Topmenu Calendar Archive Links Faculty and staff Publications Research projects Sitemap Main page

This is the electronic edition of Noel Parker, "The Ins-and-Outs of European Civilization: How Can the Margins Inform Research on Europe?", Workpaper 69-98, Centre for Cultural Research, University of Aarhus

The pagination of the printed edition is indicated by red numbers marking the beginning of the page.

ISBN: 87-7725-215-2

Electronically published September 2, 1998

©Noel Parker 1988. All rights reserved. This text may be copied freely and distributed either electronically or in printed form under the following conditions. You may not copy or distribute it in any other fashion without express written permission from me. Otherwise I encourage you to share this work widely and to link freely to it. 


You keep this copyright notice and list of conditions with any copy you make of the text. 

You keep the preface and all chapters intact. 

You do not charge money for the text or for access to reading or copying it. 

That is, you may not include it in any collection, compendium, database, ftp site, CD ROM, etc. which requires payment or any world wide web site which requires payment or registration.You may not charge money for shipping the text or distributing it. If you give it away, these conditions must be intact.

For permission to copy or distribute in any other fashion, contact

Noel Parker

The Ins-and-Outs of European Civilization:

How Can the Margins Inform Research on Europe?


I argue briefly for the theoretical value of examining European history, civilization or society from the point of view of how such a thing can be continuously formed and re-formed in interactions with that which is marginal to it. Eric Wolf's Europe and the People without History then provided a lengthy worked example of how that might be done. Wolf, using a modified version of the marxist model, can be read as an interpretation of the global setting where European civilization established its identity in a contest between different, spatially differentiated modes of production. This approach can be used to explain the moving boundaries of European power and their impact on the formation of European civilization itself. The paper then extends the idea of analysis via margins, by taking margins in a metaphorical sense, as the place where human meanings intervene in given structures. Finally, I propose how two "margins" that may currently be formative for Europe: the post-Communist East and resistance to the globalized order superimposing itself on different social orders worldwide.

Introduction: Looking askance at "European Civilization"

This working paper is very much the outcome of time spent at the Centre for Cultural Studies. That is partly because colleagues from the European Studies group at the Centre deserve my thanks for the comments they made and the interest they showed in the topic when an earlier version of the paper was discussed. In addition it is a "working paper" in the sense of an open reflection of ideas I was considering, with no clear end in sight, whilst at the Centre.[1] More importantly, these are ideas informed by the approach to the study of Europe that the Centre has been developing for some time.

For one thing which struck me about the approach adopted was the confidence with which it was supposed that a thing called "European Civilization" could be made an object of research. Whilst this confidence was somewhat enviable, I was made uneasy by the assumption. "European History" is a category that shows the strain of Europe's being overwhelmed by political transformations and internal divisions. These have left it hard to assign any clear direction to "Europe". How much more complex is the discourse of an investigation of European "Civilization"? For in this case, the simple (relatively simple) facts of location are much less reliable. Distinguishing European Civilization from any other, or from European non-Civilization is fraught with uncertainty. Has European Civilization not migrated,


or at the very least been recentred in North America? Is European Civilization co?terminous with any easily identified cultural identity, such as Christianity, or a definite set of language communities, or scientific rationality, or modernity? If we answer yes to any of these, we seem to exclude some obvious elements of European culture(s). So, I fear that there may be no clear object of research in that phrase, "European Civilization", or that the object may be so shifting as to be unnapproachable.

Then there are a number of ethical difficulties in talking of civilization. When asked about European Civilization, Mahatma Gandhi is supposed to have said that he thought "it would be a good idea". That is to say, the notion entails certain things (standards of decent behaviour, sophistication etc) which may not be actually realized in practice, or might not be coherent in themselves. For, like other social formations, European civilization is in a strange way made at the point where various structural preconditions (location, resources, inherited practices) meet a mix of ideals, good intentions, narrow interests and delusions. Hypocrisy lies close by when one thinks about civilization, then - a risk illustrated only too well in Samuel Huntington's recent strategy to harness the concept of the "history of civilization" to refurbish the ideology behind Western/US foreign intervention across the world (Huntington 1996). To ignore these risks, and assume that European "Civilization" is solid and cleanly identifiable, then, lays us open to the charge of self-delusion and self-flattery - at the risk of both offence and ridicule.

To be sure, all this fluidity of content can recognised - as it has been - in the historical strategy taken: by formulating Europe's historical identity as a tension between dynamics, such as national autonomy and common values, or between romantic and rationalist versions of Europe's own past. But it is my belief that the fluid identity of "European History"/"Civilization" could be installed at the conceptual root of the idea, so that whatever the content, it was so formulated that variation was inherent to it. This paper is offered in the hope to encourage a formulation along those lines. I think it is possible with a concept I am making use of elsewhere[2] (and which itself emanates naturally from current European concerns with otherness and with social exclusion): the concept of marginality. In brief, this paper states how what happens at its margins could formulate an open definition of European history/society/civilization and addresses a worked example of that approach, found (according to me) in the work of an American historical anthropologist.

A margins research agenda on Europe

I think that, using the notion of margins, there can be a common way forward for studying the contemporary integration of Europe and the long-term expansion and contraction of European "civilization". The advantage of developing a common way for both areas of


inquiry is that each is made stronger. My own assessment of the research situation is that most of the gain would be on the side of contemporary studies of integration. For that field is suffering from a shortage of theoretical alternatives even as its own object of study (the European Union and other integrative processes) evolves rapidly. However, the longer story of Europe's expansion, contraction and (even) re-expansion - to the East - is an ongoing story too. Whoever stands to gain most, prima facie there are four reasons why it is attractive to research European expansion, contraction and integration from the point of view of the margins.

There is a common sense observation. Especially in the years since the end of the Cold War, it appears that where integration happens, it does so on a number of different fronts, or margins, at the same time. There has been a proliferation boundaries for Europe, deriving from the parallel extensions of different integrative bodies. The Council of Europe has been greatly enlarged. NATO has ingeniously created a separate ante-chamber to itself, in Partnership for Peace, to embrace ex-Soviet-bloc states pro tem, while the new situation evolves and it makes up its mind what to do. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe has attempted a major reorganization to embrace states from both sides of the Cold War. A particularly problematic case (tragic too) at the present historical moment has been Yugoslavia, which was formerly settled neatly in the margin between East and West. The European Union itself is expanding: so far, the Nordic countries, then union with one Soviet-bloc country, East Germany. Each of these changes of boundary has reverberated through the Union - as accommodating margins tends to do. And perpetual debate and contestation regarding, inter alia, the inclusion of other territories in the Union has continued since to generate a range of possible futures, geometries, and margins. Much depends on where future boundaries are set: eastward enlargement, EMU, Schengen, the CAP, the Barcelona process etc etc. By taking it for granted that shifting boundaries are determinants in the character of any integration, the margins research agenda expressly accommodates to this sort of thing. But the present, post-Cold-War environment seems to offer particularly clear support for that presumption. On these common sense grounds, then, the margins appearing in Europe seem to be increasingly important points to conduct research.

Secondly, there has always been a simple theoretical reason why you should research margins. The margins can be thought of as those parts whose position in a governed whole is least reliable. Following this simple theoretical manner of thought, we would pre-suppose that interactions between centre and margins would be especially difficult for, and therefore would have a significant impact, on both. In addition, a simple theory for the integration of governance would expect that, where territorial extent is increasing, the margins of integration would over time become progressively more significant. Simple theoretical thinking has yet more to offer. In any given space of governance, one or


more location or institution aspire to be the ordering focal point of the whole. That is to say, it or they seek to establish terms in which to dominate the rest. We could plausibly go on to suggest that the larger a territory, the more extended the borders, the more varied the marginal territories, the more significant - other things being equal - the weight of relations between the margins and the centre. In short, the margins of any extending territorial field of governance would be points with a potentially increasing impact, and therefore key points to conduct research.

Following this same, albeit rather pat, reasoning, one can derive two further points. The margins of any extending field of governance in the non-territorial sense should possess the same significance. That is to say, metaphorical margins, i.e. groups or areas of activities which are least under control, could also be determinant for the whole. One thinks of the "war on drugs", or organized French farmers, or holders of foreign-exchange in the City of London: in each case, the system of governance has to undergo real change to include the activity or group in question. Secondly, there is the matter of perspective. Evidently, a centre-margin relationship can be looked at either from the centre or from the margin: neither has necessary logical priority. Yet it is the case, I believe, that most research chooses the perspective from the centre outward. There are no doubt many reasons for that: including the fact that there are fewer centres than margins and that centres tend to be metropolitan places where intellectual and cultural power sets the agenda. Conversely, the whole body of "post-colonial" literary theory, from Edward Said on, plus philosophical writing on otherness, such as Julia Kristeva, represent late-20th-century attempts to look through the other end of this particular telescope.

