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Restating Capitalism: History, Theory, and Social Transformation in the Middle East and North Africa

Session VI-09, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 4:00 pm

Panel Description
Capitalism has re-emerged as a useful prism to think about histories of social transformation in Middle East Studies. Following the post-structural turn, scholars of the Middle East are once again foregrounding relations between the state, classes, value, debt, and labor to make sense of historical change. Yet, debates about the Eurocentric history of political economy as discourse and its intimate ties with European imperial-capitalist expansion signal that this may not be so straightforward a task. Diverse practices of extraction and accumulation, the impact of these practices on the environment, and distinct gender and communal dynamics render theorizing the longue durée of capitalism in the Middle East and its connections with political economy a demanding endeavor. At the core of the problem lie ambiguities of defining capitalism: Is it a modern phenomenon with Europe at its center and the non-West in its periphery? Is it a totality, subsuming all means and relations of production in a given social setting? Does it depend on “the state” or “the market” as distinct paradigms? Last but not least, does it produce a particular subjectivity of resistance? World-systems, political Marxism, post-colonial theory, actor-network theory, and the critique of the value-form have all addressed these questions in a variety of ways. Their methods and analytical insights bear different implications for histories of social transformation in the Middle East and North Africa. Thinking through, against, and beyond these approaches, this panel aims to offer divergent histories of capitalism and resistance in the Middle East and North Africa while remaining critical of the givenness of political economic concepts. This panel brings together scholarship with a wide temporal, geographic, and thematic range. They inquire about indigenous forms of commercial capital accumulation in Fatimid Egypt as well as developments in the late/post-Ottoman context. From Greater Syria to Eastern Asia Minor, they examine labor’s relationship to politics of infrastructure and resistance. Through the Mahdist critique of Ottoman land and debt relations in fin de siècle Sudan, they bring attention to conceptual innovations that challenge the hegemonic categories of classical political economy. And finally, through a conceptual history of freedom as related to an incipient discourse of political economy in the late Ottoman press, this panel pushes the study of capitalist social practices in the Middle East and North Africa and the critique of political economy in new directions.
  • The outpour of new histories and theories of capitalism signals that the time is ripe to reopen the debate on indigenous capitalist development in the pre-colonial Middle East. Heralded in the ‘50s and ‘60s by scholars such as Maxime Rodinson, Subhi Labib, and Halil İnalcık, the debate largely subsided in the wake of the post-structural turn, in spite of isolated attempts to revive it such as Peter Gran’s. Its core question appears today once more historiographically and politically urgent: was capitalism unknown to the Middle East before European colonial aggression? As already clarified by Rodinson, the answer depends on one’s definition of capitalism. The lifelong work of Jairus Banaji and his recent reframing of the category of pre-industrial, commercial capitalism offers new, flexible heuristic tools to capture the nature of capital accumulation in the Middle East “before European hegemony," to reference to the seminal work of Janet Abu-Lughod on the key role of the late ‘medieval’ Middle East in the formation of the modern world system. Fatimid Egypt, with its unique position within the premodern Afro-Eurasian complex and its unparalleled wealth of thousands of urban and rural documents, offers by far the best case study for the investigation of commercial capital’s operation in the pre-Ottoman Middle East. Egypt was not only one of the most fertile, densely populated, and urbanized regions of the pre-industrial world; under the Fatimids, it also became the chief emporium mediating trade between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. The lives of both its subaltern and elite classes are documented in unparalleled detail in the so-called Arabic ‘papyri’ and in the documents of the Cairo Geniza, allowing for a granular reconstruction of socio-economic transformations. Combining these two sets of evidence, this paper will highlight the novel insertion of merchant capitalists in the agrarian economy of Egypt through the instrument of credit, and the unprecedented intertwining between commercial capital circulation and the taxation machinery of the state - two features that were to remain typical of the operation of commercial capitalism in the region thereafter. Lastly, the paper will reflect on the discursive representation of these dynamics by contemporary and later writers such al-qāḍī al-Nuʿmān, al-Dimashqī, and al-Maqrīzī. In the conclusions, the paper will reflect on both the transformative effects and structural limits of commercial capital(ism) in the period.
  • Conversant with the recent literature in political economy, political ecology, and new materialist critical theory, my dissertation asks: How did mining in eastern Asia Minor impact Ottoman state-building in that region? As American silver inflows dried up at the turn of the eighteenth century, the precious metal and mineral deposits in the Southeastern Taurus Mountains met an imperial will to exploit them. Founded in 1775, the Trust of Imperial Mines—an administrative province designed to operate the silver, gold, and copper mines on behalf of Istanbul—launched the region’s reconfiguration into a mining nexus. Between 1775-1835, the Trust’s territories continually expanded into the Upper Euphrates River Delta. Deforestation and the continual need for new sources of fuel propelled the expansion of the trust. Power, capital, and expertise coalesced around geology in the mid-nineteenth century, when the Ottomans and European governments entered a new partnership. At the same time, the mining nexus gave shape to insurgent politics that resisted extractive labor, coopted imperial infrastructures, and threatened networks of capital. Supplementing archival research in the Ottoman State Archives and the late-Ottoman press with landscape ethnography, this paper argues that geological knowledge, the mode of production, and state-building in eastern Asia Minor were intimately related. Doing so, my research contributes to our knowledge of Kurdish and Armenian history, the history of mining in the Ottoman Empire, and the history of capitalism in the Middle East.
