“Production, Circulation, and Accumulation”: Andrew Liu on the Historiographies of Capitalism in China and South Asia

This is Number 4 in the “JAS Author Interviews” series at #AsiaNow. Click here to see all posts in the series.

Andrew B. Liu is Assistant Professor of History at Villanova University and author of “Production, Circulation, and Accumulation: The Historiographies of Capitalism in China and South Asia,” published in the November 2019 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies. Liu’s research focuses on examining modern Chinese history within global and comparative contexts; his first book, Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India, will be published by Yale University Press later this year. In the Q&A below, Liu responds to questions about his research posed by Monish Borah, a graduate student in History at the University of California, Irvine.

AAS Members can read the JAS online at Cambridge Core by first logging into their MyAAS member accounts and then selecting “Access the Journal of Asian Studies” under “Account Actions” in the right-hand menu on their member homepage.

Monish Borah: Please tell me what inspired you to write about the histories of capitalism in India and China.

Andrew Liu: The most straightforward answer is that this essay emerged out of my larger research project on the intertwined histories of the tea trades of China and India. In conceptualizing this work, I delved into the literature on capitalism as it was understood in the classical context of Euro-America as well as in the specific fields of China and South Asia. Certain clear patterns emerged from the literature that I thought were worth systematizing and writing out, both for my own thinking and for others who may find it useful—for instance, Sinologists or Indologists curious about the deeper background of this literature.

More broadly, I had always been interested as an undergraduate in the relationship between the postcolonial world and critical theories for understanding modern social life, theories that largely emerged from the experience of Euro-America. I first approached these questions in a haphazard manner, studying cultural and literary theory, philosophy and psychoanalysis, political science, and so on. But when I became introduced to the literature on capitalism and political economy in graduate school, something clicked in my brain. I realized that so many of the broader cultural tropes of success, struggle, tension, and resistance—within the fields of Chinese and South Asian studies and, I’m in sure, many other regions—matched up with an underlying belief in the economic failures and successes of these societies, often mirroring presentist concerns over development and business. The study of capitalism seemed interwoven within, and even underlay, questions of intellectual, cultural, and social history. My investment in this question of capitalism, then, is not as a historian posing as an economist fixated on promoting growth; rather, it is to understand the history of capitalism in China and India—and globally—as an entry point into the broader terrain of modern social theory. My hope is that others interested in social and cultural questions will also find value in the study of capitalism, too.

I would also be remiss if I did not mention that many U.S. and European historians have recently called for a rethinking of the “history of capitalism” in light of the 2008 financial crash. I have found this literature tremendously useful at times, but the geographical distribution (or lack thereof) is hard to miss. At the same time, I think if we historians of Asia want that gap to be bridged it is also our burden to engage the literature of the rest of the world, including the North Atlantic canon. One of the aims of my essay is to modestly contribute to that effort.

Borah: In your article, you discuss capitalism and the different ways to study it by classifying all the relevant scholarship on the topic into two schools of thought, both of which were developed by Marxist economists. As a result in your article, you are compelled to place works that are clearly not Marxist within the specter of Marxist literature. What made you choose this kind of methodology?

Liu: Actually, I believe I am making the opposite argument, and let me begin with a brief clarification. The production and circulation-centered approaches to the history of capitalism are not, in my reading, sectarian “schools of thought.” A popular misconception in the study of economic thought is that Marx himself invented an entire vocabulary of concepts (value, circulation, production) requiring a cultish leap of faith from readers. In fact, Marx was drawing from the language of thinkers before him, such as Smith and Ricardo, and, after his time, non-Marxist thinkers from Weber to Karl Polanyi each discovered in Marx’s writing valuable insights for their own work. One need not subscribe to any particular “school” to observe that certain theories of capitalism focus upon its commercial “demand” side—market prices, overseas trading companies, consumer activity—while others focus upon production and “supply”: technical innovation, industrialization, vertical integration, labor, and so on.

Thus, I am not trying to fold non-Marxist writers into Marxist literature, as you write. To the contrary, I am trying to open up a field of historiography—the Marxist inquiry into the origins of capitalism—that may initially appear inscrutable to non-specialists, and I wish to connect it to a more general examination of capitalism undertaken by different traditions. To that end, I discuss historians who see themselves in the lineages of Weber and Smith, and I highlight how, contrary to expectations, we see points of overlap across the Smithians, the Marxists, the Weberians, the subalternists and postcolonialists, and the modernization and dependency theorists.

