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Introduction to Real World History vs. Eurocentric Social Theory
The really important lesson to be learned from Marx and Weber is the importance of history for the understanding of society. Though they were certainly interested in grasping the general and universal, they concerned themselves with the concrete circumstances of specific periods, and the similarities and contrasts of diverse geographical areas. They clearly recognized that an adequate explanation of social facts requires a historical account of how the facts came to be; they recognized that comparative-historical analysis is indispensable for the study of stability and change. In a word, it is these two extraordinary thinkers in particular, who stand out as the architects of a historical sociology well worth emulating; for both of them subscribed to an open, historically grounded theory and method.
Irving Zeitlin (1994: 220)
The expectation of universality, however sincerely pursued, has not been fulfilled thus far in the historical development of the social sciences.... It is hardly surprising that the social sciences that were constructed in Europe and North America in the nineteenth century were Eurocentric. The European world of the time felt itself culturally triumphant.... Every universalism sets off responses to itself, and these responses are in some sense determined by the nature of the reigning universalism(s).... Submitting our theoretical premises to inspection for hidden unjustified a priori assumptions is apriority for the social sciences today.
Immanuel Wallerstein (1996b: 49, 51, 60, 56)
Holistic Methodology and Objectives
My thesis is that there is "unity in diversity." However, we can neither understand not appreciate the world's diversity without perceiving how unity itself generates and continually changes diversity. We all have to live in this one world in which diversity must be tolerated and could be appreciated in unity. Of course, I refer to toleration and appreciation of diversity in ethnicity, gender, culture, taste, politics, and color or "race." I do not advocate acceptance of inequality in gender, wealth, income, and power without struggle. Therefore, we could all benefit from a world perspective that illuminates not only the subjective immorality but also the objective absurdity of "ethnic cleansing" and "clash of civilizations," which once again have become popular in some circles today. This book proposes to offer at least some basis in early modern world economic history for a more "humanocentric" perspective and understanding.
The European but exceptionally worldly historian Fernand Braudel remarked that "Europe invented historians and then made good use of them" to promote their own interests at home and elsewhere in the world (Braudel 1992: 134). This statement is revealing in several important ways. First, it is not really true that the writing of history was invented by Europeans, not even by Herodotus and Thucydides. History had also been written by the Chinese, Persians, and others. Moreover, Herodotus himself insisted that "Europe" has no independent existence, since it is only a part of Eurasia, which has no real internal boundaries of its own. Perhaps Braudel had in mind a generation of historians who wrote long after Herodotus. Yet even they invented Eurocentric history long after Arab historians, chroniclers, and world travelers of such fame as Ibn Batuta, Ibn Khaldun, and Rashid-al-Din, who had already written Afro-Eurasian world history which was much less Arab- or Islamocentric.
Indeed, Europeans seem to have invented geography as well, for "Eurasia" itself is a Eurocentric denomination, albeit one invented on a distant marginal peninsula of that land mass. Before his untimely death in 1968, Marshall Hodgson (1993) denounced maps drawn according to the Mercator projection, which makes little Britain appear about as large as India; and J. M. Blaut (1993b) has shown how Eurocentric the mapping of the "march of history" has been. Martin Lewis and Karen Wigen (1997) refer to The Myth of Continents. One example is that against all geographical reality Europeans insist on elevating their peninsula to a "continent" while the much more numerous Indians have but a "subcontinent" and the Chinese at best a "country." The relevant geographical and historical unit is really Afro-Eurasia. However, that could more appropriately be called "Afrasia," as Arnold Toynbee suggested and the former president of the World History Association Ross Dunn recently recalled. Even this syllabic order still fails to reflect the real orders of geographical and demographic magnitude and historical importance of these two continents. Europe, of course, is none of the above.
Latter-day historians, it is true, have preponderantly gazed at their own European navel. That might be excused or at least explained by the social, cultural, political, and economic support they have received to do so. After all, historians received much support to write "national" histories in ideological support of European and American "nationstates" and to serve the ideological, political, and economic interests of their ruling classes. However, these historians also went beyond the confines of their own "nations," to claim that "Europe" or "the West" was and is the "navel" (indeed also the heart and soul) of the rest of the world. If they gave any credit to anyone else, it was only grudgingly with a "history" that, like the Orient Express on the westward bound track only, ran through a sort of tunnel of time from the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, to the classical Greeks and Romans, through medieval (western) Europe, to modern times. Persians, Turks, Arabs, Indians, and Chinese received at best polite, and often not so polite, bows. Other peoples like Africans, Japanese, Southeast Asians, and Central Asians received no mention as contributors to or even participants in history at all, except as "barbarian" nomadic hordes who periodically emerged out of Central Asia to make war on "civilized" settled peoples. From among literally countless examples, I will cite the preface of one: "The Foundations of the West is an historical study of the West from its beginnings in the ancient Near East to the world [sic!] of the mid-seventeenth century" (Fishwick, Wilkinson, and Cairns 1963: ix).
