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Islam, the Mediterranean and the Rise of Capitalism

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Marxist notions of the origins of capitalism are still largely structured by the famous debate on the transition from feudalism to capitalism. This essay suggests that that tradition of historiography locates capitalism too late and sees it in essentially national terms. It argues that capitalism began, on a European scale, in the important transformations that followed the great revival of the eleventh century and the role played by mercantile élites in innovating new forms of business organisation. However, with this starting point, it becomes important to bring Islam into the picture in a central way, since the Mediterranean was the common heritage of many cultural and religious groups. Islam shaped the tradition of early capitalism both by preserving monetary economy and through its own precocious development of the partnership form. The essay periodises this early capitalism into a 'Mediterranean' and an 'Atlantic' phase, and concludes by looking briefly at the ways in which merchants dominate labour.

Affiliations: 1: Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, USA

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