My third reason for pushing a margins point of view for research is the entry of globalization into everyone's research agenda. The exact extent of recent manifestations of "globalization" are easy to dispute. But however epochal or not it may be, globalization challenges the previous assumptions about the relationship between autonomous processes and the overall, political organization of social life. In particular, the dominant political instance of recent centuries, the national state, no longer appears to be at the optimal level for the exercise of political power over the economic sphere. Some believe that the outcome of integration in Europe will be to replace the old national states with a new instance, more effective because larger. Others believe that the difficulties of the old national states will undermine equally any supra-national surrogate.

    Instead of treating states as separated entities, we are obliged to recognize people and governments engaging in state activities. The state has become a globally extended sphere of meaningful activities. Multiple agencies engage constantly in defining the nature and limits of their respective jurisdictions. (Albrow 1996, p.64).


    In the context of globalization, "integration" is either a coalescence of old boundaries, then, or it is the obselescence of boundaries altogether. Whichever way one sees it, however, the relationship between instances of governance and their margins again emerges as a crucial unknown.

I observed earlier that civilization is in a strange way "made" at the meeting point between a mix of human ideals, intentions and interests and a mix of structural preconditions - location, resources, inherited practices. My fourth reason for prioritizing margins is derived from two kinds of philosophizing about this: the philosophy of identity and the philosophy of action. These are interrelated and will need to be developed more fully later. But what they amount to is this. Prima facie to acknowledge the identity of something is to ascribe to it a certain constancy of features: for example, more or less essential characteristics which "make it what it really is". Yet, such formulations of identity, from Plato on, have always been subject to a "nominalist" style of attack: What you are calling identity are just a number of combinations of features in a number of individuals, with no central special core features, which happen to appear in the present entities in the world. As David Hume argued long ago about personal identity, the problem is that the "same" person loses and acquires so many different features over the course of a life that it may be impossible to select some as the essential features which give that person unique identity.

Two recent ways of pursuing the essentialist route to identity have been functionalism and structuralism, each of which has a particular way of prioritizing certain features of an entity over others.[3] In the field of research about governance, these routes have concentrated respectively on the functionality of institutions of governance for the working of the governed, and on the logical necessity mutually implied by the autonomy of the market and the regulative powers of the state. One line of thought about "globalization" has been that it renders obsolete those and other strategies for fixing the identity of socio-political entities. On the other hand, a more modest response, which I favour, would simply observe that the identity of zones of governance has always been problematic. It follows that a good way to research a probably shifting identity of socio-political entities such as European Society is to examine what happens at their margins.

A different line of philosophical thought has been anger or despair at the power of structures or other essences to determine whatever happens within a socio-political entity. Philosophy of action has accordingly looked for the spaces within or around the structures where human initiative can rebel against the power of the overarching entity. Without that, it has been felt, both change and human initiative are rendered impossible. Once again, the


place to research this space for change and initiative is the "margins" where structures and functionalities are at their weakest - including what I referred to earlier as "metaphorical margins", those "groups or areas of activities which are least easy to control".

One approach to the margins: Wolf's Europe and the People without History

The biggest part of what follows is my particular reading of Eric Wolf's historical study of the interactions of European Civilization in its most expansion with the territories and peoples who found themselves at the margins of the process. On my submission, this work explores how European society formed and was itself formed in a constant interaction with those margins. Thus, it illustrates the possibilities for flexibly identifying Europe as an object of study with the margins approach.

Eric Wolf is a marxisant anthropologist, with an urge for the global historical sweep. In 1997, Yale republished his text from 1982: Europe and the People without History. It is an analytical history of the meeting of European trade, government and society with the non?European peoples that Europeans, and their modernity, gradually overtook. In Wolf's submission, these other, losing societies had histories just as much as Europe did - though Europe's success in overunning them has obscured that reality. So Wolf attempts an anthropological history which, by analysing the interactions, takes full account of their societies' mechanisms and resources.

Though his intellectual formation lies in the USA of the 1950's and 60's, the re-publication of this most ambitious essay raises issues and offers methodological possibilities for understanding European/Western civilization at the end of the 20th Century. Wolf's intellectual roots lie in the materialist account of how societies are formed and overturned. But, in seeking an account of how surplus wealth is extracted in earlier societies, his work employed the concept of the mode of production flexibly enough to embrace the symbolic and


material construction of the pre-modern societies that are anthropology's habitual focus.[4] The range of his investigations has been confined neither to the material nor the cultural; neither to modern, "European" "history" nor to the timeless prehistory of "early" societies. So this paper is, first and foremost, an attempt to use Wolf: to show how an account of the historic evolution of Europe, both material and cultural, could be built up by examining the modalities of change on the shifting margins of Europe's social forms.

If my points above carry force, a study covering the topic that Wolf chose ought to concern those interested in how European society and/or civilization has been formed in history - or is being formed still. For he is examining the formative development of European civilization as it pushed back the margins of its influence across the globe. It is instructive to examine how Wolf does what he does, then, as a lesson in how to study formative change at the margins of European society. Two principles underlying the work are exemplary. First, Wolf refuses to limit history to the victors' account: centred on the triumph of Europe, European civilization, or modernity in general. Secondly, he looks for "rationality" in the actions of non-moderns and non-Europeans, putting all on a par. He does this with the concept of mode of production, applied across the board to include Europeans and "primitives", both sides exhibiting comparable material needs and symbolic universes. In short, Wolf's approach examines the margins of European expansion without the immovability usually attributed to traditional society or the unique, irresistable dynamism supposedly represented by Europe.

Such even-handedness has a number of theoretical consequences, which I regard as strengths to be found and emulated in Wolf's study. That provocative title, "Europe and the People without History" suggests, from the start, an ambition to write the unwritable, to compose a narrative for those who have been allowed none, to capture for those who lie on the other side of the boundary ideas of roots and progress which Europe and its history have commandeered: movement in time, prudential action and historical direction. His ambition was, as he said in his original preface, "to discover...a history that could account for the ways that the social system of the modern world came into being...make analytic sense of all societies, including our own....[and] counter the ascendancy in the human sciences of a formal rationality that no longer inquired into the causes of human action but sought merely technical solutions to problems conceived primarily in technical terms."(p.xv).

For Wolf, then, the world-wide formation of society according to a European rationality ought not to be taken as a foregone conclusion in which progress intervened in the previously still world of the non-European. In Europe and the People without History, Wolf's desire to embed the activity of non-European societies in comparable rationalities opens up


afresh the question of how European "civilization" was made. Wolf did not abrogate the categories of organized action and deliberate change to the European world - nor, conversely, did he restrict the concept of exploitation to Europeans' exploitation of others. He let rationality embrace both Europe and its "other", so that the world as European expansion made it can be seen to arise from contrary impulses, not predetermined by the necessary form of progress.

On the other hand, having pulled the plug on the motor of "progress", he did not set aside all thought of historical pattern. Wolf's work belongs to its time and place: the USA in the 1960's waking up to the hostility of colonised people towards even to its own, "benign", modernizing imperialism. Yet, Wolf's response to the reversal of American global optimism, was not to ditch historical direction altogether. Even if that 1960's experience now feels a world away, the reaction carries a lesson for contemporary post-"post-modern" Europe. When it lost its faith in historical direction, the post-modernism of the 1980's opted for a luxuriant polysemism which abandoned all narrative coherence. Wolf's view of world history drops the primacy of any singular rationality, but still addresses Europe's expansion as a massive historical fact, to be recognised and seen to evolve.

Finally (and most interestly to my mind), by assimilating the two sides of the boundaries of an historically expanding Europe, Wolf problematises those expanding boundaries of the "European" (or, later, the "modern") world. In my view, this offers, perhaps unbeknownst to Wolf, a way to deconstruct European civilization: by defining it according to modalities at its margins, without presupposing ahistorically that its final form is given in the nature of its mode of production. And that is a piece of research at the margins, which addresses the current uncertain position of Europe in "history".

The shape of Europe's history in Wolf's study

Wolf divides the history from which the other players have been excluded into two periods: a period of commercial expansion from the 15th to the 18th centuries followed by a period of full-blown capitalism of the 19th and 20th centuries. In terms of Wolf's own marxist theorization, the distinction between these two phases is rather important. I will return to it, though I myself wish to emphasis certain structural continuities between the two periods.

Before around 1400, as Wolf tells us, trade routes existed that spanned the continents of the Old World, while a separate web drew together parts of what Europeans came to call "the New World". Across these mercantile links, the hold on space of various political orders extended or receded, depending upon their ability to take tribute for "protecting" trade or organizing agriculture by irrigation etc.

