Histories of Capitalism and Race in the Middle East and Indian Ocean
RoundTable IV-4, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Friday, November 3 at 11:00 am
This roundtable brings together new and critical approaches to capitalism and race in histories of the Middle East and Indian Ocean. The last decade has seen renewed interest in histories of capitalism, helping to rethink concepts previously considered as foundational to capitalism itself. While much of this work has been focused on the Atlantic world, important interventions have also been made in Middle East studies. This roundtable brings together scholars working in this burgeoning field to make several conceptual interventions.
First, we adopt a critical and postcolonial reading of political economy and capitalism. For us this means an interrogation of the received and conventional categories through which capitalism has been studied–including land, labour, capital, law, and debt, etc. We foreground critical approaches rooted in the languages and epistemologies of the Global South.
Second, we connect capitalism to race. We pay close attention to the way processes of racialisation–particularly forms of racialised labour like slavery and indentured servitude–have been foundational to capitalism and its violence (and not necessarily simply as its “pre-history”). This has been long acknowledged in the context of the Atlantic world by scholars of “racial capitalism”, such as Cedric Robinson, but we want to promote discussion about the merits – and limitations – of this framework in Middle East and Indian Ocean studies. Moreover, the very categories of political economy might seem neutral and universal, but are racialised in that they derive from a Euro-Atlantic historical experience – even the very concept of “human”.
Third, we challenge regional silos created by the Area Studies disciplines by adopting a transregional approach, bringing the Middle East and Indian Ocean together. We also unsettle disciplinary boundaries by inviting scholars who have taken on interdisciplinary approaches across religion, anthropology, political theory, political economy, history, and Science and Technology Studies. Temporally, we focus on a moment that is traditionally considered a “transition” to capitalism, but in fact help us to challenge diffusionist, universalist, unidirectional narratives. In order to avoid metanarratives about the so-called so-called history of capitalism, we recognise plurality across different contexts, hence our commitment to discussing histories of capitalism.
Many histories of capitalism approach the subject as a process of material production, in which periodic episodes of overproduction lead to financialization and crisis. The history of Egypt in the later nineteenth century has often been told in these terms. Such accounts of capitalism are usually centered in the experience of Europe, with places such as Egypt always situated in relation to this “productionist” view, for example through the history of cotton production. By paying close attention to the Egyptian experience, we can reverse this account. The first step is to approach capitalism not as a structure but as a process, that of capitalizing, organized not around commodity production (although it may sometimes take that form) but around the capture in the present of a surplus from the future. From this perspective, the materiality of capitalism lies not necessarily in methods of producing commodities, but in techniques of capturing and controlling the future. Central to those techniques are forms of credit and debt. So instead of asking how material production is financed, we can ask how the production of finance is materialized. The history or irrigation in Egypt before and during the British occupation offers a way to explore this alternative approach.
In this roundtable presentation I’d like to explore questions of race and capitalism in the Middle East by tracing a pre-history of the concept “human capital.” I want to suggest that this neoliberal term coined in the 1960s by economists of the Chicago School has a submerged history that stretches back to enslaved labor in the 18th century but continues through racialized structures of indentured and migrant labor through the twentieth century. As opposed to a vulgar Marxist conception of fully abstracted and commoditized labor power, this history suggests that individual bodies – their health, nutrition, and even mental stability – were a major concern of employers and economic planners. They sought out ways of providing nutrition, health, and sanity more efficiently. They also sought racialized and gendered human bodies that were understood to be better adapted to certain kinds of laboring. Colonial states and companies were thus invested in the production and reproduction of cheap laboring bodies. Through a brief case study of urban planning and prostitution in Casablanca, I hope to discuss how an inchoate conception of “human capital” shaped the lives of Moroccan migrants to this burgeoning colonial city. I’d like to suggest that this kind of research, allows us to see precursors and perhaps even the origins of neoliberal capitalism in the colonial economies and migrant laborers of the Middle East and the Global South.
My contribution addresses the first part of the intervention of this roundtable: interrogating the categories through which capitalism has been studied and foregrounding critical approaches rooted in the languages and epistemologies of the Global South. I start with waqfs, inalienable charitable endowments defined in Islamic law, in Ottoman Beirut in order to rethink the private property regime assumed as a foundation of capitalism (Engels). Waqfs have always been rented out, and it is the rents and profits they generate that allow them to sustain their charitable goals. At the same time, Ottoman Islamic legal scholars considered waqfs to be inalienable, where a waqf’s asset can be substituted from another only in exceptional circumstances with a system of checks and approvals. Orientalists and modernists in the late 19th and early 20th c. have often depicted the waqf as an impediment to capitalism, an example of systems of tenure that stand against the free circulation of land, and growth and development. Thus reforms of waqfs at that time sought to eliminate this inalienability. Examining the persistence of waqfs in Beirut today, I show that waqfs participate in the capitalist economy but are able to maintain property regimes built on inalienability that provide friction to it. This intervention thus brings to light the different forms of property and value that still exist under capitalism and the way they manage to reproduce themselves through capitalist processes
I discuss colonial legal infrastructure to examine how it impacted, and was impacted by, Islam and ethnicity. But more important, I follow the actors who used this framework to advance their particular interests. I explain why Arab minorities in the region helped to fuel the entrenchment of European colonial legalities: their itinerant lives made institutional records necessary. Securely stored in centralized repositories, such records could be presented as evidence in legal disputes. To ensure accountability down the line, Arab merchants valued notarial attestation land deeds, inheritance papers, and marriage certificates by recognized state officials. Colonial subjects continually played one jurisdiction against another, sometimes preferring that colonial legal authorities administer Islamic law―even against fellow Muslims. I draw on lively material from multiple international archives to demonstrate the interplay between colonial projections of order and their realities, Arab navigation of legally plural systems in the Indian Ocean, and the fraught and deeply human struggles that played out between family, religious, contract, and commercial legal orders.