Book Review: Kenneth Pomeranz – The Great Divergence

Pomeranz, Kenneth – The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2001)
Category: economy, history, world systems; Rating: 5*/5
Summary: Brad DeLong’s reviewThe Bactra Review; Are Coal and Colonies Really Crucial?

The Power Of Contingency: Why China Didn’t Rule The World

great-divergence-pomeranzIt’s a rare book that not only vastly informs you on a particular issue, but in so doing overturns many prior conceptions you had on the general subjects. Now, Pomeranz is not a good writer. The text is slow and turgid, and readable only by dint of my interest in the subject. Many potential counter-arguments go unanswered (which is not to say that they sink the overall theory, as I will try to prove in this review). All that said, I have little choice but to give it a 5*/5, as this a truly counter-intuitive and deeply contextualizing work that overturns many of the triumphalist post hoc narratives of Western chauvinism.

This book attempts to answer the big question of world economic history: Why Europe? It does this by systematically comparing Europe with other leading world regions in the pre-industrial age such as Qing China, Tokugawa Japan, and India. The first big finding is that – contrary to the conventional wisdom – there were far more similarities than differences, at least between Britain and the most advanced Chinese region, the Yangtze Delta.

Essential Similarities Between Old World Cores

It is sometimes argued that special European demographic patterns, such as marrying late and a celibate clergy, had the effect of lowering its fertility and mitigating the Malthusian impoverishment held to be prevalent elsewhere. Another, often complementary, view is that European consumption markets were already far more developed than in China, which allowed it to hit the ground running (so to speak) once the preconditions for industrial revolution were fulfilled. However, China also saw fertility postponement, and there is ample evidence that at least until the mid-19th century the average quality of life in China as measured by life expectancy, median incomes, availability of consumer goods, etc. was at least as good as in Europe, probably higher, and as good as Britain in its most advanced region, the Yangtze Delta.

Although Europe was technologically ahead in some spheres – most visibly, guns, clock making, optics – China had a clear lead in irrigation, soil preservation and land management, and medicine (yields per acre in Europe only approached Chinese levels by the late 19th century). This is of no small consequence in pre-industrial societies hewing to the laws of Malthus. As in China, per capita food and fuel availability declined in Europe up until the mid-19th century century; only in Britain was this in significant part mitigated from 1800 by the windfall of “coal and colonies” (much more on this later).

Finally, there’s the argument that European capitalist institutions and markets were better developed and thus kick-started its growth. But again, the evidence Pomeranz marshals convinces that, if anything, China was substantially more “capitalist” (in the laissez-faire sense) than Europe. There were far fewer monopolies, and no internal trade barriers – contrast this, for example, with ancient regime France – and as a consequence, the volume of trade flows (in grains, sugar, timber, etc) were far higher within China than in continental Europe. The civil service was professional and meritocratic, whereas in Europe this only came to be in the 19th century. Markets for labor and products were freer in China; guilds had much less political influence than in Europe. Bound labor and feudal obligations remained prevalent far longer in Europe (and India) than in China, where it had long ago become marginal; for instance, the settlement of Taiwan for the cultivation of sugar – China’s equivalent of the Caribbean islands – was done by free labor. Though credit was cheaper in Europe – or, at least, in Holland and Britain – but to cut a long story short, there is (1) no evidence that this made crucial industrial activities unprofitable or impeded further pro-industrial mechanization, and (2) the credit system was more developed in India relative to China and Japan, although it was far more backward in general.

One major factor that Pomeranz glosses over is the impact of the Scientific Revolution. Though Chinese scientific achievements are under-appreciated – for instance, it matched Western mathematical achievements up to and including those of 16th century Italy – it is undeniable that Europe took a commanding lead from about the mid-16th century. There was to be no Chinese Kepler or Newton. But impressive as it was, you do not need calculus or laws of planetary motion to produce coal and iron (“as late as 1827 and 1842, two separate British observers claimed that Indian bar iron was as good or betterthan English iron”), and you certainly don’t need them to more efficiently produce textiles. As first textiles, and then coal and iron, constituted the first stages of the Industrial Revolution – up to the 1860’s or so – the European scientific base was almost entirely incidental to the initial industrial takeoff. Now obviously this scientific base did become vastly more important by the late 19th century, which saw the flowering of the electric, chemical, and international combustion engine industries; and those countries with particularly powerful research establishments, such as the US and Germany, did very well, catching up to Britain. However, by then China was already hugely behind.

