During the last 20 years or so in American education, courses in World History have replaced courses in Western Civilization as compulsory for most undergraduates. The Illinois State Board of Education, for example, now requires students who want to be certified in Illinois public schools to have at least two semesters of a World History, rather than a Western Civilization survey. This change is the result of a host of factors including decolonization in the post-World War II era; the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s; and the rise of Ethnic and Women’s Studies and of Social History and Environmental History in the more recent past.
There remains, however, much debate about how World History should be conceptualized. Should the organizing principles (or explanations) be cultural, environmental, economic, social, or political? Even more contention surrounds the relative weight given European powers and economic forces during a period in which some European states were able to exert unprecedented control over the globe. As one might imagine these debates are not entirely “academic”. They resonate with the “culture wars” and the debate over multiculturalism that are themselves the result of profound demographic and political changes affecting the American social fabric.
I am in the process of teaching a graduate course on this subject. I have come up with a reading list that spans the spectrum from the unabashedly Eurocentric (David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor (1999)) to largely empirical challenges to Eurocentrism in world history (Kenneth Pomerantz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2011)) through the efforts by post-colonial writers to recenter history-writing (Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) who I just discovered passed away last summer) to more radical feminist and Marxist critiques (Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (2004) and Peter Gran, The Rise of the Rich: A New View or Modern World History (2009)). There are others in between.
Where to start?
The first book the students are reading is the one by David Landes. The book opens boldly: “My aim in writing this book is to do world history. Not, however, in the multicultural, anthropological sense of intrinsic parity: all peoples are equal and the historian tries to attend to them all. Rather, I thought to trace and understand the main stream of economic advance and modernization; how have we come to where and what we are, in the sense making, getting, and spending.” (xi) The author’s revulsion for the changes in the academy over recent decades is palpable.
What is most curious about the book is that Landes has resurrected a host old economic and social theories that I thought had been discredited long ago. His question is: why, today, are some countries (the West) very rich and others so incredibly poor (the Rest). His main argument, in a nutshell, is that Europeans (and perhaps the Japanese) are culturally superior to other peoples at least in the arenas that have led to technological innovation and the accumulation of material wealth. But this overarching proposition is buttressed by other arguments that consider climate, politics, and society.
As the title of the book suggest, his biggest single inspiration is Adam Smith, author of Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith was an individualist first and foremost. His concept of laissez faire economics was developed in reaction against the mercantilist and monopolizing policies dictated by states upon merchants and producers in his day. Smith believed that if restrictions were lifted on those with capital and those who could offer labor or expertise, then each individual pursuing his individual good to the best of his ability would naturally (but not on purpose) lift those around him by selling goods, making wealth, and providing jobs. Sound familiar? I hear echoes of Mitt Romney and others on the American political Right.
Landes opens his book, however, not with a discussion of economics but with environment and climate. I think historians since Herodotus (d. 425 BCE) have thought that climate and environment shape societies. The Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu (d. 1755) Spirit of the Laws (1748) pioneered the idea of separating powers but also promoted the theory that climate shapes society. So, not surprisingly, his native France’s temperate climate was the ideal. In hot climes, however, people were liable to be “hot tempered” and lazy. Several of Landes’ chapters take up this approach, both in celebrating those in temperate zones where the will to work is strongest and in pitying those in the south where disease and lethargy hamper human progress. In Landes’ version, heat impedes activity (because the body needs time to cool) so we find the siesta and other impediments to realizing one’s full economic potential.
Related to the environment, the use of water in particular, Landes employs another well worn theory about how societies have historically organized their economies. Here, he follows Karl August Wittfogel (d. 1988) who promoted a “hydraulic” theory of empire in 1957. For the ancient riverine civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus, and China, argued Wittfogel, the accumulation of surplus depended on a hierarchical division of labor overseen by autocratic rulers. Over the ages, this produced what Karl Marx first called the “Asiatic mode of production”. A parallel political concept was that of “oriental despotism”. In these societies, individual initiative and even the desire to innovate and create has been snuffed out of the entire population. In sum, “Bad government strangled initiative, increased the cost of transactions, diverted talent from commerce and industry.” (56).
But, concedes Landes, “geography is not destiny”. (15) Culture looms even larger. What are the cultural attributes that made Europeans prime candidates for economic and technological advancement? Landes argues, first, that the Judeo-Christian tradition set the stage for key two key components: the sanctity of private property and resistance to autocracy. “The concept of private property rights went back to biblical times and was transmitted and transformed by Christian teaching. The Hebrew hostility to autocracy, even their own, was formed in Egypt and the desert.” (34)
These ancient cultural characteristics combined with medieval-era progress in lifting restrictions on peasants and artisans and in creating corporate autonomy in the cities in western Europe set the stage for a 1000-year incubation period in which economic and technological developments gradually took shape. Then, around 1500, a series breakthroughs took place western Europe, and in England in particular, that would stun everyone and lead to a revolutionary transformation of the world on par with the Neolithic Revolution which gave us settled agriculture 10,000 years ago.
The breakthrough, in Landes’ telling, was due more to habits of mind and behavior which were fostered by Protestantism. Here he is following in the footsteps of Max Weber whose The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) proposed this link. According to Weber, Protestantism (Calvinism in particular) was more conducive than Catholicism to making money rationally (through investment) as Protestants did not believe that there was anything sinful about worldly pursuits and that, in fact, prosperity in this world might signal being among the elect, those predestined for rewards in the next world. These values contributed to the “work ethic” that powered capitalism in the northern and predominantly Protestant European countries in contrast to their primarily Catholic neighbors to the south.
Landes’ has updated the history of capitalism in Western Europe and has new evidence for challenges to economic development in the global south (eg. AIDS in Subsaharan Africa) but he has not offered much more than a conglomeration of old theories which may help explain developments in Europe but offer very little empirical or theoretical insight into the nature of economic disparities in world today. There is more to the gap between the rich and poor in the world today than can be explained by culture or nation or geography.
More interesting from my standpoint is why such a book gets such attention and receives such acclaim at the beginning of the 21st century. It is as if those social and political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s have been ignored and their impact on scholarship discarded. Does the appearance of a book like this mark a revival of Eurocentrism in world history? Is this neo-Eurocentrism at work?
Please stay tuned as I will try to keep this up as the semester proceeds. Please offer any insights or suggestions you can.