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Book Review

Kenneth Pomeranz and Steven Topik, The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present, Third Edition. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2013. Pp. xiii + 329. $24.95 (paper).

     The reviewer of a book's third edition has two distinct tasks: to introduce the book to those unfamiliar with the previous versions, and to acquaint those who have read the earlier editions (these were published in 1999 and 2005) with what is new and distinctive. It is a pleasure to fulfill the first task for Kenneth Pomeranz and Steven Topik's The World That Trade Created, but one must be more reserved about the second.

     The heart of this book is a series of three-to-five page vignettes directed for a popular audience explaining a very wide range of particular incidents or processes related to trade over the past seven hundred or so years. The point of recounting these varied incidents is to develop three main overall arguments: that "globalization" is nothing new; that a Eurocentric world view is historically inaccurate; and that markets are socially constructed through culture and state action rather than the product of inexorable, rational economic laws. China scholar Pomeranz (who in 2013 is also the president of the American Historical Association) and Latin Americanist Topik compiled this book originally from short columns they wrote in the 1980s and 1990s for a non-academic business magazine, but the individual vignettes range beyond the authors' specialties to cover as well Africa, Europe, South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North America. (Africa probably gets less space than it deserves, and Russia is virtually absent from the book.) Moreover, most of the vignettes emphasize regional or global interaction, and the authors unflinchingly present negative as well as positive consequences of world trade. Karl Marx is clearly a stronger influence than Adam Smith on Pomeranz and Topik's view of trade, and the epilogue to this edition ends with Marx's dictum that philosophers should not only interpret the world but change it. However, the emphasis on the persistence of economic power in non-European areas, on the continuing necessity of economic elites to negotiate power with other groups, on the importance of environmental issues in global trade, and the near-absence of attention to industrial production in Europe give the book a post-Marxist tone.

     The topics of the vignettes range, for example, from the Indian Ocean-centered world economy of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to the role of silkworms and sericulture in Japanese capital accumulation, from the spread of coffee and coffeehouses to the destruction of the Indian textile industry under British rule, and from the messy development of Shanghai as a global city to the connection between the California Gold Rush and Americans' development of sugar plantations in Hawaii.

     Undergraduate or even high school students in world history classes should respond well to the non-academic prose and to the often off-beat topics. When I assigned the first edition to my first-year college students some years ago, most were able to get the point of the processes described more quickly than from descriptions of similar events in a standard textbook. Most vignettes begin with a hook of some sort: a paradox to be resolved, a modern circumstance that can be explained historically, conventional wisdom to be debunked. Each ends with a paragraph clearly driving home the lesson and its significance for understanding the complexities of trade and economic developments. Some textbooks do this, too, but generally over a twenty-to-thirty page chapter, while here every three-to-five page vignette has such a hook and a conclusion. Moreover, Pomeranz and Topik are freer in making judgments on historical incidents or processes than many conventional textbook authors.

     A few examples will suffice to show how Pomeranz and Topik illustrate the paradoxes and complexities of global processes, showing how gains for some people often come at the expense of others, how "modernity" is often dependent upon "archaic" forms, and how most regions of the world have been integral to world trade. I begin my World History II classes with "The Tie That Bound" (pp. 137–139), which shows how modern harvesting with the new reaper-binders on the North American Great Plains in the late 1800s depended on low-cost henequen twine produced by Mayan and Yaqui laborers suffering under slave-like conditions in Mexico. "The bountiful harvests of wheat in North America brought hunger to the Mayas, now stripped of their cornfields," state Pomeranz and Topik. They introduce and end this vignette with the mild chaos theory trope of unexpected and unintended consequences, but also with the more pointed message that the success of independent family farms in the U.S. was inextricably connected to the growth of coerced labor on Mexican plantations – and hence the poignant double entendre of the vignette's title. Many vignettes tell a similar tale of violence and exploitation as the seemingly inevitable midwife of "modernization."

     The story of cochineal – insects harvested from cactus plants which provided the red dye in early modern European fabrics and paintings – provides a different lesson. In this fascinating case sure to pique student interest, Mesoamerican Indians retained control of production and profit, based on their intimate technical knowledge, from the 1500s until the mid-1800s, when German chemists introduced synthetic dyes. So the message is that European empires did not always extinguish local control and expertise, and students glimpse how a colorful commodity (here the double-entendre is mine) was produced in a pre-industrial and yet already global age.

     Exemplifying the authors' theme that modern markets often result from custom and tradition rather than from technical or economic rationality is their story, titled "Survival of the First," of how narrow-gauge railroad tracks won out over seemingly more stable wider track which some innovators sought to introduce. Conversely, the authors show that economic innovation has at times overwhelmed local customs and given rise, for better or worse, to new cultural patterns when they explore the triumph of the metric system over most local systems of weights and measures, or as they delineate the development of time zones from the need to coordinate long-distance railroad schedules.

     Many vignettes, such as the explanation of how the gold standard won over silver coinage in the international economy by the late 1800s, have a clear presentist focus. In a thinly veiled critique of gold purists such as perennial U.S. presidential candidate Ron Paul, Pomeranz and Topik show that the gold standard by no means represented the workings of "the invisible hand of the market" but the intervention of interlocking forces of bankers and governments. The various connections to the present make the book more useful in introductory classes, as they show students the relevance of history to challenging current topics.

