‘It is clear that the seventeenth century—with a world-economy larger than it had been in the sixteenth—saw a new division of wealth, under the banner of a many-sided competition, unfettered by loyalty, ferocious and premeditated, since decline and stagnation were poor counsellors: nothing was yielded, everything taken that could be taken, whether from neighbour or from distant rival.’

F. Braudel, P. Jeannin,

J. Meuvret, R. Romanofootnote1

Istart with a world-system perspective on underdevelopment.footnote What does that mean? Essentially two things. First, that economic processes in the modern world take place within the framework of a system we may call the capitalist world-economy, and ‘underdevelopment’ is therefore merely a descriptive term for that part of the processes (processes, not states of being) found in peripheral areas of this world-economy. Secondly, that neither the ‘development’ nor the ‘underdevelopment’ of any specific territorial unit can be analysed or interpreted without fitting it into the cyclical rhythms and secular trends of the world-economy as a whole.footnote2

I should like to explore here the particular consequences of a Phase-b At the outset, I must indicate there is an ambiguity in the expression Phase-b. There are in fact two different a-b cycles. There are the Kondratiev cycles, now returning to popularity, which in my opinion do indeed exist.footnote3 One Kondratiev cycle, with an a-expansion phase and a b-contraction phase, presumably lasts forty to fifty-five years. There are, however, in addition longer cycles, to which Rondo Cameron has recently given the name ‘logistics’.footnote4 These presumably last 150–300 years. They are called logistics because they take the shape of a statistical logistic curve, in that although the a-phase is an expansion, the b-phase is not a contraction but a stagnation. When we speak of the ‘long’ sixteenth century as an a-phase, and the period 1600–1750 as a b-phase, we are referring to one of these logistics. And it is of this b-phase of the logistic that I shall be speaking: the so-called ‘crisis of the seventeenth century’.

These logistics are important theoretically, not only because they describe a social reality, but because they are themselves evidence for the existence of a capitalist world-economy. Let me explain myself. The late Middle Ages is generally considered to have shown an a and a b phase. Although scholars debate the exact dates, the years 1100–1250/1300 as the a-phase and 1300–1450 as the b-phase are fairly standard in the literature. Thus, we have two successive long cycles, each about 300 years: 1100–1450, 1450–1750. There are striking differences between the two cycles. In the period 1100–1450, the a-phase saw expansion of population, trade and land under cultivation, the strengthening of political apparatuses, and the expansion of feudal obligations of rural labourers to their lords. The b-phase saw the exact opposite of each of these trends: the decline of population, trade and land under cultivation (Wüstungen), the weakening of central political apparatuses, and the decline of feudal obligations. The expansions and contractions took place more or less uniformly throughout Europe. In the period 1450–1750, the a-phase saw expansion of population, trade and land under cultivation as earlier. However, in terms of the political apparatuses, they were strengthened in some areas (primarily western Europe) and weakened in others (primarily eastern Europe). In terms of ‘feudal’ obligations, they were strengthened in some areas (the ‘second serfdom’ of eastern Europe) but weakened still further in other areas (primarily north-western Europe).