Europe's trading routes, of course, had only a modest place of the Eurasian trading systems that stretched from West Africa to the China. And not a particularly advantageous


place either - insofar as the Arab-Ottoman world was better able to grow rich on its position between three continents and the Asian part to grow rich all on its own. Some European movements had already pushed outwards. To the north, the Vikings had set up in Russia, and the feudal military caste had settled northern Germany and Poland with colonists from the West. To the south, the Crusades installed temporary overseas kingdoms in Palestine and established profitable trading networks in the Eastern Mediterranean. Both these expansions were formative, incidentally. Robert Bartlett (1993) has shown how the feudal colonization stimulated what he calls the "Europeanization of Europe": that is to say, the widespread recognition of the feudal cultural and legal forms from the pre-existing core of Latin Europe - grants of "feudal" "freedoms", charters, coinage, the university and so on. Crusading in the Middle East transformed the Catholic Church as an institution and created the modes of trading and financial wealth on which Italy's lead in the Renaissance was to be founded.

But these expansions did not alter Europe's basic global position on the trading margins. And they were won against weak targets, slavic tribes or the ailing Byzantine Empire. The post-1400 "history" starts when Europeans break out by sea from their position on the edge of the Arab-Ottoman trading system of the Old World and create across the globe a whole set of new commercial links, accompanied by the associated European systems of political dominance. At the start, maritime expansion was a new strategy against the same rivals - "a back door through which to attack the Arab and the Turk"; [5]but in due course it proves so successful that it became instead a way to encompass the world in our own "European" history. This is where Wolf's account enters the picture.

Action and reaction in the "commercial" era of European expansion

The biggest single part of Europe and the People without History is that which examines the relationships in the "commercial" period of Europe's expansion, from the 15th to the 18th century. Wolf takes in turn the trades in various major commodities which reached out to from Europe to the rest of the world: bullion, plus other lesser commodities such as sugar, dyes or cocoa, from South America; slaves from West Africa; furs from North America; spices, tea and many manufactured goods (such as porcelain) from East Asia. He examines how the political and economic terms differed in the different theatres of European commercial expansion, giving rise in turn to a variety of political and economic accommodations with the prevailing conditions.

The extent of the changes wrought on pre-existing social and political structures depended, of course, upon their resources and structures. Massive social and, indeed, physical destruction of populations in Central and Southern America left the way open to


direct Iberian control - though, significantly, in due course Spanish power at this margin failed. Asia, from where the Chinese emperor could write, "There is nothing we lack...nor do we need any more of your country's manufactures",[6] never fully succumbed. It was the misfortune of West and Central Africa's black populations to supply the trade in slaves to service the developments in the Americas; but this cruel drain of people did not denude Africa of population (which, ironically, was better fed as a result of new crops introduced from the Americas) or destroy autonomous African societies and political structures. African societies were not actually taken over until the 19th century.

Along the road of this commercial-political expansion, Wolf uncovers a number of distinct politico-economic responses to the Europeans. Existing populations and social structures adapted as some took advantage of opportunities to trade with the Europeans arriving from the sea. How they adapted, and the extent of the gain to whom from trade depended on how they exploited the potential of their position. Typically, argues Wolf, to control territory between the coast and the sources of supply inland brought advantages but demanded changes in organization, relations of production and patterns of war-making.

European companies purchased large quantities of furs, for example, from along the coasts and bays of the northeast coast of North America. Indian tribes were drawn in as suppliers from up-country. The trade set up new networks of relationships along the chains of supply, between Indian tribes and between the tribes and the different European companies and nationalities. New interests fostered new rivalries and altered socio-political patterns, increasingly so as the number of furs declined with over-hunting and the supply chains had to be extended. A paradigm case is the Iroquois confederacy (pp. 165-70), a loose association of five "nations" sharing a common language, which was formed in the valley of the Hudson River before the Europeans came ashore. With the fur trade, the Confederacy embarked upon a profitable, warlike expansion into the territory of the Huron to the northwest of them. The profit came from exchanging furs for European commodities and precious goods, which became the stock material for status-building and the exchange of gifts that cemented working relationships. In pursuit of these benefits for the chiefs, the Iroquois gradually altered their life style, from horticulture to hunting furs and trading them, and adapted the functioning of their confederacy, from settling pastoral disputes to going to


war with neighbours who controlled the remaining fur-trapping areas. Even the gender balance was altered amongst the Iroquois, since a previously matrilineal structure attached to the land gave way to patriarchal war-making associations committed to territorial expansion.

The same features - expanding trade for European goods, gain for some, and a wider adaptation of social systems - emerge in the case of the African slave trade. The trade itself was far from new: prior to its own expansion, Europe had received slaves in number from Arab traders in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Likewise, various forms of slavery had existed in West and Central Africa, though the trade in slaves had been economically less important than that in gold, ivory, pepper or nuts. We do not so much see European trade simply imposing on the existing society, then, as skewing pre-existing features to the purposes of the trade.

    Slaving gave rise to a division of labour in which the business of capture, maintenance, and overland transport of slaves was in African hands, while Europeans took charge of transoceanic transport, the `seasoning' or breaking-in of slaves, and their eventual distribution. Responding to American demand, the trade rested upon the active collaboration of buyers of people with their suppliers, and upon a sophisticated orchestration of activities on both sides. (Wolf 1997, p.229)

What was new with global expansion, was the volume of the trade and the geographical distances it covered.[7]

The adaptations resulting from the slave trade changed pre-existing political orders in Africa and gave power to new ones. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the obas, rulers of Benin in eastern Guinea, capitalized on the arrival of Portuguese traders, shoring up their power with firearms exchanged for slaves and spices (pp. 215-17). Similarly, the ruler of the Kongo kingdom developed extensive relations with the Portuguese as he enlarged the capture and bartering of slaves with his neigbours (pp.220-22). And slaving gave to the rulers of the Oyo, in the south of what is now Nigeria, an opportunity to enlarge their authority by exchanging slaves for European goods that could be used to purchase horses for the royal cavalry (p.213) - a process of enhancing the state comparable perhaps to the growth in Europe of the absolute power of monarchs over their nobility. This sustained the Oyo state until the decline of the market for its major export resource, slaves, in the 19th century.

On the other hand, the gains of big-time slavery were a magnet for others contending for power; so any political order which got hold of a slice of the action faced the risk of others moving in. The Oyo fought a century-long battle with rebellious Dahomey, a tributary monarchy formed in the late 17th century, whose strategic aim was to seize coastal territories under Oyo control and set up in business on their own account with the English


slave traders. The great success story amongst new African slaving groups were the Asante, from southern Ghana, whose armed forces swamped their neighbours in all directions during the 18th century, funding expansion with the sale of slaves captured in the process (pp.210-12). Benin found that it could not, from up-country, sustain its position of control over the flow of slaves from the many river ports on the southern coast of Nigeria. The biggest loser on this account was the mani kongo, who in the mid-17th century found his territory taken over when the Portuguese decided to cut out the middle man, and take for themselves slaves from Kongo and its neighbours (p.222-3).

Interpreting the History of European Civilization

How are we to characterise the changes sparked off by the appearance of European traders and privateers? In general, trade with Europeans arriving from across the ocean was a source of unequal benefits and long-term disruption. For, in the long term, it tended to stretch the supply and to skew existing social relations, allowing the intermediary groups involved in trade to extend their reach or reinforce their hold on power, at the cost of adapting their own established social mores. North American Indian populations gave up agriculture altogether, or changed their manner of doing it as they moved westward in search of supplies of fur. Africa's divine kings used the trade to increase their wealth, reinforce their authority and extend their military activity. Once the trade died, however, slaving states like the Asante, rapidly went into decline. The pre-existing rivalries between the social groups that the Europeans met were modified by intra-European rivalries. The Dahomey were tempted to rise against the Oyo by the possibility of a separate slaving deals with the English. The Iriquois Confederation fell apart over whom to join in the American War of Independance.

Many others who did not engage directly in a relationship with Europeans nonetheless felt the effects of the changes wrought by it. They became slave suppliers to others. Or they modified their activities to supply those who were specialising in the European-sponsored trade - as plains Indians learnt to hunt, preserve and sell buffalo meat to trappers. Or, of course, they found themselves captured and sold into slavery on the far side of the ocean. Others moved inland as the effects of European trading and settlement grew - as did the Zulus in South Africa, forming a new social-military order for the purpose. On the other hand, such changes are not different in essence from changes which had happened before Europeans arrived and those which happened to Europeans as well as to native populations. Thus the Boers moved inland during the 17th and 18th centuries (dispossessing hunter-gatherers to their north), latterly to escape the growing power of


British colonization. In due course, the Boers met Bantu populations who had been moving southwards, to displace those same hunter-gatherers, since the 11th century. If there is an order to these changes, at first glance it appears to be that certain populations organized themselves better to exploit their situation whilst others lost out. If there are any underlying explanatory processes, they seem to be Darwinian: adaptation to circumstances extends a given socio-political order or forms a new one, leaving others to die out.

