Shorter Great Divergence — June 13, 2014

Shorter Great Divergence

Detail of _Guangzhou Factories, 1855-1856_, Sunqua, oil on canvas.
Once in a very great while, I find something that I *swear* is an extended academic joke. I don’t mean “joke” in the sense that it’s unserious; I mean that the delivery of the whole thing is conducted with a tongue very forcefully rammed into a cheek. Maybe the best example of such a thing is Leo Harrington’s talk proposing an analogy between Hegelian logic and some topics in group theory. There’s just no way he’s serious there, but I’ll be damned if the man ever cracks a smile.

Pomeranz’s [book: The Great Divergence] is deadly serious. What could be more serious than a discussion of why the West won? The whole discussion is so often laden with moralistic Gregory Clark-style musings, and very often the whole exercise seems like an excuse to praise white people.

Which is why Pomeranz is so funny, to me at least. Throughout the book (I’m about halfway done) I hear him humming gently in the background, “It’s the slavery, stupid”. The rest of the book is very rigorous academic garb for that very simple idea.

I’m absolutely certain that I undervalue the importance of slavery to literally every bit of American history. That’s why constantly reminding myself, via something like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s reparations piece, is so vital.

The somewhat longer story, from Pomeranz, is that many nations were running up against fundamental labor and land constraints in the 1700s, and that Western Europe eliminated those constraints, respectively, by a) enslaving Africans and bringing them to the Americas, and b) taking over North America and killing all the native people there.

I really do hear Pomeranz saying throughout, in as measured a way as possible, “You are ignoring the biggest story of at least the last half-millennium if you ignore these.” That’s what I hear when he politely swats down one story, namely that white people had developed a habit of consumer acquisitiveness which started with increased consumption of sugar and tea. I hear Pomeranz quietly saying, “Interesting that you focus on the *consumers* of the sugar. Where do you think Western Europe got all that sugar?

Thus far the bulk of the argument has been to show that the data don’t show any significant differences between Chinese culture and the Western European one; and to the extent that there are any such differences, they tend to tilt in China’s favor. Pomeranz shows that the Chinese government was no more resistant to urbanization than the British one; that it wasn’t any more insistent that women stay out of the workforce; and so forth.

That’s all by way of ideological thicket-clearing. Presumably the next steps in the argument from here cut to the heart of the matter and show that only slavery and extermination of the indigenous population are of the right magnitude to explain why the West rose when it did. Pomeranz has also hinted that the Chinese government’s remonetizing silver when it did was well-timed with the Spanish government’s mining of silver in the New World; it prolonged foreign investment when that infrastructure was needed. And part of *that* story is an interesting one about how long-distance trade requires sophisticated banking: if your goods disappear long before you receive payment for them, and if that payment ultimately comes from someone thousands of miles away, you need some strong guarantees that you’ll get your money; these guarantees, in turn, probably require strong institutions that allow people to trust each other; and so on down the line. Presumably Pomeranz will show at some point that these institutions were just as strong in China (which has famously had a strong central government since well before the time of Christ) as they were in the West.

This scope of argument can often make me experience vertigo. You’re explaining the growth of an entire civilization, after all, even while you’re pulling in the very worst acts that we’ve ever perpetrated against other humans. Pomeranz doesn’t often let us get lost staring at the stars, because — bless him — he is off in the weeds. He has to be: if people are going to argue that there’s something vital in the bourgeois souls of white folk — something which allowed white people to rise to take the mantle of leadership over the benighted races — then there are probably just about two options:

1. Engage with this on its own vague level, pointing out that the Chinese *are so* good people; or
2. Try to find data that can concretely address these sorts of claims.

You probably can guess that I prefer 2. to 1., despite the paucity of the data. I’d rather believe a small number of things based on the little bits of truth that we can polish here and there, than believe a lot of transparently self-serving metaphysical bollocks about the superiority of white people. So when Pomeranz goes off in the weeds on these sorts of things, I think we’re obliged to follow him.

This is probably the third time I’ve tried to make my way through [book: The Great Divergence], though, because the weeds have — I admit — thrown me off in the past. I’m over that now; I find the book fascinating, because its eyes really are focused on the stars even while it’s digging in the dirt. If you bear that in mind while you’re reading Pomeranz, I think you’ll appreciate it as much as I now do.