Modern history, both early and late, was made by Europeans, who "built a world around Europe," as historians "know," according to Braudel. That is indeed the "knowledge" of the European historians who themselves "invented" history and then put it to good use. There is not even an inkling of suspicion that it may have been the other way around, that maybe it was the world that made Europe. Yet that is what I propose to demonstrate, or at least to begin to show, in this book.
This book sets itself a number of tasks. They are at once far-reaching and still very limited. The tasks are far-reaching in that I seek to challenge the Eurocentric historiography on which much of received "classical" and "modern" social theory is based. The intentionally set limits are even greater: I—and I hope the reader—will be satisfied with the bare outlines of an alternative rendition of the world economy between 1400 and 1800. It offers a basis for a now only very preliminary—but later hopefully deeper and wider—structural, functional, dynamic, and transformational global analysis and theory of the single world political economy and social system in which we all (have to) live together.
Quite possibly the limitations of this book are even greater than the ones I have set intentionally and so will prevent me from reaching even this limited goal. However, it is already exceptional even to attempt a review of the early modern global world economy and its structural characteristics in order to inquire how they impinge on its sectoral and regional parts. Most of the historical development of this world economy and its parts may receive shorter shrift than it requires and deserves. The attempt is not so much to write a world history of this period, nor even an economic history, which is beyond my present capabilities, as to offer a global perspective on early modern economic history. Although historical evidence is important, I seek less to challenge received evidence with new evidence than to confront the received Eurocentric paradigms with a more humanocentric global paradigm.
The principal intent is to show why we need a global perspective and approach, which we require not only on the history of the world economy itself, but also so that we can locate its subordinate and participant sectors, regions, countries, or whatever segments and processes within the global whole of which they are only parts. Concretely, we need a global perspective to appreciate, understand, account for, explain—in a word, perceive— "the Rise of the West," "the development of capitalism," "the hegemony of Europe," "the rise and fall of great powers," including formerly "Great" Britain, the United States, and the former Soviet Union, "the Third-worldization of Los Angeles," "the East Asian miracle," and any other such process and event. None of these were caused only or even primarily through the structure or interaction of forces "internal" to any of the above. All of them were part and parcel of the structure and development of a single world economic system.
A derivative observation is that Europe did not pull itself up by its own economic bootstraps, and certainly not thanks to any kind of European "exceptionalism" of rationality, institutions, entrepreneurship, technology, geniality, in a word—of race. We will see that Europe also did not do so primarily through its participation and use of the Atlantic economy per se, not even through the direct exploitation of its American and Caribbean colonies and its African slave trade. This book shows how instead Europe used its American money to muscle in on and benefit from Asian production, markets, trade—in a word, to profit from the predominant position of Asia in the world economy. Europe climbed up on the back of Asia, then stood on Asian shoulders—temporarily. This book also tries to explain in world economic terms how "the West" got there—and by implication, why and how it is likely soon again to lose that position.
Another derivative thesis is that early modern Europe was neither more important in the world economy nor more advanced in any way than other regions of the world. This was not the case even counting all of its Atlantic outliers. Nor was Europe in any way "central" to or a "core" of any world-embracing economy or system. The "world-economy and system" of which Europe was the "core" in the sense of Braudel (1992), Wallerstein (1974), and others including Frank (1967, 1978a, b), was itself only a minor and for a long time still quite marginal part of the real world economy as a whole. We will see that the only real means that Europe had for participating in this world economy was its American money. If any regions were predominant in the world economy before 1800, they were in Asia. If any economy had a "central" position and role in the world economy and its possible hierarchy of "centers," it was China.