That kind of loose, unspecified competition of societies does not satisfy Wolf, or me - though it must, I think, be kept in mind as an undertow in the global picture of change. In order to account more fully for the evolution of trades, power and societies under the impact of Europe's expansion, Wolf himself modifies (pp.73-100) the "modes of production" as defined in marxist theory, and tries to determine their relative strength. He then postulates that the inherent differences between modes of production account for the historical success of societies operating one mode of production over societies operating another.

Wolf conflates "feudal" and "asiatic" modes, since they are both "outcomes of the competition between classes of non-producers for power at the top" (p.81). For these he adopts the term "tributary mode of production": exploiters are not involved in production, but claim tribute from those that are. On the other hand, he sharpens Marx's distinction between merchant capitalism, which made a gain by relocating items produced in other modes of production, and capitalism proper, which invests money in, and controls, the very processes of production themselves. Finally, he builds up the anthropologists' concept of kinship to sustain a concept of a "kin-ordered mode of production", where extended family hierarchies define access to, and use of means of production such as land. Wolf acknowledges some awkwardnesses about this concept and some inherent weaknesses in the thing itself (notably the tendency for relations to ramify and become the symbolic seed-bed of internal disputes - p.94). But he insists that "[k]inship can...operate at two levels, that of the family or the domestic group and that of the political order" (p.89).

Relative power within and between these modes of production is crucial, since that may account for successes and failures, survival and transformation. Wolf's set of modes of production entails some rather peculiar positions on power. On the one hand, the relatively flat power differentation of feudal society is assimilated to the sharply distinguished power of emperor and local potentate in the old "asiatic" mode. Under capitalism, the ratio between state-military power and economic-capitalist power is (following traditional marxist thinking) swung heavily in favour of the latter. On the other hand, in the kin-ordered mode of production, where Wolf insists that the chief is as much "a prisoner" of social power as its master (p.99), power is flattened almost completely. Wolf wants to retain in kin-ordered society something of the conviviality of the family itself, and keep it apart from later, class-divided societies, where extensive mechanisms of domination are needed to ensure


extraction of the surplus. For myself, I sense a little too much of the 1960s commune in this image.

The strategic benefits of different modes of social organization

His categorization leaves Wolf with a set of modes of production with which to tell the story of Europe's meeting with the outside world. The pre-European world was organised around the circulation of goods across the space of tributary modes of production. These were surrounded by differently organized, "kin-ordered" groups. European expansion then consisted firstly of mercantile and tribute-taking intrusions into the spaces of the kin-ordered peoples. This provoked changes and, in due course, breakdown in the internal workings of the kin-ordered peoples. In a second, fully capitalist phase of expansion, a more intrusive European capitalism is able to take direct control of commodity production and set aside (or manipulate) the public power. That is Wolf's account of the imperialist world order of the 19th century, where commodity production in the industrialized world was serviced from the fringes by the direct political control of the European nation-states.

Wolf's account works like this, then. He defines different modes of production, associating them with territories and social orders. The different modes are associated with different territories, though they can, and do meet and even in places share territory. Each mode of production offers certain possibilities. People living under a given mode of production articulate its organizational and symbolic potential so as to provide their livelihood and ensure their positions as best as they can. The meeting of modes creates a margin where differences of power between operators of different modes of production are exposed. But modes can continue to interact, in conflict or mutual accommodation, for long periods. This suggests to me that, at the margins, there is no clear-cut ascendancy of one mode over another. The demise of kin-ordered modes of living was not immediate or clear-cut; it was worked out slowly in the meeting with the European mode.

Mercantile and tributary modes illustrate this indeterminacy. They exist side by side because the power of merchants and of tribute-takers is roughly in balance. So, across the continental spaces of the Old and the New Worlds, mercantile wealth linked the territories of different tribute-takers, but also depended upon them. The merchant relies upon the organization of space which is under the power of the tribute-takers; his transfers take place across territory under the domination of one tribute-taker or another. So between these two modes of production, there was, if not exactly a harmony, then at least a complementarity. Since his profit depends upon the transfer of goods from one location to another, "the position of the merchant is always defined politically as well as economically" (p.85). His business is accordingly taxed by the tribute-takers. But this is not the way Wolf sees it. He seems to want to reserve this condition of balance for these two modes, commerce and tribute-taking.


Yet his own account clearly points to comparable relationships between operators within the various modes of production. Take, for example, his account of the causes and outcome of Pontiac's revolt of 1763 (pp.174-5), which illustrates how the "balance" between these two modes was contested and contingent.

During the late 18th century, fur-trading companies had increasingly "sought to remove the middleman" by placing their agents in the hinterland of central Canada to deal with trappers direct. The insurgents, from a tribe that had acquired the role of middlemen in the fur trade, attempted to throw the fur agents out, and return to an older way of life. They were only stopped at the walls of the British forts and defeated when the French, who had been supplying them with arms, made the global peace that ended the Seven Years War. The companies then took advantage of the situation by penetrating further into the hinterland to organise a supply of food from hunting tribes to trapping tribes. This looks like a classic struggle between operators of different modes of production for the control of space across which resources (in this case furs) must pass. It is comparable to the situation in the Kongo or southern Nigeria? The Indians sought to sustain their dominance in between fur-producing areas and the routes for water transport to Europe. Had it not been for the sudden resolution of differences on the European merchants' side - i.e. the victory of British state power over French - the indians might have succeeded. They might then, from within their mode of production, have managed to reassert the tribute-taking position vis-?-vis the European merchant companies. As Wolf puts it in summing up (p.193):

    Some groups, strategically located or strong militarily, became primary beneficiaries of the trade in furs. They prospered, and elaborated new cultural configurations that combined native and European artifacts and patterns. Such cultural elaboration was made possible by the flow of new and valued European goods into a still self-regulating native economy. As long as the native Americans were able to direct most of the social labor available through kin-ordered relations to the task of guaranteeing their subsistence, the goods attained by part-time hunting supplemented rather than replaced their own means of production.

If an unpredictable balance of power can exist in widely differing moments of the meeting between social groups and between modes of production, the implications for Wolf's overall story are substantial. For he wants to account for the historic demise of kin-related societies, the success of European mercantile intrusion and then the evolution towards capitalism, in terms of which mode of production is the stronger. But differing, variable balances of power between operators in the same or distinct modes of production suggest a less plainly pre-determined evolution where what Giovanni Arrighi calls "territorist power" (Arrighi 1994) is articulated through a number of different situations, in attempts to gain control over resources contained within a given territory. The survival of one mode of production rather than another might then be an outcome of the operators' success or failure in adapting the practices of their mode to realise its potential over their territorial situation.


The history of Europe's global expansion would then become a more complex matter of how agents within the modes of production found in Europe managed to organise and dominate the territory outside the European core.

The distinctiveness of full-blown capitalism?

Wolf wants to distinguish the balance of power that exists in the commercial phase of European expansion because his story has a special role for the later, 19th-century, phase of full-blown capitalism. Wolf distinguishes capitalism proper by its direct control of the resources of production in labour, and attributes to this mode of production the much larger reorganization that Europe imposed on the globe with industrialization and imperialism. He marks out his position on this point from that of Gunner Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein: precisely on the grounds that they conflate "capitalism" and the mere pursuit of gain via the market which occurred earlier (pp.297?8). For Wolf, it was capitalism's direct control of labour power that gave rise to the new exchange relations of the 19th century, "brought ever new populations directly and indirectly into the widening orbit of its linkages...[and] subjected them to its rhythm of acceleration and advances, and deceleration and retreats" (p.295).

Yet, even in his own account, Wolf finds it difficult to sustain a distinctive world role for 19th-century Europe's capitalist mode of production as against earlier ones. The problem is not the sheer size of the global changes that Europe produced at that time. The wholesale clearance of North American Indian populations, the incorporation of India and Egypt into supplying cotton for English industry, colonial railways and shipping (pp.265-95), global trade in consumer commodities such as tea, cocoa or opium (pp.310-353): all this is manifest enough. The difficulty is the idea that this later version of the capitalist mode of production has a relationship to other modes that different in kind from that of earlier European commerce.

