Rise of Who?

Doing Comparative World History. Pomeranz, Bayly and Lieberman under review

The books under review in this essay are studies of comparative world history. This relatively new field of historical study most notably proves the interconnectedness of human socities and lives. Isolationist historical concepts that only investigated Europe or the United States are crumbling as this new umbrella of analysis lift history to new hights of explanatory power. The unescapable realisation that modern society is global - not national, civilisational or regional - challenges the historian to write global history. The divide between rich and poor specifically asks for explanation. How come some humans are helpless, while others are extremely resourcefull? And, when did this happen?

First of all, this calls for a story of winners and losers. This story is told by Kenneth Pomeranz in “The great Divergence”. The second story is of global transformation into a new era in human existance. This story is told by C. Bayly in “The birth of the Modern World”. Then another method for getting to grips with modernity submerges: taking a less significant region, that has not stood in the eye of the storm and analyse its history at very close detail over a period of 1000 years.

Pomeranz adopts the demographic theory of Robert Malthus, in which all people are essential losers, for they have to live – or die – with several natural constraints that keep their society from growing. War, Epidemics and Famine are nowadays experienced as non-Western phenomenons. The West was the first to evolve away from the Malthusian constraints championing industrial society. In earlier eurocentric accounts, causes to this venture were dug up from Greek and Roman antiquity, through the Middle Ages, into the Rennaissance, the Enlightenment and the Reformation. Europeans became known as the hard-working, competing and calculating people who deserved to invent the steam engine.
But, as Pomeranz shows, the diverging path came quite unexpected and was based mostly on luck. “The Great Divergence” is subtitled “China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy”. The comparison drawn between China and Europe is actually, Pomeranz notes, mostly about the Yanzi-basin and Britain. Eventhough Pomeranz is frequently shaky in maintaining this comparison it does seem to hold as a scheme for taking a closer look into Eurasia’s economically most advanced societies before the dawn of the modern age.
In the first part of “The great Divergence” he analyses modes-of-production, divisions of labor, markets, products and agricultural and proto-industrial technology. There seems then to be little difference between each of the developed parts of Eurasia. The second part is an attempt to look behind the decision-making curtain of these societies, to see whether there is a grain of difference making Europe better consumers, better producers or having better functioning markets. All fails to be proven once again. The only difference being the British ghost acrages across the Atlantic Ocean. In the third part of the book Pomeranz goes deeper into the shared constrains that Western Europea and East Asia had.
In a brilliant fashion Pomeranz uses many statistics, calculations and ‘numbers’ to show the striking similarity between Asia and Europe. The causal reasoning to the Rise of the West is then to be reduced to the following: The premodern world could experience extensive per-capita growth, up to a certain point. This point has to do with the Land constraint. The Europeans had acquired more land, more resources, more slaves and more energy then had been given to them. The discovery and exploitation of The New World forms one part of the explanation why Europe breached the constraint: colonies.
Coal, being the second resource, geographically, was of plenty in England. So plenty, that combined with trial-and-error-artisanship and consumer demand, led to the developement of high-level expertise. Furthrmore, the steam engine was invented to improve coal-mining. Since the mines were so wet, the English needed a mechanism to automatically drain the mines.
Once Britain’s full-on potential has surfaced, exploitation, high living-standards, industrial capitalism, imperialism and all other joys of “the great divergence” occured spontaneously. Yet, it could easily have all happened in economically-developed China, were it not for the coal and colonies. Once industrial life has gained speed, the potential of imported goods and a seemingly unlimited supply of energy put Britain on a rollercoaster ride of growth the world has never seen before.
So winning or losing in the game we call “breach Malthus” is about luck first, and dealing with lucky windfalls second. As far as Pomeranz is concerned, these are forces outside the market and conjunctures beyond Europe. Thus Pomeranz remains within an economic-historic view of this issue, and a very well-researched case he makes. In essence, this book shows within an economic context how the economy has not been the prime mover in the making of the modern world economy. Perhaps one also needs to look into the political context. Having colonies, trading in slaves, protecting the merchants and waging war doesn’t just happen, it is decided. Peer Vries has shown during class the lack of political-economy and institutions in Pomeranz. We return to this after having looked at Bayly.

