Peer Vries, the Great Divergence, and the California School: Who's In and Who's Out?
World history teachers seeking to keep up with the highly charged, richly
detailed, and fast-paced debate on the question why western Europe/Britain,
rather than China, was the first culture to undergo an industrial revolution,
may want to consult Peer Vries's carefully researched book, Via Peking
back to Manchester: Britain, the Industrial Revolution, and China.1
Vries, professor of history at the University of Leiden, tries to answer
this question in a way that allows students to see both sides of the debate
right away. From the time Vries joined this debate in the late 1990s, he
has shown a willingness to accommodate recent reassessments of our global
economic past without discarding received historiography and economic theory.
He has certainly kept away from both the polemical excesses of Andre Gunder
Frank, who boldly proclaimed that an accidental contraction in the Asian
market in the late 1700s gave Europe the chance to overcome its marginal
position in the world economy, and David Landes, who defiantly insisted
that western Europe was the driving cultural force in the world as long
ago as the year 1000 CE.2
Although Vries concludes, after measured consideration of all the salient
points and after synthesizing much of the recent literature, that "by the
eighteenth century it [Britain] had become both technologically and scientifically
a much more dynamic society than China," he takes very seriously, and indeed
expands upon, many well-known theses associated with R. Bin Wong, Kenneth
Pomeranz, Andre Gunder Frank, and Jack Goldstone.3
He accepts, though he is not always in full agreement,
the following claims: 1) Qing China was not a poor and static society but
enjoyed a standard of living that was comparable to Europe's right through
the early 1800s; 2) Chinese markets were both "much larger" and "closer
to Smith's model of perfect competition than markets in Britain" (22); 3)
China's foreign trade was "immense" (27); 4) far from being "despotic,"
the Chinese Qing state was even less intrusive than Britain's: not only
was the Chinese army "comparatively small," but Britain had "more than 30
times as many public servants per head of the population," plus Chinese
taxes seem to have been lower (8, 28-29); 5) China in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, in terms of social mobility, "was just as much, or
if you prefer, just as little, an 'open society' as Britain was;" 6) Weber
was wrong: Chinese "rationality, work ethos, business acumen, and love of
profit" (35) were just as vivid as in Britain; 7) as late as the end of
the eighteenth century, "China's agriculture per hectare still was much
more productive than Britain's agriculture [...] in terms of productivity
per labourer the differences between both countries or their core regions
were minimal" (39).
|After considering all these points, however, Vries draws the very important, if not always well appreciated, distinction between showing, on the one hand, that China's living standards and overall productivity were comparable to Britain's, and showing, on the other, that China's economy was moving away from the Malthusian limitations of the old regime, and was just as ready to industrialize (19). Vries stresses above all else the fact that "somewhere between 1500 and 1700" (41) Britain had become a more dynamic society when it came to making mechanical instruments and when it came to cultivating a scientific culture that would eventually make possible the 'first industrial revolution.' He defines this industrial revolution as a process of continuous technological changes that started in the eighteenth century and would eventually create a new type of economy based on new sources of energy, raw materials, and tools. He contrasts this experience to China's and concludes there was no indication that China was having an industrial revolution, not even in the mid-nineteenth century.||3|
|Vries's emphasis on the scientific-practical culture of England—the engineers, craftsmen, and entrepreneurs who specialized in applying the Newtonian science into machines useful for production—is a view also proposed by Margaret Jacob and Joel Mokyr.4 It is also a view adopted by Goldstone, who otherwise places himself squarely within the 'California School' of Wong, Frank, Lee and Feng, and Pomeranz, and agrees with them that the "great divergence" only begins in the nineteenth century.5 One may thus ponder at this point what makes Vries different from Goldstone. I think there are substantial differences, despite their additional agreement that New World products and abundant deposits of coal in Britain were not, on their own, the specific factors which led to the great divergence; and indeed despite the fact that Vries even accepts the California-school argument that some agricultural regions of China continued to enjoy, right through the eighteenth century, improvements in labor productivity, rather than just increases in land productivity (output per unit of land). He argues that even in the early 1800s the differences between Chinese and British agricultural productivity were minimal.6||4|
If students are going to make rational sense of
this sometimes confusing debate, they must learn to draw fine distinctions
between the various contending positions. The key remaining difference between
Vries and Goldstone (and all of the California-school writers) is that Vries,
in my view, does not relegate to historical accident the undeniable divergence
in economic prosperity between England and the most advanced regions of
China in the nineteenth century. Goldstone thinks that only after about
1830 England began to follow a new path of growth, because only then England
saw the widespread application of steam power and self-sustaining increases
in agricultural productivity and per capita income. Before that date both
countries were still pre-industrial economies following a similar path of
