of David Landes`
THE WEALTH AND POVERTY OF NATIONS
by Andre Gunder Frank
November 28, 1998
The opening sentence of David Landes` »The Wealth and Poverty of Nations« (reviewed in NYRB April 23, 1998) is that »my aim in writing this book is to do world history.« The reviewer, William McNeill, shows that Landes missed his target completely. Indeed, »Landes does not try to understand this history....(Instead his) vision of the human past remains shaped (and I would say skewed) by ... European economic history .... Nothing else matters much to him.« I join McNeill in arguing »that there are serious defects in his approach,« but I shall demonstrate several of the many more that McNeill missed or was too diplomatic to point out. It is alarming therefore that this book has received rave reviews in other media and is endorsed by Nobel laureates in economics and by the statement of John Kenneth Galbraith that this book is »truly wonderful.« For in reality, it is instead dreadful that Landes fails even to attempt any global world history, which also leads him to misinterpret the comparative not to mention relational places of the West and the rest within it. Following my more detailed critiques, below I offer the outlines of an alternative much more world historical, not to mention realistic, analysis in which the predominance of Asia until 1800 foreshadows its re-emergence today.`
The opening sentence of McNeill`s review is a quotation from Landes, which is reproduced in all other reviews I have seen as well: »If we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes all the difference.« For other reviewers, that seems to be the principal virtue and success of the book. For McNeill and myself it is the second major failing of the book and its author. Granted that we all make mistakes, but some of us try with time to correct them. McNeill (1990) himself revisited his own the Rise of the West twenty-five years later and found that he had been mistaken in neglecting world systemic connections in the past and excessively reflecting American domination in the present. I myself now revise the 1967 core-periphery and the 1978 world accumulation versions of development/underdevelopment that were based on presumptions of Eurocentrism and replace them by ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (1998). But what has Landes learned since he addressed the same issue in his Unbound Prometheus in 1969? Only more of the same >West vs. the Rest< to quote Samuel Huntington`s similarly misguided and (temporary) winner-take-all version of history.
However doing any kind of history, let alone world history, like that had already been shown to be wrong three decades ago, and it is even more clearly wrong again to do the same now. For, as the Islamicist and world historian Marshall Hodgson already wrote before his death in 1968.
All attempts that I have yet seen to invoke pre-Modern seminal traits in the Occident can be shown to fail under close historical analysis, once other societies begin to be known as intimately as the Occident. This also applies to the great master, Max Weber, who tried to show that the Occident inherited a unique combination of rationality and activism (Hodgson 1993:86).
Hodgson (1993) and Blaut (1991,1992,1993,1997) derisorally call this »tunnel history« derived from a tunnel vision, which sees only »exceptional« intraEuropean causes and consequences and is blind to all extra-European contributions to modern European and world history. But Landes remains steadfast and still ignores or denies all of the world history we have learned since then.
Witness that McNeill can justly write that Landes »assumes an unchanging culture (in China) ... and his chapters on Latin America, the Muslim lands and China (also Russia) bluntly attribute their fumbling in making progress toward modernity to defects in the culture and institutions of the peoples concerned.« McNeill calls many of these »assumptions« »unabashedly triumphalist dubious assertions« that are reflected in Landes` terminology like dour, dull, diligent; avaricious, sanctimonious, hypocrites; intrinsic capabilities, curiosity quotient, highly competitive, dumb submission; simulacrum of homogeneity and docility in Iberian society where skills, curiosity, initiatives and civic interests wered wanting; Gallic bete noire and can`t trust the Brits; Mediterranean religious and intellectual intolerance; self-imposed archaism, cupidity and inefficient Ottoman yoke; Egypt`s social and cultural incapability; the Russians were worse (and) used to poverty and ignorance. India dreamt wistfully of technological revolution but was not ready for it because that would have required imagination outside the Indian cultural and intellectual experience and used to poverty and ignorance. Yet India not only dominated the world cotton textile market as we all know; but the Indians produced better, longer lasting and cheaper sailing vessels, which the British East India Company bought and even commissioned until after 1830 they were replaced by steamships.
