economic history, eurasian history, history, history of asia, history of capitalism, history of europe, history of the united states, History of the US, Uncategorized, world history

Book Review: Kenneth Pomeranz,The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton University Press, 2001), Pp. 392.

 

book.jpgHistorian Kenneth Pomeranz sets out to argue a counterargument to the old linear narrative of history and especially European “excellence.” Pomeranz offers a revisionist history in his book entitled, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Pomeranz’s thesis states, “This book…acknowledges the vital role of internally driven European growth but emphasizes how similar those processes were to processes at work elsewhere, especially in east Asia, until almost 1800 ” (3). Pomeranz finds comparative methodology more productive than delineated differences in the historical record. Taking major themes of difference and finding counter comparisons is ultimately how Pomeranz discuses in this truly world historical narratives.

The first concepts that Pomeranz discusses, and pushes back on, is this idea of perception in terms of European excellence and the reality of Asia’s equality of excellence. For example perceptions about life expectancy, birthrate/death rates, markets, and technology all become sites of similarity rather than differences in the history of both these regions (32-68). Pomeranz reviews the technology arguments of European “excellence” stating, “In many areas, various non-European societies remained ahead. Irrigation which we have already mentioned, was perhaps the most obvious; and in many other agricultural technologies, too, Europe lagged behind China, India, Japan, and parts of Southeast Asia” (45).  Ultimately, Pomeranz goes about his findings by debunking narratives of European “excellence” into a narrative of European and Asian connection.

The second argument, Pomeranz debates is the idea of  notions of Europe having “special” institutions. Pomeranz states, “Far from being unique, then, the most developed parts of western Europe seem to have shared crucial economic features—commercialization, commodification of goods, land and labor, market-driven growth and adjustment by households of both fertility and labor allocation to economic trends—with other densely populated core areas in Eurasia” (107).  Again there are more comparable historical realities than difference in the narrative of world history. Pomeranz also discusses this in comparing economic realities stating, “Europe did not stand out form China and Japan…Thus, at least so far, we would seem to have similar conditions in these three societies for the emergence of the new kinds of firms that we generally think of as ‘capitalist’” (165). Again, Pomeranz draws upon the similarities of capitalism between countries rather than the played out Eurocentric narratives of capitalism being a distinct feature or derivative of Europe.

The last unit of analysis for Pomeraz is the ecological and industrial side of the historical narratives. Pomeranz states, “It was through creating the preconditions for those flows [‘New World resources’] that European capitalism and military fiscalism—as par of a larger global conjuncture—really mattered” (207).  This stream of resource accumulation is discussed in terms of “shared constraints” by both Asia and Europe (211).  An example of one of these shared constraints is deforestation. Pomeranz discusses the similarities in the ecological arguments of difference; stating, “China’s problems with forest cover and fuel supply were more serious, but probably not as bad as we often think, and—surprisingly—not clearly worse than those of western Europe”(227). This narrative debunks old notions of unique attributes given to Europe.

One critique that I did have was in the limited regions Pomeranz focuses on in the historical narrative he offers. Although Pomeranz does try to discuss different regions of Asia and Europe, he is still stuck in the Europe vs Asia binary of world history story.  Overall, positives out weigh the negatives in this historical offering.  Pomeranz drives home his main point in the end of his monograph asserting, “History is never as neat as the chimpanzee/human case…Instead, we have statements of rough similarity, or of advantages that seem closely tied to some off-setting disadvantage” (280). Moreover, I would suggest this more exhaustive and inclusive historical narrative to historians and anyone who is tired of the same old Eurocentric narratives.

10/10

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economic history, eurasian history, history, history of asia, history of capitalism, history of europe, history of the united states, Uncategorized, world history

Book Review: Andre Gunder Frank, ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley: University of California Press), Pp. 416.

Narratives about world history have been riddled with complication, debate, and imbalance. Some historians have decided to take a European centered approach, known as Eurocentrism. This approach has been noted, and is agreed upon by many scholars, as extremely problematic. Are their alternative way to write or discuss world history? This weeks author, Andre Gunder Frank discusses and offers an alternative to this complicated debate. In Franks book entitled, ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age, there is a major change in the world history narrative. Frank takes old narratives, Eurocentric approachs, and uses a different approach entirely which “instead works from the whole world inward” (51). This can be understood as taking the entire historical normative, static, and flattened world history narrative and repositioning the center as Asia; refashioning the narrative “which is thereby turned on its head” (51). This advent takes on a different focal point, in which Europe is exposed as behind not forward in the advances of the times.

