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  • Introduction:Iberian Empire and the History of Capitalism
  • Daniel Nemser (bio)

Iberian Empire, history of capitalism, possessive individualism, primitive accumulation, property, Jesuits, slave trade, scholastic, supply chain

This special issue aims to reinsert the concept of capitalism within the field of colonial Latin American studies. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, a critical interest in capitalism has begun to return to humanities departments across the United States, from literary/cultural studies to history. However, with a handful of exceptions, this general trend has had little impact on the study of early modern Iberian empire. This introduction explores the conceptual impasse in colonial studies by tracing two parallel genealogies in the humanities—one centered in the field of Latin American studies, especially literary/cultural studies, the other in the field of U.S. history. Brief sketches cannot do justice to these complex fields, of course, but my hope is that bringing them together in this way will highlight the stakes of the special issue and frame the debates in which the essays that compose it intervene.

The first genealogy takes as its point of departure the long-standing marginalization of Iberian empire and especially of colonial Latin America in the historiography of capitalism and political economy. In Making a New World: Founding Capitalism in the Bajío and Spanish North America (2011)—one of the few exceptions to the general tendency noted above—the historian John Tutino frames his study of the central role of Spanish North America in the rise of global capitalism against the standard history that roots capitalism's origins in northern Europe. "Most of us have been taught to believe," he writes in the prologue, "that capitalism … was a western invention, that is, a European, mostly British, primarily Protestant invention" (8).1 As the reference to Protestantism indicates, Tutino is identifying the long shadow cast by the sociologist Max Weber. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism [End Page 1] (1904), Weber famously argued that Catholicism was too deeply affiliated with economic "traditionalism" and spiritual transcendence to give rise to a properly capitalist subject. Such a subject would emerge not under Catholic doctrine for which profit-driven activity was "ethically unjustifiable, or at best to be tolerated," but only with the consolidation of a Protestant ethic that saw work as a worldly "calling" or ethical obligation (36). Later, in his posthumous General Economic History (1923), Weber read this Protestant ethic into the history of European colonialism. Noting that the process of colonization from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries "led to a gigantic acquisition of wealth in Europe," he distinguished between two different models or strategies of colonial accumulation: "the feudal type in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, the capitalistic in the Dutch and English" (298). For Weber, "such men as Cortez and Pizarro" appear as the "strongest embodiment" of irrational economic interest, in contrast to the "rational institutions of the character of capitalistic enterprise" (356); thus the use of encomienda, "a feudal grant with the right of imposing on the Indians compulsory services, payments, or labor dues," which endured, he asserted, into the nineteenth century (61). The Protestant ethic thus provided a typology with which to make sense of the history of Europe's colonies in the Americas and beyond.

Of course, Weber was by no means the first to relegate Iberian empire, tethered to "traditionalist" Catholic doctrines and "feudal" institutions, to the spatial and temporal "outside" of capitalism and modernity. As early as the sixteenth century and more broadly during the Enlightenment, Spain's northern European rivals began to construct and popularize a narrative of Iberian empire as superstitious, backward, greedy, and cruel in order to justify their resistance to Iberian domination and to promote their own imperial projects. This so-called Black Legend continues to shape how Spain, Portugal, and Latin America are taken up (or not) in scholarship to this day. As a consequence, writes the historian Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra in a critical evaluation of the historiography of the scientific revolution, "Iberians have come to represent the antithesis of modernity" (24).

The thesis of Iberian "backwardness" and colonial Latin American "feudalism" provide the context for a series...


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