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.
Popular posts from this blog
A friend has recently forwarded me a quote from Lord Macaulay's speech in the British Parliament on 2nd February 1835. I reproduce the quote below: "I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation." The email requested me to forward me to every indian I know. I was tempted, but there were two oddities about this quote. First, the language, which
Introduction : The Business of Gift Giving Business gift giving has always been common and contentious at the same time. Business gifts are usually seen as an ‘advertising, sales promotion and marketing communication medium’ (Cooper et al , 1991). Arunthanes et al (1994) points out that such gifting is practised usually for three reasons: (a) in appreciation for past client relationships, placing a new order, referrals to other clients, etc.; (b) in the hopes of creating a positive, first impression which might help to establish an initial business relationship; and (c) giving may be perceived as a quid Pro quo (i.e. returning a favour or expecting a favour in return for something). The practitioners of gift-giving generally argue that doing business is often an aggregation of personal interactions and relationships, and gift-giving should be seen as a natural way of maintaining and enhancing these relationships. ‘Business gifts, especially one given in the course of the festive s
Buzzwords have disadvantages. Right now, experiential learning is one, and that means we put the label on everything and it stops to mean anything. Also, this means reasonable conversation about experiential learning becomes difficult - at times such as this, either you preach experiential learning or you are traditional, antiquarian and hopelessly out of touch. But, overlooking the limitations of experiential learning can cause big problems. Experiential Learning does many things - putting practice at the heart of learning is an important paradigm shift - but not everything, and it is important to be aware what it does not do. Usually, we equate the terms Project-based Learning (the method) with Experiential Learning (the idea) and Learning from Experience (the ideal), treating them as one and the same and using the terms interchangeably. Any talk about distinctive meaning of these terms is usually seen as pedantic, but really represent very different ideas about education.
Today, Helen Goddard, 26, a highly popular music teacher of a City School for Girls, has been sentenced to 15 months in prison. Her crime was to carry out a year long lesbian affair with one of her pupils, who appeared in the court and admitted that the affair was consensual and it was she who pressured Helen into the affair. For Helen, a bright musician and a devout Chistian, this is an extraordinary lapse of judgement. Also, she was teaching in the £13,000 private girls only school in London. She was surely aware what the consequences of her action will be. The fact that she still could not stop herself tells us that lovers do not always act rationally, something we always knew. There is more in this affair than personal tragedies. For a start, this has all the dramatic elements: a bright, beautiful teacher more in Julia Roberts mould [as in Mona Lisa Smile], a stiff upper lip school [not unlike Wellesley] and a story like Notes On A Scandal with an added twist. Indeed, Helen
In most societies today, making profits are accepted as moral, if not especially praiseworthy. This was not as obvious as it appears today – people used to be embarrassed about making a profit not so long ago. Crazy as it seems today, it is worth thinking why it was so. Profits, as economists will put it, is the reward for risk-taking, for putting a business enterprise together in the pursuit of an objective. In this definition, remember, profits are not what it is commonly understood to be – the gross middle-line towards the bottom – but a figure net of entrepreneur’s earning [wages for his labour], dividends and interests on borrowed capital, and provisions for building and other physical assets [a sort of rent, offsetting what these assets could have earned if leased out]. This pure profit – surplus – accrues to a business as a reward to its organisation, for the act of entrepreneurship itself. Economists were divided on how this surplus comes about. The conventional wisdom was,
There is no other city like Kolkata for me: It is Home. The only city where I don't have to find a reason to go to, or to love. It is one city hardwired into my identity, and despite being away for a decade, that refuses to go away. People stay away from their homeland for a variety of reasons. But, as I have come to feel, no one can be completely happy to be away. One may find fame or fortune, love and learning, in another land, but they always live an incomplete life. They bring home broken bits of their homeland into their awkward daily existence, a cushion somewhere, a broken conversation in mother tongue some other time, always rediscovering the land they left behind for that brief moment of wanting to be themselves. The cruelest punishment, therefore, for a man who lives abroad is when his love for his land is denied. It is indeed often denied, because the pursuit of work, knowledge or love seemed to have gotten priority over the attraction of the land. This is particularly
Introduction: Hastings in the history of Indian Education Whether or not one includes Warren Hastings in the history of Education in India is a matter of perspective. If writing the history of education means writing the history of schools, the impact of Hastings' administration would be quite limited. If anything, the rapid implosion of local rulers in Eastern, Southern and Northern India during Hastings' tenure had meant a bleak period for the indigenous education system, as patronage and funds would have dwindled away for many of them. The Company administration really concerned itself with the schooling of the natives only after 1813, as Nurullah and Naik rightly pointed out ( see my earlier post ) and one can legitimately start the story at this point. However, if history of Education in India is to encompass the transformation of Indian Scholarship, on which foundation the new, colonial, system of Education would be built, the story must start with Warren Hast
Introduction Erna Petri née Kürbs, a farmer’s daughter from Herressen in Thuringia, arrived in Ukraine with her three year old son to join her husband Horst in June 1942. Horst, an SS leader inspired by Nazi ideologue Dr Richard Walter Darré, settled in the plantation of Grzenda, just outside today’s Lviv, to become a German Gentleman-Farmer. Erna saw Horst beating and abusing the workers in the plantation within two days of arriving there, which was, as Horst explained, necessary for establishing authority. Erna joined in enthusiastically, settling into a combination of roles of ‘plantation mistress, prairie Madonna in apron-covered dress lording over slave labourers, infant-carrying, gun-wielding Hausfrau.’  However, there were clear rules in the plantation, and Erna was very much expected to play the woman’s role of being a Cake-and-Coffee hostess. When four Jews were caught in the estate while trying to escape from a transport to a death camp, Horst told Erna and her female
I wrote a note on Kolkata, the city I come from and would always belong to, in July 2010. Since then, the post attracted many visitors and comments, mostly critical, as most people, including those from Kolkata, couldn't see any future for the city. My current effort, some 18 months down the line, is also prompted by a recent article in The Economist, The City That Got Left Behind , which echo the pessimism somewhat. I, at least emotionally, disagree to all the pessimism: After all Kolkata is home and I live in the hope of an eventual return. Indeed, some change has happened since I wrote my earlier post: The geriatric Leftist government that ruled the state for more than 30 years was summarily dispatched, and was replaced by a lumpen-capitalist populist government. Kolkata looked without a future with the clueless leftists at the helm; it now looks without hope. However, apart from bad governance, there is no reason why Kolkata had to be poor and hopeless. It sits right
The ‘Why’ Question? Adolf Hitler was appointed the German Chancellor by President Von Hindenburg on 30th January 1933. This was an extraordinary turn of events. Previously, President Von Hindenburg consistently refused to appoint Hitler the Chancellor, despite the impressive electoral performance of NSDAP in July 1932, Hitler’s uncompromising demand of the Chancellor’s post and a repeat election in November 1932 which failed to break the deadlock. Explaining his refusal, Hindenburg wrote in a letter on 24th November, “a presidential cabinet led by you would develop necessarily into a party dictatorship with all its consequences for an extraordinary accentuation of the conflicts in the German people.” The question ‘why’ Hitler was appointed Chancellor, despite the President being acutely aware of what might follow, is therefore a significant one. The NSDAP had election successes throughout 1932, and was already the biggest single party in the Reichstag and various Landtags acros
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.