In world-systems analysis the ‘Dutch Republic’ is normally identified as one of three hegemonic states that have defined the basic trajectory of the modern world-system. However, compared with the British in the nineteenth century and the USA in the twentieth century, the seventeenth century Dutch appear to be a pale shadow of what a ‘world hegemon’ should be. A very small state both territorially and demographically, it hardly seems feasible that this still new polity could set the path along which the modern world-system embarked to eliminate all rival systems. Of course, if we accept the latter formulation then, far from being inferior, as the initiator of the trajectory the Dutch are the most important of the hegemons. And this is because it is not overt power that defines a hegemon but its infra-structural power: the Dutch developed a social formula, which we have come to call modern capitalism, that proved to be transferable and ultimately deadly to all other social formulations.
It is not usually appreciated just how important this simple fact of being historically first is for taking the Dutch especially seriously. In discussions of the rise phase of the modern world-system much of the argument is taken up with a search for the origins of the system. But there is a real problem with the ‘origin’ fetish in geohistorical analysis. Asking the question as to when a world-system began is fraught with difficulties not least surrounding the question: origin of what? Furthermore, however we choose to define modern capitalism, its distinctive features will always be traceable to other world-systems: price-setting markets, capital accumulation, spatial divisions of labour, and free labour processes can all be found in times and places outside the modern world-system. And this is to be expected in the rich social tapestry of human endeavour. To use a biological analogy there will be many mutants of social organization within all world-systems and some will prosper a while just as others will wither almost immediately. The important social mutants are those that prosper for much more than a while and ultimately provide the basis of a new world-system. From this analogy it is not the choosing, in hindsight, of one or more origins from a multiplicity of possibilities that is the key, but rather it is the identification of circumstances for sustaining one of these possibilities to create a fully-fledged historical system that matters. And this is the critical role of the Dutch polity as primary hegemon: to continue the biological analogy, it is where a particularly virulent mutant – modern capitalism – finally succeeded.