Although Landes writes »anyone who wants to understand world economic history must study China,« (23) his >study< finds that also the Chinese lacked range, focus, and above all, curiosity; they were a culturally anbd intellectually homeostatic society that could live with little change; they had indifference to technology, technological and scientific torpor; lacked institutions for finding and learning (in the world`s most literate society!); abhorred mercantile success, and were not motivated by greed and passion. They showed deliberate introversion, isolationism, risk aversion, irrationality, xenophobia, arrogance, haughtiness, stunned submissiveness, self-defeating escapism; were insecure and brittle, and so on and on. Yet even Landes seems aware of some contradiction with reality, and indeed with himself, since he also writes that »some of these may sound like a collection of cliches« (523) and he even observes that »these stereotypes held an ounce of truth and a pound of lazy thinking« (174) by others. Then what about his own assumptions and allegations of »what lay inside: culture, values, initiative« (253) and the institutions that »make all the difference«?
These and many other instances in which Landes` account is contradicted by the evidence and indeed often by himself all derive from this original Eurocentric sin that McNeill also identifies: »his assumption that only what happened in Europe really mattered, while the rest of the world reacted to innovations that Europeans thrust down their throats. This is intrinsically improbable ... (as is) dismissing economic changes elsewhere as trivial ... (since) most of humankind - four fifths or thereabouts - descend from non-European peoples.« However, neglecting to look seriously at the historical reality of the much of rest of the world, not to mention of the world as a whole, also leads Landes to make at least three dozen >factual< statements and propositions about them that are flatly contradicted by the bulk of historical evidence itself. That in turn also vitiates his comparisons with >the rest< of the alleged >exceptionalism of the West,< which has long since been disconfirmed by historical research and social theory, most recently again by Jack Goody (1996) under the title The East in the West. So many of Landes` central and derivative propositions reflect nothing more than his and other Eurocentrist`s deeply ingrained professional and maybe personal prejudices, whose repeated manifestation he could have avoided it he had taken due account of the past three decades and more of serious scholarship.
Yet Landes also goes on to make many other statements that are totally contrary to fact, such as »interruption of Islamic and Chinese intellectual and technological advance« (200) »clearly Chinese agriculture could not run fast enough« (24); Europe`s shipping could have run circles around the Chinese in 1450 and then »Europe could now plant itself anywhere on the surface of the globe within reach of a naval cannon« (89 Landes` italics); and »two hundred and fifty years ago, this (income) gap ... between Europe and, say East or South Asia (China or India) was around 1.5 or 2 to 1.« In reality, none of the above, and many more of Landes` beliefs have any basis in reality. Indeed, mostly the opposite has been historically and empirically demonstrated again and again. But not to Landes, who also instead makes claims such as »Britain made itself« (215) and »in Britain, enterprise got nothing from the state« (265), which also draws critique from McNeill for disregarding state military demand and protection.
So why does and how can Landes incur all these and so many other grievous historical errors? He himself provides the answer when he writes »just because something is obvious does not mean that people will see it, or that they will sacrifice belief to reality« (493) and in his dismissal of it regarding India in one page (165): »Numbers deserve credence only if they accord with the historical context.« Therein Landes himself hits the nail on the head, and indeed into his own. He does not realize how much he hangs on to his beliefs against all reality precisely because he got the world historical context all wrong. That is why all the long since historically and empirically demonstrated facts that Landes either cannot see or still denies »seem to me (Landes) implausible in the light of the gulf between European and Asian techniques,« which contrary to Landes vastly favored Asia until 1800. For the problem, as McNeill stresses but still insufficiently documents, is that Landes` extreme Eurocentrism and Weberianism (yes and Marxism!) totally blinds him to the realities of the world economy and its history.
In claiming that »culture makes all the difference; here Max Weber was right on.« (516) Landes does exactly what he himself criticizes in Aristotle, »to explain phenomena by the >essential< nature of things« and neglects and denies the very world history he >aims< to write. Instead, as McNeill notes, fully one third of Landes` chapters are devoted to European »exceptionalisms.« The most important is the alleged European »invention of invention« (chapter 4) and the »seventeenth-century scientific revolution.« Yet Landes himself cites Newton`s belief in alchemy and the transmutation of matter and writes that still »scientists of the eighteenth century could not have explained why and how a steam engine worked« (206). So how could it be, as Landes also claims on the same page 206 that »scientific method and knowledge paid off in application - most importantly in power technology«? »The fact of Western technological precedence is there.... My assumption of the ultimate advantage and benefience of (Western) scientific knowledge and technological capability is today under sharp attack, even in the Academy (and is) couched in preferences for feeling over knowing.... (514, 513 italics in the original and exemplifying footnote reference to »thus A.G. Frank«).
