ahorbinski: A snakes & ladders board.  (struggle & stagger)
Bibliographic Data: Pomeranz, Kenneth. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Main Argument: I'm going to quote the first sentence, which to me deserves to be as familiar as the opening line of Pride and Prejudice:
Much of modern social science originated in efforts by late nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europeans to understand what made the economic development path of western Europe unique; yet those efforts have yielded no consensus. (3)
One prominent strand, perhaps best epitomized by Max Weber, argues that something special in "Western European culture" gave it this unique development path; others have highlighted the despoilment of the material and human resources of three continents, although this has been shown to be incomplete as a cause, given evidence for the accumulation of surplus in Europe itself. Pomeranz argues instead that we must call upon "the fruits of overseas coercion to help explain the difference between European development and what we see in certain other parts of Eurasia (primarily China and Japan)" (4). Highly developed areas at both end of the Eurasian landmass shared many similarities at the end of the 18thC; what put Western Europe--and Britain in particular--over the top in the 19th was the combination of overseas resources, and the affordances they offered, with both pan-Eurasian patterns and British peculiarities. Rather than tell the same old inaccurate Europe-centered story again, which gets us no closer to actually answering the great question of Why the Industrial Revolution? than ever, Pomeranz challenges historians to look for meaningful differences from a holistic perspective, rather than sticking with tried and true, biased, and incorrect arguments.

Historiographical Engagement: This is a book that is totally immersed in many notable books in the social sciences in the past century, mostly to argue with and overcome them. R. Bin Wong's China Transformed gets a favorable mention, and Pomeranz builds explicitly on the work of people like Tom Smith, William Wayne Farris, and Kären Wigen and many others, without whose research on China and Japan this book could not have been written.

Introduction: Argument, Sources, Examples In the first of many complex chapters, Pomeranz begins by explicating the problems with the "either/or framework" in which "either a Europe-centered world system carrying out essential primitive accumulation overseas or endogenous European growth" are "called upon to explain almost everything" (5). As Pomeranz notes, recent scholarship in European economic history has become even more inward looking for several reasons (finding market forces earlier in European history, reducing European development to market-driven growth alone, and treating the Industrial Revolution as a European phenomenon), which tendency has unhelpful consequences such as eliding the crucial role of overseas empire and fudging the units of comparison. Britain is not really comparable to India or China; those large units are much more properly compared with Europe as a whole, and Britain with certain regions within it such as the Yangzi Delta. Rather than look for things that made Europe "different," it is better to look for things that made England not like the Yangzi Delta. Visualizing the Industrial Revolution in Britain as a rupture that needs to be explained allows us to see the question of when Europe became uniquely rich as being closely linked to the question of its escape from Malthusian (and Smithian) limits into sustained per capita economic growth. It also reminds us that industrial capitalism is solely a phenomenon of the 1800s, and that European industrialization was quite limited outside of Britain until at least 1860--both important facts that are often forgotten in constructing these arguments.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. )

Critical assessment: If I could work my will, every historian of Euro-America would read this book. I've heard friends of mine who do economic history express skepticism about aspects of Pomeranz' arguments, but I've never been able to actually pin them down as to what exactly they object to; while it's certainly possible to quibble with aspects of Pomeranz' argument (for instance, he phrases aspects of his arguments about Japan in ways that are misleading at best and in a few instances flat-out wrong), I suspect that on the whole he's generally correct. This massive book is a masterpiece of comparative history.

Further reading: DeVries, Braudel, etc.

Meta notes: "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn't exist." Similarly, the greatest trick western Europe ever pulled was massacring and exploiting two continents and enslaving another, then stumbling into the absolute rupture of the Industrial Revolution by happenstance and creating all of sociology and history as academic disciplines to justify their success as innate and natural ex post facto. Pomeranz' work is essential in rebalancing the scales, and he has done an excellent job of it.


ahorbinski: shelves stuffed with books (Default)
Andrea J. Horbinski

May 2016

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