[This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 JadMag (Issue 7.1) as the centerpiece article. To see the issue or subscribe to JadMag, visit this link via Tadween Publishing.]
My title is a provocation, with apologies to Bruno Latour. For those unfamiliar with Latour’s article “On Recalling ANT,” he opens with a now classic line: “There are four things that do not work with actor-network theory: the word actor, the word network, the word theory and the hyphen!” Inspired by his piece, I point to a few things wrong with political economy of the Middle East: political economy, Middle East, and “of” (especially the “of”). I write as a fellow traveler who believes we can all gain by suspending certainty, for a moment, that we know what is political economy, let alone of the Middle East.
In this brief essay, I do three things. First, I destabilize political economy as a concept and body of thought. Second, I read tangled threads from the archive of political economy about the rise of commercial society in the eighteenth century. Third, I revisit a central institution in the history of economic thought—the factory—with particular relevance for thinking about the Middle East and political economy today. Along the way I ask: What do we lose when we assume there are two stable entities, “political economy” and “the Middle East” that we bring together with that “of”? In the bigger project of which this is part I ask: What distinctive forms of commercial organization characterize entanglements of the Ottoman Empire with the emerging territorial states of Europe? Starting from there, how can we productively think against the theorizing that dominates colonial/postcolonial studies and political economy of the Middle East? I do not ask these questions as a pretend historian, or in ignorance of the wonderful work underway in our field. I ask as an anthropologist concerned with understanding how these processes are constitutive of our own times (or what anthropologists call the ethnographic present).
The Many Meanings of Political Economy
It is obvious to this audience that the Middle East is a fuzzy concept. We all have read (and some written) research on the multiple meanings and implications of “the Middle East” as a category. We know reasons for its different appellations: the Orient, the Levant, the Near East, and the Middle East, the Islamic World, the Muslim majority world, and more. So I will set aside that element of the equation. What about political economy?
Political economy means many things to many people. On the one hand, political economy is a body of knowledge that arose in the late eighteenth century to make sense of a world that understood itself as “commercial society” and to understand the place of politics in it. Political economy can stand for materialist analysis, as opposed to a focus on culture or ideas or religion. It can indicate analysis inspired by Marx’s Capital, Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, or Wallerstein’s world systems theory. It can refer to a whole group of writers from the late-eighteenth-century Scottish enlightenment onward, although the most common names in history of political thought in this regard might be Hume and Smith.
Political economy looks different in different fields. Undergraduate histories of economic thought might open with The Wealth of Nations, move on to classical nineteenth-century political economy of Ricardo, Mill, and Malthus, and end with either Marx or the marginalist turn and the rise of subjectivist theories of value. In anthropology, political economy can be an umbrella term for French structuralist Marxist anthropology; ethnography of class, labor, and exploitation; feminist Marxist anthropology; and more. Political economy can imply Karl Polanyi’s theories of the “substantive economy” and of “free market society” disembedded from society, or ethnography of neoliberalism, read through David Harvey rather than Michel Foucault. Or it might be a shorthand way to reference Marx’s critique of political economy and political projects to build communism or socialism.
Reference to political economy indirectly summons forth a theory of value. Marx reinterpreted the labor theory of value in his critique of political economy. Different theories hammered out in different political and historic moments point to different factors of production as being productive of value. For example, land was productive of value for the physiocrats, gold was productive of value for mercantilists, and labor was productive of value for political economists from Smith through Marx. Not all kinds of labor produce value in a labor theory of value: Only productive labor does so—as opposed to unproductive labor. In the eighteenth century, before the birth of political economy, unproductive labor was associated in part with excessive hospitality and effeminate luxury of concern to travelers and traders in the Middle East. That matters for what follows.
Political economy is not just a body of theory and a set of conceptual tools. When canonical texts are placed back in the “ethnographic” context of their own times with forgotten voices restored to view, political economy can be an archive of historical conjunctures and problematics relevant to our own day. Concepts carry those pasts along with them. Texts we now see as canonical were once part of a broader web of intellectual and political debate. Keeping this in mind allows us to see how some options and potentials were foreclosed, and others remained open.
