Monday, October 12, 2009

The Roots of Modernity: the global path to now

If am asked what folk should read to understand global history, part of my answer would be anything by Angus Maddison.

Growth and Interaction in the World Economy: The Roots of Modernity is a recent lecture by Maddison summarising his work on long-run economic development. In it he defends the proposition—against critics such as Pomeranz and Frank—that European economic ascendancy begins building in the C11th, rather than being a transitory C19th phenomenon ultimately based on the exploitation-of-the-Americas “windfall”. He also denies that either Europe or Asia was caught in a “Malthusian trap”—that is, not all economic growth prior to the Industrial Revolution was consumed by population increase.

Maddison has been a pioneer of trying to measure historical economic activity. Even if only rough estimates are possible, to identify the relative scale of phenomena is a very useful exercise for historical understanding.

The brief monograph is divided into four parts—how and why did the West get rich, the European transformation of the Americas, the interaction with Asia, the development of Africa. While acknowledging the huge economic take-off after 1820, he is at pains to demonstrate a broad range of slow, but steady, improvement going back centuries. For example, he provides some detail on how the scientific revolution of the C17th led to all sorts of practical improvements (such as better navigation). This was certainly a change from the previous pattern, where science (such as it was) was mostly a serious of ad hoc attempts to explain what technology could do.

It is also striking how slow technological transfusion could be. China had printing presses in the C9th, Europe from 1453, Mexico 1539, Peru 1584, North American colonies from the beginning of the C17th, Brazil in 1808 and the first African printing press was in Cairo in 1822 (or about a 1000 years after China)(p.79). Invention is less important than the extent, or otherwise, of take-up of technology. The interaction between techniques and institutions is very much at the centre of his analysis.

Maddison breaks up the last two centuries into four time periods, which I would label as follows: 1820-1913 Liberal ascendancy, 1913-1950 Collectivism and War, 1950-1973 Welfarism and Peace, 1973- Liberal resurgence. The 1913-1950 was the worst of the four periods for global economic growth, the 1950-1973 the best.

I do not agree with everything Maddison has to say. Maddison repeats a much stated claim Asians had little interest in European products (p.55). What, millions of them, for centuries? The effect of silver flows was surely much more important. Maddison himself notes that one-third of the silver mined in the Americas went to finance Asian imports (p.36). Which means the remaining two-thirds stayed in Europe, making European good silver-expensive when silver was the principal medium of exchange in Asian trade.

I also don’t think Maddison has entirely thought through the implications of silver flow for the nature of Iberian government. He mentions the role of the Crown being aided by war against the Moors. But such militancy hardly explains why Iberia (a pioneer of representative assemblies) decayed into corrupt, stagnant authoritarianism (a decay Maddison describes very effectively)—it is not as if the English Crown was not a militant one (ask the Welsh, Scottish, Irish and French).

I suspect he also somewhat overstates the negative effect of Muslim conquest on Mediterranean trade (p.71).

But the book is clearly written and full of striking information. For example, that the introduction of camels in the C8th is what permitted significant cross-Sahara trade (p.71) or that the ecological benefit of the Americas to Eurasia (maize, potatoes, sweet potatoes, manioc, tomatoes, cocoa, beans, pineapples, tobacco) was at least equalled by the flow of new animals and plants in the other direction (cattle, pigs, chicken, sheep, goats, wheat, rice, sugar cane, coffee, vegetables, fruits, horse and mules) in the “Columbian exchange” (p.2). Not to mention, of course, a very one-sided transfer of diseases (which Maddison discusses in some detail). Growth and Interaction in the World Economy: The Roots of Modernity is a very accessible brief tour of global economic history.

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