I realize Marxist historiography has been considered unfashionable for a while now, so for skeptical readers, I simply offer two points. On the one hand, it is true that the question of capitalism’s historical dynamics was originally addressed most forcefully from within the Marxist tradition, but there is also much more diversity within this literature than generally acknowledged, with many valuable, heterodox insights that are worth exploring for curious students. On the other hand, I do not think we need to simply take that older tradition—Dobb and Sweezy for instance—at face value, and we can do interesting things by historicizing the literature itself as well. I devote the second half of my essay to a more critical intellectual historical account of why production- and circulation-centered accounts appeared more plausible to historians at different junctures, corresponding to real, material changes in the global economy—in simple terms, the shift from mid-century national industry to late-century globalization. Such explanations, I write, were “immanent to the history of capitalism itself,” not reducible to this or that school or author. In other words, I think we can begin with a scholarly debate that happened to feature an intramural contest between Marxists in order to ultimately uncover insights useful for the broader enterprise of historicizing capitalism.

Borah: Your article shows how pre-modern, modern, and contemporary economic systems of Europe, India, and China have been influenced by each region’s historical and cultural experiences. But the results of these experiences all seem to be more or less the same, Smithian commercialization which leads to capitalism. So, is this coincidence or is capitalism according to you some kind of new modernity that every society seeks to attain?

Liu: I think the answer depends upon what you mean by “leads to capitalism.” If you mean a way of life in which the production of commodities for profit plays a dominant role, then yes, this is a widespread feature of many parts of the world today, certainly much of Asia. But that is not simply a coincidence, nor is it natural. I mentioned William Sewell’s contention that we need to keep in focus the “weirdness” of capitalism. Implicit in my historiographical review was an attempt to identify a certain lacuna within the field of Asian history: initially, we once took for granted classic explanations for why China and India failed to become industrialized capitalist societies, but then these were later replaced with histories that promoted the naturalness of economic development in Asia and the continuities between the present with previous eras. These two canonical stories have overshadowed histories that both take seriously the role of capital accumulation in modern Asia but which also foreground the eventful origins of those dynamics, that is, stories of capitalism’s contingent emergence—how market competition began to play a far more determinative role in everyday life in these regions in specific sites and at specific moments in time. Capitalism’s seeming ubiquity can be historicized rather than naturalized.

Now, if by “leads to capitalism” you are referring to a sort of stage theory in which all societies must first pass through a “commercial” phase into an “industrial” phase, then, no, I do not think this old idea can be supported any further. It is true that the classical political economists argued persuasively that industrial societies were established on the foundations of existing commercial societies—how could you have had the English industrial revolution without strong monetary and financial institutions, overseas trade, and productive and disciplined agrarian regimes? But it is a fallacy of “methodological nationalism,” as Manu Goswami has put it, to equate that general story with a set of stages that each particular society or nation must pass through. Asian history provides some stark examples. In mid-century East Asia, many states followed the pattern of state-led industrialization, wherein they tried to push fast-forward on the normative path of market-driven growth, instead redistributing land by fiat, protecting industries, and supporting large firms (think the Korean chaebol and the Japanese zaibatsu and keiretsu), producing a remarkable story of “catching up” with the Euro-American industrial core. By contrast, a major theme in modern South Asia has been the combination of early modern commercial success circumscribed by modern frustrations with industrialization, whether attributed to colonial drain or to state mismanagement. Hence, sometimes countries will skip steps; other times, they find themselves stuck. These examples suggest the value of conceiving capitalism globally, viewing regional and national stories as instances of a larger, uneven formation.

Borah: You propose that “capital accumulation” could become the meeting point for both the contending schools of thought on capitalism. You have also suggested that the global center of capital accumulation is mobile as it is now gradually moving from North Atlantic towards Asia. But don’t you think that such a methodology will create confusion in chronology and narrative, especially when we know that European nations were exporting huge amounts of bullion to China and India during the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries?

Liu: It seems that you are asking how do we distinguish between a) the proposition that much of the world’s capitalist activity is now gravitating towards Asia and b) the much older history of Asia serving as a sink for silver mined and collected by early modern European empires, is that right? I think this is an interesting question, because although scholars had long known about the movement of silver into Asia—Ming-Qing China but also Mughal India—this history was made famous by scholarship in the late 1990s, especially the late Andre Gunder Frank’s ReOrient (1998). The thrust of Frank’s work was that the “rise” of China in the late twentieth century was really a “return” to how things were during the early modern period, when late imperial China was one of the richest societies in the world—the very premise of your question.

It is worth noting that in making this claim, Frank relied upon a framework similar to that of his 1970s studies, which emphasized “trade” as his primary analytical category. I point this out because I think your question brings us back to the critique of circulation-centered approaches, such as Frank’s, that I raise in the essay. Namely, if we tend to see all forms of commercial activity as identical and thereby equate modern “capitalism” with trade itself, then we lose the ability to distinguish across time and to explain the specific character of the past several centuries. Although trade is millennia old, social phenomena such as industrialization, technological innovation, and mass labor mobilization certainly are not. This is what Sewell meant by capitalism’s “weirdness.”