But whatever his or my feelings, Landes` own knowledge and assumptions are based on »facts« that are wrong. The fact is that Western science did not contribute to technology before 1870, as was recognized by scientific authorities from Francis Bacon (1561-1626) to Thomas Kuhn (1967). Robert Adams (1996) reviews case studies and the work of other authorities on the question and himself concludes on a dozen occasions that science had no impact on technology whatsoever until a full century after the industrial revolution. Indeed Steven Shapin (1996) even denies that there was any so-called seventeenth century scientific revolution and Floris Cohen (1994:500) says that »the concept has by now fulfilled its once useful services (to the likes of Landes); the time has come to discard it.« But Landes remains recalcitrant and only acknowledges that
Apart from the logical fallacy stressed by Jack Goody (1996) of deriving novel changes like scientific and industrial revolution in the world from permanent »qualities« in Europe, not only are the alleged causes of this transformation historically or empirically false, but so are many of his other assertions. For not only are, as McNeill rightly insists, four fifths of the world non-European; but Asian, and particularly Chinese and Indians, were also richer, more productive and much more competitive than the still quite marginal Europe in the Eurasian world economy and history before 1750-1800, as Adam Smith noted time and again in 1776. The legendary East-West »Oriental« trade earned them far less than the silver the Europeans brought to the intra-Aasian »country« trade; and in that, as the Director of the British East India Company himself recognized in 1688, at any major port all Europeans` share put together of the Indian Ocean trade was less than ten percent of the Asians` trade among themselves.
In the flourishing South China Sea trade, the Europeans were even more marginal; and in the North China Sea, not to mention in China itself, Europeans were altogether absent. Nor was Europe and the West nearly as dominant there more recently as Landes` triumphalism falsely alleges. Moreover, Landes contradicts himself and the evidence again and again elsewhere as well, for as McNeill rightly notes »Landes seemingly cannot make up his mind«: Portugal had intellectual shortcomings (137) and Iberia missed the train of the so-called scientific revolution (180), but a Portuguese professor of astronomy and mathematics invented the nonius to give navigational and astronomical readings a major boost (204). Spain easily conquered the Aztecs because they were divided (102); but »Spain, though nominally united, was divided« (249) and Catalonia was »exceptional« (250). Guilds assumed a zero-sum game of costs and benefits (42)and therefore offered resistance to change (445), but »guilds were found all over the world - in Europe, but also in Islamic lands, India, China, and Japan« (242).
McNeill mentions several other reasons for Landes` many failings, including a crucial one: »Landes simply neglects demography ... a fundamental aspect of the human condition - population growth and decay ... (and makes) a misleading, and probably false, proposition.« Not just probably, but certainly! All recent empirical estimates, including those by the European authorities Bairoch and Maddison, whom Landes cites and whose help he even acknowledges in his preface, agree that in 1800 per capita income was still higher in China than in Europe in 1800. Their and other estimates all show the same basic pattern of total world and comparative regional growth of population, production, and income, which is exactly contrary to what Landes alleges: In the centuries leading up to 1800, European population remained stable at about 20 percent of the world population and produced less than that share of world output, while production in Asia grew enough to support the increase in its share of total world population from 60 percent to 66 percent, which also produced a significantly higher 80 percent share of world production (Frank 1998). That is contrary to Landes, still through the eighteenth century Asia and particularly China and India were far more productive than Europe; and their per capita levels of income and consumption, as well as their productivity and life expectancy, were also correspondingly higher and still rising faster than in Europe and even in Western Europe and Britain.
McNeill also justly rebukes Landes for claiming that the world of Adam Smith was already taking shape 500 years before his time and that the sources of the >Rise of the West< and the industrial revolution began in the year 1000. Yet after all that time, Smith was still unable to recognize them or even the industrial revolution itself in 1776; nor, as Landes himself notes, did Malthus and Ricardo one and two generations later. Yet with hindsight Landes now claims to see the causes of this sudden and unexpected transformation and that »the key factor - the driving force has been Western civilization and its dissemination« (513), which moreover have been embedded in almost time-less »Judeo-Christian« values since Biblical times (38,58), but only in Europe! Against the contrary proposition that »Europe is a latecomer,« Landes claims »that is patently incorrect. As the historical record shows, for the last thousand years, Europe (the West) has been the prime mover of development and modernity« (xxi). Still more alarming is that this counter-historical opinion is shared by the two dozen editors and scores of consultants who produced LIFE magazine< September 1997 special issue on »the Millennium« in which 83 of the 100 most important »movers and shakers« were of European extraction. Historical and conceptual challenge to this claim, Landes dismisses as mere »Europhobia« and »anti-Eurocentric thought (that) is simply anti-intellectual; also contrary to fact« (514).
