The central theme of Sherene Seikaly's Men of Capital is Palestinian society in Mandatory Palestine. The key argument of the book is encapsulated in its final two paragraphs:
In the 1930s and the 1940s in Palestine, capital accumulation and the nahda project went hand in hand. We should remember that these Palestinians. … did not live their world as shadows of the Jewish settler or the British colonial officer. Their realities were also part of the broader Arab project.
But it is time that we attend to this liberal age, with its utopian visions and its fashionable ideas, with more scrutiny … if we look to the foundational structure of the nahda as contingent on the maintenance of this exclusion and inequality, we may be able to stop eulogizing it just long enough to recognize that it never died. (178)
The term nahda (or Al-Nahda, as it is used elsewhere) is central to Seikaly's argument. Conventionally, it is used to refer to an intellectual “awakening” or “renaissance” in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria, and other regions under Ottoman rule. Seikaly contends that Arab society in Palestine was also part of the nahda in the Middle East. The argument serves to support the three underlying aims of the book: it endeavors to debunk what has been at times a backward view regarding Palestinian society, it seeks to provide evidence for the existence of a distinct commercial liberal elite—a civil society—within the Palestinian society, and it foregrounds early signs of national identity.
According to Seikaly, then, during the 1930s Arab society in Palestine experienced a period of economic and cultural nahda, which has been thus far “invisible” to scholars of Palestine: “One of the reasons men of capital in Palestine are difficult to understand today,” explains Seikaly, “is because they occupied multiple universes of thought that are not immediately accessible to us” (19). Seikaly seeks to makes the hitherto invisible, visible and to show that economic-cultural prosperity in Palestine was accompanied by the creation of sociopolitical features typical of liberal societies—features triggered in turn by the emergence of a Palestinian civil society with both a commercial sector and a proletariat.
Liberalism and commercial orientation, argues Seikaly, were not inconsistent with a national identity. The Palestinian men of capital developed a sense of social solidarity that can be interpreted as a nascent national identity, inspired by similar types of liberal-national nahda in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The private interest of the economic-cultural elite was not perceived as antagonistic to Arab polity: “their conceptualization of national economy led them to the state as an implicit unit of analysis” (42). This association between markets and statehood was the foundation of what Seikaly calls “Arab liberalism” (51).
The end of the Palestinian nahda arrived with the onset of World War II and the British way of governing the economy in Palestine: “Paralysis, destruction, devastation, injustice, isolation, and conspiracy: these were the salient terms of the Palestinian economic lexicon in the 1940s. … The British colonial government was behind the scenes, conferring recognition and intervening” (103). Cooperation between the British government and the Zionist political and economic organizations blocked the development and prosperity of Palestinian businesses and farms. The British government's various austerity and rationing measures repressed the Palestinian economy, while Jewish economic organizations, such as Tnuva, a food-production company owned by the Jewish Labor Organization, used their monopolistic power to shape markets to their favor (134).
A key scholarly point of reference of Men of Capital is Jacob Metzer's The Divided Economy of Mandatory Palestine (1998), to which Seikaly makes reference. Metzer's key argument is that the economy of Palestine was divided into two sectors, an Arab sector and a Jewish sector, which operated side by side despite having common political and territorial boundaries. The economy was divided by ethnic and national boundaries (Arab vs. Jewish), by structural economic boundaries (rural vs. urban), as well as by the respective socio-political institutional structures that characterized each of the two sectors. Metzer characterizes the Arab sector by terms that are often used by economic historians to characterize underdeveloped societies: “traditional,” “peasant-based husbandry,” “household firms,” “poor school attendance,” and “low level of income per capita” (Metzer, 10).
Men of Capital is an attempt to dismiss Metzer's thesis by using two methods: first, by presenting new archival evidence and second, by deconstructing the language and concepts by which mainstream economic historians measure nations. In that sense, Men of Capital is part of a growing body of literature that challenges the way Western observers—realists, liberals, Marxists, or developmentalists—perceive the Arab world.
Men of Capital does a very good job in shaking the prevailing conceptions regarding Palestinian society during the British Mandate. Seikaly presents new evidence that supports her argument regarding the existence of a liberal commercial elite and a nascent national identity emerging in the 1930s. However, the book stops short of debunking the prevailing paradigm. What is missing is convincing systematic comparative research assessing the depth and scope of the role of these Arab liberal ideas and practices within socioeconomic spaces in Arab society other than just within the commercial elite's sphere.