Wolf's definition of the distinctiveness of full-blown, industrial capitalism is straightforward (and familiar) enough: the hold of money-as-capital over productive resources. Plainly this aspect of the 19th-century capitalist mode of production gives it a particular articulation of power over, and intrusiveness into labour. But over and above that, Wolf wants to assert that this capitalism has a unique, and inevitable tendency to modify social labour in the other modes of production.

    [A] source of differentiation [between the modes of capitalism] lies in the fact that precapitalist patterns of mercantile wealth sometimes survive under capitalism....Money-as-capital accomplished what money-begetting-money [i.e.mercantile commerce] had been unable to achieve: the capacity to affect and regulate the quantity and quality of social labor embodied in commodities.

    Mercantile activity had sought profit in buying cheap and selling dear....They implanted their circuits of exchange in other modes of deploying social labor, using a mixture of force and sales appeal to obtain collaboration and compliance. That collaboration and compliance, however, were unstable, and subject to renegotiation when the local ally increased his demands, took his


    trade to a competitor, or refused to cooperate altogether. The merchant was always dependent on his own state to back up his claim. At the same time, he was obliged to sweeten the disposition of his trade partner to perpetuate their unequal exchange. (p. 305)

Known historical realities do not bear out this distinction: earlier commerce had altered the quality and quantity of social labour - even though this was made more explicit with industrial capitalism; and 19th-century national European industrial capital did depend on its "own state" to back it up in the extra-European world, against resistant native populations and European rivals. Moreover, the most striking change in the way that actors within a European, capitalist mode of production sought to impose not on other modes but on other capitalists: merchants and their artisan clients were now cut out as middlemen in the process of production, just as, where they could, they had earlier cut out native kin-orders. Wolf continues:

    With the establishment of the capitalist mode in England and its borderlands, industrial capital seized control of commodity production at home....[T]he development of new machinery demanded ever larger and more secure deliveries of commodities from abroad. During the nineteenth century, then, industrial capital gradually deprived the merchants of their autonomy, turning them into agents of capital rather than actors on their own behalf.

Wolf's claim that 19th-century capitalism's unique character made it a unique, irresistable mode of production cannot be sustained.

Wolf's own theoretical inclinations also militate against too deep a distinction between earlier and later capitalist modes of production. For he rightly extends the Trotsky/Ernest Mandel idea of "combined and unequal development" to accommodate the complex interrelations between European capital in its heyday, European states and the organization of the rest of the world. He postulates (p.303) that "the capitalist mode generated variability and differentiation not only through its combination with other modes but also in the very course of its own operations." The sources of differentiation are multiple: within industrial capital, some accumulate and invest more in machinery; across the mode as whole, the impoverishment that comes with economic downturns is made to fall on losers within and without the capitalist areas; around the edges of the sphere of Europe and its mode of production, populations continued to be lured, accommodated, bludgeoned (according to circumstances) into the preferred economic activity. Last but by no means least, the political organization of its European core and the extra-European boundaries was a crucial factor in the uneven impact of the capitalist. On the one hand, defeated borderland states (such as "native reserves" in Africa) were ready spaces for pools of unskilled labour; on the other hand, the European states themselves were differentially organized to assist European capital, with different levels of commitment and of success (pp. 307-309).


The formative role of the margins

The uses of Wolf in the margins research agenda

If we strip away the idea that 19th-century European industrial capitalism is a quite singular mode of production which had necessarily to impact more radically than all others on different societies and their modes of production, the picture that emerges from Wolf's account is this. There are various modes of production containing various (not necessarily equal) possibilities; there are actors operating within and across them; and there are boundaries between the terrains of different actors and/or modes of production. On these boundaries conflicts and rivalries appear in which the social actors deploy the organizational and economic potential available to them from their mode of production. The outcomes of these rivalries ultimately define the scope of the different modes and socio-political orders. In short, a modified version of Wolf's mode of analysis supplies explanatory tools for the investigation of the formation of Europe "from the margins" which I anticipated at the start.

This picture is less unitary and predetermined than Wolf's overall case - though by no means inimical to the specific stories he tells. But the modification makes clear that the modes of production do not move against eachother as disembodied structures with given power one over another. They interact through the action of human groups operating within territories where their mode of production has been established. Those human actors realise differentially possibilities from within their mode of production. Depending on the outcome of the conflicts between actors at the margins, the embrace of modes of production over territory is altered. While the contests are far from evenly balanced, successes do depend on much more than the character of the mode of production. Indeed, the manner of articulation of the mode of production as well as its territorial extent may well be amended in the course of the conflicts at the margin.

Peripheries that modify the core

Wolf's title, Europe and the People without History, suggests a tempting assumption: that a mode of production is first established in a particular territory and then spreads out - or not - to embrace other territories. It makes territory, notably the territory of Europe, an adjunct to modes of production. Twenty years after Wolf was first writing, in the "globalized" world divided between three econoomic polls, the assumption of a single, spreading core seems less obvious. It now looks less plausible to define Europe's historic place in the world by the straightforward extention of the power of "its" mode of production.[8]


Reformulating the role of marginal rivalries as I have done has the implication that territorial extent might be detached from mode of production. That would be in agreement with my earlier claim that "margins" could be an object of research in the literal as well as the figurative sense. A mode of production could as well migrate to new territory, for example, as enlarge its pre-existing territorial extent. Or the manner in which the mode of production is articulated might change, as do the boundaries, according to the outcome of multiple meetings across the territories where modes of production are established. With no ahistorical presupposition regarding a final, necessary form, the outcomes of rivalry are not given in a singular mode of production, but formed in the interplay of actors operating the possibilities of mode of production and territory. It seems to follow that the interplay of activities at the meeting places between modes of production may perfectly well generate new centres and new peripheries.

A good test of this implication of my account would be to consider how the territory of the European mode of production may itself have altered across time. In fact, Wolf's account is certainly not averse to such as line of thought. As he says at one point,

    The process of creating strategic bases of the capitalist mode and dependant zones of support went on in the capitalist homelands as well as aboard. This often obscured by an uncritical use of such tems as core and periphery. Capitalist development created peripheries within its very core. The advent of industrial capitalism in England...caused a massive collapse of home-based crafts organized under the mercantile putting-out system. Within Britain regions able to make the transition quickly, such as the West Riding and Ulster, became major industrial centers, while other regions, like the West Country, East Anglia, and southern Ireland, declined. (p.296)

Wolf's study itself explores examples more fully. In particular, he devotes considerable attention (pp.123-157) to the early advance and subsequent decline of the European mercantile mode of production as operated from the Iberian peninsular. The Spanish and Portuguese states emerged from the confrontation with Arab power as, in Wolf words, "successful organizations of tribute takers" (p.123). Their ability to build military and naval forces and then send them to South America and Africa enabled the Iberian states to be the first to establish "European" power in those parts of the globe. The careers of the two states then diverge. When they divided the world by the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), Portugal inherited large tracts of sea which, for various reasons, never gave it a base for the extension of land-based territorial power. Over the long term, it hung onto a marginal position in Europe and in the colonized extra-European world. For a century and more, Spain, on the other hand, made itself the centre of power in Europe.

It is the Spanish story that illustrates the possibility that a reorganization can occur within the territory of a mode of production to relocate centre and periphery. In the longer


term, Spain's tribute-taking also failed to organize territorial power over its extra-European space. For various socio-political forces escaped the Spanish state's attempts to channel all profitable resources through itself. In the Americas themselves, as the need for agricultural output grew, the crown's monopoly on the supply of native labour (through grants of trusteeship, or encomienda) broke down as hacienda-owners were able to offer sufficient inducements to both royal officials and the leaders of native communities to persuade them to break the regulations and settle indian workers permanently on the estates (pp.141-149). Back in Europe, the Spanish crown exhausted the financial resources it derived from South America in fruitless wars against breakaway tendencies in Germany and the Netherlands. In doing so, it got itself heavily into debt to financiers from those same territories. In desperate straits, it undermined the value of its own coin by excessive recourse to bullion supplied from South America (pp.135-141). In the meantime, in the large spaces of the Atlantic Ocean, the Spanish state found it impossible to police the trade monopolies it wishes to profit from, which fell increasingly into the hands of "privateers" from Protestant Northern Europe (pp. 151-157). In a nutshell, the Spanish role as the centre of a European world was undermined in both the extra-European space and the European one, with the result that Spain itself was thrust from its territories in South America (by the colonists and, later, by ex-"Europeans" from North America) and from its position in Europe (by its European rivals). Spain then became the long-term "backward" margin of Europe itself, a condition from which it is perhaps emerging only in the late 20th century.

