The Great Divergence

Reading the beginning chapters of the book, I am confused by the fact elaborated in the book that there is no such great divergence in Europe and Asia. Most of the book is provided to explain that pre-1800 world is polycentric, no hegemonic and dominant Europe. No fact we can relay on to believe that we can find the great divergence in that time. So, we have to underline that the title of the book refer not to pre-industrial world, instead the current world — where we are induced to ask why do we find this great divergence today? (Another form of Yali’s question)
There are many ways to answer. Diamond answer the question by emphasizing on gun, germ, steel, and Wallerstein explained it by implementing his world system theory. Kenneth Pomeranz, writer of the book discussed this week, tries to answer the question as he compared West Europe and China.

Among trends in European economic history, Pomeranz realizes that his approach is similar to recent trend with some different points. First, he acknowledge the exploitation of non-Europe an access to overseas in general as one of motor of European hegemony from 19th on, but not as a sole motor, it is only a way through which European achievement of its economic institution — particularly various labor saving technologies — achieve the breakthrough.

Secondly, he uses both comparative and integrative approach. On the one hand, at some levels, he treated parts of the world as separate unit of comparison, realizing the fact that “we can not understand pre-1800 global in the term of full centered world system; we have instead, a polycentric world with no dominant center.”

In this issue of regional approach, he prefers Europe to, what is common, Britain. His reasons are: first, recent research has found well-developed markets and other “capitalist” institution far back during “feudal” period. It meant that Western Europe, not only England, was launched on uniquely promising path well before it begun overseas expansion. Second, the more market dynamics appear even amid supposedly hostile medieval culture and institutions, the more tempting it has been to make market-driven growth the entire story of European development, ignoring the messy details and mixed effects of numerous government policies and local customs. Third, the ongoing process of commercialization touched much of preindustrial western Europe. By positing “European miracle” instead of a British one, it make extra-European connection seem less important. Most of western Europe was not so involved in extracontinental trade by Britain, thus if it was Europe rather than Britain whose commercial growth led to industrial growth, then domestic markets, resources and the like must have been adequate for that transition.

A World of Surprising Resemblance

Reading this passage, we are convinced, sometime exaggeratedly, that what is assumed to be naturally great divergence is deniable.

He presented arguments widely accepted to convince that European growth to industrial revolution was not unique at the time compared to other areas according found by recent literature. Comparing European capital accumulation, resource allocation, and market demand in the economy as a whole, he found that, at many cases, they were not better off. Even, to convince his readers, Pomeranz many times said that Europe was under Asia. For instances, in the case of land market and land use, China were more open than one of Europe. Japanese living expectation was longer than British one — the most prosperous country in Europe. Women in China, instead of no access to free labor market and worked on home industry, had more access to the trade market than their counterparts who worked in guilt.

Finding that there is no such unique fact to argue European superiority, he invited the readers to move to what he calls “commanding heights” of economy. Despite an apparent lack of important differences in these areas, there could be differences affecting the ability and inclination of well-to-do households to accumulate capital and to stimulate economic changes in European ideas of self, the cosmos, and other subjects exogenous to the economy. Explanations of such Protestant ethic, ascetic capitalism, and European attitude toward consumption, are the examples. Other similar argument suggest that European political economy was uniquely hospitable to commercial capital and allowed financial resources to be more easily gathered, better preserved, and more productively, employed than elsewhere.

Just as in the first part, he again convinces us to believe that there is no such unique “commanding heights” allowing Europe to be better prepared to embark to an industrial revolution. He concludes that some differences do appear, but they seem too small to explain much, except in one way. Both luxury demand and political economy of capitalism had much to do with allowing Europe to gain control over the New World. So, what makes at all now divergence anyway?

Environmental Constraint and Windfall

The answer begins from the environmental constraints these areas faced. Both areas had a sam problem in the term of ecological constraints. Despite being less densely populated than China and Japan, Western Europe faced comparably serious ecological problems. Both in Western Europe and East Asia, there was relatively little room left by the 18th century for further extensive growth to occur without significant institutional change, new land saving technology or and vastly expanded imports of land intensive commodities.

Theoretically, Europe more room left than did East Asia to sustain further population growth by increasing the labor intensity of its land use; but the nature of European farming made it unlikely that it would ever fully exploit these possibilities. Thus, they would not follow the path, if they did, it seems that Denmark, who followed this way stagnated in its population and per capita consumption, and didn’t has foundation for major breakthrough.

Being faced by the cul de sac of economic growth, the relatively similar pre-industrial condition of these areas were waiting a miracle: a decisive momentum in the cross road to be trapped in the stagnancy or to find a windfall way to achieve a new level of development.

Here is one of those cores was able to escape the proto-industrial cul de sac and transfer handicrafts workers into modern industries, as the technology became available. It could do this because the exploitation of the New World made it unnecessary to mobilize huge the huge number of additional workers who would have been needed to use Europe’s own land in much more itensiv and ecologically sustainable ways. New world brought both “real resources” and precious metals.

Other cores, India, China, and Japan, finding no room to expand, were trapped in the cul de sac and forced to employ another unlucky strategy: adopting labor-intensive approach to that ecological pressure and found that adjustment made capital intensive, energy intensive industrialization more difficult later.

Convincing Argument?

To some extent, Pomeranz convinced me because he use so detailed number in presenting similarities of Western Europe and East Asia, but at the same time there is a problem of putting different sources, which imply different research approach, in the same table.

He is also not consistent in the very crucial point. When he discussed luxury demand and political economy of capitalism, and found the differences between West Europe and East Asia, he undermines significance of those differences. He said, “it was too small to explain much”. But, when he did realize that “expansion to the new world” is not so big to explain much, he apologies, saying that he is forced to use “chaos theory” of butterfly beating its wings in Africa and changing the weather in Greenland — finding no way to convince the reader?

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