Nonetheless, it is Landes` own claim that is contrary to fact and patently incorrect: The historical record shows quite unambiguously that during the whole first half of that millennium Europe was only the most marginalized western peninsular outpost of development in Eurasia and especially in China, as McNeill also points out. Yet according to my reading of the historical evidence, even for the following three centuries from 1500 to 1800 Europe still remained at most a very minor player in the world economic casino, in which the only chips it had to ante up were the gold and particularly the silver from the Americas. Moreover, the calories derived from imported colonial sugar and Baltic wheat and the Indian cotton textiles that replaced home grown wool (thus requiring less sheep to eat less grass and »men« as the saying went) all supplemented capital and freed natural and human resources that could be used for investment and development in Western Europe. But all these supplements and replacements were prduced elswhere by slaves and serfs and/or were bought with American supplied silver and gold. Even so, just to be able to get and keep this parasitic seat at the world economic table, Europe had to ship and pay out the only export good it had, the silver that Europe was looting from the Americas. With that, Europe had to pay for its own the perpetual balance of trade deficit and help settle that of China, whose agriculture and manufacturing were the world`s most productive and competitive, as Adam Smith still noted in 1776.
So paraphrasing the motto of the New York Times that so highly praised Landes` book, everything that fits, we print. Alas, four-fifths of the world and its history does not fit into Landes and The Times Euro-Western centric scheme of things and is either omitted, or stereotyped and skewed, or dismissed as »a weird pattern of isolated initiatives and sisyphean discontinuities,« as McNeill also notes. Again to quote Landes himself, »this is history cart before horse, results before data, imagination before experience. It is also wrong« (197). Wrong indeed is it for Landes to make his dozens of mistaken comparisons of alleged essential essences, and wrong for Landes to write »no one has abrogated the law of supply and demand« (522). For he has sought to abrogate it himself, albeit unsuccessfully so, in the next paragraph when he adds that »culture can make all the difference« for his many wrong assumptions about institutions here and there.
Landes is even more wrong in failing to apply this law of supply and demand on a world-wide competitive market basis. Indeed Landes` theoretical and analytic procedures are the very opposite of being world historical or holistic, as he self-styles them on page 120. For Landes never examines how relative factor prices and availability of capital responded to demographic/ ecological pressures and the derivative demand and supply in a competitive world market to make investment in labor saving and energy producing technological change suddenly rational in some >Newly Industrializing Economies< in Europe but temporarily not so in Asia. Again to quote McNeill also regarding other shortcomings in this book, »Landes does not raise the question, much less answer it.... All this is absent from Landes` pages. Surely it belongs in any adequate explanation of how we got to where and who we are.« In Landes` book instead, »Britain made itself« and his »explanation« is its alleged »nonmaterial values (culture) and institutions«! (215).
Landes also ridicules and dismisses the contrary findings of the »New Economic History, beguiled by numbers« (231,193), Marxists (274,382) »leftist political economists and economic historians« (252}, »Europhobia (and) globalists« (514) and others, especially »the H-World site on the Internet - a magnet for fallacies and fantasies (and) the invention of folklore« (54n). Their authorized representatives will no doubt rise to their own defense. Having no such authority myself, I beg in the remainder here to rise only to my own defense and to offer at least the elements of an alternative historical reading of the wealth and poverty of nations. Landes alleges but brings no evidence whatsoever that my writing invents folklore, fallacies and fantasies because »some would argue (thus A.G. Frank) that Europe`s knowledge and know-how did not surpass those of other civilizations until the Industrial Revolution. Bad history« (514n).
