The History of History 11: The Great Divergence

Our readings this week disrupted the chronological approach to great books that we have used so far. Last week, we read Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–05). This week, we read Immanuel Wallerstein’s World-Systems Analysis (2004) and Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence (2000). These two books reflect a century’s worth of new research, but the texts belong to the same social science tradition as Protestant Ethic, and their authors share Weber’s interest in probing the nature of capitalism. Pomeranz, Wallerstein, and Weber would all agree that capitalism is a defining part of modernity. Beyond these surface-level similarities, however, the works of Pomeranz and Wallerstein diverge from those of their predecessor Weber. Wallerstein’s method of world-systems analysis combines politics, economics, and sociology to understand global capitalism, but the method excludes culture, which is central to Weber’s thinking. In this way, Wallerstein reflects some of Karl Marx’s materialism (sans praise for communist revolution). Pomeranz does consider culture in his study of global capitalism, but he rejects the Eurocentrism that is central to Weber’s thinking, and he blurs disciplinary boundaries by drawing heavily from environmental science. Finally, Wallerstein and Pomeranz study long-term trends, but unlike Weber and Marx, they do not think that capitalism is an inevitable stage of world history. Rather, Wallerstein and Pomeranz argue that capitalism arose because of specific historical factors.

If you’re scratching your head at this point, or writing a flow chart to keep the differences between these authors clear, I don’t blame you. These two texts are some of the most convoluted that I’ve read in my graduate career. Thank goodness I’ve read Pomeranz previously, because the tiny nuances of his argument are overwhelming on a first pass. Wallerstein’s book is a theoretical introduction to the world-systems approach, so it lacks footnotes and doesn’t have as much raw data crammed into its pages. With that said, Wallerstein writes about concepts so abstract that you have to read some sentences multiple times to get at their meaning.

Diverging from Weber, who regarded the West’s solitary laborers as innately superior to Asia’s household economic units, Immanuel Wallerstein believes that households were key units in the development of capitalism. However, Western firms dominated global capitalism after the sixteenth century, as monopolized core countries in Europe produced more goods than free-market peripheral countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (W. 2004, 11–12, 17–18). Close relationships with state governments helped Western firms gain their monopolistic status. Yet the capitalist system has remained volatile, moving through expansion-to-stagnation sequences that Wallerstein calls Kondratieff cycles. As Ivan Eckhardt explains in his review of Wallerstein, periods of corporate growth in core regions (phase A) are “followed by a contraction (phase B, recession), marked by the de-monopolization of industries and the shift to periphery both in terms of profitability and geography. Peak follows trough in one wave after another.”[1] (I quote Eckhardt because I think he puts this material in clearer words than I could render.) Liberal democracy is the other major factor in Western hegemony. Wallerstein devotes his fourth chapter to the ascent of liberalism, supported by European and American states, in the world’s geoculture, although liberalism competed with rival strains of conservatism and socialism.

In a parallel to Marx, Wallerstein believes that the current world system will end, but unlike Marx, he does not think the next world system is predetermined. Wallerstein believes that the global revolution of 1968, when peripheral countries protested both the U.S. and U.S.S.R., destabilized the global economy. He notes growing problems like the need to pay workers more money, the need for more supplies, decaying infrastructure, and the rise of taxation in order to support welfare states (W. 2004, 80–85). Positive developments like campaigns against racism and sexism have been matched by the reactionary politics of al-Qaeda and, in a claim sure to make American readers squirm, the U.S. political right. Looking forward, Wallerstein thinks we will have to choose our next world system — we will either turn against liberalism toward hierarchical governments, or we will opt for a more egalitarian world (89). This prophetic passage resonates in our current political climate; Wallerstein is the cynical answer to Marx, replacing utopian hope with a hard, realistic look at the world’s mounting crises. Unfortunately, I don’t find Wallerstein as compelling when he covers the formation of capitalism. World-systems theory feels incomplete without looking at culture; Wallerstein may overstate the prevalence of capitalist monopolies in the sixteenth century, when mercantilism — the extraction of goods from colonies — was the dominant economic system; and Wallerstein cites few historical incidents to support his monopoly thesis. The world-systems approach has a flaw common to social scientists and postmodern theorists: There aren’t enough people or choices in the narrative.

