- Perilous Passage: Mankind and the Global Ascendancy of Capital
Amiya Kumar Bagchi's Perilous Passage: Mankind and the Global Ascendancy of Capital is an ambitious work that essays to rethink the extent to which the transition to capitalism did not accomplish significant human development until well into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And even that development has come in a most uneven manner with horrendous consequences for much of the formerly colonized peoples of the world. This substantive ambition is undermined by overreach, as the author enters into unrelated issues involved in debates on the origins of capitalist development in a comparatively touch-and-go and unconvincing fashion.
After a brief introduction to the tendency of writing on development to overlook or give short shrift to the impact of the transition to capitalism on the majority of the world's peoples, be they in the colonized or colonizing sections of the world market being constructed during the mercantile and industrial capitalist phase of the transition to capitalism, Bagchi offers an alternative. In chapter 1, Bagchi asserts the provocative though not necessarily new thesis that, regardless of increases in productivity, until roughly the end of the nineteenth century, basic indicators of human development underwent little in the way of significant change for the overwhelming majorities in either Europe or the parts of the (nonwhite) world that European colonizers were conquering and looting. Indicators of human development reviewed in [End Page 528] detail across region and time period include longevity, infant mortality rates, heights, nutrition, and literacy, in addition to levels of human freedom.
Looking at the question of development as more than merely a matter of objective rates of surplus production and growth or technological upgrading across time, Bagchi refutes the neoliberal and Eurocentric faith in the superiority of the European "model." In chapters 1–8, Bagchi documents the huge amount of loss of human life and potential that accompanied the mercantilist period of European development. Bagchi argues there is little evidence of demonstrable human development in Europe even as Dutch and Spanish empires conquered whole swaths of the "new world." Europe during this period was hardly "advanced" as it underwent a series of princes' wars that devastated the living standards of peasants and urban dwellers alike. On top of this, the unquenchable penchant for treasures abroad and monopolies of trade routes overseas only exacerbated mass levels of squalor that accompanied European "progress" during the mercantilist periods as those who served in the naval armies experienced a very low likelihood of return to mother ports alive.
Chapters 9–11 lay out evidence that, if compared with their European colonialist counterparts, the "world beyond Europe" was not dramatically "improved" or "developed" by European invaders. This is not a terribly new thesis, but, the data Bagchi deploys to demonstrate it certainly contributes to a further refutation of liberal assumptions about the "superiority" of European civilization as the explanation for why Europe experienced comparatively exponential augmentations of surplus accumulation from the eighteenth century onward.
In the remaining chapters, Bagchi delivers a narrative that largely reproduces the dependency school's emphasis on the link between capitalism's development in the core regions through accumulation of largely stolen wealth and huge pools of cheap immigrant wage-labor from the periphery. The "headstart" that the western European nations enjoy is a product of their armies' ability to conquer sovereign peoples and compel them to export goods for far less than their actual worth in markets. To use the classic example of India, the Indian textile producers did not fall to Britain because of British "competition." Bagchi argues on page 175 that there was no real competition to speak of as long as Britain imposed huge tariffs on Indian producers in Britain that British producers did not face in India. The profits English producers enjoyed under such circumstances had little to do with "free markets and much more to do with military domination and subsequent monopolization of markets." This leaves the reader with the obvious question, [End...