I write this post mainly as a record and a response to a debate that I participated in last week. The question we were concerned with is the well-known one, why did Western Europe, and particularly England, took the lead in the industrial age. The debate was drawn along the lines of the arguments of David Landes, who argued about the primacy of culture (positing Max Weber's 'Protestant Ethic' at the core of his argument), and that of people like Andre Gunder Frank and Kenneth Pomeranz, who argues that the the 'Western' hegemony is contingent (that it has come about following a number of chance advantages, geographical and historical) and perhaps cyclical.
To me, the 'contingency' argument has more appeal. This is not just because of my general view of life - that contingency plays a huge role - or because that would be more consistent with a Darwinian world view. For that matter, such an argument would also be consistent with the idea of 'conjuncture', that history is made of contingent coming-together of several different factors, and not as a divinely willed march forward to a pre-ordained destiny. In fact, I spot a whiff of this in Landes' argument, a reflexive justification of hegemony of a chosen people, which required him to overlook the unsavoury bits and ignore alternative possibilities.
Instead, the reason why the culture argument is not convincing to me is that neither I believe culture exists in a vacuum, but rather shaped contingently, and that culture changes over time, as a result of interaction with the outside world. Landes' arguments assume a closed world, a little island in North Atlantic developing its unique capabilities and world views without reference or interaction with the outside, which is absurd. Out goes the Romans, the Vikings, the Saxons and the Normans, not to mention the Druids and anything Celtic that may prove to be an embarrassment, and history is paraded only with its good, convenient bits, perhaps the world starting with the Spanish Armada or the fall of Napoleon. And, indeed, once we accept this argument, we are only a short step away from the end of history - all of history was a journey to the preeminence of the West - and at this point, the theory may indeed fall apart empirically.
There are indeed insightful bits at Landes' work. His previous work on 'Revolution in Time', the argument that the sea-faring Western Europeans were motivated to tinker with clocks and time-keeping, which in turn resulted in better navigational equipments, and hence, better sea-faring, is an interesting, though not wholly original, argument. One can establish a direct linkage between the sea-faring capacity of the ships, and the prosperity of Altantic Europe, leading to the profits from America that would fund the wars of conquest in Asia. However, this is not the big picture Landes subscribes to: He, instead, looks for endogenous factors, the favourable geography, labour-saving technologies and culture, rather than the exogenous advantage in sea trade, just as it became, with the discovery of America and opening up of sea-route to India (and with growing capacity, shipping becoming the fastest and cheapest mode of trading goods), the game-changer.
Landes' argument, and with him, of a whole gamut of neo-liberal thinkers, is based more around the idea of 'protestant ethic', a legacy of Max Weber. In this telling, the story was all about hard work, the spirit of experimentation, and the ethic of delaying gratification. The protestants triumphed as they were rational and active, as Weber would argue: Others had significant handicap - the Confucians were rational but inactive, the Muslims were active but irrational, and the Hindus were both irrational and inactive. Apart from the broad generalisations - the theory was very much a child of a bygone, imperial age - this sets aside whatever that may not fit. Budhdhism, despite its rational tradition, is kept aside, and perhaps Colombus, Vasco Da Gama, Henry the Navigator etc would be counted as honorary protestants, born too soon.
My argument is not that culture does not play a role, but it works in context. And, privileging a cultural explanation while undermining other contextual arguments does not seem logical. Much of the European empire was won and sustained by non-Christian methods - not sure Church of England's manual would have a provision of machine-gunning unarmed men, women and children in Jalliwanwalabagh in Punjab - and the European supremacy was maintained far more effectively by Military Technology than any religious ethic. And, besides, the argument about a special British (or Western European) inventiveness due to Protestant Ethic was also difficult to sustain, as one would scramble to explain how the docile and collectivist Chinese came up with so many different ideas, including the Gunpowder and the Compass, the foundational elements of Western supremacy, as well as the Printing Press, the standard-bearer of Western superiority, first.
And, then, there are more potent explanations of British inventiveness than protestant ethic. For example, I see a greater impact of Primogeniture, the estates passing on to the eldest male successor than being divided among many, than Protestantism. The system meant bigger, undivided estates in one hand, resulting in a small, ultra-rich aristocracy, allowing 'capital formation' at a bigger scale than the other countries of the European continent. This also meant the younger successors often had little inheritance and had to go into professions. One could argue that this meant many different things - not just a strong professional class, but that this class banded together with other constituents, peasants or later, working classes, politically against the strong but small landed classes - and this was the foundation of English liberty as well as English inventiveness.
In conclusion, I am wholly unconvinced by Landes' views, though this is very fashionable among the neo-liberal, investment banker or consultant type individuals. Overall, I reject the 'Culture as Destiny' argument, and believe that while culture in context makes a difference, culture is a dynamic thing, which changes over time and through interaction with other people. And, while some may argue that cultures change over long term, for me, history is indeed a long term perspective. For me, history is not a journey to an end, but rather a series of contingencies, not wholly accidental but made of interactions between human will and exogenous circumstances, in which today's disadvantage can be the advantage of tomorrow. This is exactly how I read Western history: Its later industrial superiority might have roots in the devastation of black death. And, from that corner, history of Asia or Africa has not ended, but only just began, again.
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