The Spanish story is a parable of the life of society decided, quite against the intentions of those running it, at the interface the society itself creates with that which lies beyond the margins. In the marginal space, subjects and officials seize autonomy and enemies find the weak points; the decrees that carry the force and logic of his royal majesty in the splendours of Madrid, have little meaning in the rural spaces of Latin America; subjects become rebellious and pervert, or discard the structure from the metropole. Conversely, at the centre, where all things can apparently be decreed, the tokens extracted from the margins change their meaning: bullion itself loses its power as foreign financiers exploit the needs of the most powerful political order in Europe to discount its value; South American silver passes like water through Spain and goes to fund the lively growth of a rival, Northern European mercantile capitalism, which soon defy Spain's frontier posts.

    ...the "inland sea" of the Caribbean constituted the soft underbelly of the Spanish dominions in the New World. Here passed the strategic lines of transport connecting the dominions with the metropolis in Spain, but it was an area of military vulnerablility, the point of entry for the enemies of Spain. It was also a region of political and economic weakness, where contrabandists, cash-cropping plantation owners, and free-lancing entrepreneurs of violence penetrated the monopolistic structure of the Spanish empire and drained its strength to the benefit of the external international economy. (p.157)


Territory, resources and the control of margins A similar, if not quite so dramatic, story could be told of other centres of the "European" mode of production. Their impact, both within and without the European space, is modified at the margins of their field and their position at the centre consequently reversed. The Dutch monopoly of sea transport and credit is stolen in the 16th century by the English, whose state supports a more forceful naval power; the Netherlands survives only as a minor player in the wings of British empire. Britain's own dominance of North America falls prey to autonomist impulses amongst of the British colonists which arise in an way exactly comparable to developments in Spanish America. The colonists are provoked by demands for tribute (taxation) and limits imposed on their trade and their ascendancy over the native population.[9] The break with America initiated a love-hate relationship between the English-speaking centre and the English-speaking "margin", from within which the latter gradually asserted the more central global role on the basis of its version of industrial capital and imperialism. But, as if to show how contingency can operate in this sort of margin-centre interraction, the British state does not go the way of the Spanish. This was by no means the end of the story for British centrality. Its inexpensive, hands-off method of creaming a profit from the financial flows of Europe's world market (Arrighi 1994), was to make it first amongst equals in Europe - a posture it could sustain until well into the 20th century (Cain & Hopkins 1993). It weathered the crisis of losing America and the subsequent challenge from its nearest neighbour, France (Colley 1996), to redirect its military resources to other parts of the world and become the paradigm imperialist power of the 19th century.

These shifts of centre exhibit crucial common ground with those that Wolf theorizes in the peripheries of European expansion. They are struggles to control the space through which resources past. They occur where a rival social order is able to exploit its territorial position on the route of trade or money, to oust the incumbent. Wolf has theorized at the periphery process analogous to that which Arrighi (1994) and Tilly (1992) theorize in Europe itself: the manoeuvring of territorial power to cream off benefits from economic resources. Wolf's account throws crucial light on formative role of the organization of activity at the margins.


Structures at the margins Margins in the philosophy of action I remarked earlier that the philosophy of action has looked for the spaces where human initiative can rebel against the strength of given overarching structures. The search for space where humans can rebel, of course, always has a political inspiration: the belief in the necessity of change, sympathy with those most oppressed by existing dominant structures, hope that resistance from there or elsewhere will change things etc etc. Regardless of those sentiments, however, to respond to structures in this way has philosophical and analytical force. Given that we wish to grasp, at one and the same time, continuity/structure and sources for change in structures, sites from where change can be expected are analytically important. Given, moreover, that we wish to give an account of human action at the same time as identifying structures, sites of action at odds with the pre-existing, given structures are again important. I therefore propose we take Eric Wolf's study as an account of human action and reaction to structure. In his version, human action intervenes against forms imposing themselves in formative spaces around Europe's historic expansion.

The terms of this issue were classically, if abstrusely, pursued by Jean-Paul Sartre's influential analyses of the meaning of social structure, historical change and human action, by which I mean principally the two volumes of the Critique of Dialectical Reason, especially the second (Sartre 1991). Despite the difficulties of comprehension - and the incompleteness of the texts - Sartre is a good place to start from. He approached the problem of humans' place in their own social structures from a peculiarly demanding position as regards the existential relationship between human beings and all that lies outside their freedom to determine themselves. When Sartre embraced Marxism as the theory of the modern world, he had then to confront at its most dramatic the problem of collective human creativity versus social structure. For Marxism's most forcefully canvassed outcome - the Soviet system - epitomized precisely the twentieth-century suppression of all human creativity by the disciplines of industrialised society. Thus the Critique can be considered overall as a reflection on how the outcomes of action by groups united in resistance to the oppressive system, the "group-in-fusion" - which emerges from the first volume as the very basis of a collective identity fulfilling itself in human praxis [10]- can become the epitome of system over human freedom. The concept of "totalization-of-envelopment", the running theme of the second volume, is intended to account dialectically for this contradiction. Totalization-of-envelopment is a concept of human collective action which highlights the way that shared


praxis is articulated in the objective world so as to make that which is objective (or "exterior") to the human group an expression of its own autonomy (or to "interiorize" it as its own). Yet it is made clear from Sartre's surviving notes (reproduced in the Appendix of volume 2) that his philosopical thoughts in this direction promised him some disappointment. Totalization-of-envelopment is ever incomplete: human projects write their meaning into the objective world, but never envelop the totality of history itself.[11]

So why consider Sartre, agonizing at the meeting point of phenomenology, social theory and far Left politics, in the context of the research agenda of the formation of European society? Because his somewhat tragic reflection on how human action meets human society points the way to an analysis of the formation of any society in terms of the confrontation between the given, imposed social system and that which clashes with it from its metaphorical edges - that is, the "margins" in the sense I wish to adopt that notion. It is no accident that this vision of human groups confronting the impositions of the given structure has produced an equivalent in sociological analysis: in the work of Alain Touraine. Touraine's "actionalist" sociology, whilst distancing itself explicitly from Sartre's tendency to decompose society into individual experiences (Touraine 1965, pp.52-3), nonetheless adopts the strategy of examining particular contexts as, at one and the same time, structures in which human historical action takes place and arenas for the subject (individual, or collective) to define itself. From a phenomenological vision of the human subject's perpetual struggle to take back control of the social world, can be generated, that is to say, a mode of analysis which attends to the tension between social wholes and unincorporated human resistance on their margins.

Wolf's account of interactions between different modes of production at the margins of European expansion is, on my submission, a good example of how to situate the confrontation between human action and the impositions of structure. It begins by defining prior differences in structure/mode of production, so that anomalies are acknowledged from the start. The human agents in the meeting points between these structures act within one or more structure, including its values. They are not, that is to say, radically "free" agents capable to choosing ab initio how things will be, but real groups of socio-political actors trying to articulate needs that are mediated by their own given material needs and symbolic structures. But there are gains and losses to be made at all points; so the groups are under pressure to devise ways to operate their given structures so as to ensure their gain. As they they win or loss at this, at one and the same time, the potentialities of their structures are worked out in competition. In the working-out, the given structures, which their operating actors have sought to adapt, do indeed change - on both sides.


This is a meeting between the world and humans' possession of their world which can fit the terminology of Sartre's philosophy of action. For human beings are called to envelop their given world in their own meanings, in the hope of bringing it into line with their own powers. North American Indian communities, for example, reorganise in order to live together on the plains and sustain an interdependent autonomy with European traders. African nobilities need to maintain their authority through the received signs of power, and to do this they adapt to a trading nexus which ensures a supply of military means. This alters their mode of organization - fatally for them, in the longer term - and that of the Europeans they deal with.

What is manifestly lacking from it, on the other hand, is the optimism that Sartre, Touraine et al would prefer, since they - like me - would like to find the possibility of human improvement in the spaces for challenges to structure. But what the historical record shows us is many challenges but few survivals indeed. So I remain sanguine about this. I have tried to adjust Wolf's picture so as to remove the inevitability of defeat for non-capitalist modes of production; I doubt that the reliable prospect of victory by liberating alternatives can be set in its place. But I will return to that, in the approach to imperialism exhibited by W.F. Wertheim and Jan Nederveen Pieterse, after I have considered more the interaction of symbols and identities at the margin.

Meanings at the margin

According to my earlier emphasis on evolution between forces balanced at the margins of European expansion, the meanings from the core would to be at issue in quite peculiar ways on the periphery. The form of the social, which is clear and determinate at its centre, is challenged at the points where it meets others. In Europe's expansion, meanings from Europe, the meaning of European civilization, of home etc etc could be challenged and even transformed at the points of meeting with other social orders. Furthermore, in presenting Wolf as a kind of philosophy of action at the margins, I have given rather more emphasis than comes naturally for marxism to human subjects' construction of the settings of their action and their own place as subjects within it. These interpretations inevitably involve the topic of meanings, their formation and modification. So it is appropriate to add something on that topic before proceeding.

