Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Great Divergence

If the transition to modernity was the main spur prodding the early giants of social science to investigate how society works and changes, a secondary and related puzzle was why this transition happened in Europe first (or even exclusively). To this day, Why Europe? – namely, why industrialization, the break-out from Malthusian traps, the breakthrough to parliamentary, law-based polities, and the emergence of science all began in this relatively small, unprepossessing corner of the great Eurasian landmass – remains THE great, framing question of the social sciences.
Kenneth Pomeranz’ The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World (2000) has been one of the most notable attempts in recent decades to take on this challenge. Pomeranz’ strongly revisionist account rejects most of the dominant strands of current thought, which have sought deep historical origins for Europe’s special path. Instead, he proposes that Europe diverged from other great civilizations, notably China, only in the 19th century. Furthermore, this special path was not inevitable, but rooted in historical contingency.
By the 18th century, Europe, China and other leading agrarian civilizations were all fast approaching ecological limits to growth. Crises induced by deforestation, declining soil fertility and related problems threatened to derail the low capital-intensity proto-industrial expansions underway in some places well short of true industrialization. While exactly this happened in China, Europe escaped the same fate thanks to the fortuitous presence of coal deposits near centers of proto-industry and commerce (in China, on the other hand, coal was in the northwest, hundreds of miles from the commercial center in the Yangzi delta) and thanks to the windfall of the vast territories of its colonial empires, above all in the Americas.
The Great Divergence is a terrifically impressive book. Pomeranz has command of vast amounts of literature relating to European, Chinese, and other economic histories. He’s able to summarize and categorize arguments in very helpful ways. I learned a good deal about European economic history and historiography from this China expert! Furthermore, he argues very methodically and empirically, doing his best even when the data support only speculative conclusions. I came away almost convinced that as late as the 18th century, parts of China were as advanced or poised for a breakthrough as the northwestern regions of Europe were (Pomeranz emphasizes the importance of moving away from the scale of “China” or “Europe” and instead focusing on smaller regions within each). I was particularly struck by his argument that economic historians have overemphasized the importance of labor-saving devices while ignoring a problem of at least equal weight, at least before the dawn of scientific chemistry and other technological innovations in the 19th century and the vast improvements in productivity these permitted, namely, the central limiting role of land and physical resources.
Nonetheless, Pomeranz’s argument left out some crucial matters. First, he discusses European colonies and the advantages these conferred as if they were a windfall, a matter of luck, and not something that itself was in need of explanation. In the early 15th century, nearly a century before Columbus, the Chinese sent out fleets that reached as far as East Africa and whose ships dwarfed the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. Yet those expeditions did not lead to a Chinese global empire. Why not? Second, he doesn’t adequately treat the European lead in science, which was evident and growing by 1600 at the latest. There’s a debate about just how important the scientific revolution was to European industrialization, at least before the second half of the nineteenth century. Many scholars have argued that there was little transfer into economically relevant technology before the chemical and electrical industries developed. Floris Cohen, however, a respected historian of science, has argued that the European understanding of the physics behind the vacuum was crucial to the development of the steam engine. Third, Pomeranz’s argument that Europe benefited from the Americas *in the 19th century* runs afoul of timing. By this point, namely, the colonies in North and South America had gained their independence; their former European masters had to trade with them for their raw materials. What was preventing China from doing the same? Finally, and relatedly, once industrialization took off in England, it spread fairly rapidly to other parts of western and central Europe – but then stopped abruptly, as if at a firewall. The Ottoman lands, India, and China didn’t immediately jump on board and try to emulate the Europeans. So, again, we must ask, if China was equal with Europe in so many respects in 1800, what prevented the Chinese from adopting such successful innovations?
The first two critiques of The Great Divergence – about colonialism and science – point in the same direction, toward the critical role of institutions and how societies were organized. Two outstanding works address Europe’s advantages in colonialism and science, respectively, in remarkably similar ways. David Abernethy’s The Dynamics of Global Dominance and Toby Huff’s The Rise of Early Modern Science argue that Europe’s advantage lay in its greater organizational and institutional capacity. Abernethy shows that European states, chartered companies, and Church bodies all contributed, together or singly, depending on circumstances, to a “triple assault” on weaker societies that even the strongest of the other civilizations, built around despotic rulers, extended families, and individual entrepreneurs, could not hope to match. Similarly, Huff points to the semi-autonomy and longevity the corporate structures of European universities granted to intellectual inquiry. In China and Islam, by contrast, scholarship and science depended much more on the support – on the whims – of individual rulers or benefactors. I suspect Europe’s organizational capacity, which was itself rooted, as Huff points out, in the so-called Papal Revolution of the 11th-13th centuries and the concomitant legal revolution, will provide an important element of any successful explanation of Europe’s divergent path.

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