diminishing returns and rising prices. Goldstone is thus unwilling to recognize
something new behind the "efflorescence" of eighteenth-century England that
could not be found in Qing China. If anything, he thinks China's "efflorescence"
was more impressive: look at the "unprecedented" gain of nearly 200 million
people between 1700 and 1800, all supported by increases in land and in
labor productivity. This was an "extraordinary achievement," which should
no longer be neglected, in the way other scholars have done, when they unceremoniously
argued that Qing China "merely" experienced "extensive" or "involutionary"
growth, which is a type of expansion where increases in total output and
population are achieved without innovations and without increases in labor
Much as Vries listens to all these points with a
curious mind; what places him outside the 'California School,' and inside
the 'Eurocentric' group, is his determination to trace the long-term causes
of the first industrial revolution within British society, and to explain
the long-term factors within traditional China that, from the 1800s onwards,
created the indisputable crises of overpopulation, recurrent famines, political
breakdown, semi-colonial status, ecological deterioration, and widespread
impoverishment so visible by 1850s—all in stark contrast to the British
'miracle.' Vries does not equivocate when he says there were no signs "whatsoever"
in China that a major technological breakthrough was on the horizon that
would make possible a new type of modern growth.
By not losing sight of this obvious and very dramatic
difference in the last phases of the pre-industrial economies of these two
countries, Vries digs out of the secondary literature quite a number of
significant contrasts not always well appreciated by the Californians. Vries
correctly reminds us that, if a capitalist economy without modern science
and steam technologies does not by itself evolve into an industrial economy
which escapes traditional Malthusian limits, it is still the case that 'capitalism'
was far more advanced in modern England than in China. This was true even
though markets tended to be closer in China to the ideal of free or open
competition. What Vries has in mind by the term 'capitalism' is what Fernand
Braudel (and Immanuel Wallerstein) have said about it: capitalism is a system
in which buyers and sellers do not play by the rules of open competition,
but instead use manipulation, state intervention, and political/military
coercion, both inside their national markets and particularly in their contacts
with the peripheries and semi-peripheries of the world (5-7, 34). This 'capitalism'
was more advanced in Britain, and in western Europe, than in China.
If this conception of European capitalism makes
Vries still look like a member of the California School rather than a critic,
consider his rejection of the common idea, recently re-emphasized by Pomeranz,
that the British economy achieved its prosperity thanks to the acquisition
of American resources.8 Not only were the economic disadvantages
from the mercantile system as important as the advantages, but it was Britain
itself, through its own policies and innovations, that achieved a position
of comparative trade advantage as an exporter of manufactures and importer
of raw materials. Indeed, when Vries states that capitalism is not an 'economy'
but a 'political economy,' he wants to emphasize as well the role the British
state played—military, administrative, cultural—in the promotion
of economic supremacy. What Britain had, but China lacked, was a strong,
actively involved state that protected the propertied classes, supported
entrepreneurs, and directed ample resources for industrialisation. If in
the eighteenth century the British government had the highest taxes in Europe,
and these taxes were generally regressive, and had the greatest number of
civil servants in western Europe, it was because this government—in
the context of a highly competitive inter-state system within Europe where
warfare was the norm—was determined to achieve international hegemony.
It is not that Vries sees obvious economic gains
flowing from Britain's participation in the European international order.
It is that he sees a modern British state, a modern financial system, a
national bank, a transparent and trustworthy legal system, a truly professional
class of civil servants, and a private and a public infrastructure of buildings,
roads, and canals—all very different from a Qing Chinese state still
administered by a class of civil servants educated in ancient literary works
and largely preoccupied with preserving the traditional economic and social
Vries also sees a British state which, on the eve
of industrialization, began to ease restrictions on markets. The fact is
that, although Chinese markets were closer to the model of perfect competition,
and up to 92 per cent of registered land was held by private owners (20),
he believes that "in Britain internal markets for capital goods, labour,
and money functioned somewhat better and more according to strict economic
logic than markets in China" (23). He actually follows Robert Brenner and
Chris Isett in their critique of Pomeranz to argue that agrarian class relations
in England were far more capitalistic than in China. He draws a clear contrast
between the predominance of small-scale and family-oriented agricultural
production in China, and the predominance of capitalist, large-scale farms
in England, all run with wage labor, at the end of the eighteenth century
farms in China were in fact "decreasing rather than increasing in size"
(24). Thus, while Vries agrees with the California-school that, at the end
of the eighteenth century, output per unit of land was still higher in China,
and that differences in labor productivity between both countries were still
minimal, he endorses Huang's thesis that China "was heading for involution."
