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Incorporation of the Ottoman Empire into the Capitalist World-Economy, 1750-1839

Barbara Reeves-Ellington

Questions on Wallerstein's Analysis
Some questions on Wallerstein's analysis

In their arguments on incorporation of the Ottoman Empire into the capitalist world-economy, Wallerstein and his co-authors emphasized export trade, land use, and manufacturing. Their discussion focused on trade between the empire and the northwest European core as if the empire were somehow isolated and had no contact with other parts of the world. How might Ottoman trade with China and Persia between 1750 and 1839 have affected the analysis? In

the early nineteenth century, interstate competition for hegemony in the capitalist core was fiercest between France and Great Britain. But how does the world-system model explain interstate competition between nation-states at the core and world-empires in the European semi-periphery (Austria and Russia) and between the world-empires themselves, all vying for political and economic control in the Balkans at the expense of the Ottomans? And how did the Great Power rivalries influence, contribute to, or hinder incorporation of the Ottoman Empire?

Since capitalist economic relations were spreading through the Balkans by the mid-nineteenth century, how can incorporation of the empire be explained? Could the answer possibly be found in the transmission of ideas, through intellectual property transfer or technology transfer? Christopher Chase-Dunn and Thomas D. Hall have suggested that the process of linkage between the European core and the Ottoman Empire be traced more successfully by a study of four networks: the information network, the prestige-goods network, the political/military network, and the bulk-goods network. William McNeil has also stated that the world-system approach would benefit in clarity and power if it were "tied more explicitly to a communications network."


Much of the evidence I have cited against Wallerstein's interpretation of Ottoman incorporation into the world-economy was produced by scholars who directed their arguments specifically against him. Lampe, for example, stated that the notion of a "malignant" world system "flies in the face of existing research on Balkan economic history. It also fails to identify the real restraints on the area's development." Lampe argued that the nature of Ottoman hegemony and the military and fiscal imperatives of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires had a "retarding effect" on the Balkans. He suggested that Wallerstein's approach appealed to some Turkish scholars because it absolved Ottoman hegemony of its retarding effect on Balkan development.

Pailaret also targeted Wallerstein directly, noting that "the development experience of the Ottoman Empire has been held up as a sombre example of industrial destruction and the creation of dependency at the European periphery. This already well-rehearsed view has been endorsed by Wallerstein (as one might expect)…" For his part, Pailaret argued that the radical changes Ottoman institutions underwent in the first half of the nineteenth century had a profound and beneficial effect on economic evolution in the Balkans, particularly Bulgaria.

Lampe and Pailaret, whose studies were published after Wallerstein's thesis on incorporation of the Ottoman Empire, based their arguments on archival sources and on the work of Bulgarian scholars published in Bulgarian in the 1950s and 1960s. These works were therefore available to Wallerstein, if only he or his colleagues had known about them and could have read them.

Neither Quataert nor McGowan directed their comments against Wallerstein though their data clearly led them to disagree with some of his interpretations. Wallerstein used some of McGowan's data but chose to ignore some of his interpretations. Quataert's work was produced well after Wallerstein's publications. To the best of my knowledge, Wallerstein has not responded to the findings of the scholars mentioned here. In contrast, Resat Kasaba, one of Wallerstein's co-authors, has reformulated his arguments on incorporation. He has since argued that throughout the nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire retained a political and economic structure that continued to operate on a redistributive-tributary mode, that is, goods from the producing elements of society flowed to the non-producing elites (tributes) and entitlements were redistributed according to decisions made by elites. If this is the case, the Ottoman Empire was still operating as a world-empire and could hardly have been fully incorporated into the capitalist world-economy. One of Kasaba's most interesting discussions concerns the reversals of fortune of çiftlik owners between 1750 and 1820, precisely the period during which Wallerstein had argued for the expansion of çiftliks. Overall, Kasaba's most recent work does not support peripheralization of the Ottoman Empire within the capitalist world-economy in the nineteenth century. In contrast, Pamuk has argued in favor of a two-phase incorporation in the nineteenth century based on fiscal rather than commercial evidence.


I have argued that current scholarship does not support Wallerstein's interpretation of incorporation of the Balkan region of the Ottoman Empire into the capitalist world-economy between 1750 and 1839. The most conclusive evidence against Wallerstein centers on land tenure in the second half of the eighteenth century and the state of Ottoman manufacturing in the first half of the nineteenth century. His argument that a shift in the nature of trade from luxury goods to raw materials in the late eighteenth century, associated with changes in land tenure that led to formations of çiftliks based on coerced labor, does not hold up to scrutiny. His claim that the 1838 Anglo-Turkish Trade Convention was imposed by Britain and led to a collapse of manufacturing has also been refuted by recent archival research.

Wallerstein needs to find new evidence before he can claim that the Ottoman Empire was incorporated into the capitalist world-system between 1750 and 1839, or indeed at any other time. A serious attempt to include the notion of culture, ideas, or communications (in other words, humankind) into world-system theory would surely be rewarding.

Economic Factors
Political Factors

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Last Updated: 8/12/16