This is a good moment for such a reading of political economy. For many secondary assumptions of political economy and economics have been unveiled and seem nonsensical to young people living through “climate emergency.” Political economy—like any theory— makes assumptions and encloses a particular area for consideration. In economics, that which lies outside the theory and its models is called an externality. I have called these elements outside a system that do not fit in, and yet knock at the door louder and louder, transients of the system. At certain periods, those transients can perturb the system. This is such a moment. The unquestioned imperative of economic growth and accumulation that underlies economics and political economy has shattered in a time of climate emergency.
This is different than studying (or critiquing) the explicit claims of any particular kind of political economy. Rather, reading canonical texts in political economy in a broader web of interlocutors allows us to foreground presumptions that turn on commitments foundational to the discipline (such as accumulation). When thinking about climate change, native plants, or “botanical decolonization” in the Anthropocene, for example, it was uncanny to read Francis Bacon on “implanting and displanting” settlers in seventeenth-century America. When writing a piece called “Before and After Growth” in 2014 about movements for ecological economics, it was wonderful to discover Lord Lauderdale condemning the “scourge of accumulation” in the early nineteenth century. There is ample salvage work of this kind to do in and on political economy of our region—from before there even was political economy.
The Levant in Commercial Society (or, Before Political Economy)
Trading companies like the Levant Company and the East India Company were the subjects of huge debate in England in the eighteenth century. Writers like Daniel Defoe blamed them for the rise of “public debt,” endless war, and senseless pursuit of commercial gain. These concerns are familiar to us. After the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing waves of revolt around the world, commitments to dynamic equilibrium, expanded reproduction, or normal distribution curves came undone. Underlying assumptions of political economy that “productive labor,” “growth,” and “accumulation” are positive things (even if turned from private to social control) no longer hold up without question. Lesser-read figures such as Veblen or Lauderdale become as important as Marx and Smith. Lessons from the world of long ago—what was then called “commercial society”—stretching across the Mediterranean from England to the Levant, seem familiar in uncanny fashion.
Anyone thinking about political economy still knows so much more about the East India Company—before and after it took over the running of the Indian subcontinent with the collapse of the Moghul Empire—than about the Levant Company and its relevance for political economy. The East India Company was of course a big concern of great nineteenth-century theorists like JS Mill and Henry Maine, who were both employees of the company. We know that these thinkers helped lay the groundwork for what became political economy and social theory. But debates about the Levant Company, the Levant Trade, luxury goods from the Levant, and the invention of new kinds of financial instruments such as publick debt were also hot and fierce a century earlier. They, too, provided building blocks for the construction of social theory and political economy.
Traces of that history are everywhere once we begin to look: in the railings of a Daniel Defoe against publick credit expanding with the Levant Company in the East; in multiple musings about the “financial revolution” this entanglement engendered; in Defoe’s efforts to clarify the difference between “trade” and “commerce”; in considerations of the dangers of commercial society in the writings of Adam Smith—enemy of the Levant Company; and in the writings of his interlocutor, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, about the dilemmas of commercial society. Many of their concerns seem resonant in our own times, when “classical” solutions and commitments of political economy seem to have failed. Increasing numbers of people in the West feel that their social and familial lives have been swept into a vast sea of commerce. The relentless pursuit of profit without bounds seems to have taken over the entire world and penetrated every aspect of life. New kinds of debt and securitization pervade worries about the future. These writings can seem absurdly resonant to the post-2008 securitized world.
Traces of those concerns are buried as well in debates about the status of the Ottoman Empire as the first non-Western state to gain nominal admission to the nineteenth-century “family of nations” while “incompatible with the culture and values of Christendom” and thus “semi-civilized.” Anthropology and economics helped divide the world into the so-called “civilized” and the “primitive.” The ongoing critique of anthropology and efforts to decolonize the social sciences forget, however, the crucial place of the “semi-civilized” in this story. The Ottoman Empire was the well-considered and pondered case of the semi-civilized, and colonial jurists’ treatment of the Ottoman Empire laid the legal and epistemological groundwork for the Mandate system after WWI.