Involution is a situation in which peasant families manage to expand total
output but at the expense of more work per each additional unit of output.
This is the experience Huang observed in the Qing era in the core economic
region of the Yangzi Delta. The marginal returns per each extra input of
labor were decreasing. While peasant households were able to meet their
consumption needs, and even increase the total annual income of the family—by
increasing the labor inputs of children, women, and grandparents—the
marginal returns per workday were declining.10 Improvements in agriculture were labor-absorbing
rather than labor-saving, and there were no indications of a transition
from a pre-industrial and pre-scientific mode of agriculture to a modern
one. Meanwhile, England's capitalist agriculture saw more or less steady
increases in land and labor productivity right into the nineteenth century—just
when modern science was ready to be marshalled for agricultural use.
This is my sympathetic, distilled version of Vries's
intricate arguments. But I am less consonant than he is to the general tenor,
ultimate conclusions, and historical philosophy of the California School.
First of all, I think Vries tends to confound Goldstone's self-described
'cultural' explanation of the British industrial revolution with Jacob's
(and Mokyr's) own approach. If Goldstone writes that eighteenth century
England avoided a similar Malthusian decline as Qing China because it alone
among European countries cultivated, from the 1660s onwards, "a peculiar
engine-based scientific culture," he is equally clear that eighteenth century
England was "undergoing a similar macro-economic pattern as Qing China"
and that only after 1830 did it manage "to avoid such a decline" and achieve
self-sustaining growth. His point is precisely that before 1830 England
was following a parallel pattern of political, demographic, commercial,
urban, agricultural and even industrial growth as Qing China.11 To some degree Goldstone negates the historical significance
of this engine culture when he insists that it only flourished in England
due to a series of "highly contingent circumstances" which led to the liberal
revolution of 1688 and created a more open society, in contrast to the anti-Newtonian,
pro-Cartesian Catholic "reaction" which otherwise swept much of continental
Europe and kept it in a state of industrial backwardness.12
This is not the place to challenge this adventitious
explanation, and wonder how it was that England, after following a similar
pattern of economic development as China, managed somehow to create a new
type of growth after 1830. But it is this emphasis on contingency that places
Goldstone right inside the California School, together with Pomeranz and
Wong and their talk about England's "geographical good luck," together with
Frank and his polemic about Europe's temporary cyclical rise, and together
with James Blaut and his remark about Europe's industrialization thanks
to the fortunate "Atlantic wind systems" making possible the colonization
of the Americas.13 On the other hand, Jacob's erudite work, Scientific
Culture and the Making of the Industrial West, looks at the long-term
gestation of the scientific, enlightened culture of Europe. She never
says, as Goldstone seems to imply, that experimental physics and Newtonian
science were "halted" in Continental Europe in the late seventeenth and
early eighteenth centuries. She says the timing of this engine culture
varied from country to country in western Europe, and that by the 1720s
the Baconian ideal of applied mechanical knowledge was "more visible in
Britain than anywhere else in the West." Absolutism and the power of the
Catholic clergy over education in France and Belgium "inhibited" but did
"not stop" the introduction of new machines for industrialization. By 1800
the mechanical culture which England had so successfully originated was
well under way in most of north-western Europe.14
|Neither does Jacob portray modern European science as just another variant within a common tradition of "Eurasian natural inquiries," as Goldstone puts it. She writes that the "scientific legacy of Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, and especially Boyle and Newton"—as popularized and cultivated within English society—"helped to make the concrete applications of [steam] power possible." In addition, she explicitly states that she wants "to debunk the myth about how important inventions in the early stages of industrial revolution had nothing to do [with the Scientific Revolution]."15 The key figure of industrial Britain, she explains, was not a semiliterate tinkerer; it was men (and women) who "knew machines from having built them, or from having closely examined them, and knew that machines worked best when they took into account mechanical principles learned from basic theories in mechanics, hydrostatics, and dynamics."16 She would thus not welcome Goldstone's suggestion that the engine culture of Britain could have been as easily adopted and integrated by other cultures in the world given another set of random circumstances. Britain's engine culture was not a lucky, unforeseen accident; it was an ethos, a mentality, an outlook on life which had been brewing for a long time right across Europe, and by the eighteenth century had spread and penetrated deeply into British civil society, the schools and textbooks, the academies and journals, the coffee houses and printer's shops.||13|
When Jacob says that "no single event in the history
of early modern Europe altered the fortunes of new science more profoundly
than the English Revolution," she means to re-assert—against economists
who think that humans are singularly motivated by the location and prices
of resources and factors of production—the "extraordinary link" between
the scientific spirit of reform and utilitarian improvement, and the Puritans'
millenarian vision of spiritual redemption, hard work and worldly reform.17 The conduct of British machinists and entrepreneurs
in the eighteenth century, their inventiveness and their ethos of self-improvement,
were not the creation of political events or economic conditions. They were
authentic values infused with a religious zeal and a spirit of conviction.
