Sunday, 8 February 2015

Wasn't Britain special? Review of 'Why the West rules - for now'

I can hardly review the whole of this enormous volume, which deals with transitions from the adoption of agriculture through the fall of Rome and the Mongol invasions all the way to the Singularity.

I will focus on just one historic power-shift, the one I am most interested by: Britain's rise to world-domination as part of the Great Divergence, the divide between the West and the Rest (especially China) that has been the subject of many recent books.  I am curious about it because I can't help but think there is something special about the pre-industrial history of British society that books like this miss out, and about which I am hungry to find out more.  It seems to be an area of research that has developed in the last 15 years without as yet gaining popular recognition.

Between roughly 1750 and 1850 Great Britain developed so as to conduct the first industrial revolution and to accrue the power to impose its will around the world, gobbling up rival empires, resisting Napoleon, ruling India, claiming a new continent for settlement, forcing open China for the opium trade, and even rebounding stronger than ever from her only major setback, the secession of the USA from the Empire.

Why Britain?  Morris' explanation is essentially the following.

(i) In Northwest Europe, meaning Britain and the Netherlands, royal governments were weaker than elsewhere in Europe.

(ii) The British and Dutch were booming trading nations already in the 17th century, with the business class more politically influential than elsewhere.

(iii) The Dutch and British were deeply involved in the developing Atlantic economy, the world's biggest, fastest, most profitable long-range market system, geographically diverse and therefore economically diversified, crisscrossed by various triangular and bilateral exchanges (dependent on slave cash-cropping) between Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and North America.

(iv) The booming trade out of London and Amsterdam drove market-oriented specialisation of the British and Dutch economies into the supply of tradable goods, this trade in turn driving a rise in living standards and consumerism borne out by the high wages enjoyed relative to the rest of Europe, where the return of population growth following the Black Death had only driven a Malthusian division of ever scarcer fixed resources.




Robert Allen's wages data
(v) By 1700, Britain had adopted Dutch expertise in finance (helped of course by the fact that the William of Orange successfully carried out a coup d'etat against James II in 1689).  The issuing of national debt, backed by dependable taxation, allowed Britain to not only fight her own wars, but also to bankroll the continential enemies of France, without going bankrupt.  After paying for the defeat of Napoleon, Britain bestrode the world, taking her pick of the Dutch and French colonies, then financing the development of Latin America and pushing where she wished in Africa.

(vi) By a stroke of luck, not only did Britain have high wages, but also some of the most easily accessible sources of coal.  The entrepreneurs of her dynamic trading economy took advantage of this price discrepancy by inventing and perfecting coal-powered steam-engines that drove the industrial revolution.  For the first time, wide-scale production could switch from feeble muscle-power to harness the immense chemical energy latent in fossil fuels.  (See Robert Allen's essay here.)

(vii) With her financial wealth and industrial productivity, Britain could usually and eventually defeat any Western enemy in war, and impose remarkably easily against any power in the rest of the world.  In the Opium Wars, British warships halfway around the world opened up with cannons against Chinese troops armed with bows and arrows.  They looked to one observer like the warriors in medieval illuminations still going on oblivious to the passing of centuries.

A process like this was unlikely to occur quickly in China, Morris argues, despite the fact that China around 1200 was enjoying what looked suspiciously like an incipient industrial revolution.  China was a land empire exposed to regular depredation and ruin by steppe nomads, like the Mongols who raided, invaded, and conquered her in the course of six decades in the 13th century.  Its development kept being set back.  Nor did China develop the expansive oceanic trade of Western Europe.  Looking on from 1750, the Far East did not host the sort of liberal, trading, offshore, coal-rich state in which an industrial revolution should be looked for.

What could be missing from this analysis?

For me, the key element which I feel is needed to complete this theory is an explanation of factors (i) and (ii).  Why did Britain (and the Netherlands) develop societies that were so precociously mercantile and capitalistic in their people's drive for trade and profit?  Societies in which not only were the bourgeoisie powerful, but aristocrats had to recognise the way things were going by turning themselves into capitalists, and this at a time when much of Europe retained a stagnant feudal social landscape of peasant and lord?  And why were these the preeminent states in which absolutism was warded off and displaced by strong traditions of parliamentary accountability?

Because if you do not have a commercial society, you do not get the thorough, ever-growing development of Atlantic trade, you do not get a high pre-industrial standard of living, you do not get entrepreneurial industrialists seeking a cheap engineering substitute for labour, and thus you do not get to have the first industrial revolution.

My question is, wasn't there something special about the social system of Britain (and the Netherlands) that primed them to turn into the prime beneficiaries of the Atlantic economy?  After all, Spain dominated Latin America for three centuries without turning into a throughly commercial society.  It was in England (have we to do with England rather than Britain in the end?) that already in early Tudor times the landowners were enclosing their estates to turn them from feudal manors into commercial wool plantations.  Look up the word 'enclosure' on French Wikipedia, and the article has exclusively to do with Britain!

One well-known book which puts the case for a precociously individualistic and marketised England is Alan MacFarlane's Origins of English Individualism (1978), but his thesis based on analysis of land records has not been accepted (JSTOR) by anything like a consensus.

This is an area where I would like to read more: The Rise of Market Society in England, 1066-1800 (2013) (a few chapters available on Google books) sounds like just the sort of thing I need to look into.  For me, there is a back-story to the Industrial Revolution in England's earlier commercial history that might really be the clue to the whole thing.  How far back does England go in being unusual, dare I say, in a very Whiggish and unfashionable way, special?

This map, from Emmanuel Todd's book L'invention de l'Europe (1990), shows that Britain and a few other regions including the coastal Netherlands were unusual in Europe in terms of their pattern of inheritance.  Only these regions were traditionally characterised by la famille nucl√©aire et absolu.  This is Todd's classification for cultures where the custom was that the younger generation married and formed independent households and that inheritances were shared out according to the (legal) will of the older generation, rather than by a principle of equality.  Todd describes this culture as 'maximal individualisme':
The maximal individualism of this family system ... not only insists on the necessary independence of children vis-à-vis parents, but demands too the separation of brothers by not treating them as equals.
(My translation.)
Was it a coincidence that the Netherlands and England, Europe's most commercial societies, were characterised by this unusually individualistic inheritance culture?  Were they perhaps thoroughly individualistic relatively to the rest of Europe?


I don't profess to know the answer.  But if there was already something unusual about England's or Britain's history in being the only large, thoroughly commercial nation, well before even the discovery of the Americas, wouldn't that really be the root of the whole thing?

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Some relevant articles and books:

Allen, 'The British Industrial Revolution in global perspective'
Allen, 'Progress and Poverty in Early Modern Europe'

Koot, 'The Little Divergence and the birth of the first modern economy, or when and why did northwestern Europe become much richer than southern and eastern Europe'

Broadberry, 'Accounting for the Great Divergence'

Eisenberg, The Rise of Market Society in England, 1066-1800

Van Zanden, The Long Road to the Industrial Revolution

Vries, 'Are coal and colonies really crucial?  Kenneth Pomeranz and the Great Divergence'

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