     Pomeranz and Topik group their vignettes loosely in seven chapters: "The Making of Market Conventions," "The Tactics of Transport," "The Economic Culture of Drugs," "Transplanting: Commodities in World Trade," "The Economics of Violence," "Making Modern Markets," and "World Trade, Industrialization, and Deindustrialization." The distinctions between chapters are somewhat helpful but often arbitrary: drugs such as sugar and opium are also globally-traded commodities, of course, and their production and trade are rooted historically in violence. One vignette on chocolate is in the drugs chapter and another in the commodities chapter; this latter vignette, which discusses forced labor on contemporary West African farms, could just as easily land in the "violence" or "modern markets" chapters. (Indeed, the authors' introduction to chapter two on transport refers frequently to vignettes in other chapters.) The juxtaposition of vignettes within chapters can be confusing to students, as they tend not to adhere to any clear pattern of topic, region, or time period, although in general the latter two chapters include more vignettes examining twentieth and twentieth-first century developments than earlier chapters. The book's organization also challenges professors setting up course syllabi, as vignettes for any particular day's topic may need to be drawn from widely dispersed parts of the book.

     Despite these inconveniences, professors in world history classes can profitably use The World That Trade Created, as I have, to reinforce concepts covered in lecture or in standard textbooks, as a source for lecture material or for student presentations, or for student papers analyzing one or another course theme. There is no need to have students read the book cover to cover, and everyone – students and professors alike – will find some of the vignettes more stimulating than others.

     So, as a fan of the book that Pomeranz and Topik have created, why am I less than enthusiastic about its latest edition? The main reasons are that the changes in the vignettes are quite minimal and that some of the new vignettes are not as engagingly written as older ones. I also suspect that the main rationale for a new edition is that the publishers are trying to get the used books out of circulation from the course adoption market: profitability rather than scholarship or pedagogy probably dictated the release of this third edition.

     The epilogue, added for the first time in the second edition, has been updated to discuss the causes and impact of the current Great Recession—a useful improvement. The epilogue as a whole carefully analyses globalization today based on the lessons of history deduced from this book, arguing, for example, that the market has not overwhelmed transnational civil society and that globalization is not and has never been a one-way process of Westernization or Americanization. It is a smart essay, but it is also written on a much higher level than the vignettes, and most students—certainly at an institution such as mine—will either ignore or have difficulty understanding the insights presented.

     Maps and other graphic images have been added to illustrate some of the vignettes and processes discussed. While some are welcome, such as the drawings of factory-like sugar mills and a contemporary caricature of an eighteenth century European coffeehouse, several maps are virtually indecipherable (and three out of the five maps included depict the Indian Ocean basin, for some reason) and several of the graphics already appear in standard textbooks.

     Of the vignettes, Pomeranz and Topik have made very few changes. Of thirty-two vignettes in the first three chapters in this third edition, only three had not appeared in the first edition. Indeed, the main changes in these chapters are the elimination of two excellent vignettes by a third author, Will Swaim, on the tobacco trade and on the Opium War. In the chapter with the most changes from the first edition, "Making Modern Markets," eight of the original thirteen vignettes remain, one has been reworked, and six new ones have been added—but all but two of the new vignettes had already been added in the second edition. As compared to the second edition, there is only one new entry in the third edition in the "violence" chapter, and only two in the last chapter.

     Going beyond raw numbers to substance, the main trend among new vignettes is that more of them cover twentieth century (and later) financial and marketing innovations, or manipulation. (The second edition had added most notably two vignettes on oil production, and one each on nineteenth century indentured labor, on rubber, and on the deadly trade in ivory.) With shady banking practices having contributed mightily to the 2007–08 Great Recession, vignettes on the Rothschilds as global bankers, on modern "sovereign debt," and on Andorra and Panama as off-shore tax havens should be welcome, along with an examination of how well-intentioned American "fair trade" laws ironically helped lead to the decline of much American manufacturing and the rise of Walmart. Students should welcome some of the newer vignettes (rubber, ivory, and off-shore tax havens), but may have trouble with the more technical financial ones (Rothschilds, "sovereign debt"). A new vignette on Ethiopia's "successful" resistance to imperialism, which argues that it led to a kind of internal colonialism not much better than the European variety, usefully challenges the standard narrative, while the one on indentured labor on post-slavery sugar plantations is an excellent idea not fully developed.

     Finally, a revised edition should by all means eliminate previous errors. Pomeranz and Topik, however, shockingly fail to correct an important error in their introduction. Through three editions now they erroneously state (p. xii here) that chapter two describes "violence in capital accumulation" and chapter five transportation (it is, in fact, the reverse). The authors also retain in that same introductory paragraph a reference to tobacco, although the vignette on tobacco has been excised.

     The World That Trade Created is by no means the only book geared to the course adoption market that has gone into revised editions featuring minor changes and bypassing the chance for real improvement. At least this one is still relatively affordable at list price, unlike many textbooks. But as one who has used this book in class with great success, and who still highly recommends its innovative approach as a supplementary world history text, I regret that I cannot conclude that the third edition represents a substantive improvement over the two previous editions.

Robert Shaffer is professor of history at Shippensburg University, where he also teaches social studies education. His research focuses on U.S.-Asia relations in the mid-20th century. He can be reached at

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