The Anglosphere and the Economic Historians

[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]

The success of Europe, and especially the Anglosphere, in the last few centuries has kept historians busy, pondering just why and when the Europeans made such an impact on the world.

Not surprisingly, the theories of causality often mirror their times. Way back when, European success was seen as religious and cultural vindication. Later, it was seen as a genetic or perhaps geographic predisposition. At the dawn of the 20th century, as non-Europeans and radical philosophers got an opportunity to make suggestions, earlier “gifts” were turned on their heads and proclaimed as intrinsic “evils.” Thus Europeans, and by extension, the Anglosphere, were successful specifically because they were monstrous in comparison to other human beings — more cruel, more greedy, more lacking in humanity (specializing in anarchy, greed, and heresy … to quote one witty reviewer). European destruction was therefore a solemn obligation and no doubt ordained by higher powers, real soon now.

As the wheels of history ground on during the 20th century, and people (both European and non-European) had a chance to ride the hobbyhorses of fascism, communism (and perhaps socialism) into political and economic oblivion, a more intellectually useful historical theory was needed. Europe and the Anglosphere was showing a distressing tendency toward further prosperity. The intellectual solution, particularly with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and orthodox communism in China, was to claim that the entire question of European success was based on a false premise. The truth was … Europe was never the centre of anything much. And if it was, it was only a relatively recent event that is passing quickly now from the historical stage. Eurocentrism was therefore obscuring both the global achievements of other peoples and cultures and its own transitory significance.

In a nutshell, three views of Europe: (1) Good, (2) Bad, or (3) Indifferent.

This latter school of thought, digging into the details of global economic history of the last 1,000 years, proposes that the Europeans were a rather minor blip on the world stage (and not at all superior to other folks on any score at all) til roughly 1800. Now, with the resurgence of mainland China especially, history is merely getting back on track. Europe wasn’t unusual nor did it require any unique historical explanations. It was merely lucky, and when it wasn’t lucky it simply rode the coat-tails of its betters into prominence.

The initial strength of this school, it seems to me, was its useful corrective to the Europe-only attitude of earlier scholarship and the one-size-fits-all developmental trajectories which have been offered to the world. Economic development is not an intrinsically European pattern. Lots of sophisticated large-scale economic activity was underway outside of Europe before 1800. Brilliance, industriousness, and complexity were not European monopolies. And it’s worth becoming familiar with the specific details: the things which counted towards the creation of the world economy without Europe’s input (the pre-1500 AD demand for silver in China, for example).

Fortunately for people interested in the history of the Anglosphere, enthusiastic efforts to explain why Europeans aren’t special (let alone humane) can also reveal many important patterns in world history through which Anglosphere values and advantages were ultimately expressed. Thus this third school of world history, compromised though it may occasionally be by the need to denigrate “whitey,” or to bootlick current Chinese sensitivities in the service of greater academic glory, offers valuable information. Global economic history may be a feeble base for proposing extra-European superiority but it is a fascinating tale all on its own.

In a 2003 paperback epilogue to the Savage Wars of Peace (1997), Alan Macfarlane had a chance to address the limitations of the new chance-and-brief-anomaly theory of European development. I found his brief essay fascinating and it led me on several weeks of a profitable reading detour. We may hope in coming years that he expands his comments into a more substantial work but for the moment some of the titles which he cited in 2003 are definitely worth reading or, as I did, skimming:

David Landes, Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1999) … is a sizeable lap-brick, well written and a very good overview of world history from a European perspective. I can’t do it justice in a quick review but fortunately its wide popularity after publication means that there are many good reviews on the Internet: for example here and Jim Bennett’s brief comments on Landes here.

Landes writes from a more traditional historical perspective and thus parses Leftist and Third World historical perspectives with some skepticism. Politically incorrect and often a bit tangential, he is scathing of the view that Europe had not significantly diverged in nature from Asia before 1800. In this, he parallels research by others such as Crosby (Measure of Reality, 1997) and Macfarlane (various titles) who note substantial technological and cultural advantages in Europe reaching back to the medieval period. Landes is particularly scathing on the Joseph Needham initiative to breathe historical significance into earlier Chinese technological discovery. Landes can be profitably read in tandem with Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) which is strong on pre- and early world history but very weak on the modern era. Landes’ more traditional (“Euro-centric”) take on world history places him as a central figure in recent “big picture” economic history but in contention with the “Indifferent” school of history because he won’t stop claiming something unique for European culture.

Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2001) This book offers an excellent summary of corrective economic history describing dynamic economies outside Europe. Pomeranz makes the case in contrast to Landes. While Macfarlane takes Pomeranz to task because Japan wasn’t distinguished from China, nor was England distinguished from different parts of Europe, there is a great deal in the Great Divergence worth knowing. Pomeranz’s main hypothesis is that the underindustrialized colonies of Europe (some freehold, some slave) were the practical basis for proto-industrialization in Europe. Convenient location of Britain’s coal fields near textile production areas allowed that country to successfully jumpstart its manufacturing and industrial revolution … still using the captive overseas markets (“periphery”) to swap food and raw materials for manufactured goods from the “core”. Where British could crush overseas proto-industrialization (textile manufacturing in India), it did so. Where it couldn’t sufficiently capitalize trade (e.g., tea from China), it would use all means fair or foul to break the market (opium/gunpowder) to avoid decapitalization. Where it couldn’t control the market (e.g., a competing “core” in the US), it either bypassed it (creating peripheries in Australia, NZ, Canada) or participated in foreign industrialization through investment. By accelerating its industrial economy far beyond what its landmass and population would classically support, England leveraged its overseas “invisible acres” and energy sources in ways which other nations around the world could not match, at least in the first 2/3s of the 19th century. Reading Pomeranz, I felt Macfarlane’s essay criticisms were generally correct but seemed to display a rather superficial reading of The Great Divergence. I would recommend careful reading of Pomeranz to anyone who wants to get a good handle on global economic patterns for the last half-millenium or so. Economic historians understandably want to find dominant economic reasons for historical process. From time to time, they’re actually adding quite a bit of insight. Pomeranz keeps an even keel in his writing style and is a very useful first stop, unlike …

Andre Gunder Frank, ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (1998) Pomeranz draws much inspiration from AG Frank’s substantial body of work which corrected the lopsided Eurocentric view of the world economy of earlier scholars. Frank’s book is particularly useful in learning about the global trade in precious metals which has drawn gold and silver relentlessly eastward since the time of the Romans. Frank’s politics are worn much more on his sleeve. That may rub some readers the wrong way but again, discovering the practical details of global trade make it worth getting a copy of this book. There is much grim history to work through and European infliction of suffering (slavery, disease, monopolies, etc.) are giving a thorough airing but fortunately there is enough economic meat amidst the finger-pointing to justify reading. Endnotes and citations are also worthwhile starting points for interesting economic tangents. Frank is more open also about his enthusiasm for extrapolating from a “corrected” global history to a time when Europe won’t matter much; a cheerleader for the time when the Throne of Heaven in Beijing can again ignore and insult the barbarians with impunity. But if the carrot of honorary victimhood is the perk we must offer to scholars such as Frank, so be it. The nuts and bolts of who traded what, where, for how much, are still important.

C.A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World (1780-1914) [2004] Part of the new Blackwell History of the World series, this book is another lap-brick in the Landes mould, but focused this time on the “long century” which saw Europe’s industrialization and the response of the rest of the world to the changes thus triggered. Bayly is fully aware of the economic historians’ globalization of perspective and uses it to good advantage to show how responses or resistance to “modernity” were entirely consistent with the economies and values in place. He also demonstrates how the roots of modern tensions over industrialization and westernization were fully understood by Third World scholars very early in the 19th century. Bayly is honest about the different academic viewpoints about whether “modernity” actually has any intrinsic meaning … to most of the world, the hybridization of physical and mental objects over the last few centuries is what it is … Life … not “modernity.” In his introductory material Bayly identifies three challenges in writing his history … (1) that the search for “prime movers” (especially economic) may be a chimera, (2) that some scholars believe grand narrative itself obscures reality to the detriment of history of the “fragment” and finally (3) the convictions of scholars such as Gellner, Macfarlane, and Landes that there really is “riddle of the modern” is by no means universally accepted. Bayly’s book must therefore be read as a large and very erudite tiptoe through the theoretical minefields, focused more on the specifics of the period. I got Bayly out from the local university library on a two-week loan and could only make a modest dent in its 500+ pages. For a globalized general history of the era however, it appears to be a great starting point.

The books listed above all deserve reviews of their own however I feel they are beyond my talents and time to adequately cover. I can recommend all of them with caveats on Frank for those with allergic sensitivities to Leftish sentiment. At a broader level, I was very inspired by a few weeks reading through the global economic history of the last half millennium. Any or all these volumes could be profitably be added to your library (especially if bought used) if you anticipate needing to know more about the global economic setting in which the early Anglosphere operated.

