A great divergence

Today we will talk about great divergence.How to explain that Europe has taken the 19 th century an ascendancy over other parts of the world, so much to enjoy for more than a century of unquestionable supremacy in the global economic arena? Among the many works that have been devoted to revisiting this old question in the last decades, the work of the American historian Kenneth Pomeranz, A great divergence, published in English only ten years ago and recently translated into French (Albin Michel, 2010), is a reference figure. An indispensable reference, which every specialist must cite, even if it is often to sweep it away. It must be said that the thesis of Pomeranz lends the flank to simplification, which can be summarized in an almost lapidary formula. Until the early 19 th century, the historian ahead, Europe did not have any advantage over China, economic powerhouse of the time. The most advanced region of the Old Continent, England, owed its industrial takeoff only two fortuitous advantages: the existence of coal deposits close to its industrial centers and the reserve of land conferred by its colonies in the new World.

The Great Divergence

There is, indeed, enough to hurt more than one economic historian. Normally constituted this one generally seeks to update the background movements, the secular evolutions, the cumulative processes behind the economic development. As for the rise of Europe, historians have often insisted on the virtuous circles between technological innovation and capital accumulation that presided over the industrial revolution and the economic take-off of the Old Continent. When they wanted to relativise, as is the custom of today, the rupture that the industrial revolution would have constituted, they have endeavored to describe the endogenous process by which Europe has endowed itself with the capital, the profile demographic, technologies, institutions that have made it different from the rest of the world. And even when such a narrative was challenged, notably by Immanuel Wallerstein and the historians of the world system, it was to substitute for it another narrative of the genesis of European supremacy, insisting on the role of trade with the other regions of the world. It is then conceivable that, as Pomeranz does, the taking off of the Old Continent from “contingent” factors, so to speak, largely by chance, may be difficult to swallow.

The American historian is not alone in making such a disturbing proposal. We know that in the ranks of global history, authors such as André Gunder Frank [1] or John M. Hobson [2] and even as Janet Abu-Lughod [3] advanced a similar argument. These authors showed how Europe has had its boom in technology transfer and the ripple effect of Asian business networks on the Old Continent long overdue economic [4] . European supremacy ultimately result from a combination of chance (the decline in Asian trade around the 15 thcentury, according to Abu-Lughod) and violence: the only trait truly differentiating the small European powers is their aggressiveness, which is manifested in an unprecedented alliance between merchant networks and military power (Abu-Lughod, Arrighi) racism and imperialism (Hobson).

The Great Divergence Timothy Noah

Pomeranz’s analysis, however, takes place on a completely different pattern than the previous one. If this author belongs to the domain of study of global history, it is less because he studies the connections between the different parts of the world (he is not interested in it), only because he looks comparative analysis of the respective histories of Europe and non-Western countries. The American historian places himself on the same ground as the traditional economic history of Europe. It privileges, as it does, the endogenous dynamics of the Old Continent to compare it with that of China. In doing so, it re-examines, one after the other, the advantages which, according to the dominant economic history, Europe would have acquired over its Chinese rival. And it leads to an overwhelming conclusion: no,e century. Worse, it shared with it ecological barriers that could have completely overcome its economic development, as was the case with the Middle Kingdom. This conclusion leads to a complete return of the analysis: it is no longer a question of explaining why, because of what blockages, China could not do as well as Europe, but on the contrary to understand by what miracle the latter was able to escape the decline that threatened it as well as its Asian rival. This is where the contingent factors introduced by Pomeranz come into play. Without them, the historian, the “industrial revolution”, and his share of innovations generally considered decisive, might have had no lasting effect on the dynamics of the old continent.

But let us go back to the comparison proposed by Pomeranz. In order to carry it out, the historian introduces a methodological innovation: recalling the profound economic heterogeneity of both Europe and China, he favors the comparison of two regions, the most advanced in each zone – England and the region of Lower Yangzi – without forbidding incursions into other areas of continental Europe or the Middle Kingdom. The comparative work can then begin. Pomeranz begins by discussing the idea that, long before the Industrial Revolution, Europe would have begun to diverge from China in terms of wealth, standard of living, life expectancy, demographics and technology. Richer, less populous, more innovative, Europe would have slowly formed what would be the factors of its future success: greater capacity to accumulate capital. Pomeranz shows, however, that the comparison rarely turns to the advantage of Europe. China was at least as rich, with peasants and craftsmen controlling births to create an accumulable surplus, its technologies (irrigation, land conservation, textile looms, blast furnaces) were generally more advanced.

