The current international system comprises an immense amount of academic concepts and empirical, real world elements, so its characteristics are both complex and numerous. My argument is that the capitalist structure is the most important of these characteristics, the central pillar around which all other elements revolve.
In this essay, I will argue for the central role of the capitalist structure by linking it to other secondary elements (democracy, the high interaction capacity in the system and its size). I will also make the argument that the current international system was born around the 1500s (as opposed to 1648 and the Peace of Westphalia).
The Contemporary System v ‘The World System A.D. 1250-1350’
The capitalist structure
The reason for which I consider the capitalist structure to be the most important characteristic of the contemporary international system is because there is virtually no corner of the world which has not been involved, at some point, in trade with transnational companies (TNCs), companies which use capitalism as mode of production. Moreover, units themselves have been promoting capitalist ideas such as the free market, through international institutions generally known as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Since this is my central argument, I believe this development is not new and, in order to understand it, we must have a look at the previous international system. I find similarities in the two structures, but differences in interaction capacity and size.
Abu-Lughod argues that, in the ‘world system’ which existed approximately between 1250 and 1350 A.D., trade in general with the purpose of development was one of the defining characteristics of the said system (1989:4). This economic integration and the need for surplus (which could later be exported to far parts of the world) show that ways of production which resembled contemporary capitalism existed even in the 14th century. Obviously, a visible difference between the 14th century international system and the system which spurred in the 16th century is the scale of international trade, but the technological capabilities were more or less the same. Capitalist institutions existed in Europe long before the current international system was created (Abu-Lughod: 1989:8-11).
In Johnson’s review of Charles Tilly’s book called Coercion, Capital and European States, AD 990-1990 (1990), we find out that, in the formation process of the European states since the 10th century, capital, albeit along with military power, had a central contribution (1995:173).
In his explanations for the rise of the state as the dominant unit in the system, Hendrik Spruyt also argues that where feudalism failed to create an economic environment compatible with trade and production, it was replaced by other modes of organization. He draws on Wallerstein’s argument (1974) that capitalism emerged together with the strong European states (Spruyt, 2002:137).
We observe that, regardless of the true starting point of capitalism, this particular mode of production has been present in Abu-Lughod’s ‘world system’ and has been the driving force behind the birth of the current international system. However, what makes the current international system different from the previous one is the global idea attached to it. While the previous international system hardly included three continents in the world economy, the capitalist structure of the international system today influences the whole world and, even more, it does this at great speeds. Buzan and Little have a similar conception (2000:334).
High interaction capacity
Dramatic technological developments make it possible for people living in Australia to invest money in British companies listed at the New York Stock Exchange; and they do it virtually instantaneously. In the same way, at the push of a button, countries can wage war on basically any other country, regardless of the distance between the two. This is without precedent in the history of international systems.
Abu-Lughod finds that, in the 14th century international system, even the easiest and cheapest routes between Europe and Asia could take years to travel (1989:8, 185-207). Although investment was also present at that time (Abu-Lughod, 1989:16) – another feature of the capitalist structure – it is obvious that this process was all but fast. She also argues that the increased integration between far parts of the 14th century world is mainly the result of both technological and ideational developments. These developments created surplus which was traded and then reinvested in development (1989:3-4). We notice that the cycle described by Abu-Lughod sounds very much like a rudimentary, but still similar, capitalist mode of production. Therefore, the system she describes as being more complex and sophisticated than any systems had been before (Abu-Lughod, 1989:353) is a system created by an increase in interaction capacity due to changes in the mode of production (i.e. capitalism).
The creations of the 14th century and current international systems are then marked by an increase in interaction capacity and one can see the reasons why. However, just like in the one before it, the interaction capacity is so high in the current international system that it simply takes it to a whole new level, compared to all previous ones.
The previous international system hardly included 3 continents. Abu-Lughod herself admits that it could in no way be described as “global”, although it is unclear what she means by “world international system” (1989:352-353). In contrast, the current international system is the first system to comprise the whole planet. If the previous one was still comparable in size, the contemporary international system is as big as it gets. The fact that there are no more physical territories to be conquered and/or discovered is closely tied with the evolution of the capitalist mode of production and the creation of an according structure.
In order to return profit, surplus needs new markets, as Buzan and Little show through Yoffee’s (1991) example of the Assyrian silver trade (2000:234-235). Therefore, new physical land means both new markets and cheap resources. Then, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the current international system became truly global in the last 5 centuries because of the need to fuel in a relatively cheap fashion the capitalist mode of production.
Democracy, as a way of governing, is a huge ideational difference between the current international system and all the ones before it. Granted, it is not a new development, but it is a development which helped shaping the modern state as such. Buzan and Little bring the making of England as an example for rudimentary democratic processes: because the ruler needed their resources (i.e. part of the surplus created through capitalist methods), merchants and landlords were provided with a means of taking part in politics (2000:249). Nowadays, the democratic processes are far more complex and virtually every living body has a voice in the dealings of the state, based solely on nationality (as opposed to the conditionality of being a tax-payer). Surely, the said processes vary in fairness and efficiency, but the simple fact that democracy is discussed and argued for all over the world makes the international system today distinct. The need for democratic principles came as a response to the need for economic stability. The capitalist structure could not have expanded if there were no principles in place, designed to decrease the constant risk attached to investment.
When Did It Start?
Buzan and Little believe that the symbolic year of 1648 (signing of the Treaty of Westphalia) is nothing but a secondary turning point in the modern era (2000:403). Instead, they argue for a more rough date back to which the current international can be traced: the 1500s. I agree with their view. It is obvious that international systems cannot and are not created overnight, like choosing a specific year would suggest. Then, we must think that the emergence of the modern state has not happened overnight either (Buzan and Little, 2000:246-250). Granted, the emergence of sovereignty as a concept is extremely important in the evolution of the current international system, but choosing 1648 as the most important turning point seems a rather shallow explanation.
Buzan and Little’s account of the current international system
Although I agree with their belief that nowadays, the state is the dominant unit, the central organizational actor, I fail to understand why Buzan and Little do not give enough credit to intergovernmental organizations (2000:265-267). Simply the fact that they are made up of states should give IGOs more power than Buzan and Little allow for. Considering their argument, it is even more surprising that they admit the increasing actor quality of the European Union (EU), which started out as a new markets integration project. The IMF and the WTO have been clearly playing an important role in creating a global capitalist structure, through pushing their members (i.e. states) to adopt liberal policies in their economic sectors. Buzan and Little agree that the global market structure is clearly a significant difference between the current international system and the preceding one. Therefore, not giving enough credit to IGOs is a small contradiction in their judgment.
In this essay I have showed why the capitalist structure is the most important characteristic of the contemporary international system by linking it to secondary elements and by comparing these to the previous system argued for by Janet Abu-Lughod. I have also showed why Buzan and Little’s timetable holds better than others but their theoretical framework does not give enough credit to intergovernmental organizations.