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Commerce and capital in the Levant, 1838–1925: Stanford Humanities Center fellow Q&A

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Geballe Dissertation fellow, Kristin Alff, studies capitalism, law, and property in the 19th- and 20th-century Levant.
Photo Credit: 
Steve Castillo

Kristen Alff is a doctoral student in the field of Modern Middle East History at Stanford. She holds a B.A. from Boston University in British and American literature and an M.A. in Middle East Studies from the American University in Cairo. Alff is interested in capitalism, law, and property in the 19th- and 20th-century Levant, a historical region along the East Mediterranean that comprises modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian territories.

During her fellowship year at the Stanford Humanities Center, Alff is writing a history of family-owned businesses in the Levant. Her dissertation explores the relationship between trans-regional trade and agricultural development companies and the evolution of land tenure in the mid-19th to mid-20th-century Levant. Specifically, she examines the Beirut-based Levantine business community, their influence in the global market for cotton and grains, their commodification of land in Palestine, and their sales of this land to the Zionist- and German-Templar-settler companies.

In your view, why is it valuable to study Levantine commercial history?

My investigation of non-Western capitalism expands the record of human interactions and approaches to writing that record. It addresses two fundamental questions: how did the modern world come into being and how can we write a global history of its emergence? Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that Western social science locates the history of capitalism in Europe, setting standards for developing countries. The question of what capitalism is, its origins and global variations, are key to understanding the human condition today.
My research challenges a narrative, still prevalent in historical scholarship, that Arab peasants squared off with Zionists in late Ottoman Palestine. I debunk Zionist exceptionalism by underscoring its similarities with the German Templers, who were culturally European. As the only scholar with full access to the Levantine company archives, I also add a much-needed Arab perspective to the history of capitalism and property rights in Palestine. Searching through these archives led me to the conclusion that property rights and forms of labor control in Palestine reflected and influenced the development of global capitalism. Changes in property rights tell the story of banks, agriculture enterprises, and real estate companies that shaped the modern Levant.

Based on your research, how would you describe the Levantine contribution to the rise of modern capitalism?

Marx was wrong that modern capitalism had fully matured in England by the nineteenth century. Of course, there were identifiable characteristics, such as free wage labor and production for the market, private ownership and the pursuit of profit. However, Marx also knew that capitalist development during this period depended on (and still depends on) so-called “pre-capitalist” elements. Free and unfree labor, the appropriation of women and nature, the subordination of the colonized — all of these contributed to the formation of what we now call modern capitalism.
It’s not unreasonable, then, to suggest that Levantine forms of labor control, such as tenant contracts and sharecropping rooted in the Ottoman social formation, abetted the development of modern capitalism. They did so in concrete ways, such as futures trading, and in less obvious ways like the exploitation of labor and land to produce agricultural goods, metals, and minerals for export.

What became of prominent Orthodox Christian families? What is their place in contemporary Lebanese society?

Greek-Orthodox and Maronite families still live in Beirut today; they remain integral to the social fabric and the political leadership of the country. Of course, with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire into nation-states, and the start of the British Mandate in Palestine and the French Mandate of Greater Lebanon, Beirut ceased to be the administrative capital of the rich agricultural regions in Palestine. New borders and administrative centers thwarted Beirut’s control over its former hinterlands.
The families’ cultural affiliations also changed. One difference between the Levant of today and of the late-nineteenth century is the degree of inclusion of various ethnic and religious groups. At given points in history, the field of who belongs within a specific social and political milieu expands and contracts; lines of cultural difference change. In the late Ottoman Empire, the primary mode of belonging was religious identity. The government was Sunni Muslim, and therefore non-Muslims faced certain restrictions and found opportunities within the Sunni state. After World War I, Christians, including aristocratic Greek-Orthodox and Maronite families, began to identify as Arab nationalistsand Lebanese Christians.

British observers first noted the use of futures contracts among Levantine joint-stock companies. Why did they originate? What led to their integration into the global financial system?

I wouldn’t go so far to say that the Levantine companies were the first to trade in futures. I am certain that the precursors date back to the early modern period. These Levantine companies were, however, competitive in the global market. Competition between Western and Levantine firms around mutual sharing of techniques shaped the development of capitalism around the Mediterranean from the mid-nineteenth century until World War I.

In the nineteenth century, one of the techniques that Greeks and Greek-Orthodox companies used earlier and more often than British companies was futures trading. The reason that they could trade in futures — selling bills of lading for agricultural products and metals before they were extracted from the earth — was because of social trust. Each family belonged to a tight-knit community, often of kin-related partners, who were much more inclined to trust one another than complete strangers. Levantine companies also controlled mining, planting, and shipping outfits, exercising a degree of influence over everything from production to distribution. They also could assume risk because of the sheer number of shareholders in the company and knew when to sell shares if they saw a deal going sour.

What socioeconomic conditions enabled joint-stock companies in the Levant to emerge and thrive from the mid-nineteenth century into the first quarter of the twentieth?

Levantine companies initially made money from silk production and distribution. In the 1850s and 1860s, global silk prices began to increase exponentially. In the early 1860s, when the silk market peaked, the Levantine firms built 10 new silk factories to meet European demand. Compared to 10 or 11 European-owned factories, Levantine family-owned companies operated 47 by 1867.

The families were also money-lenders and the largest landowners in the region at the time. They began accumulating title-deeds for land in the early 1850s around Jaffa by buying up land from peasants in exchange for debt. By World War I, they owned about 800,000 dunams (about 200,000 acres) of land in Palestine alone. They thrived by exploiting the growing market for agricultural land in the Levant and a rise in demand for raw materials in parts of Europe, particularly in the years of recovery after the European economic crisis of the 1870s and 1880s.