The "engine science" Goldstone sees in England resembles the science of
our own time—the flat, disenchanted science Weber foresaw in the future,
"where the fulfilment of the calling cannot directly be related to the highest
spiritual and cultural values, [where] the pursuit of wealth, stripped of
its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely
mundane passions."18 The ethos Jacob finds in England, and observes in detail
in the Watts family as early as 1690, is a Calvinist commitment to undertake
rational, arduous tasks, "disciplined labor, and self-examination within
a universe framed by piety and science."19
It was not that Calvinism as such brought modern
science to industry. Jacob knows too well the strong links Britain's steam
engine culture had with the seventeenth century Baconian vision that science
could be made useful to ordinary people, rather than remaining a monopoly
of the "supercilious arrogance" of scholastic culture. Indeed, this had
already been demonstrated by the world of the European Renaissance, by shipbuilding
and the voyages of exploration, by cartography and the science of geography,
by the use of perspective in painting, by the spread of printing presses
and the rise of a new lay intelligentsia, and by the cultivation of a science
of ballistics and a technology of cannon-making. But Jacob wants to remind
us—in a scholarly tradition that goes back to Weber and to Robert
Merton's classic work of the 1930s, Science, Technology and Society in
Seventeenth Century England—how Puritanism, more than any other
religious current within Christianity, endowed scientific knowledge with
millenarian importance. This religious-utilitarian ethos, preached by Quakers
and liberal Anglicans, cannot be ignored in our efforts to understand why
it was in Britain where the first successful application of modern science
This is not to say, as Mokyr clarifies, that Britain
had more theoretical science than continental Europe. Rather, its advantage
was in the fusion of theoretical and applied-industrial science. The continental
countries, however, were not far behind. Newtonian mechanics was a necessary
precondition of the development of working steam machines. There was a positive
feedback relation running from scientific understanding to technological
improvements in the development of Newcomen's engine. The theoretical-technological
elements that made possible Watt's solution to the problem of rotary motion—the
principles underlying the suction pump, the nature of a vacuum, the theory
of atmospheric pressure, the first workable airtight cylinder and piston
driven by atmospheric pressure, the understanding of the nature of steam
and the realization that air and steam were different—were the joint
achievement of Europeans. The question "Why in Britain?" inevitably leads
to the question "Why modern science arose only in Europe and not in the
civilizations of Islam and China?"20
|I also think Vries oversteps the mark, and borders into California territory, when he "fully endorse[s] Braudel's thesis that Western capitalism could flourish because Western society in a certain sense was less open and less socially mobile than various other civilizations, including the Chinese" (34). This is less a "thesis" advocated by Braudel than an argument penned by someone named Karl Marx, when he attested that "those moments when great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled as free and 'unattached' proletarians on the labour market" play the great part in the origins and structure of capitalist society.21 It is an argument which members of the California-school have in fact endorsed, and also attributed to Braudel, but most particularly to Wallerstein and his emphasis on Marx's other argument that colonialism, slavery, and exploitation of colonies in the Americas is a primary explanation for the rise of the West.22 If there is one area to which Pomeranz concedes that Europe may have had a "genuine advantage," and which "probably made its greatest contribution to European economic growth," it was those "features of Braudelian 'capitalism' (big firms which use coercion and manipulation) which he thinks helped Europe in the exploitation of New World resources.23||17|
I know Braudel used the word 'capitalism' to denote
those monopolistic arrangements and coercive powers enjoyed by big companies.24 But he hardly embraced the Marxist
reduction of Western civil society to the economic infrastructure of society.