The Factory: From the Levant to West Africa and England
Most accounts of the rise of “capitalism” are linked to the rise of the “factory system” in nineteenth-century England. Adam Smith tells the most famous origin story of the factory in The Wealth of Nations, when a manufacturer making pins by hand is transformed through application of the division of labor into a “factory.” In this genealogy of the West, the rise of the factory marks a break: the birth of modernity and the industrial capitalist order. The factory in such standard accounts is where the working class was born as well. In Marx’s world-historical theory of Capital, the factory is where labor-power is put to work, surplus value is extracted, and conditions for the extended reproduction of capital produced. The factory is where the great “social question” of the nineteenth century began. Huge growth in inequality in the West since 2008 draws our attention to the “social question” once more; the factory requires similar attention. As David Graeber recently put it, the rise of “bullshit jobs” has come to replace industrial productive labor in the West. What does that mean for the factory? Why is the Levant a crucial part of the answer? Quite simply, the “factory” did not emerge from the pin factory of Adam Smith. The factory has a much longer history rooted in violence, unequal trade, and industrial espionage. And to fully understand the place of slavery in the rise of US bloody capitalism, we need to begin from the Levant and the “Factory of the English Nation” that moved into Khan al-Jumruk in Aleppo in the 1580s.
The factory of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries encompassed functions that exceed the limits of political economy, though they are integral to the logic of affaires of commerce of their time: factories were sovereign way stations, military bases, trading posts, and financial nodes. English “factories” began operation in Aleppo more than two hundred years earlier than in England. Long before the European trading companies established their foothold in the better-known case of South Asia, Aleppo was the major entrepôt through which the trade of South Asian cottons was mediated. Levant factories were linked to the West African coast as well via the sub-Saharan trade. In Middle Eastern studies we know all of this, but we can push further regarding significance. The Levant was part of the broader ecosystem from which the “triangle trade” and capitalism emerged. Innovations of “calculated values” developed in the early Levant Company factories before the triangle trade got on its way.
On the West African coast factories were sometimes forts, first for the Portuguese and their trading empire and then for the English Royal African Company and its successor corporations. Accounts of building factories on the coast of Malabar in the fifteenth century depict a stone brought from ship to mark the place and begin construction. These stones had practical import; stone buildings could be better defended. But they also projected solidity and weight in the ground, an anchor to the fighting ships of empire on protected extraterritorial space. A key organizational innovation of the factory was to render multiple languages, goods, and currencies commensurable. The factory was a key site where new techniques of “accounting for slavery” were deployed. Those techniques included commensuration between slaves, palm oil, and cloth, as evidenced by the detailed account books of the factory. While historians have taught us of links between plantations, the slave trade, and the rise of capitalism, the factory—a key organizational structure of capitalism—remains untouched as concept. Moreover, factories marked out an extraterritorial space where local rule of law did not apply, enabling the violent commodification and trade of people to begin.
Organizational knowledge in factories of West Africa developed in concert with the Levant factories, where an ecosystem of the indigenous khan, caravanserai, and funduq gave recognizable form to the “Factory of the English Nation” in Aleppo long before wealthy merchants in England adopted the name factory. In the Levant, this indigenous ecosystem took another twist when factors of the Levant Company set up shop in Khan al-Jumruk, writing home about their institution as the “Factory of the English Nation” in the Levant. We have superb research in Middle Eastern, Ottoman, and Mediterranean studies recounting these facts. But we need bring them into conversation with our assumptions about political economy.
Clues to such a rethinking of the factory lie at the margins of political economy and anthropology as well as Middle Eastern and Mediterranean studies. We can return to footnotes about the Levant Company in Adam Smith and Daniel Defoe, and to Melville Herskovits’s and Karl Polanyi’s seminal reading—and misreading—of the pre-colonial West African “Port of Trade” of Dahomey in today’s Benin. All this will allow us to better understand what happened to “factories of the English Nation” on their way from the Levant to London via the accounting books of the Royal African Company in Benin and why this matters today. Such research can add to the exciting conversations about global capitalisms, accounting, and the slave trade that leave the Levant out of the picture.
