The Ottoman Contribution to the Rise of Capitalism and the Modern State
Center for Global Studies Yildiz Technical University Istanbul, Turkey
Weber's theory of rational bureaucracy has dominated social science literature and been an important source of the eurocentric set of assumptions about the non-West, including the Ottoman Empire. In fact, many of the features that Weber identified as unique to western rationality, such as the centralization of the bureaucratic state, its record-keeping practices, its strict hierarchy and specialization of offices, and so on, characterized the Ottoman State. While it is true that the bureaucratic state in Western Europe arose only out of the centralization of political power that had remained fragmented after the collapse of the Roman Empire until the 'early modern' period, the Ottoman Empire already had a highly centralized taxation structure and a centralized standing army.
I argue in this paper that Ottoman military pressure forced the European powers to raise standing armies, requiring in turn the centralization of taxation, contributing eventually to the rise of the bourgeoisie and capitalism. While the Ottoman Empire had a stable system, where the only nobility was the state class, Western European political structure was fragmented into small principalities, which could only be turned into centralized states by relying on a socio-economic class other than the nobility. The Ottoman State had a strong capacity to tax without changing the local relations of production, while the state centralizers of Western Europe had to undermine the power of the nobility, in alliance with the newly rising bourgeoisie, in order to build their own capacity to tax and raise standing armies. In other words, capitalism contingently grew out of this combination of events.
This argument not only reverses the dominant eurocentric narrative, but it also revises the terms of several current critiques of eurocentrism. It rejects alternative accounts, such as the argument that the Ottomans were already on their way to 'modernization' independently of Western influence, or the argument that what is often described as the 'decline' of the Ottoman Empire was only a tranformation and rejuvenation. It accounts for the Ottoman contribution to the rise of the European absolutist monarchies and treats the rise of capitalism and 'modernity' as a contingent event.