He directly criticized Wallerstein "for letting the lines of his model get
in the way of observing realities other than the economic order."25
There were numerous intellectual realities about the West, and the 'rise
of the West,' that Braudel cherished. In A History of Civilizations,
originally published in 1963 in France as part of Le Monde actuel:
Historie et civilisations, he wrote: "the contrast between Europe and
non-Europe is fundamental." While Braudel saw the history of civilizations
as "the history of continual and mutual borrowing over many centuries,"
he believed that every civilization was "very different." This difference
came out of different "material and biological conditions [which] always
help determine the destiny of civilizations," and out of different cultural
origins and different geographical links to the world. He knew early Medieval
Europe was a young, less advanced civilization which inherited much from
the ancient Mediterranean and learned much from Islam, India and China.
It was in the sixteenth century that he saw Europe staking out a position
in the global economy. But he did not shy away from tracing the cultural
origins of this civilization in Ancient Greek "rationalism," and did believe
that the growth of private liberties in the medieval era was "one of the
secrets" of Europe's progress: from the development of towns "marked by
unparalleled freedom," through franchises or corporate privileges enjoyed
by manors, peasants, universities, and representative bodies which could
regulate their own affairs independently of the state. If some of these
liberties lacked a firm legal basis, and were themselves the bastion of
privileges against "this or that group of people," they were strong enough
to be secured within the emerging monarchical states of the early modern
era, and to form the basis for the "intellectual ferment" of the Renaissance
which "preached respect for the greatness of the human being as an individual,"
and of the Reformation which "laid the bases for freedom of conscience,"
through the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man which stated that all
Frenchmen were citizens with equal liberties, to the revolutions of 1848
which established the principle of universal suffrage.26
What is all the more intriguing regarding Vries's
contention that "social mobility was as much or even more common in China
as it was in Britain (58), is his recognition that "Britain was a place
with a strongly developed civil society" (10). I can appreciate that Vries
may be trying to make the point that although Britons enjoyed a more vibrant
civil society wherein different private associations and corporate groups,
including a Parliament, stood between the individual and the state, ordinary
British citizens were no more able, and perhaps even less so, than ordinary
Chinese people to climb up the social ladder. But what troubles me is the
way Vries, in explaining Britain 's lack of social mobility, gives a reductive
and ultimately distorted view of British bourgeois or civil society, as
if it were primarily characterized by "privilege, protection, exclusion,
hierarchy and manipulation" (34)—all in contrast to a Chinese society
long successful "in absorbing new blood into its elite" (34), a society
where there were "far fewer" rich aristocrats than in Britain, and where
the state governed with lighter hands and "preferred to leave the market
to itself" (22). What Vries gives with one (Liberal) hand in recognizing
that Britain "had a strong civil society, much stronger that in Qing China"
(58), he takes away with the other (Marxist) hand in insisting that Britain
was a less open capitalistic society.