Addendum 7/31: I almost forgot to mention this. This is probably obvious, but Pomeranz says nary a word about the contribution of cultural differences to the Great Divergence (in contrast to people like Landes who make it a centerpiece of their analysis, waxing poetic on the influence of the Renaissance, the Reformation, distinctive Western values of separation of church and state, etc). And rightly so. Culture is an intangible, and has very little explanatory power; furthermore, such explanations are frequently contradictory in time and place (for instance, whereas “Confucian values” may be cited as holding Chinese society back, they are now frequently invoked to explain the meteoric rise of the Asian tigers; you can’t have it both ways, folks).

The European “Miracle”: Coal and Colonies

Why then did Europe, and more specifically Britain, industrialize while China fell into an ecological impasse in which food production barely kept up with population growth? Pomeranz argues (convincingly, IMO) that the crux of the matter was a fortunate conjunctures and contingencies that overwhelmingly favored Europe.

First, colonies. Many recent scholars have dismissed their contribution; according to one article, overseas coercion could not have been responsible for more than 7% of gross investment in late 18th century Britain (and far less in Europe). But this neglects the vital role of the New World colonies – with their near endless land and natural resources – at relieving ecological bottlenecks in Europe, and in particular Britain. These included sugar (which acted as an additional source of calories as well as a hunger suppressant) and cotton (for clothing, and indirectly relieving pressure on pastures and timber for heating), and later in the 19th century, massive grain exports. All this “ghost acreage” allowed the British isles to support a far larger population than its existing carrying capacity could have, a highly urbanized one and relatively comfortable too (hence no Malthusian stress as in late Qing China, with its debilitating effects on political and social cohesion).

(Furthermore, even the aforementioned 7% figure could have been significant in a pre-industrial world. Due to high rates of capital depreciation, the net accumulation in capital stock then was only a small fraction of the overall savings rate. For instance, according to one calculation, that hypothetical 7% in “super-profits” – an increment to gross savings not purchased at the expense of consumption – could have significantly increased an otherwise minimal rate of net capital accumulation.)

And these goods – cotton, sugar, etc. – could be imported at very favorable terms of trade, because of another set of favorable conjunctures. The decimation of Native Americans due to European epidemiological superiority cleared the way for settlers, who supplied the Caribbean colonies with food and Britain with timber (thus relieving its Malthusian stress). Furthermore, the slave labor on the Caribbean islands – apart from the implicit coercion (and “super-profits” it enabled) – prevented them from developing their own proto-industrial sectors that could undercut British exports.

This is in contrast to what happened naturally in China, largely by dint of its free labor markets (as opposed to New World slavery or East European serfdom). The inner provinces began to expand their handicrafts and textiles industries, thus undercutting the (more advanced) proto-industrialization of the Yangtze Delta. This was a form of “import substitution,” and economically natural in those times because of far higher transport costs than is the case today. This was accompanied by a growing population in the inner regions. Unable to increase its industrial exports, and facing declining imports of rice, timber, etc., the most advanced Chinese regions, the Yangtze Delta and Lingnan, had to increase the labor intensity of their agriculture so as to keep food production abreast of their own population.

Obviously, the conditions did not exist for a Caribbean turn towards import substitution. The slaves themselves had no choice, and neither did the owners; they needed to produce commodities for export in order to pay for replacing slaves. And this all provided a growing (as opposed to declining) demand stimulus for British industry.

One additional New World advantage covered in some length by Pomeranz is the windfall of New World silver – which was, in large part, a free gift to Europe on account of the slave labor and monopolies used in its extraction. This allowed it to easily balance the books with trade in China for silk, porcelain, etc., which in turn could be used to pay for African slaves and New World resources. And Chinese demand for silver was huge, since it was remonetizing its economy to run on silver during the early modern period. Indirectly, it contributed to the formation of the Atlantic economy.

