Thursday, July 14, 2016

End of geography (2012)

Book Review from the January 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Why the West Rules – for Now. By Ian Morris. Profile Books.

The basic question addressed by Morris is why in recent times the Western part of the globe has been dominant over the Eastern part. Britain’s rulers, for instance, sent armies and gunboats to humiliate the Emperor of China in the nineteenth century and extract trading concessions, rather than vice versa. It is important to realise that the West (more precisely, the rulers in the West) has not always been top dog: from the sixth to the eighteenth centuries the East was more developed. Morris summarised his views in an article in History Today in October 2010, which can be read for free here.

Morris defines the ‘West’ as societies descended from the original core region of southwest Asia, so encompassing Europe and the Americas. The ‘East’ is those societies descended from the early civilisations between the Yellow and Yangzi rivers. Social development is quantified by looking at four criteria: energy capture (the capacity for extracting energy from the natural environment and for using it), urbanism (the size of a society’s largest city, as a proxy for the ability to organize complex situations), information processing (the power to communicate information) and the capacity to make war. The higher the score, the more powerful and developed a society is, and the more able it is to impose itself on others. The West was more advanced till around the middle of the sixth century CE and again from around 1800, when development leapt upwards, first in the West (the Industrial Revolution) and then in the East. The West is still ahead (especially in war-waging ability) but, as the title of the book suggests, this may not last for long.

Biological explanations (to the effect that people from the West are more intelligent) do not hold up, since human beings are basically the same everywhere. Rather, the factors behind the differences are claimed to be essentially geographical. A period of global warming around twenty thousand years ago led to the growth of agriculture in the ‘Hilly Flanks’ (covering the valleys of the Tigris, Euphrates and Jordan rivers) and so to a distinctive ‘Western’ core. At the end of the last Ice Age, agriculture began between 20 and 35 degrees north, a region with plenty of domesticable plants and animals (unlike, say, sub-Saharan Africa). Millennia later, by around 700 CE, China was a unified empire, with an enormous capital city and woodblock printing, while the West remained divided and much less developed, in the period known as the Dark Ages. But it was Europeans who encountered and exploited the Americas, because it was easier for them to cross the Atlantic than for Chinese explorers to cross the Pacific. Chinese fleets sailed through Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean in the fifteenth century, but distances and prevailing winds meant that sailing eastwards into an empty ocean was unlikely to be attempted.

Western Europe (especially Britain) was well-placed to start off industrialisation because it could build on the gradually-accumulating technologies of previous centuries, but also because it possessed plenty of natural resources, colonies and warships, much more so than China at the time. We might add that it benefited from the profits of the slave trade, too. The various graphs that Morris presents suggest that the East will overtake the West in development early next century; compare predictions that China will become the biggest economy within just two decades, though Morris is not simply dealing with China. He argues, however, that geography will soon cease to mean anything anyway, as globalisation undermines real differences and produces a true worldwide system.

Morris’s work is probably most reminiscent of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which emphasised the importance of environmental factors, such as the relative shortage of domesticable animals in Africa and the Americas, in determining the course of historical development in different areas. In The Enigma of Capital, David Harvey accuses Diamond of a geographical or environmental determinism: on Diamond’s view, he says, ‘Africa is poor for environmental reasons, not … because of centuries of imperialist plundering, beginning with the slave trade’. This objection misses the point, though, since there needs to be an account of why it was Westerners who enslaved Africans, rather than vice versa. A geographical explanation is perfectly compatible with the view that the slave trade contributed to the impoverishment of Africa. In connection with the determinism objection, Morris is right to quote Marx to the effect that people make their own history but under circumstances they have not chosen themselves; their geographical situation being part of those circumstances.

Astonishingly, the word ‘capitalism’ is absent from the book’s index, though there is much discussion of industrialisation and industrialists (i.e. capitalists). It is all very well to say that ‘Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things’, but there needs to be explicit recognition that this often involves people getting others to work for them, and so exploiting them. Life for the earliest workers in capitalist factories was in no way easy or safe, and the profits went to the owners, not to those who toiled in the factories. The owners were not so much lazy and frightened as hungry for wealth and power.

Marx attributed the growth of the industrial working class to deliberate acts by the capitalists, fencing off the countryside and so driving people into towns to labour as propertyless wage workers. Rather, says Morris, it was due to increases in life expectancy and hence in population (Britain’s more or less doubled between 1780 and 1830). But he does not seem to deny that the rural dispossession took place, and it clearly contributed to the availability of urban workers as a labour force to be exploited by the new lords of capital.

One thing the book does show is that societal arrangements are never permanent. We could turn its theme around and say that the capitalists rule – but only for now.
Paul Bennett

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