The Great Divergence Book

Pomeranz tackles another piece by examining the argument put forward by institutionalist Douglas North that Europe would have gained unparalleled economic dynamism through more efficient markets. Again, Pomeranz shows that this is not the case. Not only did China have nothing to envy to Europe in this field, but the organization of its markets was closer to the ideal of liberal economists. The sale and lease of land? This was, according to Pomeranz, something more comfortable in China, despite the process of British enclosures. The historian reminds us of the slowness and relativizes the impact on English agrarian yields, thus taking the opposite of the neo-Marxist works of Robert Brenner [5] or Ellen Meiksins Wood [6]. The rise of a “free labor market”? Again, the guilds of European cities have considerably hindered the process, much more so than what was happening in China. And what about the low labor productivity of Chinese peasants? It is known that Chinese-American historian Philip Huang [7] sees it as a sign of an “involution” of the Chinese economy, synonymous with a compression of the standard of living. Pomeranz points out the existence in China of an “industrial revolution” comparable to that which Jan de Vries [8] identified in the case of the Netherlands: the Chinese population increased its standard of living by devoting more work, not only to agricultural tasks, but also to craft work sold on the market.

Europe and China resembled each other in many respects, suggesting that nothing predisposed their trajectories to the “great divergence” that was to widen during the 19 th century. According to Pomeranz, they shared another common trait: their most advanced regions of England and Lower Yangtze, were in the early 19 th century, about to reach a saturation point of their natural resources. This translated ecologically into an advanced degree of deforestation and depletion of the soil and, in economic terms, a shortage of foodstuffs and rising prices. Economic development in both regions was simply threatening to slip.

 

The Great Divergence

 

The originality of Pomeranz’s work is to deploy its analysis of the “great divergence” on this ecological framework. If “contingent” factors such as the proximity of coal deposits and the reserve of New World lands have played a decisive role, they have allowed England, then Europe, and it alone, to break the ecological limits to growth. Pomeranz puts forward two sets of arguments in support of his thesis. In the first place, the relative scarcity of British land could be overcome by the contribution of “ghost hectares” (estimated at between 10 and 12 million hectares). Because cotton was cultivated there, an advantageous substitute for wool or linen, the plantations of the New World saved hundreds of thousands, or even millions of hectares, devoted to the clothing of the island population. Because coal was substituted for charcoal or firewood, coal also spared large areas of land. Secondly, for Pomeranz, without this easy supply of easy-to-work textile fibers and coal, it is likely that the British industrial model, based on the replacement of labor by capital (inter alia, thanks to “steam engines” and the textile industry, would not have been an economically viable option. This is how the West has embarked on the mode of development which consumes a great deal of capital and natural resources. the coal also spared large surfaces of earth. Secondly, for Pomeranz, without this easy supply of easy-to-work textile fibers and coal, it is likely that the British industrial model, based on the replacement of labor by capital (inter alia, thanks to “steam engines” and the textile industry, would not have been an economically viable option. This is how the West has embarked on the mode of development which consumes a great deal of capital and natural resources. the coal also spared large surfaces of earth. Secondly, for Pomeranz, without this easy supply of easy-to-work textile fibers and coal, it is likely that the British industrial model, based on the replacement of labor by capital (inter alia, thanks to “steam engines” and the textile industry, would not have been an economically viable option. This is how the West has embarked on the mode of development which consumes a great deal of capital and natural resources. based on the replacement of labor by capital (inter alia thanks to “steam engines”) and the textile industry, would not have been an economically viable option. This is how the West has embarked on the mode of development which consumes a great deal of capital and natural resources. based on the replacement of labor by capital (inter alia thanks to “steam engines”) and the textile industry, would not have been an economically viable option. This is how the West has embarked on the mode of development which consumes a great deal of capital and natural resources.

This is the explanation of Pomeranz’s “great divergence”. One can note in passing the affinity that his thesis maintains with the theory of the systems-world. In the eyes of the American historian, the periphery of the New World, exploited by a system of slave labor, played a decisive role in the rise of Europe. He nevertheless proposes an ecological interpretation of this contribution, in the form of the economies of land that allowed the possession of the American colonies. China, on the other hand, did not have peripheries that could have brought it such an advantage.

The work of Pomeranz has marked the spirits, without evidently taking the adhesion of all. Two lines of divergence can be mentioned with his work. The Japanese historian Kaoru Sugihara, who is also an author of reference work in the historical comparison between Europe and Asia, [9] differs at least in one point from Pomeranz’s narrative. In his view, the paths of European and East Asian development (essentially China and Japan) had gone well before 1820, the starting point of the “great divergence”. On 15 thcentury, two distinct paths can be identified: East Asia, based on an intensive model of labor, Europe based on capital-intensive technologies, which the industrial revolution subsequently developed considerably [10] .

The Great Divergence

 

The Italian-American sociologist Giovanni Arrighi is also one of those who have studied the enigma of “great divergence”, without retaining the ecological explanation of Pomeranz, which he considers reductive [11]. If, according to him, it is possible to understand why England has embarked on the industrial path, it does not explain why China did not do so – the argument that the deposits of Chinese coals or the inexistence of peripheries comparable to the New World does not seem to him sufficient to win the adhesion. For Arrighi, the fundamental difference between the ‘European way’ and the ‘Chinese way’ is that the former was ‘capitalist’, unlike the latter, capitalism’s own character is to bypass the institutional and social frameworks limit the accumulation of capital.

Whatever one thinks of these differences, they indicate in any case the place that Pomeranz’s work occupies today in the global economic history: that of a penetrating analysis which must imperatively be rubbed.

People Who Changed The World For The Better