- Capitalism and Modernity: The Great Debate
When and why did the West gain its current economic advantage over the rest of the world? This topic is the source of an animated debate within the academy today. Jack Goody, a noted social anthropologist, analyzes these questions and offers his own views in his new book, Capitalism and Modernity: The Great Debate.
The participants in this debate often have been divided into two broad camps. On the one side, which I will call here the Europeanists, are those who consider the West's attainment of economic advantage as having been the result of fundamental societal advantages, generally institutional or cultural. Factors often cited include limited power of the state, respect for property rights, the spirit of individuality, positive attitudes toward wealth accumulation, and separation of scientific and technical advances from religious control. According to this group, the bifurcation between the East and the West occurred early—at least before 1700 and in some ways centuries before that. While Goody identifies many authors within this group—including [End Page 497] Douglas North, Robert Thomas, and Eric Jones—he cites David Landes and his book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations as representative of this position.
The opposing group, which Jack Goldstone has called the "California School," explicitly rejects the assertion of what they would term "cultural superiority" by the Europeanists, characterizing it as overly broad, Eurocentric, and built on faulty assumptions about both the West and the rest of the world. Goody cites J. M. Blaut, Andre Gunder Frank, and Kenneth Pomeranz as exemplifying this group. Their position is that any specific assertions of European cultural advantage can be disproved by examining individual cases, and that the economic advantage gained by the West either can never be shown to have specific causes or was caused by narrower, more technical explanations. Two examples of this latter type of explanation are bullion flows to Europe (Blaut and Frank) and the ready accessibility of coal and iron in Britain (Pomeranz). Consistent with these views, this group argues that the bifurcation between the West and the East occurred later (after 1750 or even 1800) and took place in a world economy where China was a major, possibly dominant player.
Goody begins his foray into this arena by summarizing the perspectives of the two sides and gives his critique of their positions. This is the bulk of the book. While he tries to be evenhanded, his sympathies clearly lie with the California School. After giving a good summary of the Europeanists' position, he repeats the oft-noted criticisms of their theses and comes out agreeing with their detractors. Goody states that Landes's conceptual approach "lacks specificity" (p. 31) and that overall his "Europhile, indeed Anglophile, prejudices invade all spheres" (p. 39).
Goody is considerably less hard on the California School. He notes that Blaut "gives perhaps too little attention to differences outside Europe and to knowledge systems within" (p. 74); Frank "tends to play down context and difference" (p. 78); and Pomeranz "consistently downplays the importance of technical change" (p. 124). However, in contrast to his view of the Europeanists, Goody credits all three scholars with making important contributions to our understanding of the rise of the West.
His own views on the debate's central issues are laid out in the book's last chapter. He says very little on the specific causes of the Western advantage. The "immediate causes of this revolution" were an "attempt to compete with those oriental imports, a process facilitated by Europe's access to American gold" (p. 141). This led to development of marine and military technology and was assisted by promotion of science, printing, and other changes in the mode of communication. He covers all this in a few paragraphs. [End Page 498]
Goody makes two points as his addition to the dialogue. First, he suggests that over long periods of time there has always existed an exchange and equalization process between...