in the Ancient World (Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press at UCLA: 2012), 427-458.

Harriet Crawford, “Trade in the Sumerian World,” The Sumerian World (London: Routledge, 2013) 447-461.

[3] Robert Brenner’s Merchants and Revolution (1993) has 12 citations. Alfred Wood’s History of the Levant Company (1935) has 15. Kirti Chaudhuri’s The Trading Wolrd of Asia and the English East India Company: 1660-1760 (1978) has 17.

[4] Jairus Banaji, “Historical Arguments for a ‘Logic of Deployment’ in ‘Precapitalist’ Agriculture,” “The Fictions of Free Labour: Contract, Coercion and so-called Unfree Labour,” and “Capitalst Domination and the Small Peasantry: The Deccan Districts in the Late Nineteenth Century,” in Theory as History (2010), 103-116; 131-153; 277-324.

[5] Jairus Banaji, “Islam and Capitalism,”

[6] Banaji, Commercial Capitalism, 126; “Islam and Capitalism,” 1-2

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