Jonathan Friedman (1992) has argued in a similar way that economic structures generate complementary "identity spaces" where the identities of people as consumers, or as producers, or in their very aesthetic appreciations complement their global economic position. For Friedman, this has produced identities displaced to other locations or other times, where the life values of an absent metropolis or of absent forebears are adopted to make an


unhappy life-style for marginal peoples - Friedman's examples are Hawaii and the Congo. This gives a picture of tensions at the margins, but with little tendency to impinge upon structures overall. Unease with displaced social forms is not amended, but borne by the marginal peoples. Conversely, I should like to show that meanings put under stress at the margins can reverberate back to the core, with unexpected results.

A recent working paper from CFK, Hjalte Tin's The Slave, the native and the serf: three sites of violence in the South African ethnic spaces 1652-1994 (1998), offers a worked example, the case of the Boers, where forms which have been transposed to the margins are put under stress there and fold. The Boers position is indeed profoundly marginal: colonists created by the expansion of the Dutch, a European power temporarily holding the world stage, who then find themselves left high and dry, established in thoroughly un-Dutch territory and subject to a different European power.

As Tin shows, the Boers of the 20th-century Republic of South Africa inherited, and tried unsuccessfully to work with, the after-effects of two European discourses for the borders between their territory and the non-European outside. Rather than referring to territory alone, both provided definitions of inside and outside the borders that were articulated through the non-European people who occupied the territory beyond. The black as "slave" belonged within the territory of the Whites, as an outsider incorporated into the household; but slavery was abolished by the British. The black as "ethnic group" could only be understood on the outside, beyond the borders of civilized, European space, clustered into tribes, each with their peculiar habits. So, South African regulation struggled to turn the black into some kind of "serf", a subordinate order of producers who are attached to other people's land. In this role, long-since discarded by European society back home, the blacks could inhabit the territory belonging to others and be accorded different rights from the "normal" residents. The attempt created impossible options for the blacks themselves and affronted the declared principles of the core of Western state. It ended in failure, of course.

At the European margins, where the Boers themselves lived, these inheritances of European civilization could not be adapted to capture the Boers' own identity. The Boers could not use these terms to associate themselves with the territory they occupied;[12] their land was only "the territory which was left over when the other tribes had got their homelands" (p.16). So the Boers put European identifications of people and territory to the test. It was hard on them in the end (and even more so for the blacks), since they could never feel settled in their own territorial and social identity. They bore the burden of these displacements in meaning and self-identity.


On the other hand, the guardians of European/Western liberal values too were perpetually embarrassed by their association with this throw-back to a past which their universalist, Enlightenment values had rejected long ago. They preferred to incorporate Africa, blacks and all, into their newer social order of untrammelled world market, free labourers and global consumers. Yet the way that issues of cultural identity were central to the overthrow of that marginal "European" regime made it a paradigm which the West, the existing "core" of European identity, still finds hard to accommodate. Hence from an analysis rooted in discourse, a theorist such as Laclau can construe this as a peculiarly post-modern revolution in which the identity of the revolutionary groups was formed in a culture coming from elsewhere (Laclau 1990).

Challenging structures at the margins

If structures can be perverted in their manifestations at the margin, can they also be amended from there? That is an important question if one wishes to make the investigation of margins the keystone of a research programme. In the light of the digression on the philosophy of action, the implication of my reading of Wolf's work is that, where we have some systematic methodological expectations as to how they may be put under pressure, we can indeed expect structures to be amended from their margins. I do, however, have to qualify that suggestion in two ways: first by insisting that we do need a conception of the mechanisms that will mediate these pressures at the margins; secondly by clarifying what can be meant by this implication in the philosophy of "action".

The account of imperialist expansion given by Jan Nederveen Pieterse (1990) suggests the lessons here. For Pieterse would like to go the whole hog and formulate within a narrative of European imperialism an account not only of stresses at the margins of the imperial structure, but also (in the manner of Wertheim) a dynamic of human action in its most positive sense: as "emancipation".

Pieterse's study is a rare sourcebook of the inner ironies and contradictions of the imperialist expansion. And it expresses the same sense as I have that it is at the margins that you should look for points where structures will break down: "the frontier is necessarily the most unstable and sensitive zone of the empire, the zone of maximum friction, a zone in which many dialectics unfold and come to a head."(p. 360). Over the length of the book, Pieterse explores, inter alia, how colonialism and neo-colonialism prompted resistance at every stage from its target populations' willingness to learn from the outsiders and assert their own values (such as national independence) against them; how the British policy of forming a native militia (the Sepoys) backfired in the Indian Mutiny, when they used their skills against the imperial power; how expansionist state- and elite-building revived the domestic fortunes of the military aristocracy against the commercial classes; how late 19th-century


populist imperialism, initially a means "to delay emancipation at home by means of expansion abroad"[13] turns into the monster of nationalist militarism that culminates in two European wars (p.189); and so on.

Piertese succeeds, then, in demonstrating that European post-Enlightenment culture is, as he put is, "a culture whose power affects not only the dominated...but also, and in a significant ways, the dominators." (p.21). Structures at the margins are diverted, that is, inverted, and even return to create unexpected crises for the centre where they were formulated. And his formulation of this latter possibility includes values more explicitly than Wolf's post-Marxism is able to do. For Wertheim's conception specifically included a coherent set of values amongst the means that any human group will furnish itself with.

    ...acceptance of domination is never total. The sequence of values-social institutions is thus amplified with ambivalence-counterpoints, contestation, conflict, making for the instability of any social construction. (p.76)

So, groups will always try to reclaim coherence, if necessary using/perverting the values of the oppressor. It follows that value systems entailed in the organization of domination may be reflected back on, challenge and even transform the dominant structure.

But does that provide us with an adequate specification of how structures are challenged, or demonstrate the capacity of human agents to divert structures from the margin? That is more doubtful. On the one hand, the key process of adopting or adapting values is too narrow. A comprehensive set of values may perfectly well be (re)established which, over long periods, merely contents a subject people with their subordinate position - as the Christian hope of resurrection so long contented slaves and freed slaves in the American South. Conversely, these values will not survive more obviously material pressures, such as post-Depression clearances of mortgaged land. On the other hand, the Pieterse/Wertheim's concept of "emancipation" is crucially ambiguous as to the nature of human agency in challenging structures from the margin. That a group possesses or builds a value system which is sufficiently comprehensive for its situation constitutes an "emancipatory" self-assertion in one sense, but not in another. A group may assert its "self" in the sense of articulating the value-base for its self-identity; but it may not "emancipate" itself in the sense that its value-base and other dimensions of its identity provide it with the means to make the world its own. We have observed a number of instances of ironic developments at the margins returning to amend the whole; but there is no guarantee that human agency will be satisfied in the full sense that thinkers such as Sartre and Wertheim would like.


Where are the marginal spaces currently forming "Europe"?

I have run out of sufficient theoretical bases of specify the "margins" research agenda that I spoke of at the start. I think there is plenty of evidence from the reflections above for the generally crucial role of interventions at the margins, individual or collective, deliberate or unwitting, against the larger structure. That is a persuasive reason for embracing margins as a research agenda for Europe past and present. The problem then becomes not that of demonstrating that margins can be crucial, but that of specifying which margins we can expect to be so. The general reflections above have suggested probable, but not exclusive mechanisms for crucial change at the margins.

An alternative take on this last problem would be to acknowledge the general theoretical significance of margins, and then to turn to a more empirically-minded, not to say ad hoc, approach to identify where there are promising margins to be looked at. We can build a provisional answer to that question for contemporary Europe, on the basis of studies and prognoses for the evolution of Europe in the globalizing environment. In a way, that is the logic of my opening case for margins as a research agenda for contemporary investigation on Europe. Late 20th-century Europe has, for example, inherited a structure of centre and periphery vis-?-vis its own political border in the East which it has now to reform or reformulate in the absence of the very explicit Cold War structuring of that border. It is a safe bet that Western Europe has in the East a margin returning to reshape the "centre". And I do not imply by that merely the easily formulated problem of which sovereign state shall be invited to sign which international treaty. The challenge of the Eastern margin reaches right into Western Europe's notion of the governance of agriculture and the land, the cultural homogeneity of populations, the possibilities of pluralism etc. That challenge goes right back to the legacy of European cultures' attempts, from the Greeks on, to write its converse in the east (Ascherson 1995, Wolff 1994).

