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Article

The Modern Invention of ‘Dynasty’: An Introduction

Global Intellectual History. 2020.
Afanasyev I., Banerjee M.

Historians tend to take ‘dynasty’ for granted. It is assumed that ‘we’ know what ‘dynasty’ is; and that the concept unproblematically corresponds to the empirical reality of a historical institution present in all rulerships across time and place. Taking as its point of departure the peculiar and little-researched history of the word itself, which acquired its current meaning only as recently as the second half of the eighteenth century, this article sets out a research agenda for historicising ‘dynasty’. Introducing the special issue on the global intellectual history of the modern invention of ‘dynasty’, it argues that ‘dynasty’ is not simply a neutral historical term, but a political concept that became globally hegemonic in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the expansion of European colonialism. The article maps out three main trajectories for rethinking both past and present beyond the totalizing and falsely transparent concept of ‘dynasty’. First, it points toward a more complex and less hierarchical vision of pre-capitalist, including and especially extra-European, societies. Second, it considers how exactly capitalism produced new modes and ideologies of hereditary transmission of sovereignty and property and theorises a link between ‘primitive accumulation’ and the political form of the royal/princely ‘House’. Third, it centres the role of colonialism – European imperial expansion as well as anti-colonial non-European nationalisms – in globalizing ‘dynasty’ as a category of power. The article concludes on a political and ethical note: a global intellectual history of the invention of ‘dynasty’ ultimately has the polemical aim of denaturalizing, demystifying, and provincializing hierarchy and inequality.