Reappraising the Global: The Co-constructed Character of the Modern World

Juan Neves-Sarriegui (Wolfson College, Oxford)

The Political Economy and Culture in Global History group has served to bring together, in a same room, a cluster of people from different disciplinary backgrounds who would not normally have the chance to engage in sustained discussion. This has been remarkable given current institutional divisions. My own training as a historian of Latin America conditioned the way I approached the readings we debated but, as the sessions unfolded, we were able to generate a common language to allow meaningful conversations about the global.

One of the issues I was confronted with was the different historiographies of imperial history and anti-imperialism, which made me reconsider the Latin American literatures I knew. The importance of ‘culture’ – variously defined – was a crucial novelty that clashed with many of the assumptions I had about the role of the economy in the history of empires. This prompted an ongoing reflection on how to think about the intersection between culture and the economic – between agency and structure – and the implications this has for historiographies of imperialism and capitalism.

Theodore de Bry, Indians pour liquid gold into the mouth of a Spaniard, 1594, from Collected travels in the east Indies and west Indies (Collectiones peregrinationum in Indiam occidentalem) via (image is in the public domain)

The recent anti-racist movements denouncing the legacies of empire and exploitation represented by historical monuments – notably in the US and Europe – are a pertinent reminder of the persistence of oppression in contemporary societies, and of what is made visible and invisible in everyday life. Maybe more than with labour movements organised around economic demands, the international anti-racist movement looks back at the past and presses us to think hard about history and memory.1

Historians have contributed to the discussion about the causes and legacies of empire both in the academy and in the media. But history is not a monolithic field, and the critical view of the imperial past has been challenged by a set of works that recast empire as inherently benign. Works like those by Niall Ferguson or by María Elvira Roca Barea, for instance, have had a considerable impact on the general public and even on top political figures.2 The fallacious and tendentious pro-imperialist views of such books stand in stark contrast with the analytical approach of critical scholars. 3They also demonstrate the importance of efforts to expand the understanding of imperial relations – as exemplified by several pieces in this blog series.

These dynamics have configured an arena where the cultural and social implications of imperialism are contested. The positionality of those affected by the long-term consequences of imperialism has taken centre stage, condemning how current inequalities based on ethnicity, gender, and class have roots in the past. In this context, in Britain at least, an old tradition of imperial history has given way to histories of the global that try to overcome dichotomies such as ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’ and to examine the role of subaltern groups and their contribution to the making of our modern world. In this way, global history has been a valuable collective project that has decentralised historical narratives and questioned assumptions of Western superiority.

However, the move away from imperial history has to some extent entailed a refusal to look at economic issues and, particularly, at capitalism. Classic concepts such as the ‘imperialism of free trade’ or ‘informal imperialism’ and newer ones such as ‘gentlemanly capitalism’, which tried to explain the drives behind commercial expansion, colonialism, and economic exploitation, have been seen as too focussed on imperial metropolises and thus often dismissed.4

From the point of view of Latin America, the discussion has had a different trajectory. Current debates in politics and social sciences have shed light on the effects of neoliberalism in the region.5 While not always interested in capitalism as a global system, these critiques have pointed out the consequences of policies that transfer public resources to private hands but leave little benefit for countries and peoples, frequently having a detrimental impact on living conditions. At least since the 1990s, social movements have mobilised to counter the policies that reproduce this model of economic extractivism.

A key concern of analyses of Latin America has been the problem of underdevelopment. This issue received a lot of attention between the late 1950s and the 1980s from authors working under the rubric of ‘dependency theory’ – a misleading name, as dependency theory is not a theory. It has rather been a field of study, containing many competing views and conceptualisations.6

Dependency writers have aimed to explain, and offer solutions to, the problem of underdevelopment. To this end, they adopted a historical and global perspective that situated Latin America in connection with the centres of capitalist production and finance. They arrived at different and sometimes mutually exclusive conclusions about the nature of international economic dependency and the possible ways of breaking the straitjacket of underdevelopment. Nonetheless, dependency theorists managed to place Latin America within the history of global capitalism and to offer explanations for relationships of subordination.

Perhaps the book that helped most to popularise ideas of dependency theory among the general public – in the Spanish-speaking world and beyond – is Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (1971). Galeano, a master of prose, composed a story of the region from the Spanish and Portuguese conquests in the late 15th and 16th centuries up to the time of the publication of the book. The Open Veins denounces the abuses of the Iberian empires and goes on to critique the exploitation of the region by British imperialism in the 19th century and US imperialism in the 20th. Underlying the dramatic tales of violence and coercion is a strand of dependency theory that argues that the underdevelopment of Latin America was caused by the unequal economic relations between countries that are intrinsic to capitalism.

“Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent”, cover of the 2009 Serpent’s Tail edition (all rights reserved), via

Alongside dependency theory, The Open Veins drew on a tradition of anti-imperialism associated with notions of Latin American unity, which can be traced back to the 19th century. Galeano’s book served to spark interest in the history of Latin America, in its place in the contemporary world, and in its human and natural riches. But in other ways The Open Veins is problematic. It helped to disseminate a nationalistic view of Latin American countries that has played into the hands of authoritarian and populist regimes. The attribution of the continent’s problems exclusively to the actions of a foreign other is not only questionable historically but has also fed jingoistic politics and precluded the recognition of local, and potentially more tractable, problems. It has also contributed to the pervasiveness of narratives of victimhood: ways of positioning Latin America as a perpetual sufferer from external mischief.7

Both imperial history and dependency theory have studied the role of capitalism in forging imperial relations, although in different ways. While those imperial historians that have been concerned with capitalism have looked at it as the cause of imperial expansion, dependency theorists have tried to understand the effects of capitalist imperialism in peripheral societies. Each has succeeded in showing the importance of power for different aspects of social and political life: labour regimes, inequality, development, and international relations. And from different angles, both have highlighted the role of force, which Marx, for one, viewed as vital to understand social relations: ‘Force is the midwife of every old society which is pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power’.8

Whereas imperial history has emphasised politics and dependency theory economics, their focus on political economy has demonstrated the unequal and conflictive character of processes of global integration. Yet force cannot be regarded as the unidirectional prerogative of imperial officials. Force is a reality of everyday life embodied in a variety of practices which can, to an extent, be negotiated and resisted, rendering social relations a dynamic process of interaction. This is how the agency displayed by subaltern groups and their contribution to global transformations can be identified and explained. It allows us to understand events such as the Mapuche success in resisting conquest in 16th-century Chile, the collaboration between Guaranies and Jesuits to wage war against an alliance of the Spanish and Portuguese empires in the 18th century, or indigenous peoples’ support for the Spanish crown during the wars of independence.

This points to the importance of non-deterministic interpretations that read power as mediated by cultural understandings which depend as much on subaltern groups as on dominant ones. Such a view has implications for the framing of imperial and global history. Processes of world integration cannot be seen as simple forceful impositions, but as co-constructed phenomena in which a variety of heterogeneous actors participated. One fruitful approach, I suggest, is to look at how culturally constructed categories – such as commodities, property, or money – have played a central role in political-economic processes, and the different ways in which the societies that shaped those categories have influenced one another.9 By reappraising the co-constructed nature of social relations, we can attain a more nuanced view both of the making of the contemporary world, and of the capacity of various actors – not only the dominant – to change it.

This piece is part of a series on Political Economy and Culture in Global History, derived from a collective discussion project of the same name, supported by the Past & Present Society (among others). You can read an introduction to the series here. These pieces accompany a virtual special issue of the journal Past & Present, which will be published in late 2020.



2Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London, 2003); María Elvira Roca Barea, Imperofobia y leyenda negra: Roma, Rusia, Estados Unidos y el Imperio español (Madrid, 2016).

3Catherine Hall (ed.), Cultures of Empire: A Reader (Manchester, 2000); José Luis Villacañas, Imperiofilia y el populismo nacional-católico (Madrid, 2019).

4Mathew Brown (ed.), Informal Empire in Latin America: Culture, Commerce and Capital (Oxford, 2008); P. J. Cain and A.G. Hopkins, British Imperialism, 1688-2015 (London, 2016).

5See, for instance, AA.VV. ‘Anatomía del Neo-liberalismo’, Le Monde diplomatique, special edition, Nov./Dec. 2018 [edition for the Southern Cone].

6Ian Roxborough, Theories of Underdevelopment (London, 1979).

7On victimhood and Latin America in global history see Matthew Brown, ‘The global history of Latin America’, Journal of Global History (2015), 10, pp, 365-86.

8Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London, 1990), p. 916.

9Marshall Sahlins, ‘Cosmologies of Capitalism: the trans-Pacific sector of ‘The World System’’, Proceedings of the British Academy, (1989), 74, pp. 1-51.

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