|Vries really needs to clarify that Britain's rigid capitalistic oligarchy operated within a vibrant civil society which guaranteed far more rights to its citizens, rights of property, of personal liberty, and of contract. Vries may be right to suggest—though he offers no evidence—that the share of total wealth claimed by the richest members of the British aristocracy was considerably larger than the share claimed by China's richest; and that less new blood moved into the top of the British class structure. But he should not have allowed this (possible) fact to obscure his other observation that Britain was "a society in which people could take initiatives and where change and progress were acceptable and often applauded" (9). There was far more occupational mobility in Britain than in China. The British elites—the civil servants, scientists, philosophers, engineers, shopkeepers, and entrepreneurs—were not locked into one standardized worldview, as the Confucian scholars were since ancient times. The Confucian ethic of respect, humility, submission and subordination to elders and political authorities, as Braudel says, "played a large part in China's continuity and social immobility."||20|
|But if everyone wants Braudel on their side, no one wants to recognize the contribution of Weber. I do. Weber is the foremost classical theorist of the rise of the West, and I must therefore take issue, finally, with Vries's easy discharge of this sociologist, historian, and philosopher. When Vries asserts "there was nothing wrong with their [China's] rationality, work ethos, business acumen, love of profit, practical sense, or materialism" he forgets that, for Weber, the distinctiveness of Western rationalism consisted in the degree to which human activities involving the calculation of alternate means to a given end were rationalized, and the degree to which theoretical beliefs about the nature of the universe, life, and God were rationalized through the use of definitions, theorems, concepts, models, and books. Among the many areas of social life where means-end actions were rationalized, he emphasised the economy and the state. While Weber fully recognized that all cultures were highly pragmatic in the pursuit of the best means to attain a given end, and indeed that in "all civilized countries of the earth" there existed a "considerable rationalization of capitalistic calculation," he thought that in the Occident economic actions had been rationalized to a higher degree.27 Some of these rationalizations, in the area of economic life, involved the creation of joint liability, double-entry bookkeeping, the separation of business and personal property, the creation of capital assets in the form of private ownership of the means of production, and the rational organization of free wage labour. In the area of law and administration, Weber also recognized that China, in particular, had a relatively centralized, large-scale bureaucratic administration managed by an official class trained through formalized examinations. Nonetheless, he noted that this administration was more conditioned by personal and kinship relations, and by a Confucian ideology that promoted a pious conformism to concrete familial and political virtues rather than to abstract formalized categories. The West carried this rationalization process further through the creation of bureaucracies increasingly managed by specialized and trained officials in accordance with impersonal and universal statuses and regulations formulated and recorded in writing, and the creation of more integrated and codified systems of law.28||21|
|Weber also observed a "specific and peculiar" Occidental path toward greater theoretical rationalization in such cultural areas as religion and science. He appreciated the achievements of Chinese applied science, particularly in the period before 1500, but as the work of Joseph Needham later corroborated, Chinese science remained too practical in its orientation and did not formulate a theoretical outlook which assumed a rational, orderly universe guided by laws that are universal and understandable. Chinese science did not speak about the ultimate, constituent elements of nature, nor about a mathematical reality underlying the appearances of the senses. 29 Newtonian science was a revolution in the rationalization of our conception of nature.||22|
|It is a truism that all cultures must organize their lives in a practical-rational manner as a matter of survival. It is not enough, therefore, to argue that the Chinese were for many centuries more sophisticated and advanced than Europeans in many cultural areas—technological or economic—that could be adapted to many practical activities. It is not enough either to argue—against Weber—that early modern India and China were highly developed manufacturing countries in which methods of rational accounting (which Jack Goody agrees cannot be described as "full double-entry" techniques) were used by merchants, as would be expected of any enterprise, especially large scale trading companies.30 Weber drew a definitive line between "capitalism" and "modern [European] capitalism." Capitalism defined as the exchange of goods and calculations of profit, including some degree of "capital accounting," is not the same thing as "modern capitalism." The latter involves the formal rationalization of the whole sphere of economic life, that is, the systematic rationalization of the entire process of production, distribution, and exchange, including a "modern economic ethos" or "a this-worldly spirit" that provides the motivation for a methodical approach to labour, and legitimates the rigorous organization of the workforce according to the rules of efficient management. The creation of a steam-driven factory economy was a revolution in the rationalization of means-end action.||23|
|The irony of Vries's position is that some of the distinctions he makes between the comparatively modern British state and the "paternalistic" Chinese state are Weberian in outlook.31 Weber's theory of the rise of the West is not only about the rise of modern capitalism but most fundamentally the rise of modern (Western) rationalism. What made Occidental rationalism different from "Chinese rationalism," the "rationalism of India," and the "rationalism of the ancient Near East" was the fact that only the West saw the formal and theoretical rationalization of all areas of culture, "in a historical line of development with universal significance and empirical validity" of music, painting, architecture, religion, mathematics, scholarly research, military organization, law and administration.32 On the hundredth anniversary of the publication of The Protestant Ethic, world historians should take seriously what it means to say "Only in the West..."||24|
Biographical Note: Ricardo Duchesne received his Ph.D. in Social and Political Thought at York University. He is currently an Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of New Brunswick, Saint John. He believes the time has come when it is possible to write a history of western civilization that is a universal history of humankind. He is thinking of writing this history.
1 Peer Vries, Via Peking back to Manchester: Britain, the Industrial Revolution, and China (The Netherlands: Leiden University, CNWS Publications, 2003).