Thus, when early modernists describe how western Europeans purchased Chinese porcelains and silk with Peruvian and Japanese silver, they may be describing an early form of commercial capitalism that was profitable for a small minority, but we should be able to clearly distinguish this dynamic from twenty-first-century Euro-American clothing and computer companies who contract hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers to process mass commodities to be sold around the world every new season. If we only paid attention to where money and goods were moving, sure, the twenty-first century may look like the sixteenth. But there are clear historical differences when we look closer at every facet of accumulation, especially production and finance.

Borah: Ever since the onset of capitalism we have seen periodic populist and nationalist backlash against the international division of labor. It is something that we are currently experiencing in many places of the world. It is also evident that the issue of labor has become inseparable from other topics like nationality, race, religion, and gender. In your article, you talk about the importance of engaging with the history of labor for acquiring a better understanding of capitalism. So, how do you think the theoretical model proposed in your article will help us to navigate the history of labor?

Liu: In my own research, I learned a great deal from the field of studies unofficially known as “global labor history,” an initiative led mostly by historians from South Asia and the Netherlands. One objective of my piece was to introduce wider audiences, especially East Asia scholars, to this literature. The field’s basic premise is that scholars and students should pay greater attention to labor arrangements from around the world beyond the North Atlantic. At the same time, there is also a theoretical component that is not always readily apparent but which connects it back to the discussion of accumulation. Let me try to explain.

For much of the twentieth century, labor history paralleled the production-centered approach to studying capitalism, sharing the assumption that history was driven forward by the engine of evolving productive forces. Just as economic historians imagined an evolution from small farms to large farms to urban industry, labor history assumed an evolution from traditional social organization—slavery, indenture, serfdom, small-scale peasantry—to the emergence of a free and independent working class. Workers were to be divorced from the land, shuttled into permanent employment in large firms, and eventually they would develop organizational consciousness. They were proletarians. This was what “capitalist labor” looked like.

By contrast, an emphasis upon “accumulation” is less wed to such evolutionary expectations, because it does not presume some initial revolutionary transformation in production (for those interested, I develop these claims further in my book). If we are telling a story of how capital travels through the spaces of production, distribution, marketing, finance, and consumption, then what makes labor “capitalist” is simply the minimal requirement that people be made available, under whatever social arrangement, to be paid to make a marketable commodity. This minimalist frame allows us to see how arrangements once considered “non-capitalist” actually played a major role in the historical accumulation of wealth. The enslavement of Africans in the Americas is the most famous example, spotlighted by the recent spate of works on American capitalism. In Asian history, we have the story of overseas indentured Chinese and Indian workers, domestic family labor for regional textile and agrarian markets in almost all societies, and, in twentieth-century East Asia, the labor-intensive and small-scale industrial workshops that powered the rise of the so-called four tigers. Additionally, there are stories of sharecropping, debt bondage, caste- and contractor-based labor forces, and even forms of Asian slavery—Rupa Viswanath’s recent work is exemplary on this point. An older labor history may have overlooked these stories, but a framework of global accumulation makes them more visible. Including these new actors underscores the point that the global division of labor is not only organized through impersonal market forces but also through highly personal and overt terms, such as color, caste, religion, sex, and kinship. Even the Chinese communes and work teams, which aspired to abolish “feudal” differences, drew upon them in practice. I hope this approach enables us to better imagine the diversity and unevenness of the global working population—and also how much working people worldwide share in common, united by capital, in spite of those differences.

Finally, quickly, I realize the obvious rejoinder is that this formulation deprives labor history of its original political dynamism and reduces it to a sort of static multiculturalism. I would simply say that I am not denying that capitalism as a whole has a general directional impulse: businesses must still endlessly accrue profits, and firms must constantly expand and fight for survival. As such, we can also hold progressive aspirations for labor under capital as well. However, capital’s general directional tendencies have drawn from a diversity of particular social conditions, with the result an uneven distribution of power and wealth across geography. We should keep both levels of analysis in mind. You mention an ongoing nationalist backlash against the global division of labor in the contemporary moment—most obviously, Americans scapegoating Chinese workers for industrial job losses—and I think that such backlashes are, unfortunately, an unavoidable result of separating one segment of the global workforce from the others, precisely the type of rigid analysis that global labor historians have tried to confront. What would be truly heartening, then, is if the consciousness of global labor issues I have described in scholarship also become translated into public political discourses as well.