Sunday, August 30, 2009

Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation

There has been quite a wave of revisionist scholarship pointing out that Europe’s rise to global dominance was somewhat later, and owed much more to non-European influences, than is often realised. Scholars such as R. Bin Wong, Janet Abu Lughod, Kenneth Pomeranz have produced notable works in this field.

It is a reaction against scholarly narratives that stress longstanding European inventiveness and institutional advantage, with Eric Jones’ book on the puzzle of why growth in actual living standards was such a rare occurrence being something of an intermediate work between the two approaches.
For much of the period under review, the Europeans invented very little for themselves. They only genuine innovations that they made before the eighteenth century were the Archimedian screw, the crankshaft or camshaft and alcoholic distillation process.
So writes (Pp60-61) John M Hobson in Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation. Hobson seeks to establish that the West was a bunch of late (economic) developers who contributed very few original ideas before 1700 and did not become economically dominant or have a major impact on the global economy until after 1800. It is at once one of the most intriguing and one of the most deeply silly books I have ever read from a major historian.

The intriguing thesis is precisely how large the European debt to other societies (particularly China and then Islam) was, as encapsulated in the quote above. The deeply silly thesis is that the Europeans were successful because they were nasty and lucky.
The silly bits
Hobson argues that, in effect, we should stop being Eurocentric and become Europhobic—which is to say adopt a “good” Eurocentricism of European sin to replace a wicked Eurocentrism of European virtue.

He has a lot to overcome to defend his view of Europeans as particularly nasty.

Consider his citations of Europeans being impressed by themselves. Large civilisations tend to be full of themselves. The Chinese were (and are), the Japanese, Muslims similarly. Europeans are hardly standouts in this. Moreover, European civilisation became more systematically curious about other cultures and societies than any other civilisation (with the revealing exception of Japan).

Then there is his argument that Europeans needed to create a “racist identity” to justify and motivate imperialism. Imperialism is as old as government and was a normal condition thereof. More territory meant more wealth and power and the raiders were further away. The notion that there is some “proper” and “natural” boundaries to rulership is strictly a (late) European invention.

European imperialism was notable for its success, its relatively low application of resources (most European military forces squared off against other Europeans, not colonial peoples) and that it came to be contentious within European civilisation, to the extent that folk came to feel guilty about it. Thus, Gandhi’s entire strategy against British rule in India was to aim at the conflict between imperialism and classical liberalism.

Hobson wants to build up Western racism as the Great Sin of world history. Alas, he cannot tell the difference between a reason and a rationalisation. Western empire-builders in the New World had longstanding categories to rely on – Christian/heathen, civilised/uncivilised – that dated back centuries, have analogues in other cultures and which it is anachronistic to call "racist".

Nor does the chronology help his argument. Early in the C16th, the notion that the natives were inherently a lower form of life was explicitly rejected by Charles V. The ur-text of racist ideology is Gobineau’s essay, which is not published until the 1850s. The term ‘racist’ itself is not coined until the 1930s, in response to the rise of Nazism. The appeal of what we now see as racism was precisely to give an explanation of already existing European domination.

Hobson seeks to get around this rather basic chronological difficulty by appealing to the notion of implicit racism but, as previously noted, it is a concept so implicit that it is not actually racism. Just a device for turning claims of European or Western superiority into thoughtcrime.

Creating spurious concepts of shared identity Hobson regards as a habit of European history (but, apparently, no one else’s). Inventing identities such as ‘evil Islam’, a created threat, in order to justify and maintain the feudal order (pp 99-100).

The first little difficulty is that Islam was a threat, one that came in waves. The Arab wave from mid C7th peaking at the battle of Calatañazor in 1002. And the Turkic wave from the mid C11th, especially the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, to the second siege of Vienna in 1683. Iberia also had the “Moorish” wave that peaked at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. That all the world should be in the House of Islam was a live idea. And it is not as if contemporary Islam is not showing a revived difficulty in interacting with other cultures.

