Friday, March 15, 2013

Western Civilization

How was it possible for the previously petty states of Europe to, beginning in the year 1492, rise to dominance? What many have concluded was that it was not a sudden event that put Europe on top; this was a process that took at least two centuries, and began decades before Columbus or da Gama set sail. Looking at the world between 1400 and 1492 reveals just what a long shot it was for the Europeans to become the dominant civilization. The Ming Dynasty in China was at the height of its power during this period. Its vast navy and army were more powerful than anything in Europe at the time. Restorations were being made to the Great Wall, as well as a new project: the Forbidden City in Beijing, constructed by over a million workers as a symbol of Ming power. The Ottoman Empire captured the last fortress of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople in 1453. From here they controlled the important shipping lanes between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea and increased their presence in Europe. The Aztec and Inca empires came into the height of their powers in Mexico and Peru respectively. It is certainly true that Cortes and Pizarro did not conquer weak, impoverished masses of people when they came to the Americas. Rather, they came up against technologically advanced and sophisticated societies who might have been more than a match for any European army if not for disease.

One thing we can say with certainty about Europe at this time is that it was far from technologically backward. There were great advancements since the year 1000, and Europe may well have been on the way to industrial takeoff. Yet, any one of the empires mentioned dwarfed the powers of Western Europe in terms of size and population. Europe was still recovering from the Black Death (1347-1348) which wiped out approximately half of the population which had never been very great since the fall of Rome. It was still nowhere near as advanced as China or the Islamic Empires. The Hundred Years War between Britain and France carried on into the middle of the century. None of the major powers to come later were even completely united. England would tear itself up in a series of wars of succession known as the Wars of the Roses between the House of Lancashire and York. Spain would remain mostly split between the two kingdoms of Aragon and Castille with the Moors (Muslims) ruling in the south. Germany didn’t even exist; it was divided up into many different kingdoms bound loosely together by the Holy Roman Empire. France, too, was divided internally and externally. However, somehow, the Europeans did what might have seemed impossible-certainly improbable- at the time and rose above all the other great civilizations.

                Just how exactly they managed it is still open for debate. One explanation is that the geography of Europe is ideal. Large forests and many rivers make it difficult for rampaging hordes of Mongols and their other nomadic cousins to easily overrun the place. Mountains also provided barriers to steppe nomads. These features also made it difficult for kings and emperors to exercise full control over their dominions. There were also abundant resources such as timber, and, of later importance, coal and iron. Europe could therefore count on ready supplies of strategic resources for building large armies and navies. Not only that, but Europe was relatively free from parasites which could ravage populations; the Chinese, Africans, and Indians were not so lucky.

                 However, it was certainly possible that one power, given the right administration and application of resources, could defeat and dominate the weaker powers. As we will see, the Hapsburgs began to consolidate power across Europe, much to the consternation of the other powers. Geography also fails to account for the sharp divergences within European regions. More was required in order to spur the technological and economic change Europe underwent which separated them from other societies.

                What about luck? Were the Europeans just lucky that the Chinese did not reach Lisbon or Genoa on their oceanic voyages? Was it simply luck that the Ottoman Empire became preoccupied with Persia later in the sixteenth century, preventing them from concentrating all their energies on capturing Vienna and ruling the Mediterranean unchallenged? Was it luck that the Native Americans were highly susceptible to Eurasian diseases which made them easy prey for Spanish conquistadors? In many ways the answer is yes; Europe was very fortunate in these regards. But this doesn't really explain Europe's rise to global predominance. Had Europe been overrun by Chinese or Ottoman armies, or unable to easily bring the natives to heel in the Americas that would not mean that the dynamic that led to Europe's rise had never existed. As Harvard professor David Landes points out "Europe was lucky, but luck is only a beginning." The question is what is that dynamic; that one thing that was present among all Western powers, and that, if it had never been there, could not have produced the 'Great Divergence'.