Violence of the factory/fort recedes from view in the well-protected domains of the Ottoman Empire. It could run rampant in the explicitly brutal forts—showing the other side of the Janus faced factory/fort—of the so-called Gold Coast of Africa. It appears again on the brutal floor of the factory in Liverpool and London. When we look only at the beginnings of the slave trade, without the institutional innovations of the factory as a site of exterritoriality as well as commensuration in the Levant, we miss key elements of the factory. Only by establishing a new historical geography of the factory in which the Middle East is central can we reconsider the paradigmatic factories of industrialization as written in the history of economic thought. This can help us think differently about the factory and the violence of accumulation in our own times as well—including carceral political economy in the United States.
We miss all of this, and much more, if we assume too quickly that we know what is political economy of the Middle East.
[This piece draws in part on a talk called “Four Things Wrong with Political Economy of the Middle East,” presented at the meeting “New Approaches to Political Economy of the Middle East” at Stanford University, 19–21 February 2016. It also draws on my forthcoming book A Semiotic Political Economy: Social Infrastructures, Phatic Labor, and the Semi-Civilized as well as “Factories: An Anthropology of Western Economic Order from the Levant” (in process).
 Bruno Latour, “On Recalling ANT,” The Sociological Review 47, no. 1 (May 1999): 15, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-954X.1999.tb03480.x.
 Thanks to Timothy Mitchell for this formulation.
 Istvan Hont, Jealousy of Trade: International Competition and the Nation-State in Historical Perspective (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); J.G.A. Pocock, Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century, rev. ed. (1985; electronic, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
 Thanks to Paul Kockelman for this formulation.
 Tomaž Mastnak, Julia Elyachar, and Tom Boellstorff, “Botanical Decolonization: Rethinking Native Plants,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32, no. 2 (2014): 363–380.
 Julia Elyachar, “Before (and After) Growth: Steady States, the Scourge of Accumulation, and an Economic Anthropology for the Anthropocene.” Unpublished essay based on a talk given at the Department of Anthropology, Rice University, 15 October 2014.
 See Julia Elyachar and Tomaž Mastnak, “Beings that Have Existence Only in the Minds of Men: A Look at Sources of Thinking about Financial Speculation and its Consequences.” University of California, Irvine, working paper.
 Julia Elyachar, “Rethinking Anthropology of Neoliberalism in the Middle East,” in A Companion to the Anthropology of the Middle East, ed. Soraya Altorki (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2015), 411–433; Elyachar and Mastnak, working paper.
 See Elyachar and Mastnak, working paper.
 Umut Özsu, “The Ottoman Empire, the Origins of Extraterritoriality, and International Legal Theory,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Theory of International Law, ed. Anne Orford and Florian Hoffmann (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016), 123–137.
 Early neoliberals saw socialists as “voluntary primitives” who willfully stripped themselves of the price system and thus rationality itself. See Julia Elyachar, “Neoliberalism, Rationality, and the Savage Slot,” in Mutant Neoliberal- ism: Market Rule and Political Rupture, ed. William Callison and Zachary Manfredi (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019).
 I spell out this argument in my forthcoming book A Semiotic Political Economy: Social Infrastructures, Phatic Labor, and Theory from the Semi-Civilized.
 See David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018).
 Matthew Desmond, “American Capitalism is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation,” New York Times Magazine, The 1619 Project, 14 August 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/slavery-capitalism. html; Caitlin Rosenthal, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018); Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (With a new introduction by Colin A. Palmer), rev. ed. (1944; repr., Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994).
 William Deringer, Calculated Values: Finance, Politics, and the Quantitative Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).
 On the Portuguese in Malabar, see Charles Ralph Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire: 1415–1825 (London: Hutchinson of London, 1969).
 Rosenthal, 2018. Note that I am here implicitly challenging Rosenthal’s claim that those techniques developed specifically in relation to slavery. Like Deringer, I think it a broader phenomenon, in which the Levant Company and the Levant trade was a crucial and overlooked part.
 Elyachar, A Semiotic Political Economy. 19 Rosenthal, 2018; Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Vintage Press, 2015).
 Rosenthal, 2018; Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Vintage Press, 2015).
 On the well-protected domains, see Selim Deringil, The Well Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire 1876– 1909 (Oxford and New York: I.b. Tauris Publishers, 2000). I develop the argument in this paragraph further in Elyachar, “Factories.”