However, the very search for "hegemony" in the early modern world economy or system is misplaced. Europe was certainly not central to the world economy before 1800. Europe was not hegemonic structurally, nor functionally, nor in terms of economic weight, or of production, technology or productivity, nor in per capita consumption, nor in any way in its development of allegedly more "advanced" "capitalist" institutions. In no way were sixteenth-century Portugal, the seventeenth-century Netherlands, or eighteenth-century Britain "hegemonic" in world economic terms. Nor in political ones. None of the above! In all these respects, the economies of Asia were far more "advanced," and its Chinese Ming/Qing, Indian Mughal, and even Persian Safavid and Turkish Ottoman empires carried much greater political and even military weight than any or all of Europe.
This observation also has relevance to the contemporary and future world development problematique. The recent economic "development" of East Asia is receiving much attention around the world these days, but it generates equally much bewilderment about how to fit the observed developments into the Western scheme of things. The problem is easily illustrated by considering the absurdity of reclassifying Japan as part of "the West" or of having called the Japanese "honorary whites" in South Africa during apartheid. Beyond Japan, the focus shifted especially to the Four Tigers or Dragons of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. However, increasing notice is now also being taken of the other little dragons countries in Southeast Asia and of the big Chinese dragon looming on the horizon. Even the press sees that
in large ways and small, subde and heavy-handed ... China is making itself felt across Asia with a weight not seen since the 18th century.... Now that the dragon has stirred, it is altering issues from regional trade patterns to manufacturing, from the decisions Asian governments make.... [which] confirms a shift in the geopolitics of a region stretching from Japan and South Korea to the Southeast Asian belt. (Keith B. Richburg of the Washington Post Service in the International Herald Tribune, 18 March 1996)
To drive still further home the relevance of this point to the present argument, it may be apt to quote from the same paper on two successive days. Under the headline "America Must Learn to Respect Asia's Way of Doing Things," we learn that
Westerners have been accustomed to telling Asians what to do. That period is now coming to an end. Asian countries are becoming strong enough to assert their autonomy and maintain it.... Any further attempt to remake Asian countries on Western lines is not likely to succeed. It would carry the risk of bringing about another in the long series of conflicts between Asians and the West.... Westerners need to accept the equality of Asians, and their right to do things their own way ... and asserting the validity of "Asian" values. (Bryce Harland, International Herald Tribune, 3 May 1996)
Under the subtitle "At Issue Is the Nature of the International System," this same newspaper reported on the following day that
The conflict over China is a conflict about the nature of the international system, and its political, financial and trade agencies. By design or otherwise, China is aggressively pushing to shape an alternative international system friendlier to Beijing's aims [which is] evident in the Chinese struggle to remake the WTO [World Trade Organization] rules for admission. (Jim Hoagland, International Herald Tribune, 4–5 May 1996)
Why is this so? Hill Gates (1996: 6) argues that it is because in the world only China has been exceptional in successfully resisting being "reshaped by the pressures of capitalism originating in western Europe ... [and] to have survived the Western imperialist remaking of the world in the past few centuries." Others have sought and offered all manner of "explanations" for this Asian awakening, from "Confucianism" to "the magic of the market without state intervention." Alas, the contemporary East Asian experience does not seem to fit very well into any received Western theoretical or ideological scheme of things. On the contrary, what is happening in East Asia seems to violate all sorts of Western canons of how things "should" be done, which is to copy how "we" did it the "Western way." Too bad!
The implications of this book are that the "Rise" of East Asia need come as no surprise just because it does not fit into the Western scheme of things. This book suggests a rather different scheme of things instead, into which the contemporary and possible future events in East Asia, and maybe also elsewhere in Asia, can and do fit. This is a global economic development scheme of things, in which Asia, and especially East Asia, was already dominant and remained so until—in historical terms—very recently, that is less than two centuries ago. Only then, for reasons to be explored below, did Asian economies lose their positions of predominance in the world economy, while that position came to be occupied by the West—apparently only temporarily.
The Western interpretation of its own "Rise of the West" has suffered from a case of "misplaced concreteness." What should become increasingly apparent is that "development" was not so much "of the West" as it was of and in the world economy. "Leadership" of the world system—more than "hegemony"—has been temporarily "centered" in one sector and region (or a few), only to shift again to one or more others. That happened in the nineteenth century, and it appears to be happening again at the beginning of the twenty-first, as the "center" of the world economy seems to be shifting back to the "East."
Excerpted from ReORIENT by Andre Gunder Frank. Copyright © 1998 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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