Without romanticising the knightly order, the suggestion that it needed to create an identity of evil Islam to sustain an identity of good Christendom to keep going is simply deeply silly. It was a extremely practical system based on a “deal” of service for protection. Which is why a very similar system evolved in Japan.

Hobson is for ever denouncing Eurocentric scholars in accord with his good-people-have-good-ideas and bad-people-have-bad-ideas eschatology. Too often he does so via ascribing dubious claims without benefit of footnotes, such as (p.103):
Eurocentric scholars usually attribute the invention of the stirrup to to Charles Martel in 733.
I have read a lot of military history, some of it written in the C19th. I do not remember ever seeing such a silly claim. As for his inflation of the importance of stirrups, I have already had a rant about Hobson’s silly claims about stirrups. Which, by the way, also did not create the samurai just as they did not create the knights. (Japan is, once again, the great corrector for analysis: the similar geography of Europe and Japan has to be an important factor in why two such disparate societies developed such similar institutions.).

Hobson engages in irritating reifications where West and East are movable feasts shifting around as convenient to sustain the thesis.

When clever folk make deeply silly arguments as part of a general pattern, one is driven to the sociology of belief to explain why. Fairly clearly, Hobson is appealing to an academic milieu where West-is-bad and the-really-Virtuous-understand-how-bad. Hobson is just an extreme view of a widespread tendency. One very impressed with its own good intentions.

Yet, it is not as if intentions are such a terrific measure of human benefit. Apart from the exporting of the Eurasian disease pool to the Americas and Oceania, the most destructive thing the West ever did to the Rest was to export revolutionary socialism (in total deaths, the two greatest demographic disasters in history, though the former was proportionately much more disastrous). The socialist model of development was also fairly disastrous, though not on the same scale.

It is conspicuous that Hobson’s analysis makes no mention of property rights. He is very much committed to a technology-drives-history view. But technology does not have merely to be invented, it also has to be adopted, as contemporary differences between societies show very strongly.

One notices, for example, that intellectually serious proponents of liberal economics talk about such things as property rights, transaction costs and public goods: specific things that directly affect human behaviour. Opponents talk about markets (particularly that give-away phrase so-called free markets): that is, higher level abstractions. Yet market transactions come in two quite different varieties: self-enforcing transactions (swap money and goods on spot, transactions any bazaar can manage) versus transactions across time (which require high levels of trust and are crucial for selling most assets). Only bothering with higher level abstraction is a bit of an analytical problem when one of the most salient ways of differentiating societies is how safe or risky they are for the latter type of transaction. Instead, the technique one sees quite a lot (including in Hobson's book) is apparently to work out the conclusion you want, and then assemble the relevant premises to support it. Paying particular attention to things not to be included.

Hobson writing of C18th British society as being 'despotic' is another piece of egregious silliness. He is correct to point out that the C18th British state was larger, as a share of the economy, than its European contemporaries. This was also true of the C17th Dutch state and medieval Venice. Commercial polities had less problem with consent (so could tax more) and engaged in more provision of public goods (including, for example, protection of property rights) than other states precisely because the consent of the political nation was required for taxes. Government share of GDP is a very crude measure.

While there may well be differences between how the first folk achieved industrial take-off and what was required for the subsequent achievers thereof, there is a tendency among revisionist scholars, which Hobson shares, not to think about what the experience of the latter might tell us about the former.

Similarly, revisionists tend to be very willing to talk about slavery and its evils, without much grappling with the universality of slavery among major civilisations (Muslim slavers were still kidnapping and enslaving Europeans as late as the C18th). Nor thinking through Europe being the first civilisation to begin to abolish slavery since ancient times.

Yet the anti-slavery movement in C18th Britain was the first great modern political movement. The context in which it arose was one where Western science was an increasingly coherent universal analytic that increasingly had no parallel in other civilisations. The development of science, both feeding off and reflecting an increasingly global perspective, interacted with an already universalist religion (Christianity) to produce the Evangelical anti-slavery agitation of the late C18th and C19th which resulted in the 1832 abolition of slavery in the British Empire. It is no accident that the country that had come to dominate scientific advance, and was the most global in its perspective, also pioneered anti-slavery agitation.