The second great British advantage was coal – that is, as an alternative to wood, located close to its main industrial centers (China too had coal, but it was far away from its main industrial centers, and transport costs were prohibitive). Coal relieved pressure on woodlands, which were in rapid decline, and – due to its virtually limitless nature – unbound the production possibilities of iron. Steam power was crucial to this expansion, not only by powering other processes but by permitting a huge expansion of coal-mining itself. “The Chinese had long understood the basic scientific principle involved – the existence of atmospheric pressure – and had long since mastered (as part of their “box bellows”) a double-acting piston/cylinder system much like Watt’s, as well as a system for transforming rotary motion to linear motion that was as good as any known anywhere before the twentieth century. ll that remained was to use the piston to turn the wheel rather than vice versa.” So the relevant technical skills were not unique to Europe. In fact, northern China had a huge coke and iron complex as early as the 11th century under the Song dynasty, though it was brought low by the multiple perturbations of the 12th-15th centuries (Jurchen and Mongol invasions, etc). The rest is worth quoting in extenso:

However, a number of factors militated against widespread Chinese (re)adoption of coal as a major fuel source. First, the reorientation of the center of Chinese development to the east and south meant by the Qing dynasty meant that its industrial cores were now located far from the big coal deposits in the north-west; the advantages of linking these regions by transport are only evident ex ante. Second, the best artisans were concentrated in the (low coal) Yangtze Delta or along the south-east coast, and serving a huge public demand for clocks and other mechanical toys. Third, “even if mine operators had seen how to improve their mining techniques, they had no reason to think that extracting more coal would allow them to capture a vastly expanded market.” Finally, and most importantly, the technical nature of extracting Chinese coal was profoundly different from that of extracting British coal; in fact, it made the deep extraction that enabled Britain to boost its output all but impossible.

English mines tended to fill with water, so a strong pump was needed to remove that water. Chinese coal mines had much less of a water problem; instead they were so arid that spontaneous combustion was a constant threat. It was this problem – one that required ventilation rather than powerful pumps – that preoccupied the compiler of the most important Chinese technical manual of the period… Even if still better ventilation had ameliorated this problem—or if people wanted coal badly enough to pay for this high level of danger – ventilation techniques would not have also helped solve the problem of transporting coal (and things in general) as the steam engines that pumped out Britain’s mines did. Thus, while overall skill, resource, and economic conditions in “China,” taken as an abstract whole, may not have been much less conducive to a coal/steam revolution than those in “Europe” as a whole, the distribution of those endowments made the chances of such a revolution much dimmer.

In contrast, some of Europe’s largest coal deposits were located in a much more promising area: in Britain. This placed them near excellent water transport, Europe’s most commercially dynamic economy, lots of skilled craftspeople in other areas, and – to give the problems of getting and using coal some additional urgency – a society that had faced a major shortage of firewood by 1600 if not before. And although timber and timber-based products were imported by sea, this was far more expensive than receiving logs floated down a river, as the Yangzi Delta did; the incentives to use (and learn more about) comparatively accessible coal were correspondingly greater.

Much of the knowledge about how to extract and use coal had been accumulated by craftsmen and was not written down even in the nineteenth century… Harris shows that French attempts to copy various coal-using processes foundered, even when they reproduced the equipment, because the production of, say, a heat-resistant crucible required very detailed knowledge and split-second timing acquired through experience – and the financial losses from making a mistake could be very large… Only when whole teams of English workers were brought over (mostly after 1830) was the necessary knowledge effectively transferred.

Thus we see that technological expertise was essential to Europe’s coalbreakthrough, but the development of that expertise depended on long experience (and many failures along the way) with abundant, cheap supplies. This experience was possible because artisan skill, consumer demand, and coal itselfwere all concentrated near each other. Without such geographic good luck, one could easily develop lots of expertise in an area with a limited future (e.g.,in using and improving wood furnaces) and not proceed along the track that eventually led to tapping vast new supplies of energy.

Furthermore, the adoption of the steam engine – whose synthesis with coal was what really generated the Industrial Revolution – was also highly contingent. It was the result of 200 years of use on British coal fields, which was both economical (free coal due to zero transport costs) and proximate to mechanics-minded artisans which could offer improvements. Nonetheless, it took until 1830 for the costs of energy per unit of power for steam-run textile machinery to decline precipitously; until then, water remained competitive with steam engines!

Take away some of the incremental advantage conferred by skill transfers from nearby artisans in other fields, the learning by doing made possible by the application to nearby coal fields, and the low cost of coal itself, and – as incredible as it seems to us today – the steam engine could have seemed not worth promoting.