2 Peer Vries, "Culture, Clocks, and Comparative Costs: David Landes on the Wealth of the West and the Poverty of the Rest,"Itinerario 1998/4; "Should we really Re-Orient," Itinerario 1998/3. In fairness to Landes, he never said that medieval Europe, not even early modern Europe, was more advanced than Asia in terms of overall economic performance. His claim was that, sometime in the medieval/early modern era, Europe "took a path that set it decisively apart from other civilizations," 31.
3 R. Bin Wong, China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000); Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, reprint edition, 2001); Andre Gunder Frank, ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Jack Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
4 Margaret C. Jacob, Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). A clear summation is Joel Mokyr, "The Riddle of 'The Great Divergence': Intellectual and Economic Factors in the Growth of the West," Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society 5:3 (September 2003).
5 Jack A. Goldstone, "Efflorescences and Economic Growth in World History: Rethinking the 'Rise of the West' and the Industrial Revolution," Journal of World History 13:2 (Fall 2002).
6 Jack A. Goldstone, "Europe vs. Asia: Missing Data and Misconceptions," Science & Society 67:2. This is a commentary on my article "Between Sinocentrism and Eurocentrism: Debating Andre Gunder Frank's Re-Orient: Global Economy in the Asian Age," Science & Society 65:4. I replied to Goldstone (and to another commentary by Wong) in "The Post-Malthusian World Began in Western Europe in the Eighteenth Century: A Reply to Goldstone and Wong," Science & Society 67:2.
8 Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence. For a sustained critique of this book, see my "On the Rise of the West: Researching Kenneth Pomeranz's Great Divergence," Review of Radical Political Economics 36:1, 52-81.
9 Robert Brenner and Chris Isett, "England's Divergence from China's Yangzi delta: Property Relations, Micro-economics, and Patterns of Development," Journal of Asian Studies 61:2 (2002). In my view, however, the difference between Chinese and English agrarian relations was not really between small-scale peasant farming and large-scale capitalist farming. Brenner and Philip Huang (1990) both seem to assume that small-scale farming per se, even when it operates within the context of a commercialized economy, cannot bring capitalist development due to the fact that small farms are incapable of enjoying economies of scale, expensive uses of capital, and risky investments in technological improvements. This is a view expressed by Huang in The Peasant Family and Rural Development in the Yangzi Delta, 1350-1988 (Stanford University Press, 1990), 1-8. Vries agrees with Brenner and Huang when he writes that "if Britain's agriculture had been dominated by small family farms like agriculture in Qing China, it would in all probability have seen involution as well" (52). But most research on agrarian change in preindustrial western Europe indicates that the rise of large farms and contractual labor relations came not from powerful landlords who evicted peasants from the communal lands (enclosure by force), but from middle-scale peasants who lived in less-communal field systems, enjoyed weaker overlordship, stronger property rights in land, and easier access to markets. See Robert C. Allen, Enclosure and the Yeoman: The Agricultural Development of the South Midlands, 1450-1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); and Rosemary L. Hopcroft, Regions, Institutions, and Agrarian Change in European History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999). For an overview of the status of Marxist scholarship on this agrarian question and the 'transition to capitalism,' see Ricardo Duchesne, "On the Origins of Capitalism," Rethinking Marxism, 14:3 (2002).
10 See Philip C. C. Huang, The Peasant Family and Rural Development in the Yangzi Delta, 1350-1988 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 8-13.
11 Goldstone, "Efflorescences," 360.
12 Goldstone, "Efflorescences," 377. Also Jack Goldstone, "Europe's Peculiar Path: Would the World be 'Modern' if William H's Invasion of England in 1688 had Failed?" in N. Lebow, G. Parker and P. Tetlock, eds., Counterfactual History. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).
13 Frank, Re-Orient; Pomeranz, The Great Divergence, 66; James Blaut, Eight Eurocentric Historians (New York: Guilford Press, 2000), 11.
14 Jacob, Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West, 106, 131-164.
15 Ibid., 7, 133.
16 Ibid., 109.
17 Ibid., 51.
18 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribners, 1958), 182.