What I write may today indeed be the work of what he calls only »one iconoclast« (89n). But it was still historical reality and standard knowledge even for Europeans like Leibniz, Voltaire and Smith, whom Landes (mis)cites out of all historical context, and as Landes himself acknowledges »economists have not always felt this way. Adam Smith`s successors,« Malthus and Ricardo still held the same opinion. For after only a couple of earlier iconoclasts in their time like Montesquieu, it was only since the mid-nineteenth century that Marx, Maine, Durkheim, Sombart, Weber, Parsons, Polanyi, Rostow and still Landes and their followers invented their own Eurocentric folklore, fallacies and fantasies, which are still all too widely shared today. I can only hope that, if not immediately iconoclast, such unabashed Eurocentrism and triumphalism will at least soon again become obsolete, the moreso as Asia is REgaining its >traditional< place and role in the world, which itself ReOrients.
I trust that any objective examination of the real world historical evidence, also in my still unpublished book ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (University of California Press June 1998) from which Landes cites only the briefest e-mailed excerpts, will vindicate me and not Landes in this exchange. For unlike his, my book does address the legitimate concerns about Landes` shortcomings voiced by McNeill and then some: The Weberian and other unfounded assumptions about institutions and culture; demography, production and trade, agriculture, military and other technology also in Asia; and the world historical development of the real world economy in which China remains predominant until 1800. Moreover, unlike Landes and others, my book offers a global world economic/ demographic/ ecological analysis of how and why the subsequent Decline of the East and Rise of the West were mutually related and derivative from the structure and dynamic of the world economy itself, and not from any European miracle or exceptionalism.
So let Landes and I agree to disagree more seriously. At least we can agree that »a good historian tries to keep his balance« (62) and »without controversy, no serious pursuit of knowledge and truth« (203). Therefore, I challenge David Landes to join me in encouraging William McNeill to write and the NYRB to publish an equally critical review of my book that confronts the »determinism (and) dubious assertions« of Landes and »the serious defects in his approach,« again to quote McNeill himself. Alas as Landes says albeit not of himself, »just because something is obvious does not mean that people will see it, or that they will sacrifice belief to reality; in the effort to have things both ways, or every way, to appease old interests, to encourage new (493). Or to cite and make my own the very closing words of Landes himself, »the one lesson that emerges is the need to keep trying. No miracles. No perfection. No millennium. No apocalypse. We must cultivate a sceptical faith, avoid dogma, listen and watch well, try to clarify and define ends, the better to chose the means« (524). Would that Landes join me to heed his own counsel and even sacrifice belief to reality. Then let the reader and history itself be the judge of the wealth of nations and the poverty of David Landes or myself. For starters, I will agree with Landes that I (still) do bad world history; if he will agree with me that he (still) does none at all. So with more controversy, balance and cooperation when all is said and done, let`s just try to to do better -- also to clarify the ends and chose the means. Wendell Wilkie`s motto was »One World« and Mikhail Gorbachev`s »Unity in Diversity.«
Andre Gunder Frank May 6, 1998 (53rd anniversary of VE Day) .
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Blaut, J.M. 1992. Fourteen Ninety-Two. Political Geography XI,4,July 1992, reprinted in J.M.Blaut et al 1492. The Debate on Colonialism, Eurocentrism and History, Trenton, NJ:Africa World Press 1992.
------ 1993. The Colonizer`s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History, New York/ London: Guilford Press, 1993,
------ 1997. »Eight Eurocentric Historians,« Chapter 2 in Decolonizing the Past: Historians and the Myth of European Superiority [manuscript) forthcoming.
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------ 1978a. World Accumulation 1492-1789, New York: Monthly Review Press and London: Macmillan Press.
------ 1978b. Dependent Accumulation and Underdevelopment New York: Monthly Review Press and London: Macmillan Press.
------- 1998. ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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------ 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and Remaking the World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Kuhn, Thomas S. 1969. »Comment« Comparative Studies in Society and History 11:426-30.
----- 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolution. 2nd. Ed.Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Landes, David S. 1969. The Unbound Prometheus. Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present Cambrige: Cambridge University Press.
McNeill, William 1963. The Rise of the West. A History of the Human Community. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
----- 1990. »The Rise of the West After Twenty Five Years« Journal of World History. I,1: 1-22.
Shapin, Steve 1996. Scientific Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
"ReOrient" vs. "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations"
Andre Gunder Frank and David Landes, in a debate at 450 Dodge Hall, Northeastern University on Wednesday, December 2, 1998, argued the merits of their contrasting approaches to modern world history, as presented in their books ReORIENT: THE ASIAN ECONOMY IN THE GLOBAL AGE (Frank), and THE WEALTH AND POVERTY OF NATIONS (Landes). Nearly 200 people attended this very lively session sponsored by the World History Center.