Ten Years of Debate on the Origins of the Great Divergence between the Economies of Europe and China during the Era of Mercantilism and Industrialization

28 12 2010

Shortly before Christmas, historian Patrick O’Brien published “Ten Years of Debate on the Origins of the Great Divergence between the Economies of Europe and China during the Era of Mercantilism and Industrialization”. Essentially, this review essay was about the scholarly debates sparked by Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2000, ISBN: 9780691090108; 392pp.)

Professor O’Brien is head of a major collaborative research project on global economic history  funded by the European Union. This project is called  Useful and Reliable Knowledge in Global Histories of Material Progress in the East and the West (URKEW). The project focuses upon institutions, cosmologies and cultures, promoting or restraining the accumulation of useful and reliable knowledge for industrial and agricultural production in the Orient and the Occident in the early-modern period – from the accession of the Ming Dynasty (c.1368) to the First Industrial Revolution (c. 1756-1846). The working hypothesis behind the project is that for the past three centuries, Western exceptionalism in the economic sphere has been in some considerable degree based upon a distinct regime for the generation and diffusion of such knowledge. To do the research for this project, Professor O’Brien assembled a team that includes specialists in the economic histories of Japan, China, India, and the Islamic world. O’Brien has a long list of publications and is one of the few people who can speak with authority about the ultra-important questions raised by Pomeranz’s book.

Pomeranz’s book sought to answer a truly fundamental question– when and how did the so-called West surpass East Asian is terms of its level of technological and economic development? What factors drove the rise of the West? Pomeranz argued that the rise of the west was quite recent and that until the eighteenth century, East Asia and Western Europe were quite similar to each other in terms of their social institutions and overall level of economic development. This is what O’Brien means when he says that the New Global History is a story of “Surprising Resemblances”.

Needless to say, Pomeranz was grappling with some of the biggest questions in history. O’Brien’s essay discusses Marx, Weber, and other great thinkers who have thought about them.

In this essay, O’Brien repeats an argument he has made elsewhere, namely, that the colonization of the Americas by Europeans provides the key to explaining the Great Divergence.

Europeans (not Chinese, Arabs or Indians) discovered conquered, infected, plundered, colonized and eventually established mutually beneficial, commercial relationships with the Americas. That protracted enterprise should not be designated as ‘peripheral’ (as I suggested, before climbing onto a learning curve some 18 years ago) nor reified (as it continues to be in the writings of Immanuel Wallerstein, James Blaut and the world systems school of historical sociology), as the ‘motor’ driving Europe’s benign transformation towards successful industrial market economies over the course of the 19th century.

It would be interesting to know what O’Brien thinks of Deirdre McCloskey’s neo-Weberian argument that the rise of the West was driven by the advent of a new pro-business bourgeois culture that facilitated economic growth.  She wrote:

A big change in the common opinion about markets and innovation, I claim, caused the Industrial Revolution, and then the modern world. The change occurred during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in northwestern Europe. More or less suddenly the Dutch and British and then the Americans and the French began talking about the middle class, high or low — the “bourgeoisie” — as though it were dignified and free. The result was modern economic growth. See here as well as my earlier blog posts on McCloskey.

You can read the full essay here.

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