Frank takes on the narrative project of world history by not only starting with Asia as center but also by pointing out the faulty foundation of European expansionism. Frank states, “It is completely counterfactual and antihistorical to claim that…. ‘Europe built a world around itself.’ It did not; it used its American money to buy itself a ticket on the Asian train” (xxiv-xxv). One of the authors central points is in highlighting European’s access into Asian market economy. By doing this, Frank shows how Asia really was interested in one commodity in particular—silver. Frank states, “Asians would buy nothing else from Europe other than the silver it got out of its colonies in the Americas” (134). This was the in for European market economy. This was particularly true in 1492 and 1498. Frank notices the gain in access from Europeans to Asian markets via American silver gave access to Europe becoming a major player (59). But one may ask why silver? If silver is the major commodity that shifts the market, why and how does this happen in the first place? Frank explains by situating the importance of coin vs paper economics  in the Ming dynasty. Frank discusses the important element of supply and demand stating, “Chinese public demand for silver and the large size and productivity of the Chinese economy and its consequent export surplus generated a huge demand for, and increase in the price of, silver worldwide” (112). This shifting importance drove to major contributing factor in supply and demand within the market. Europe had an in (silver)  and this would now be their one commodity that they could sell and also gain a position in the global economy. Before that Europe wasn’t even a main player in the global economy and certainly not among Asian markets.

This analysis that Frank gives highlights Europe’s weakness. Frank asserts this notion stating, “That it may have been the other way around, that maybe it was the world that made Europe” (3). Europe had no special or innate characteristic in their historical relevance. Frank drives home this point stating, “Despite their access to American money to buy themselves into the world economy in Asia, for the three centuries after 1500 the Europeans still remained a small player” (185). Frank ultimately wants to challenge and highlight  a “temporary” situation (258). By relying on a more inclusive approach to historical analyses by critiquing the binary of traditional vs modern Frank, most interestingly, tries to answer the question on how and why Europe got into a position of power.  Frank states, “Why the West won (temporarily)…One answer is that the Asians were weakened, and the other answer is that the Europeans were strengthened” (258). Frank asserts one of the reasons of “growing economic and political strains in Asia” (267). This may have put Asia at a disadvantage when delegating world power and domination in the world economy. Fusion of economic and political structure was critical to the shift in Asia to European power relations. Frank states, “Economic advantage of Asia between 1400 and 1800 may have been turned to its own disadvantage and to the advantage instead of the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (259). This is accounted for in the events of the Chinese opium trade. Frank asserts, “In China, rapid economic dislocation occurred only in the early nineteenth century, via the opium trade and its bullion drain of silver out of China, which destabilized the entire economic system” (274).

Frank concludes his book driving home his point that Europe didn’t hold any particular advantage to the rest of the world. Frank states, “The Europeans had no exceptional, let alone superior, ethnic, rational, organizational, or spirt-of-capitalist advantages to offer, diffuse, or do anything else in Asia” (283). This alternative narrative that Frank offers is directly critiquing Eurocentric or diffusionist approach that many historians have taken when discussing world history. One of the most sought after explanations in European dominance is the technological advances arguments. Frank goes after this argument by stating, “These technological developments of the industrial revolution should not be regarded as only European achievements. Instead, they must be understood more properly as wolf developments whose spatial locus moved to and through the West at the time after having long moved about the East” (285). Movement rather than an intrinsic or special attribute of Europe is Franks focus. Franks final conclusion, or even seen as a prediction, asserts, “Therefore, it is conceivable that the West and the East will again trade places in the global economy and in world society in the not to distant and already dimly foreseeable future” (320). Taking world history on a route in tracking the historical direction, center, and re-shiftings in the future is an alternative offering in world history. Alternative narratives of world history add to a more expansive and conclusive rendering of the past, present, and provokes intrigue into the future historical possibilities. I would suggest all historians expose themselves to this monograph as well as anyone who wants a reference to argue against problematic diffusionist and Eurocentric narratives.

 

 

 

10/10