History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 4: The Military-Industrial Complex of the West vs. the Military-Commercial Complex of the Islamic World (part 1)

The original title of Prof. Richard Bulliet’s lecture given on January 29, 2009 at Columbia University lecture is “Inequality” vs. “Difference”, but I found after listening to his lecture, that the above title more specifically addresses the contents.  

Please note that since this is essentially an edited transcript of Prof. Bulliet’s lecture, it is difficult to catch the ironic tone that he sometimes uses to satirize an opinion which he himself does not believe, but you can sometimes note the reaction to it in the laughter he evokes from his students who are listening to the lecture.

1. The concept of global inequality and the history of the Modern Middle East

The concept of inequality on a world-wide scale has a connection with the notion of the Modern Middle East in that the people who were inventing the notion of the Modern Middle East had won World War II. Defeating fascism was an incredibly thrilling thing. It made people in the West think that they were able to do anything. It is not surprising that in the early post-World War II years you get Western scholars, particularly American scholars, who begin to come up with theories about the entire world and how it operates.

It was the heyday of sociology, the heyday of development theory, and so forth and so on. The notion that there was a fundamental inequality between what comes to be called the underdeveloped world and the West became a centerpiece for thinking about Modern Middle Eastern history, with of course that nuisance of the Soviet Union and its satellites hanging around to keep things from being totally peaceful.

2. World-system theory

It raises the question of “when did this inequality begin and why?” Some people address it explicitly. One of the best of the recent books on the history of the Modern Middle East is by a scholar at UCLA named James Gelvin called ingeniously The Modern Middle East: A History and he starts out with the question of this inequality. He says there are many reasons that might have contributed to it, and then he proceeds to focus his book on one, which was the development of economic relations and particularly the formation of what is called “world systems theory.” In world systems theory, the entire globe in earlier centuries is divided into a number of great empires, but you can have a number of great empires with each having its own particular geographical territory, economic structure, structure of domination, etc., but they tend to be very large political units that have more or less limited trade relations. They tend to be focused on the internal of each unit.

This “Modern World-System”, which is the theory of Immanuel Wallerstein at the State University of New York at Binghamton, states that the congeries of world empires give way at a certain point in time to a certain world-system in which you have a plurality of states, but an increasing unity of economy. You draw the world’s economy into a single system, and the need or the practicality of having separate large empires diminishes, so the empires gradually dissolve or are destroyed. Meanwhile, the economy becomes increasingly unified on a global scale, and within that global scale, there are winners and losers.

3. Dependency Theory

Northwest Europe becomes the great center and the other areas become to various degrees a periphery. It is in the nature of the dominance of the center over the periphery that the dominance goes beyond simply having manufacturing in the center and drawing upon the periphery for raw materials. It also goes into the idea of the center actively suppressing improvements in, say, manufacturing or intellectual production in the periphery in order to engender a deeper inequality in which the intellectual, commercial, industrial and political leadership will be the best in the center and the periphery will become dependent on the center.

Prof. Bulliet does not happen to find the world-systems theory terribly convincing, and he doesn’t think that it offers any peculiar advantage for the kind of issues he wants to talk about in his lectures. Gelvin starts out by saying that many reasons have been postulated for why this inequality took place between Europe and elsewhere. He does not specify that it was only part of Europe, and certainly does not have a larger scope that would encompass Europe, the Middle East and North Africa within a single geographic and cultural unit which would have been Prof. Bulliet’s preference.

4. The Debate over Global Inequality

There is another book that is worth looking at, and that is the one by Kenneth Pomeranz called The Great Divergence. It looks at the postulated inequality of Europe being so much in advance of everyone else, and makes comparisons with China and India, not with the Middle East. He says that the degree to which Europe appeared to be ahead, in interpretations of European historians who focused on the 17th and 18th centuries, is really exaggerated. A number of particular factors that are ascribed to Europe, such as more livestock per capita or a lesser rate of mortality through epidemics, simply don’t hold up to examination. |The more you learn about India or about China, the less the distinctiveness of the European economic position stands out.

He makes a number of very telling points. He says the highest agricultural productivity as measured by calories per acre isn’t in Europe; it’s higher in China and in India depending on what areas you’re dealing with. The business of epidemics is very arguable; the mortality in Europe doesn’t seem to be distinctively lower than mortality elsewhere. He goes along with the idea that there is a surge in population in both areas. But without going into that argument in great detail, because the question of whether population growth is always a good has to be considered, he says there actually was no Great Divergence. Once you balance things off, it’s not clear that Europe was that far ahead of everyone else in the 17th and 18th centuries.

He doesn’t talk about the Middle East; he does observe that Northwest Europe is usually the standard of comparison. So the question of inequality is intensely debated in historical circles for people who are focused on world history.

In the next blog post, Prof. Bulliet switches to the debate over the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the decline of the Middle East.

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