California School of Global Historians on the Great Divergence Explaining European Hegemony

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* Article: Great Divergence and Great Convergence in a Global Perspective. By Jack A. Goldstone. Social Evolution & History, Vol. 15 No. 2, September 2016 194–200



"Since man first forged metal tools and started farming for his food, thus emerging from the Stone Age, no event in human history has had a greater impact than the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During that span, Europeans increased their use of fossil fuel energy by several orders of magnitude, began to use that fossil fuel energy to produce motive power as well as heat, and developed a host of high-efficiency industrial processes and new modes of transportation, with spillovers into military technology as well. As a result, Europeans went from ‘underdeveloped’ nations, who mainly traded raw materials and bullion for the manufactured and plantation goods of the ‘developed’ world of Asia (cotton and silk textiles; ceramics and lacquer ware and tropical woods; coffee, tea, indigo, nuts, and spices), and who were allowed limited trading roles on the suffrage of India, China, and Japan, to the world's center of manufacturing and manufactured exports, with military dominance and the ability to dictate terms of trade to the major Asian societies. The shorthand summary of this process for the last two centuries has been the ‘Rise of the West’ and explaining it has been one of the central questions of the social sciences.

The traditional view since the time of Karl Marx and Max Weber, extended by the twentieth century scholars such as William McNeil (1963, 1990) and David Landes (1998), was that since the Middle Ages, Europe was a uniquely creative society that advanced in agriculture, accounting, use of wind and water power, and craftsmanship, while Asian societies reached their peak of development in the medieval period, and thereafter simply maintained themselves in a kind of ‘frozen’ state of development or even declined. While in the medieval period the societies of Abbasid Islam and Song China might have started at a higher level of economic productivity and technology than Europe, the ‘rise’ of European productivity and technology over the succeeding centuries led to European global domination by the nineteenth century.

Yet, in the last two decades, a group of comparative sociologists and global historians have offered a counter-narrative, led by scholars of the ‘California School’ of global historians (Goldstone 1991, 2002, 2008a, 2008b; Pomeranz 2000, 2002; Wong 1997; Frank 1998; Marks 2002; Vries 2003, 2010). This counternarrative called attention to the continuing vitality of agricultural and manufacturing technology in Asia, with India and China remaining world-dominant manufacturing powers up through the seventeenth century. It illustrated relatively high living standards among the Asian agricultural population, comparable to those in Europe, up to 1800. And it demonstrated that Asian merchants and pirates were the equal or superior of European trading companies in wealth and military prowess until the late 1700s. In this counternarrative, the dominant position of Europe arose rather quickly, not as a long ‘rise’ but as a sudden ‘Great Divergence’ from roughly equal levels of productivity and material well-being c. 1750 to clear European dominance a century later. Both the traditional view and the California school view prompted similar questions: What caused Europe to reach clear superiority in wealth and power c. 1850? And is this superiority destined to last a long time, or will it disappear as quickly as it arrived? Yet, they provided very different answers."


The contribution of Leonid Grinin and Andrey Korotayev

Jack Goldstone:

"Into this confusion, Leonid Grinin and Andrey Korotayev bring clarity and order. They treat the period from 1450 to 1830 as a lengthy period of innovation and productivity increase in Europe, starting from a relatively low level of inventive activity and technology, but proceeding through a series of phases, of which the last phase – from 1760 to 1830, constituting the ‘classic’ Industrial Revolution – was only the final phase of a lengthy process. These phases began with a ‘preparatory’ period from 1100 to 1450 in which the development of free labor and capitalist relations set the stage for profit-seeking and further economic developments, peaking in the rich luxury manufactures of Venice and the trade and accounting and artistic and scientific breakthroughs of the Renaissance.

Then the ‘long sixteenth century’ from the late fifteenth to the early seventeenth century showed remarkable advances in oceanic navigation, engineering, windmills and water power, and commercialized high productivity agriculture, led by the Portuguese and Spanish, but also Germany and the Netherlands. This was also the age of the great discoveries and the early breakthroughs to the mechanical model of nature in European sciences. After this period, the next phase arose from the early seventeenth century through the third quarter of the eighteenth century, led by advances in Britain and especially the Netherlands. This period saw the consolidation of constitutional monarchy in Britain and of oligarchic republican rule in the Netherlands; the latter's development of mechanization, fishing, warehousing, and complex industrial centers; and the rise of global trading companies and military advances, especially in naval warfare. All of these prior developments then set the stage for the ‘final phase’ of the Industrial Revolution utilizing fossil- fuel and water-powered machinery and major advances in chemical processes and transport as well.

This new view, carefully presented and rigorously modeled by Grinin and Korotayev, provides a richer and more nuanced version of the ‘Great Divergence’, bridging many of the differences between the traditional and California viewpoints. Yet they go further. Amazingly, by building a model utilizing human capital (education), global population growth, and regional productivity, they show how both the Great Divergence and the recent ‘Great Convergence’ (the economic catching up of developing countries) are phases of the same process of global modernization. They make it clear that once begun, the Great Divergence inevitably leads to later Convergence through the globalization of the world economy. Yet they also explain specific regional lags and variations in this process. This is a remarkable achievement and a major advance in the debate on the long-term trajectory of global economic development. The Russian global-historical systems school of scholarship has long been making important contributions to identifying and explaining the major patterns in long-term world history (Turchin and Korotayev 2006; Turchin and Nefedov 2009; Korotayev et al. 2006a, 2006b; Korotayev and Tsirel 2010; Grinin 2007, 2011a, 2012a; Grinin and Korotayev 2006)."