At another level, we might specify the margins of Europe from an analysis of bigger processes. Lash and Urry's The End of Organized Capitalism in 1987 would be a classic source to bring into question the future of that structured balance of social forces which had been specific to Europe's post-War political-economic order. Lash and Urry argued that Europe faced a crisis associated with the declining confidence and competence of nation states, together or separately, to "organize" a globalizing capital. Likewise under threat from this, of course, was the accepted pattern of political parties, corporate interests and welfare provisions.

It is this implication of globalization that lies behind Mario Castells' recent three volumes on The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. Castells (1997, 1998) makes a more or less explicit attempt to carry through Touraine's programme on the level of global change. Castells adopts Touraine's Sartrean concept of "project identity", in which "identity is a


project of a different life, perhaps on the basis of an oppressed identity, but expanding toward the transformation of society as the prolongation of this project of identity" (p.10). He then looks at the margins in the contemporary, globalized environment, where new movements cluster around new identities to assert their values against the anonymous mechanisms of the global market society. This licences his hypothesis "that the constitution of subjects... [now] takes a different route to the one we knew during modernity, and late modernity: namely, subjects, if and when constructed, are not built any longer on the basis of civil societies,...but as prolongation of communal resistance." (Castells 1997, p.11). This notion generates a wide diaspora of non-territorial margins which Castells poses as the most likely challengers to given structures.

  1. religious fundamentalism : "new identity...constructed, not by returning to tradition, but by working on traditional materials in the formation of a new godly, communal world, where deprived masses and dissaffected intellectuals may reconstruct meaning in a global alternative to the exclusionary world order." (p.20);
  2. contemporary nationalism, which is more varied, and reactive than the European nation-state model (pp. 27-52), defining nations as "cultural communes in people's minds and collective memory by the sharing of history and political projects." (p.51);
  3. ethnicity - though that "does not provide the basis for communal heavens in the network society, because it is based on primary bonds that lose significance, when cut from their historical context, as a basis for reconstruction of meaning in a world of flows and networks, of recombination of image and reassignment of meaning." (p.59);
  4. local community, which can produce purposive social mobilization against the logic of capitalism, statism and informationalism" (pp.60-64).

All these metaphorical margins occur in contemporary Europe, and are the basis of challenges to the existing forms of Western liberal-welfare state politics. The implication would be, then, that classical European forms of elite/top-down group- and identity-formation are undermined. Elite "European" identity is for a cosmopolitan, detached mobile minority. Bottom-up forms of group- and identity-formation reassert themselves in Europe as responses to the disempowering forces of globalization.

A final, ironic possibility "at the margins" is suggested by this line of thinking. Jan Nederseen Pieterse has pointed out, in another context, that, insofar as globalization threatens the autonomy of social groupings, the newly surfacing cultural differentiation can be a way of "claiming pay-offs" against global forces. In Pieterse's thinking, therefore, globalization entails "the increase in the available modes of organization" (1995, p.50). This


supports the prospect of an increase in cultural self-marginalization, as groups organize anew to mark out their separateness in an attempt to make global forces acknowledge them.

Go to top


[1] An earlier version of the present paper, under the title "Civilization and Non-civilization: a critical reflection on Eric Wolf's Europe and the People without History", was discussed at the Centre for Cultural Studies on 28 May 1998. Certain key ideas, such as the importance of the margins in the continuous process of global modernization had also been discussed at a seminar at the Centre on 13 May, in reponse to a paper from me with the title "How does European revolutionary experience travel?". This was, in essence, a preliminary overview of the case to be made in my Revolutions and History at the End of the Twentieth Century: an essay in interpretation, which is to be published by Polity Press, Cambridge next year. Members of the Centre who took part in those discussions are owed a debt of gratitude for the stimulation and support drawn from their comments - without, of course, any responsibility for the continuing shortcomings of either paper or book.

[2] Armstrong, W. and Parker, N. (eds) Margins in European Integration, Macmillan, forthcoming.

[3] Honourable mention should also be made of the "critical realist" approach, which has the virtue of postulating underlying, identifying structures while preserving a constant, "critical" awareness of the necessity of amending our picture of what they are.

[4] For the application of Marxist categories of value to earlier societies, compare Clastre 1974, Godelier 1986 and Gledhill 1994.

[5] J.H. Parry (1973) The Age of Reconnaissance, London, Sphere, p.45 - quoted in Pieterse 1990 p.101

[6] Teng, S. & Fairbank, J.K. (1961) China's Response to the West: A Documentary Survey 1839-1923, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 19 - quoted Wolf, p. 255. The Chinese decision, in 1435 to discontinue exploration of the Indian Ocean is familiar evidence of the something about the relative position of China and Europe. What it signifies is another matter. Uffe ÿstergÂrd cites it as evidence of the self-enclosure and stasis inherent in imperial government (ÿstergÂrd 1997, p.44). Alternatively, there is a view that the negative trade balance between Asia and Europe over centuries produced in turn a flow of all forms of cash draining Europe's resources in precious metals. Some have derived from this relative weakness in Europe's trading position the underlying reason why Europe had to seek expansion while Asia could stay at home.

[7] I deliberately leave out of account here the formative effects on European society of its own reorganization around the slave trade. The European slave order was both a site of resistance and internal delegitimation for European political power (Pieterse 1990, ch.14) and a forming ground for later industrial organization (Blackburn 1997)

[8] Arrighi's construction of a world history in terms of the strategic dominance of different territories over the global circulation of wealth (Arrighi 1994) can also be seen as an attempt to theorise the detachment of "capitalist" power from the "territorist" power in Europe which was the first to accommodate it.

[9] In its Proclamation of October 1763, the British government, newly established as the undisputed sovereign of North America, sought to regulate settlers incursions into Indian territory. See Pieterse 1990, p.309.

[10] Defined in the editor's notes (p.458) as "an organizing project which transcends material conditions towards an end and inscribes itself, through labour, in inorganic matter as a rearrangement of the pracical field and a reunification of means in the light of the end".

[11] "Totalization-in-envelopment...does not exist in transcendence. A. For the transcendent totality of all History, who will do it?....B. For a partial transcendent totalization. Interiority does not resemble exteriority." (p.447)

[12] Back in Europe, of course, the association of people to territory has been created through historic myths of long residence and/or conquest - though this strategy has also brought the dangers of expansionism and irredentism.

[13] p.181, quoting Hans-Ulrich Wehler


Martin Albrow, The Global Age: State and Society Beyond Modernity (Oxford, Polity, 1996).

Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century (London, Verso, 1994).

Neal Ascherson, Black Sea (London, Jonathan Cape, 1995).

Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern (London, Verso, 1997).

P.J. and Hopkins Cain, A.G., British Imperialism: Crisis and Deconstruction 1914-1990 (London, Longman, 1993).

Huntington, S.P., The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1996)

Manuel Castells, End of Millenium, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, III (Cambridge, Polity, 1998).

Manuel Castells, The Power of Identity, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, II (Cambridge, Polity, 1997).

Pierre Clastre, SociÈtÈ Contre L'Ètat: Recherches Anthropologiques Politiques (Paris, Minuit, 1974).

Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (London, Vintage, 1996).

Jonathan Friedman, `Narcissism, Roots and Postmodernity: The Construction of Selfhood in the Global Crisis', in Modernity and Identity, ed. S. and Friedman Lash, J. (Oxford, Blackwell, 1992).

John Gledhill, Power and Its Disguises: Anthropological Perspectives on Politics (London, Pluto, 1994).

Maurice Godelier, The Mental and the Material: Thought, Economy and Society, tr. Martin Thom (London, Verso, 1986).

Lash S. & Urry, J., The End of Organized Capitalism (Cambridge, Polity, 1987).

Jan Nederveen Pieterse, Empire and Emancipation: Power and Liberation on a World Scale (London, Pluto, 1990).

Jan Nederveen Pieterse, 'Globalization as Hybridization', in Global Modernities, ed. M. Featherstone, Lash (London, Sage, 1995).

Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason: Volume II: The Intelligibility of History, Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre, tr. Quintin Hoare (London, Verso, 1991).

Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States, AD 990-1992 (Oxford, Blackwell, 1992).

Hjalte Tin, The Slave, the Native and the Serf: Three Sites of Violence in the South African Ethnic Spaces 1652-1994, Center for Kulturforskning Arbejderpapirer, 59-98 (Aarhus, University of Aarhus, 1998).

Alain Touraine, Sociologie de l'Action (Paris, Seuil, 1965).

Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1997).

Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1994).

Uffe østergård, `The Many Houses of European Values: European Humanism and Cultural Relatiivism', Postmodern Studies 24 (1997).

Go to top