19 Jacob, Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West, 119.
20 I think Bekar and Lipsey correctly argue that "the Steam-Driven Factory Phase" (1820-1880) of the First Industrial Revolution was produced by far more than the "mania for tinkering and improving" some historians have attributed to Europeans: "While no one can definitely demonstrate that a purely empirical approach, devoid of any science, could not have produced the steam engine, three things are clear. First, that is not what happened; the development of working steam machines and scientific understanding went hand in hand. Second, a purely empirical approach would have taken far longer. Third, if the steam engine had evolved solely through trial and error, it could not have reached the same level of efficiency or range of application than it did historically." But not only is there no evidence that Chinese craftsmen were creating in a purely empirical, through trial and error, a machine-based factory economy, but if they had done so, "there is no way they could have gone on" to the "Science-Led Phase" (1880-1945) of the Second Industrial Revolution characterized by steel, chemicals, internal combustion engines, and electric motors. Clifford Bekar and Richard Lipsey, "Science, Institutions, and the Industrial Revolution," Manuscript (2000). Vries also makes the point that while the connections between science and the first industrial revolution may be a matter of dispute, the "stream of innovations" that came through the entire nineteenth century, and after, "would have dried up" without modern science (57).
21 Karl Marx, Capital, A Critique of Political Economy (New York, Modern Library: 1906), 787.
22 The 1970s and 1980s saw intense debates over the "real" Marxist view of the rise of capitalism. I think we can now agree that four explanations can be considered equally "Marxist": 1) the world-systems emphasis on the exploitation of riches in the peripheral areas, 2) Maurice Dobb's emphasis on the new relations of production created by merchant-turned manufacturers, 3) Robert Brenner's emphasis on landlords who created capitalistic relations by evicting peasants from their common lands, and 4) the less-known but equally important view of Rodney Hilton and his accentuation on commodity peasant producers who gradually turned themselves into agrarian capitalists. See Ricardo Duchesne, "Rodney Hilton and the Peasant Road to 'Capitalism' in England," Journal of Peasant Studies, 30:2, 2003.
23 Pomeranz, The Great Divergence, 166, 200. Anti-Eurocentrics have eagerly embraced the idea that Britain was unique in the degree to which it used state power to exploit the world—all consistent with the 'third-worldist' tradition that Western nations were special only in their greater capacity and rapacity at subjugating other peoples. For a recent version of this simplistic world-systems idea, pleasantly combined with Pomeranz's 'ecological' perspective, see Robert Marks, The Origins of the Modern World, A Global and Ecological Narrative (New York: Roman & Littlefield, 2002).
24 Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism. Vol. 2: The Wheels of Commerce (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), 21-23, 231-242.
25 Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism. Vol. 3: The Perspective of the World (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), 70.
26 Fernand Braudel, A History of Civilizations (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 302, 20-22, 59, 304.
27 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribners, 1958a), 13-26.
28 Max Weber, General Economic History (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1981; The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, edited with an introduction by Talcott Parsons (New York: Free Press, 1964; John Love, "Max Weber's Orient," in The Cambridge Companion to Weber (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
29 Joseph Needham, The Grand Titration (London: Allen and Unwin, 1969).
30 Jack Goody, The East in the West (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 78-81.
31 In making his judgment about Weber, Vries relies on Mark Elvin's article "Why China failed to create an endogenous industrial capitalism: A critique of Max Weber's explanation," published in Theory and Society 13 (1984). Here Elvin defends his "high-level equilibrium trap" hypothesis that ecological constraints in China impeded its industrialization even though China had plenty of capital, inventors, and well-developed markets. Against Weber, Elvin says that, given China's ecological limits, its large population and cheap labor, it was only rational that the Chinese would in fact economize on existing resources and fixed capital, rather than introduce labor saving machinery. Elvin had presented this argument in greater detail in his widely cited book, The Pattern of the Chinese Past (Stanford University Press, 1973). But it is worth noting that the same Elvin who rejected Weber's cultural-rational explanation in 1984, had in fact proposed a cultural explanation that, in my view, was Weberian, in a less known, never cited, chapter he published in 1975. In that chapter, Elvin seemed less certain than in 1973 that his high-level equilibrium hypothesis was a sufficient explanation for China's stagnation, and went on to ponder "...in the case of hydraulic techniques there was a situation in which there were relatively few constraints imposed by the high-level equilibrium trap; a strong and perceived need for progress existed; and yet there was minimal advance. We are thus inescapably drawn to ask if this could have been due to cultural factors." See Mark Elvin, "Skills and Resources in Late Traditional China," in Dwight H. Perkins, ed., China's Modern Economy in Historical Perspective (Stanford University Press, 1975).
32 I am citing these words from Stephen Kalberg's new translation of Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which is the edition I would encourage world historians to read. The cited words come specifically from Weber's 'Prefatory Remarks' to his Collected Essays in the Sociology of Religion (1920).
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