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

Barbara Reeves-Ellington

Political Factors
Limits to territorial expansion and breakdown of classical land-tenure system

Wallerstein and Kasaba claimed that, in addition to losing control over the guilds (an interpretation I have already argued against), the Ottoman state also lost control over agricultural production through the breakdown of the timar land-tenure system beginning in the seventeenth century. They argued that the breakdown in the system led directly to a new method of collecting taxes (ilitzam, tax-farming), which resulted in tax-farmers gaining access to the rights of private property on the lands on which they collected taxes. This eventually led to the formation of çiftliks. "These transformations made the concentration of land in private hands and reorganization of production in relation to world markets possible."

Few scholars would disagree that the timar system broke down, that tax-farming was introduced, or that the Ottoman land system was undergoing transformation. But Ottoman land organization was more complex. My argument is based on Fikret Adanir's work.

Under the classic Ottoman system, all land was divided into three categories: miri, or state land; mülk, or private property; and vakif, which belonged to religious foundations. The timar system was based on state land. As the Ottoman Empire expanded with conquests of new land, timar land was given to sipahi (cavalrymen) in return for military duties. The land reverted to the state upon the death of the sipahi. The land was cultivated by peasants who owned a small area of private land and whose rights and obligations to the sipahi and the state were legally specified.

After the Ottomans failed to take Vienna in 1683, there was no new land for expansion, but this was not critical. Even before this date, the sipahi had become an outdated fighting force and were gradually replaced by an infantry equipped with firearms. Irregular peasant units replaced them in private armies formed by local notables (ayans). Adanir suggested that changes in land-tenure had more to do with over-taxation, brigandage, climate change, crop failures, famines, and epidemics.

Çiftliks emerged in the sixteenth century from private peasant land and abandoned state land. By this time, the sipahi had gained hereditary rights to their land. Çiftliks became more common in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when they were devoted chiefly to cattle raising, not crop production. Adanir concluded that "in the Balkans as well as in Anatolia, the part played by the çiftlik estates in the economy remained rather negligible."

Rise of local notables

Wallerstein and Kasaba claimed that disorganization of Ottoman central power led to loss of Ottoman control over provincial officials and ayan. The ayan, whose original function was to represent the people in their dealings with the government, acquired substantial power through tax-farming and established "uncontested power in this region through the processes of çiftlik formation."

Historians agree that ayans were able to defy central authority towards the end of the eighteenth century. Some ayans were less interested in defying central power than in filling a vacuum where the central power was unable to control banditry in rural areas: they attempted to maintain a sense of order and protection. Others, such as Ali Pasha and Osman Pasvanoglu, frequently organized bandit raids themselves, fought each other for control of territory, and generally razed the Balkan countryside causing considerable loss of life.

Without the çiftlik argument, Wallerstein could not connect the ayans to incorporation of the Ottoman Empire into the capitalist world-economy. But not all ayans grabbed peasant land, transforming the peasants into slave labor, which they exploited on their "plantations." Quite the reverse. It was the frequent banditry in the Balkans that caused peasants to abandon lowland communities and head for the highlands. Here, they established rural manufacturing workshops and factories that led to the industrial boom described by Pailaret. It cannot be coincidental that these Balkan mountain towns--Koprivshtitsa, Kotel, Sopot, Gabrovo, and others--were the focus of the Bulgarian cultural revival that began in earnest in the mid-nineteenth century.

Demands for political autonomy

Wallerstein and Kasaba indicated that nationalist demands for political autonomy in the Balkans in the early nineteenth were the result of incorporation. Their suggestion that the merchant elite "successfully mobilized the predominantly Christian peasants under the banner of nationalism against the Ottoman rule" is far-fetched, however. The merchant elite in the Balkans was very comfortable expanding trade links under Ottoman rule. While many merchants contributed to educational and cultural pursuits, few of them nurtured revolutionary ideas. The nationalist inciters were the educated elite. And neither the merchants nor the "intelligentsia" had much contact with the peasants, who, in any case, as Marx himself noted, were not revolutionary material.

Inadequate diplomacy

Wallerstein and Kasaba noted that with its loss of military prestige and its reversal of fortunes in war, the Ottoman Empire began to lose bargaining power. As a consequence of the treaties of Belgrade (1739) and Kücük Kaynarca (1774), the Ottomans made diplomatic and economic concessions to Russia, Austria, Britain, and France, allowing no little interference in the affairs of their state. The intensifying relations between the Empire and the world-economy culminated in the Anglo-Turkish Trade Convention of 1838 and the Gulhane reform edict of 1839 which "marked the end of the resistance on the part of the Ottoman bureaucracy to incorporation." To consider the Gulhane edict as a capitulation to a capitalist core that marked an economic incorporation is to miss the point entirely. The Gulhane edict was the result of competing reform forces within the empire. Some reformers looked back to the golden age of empire to institute reform; others looked west to Europe. The westernizers gained the upper hand, but their decree was very general, an attempt at what we might call civil rights today, influenced to be sure by the ideas of the Enlightenment. It emphasized the rights of all subjects of the sultan, regardless of status and called for a regular system of assessing taxes (abolishing tax-farming) and levying troops. It was followed in 1856 by a reform guaranteeing equality regardless of religion and calling for representational government, which was attempted in the Constitution of 1876.

While influenced by the west, these reforms were not imposed by the west. Nor were they the result of inadequate diplomacy. Such views are the result of condescending Eurocentrism. By cutting off their periodization at 1839, Wallerstein and Kasaba chose to neglect the Tanzimat period, an era of great social and political transformation as well as economic change. Their insistence on an economic focus marginalized Ottoman agency and ignored cultural and intellectual trends. In the late-eighteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was very much aware of its own need for change. The impetus for reform came from within, and the edicts of 1826, 1839, and 1856 are all part of the same transformation.

Economic Factors
Questions on Wallerstein's Analysis

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Last Updated: 8/12/16