am 21. März 2000
China's Advocate: A Review of Ken Pomeranz's The GreatDivergence
The Great Divergence -------------------- Forsome time now it has been becoming clear that there is something wrong with the traditional story of the coming of the nineteenth-century European industrial revolution and the associated trans-oceanic European empires. The conventional wisdom sees Western European civilization's edge building gradually yet inexorably--with a pronounced setback during the Dark Ages--from the days when the conquests of Julius Caesar and Rome's Julian dynasty emperors brought the high civilization of the Greeks to Eboracum, Londinium, Lutetia, and Colonia Claudia. Western Europeans then build on top of Greek philosophy, Greek literature, Roman engineering, and Roman law. From Naples in the south to Stockholm in the north, from Vienna in the east to Sagres in the west, the tide builds to a flood: the rule of law, the consent of estates to taxation, rational thought, the replacement of magic by religion, security of private property, the horse collar, the scientific revolution, and war-driven technological advance gave--according to the conventional wisdom--European societies as of 1500 a substantial and decisive edge in technology and productivity. During the early modern period from 1500 to 1800 this decisive edge blossomed into the social, political and economic institutions of the modern age that created today's wealthy industrial democracies.
Elsewhere, according to the conventional wisdom, civilizations with agriculture, metalworking, and complex social organization hit the Malthusian wall: populatoin pressure and lack of resources kept standards of living low in spite of sophisticated but non-mechanical technology, and elites focused much more on grabbing the surplus from the people and from one another than on enlarging the surplus through further investment or innovation. The great Eurasian agrarian empires and civilizations had larger populations, more splendid courts, and richer elites, but they were a dead end for a humanity trapped under a monstrous regiment of kings and priests.
Eurasian Parity --------------- However there was always something wrong with this triumphal march, something visible to those with eyes to look. The fifteenth-century Portuguese Infante Dom Henrique sat in his castle at Sagres and sent his ships in small squadrons groping for perhaps a thousand miles south along the coast of Africa. The fifteenth-century Chinese notable Cheng Ho--in modern transliteration Zheng Ze, the eunuch admiral who was a trusted lieutenant of the Yung-lo Emperor--took 30,000 men and seventy ships on eight voyages to the Indian Ocean, reaching as far as Zanzibar and projecting power on such a scale that Sri Lankan kings who were not properly respectful of Chinese power were brought back to China to make their apologies. The Ottoman Emperor Mehmet II deployed the largest and strongest pieces of artillery in the world--specially made for the occasion--for his conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The Great Moghul Babur's use of advanced technology--matchlocks--and tactics--wagons tied together as field fortifications--allowed him to decisively defeat an army eight times his size at Panipat and conquer northern India. We think that the populations of China and India grew more rapidly than the population of Europe from 1500-1850: this suggests--at least if we believe in Malthus--somewhat more prosperous societies with more rapidly growing economies in the Eurasian "east."
In the efficiency of agriculture, in the scale of social organization, in the sophistication of consumer goods, in the density of population, and even in navigation and military technology the fifteenth-century Eurasian east--from the Ottoman Empire through Iran and India to southeast Asia, China, and Japan--appears nowhere less and almost always more "civilized" than the small, semi-anarchic proto-nation-states of western Europe. As Pomeranz puts it, the core regions of Eurasia "the Yangzi delta, the Kanto plain, Britain and the Netherlands, Gujarat--shared some crucial features with each other, which they did not share with the rest of the continent or subcontinent around them... relatively free markets, extensive handicraft industries, highly commercialized agriculture..." The similarities are more impressive than the differences.
So what happened? If the western European edge in technology, organization, and productivity was not a long-standing broad tidal wave building slowly since the coronation of Charlemagne, then how did the world we live in come to be? How did the Indian Ocean in the sixteenth century become a Portuguese (and later a Dutch) lake? How did Britain conquer India in the century from 1750? And why did the industrial revolution take place in late eighteenth century Britain? In Ken Pomeranz's book The Geat Divergence we have one serious attempt at an answer. It is a wonderful book. It is the first book I have read that takes the problem of the post-1500 great divergence between the Eurasian west and the Eurasian east seriously and thoughtfully, and that does not run far ahead of its evidence in pursuit of pre-chosen conclusions.
This is not to say that I agree with the book. I think that it misses--or rather downplays--three important phenomena that, in my opinion at least, are key to understanding the past millennium of world history. The first is the shift in the locus of invention--not in the level of technology, but in the birth of new technologies--from China to Europe around the year 1000, and subsequently what appears to be a steadily growing European lead in inventiveness and science. The second is the extraordinary organizational coherence of western Europe by 1700, which shows itself in areas as divergent as the military superiority of European-trained musketeers in eighteenth century India, in the extraordinary reach and longevity of Europe's armed trans-oceanic trading companies, and the requirements of at least the appearance of due process of law--trials and bills of attainder--imposed on even the most tyrannical northwest European rulers. The third is the late nineteenth century firebreak: as Sidney Pollard put it, the fire of nineteenth-century industrialization burned brightly to the limits of western European populations and colonial settlements, smoldered in eastern Europe, and there stopped (with the single exception of Japan)--no nineteenth-century industrialization in Turkey, Egypt, India, or China. The fact that the nineteenth-century Eurasian east did not while the nineteenth-century Eurasian west easily did adopt British-invented industrial technologies must be explained somehow.
But even though I think that in the end the book misses the bullseye, it is definitely a solid hit on the target. It is very much worth reading. In the past I have had a very hard time finding a book that challenges the conventional wisdom that I am not ashamed to give to my students--for example, I can't get my students to take Immanuel Wallerstein seriously, for his unwillingness to count makes it impossible to assess whether his anecdotes are representative and his teleological functionalism makes it nearly impossible to figure out just what the proposed chain of causation is; and they have a hard time dealing with Jack Goody, who splits hairs ever more finely as if deconstructing sociological and anthropological concepts will somehow lead to understanding. This is a book I will not be ashamed to give my students. And it makes me think.
The Grand Counterfactual ------------------------ At the core of Pomeranz's book is a grand counterfactual. Suppose that you removed the Americas from the surface of the globe: Columbus sails west in 1492 and dies of thirst in a mammoth world ocean. And suppose that you erased the coal deposits from the island of Britain and from the Rhine valley. What would post-1500 world history have looked like then?
Pomeranz's answer is that the most likely trajectory would have seen economic life in northwest Europe evolve the way that economic life in Gujerat or the Yangzi delta evolved between 1500 and 1800: a flourishing commercially-revolutionized society bumps up against ecological limits as deforestation, declining marginal products of labor, the rising ability of peripheral regions to make their own manufactures, and so forth reduce the returns to innovation and commerce and increase the rewards of landlord or priestly surplus extraction. Thus growth stops. And what growth there is follows a labor-intensive, resource-economizing logic that--as it did in the nineteenth century Yangzi delta--boosts elite consumption but not mass standards of living, and leaves no space for an industrial revolution.
Pomeranz's argument is powerful. For he is right in saying that "industrial capitalism, in which the large-scale use of inanimate energy sources allowed an escape from the co END