1 thought on “The Anglosphere and the Economic Historians”

  1. I’ve been mulling this article over for a few days and I would like to make a few points.

    The debate over European exceptionalism is an ongoing fuss based on whether or not one adopts the current deconstructive, race/gender emphasis when examining historical development, or whether that position is rejected, and the historical record is dealt with absent such an all encompassing ideological prism.

    If judged consequentially, the legacy of various cultures can be separated out. The English based societies seem to have done fairly well. The French based seem to have fallen victim to some dubious political ideologies. The Belgian and Dutch histories are mixed. The Spanish is much like the French—a legacy of authoritarian and unstable states.

    Secondarily, the affect of Europe on the world in the modern era, as in the 19th and 20th centuries, is unfortunate, to say the least.

    Imperialism, the horrendous waste and slaughter of 2 world wars, the gruesome philosophical/ideological nonsense which gave birth to fascism, communism, and socialism, and the cultural arrogance to inculcate these corrosive ideas into numerous other societies around the world, are a venomous inheritence to leave the rest of the world as Europe itself succumbs to the effects of these very same poisons by fading into irrelevence and impotence.

    Finally, the motivating forces behind European dynamism in the exploratory and imperial phases were many and varied, but there seem to me to be two which stand out.

    Empiricism and legalism are characteristics of European/Western culture which seem exceptional when compared with the rest of the world’s cultures.

    Western thought has avoided the straightjacket of the “taboo” frame of mind. Even as it was always lurking in various aspects of the culture, the most pernicious effects were avoided or circumvented by the continual fragmentation and cultural differentiation in European history, and especially in its more anarchical spread around the globe.

    The search for something that worked, and gave the discoverers an edge over their competitors, was an enormous advantage when confronting traditional cultures which rejected new ways of doing things out of hand because it was not part of the established method of operating.

    This is most clearly seen in the Japanese experience. A closed society which utterly rejected non-traditional, alien ideas and technology, it was finally forced to open to modern ideas, and then, when their traditional militarism led them to disaster, adopt several major cultural and societal structures which were totally foriegn in derivation.

    Distilled in this experience is an allegory of what is happening now in much of the non-western world. Cultures which never could, or would, have developed modern industrial/technological societies and enjoyed the resultant economic, medical, agricultural, scientific advantages, now want the advantages without the corrosive effects of modern western unstructured social mores that so often go along with these things, especially when the American model is involved.

    This brings us to the second aspect—legalism.

    Most cultures have been based on men, not laws. The transition to a system of transparent, even-handed, non-tribal legalistic methods is very difficult, even for societies which want to be more western and open to development, much less for those determined to remain closed and controlled.

    Japan’s banking collapse, the problems experienced in transition by the Russians and Chinese, and the outright hostility of the various Islamic societies, are reactions to the idea that people should be treated with a reasonalbe equality before the law, and that legal/commercial procedures should be transparent and accessible.

    I have written on this subject before many times. The reason Western culture is so feared and even hated by many around the world is not that it is evil, but that it is so threatening to the traditional ways that so many people and societies rely on to provide a familiar landscape within which to operate.

    Western, especially American, cultural norms displace the importance of family ties, tribal loyalties, traditional jobs and methods of performing work, skills that have been important for centuries are suddenly meaningless, powerful and comfortable relationships become unimportant, religious leaders no longer determine what should or should not be permitted.

    Commercial culture is hated becasue nothing is sacred, nothing is hidden, nothing is reserved only for the elite, and the successful have more than the unsuccessful, even if those unsuccessful used to be very important people once upon a time when one’s family name or caste were more important than talent or hard work.

    We are now replaying the development of industrial, scientific culture in Europe on a world wide scale. Societies that had spent thousands of years farming small plots and herding animals are confronted with factories, universities, ideas, religions, and cultural norms which undermine everything they once knew and counted on to make sense of the universe.

    Europe killed millions uncounted trying to figure out how to deal with such a revolutionary changes in mens’ relationships with each other and nature, and god. It is not surprising a similar confused, violent struggle is taking place around the world as this upheaval spreads to every part of the Earth.

    European culture has been yeast in the world’s dough for several centuries. The little germs causing all the bubbles are empirical science as a mode of thought, and a legalistic social structure within which to operate societies’ major functions.

    The American engine is now pulling most of the world into the 21st century, whether they want to go there or not. My children, and theirs, will live in interesting times, as have we all. How could it be any other way?

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