So, in conclusion, Britain enjoyed two major advantages that the Yangtze Delta, the Lingnan region, and Japan did not: (1) a colonial system that allowed it to massively increase its effective carrying capacity while simultaneously stimulating its industrial production, and (2) conveniently located coal reserves in damp places.

Apart from Britain, Europe as a whole was nowhere close to an industrial takeoff at the dawn of the 19th century; and though the relative inefficiency of its land usage – and the gains from ameliorating that – allowed it to avoid a crisis for a few decades after 1800 (what Pomeranz calls the ecological “advantages of backwardness”), it was nonetheless approaching an an ecological bottleneck as in China (the 1840’s in particular are known as a time of dearth). This was at a time when the Industrial Revolution had scarcely began on the mainland, and if it had continued it would have required the diversion of more and more labor to working the land intensively, instead of industry. Could industrialization then have been sustained without coal, New World surpluses, and the already existing industrialization of Great Britain?

The general impression one gets is that not only was the “European miracle” in fact just a matter of fortunate conjunctures and contingencies, but that there was nothing especially preordained about the Industrial Revolution. No colonial surpluses; no easily-reachable coal or mechanical culture; perhaps, even no slavery (to enhance the efficiency with which colonial surpluses were extracted) – no industrial revolution. At least, not a few more centuries.

Additional Thoughts for Consideration

(1) Needless to say, I now largely reject my previous theory Walled Off By Complexity: Did China Stagnate Because Of Its Writing System? I don’t think the hieroglyphics system did China any good, but they certainly can’t explain The Great Divergence.

(2) One important factor that I didn’t see Pomeranz mention – the Atlantic is much narrower than the Pacific! China was building ships as advanced as that of the European Golden Age of Navigation as early as the 15th century, and in huge numbers far exceeding the capacity of any single European state. Navigation itself wasn’t a problem either (note that it was China that invented the compass, topographic maps, etc). But it didn’t practice overseas slave-trading, and those Chinese that settled new lands – be they in Taiwan, or the inner provinces – tended to develop their own proto-industrial economies, which in the presence of conditions of free trade and free markets for labor and products eventually undermined the volume of trade.

(3) The “rise of the West” was in large part built on systems – mercantilism, military-fiscal competition, etc. – that universal Western ideology now condemns. Ironically, the BRIC’s (including most prominently China) are the ones using mercantile strategies to catch up to the West.

(4) What’s even more curious is that it wasn’t only Britain, and then the rest of Western Europe that overtook China; so did Russia. Now Russia was undoubtedly far, far behind both China and the West practically since its inception until (relative to China) about the late 19th century. It had serfdom, very small urban class, a very de-commercialized economy, with luxury consumption being indulged in by a tiny elite, etc. Nonetheless, despite this backwardness – an inevitable one, due to ecological reasons I have written a lot on this blog about – the state did nonetheless successfully leverage what meager surpluses it had to maintain a rough military parity with the West and play the role of a Great Power. So, yet more evidence that strict adherence to neoclassical economic development isn’t all that it’s hyped up to be.

(5) An interesting counter-factual to consider – what if there had been no easily accessible coal in Britain or the Rhineland, and if Columbus had found no New World and instead sunk somewhere in the middle of a globe-spanning World Ocean? Could there have been an industrial revolution? Is industrial revolution contingent on “coal and colonies”?

Or would Europe instead have become something like Qing China in the 19th century, increasingly politically debilitated, and economically stagnant – any improvements in land management and increasing labor intensity swallowed up by an inexorably growing population? Could it, indeed, have collapsed, perhaps after it grew critically weak and was invaded by the Russian Army much like China was by the Jurchens, the Mongols, the Manchus, etc., and pillaged by British pirates much like Japanese pirates preyed on a weak China in the 17th century Ming twilight? Indeed, could it eventually have collapsed into yet another Dark Age as followed the Roman Empire, in which much of the vaunted knowledge of the Scientific Revolution would be lost to memory, with the 18th century to early 19th century coming to be seen as a bygone “Golden Age”?

PS. H/t to Doug M. for bringing this book to my attention in the first place.

If you like the words I write, and want me to write more of them, consider donating or supporting me on Patreon.