Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Wake-up call: Of the rest of the world, we remember next to nothing

The first striking impression I must comment upon as someone brought up solely in the Western intellectual tradition is that Power and Plenty is what we describe nowadays as a ‘wake-up call’. There is and always has been a much wider world out there than the nearer, though highly significant, horizons we normally contain ourselves within.
I do not mean to imply that educated people in the West are unaware of the rest of the world – how could we be in the electronic times we live in? I am thinking more of our historical vision than today’s global reality. If our knowledge of history is lit up today, as we go back in time the darkness of ignorance about what was happening outside of Europe gradually closes in the further back in time we go. And even then, with our focus on a narrowing segment of the earth, mere islands of puny light settles on isolated places, themselves surrounded by darkness.
Our memories knew something about the near east from the Bible; we sung about names like Bethlehem as little children; we ran with Moses out of Egypt; and sat in awe of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon too, and all the rest that remains in a distant locket of memory to name but three places a long way from Britain, on the fringes of The darkness.
I remember our schoolboy’s irreverent chant of ‘Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; Shake the bed, make the bed, and into Bed we go’. (Apologies to the unsmiling, who were never children…)
Of the rest of the world, we remember next to nothing. Alexander the Great marched through somewhere called Persia; Greeks and Persians fought regularly and with each other; then the Romans fought all round Europe with everybody, including England (but not much of Scotland). Our vision was inward bound; the rest of the history of the world was in darkness. There were some rumblings about a man called Genghis Khan, but not much else. Even Mohammed and Islam did not impinge too much as something we must know about.
Thus, to break the reverie about a too narrow upbringing, I should say that the first three chapters of Power and Plenty came as a bit of a shock. Of course, as an economist, I know more about the rest of the world than I knew as a boy. But what I did not know much about, even after close study of Wealth Of Nations, Lectures On Jurisprudence, and various 18th century books, including Cook’s voyages and the accounts of various other circumnavigators, is the history of the rest of the world long before the Enlightenment got into its stride.
Ronald Findlay and Kevin O'Rourke on Power and Plenty
from Adam Smith's Lost Legacy by Gavin Kennedy
Ronald Findlay and Kevin H. O’Rourke, 2007, Power and Plenty: trade, war, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford
The first chapter organises the thematic structure of book by dividing the world into seven regions, which re-appear regularly in the chapters that follow: Western Europe; Eastern Europe; North Africa and Southwest Asia: the Islamic world; South Asia; South East Asia; Asia (China, Korea, and Japan).
To be blunt: chapter 1 (Introduction) is heavy going, not because it is not written well, but because the reader is led into it without much preparation and is easily ‘lost’ by thestrange names of places and people because of this.
Things get going from Chapter 2 (The World economy at the Turn of the First Millennium) covering the golden age of Islam; China: the Sung economic miracle; The Indian Ocean and South east Asian trade; the Pirenne thesis; Eastern Europe: the Viking connection; the economy of Western Europe.
The thesis of Henry Pirenne (Mohammed and Charlemagne, 1939) will be of immense interest to Adam Smith scholars. Smith advanced the thesis in Lectures On Jurisprudence and Wealth Of Nations that the fall of Rome under the assault of the barbarians (5th century) resulted in a retrograde step from the age of commerce to a fairly basic agriculture (‘a few wretched cattle…’), sometimes known as the Dark Ages (‘banditry and rapine’ ruled the land).
Pirenne puts it differently. The Frankish kings didn’t change much in post-Roman society; but to the south in the Mediterranean the ‘Arab caliphate’ conquered the sea routes between Byzantine and Old Rome in the 7th century, which closed trade between the empires that caused ‘Western Europe to revert to a more primitive self-sufficient economic dynasty’, concluding ‘no Mohammed no Charlemagne’.
Adam Smith was right about the decay of the former Roman western empire, but Pirenne located its cause differently, and opens up a new route of enquiry. To understand his thesis we have to find out more about the rise of Islam, which doesn’t take long to draw us towards the east with which region the Islamic empire did much trade and political business. Before long we are in central Asia, India, back to the Vikings in eastern Europe, ending with a trawl through more familiar ground in Western Europe.
By now I was drawn into Power and Plenty and could not help noting how strong dynasties all across the seven regions reigned, fractured, leaving usurpers, would-be usurpers and failed usurpers to flit across the generations. From the sheer numbers involved, Findlay and O’Rourke could have called their book, Plunder and Trade without misleading readers, a thought confirmed by Chapter 3, ‘World Trade 1000-1500: the economic consequences of Genghis Khan’, the first section of which, ‘trade and war in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea’ is a fascinating read. The two sections on the Black Death (‘the unification of the globe by disease’) (Roy Ladurie, 1981) remind me of the thesis advanced by Gregory Clark, whom Findlay and O’Rourke cite appropriately.
But throughout this chapter, I couldn’t help thinking of the underlying economic structure. A predominantly agriculture society – foodstuffs, and manufactured artefacts from the land, in Physiocratic fashion – but with a population of the land, another engaged in trade, and a third manning the armies and fleets of the ruling order. I wanted some consideration of the implications that in the midst of the pretty low levels of subsistence and the general poor state of the economic basis of their societies, some of them 'worked'.
To sustain the different populations in each such society, land productivity must have been something of a wonder: soldiers have to eat, people have to produce their weapons, and somebody has to fill the traders’ camel trains with trade goods, ships and modes of transport. No wonder plunder and trade were closely associated. The farming population were kept on subsistence; soldiers could supplement subsistence with private plunder; and some of the surplus had to be diverted to building castles, churches, monasteries, mosques, fortifications, ships, and war weapons, not forgetting the miniscule amounts that went to a few scholars, and the larger amount that build cities.
The combined capital used for these ventures across the ‘civilised’ world through the seven regions had to be formidable by any count. The amount of capital destroyed, or used to no good effect, must also have been formidable. Countries opting out of foreign trade (China, Japan), and regions adopting non-growth inducing policies and activities, plus all the plunder that even the wide prevalence of trade within and between countries that did continue trading relations could not do other than mitigate the imposed preferences of those who ruled them.

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