                Could it then be imperialism that led the West to dominate the Rest?[1] After all, by the eighteenth century European militaries were much more advanced and efficient than their Asian and Islamic counterparts. But military organization and technological superiority requires some deeper dynamic in order to produce it. There is also, as the expression goes, "more than one way to skin a cat". Empires could be built not just by military conquest, but economic  and cultural means as well. To give just one example, Argentina's finances were placed under British management after it defaulted on its debts owed to British bankers . This requires greater developments than strict military power; it means the developments of banking and credit institutions, the presence of large amounts of capital, and a complex web of global trade.   

                Others claim that it was institutions that mattered most.[2] In this view capitalism, democracy, and property rights (among others) are synonymous with the rise of the West. To be sure it was capitalism that produced many of the financial institutions of Europe, as well as a middle class. Democracy also put checks on royal authority, meaning that monarchs could not give or take at will. The English Civil War and Glorious Revolution proved that it was bankers and the middle class that had the power. While there is a lot to this argument it falls apart when digging into each individual Western countries rise. For example, we will see how very autocratic the Spanish royalty could be, and how long it took many Western nations to develop concepts of property rights.  

                In 1985 Historian John Roberts argued that the triumph of the West was the ambiguous legacy of western civilization to shape the world-for better or worse.[3] But western civilization's legacy is far from ambiguous. Take the British Empire for example. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson argues that the British Empire had a self-liquidating character, with notions of liberty being the most important ideal. "Once a society had sufficiently adopted the other institutions the British brought with them, it became very hard for the British to prohibit that political liberty to which they attached so much significance for themselves."[4] Those institutions include capitalism, property rights, and democracy. And Britain is by no means the only example of the benefits Western civilization had to offer. Germany, Spain, Portugal, Austria, France, the Netherlands, the United States and even Russia would play their part in contributing to Western civilization, and in spreading it abroad.

                The rise of the West is the most important event in the last five hundred years, and understanding it will help us to understand our own time. No civilization has done more to shape the world we live in today than that of the West. Some cultural relativists will argue that the West cannot claim superiority over any other civilization. Those that do claim the West's superiority are labeled as dangerous 'Eurocentrists'. Of course, to explain the rise of the West as anything more than the product of luck or Nature's blessing, is to admit that there was something  

                To be sure, the methods used by the West to spread their beliefs and institutions abroad were often far from ideal. Huge slaughters took place as Europeans spread around the globe. Diseases brought by Europeans to the Americas would wipe out an estimated ninety percent of the native population. Sometimes, in their fervor to spread Christianity and democracy abroad, they would trample over the freedom and religions of those they sought to westernize. They could also be downright dirty, playing political rivalries to their favor, making alliances with native rulers, promising prestige and riches, and then betraying their word. As Calvin College professor, William Van Vugt put it "We cannot ignore the facts...that Liberty was not always forged with Justice".

                Today, it seems that the violence and injustice of imperialism is all we are ever encouraged to think about. We have dismissed imperialism and the rise of Europe as nothing unique or special. We teach our children that Western ascendancy was little more than an accident. Many have portrayed European and American expansion in the New World as little more than genocide, and that Europe was generally a place of hatred, suspicion, and cruelty.[5] Columbus Day, once a cause for celebration, is now seen with revulsion as it has been shown that ninety percent or more of a great native population was wiped out by the coming of Europeans; a coming heralded by Columbus. We can do better than moral indignation though. These are not constructive contributions to the discussion of Western civilization.

[1] See von Laue, "The World Revolution of Westernization". The History Teacher.
[2] For the rise of Europe see Ferguson, Civilization: the West and the Rest, Bernstein, Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World Was Created, and Rosenberg et. al., How the West Grew Rich. More generally, and also insightful is Acemoglu and Johnson, Why Nations Fail: the Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty.
[3] Roberts, J. M., The Triumph of the West: the Origin, Rise, and Legacy of Western Civilization.
[4] Ferguson, Niall, Empire: The Rise and Fall of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power
[5] See, for example: Stannard, David, American Holocaust

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