This volume collects a number of essays, some previously published, that survey about 30 years of writing on the history of capitalism from Third World perspectives. The essays insistently ask how various broad claims to understanding the general shape of historical change have fared when viewed from the vantage point of Africa or Latin America, and particularly when applied to the history of labor and of peasantries on those continents. Early in the volume, Steve J. Stem sets the tone with his incisive discussion of the evolving history of how Andean silver mines were worked. When research has permitted us to get close to the mines and those who worked them, the variety of patterns escapes the paradigms. As the essays suggest more generally, the intentions of colonial administrators and capitalists confronted the varying capacities of workers or peasants to cope, to find their own points of advantage, to evade, and to resist. The outcomes differed from one place to another and from one decade to the next, to a degree that defies ready summary (and perhaps any summary).
Each of these essays is a rich and informed interrogation of a very rapidly developing literature. The core of the book features Stem’s piece, which is a critique of Wallerstein’s account of coerced labor on the periphery of the world economy. Also included are an extremely thorough treatment of Africa in the world by Frederick Cooper, and paired essays reviewing the peasantries of Africa and Latin America by Allen Isaacman and William Roseberry. An introductory essay by Stern and a meditative response to the core essays by Florencia E. Mallon complete the volume.
The cumulative demonstration in these essays that the big picture is, up close, full of flaws is not the end of the discussion but the beginning. This is what gives this book its distinctive character. The volume suggests that historians of Africa and Latin America have something to say not only to each other but to historians generally. Instead of seeing mere “fragmentation” of historical knowledge in the new emphases on previously underdeveloped subject areas—which so seriously question received ideas —Stern’s introductory essay considers “reverberation,” the way scholars of one specialization develop modes of explanation that can be fruitful for scholars from other specialties.
Every essay is provocative in the good sense of making the reader rethink. A catalogue, let alone an assessment, of the “reverberations” is beyond any brief review such as this, but I offer two observations (reverberations?) of my own. First, the book’s central theme is the actual and potential dialogues of Africanists and Latin Americanists; it contains little on the interplay of Africa and Latin America. I would think that the myriad ways in which Africans and their descendants figure in Latin American history would be a central terrain on which scholars of both continents might fruitfully meet.
Second, I find a theme that is not quite fully spelled out (although it is certainly referred to). What actually makes possible all these reverberations? I think the answer lies in the frequency with which the literature reviewed in these essays addresses the great theme of coping with domination. The ways people deal with the power of others over them are various, but not infinitely so. This is one important reason why those who do research about the periphery of capitalism, or about people subordinated because of class or race or gender, find parallel processes, however disparate are their concrete research settings.