The History of History 12: How the West Won (For a While…)

After reading Kenneth Pomeranz’s Great Divergence and Immanuel Wallerstein’s World-Systems Analysis, we staggered into class this week with the literary equivalent of battle scars. We had read two dense tomes in a week and lived to tell the tale. Most people launched into conversation by stressing the density of Pomeranz, with his many footnotes and nuanced case studies, compared to the readability of Wallerstein. I think I was in a minority with my opposite view that Pomeranz, by supplying so much evidence, was easier to follow than the abstract Wallerstein. Then again, this was my second tour of duty with Mr. Pomeranz. Had this been my first tour, I have no doubt that my response would have been different.

It’s hard to compare the two volumes because they have such different purposes. Wallerstein’s World-Systems Analysis is an introduction to its method of history, meant for advanced undergraduates, grad students, and lay readers with an unusually deep interest in political economy. The text expounds a way of thinking without supplying a lot of firm case studies or examples to support Wallerstein’s ideas. World-Systems Analysis also serves as a celebration of Wallerstein; the first page of the bibliography is entirely devoted to his books. Meanwhile, Pomeranz’s Great Divergence is practically a world unto itself, an immense and engrossing monograph that demands careful attention to its study of global capitalism. World-Systems Analysis can be read (aggressively) in a few hours. Divergence takes at least two days.

My classmates offered varying interpretations of the books. Tucker noted that Pomeranz takes a global perspective, comparing China and England, but the resulting book remains enormously focused on the British industrial triumph. Is Pomeranz stuck in a trap of Eurocentric writing? I think not, given Pomeranz’s desire to show the arbitrary nature of the British Industrial Revolution, but it was interesting to hear how several of my peers felt that Pomeranz leaned toward the British. As always, the lesson was: One text, many readings. Corinna observed the merciful nature of Wallerstein’s book — a glossary, no footnotes, and a blessedly short length of ninety pages — compared to Pomeranz. Jake declared that Great Divergence was social science, not history, which was a reminder that quantitative methods in a history book are not everyone’s cup of tea. (Usually, I don’t enjoy quantitative histories, but if they have a really interesting argument, as is the case with Pomeranz, I’m game.) Carrie pointed out that Wallerstein uses the Marxist and Hegelian device of the dialectic in his writing: He gives a thesis, shows its antithesis, and at the end proposes a synthesis. Carrie also observed that Wallerstein draws from sociology and dependency theory, but I don’t know what dependency theory is, so I’m not going to dwell on it. Yet Wallerstein has more going on in his prose than I initially realized.

Our discussion revealed new contours of Wallerstein’s argument, including elements highly reminiscent of Marxism. Extraction and the acquisition of capital are, in Wallerstein’s eyes, the keys to the capitalist world system. Beginning in the 1500s, the countries of the European (and, later, Australian and American) core established colonies in the world’s less developed, peripheral countries. Colonies meant new regions to tax, mine, farm, and otherwise squeeze in the pursuit of capital. For instance, the British squashed early Indian manufacturing and forced the Indians to buy British-made goods — an unequal trade imbalance and an artificially created market, benefitting the British core at the Indian periphery’s expense. As the core became richer, elites had the capital to fund greater industrialization. Yes, liberal democratic values and ideas of free trade eventually surfaced in the geoculture, but for the most part Wallerstein shuns culture. He sees “free” trade as a myth because the core exploits the periphery. Capital is the crucial factor in the world system.

Is Wallerstein Eurocentric? I think he is, inadvertently. Wallerstein understands that capitalism wasn’t an inevitable world development, so his core-versus-periphery model could have happened with some place other than Europe as the core. Unfortunately, he dwells too much on European economic power in his book. He is flat-out wrong when he assumes that all “peripheral” places (e.g., China, India, Dahomey, etc.) had weak states or always lagged behind the European core on a technological level. My classmate Sheila made the interesting observation that China’s twenty-first-century economy seems like a new world core; in her reading, Wallerstein’s argument is transplanted beyond the old Euro-Austral-American core. However, we must remember that Wallerstein describes our age as the latter days of capitalism. The system is crumbling. As Prof. Lenoe pointed out, American industry has 150 years’ head-start on China, which means that it would take time for a Wallerstein world core to shift — enough time for our capitalist world system to flat-line. To reiterate a theme from my last essay, I think Wallerstein is stronger at describing the perils of capitalism and the nature of colonialist regimes than in explaining how European industry outpaced China. One (European) core and the rest of the world lagging behind seems inadequate…

… Which brings us to Kenneth Pomeranz, who doesn’t see most of the world as peripheral. His argument of multiple economic cores, such as textile-weaving China, India’s proto-industrial base in the 1700s, and Britain’s coal mines, strikes me as a more comprehensive picture of the Industrial Revolution. He frees us from Wallerstein’s accidental trap of talking about Europe all the time. Pomeranz doesn’t dispute that European countries exploited their colonies; like Wallerstein, he acknowledges that elites extracted capital from other countries. American slave-owners likewise drew capital from slave labor, and the British manufacturers who used slave-grown cotton were indirectly gaining capital from coercive labor. Nonetheless, Pomeranz thinks the need for natural resources was more important than capital. Sure, rich Britons could fund factories with capital from colonies, but they couldn’t operate factories without adequate natural resources. Supply flows from the New World, combined with British coal, reduced land-intensive labor in Britain and solved problems with the country’s food supply. On the other side of the world, China lacked the requisite supplies to escape from the Malthusian limits of feeding, heating, and clothing its population. Prof. Lenoe cited the idea of the high-level equilibrium trap — a condition in which changing a society’s system of economic and agricultural production is not cost-effective or resource-effective. Chinese elites didn’t have the resources to escape from an equilibrium trap. British elites had access to new resources, so industrializing the British economy was no longer onerous.

As Prof. Lenoe mentioned, sometimes a complex explanation is better than a simple one. To that aphorism, I’d add that a complex explanation can build upon a simpler one. Such is the case with Pomeranz, who acknowledges Wallerstein’s narrative of imperialist exploitation, but shows that the financial spoils of empire mattered far less than natural resources. Pomeranz also accounts for the Marxist narrative of the proletariat. Yes, British farmworkers lost their lands and moved to the cities, but if there hadn’t been natural resources to support the furnaces of urban factories, then the farmworkers wouldn’t have found work as proles. Prof. Pomeranz’s argument swallows prior models of industrialization and adds a wealth of new insights from environmental science, while dismantling the Orientalist notion that Asia was less civilized than Europe. It’s easier to say there is one core to the world, but it’s more accurate — and more interesting from a historical perspective — to say that multiple regions experimented with modernity. China, India, Japan, Britain, et. al. had the potential to industrialize. By chance, Britain escaped its limits and won the race.

Cover Image:
Walter Armiger Bowring, “HMS New Zealand,” 1913, Archives New Zealand, Flickr Commons, uploaded May 18, 2007, CC BY–SA 2.0, accessed November 30, 2016, 


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