Moving on to C.A. Bayly, we encounter a different method of placing modernity in a chain of historical causality. Here we find a human dimension, neglected by Pomeranz. Next to economic growth, political centralisation Bayly reviews the flows of global religion and ideology. Bayly sets out to assess all contributions people around the world made in creating the global modern world. Not a question of who was first or what lay in the root of modernity, but how did all cope with the forces that controlled our planet in the long 19th cenutry.
Four mechanisms that provoked regional adaptation to global streams of money, people, ideas, religions and techonologies existed: industriousness, industriality, domestication and seaborne commerce. These are his causes for divergence. They cannot be seen as seperate developements as they all constantly cause each other. People in India only became industrious with the appearance of new products, brought by seaborne commerce, driven forward by greed for more consumption, etc. But the divergence is not the entire story of the origins of modernity, for Bayly also seeks to include the social change and conflict that came after the divergence and has been driven forward by the new pressures the world has experienced since the Rise of the West.
Three global responses are visible: Governmentality into centralisation, Competition into innovation and the steady spread of Ideas and knowledge. Bayly’s concept of the global birth of modernity is his bold attempt to be completely inclusive in his historical analysis, within the time-span of one century. This leads to the following explanation of the “divergence”:
It is the concatenation of changes produced by the interactions of political, economic and ideological change at many different levels that provides the key.
Once all the changes produced by the interactions of changes are put together at many different levels, a key to solve the riddle should appear. The key is multi-perspectivity, multi-centricity and multiculturality, but is rendered unusable for historians. The result is an amazing overview of the global, interconnected, history of the 19th century. Religious, Intellectual, Technological and Scientific ideas boomed across the globe, societies undertook profound changes, regimes collapsed in the line of uncompatible ideologies in the advent of modernity. But, why then, did Europe take the largest piece of the pie?
Bayly adopts the Pomeranz-thesis of coal and colonies, and adds a specifically European egotistical buoyancy of philosophy, invention, public debate and the efficienty in killing others. I find it a great pity Bayly proclaims he does not wish to enter the present historical debate about the globalisation, esspecially about Western Exceptionalism. Moreover, the reader is left with a world of electrifying hecticity and confusing change. No easy categories, no single explanation.

Perhaps Bayly’s story is too general to get to grips with what modernity really is, and how it came into being. Maybe Pomeranz theory is too simple in writing off cultural, social and political differences in how different societies were run. The longer time span that is under close historical investigation in Victor Lieberman’s “Strange Parallels. Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800-1830. Volume 1: Integration on the Mainland” provides historians with a unique window on a region that nine out of ten times plays a passive and victimised role in the grand narrative. Can this long-term approach solve some of the problems of Pomeranz quick-and-easy-answer? Can this approach make more sense of Bayly’s all-too-general and heavy birth of the modern world?
Yes, by showing a dull, ever-cylcling history of political economy, of expansion and contraction, the reader gets a better view of the system of government over a thousand years, focussed on one region. We however must wait to see what causality Lieberman finds when comparing Southeast-Asia to Japan, Russia and France in Volume 2. In one sense, the long term Lieberman chooses shows how long history actually is. The trick not to leave out anything brings reality closer, than when structuring history to a teleological thesis. The trick to stay on land and with the local news instead of excessive reporting on “breaking world-news” gives you a sense of a more realistic, and less chaotic context.
Yes, only in the long-term can we see the presence of cultural life, like the Buddhist power in the Southeast-Asian kingdoms. In the light of political-economic concepts such as capitalism, tax-pressure and state-formation, the culture is often taken for granted, as a constant known. In Lieberman we clearly see a transition, neglected by Bayly, from religous authority to state-power. Not a transition of social change and revolution, but of administrative cycles and evolution.
Yes, selective multi-perspectivity makes more sense than vague global unwillingness to demarcate geography, found in Bayly. Small strokes make a better picture than a description of the range of colour on a painting. Eventhough Bayly succeeds in confronting the reader with the globality of change, the stroke remains all too coarse.


Possibly the biggest question in the modern academic study of history concerns the how and why of the modern world. This is the world known to us best. This world contains fierce economic competition between global-scale enterprises. It is driven by large wars between mature states that operate heavy machinery weapons. It is populated by over six billion humans. There is an evergrowing gap between rich and poor and a global web of communication techonology is connecting various populations together. Surely all of these modern features have their roots in history. But what made them appear? What is the origin of modernity?
We have seen the possibility of mapping the origin of modernity in the hands of the lucky British and we have seen the general and global vision of one very turbulant century in which a massive recalibration of trade, power and thought occured. Yet, it seems this is just a bit too easy. Victor Lieberman’s approach is still unfinished. He seems to hold the best cards at hand, as all wait the release of “Volume Two: Mainland mirrors: Russia, France, Japan and the Islands”.


Post a Comment

<< Home