  • How did political economy come into being? What exclusions, elisions, reorganisations had to take place to make it viable in the way we understand it today? How did political economy increasingly come to denote political economy, the politics of an economic sphere—as opposed to the management (oeconomia) of politics? In short, how did the emergence of an ‘economic’ sphere become thinkable? Although such questions have been addressed in the scholarship, far less attention has been paid to the emergence of religion as a sphere distinct from the economic. This paper will explore the mutual constitution of the realm of the ‘economic’ and the ‘religious’ over the course of the long-nineteenth century as constitutive of the field of political economy. How does political economy emerge only as it removes itself from ‘religion’—that is, as it disassociated itself from practices that it ascribes to religion? How does the distinction between the spiritual and the material—increasingly posited as two separate domains—produce the conditions its emergence? The paper will explore this question by elaborating on some of the limitations of our conventional, naturalised understandings of political economy, by reading these against the archive of a messianic movement whose conceptual vocabulary exceeded these. In 1884 the Mahdist uprising (Mahdiyya) overthrew Ottoman-Egyptian rule in Sudan. In doing so, it articulated a critique of the way in which Ottoman-Egyptian rule had transformed land and debt. Having been rendered sources of individual wealth, it called for their reconstitution as sites of ethical practice, sites through which believers could operate as a single body (jasad wahid). The historiography has often defined the Mahidyya as either a ‘religious’ movement or an ‘economic’ backlash. By contrast, this paper takes seriously the movement’s own conceptual vocabulary—one which did not divide the world into the realms of religion and economy. In doing so, it argues that we can begin to think about how these distinctions, far from natural, were themselves the product of important reorganisations and reorderings of the world that took place in nineteenth century Ottoman Sudan. One of the key sites of transformation was in the realm of shari’a. Having been a decentralised practice, dominant in urban and commercial settings, the nineteenth century saw the beginnings its imbrication with an increasingly centralising government. This concentration of decision-making power within imperial centres had major implications for the way land and debt were dealt with, rupturing the ethical relations which had defined them.
  • This paper takes as its focus the strike wave that took place in Beirut in August through November of 1908 following the Ottoman Constitutional Revolution, and the subsequent political, legal, and intellectual debates to define and regulate workers. The strikes occurred mostly in public service companies and likely constituted the first cross-industry concurrent strikes in Beirut. Port workers, gas factory workers, and railway workers all struck in the wake of the revolution, in most cases refusing to return to work until the majority of their demands had been met. The fact that these strikes took place in nearly all public industries, many of which were central to Ottoman Tanzimat policies of imperial expansion and centralization, should be understood as a product of the profound changes the workers in these industries had experienced in the preceding decades. These conditions can also help us understand how workers in public service industries came to make claims based on their status as workers, and came to be seen by Ottoman ministries, state officials, company officials, and the reading public as constitutive of workers as a class. Through a close analysis of the Beirut strikes, their coverage in press and periodicals, and Ottoman parliamentary debates on outlawing strikes and unions, this paper explores how freedom in the late Ottoman Empire became tied to social conceptions and practices of labor. Moving between Ottoman state documents, Arabic daily periodicals, Ottoman and Arabic scientific and literary journals, and French colonial and company sources, I argue that workers’ refusal to work in the wake of the revolution posed the most significant challenge to the constitutionalists’ proclamations of freedom. Workers’ decision to articulate their rights to freedom through their position as workers, positioned the workplace as the primary location in which freedom — itself a central concept to the proponents of the Constitutional Revolution — was lacking. These anxieties and struggles, both by and over workers, were cemented in the October 1908 Ottoman temporary by-law outlawing strikes in public service industries, and the subsequent permanent 1909 law on the same issue. Ultimately, this paper argues, workers’ actions and refusals to accept tyranny in the workplace forced the new CUP led Ottoman state to explicitly legislate workers’ legal unfreedom.
  • By the 1860s, the Ottoman-Turkish press, previously the mouthpiece of the Ottoman regime, was quickly evolving into an organ of political dissent. The Ottoman literature on decline (tedenni) and the need for reorganization/renewal (tanzim/tecdid), a hallmark of the late 18th century, had now taken on a new conceptual vocabulary. I propose that one such newly-coined concept, political freedom (hürriyet), was the prism through which the individual, with its natural rights for political representation, to own property and to labor, became articulated as part of a larger social totality in the Ottoman 19th century. But freedom’s flipside was just as defining of the period: a set of necessities that for Ottoman intellectuals dictated modern life, and imposed a set of responsibilities between individuals as interdependent members of the social. How might this new notion of freedom and changing necessities of social interdependence shed a new light onto the experience of capitalism in the late Ottoman world? In this two-part paper, I begin with a close-reading of the 1868 newspaper Hürriyet, established in London by exiles Namık Kemal and Ziya Paşa, along with two other dailies: İnkılâb (1870) and İbret (1870). In such media as well as works of translation and original monographs, I chart the evolution of an emergent art of political economy, the categories of which helped critics propose legal, economic and institutional reforms that would ensure political freedom in the Ottoman Empire. In the second part of the paper, I think through the conditions of possibility enabling this new understanding of freedom leading up to the first Ottoman Constitution of 1875. To do so, I read the social criticism throughout these publications against the backdrop of state-sponsored techniques of revenue extraction whereby land, labor and time were increasingly commodified following the Gülhane rescript of 1839, the Reform Edict of 1856, and the Land Code of 1858. Freedom’s socio-political background, associated concepts and utilization in political projections of the future, I propose, constitute a novel way to study conceptual change in the Ottoman age of capitalization.