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(European University Institute)

Where is Asia in the History of Early Modern Capitalism?


20 November 2023 | 3pm GMT

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This paper argues that early modern Asia will assume a greater place in histories and conceptualizations of capitalism because of two developments: 1) a new emphasis on land as a natural resource for production, rather than simply a site of insecure property rights and equilibrium traps; 2) a view of Asian labor as a reservoir of human capital instead of simply an unskilled and coerced population resource weighed down Malthusian pressures. In making this argument, we disentangle the question of capitalism from growth and account for disparities within Asia. We also reckon with the reluctance of historians of Asia to embrace the term capitalism. Indeed, since the late 1990s, economic historians of Asia have been united in criticizing the application to Asia of paradigms formulated in reference to early modern European capitalism. Reluctant though many historians of early modern Asia may be to endorse capitalism as an analytical concept, we believe a capitalism-sized hole persists in the current scholarship. By contrast, early modern Europeanists continue to use the term with little reluctance. The danger in this is twofold: in roundabout fashion it enshrines European exceptionalism and it marginalizes the substantial advances in the study of economic life in early modern Asia over the past generation.

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Giorgio Riello is Professor of Early Modern Global History at the European University Institute and the Principal Investigator of the ERC Advanced Project CAPASIA. He is also Professor of Global History and Culture at Warwick University.

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Michael O’Sullivan is Senior Research Fellow for the CAPASIA project. Before his current position, he held fellowships at Harvard and Yale universities. His book on the histories of Gujarati Muslim commercial castes will be published by Harvard University Press later this year.

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