Capitalist Origins, the Advent of Modernity, and Coherent Explanation: A Response to Joseph M. Bryant

Article excerpt

For many decades, there has been a "standard story" of the rise of the West. At some point after 1000 AD--whether it was with the medieval commercial expansion; or the early Renaissance rediscovery of ancient Greek thought; or the continental trade expansion based on the Hanseatic league, Champagne fairs, Bruges cloth trade, and Italian banking and Mediterranean trade; or the seafaring ventures of the Portuguese and Spanish; or the Reformation--not much later than 1500, "the West" developed a new dynamic institutional and cultural framework that began to lift it out of its post-Roman Empire torpor, and launched it on the path to modernity. Industrialization came as a later outgrowth of this earlier shift to capitalism or modernity, but it was a natural outgrowth of the earlier dynamism of Europe. This contrasted with institutional and cultural stagnation in the major civilizations of Asia--the Ottomans, India, China, and Japan--such that an increasingly advanced Europe was able to dominate and colonize Asian societies in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Against this view, a number of historians and historical sociologists of which I am one, and which I have identified as the "California School," have argued that whatever their institutional and cultural differences, there was in fact no significant divergence of material living standards in Europe from those in the advanced Asian societies until much later, c. 1800. (2) Despite the very different cultural and institutional frameworks of the major European states, the Ottoman Empire, and China, which admittedly took different approaches to governance, religion, and political organization, we argue that they nonetheless shared very similar overall political and economic dynamics until about 1850. The only exception is Great Britain, which, starting in the 18th century, embarked on a peculiar path of unique industrial innovations that gave birth to a modern world, which was quickly imitated and built upon by other European states and the United States in the 19th century, before spreading to the rest of the world in the later 19th and 20th centuries. Moreover, this peculiar British move to industrial innovation was not simply an outgrowth of broad European patterns of culture and institutions, but a contingent outcome of conditions that happened to come together in Britain in a way that did not happen elsewhere, and very conceivably would not have happened in Britain either if it had followed a "typical" European trajectory.

Joseph Bryant objects to this revisionist story as both "empirically suspect" and "analytically incoherent." It is neither; rather Bryant misunderstands the argument. What Bryant does exceptionally well is identify why the debate is significant, what evidence is crucial, and which elements of the California School causal story are suspect. It is thus with great respect for his essay that I respond.

Bryant states that the revisionists claim that "the major societies across Eurasia were all progressing along a comparable course of modernizing development" (p. 403). This is incorrect. Rather, the revisionist claim is that none of the major societies across Eurasia, including Europe, were progressing along a course of modernizing development. From 1500-1800 the major states of Europe, China, India, and the Ottoman Empire were all experiencing a similar course of advanced organic development, with absolutist bureaucratic states, highly productive agriculture, a sophisticated urban culture, and extensive long-distance trade in both luxuries and daily necessities. They all experienced periods of demographic expansion, price increases, and trade expansion from 1500-1850, interrupted by political and economic crises in the periods 1590-1660 and again from 1770-1850. Yet in all of them, the material standard of living c. 1800 was no greater than it had been c. 1500; no effect of cultural or institutional dynamics leading to a materially superior civilization in the West is evident. …