The Euro-revisionists drive to belittle the Europe and the West creates inconsistencies. Such as the conquest of the Americas being a great ecological boon to Europe which was absolutely crucial to European take-off (the lucky bit in Hobson’s analysis of European success) yet Japan and China have to be understood as being as rich as Europe until at least the early C19th. So much is obscured by such comparisons at the best of times—such as Venice in 1330 having more sophisticated capital markets than Qing China in 1830.

Hobson shares the inconsistencies of the Euro-revisionists while engaging in a higher silliness. But if the book has a lot of deeply silly aspects to it, it also has some very useful and informative aspects.

The other bits
Hobson does make one think much more seriously about how much Europe was a late adaptor and late developer: how much Europe was reliant in picking up other folks ideas and taking them further. That part of his thesis is striking and informative.

When one considers the matter, it is no surprise that China tended to be the dominant source of key inventions for so long. Even if one assumes that human inventiveness is evenly spread across human populations, the Chinese were always such a significant proportion of the total human population that inventors were likely to be Chinese. But China had further advantages. A high level of cultural continuity, so inventions were less likely to be lost. It was a persistently sophisticated and complex society, so a wider range of problems to deal with and the resources to seek to solve them.

What Europe had going for it was much wider institutional variety than other civilisations and continuity in competitive jurisdictions. Which made Europeans avid adaptors. Once a new idea hit Europe, it was very likely to be taken up and improved. And Europe had more institutional forms “in play” so a wider range of possibilities for social selection to operate on. For example, the deliberative assemblies of the classical world and the representative assemblies of the medieval world seem to have no significant parallels in other civilisations. The institutional richness and diversity, including diversity of rule, of Latin Christendom is striking.

Islam, at least in its early centuries, also displayed a high level of adaptiveness and invention. But that again is not surprising. For centuries, they were the “bridge” civilisation, the civilisation that interacted with more other cultures than any other. Which meant they were more likely to pick up good ideas and more likely to put ideas together in new ways.

The pressure of competitive jurisdictions in Europe eventually led European civilisation to become the first civilisation that interacted with the entire globe. Europe became the ultimate “bridge” civilisation. It was this, operating on competitive jurisdictions and institutional variety, which really led to Europe’s take off. Bureaucratised autocracy (China) or militarised autocracy (Islam) did not generate the same pressure to innovate and adapt. With the scientific revolution, Europe became the first civilisation to, in a phrase David Stove liked to repeat, learn how to learn in a systematic way. All the good ideas and techniques across the globe became accessible to Europe. Invention (both technological and organisational) took off. By the C15th, Europeans were already creating the best armour and cannons. By the C16th, the best ships. By the C17th, the greatest trading networks and best weapons and science. By the C18th, the best armies. By the C19th, the strongest economies and industrial technology. By the C20th, the West had come to completely dominate intellectual invention. Europe became the first civilisation to genuinely escape from the land/population constraint shifting to the far less contrained effectively vistas of living standards being based on the capital/population ratio.

This is not a particularly difficult story. But neither it is a normatively reassuring one. Europeans, their ideas, religion and institutions, are neither unusually nasty nor unusually clever nor unusually virtuous. They are just folks who, through effort and circumstances, created a civilisation that achieved more than any previous civilisation.

Which is only a problem to deal with if you have created an identity of Virtue based on asserting yourself against that civilisation. But, if one defines virtue against success, one is setting oneself up to generate a lot of failure. Including analytical failure. Including a recoiling from “Eurocentrism” which turns into a “Europhobia” which is just a reverse Eurocentrism. Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation has much that is striking, useful and informative: pity it is wrapped in such silly pandering to fashionable contemporary prejudices.

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.