Now let’s consider The Great Divergence. Pomeranz believes that multiple cores of world economic growth existed, separating Pomeranz’s approach from Wallerstein’s European-core/Third-World-periphery approach. Still, like Wallerstein, Pomeranz believes that Asian households (e.g., Chinese women en masse, weaving at home) were very productive during the early modern period. Rejecting the Weberian/modernist claim that Europeans were more civilized than Asians, Pomeranz argues that parts of Asia were as advanced or more advanced than Europe in the eighteenth century. The Chinese lived as long or longer than Europeans, experimented with widespread textile production and small-scale capitalism in households, and knew about steam power and fossil fuels. China had a market for luxury goods larger than the equivalent market in the Low Countries. Proto-industrialism surfaced in Japan and India. So why did British industry (and eventually mainland Europe’s industries) outpace Asia? Pomeranz believes the answer lies in environmental factors.

During the eighteenth century, Europe and China struggled against Malthusian limits. The economist Thomas Malthus believed that the need for food, fuel, fiber, and building materials limits a country’s ability to grow its economy (P. 2000, 19). Britain gained extra momentum from its coal deposits, which were located near major cities. Britain also gained a new supply flows — particularly slave-grown cotton — from the New World, so that British elites had the raw materials to invest in heavy industry and textiles. American slave labor matters in this argument, as do the British peasants who lost their lands, moved into cities, and supplied cheap factory labor (becoming Marx’s proletariat). Nonetheless, Pomeranz emphasizes the abundance of natural resources and fossil fuels over coerced labor. Conversely, Chinese fossil fuel deposits were far from the cities that experimented with factories. China simultaneously struggled with population growth, which occurred in poorer regions of the countryside, instead of the cities. Farmers managed to feed the swelling population, but the surplus resources that might have gone to industry instead went into subsistence agriculture. Meanwhile, problems of soil degradation began to plague China (a theme explored fully in the work of environmental historian Mark Elvin). The Chinese couldn’t escape Malthusian limits in the way that the British, mainland Europeans, and Americans managed to do.

The interdisciplinary range of Pomeranz’s argument — environmental science, culture, economics, and politics — is staggering, but the text is not without its problems. The book synthesizes existing research instead of yielding new data, although I doubt Pomeranz could have canvassed such vast swaths of the world in search of primary sources. A stronger critique of The Great Divergence is that Pomeranz looks at data from select provinces (India’s Gujarat, China’s Lower Yangzi, and Japan’s Kanto Plain) instead of entire countries, so the statistics he generates may apply to Asian localities more than broad regions. The passages on India and Japan are underdeveloped in comparison to the Chinese sections. Given Pomeranz’s emphasis on the output of American slave labor, the presence of landless factory workers in British cities seems relatively unimportant. Despite these flaws, Pomeranz is brilliant for internalizing recent historians’ critique of Eurocentrism and comparing different regions of the world, instead of treating the West and the East as monolithic and diametrically opposed entities. Pomeranz shows that the strength of European capitalism relied on the chance acquisition of natural resources and supply flows. His prose is the reserved stuff typical of social science, so you’ll find no passionate denunciation of American slavery here, as in Edward Baptist’s recent economic history The Half Has Never Been Told. Rest assured that Pomeranz does not think slavery was good; he merely shows that slavery was significant in providing Britain with imported natural resources.

In conclusion, Wallerstein and Pomeranz represent serious attempts to comprehend the development of global capitalism, but only Pomeranz mounts a fully convincing argument. Wallerstein remains useful for his reflections on capitalism’s decline, for he identifies historical contingencies and potential disasters in a way that Marx never tried to do. Still, the arbitrary omission of culture from world-systems analysis and Wallerstein’s continued use of a West-versus-East mentality weaken the world-systems approach.

[1] Ivan Eckhardt, “ Immanuel Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction” (Review), Perspectives 13, No. 2 (Winter 2005–06): 96, retrieved from

Cover Image:
A Chinese junk depicted in “Travels in China: containing descriptions, observations, and comparisons, made and collected in the course of a short residence at the Imperial palace of Yuen-Min-Yuen, and on a subsequent journey through the country from Pekin to Canton,” page 59, by John Barrow (1804), in Wikimedia Commons, file uploaded by “BrokenSphere” [pseud.], file uploaded Sept. 18, 2007, Public Domain, accessed Oct. 30, 2016,


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