DAWSON, LANDES AND POMERANZ ON THE BREAKTHROUGH TO MODERNITY

Responding to the charge of “Eurocentrism,” put forward by the postmodern perspective and Edward Said (1978) in his book Orientalism,[i] Doyne Dawson (2003) argues that, as early as the 1960s, historians had recognized Europe’s “breakthrough to modernity” as the culmination of a “long series of advances” encompassing “much of Eurasia”; and, that this “new image of world history,” later ascribed to post-colonialism and multiculturalism, was implicit — if not explicit — in Mark Elvin and William H. McNeill’s view of the achievements of the Sung dynasty in medieval China (from tenth to the thirteenth century). Furthermore, along with the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan (sixteenth to the nineteenth century), these two “outstanding” period’s testify to the phenomenon of “economic growth” in “Non-European societies.”[ii]

Although Dawson goes onto outline historian’s attempt at circumnavigating the inherent relativism of the cultural paradigmatic — such as Jared Diamond’s “rates of development,” Jack Goody’s emphasis on “contingencies,” and Eric Jones’ reliance on “economic incentive” — Dawson is at pains to refute the importance of culturally derived institutions, which he describes as “the traditional objects of study for historians and social scientists.”[iii] Accordingly, for Dawson, given the Western cultural tradition’s role in the derivation of the modern world, the charge of Eurocentrism remains a “Strawman.”[iv]

Arguably, what Andre Gunder Frank labeled the “essentialist dualism” of late nineteenth century theories of world history — the organic Gemeinschaft of the rest of the World viewed relative to the mechanistic Gesellschaft of Western Europe — continues to hold some attraction for World historians post modernity.[v] However, this essential dichotomy has been subject to review and revision, in light of new perspectives such as Gunder Frank’s “World Competition” thesis, and Kenneth Pomeranz’s consideration of “ecological” factors, with the resultant shift in emphasis focusing on the timing and extent of divergence between the West and the Rest.

Thus, considering David Landes (2002) position — like Dawson — he still wants to view Europe as the “prime mover of development and modernity,”[vi] placing customary emphasis on “European superiority of power” — particularly, the ability of European sailing-ships to “destroy the presumed enemy from a distance.” However, in conjunction with the institutionalization of the ‘critical’ and ‘distinctively European’ trait of intellectual autonomy — the ‘unity in disunity’ emerging out of the Judeo-Christian tradition — Landes wants to introduce the engine of demand as driving each incremental step toward ‘breakthrough’.[vii]

Viewed through this lens, the industrial revolutions becomes more evolutionary than revolutionary — a cultural imperative shaped by economic necessity. As Landes states: ‘you had a strong financial incentive, you needed a work-force’. Thus, Landes’ model remains conspicuously endogenous: divergence is essentially grounded in cultural differences — dating back to the tenth and eleventh century — but, driven by the dynamics of economic necessity; the process culminating in the indoctrination of the laboring masses into the regime of industrial capitalism.

Clearly, Frank wants to reject this views, which he derides as grounded in the “heritage” of Marx/Weber — ‘vitiated’ by the ‘colonialist Eurocentrism’ of the nineteenth century.[viii] For Frank, institutions are essentially ‘derivative and adaptive’ and thus, cannot be viewed as both a permanent and changing cultural condition.

Indeed, according to Frank, the challenge for world historians is to explain the ‘contingent, sudden change on the basis of a permanent condition’[ix] — the world economy, with its epicenter in Asia. It is this competition with Asia — the exogenous economic element — which provides Europe with the crucial incentive. To quote Franks own analogy: Europe wanted on ‘the Asian economic train,’ with silver from the Americas providing the initial means to lease a ‘whole railway carriage’. It was only with subsequent development, in the nineteenth century, that Europe was able to ultimately ‘displace Asians from the locomotive.’[x]

At this point, it would be tempting to lump Pomeranz with Frank, given that they both rejected the extended timeline used to represent European cultural/institutional development, replacing it with a more truncated period, from 1750 to 1850, in order to emphasize the importance of windfall gains made by Europeans in the Americas in Europe’s drive towards industrialization. But, whereas Frank’s main aim is to address the inadequacies of the Eurocentric historiography, Pomeranz’s primary concerns remains the impact of ecological constraints at the extremes of the Eurasian land mass.

According to Pomeranz, as late a 1750, core regions in Europe and Asia faced comparable ecological challenges: ‘dense populations,’ a dearth of ‘idle capacity’ in land, and a substantial concentration of capital in the hands of an elite class. And thus, exhibited a need for ‘industrial breakthrough’, to develop ‘institutions that maximized incentives to transform production processes’.[xi]

That Europe did not follow Asia down the labor-intensive path of land development, hinged on what Pomeranz calls ‘sharp discontinuities’: specifically — in the case of Britain — the discovery of ‘fossil fuels and access to New World resources’. Pomeranz wants to argue that these ‘elements, viewed in conjunction, ‘obviated the need to manage land intensively’. That, ultimately, subsequent divergence ‘was not essential but contingent’.[xii]

In the introduction to A History of Civilization, Fernand Braudel (1995) admits to wanting to define civilization ‘simply and precisely,’ but has to concede that — like most expressions — the term remains subject to perspective and context. Indeed, for Braudel, Civilization has ‘at least a double meaning,’ in that it ‘denotes both moral and material values’. Thus, this conception, Braudel explains, invariably led to a need to distinguish between culture and civilization — matters of the ‘dignity of spiritual concerns’, and those of ‘the triviality of material affairs’.

However, Braudel goes onto state that, in the early nineteenth century, under the tutelage of Tönnies (1922) and Weber (1935), a conscious distinction was made giving precedence to culture (Kultur), over civilization.[xiii] To my mind, it is this distinction, which lies at the heart of the critique of Eurocentrism, that continues to cloud the milieu of comparative world histories.

Endnotes:

[i] Dawson, Doyne, “The Assault on Eurocentric History”, The Journal of the Historical Society III, 3–4 Summer/Fall 2003, p. 406

[ii] ibid, p. 404

[iii] Dawson, “The Assault on Eurocentric History”, p. 419

[iv] ibid, pp. 424–425

[v] See Frank–Landes Debate: ReOrient vs. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, hosted World History Center at Northeastern University on 2 December 1998 [Transcript published at worldhistorycenter.org]

[vi] Landes, David, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (Abacus: London, 2002), p. xxi

[vii] Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, p. 200–201

[viii] Frank, Andre Gunder, ReOrient (University of California Press: London, 1998), p. 27

[ix] See Frank–Landes Debate: ReOrient vs. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations

[x] Frank, ReOrient, p. 37

[xi] Pomeranz, Kenneth, The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton University Press: Oxfordshire, 2000), p. 215

[xii] Pomeranz, The Great Divergence, p. 13

[xiii] Braudel, Fernand, A History of Civilizations [Translation by Richard Mayne] (Penguin Books: London, 1995), p. 3 and 5

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Braudel, Fernand, A History of Civilizations [Translation by Richard Mayne] (Penguin Books: London, 1995)

Dawson, Doyne, “The Assault on Eurocentric History”, The Journal of the Historical Society III, 3–4 Summer/Fall 2003, pp. 424–425

Frank, Andre Gunder, ReOrient (University of California Press: London, 1998)

Landes, David, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (Abacus: London, 2002)

Pomeranz, Kenneth, The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton University Press: Oxfordshire, 2000)

Frank–Landes Debate: ReOrient vs. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, World History Center, 2 Dec 1998 [reproduced: worldhistorycenter.org]