A review of The European Miracle by Stacy Brown, reproduced with his permission. Safety copy |
The European Evolution
Jones' analysis of how Europe became the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution instead of Asia is interesting, and he raises some important points. The most obvious objection to the book is that it is Eurocentric and indicates that Asia would never have been able to industrialize on its own. In today's culture this point of view is unpopular because of its reliance on and respect for the white male-dominated societies of Europe, and this view therefore violates a sacred tenet of political correctness. On the other hand, whether political correctness should be considered when one looks at world history is a valid question, and if the answer is affirmative, it places quite a dim cast on the integrity of the study of history. Nevertheless, Jones states his ideas with clarity and gives numerous references and examples, but another important objection remains to his work, and that is that he spends very little time on Asia and describing why it failed to industrialize.
First of all, it is unfair to label European Miracle as Eurocentric simply because it claims Europe was the only place where industrialization could have occurred. A simple look at history shows that Europe is where the Industrial Revolution occurred, even though Asian societies appear to have reached similar plateaus with a traditional economy much earlier. This indicates that something happened in Europe that did not happen elsewhere, whether it was intentional, over a long time span, or by virtue of location and heritage. Jones gives some time to each of these possibilities, although his main idea, that European society led to the revolution over centuries during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, gets more attention than other considerations. He also mentions, albeit briefly, some possibilities that can only be attributed to luck, such as the abundance of coal in Britain compared to the total lack of or inconvenience of obtaining it in other countries.
Jones wants to convince the reader that the Industrial Revolution should not be thought of as an event that happened at a particular point in time with the invention of one item. Instead, he wants to show that the previous 400 years contained a host of inventions and innovations that increasingly led to revolutionary changes in society and economy. He mentions many obvious examples, such as the printing press and improved turnaround times for ships in port on either side of the Atlantic. He also briefly mentions the overall importance of the discovery and colonization of the New World in that they provided a huge increase in land, and not just land, but land that had a drastically different climate from what was available in Europe. Even within the confines of a traditional economy, Europe was able to increase its production of food and other goods (such as tobacco) because it had gained the Caribbean and the Americas which could either produce goods that were completely impossible in most of Europe (cotton and sugar cane) or was limited because of Europe's limited arable land.
Interestingly, Jones draws a conclusion that Europeans as a whole began to have better diets and more food on the table compared to their Asian counterparts, and this agrees with Mintz's thesis in Sweetness and Power. The main difference is that Mintz believes the difference is attributable to the sugar cane industry while Jones believes it is from the greater land available, but the underlying point is the same: Europeans were able to take advantage of land in a temperate or tropical climate and benefit from an Asian plant (sugar cane) in a way that Asians were not able to do. Sugar cane had existed in Asia for a very long time, but still Asian diets remained meager while European diets steadily improved.
The textbook, Traditions and Encounters, claims that Chinese food production was already increasing by the mid-17th century when American crops like maize and sweet potatoes were introduced. The new crops could be cultivated in areas that had previously been unable to support agriculture, and as a result, production skyrocketed. As food became more readily available, the population increased at a very fast rate as well, and this is what the text indicates was really responsible for a lowering of per capita income and diet quality. Jones fails to mention any specifics of the Asian food situation, other than its reliance on agriculture in certain floodplains which could mean devastation by drought or flood very often. He does compare population densities of Europe with those in India and China, but his point is that the greater densities in the Asian countries led to greater effect of natural disasters, not less availability of food for the population at large.
The importance of food notwithstanding, Jones seems to think the connections between economy and politics is much more important, considering he spends several chapters on these topics. To him, the development of nation-states in Europe is crucial for the transformation of the improving and innovative yet still traditional society into an industrial society. Without the nation-state, the monarchy retains power over many of the innovations that would prove so important, especially regarding the markets and trade. When the monarchy begins to lose power in favor of the people, another long-term process in Jones' opinion, a market economy that actually favors the merchant class emerges. By the 19th century when most European monarchies were substantially less powerful, merchants and businessmen controlled most of the "industrial" entities, in fact if not in name. One of his examples is that Prince Henry and many members of the Portuguese nobility controlled sea expeditions and routes in the 15th and 16th centuries, but the British monarchy had very little to do with the improvement of the locomotive and railroad outside of bureaucratic approvals. The development of nationalism around Europe in the 19th century also created an attitude that change was good and keeping the old ways was incompatible with progress. The fanaticism of the French Revolution was tempered with political stability in many nations, but the desire to create new things encouraged innovations and the transfer of ideas from person to person and state to state.
Similarly, the growing heterogeneous quality of Europe allowed for greater diversity of thought and accomplishment. Within Britain or France or Prussia, society was largely homogeneous and not representative of many peoples and ideas, whereas the whole of Europe, with its great reliance on trade among its countries, was able to mix and spread ideas throughout the continent. The Protestant Reformation is an ideal example which Jones mentions, in that an action taken by a somewhat insignificant German priest spread quickly to Switzerland, France, Holland, England, and elsewhere. Everywhere the Reformation went, it took on a distinctive flavor from the surrounding area, and as a result, the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican doctrines were all rather different from one another while maintaining similarities. The same would be true of inventions that arose and spread to other areas, taking on local looks wherever they went.
Neither of these things, the emergence of nation-states or diversity, was found to any extent in Asia, or at least that is Jones' perspective. He argues that the politics of India, both before and after the coming of the Mughals, was far too unstable to promote a suitable degree of innovation. He also writes that Ming and Manchu leaders of China had no interest in the outside world, so they encouraged too much traditionalism within the population, leading to stagnation. Early Chinese inventions indicated potential for growth and development, but when the leaders were unable to allow the people to create on their own, such activity dwindled. The lack of diversity could be attributed to alien rule in both India and China, especially on the part of the Manchus, who promoted strict segregation between ethnic groups in China. The argument is weaker for Mughal India, which did not promote such segregation and often saw visitors from the Middle East trading or settling in India.
"Comparisons, or contrasts, with other civilisations are essential for an assessment of Europe's progress. Otherwise conjectures based on a winnowing of the European historical literature are uncontrolled," Jones writes (153). This is a rather ironic statement considering he spends only one very short chapter on direct comparisons and the chapter doubles as a conclusion. The vast majority of European Miracle discusses Europe, and there is nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but when one considers that this book is an attempt to ascertain why Europe, a small peninsula situated at the northeast end of a very large land mass, emerged victorious on the road to progress and industrialization instead of its larger, more homogeneous, and older counterparts to the east, it seems a little lacking in its ability to convince. The cursory examinations of Mughal India and China under the Ming and Manchu dynasties lead the reader to think very little was happening there while Europe was becoming a trade center of the world, while the truth is that Jones simply does not give them justice. His work is unsatisfactory, not necessarily because his conclusions are all wrong, but because he does not devote enough explanation to why the Industrial Revolution was indeed a European miracle.