Did the Russian State... Part IV by Nils Johann (On the 'Miracle' of Western Europe)

A challenge that one faces when entering into the debate of an eastern or western culture dominating Russia, is the terminology itself. What is 'The West'? Is 'The West' something definable? Or rather, can it be used as a definition? It is a term that is inherently used, and it simplifies and creates order in one's mind. But does it help to understand something, or does this categorization lead us astray... or make us lazy? The suspicion arises that the category contains a lot of praise, to one self, one's own. Because it is to be understood positively, is it not? When our 'Anglo-Saxons' write about 'The West', they write about their own, their identity, and self-image. They show how they would like to portray themselves today, often at the risk of sacrificing historical fact, in favor of tunnel-vision, with regards to sources and interpretations.

The claim made by Landes and other 'Eurocentrics' (rather 'Occidentofiles') is that 'European' institutions that arose during the industrialisation, and the Industrialisation itself, can be traced back into 16th century, to their 'embryonic' state, without causing huge problems of verification. (Landes even claims the 15th century holds the 'seeds' for future industrial development.) This is best illustrated by the discussion that broke out, after David Landes and Andre Gunder Frank both brought out a book on the subject of 'world economic history' during the same year. They positioned their works extremely antithetical to each-other. In “ReOrient- Global Economy in the Asian Age” (1998), Andre Gunder Frank manifests the economical superiority of Asia for the period before the disjunction that happened around 1750 to 1850. -Something that is not widely contested. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, Adam Smith, and other Europeans in the time were well aware of this, and they idealised China as a model for copy, and a 'Europe of the East'.

David Landes in his Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998) does however not want this to be true. In his grasping for straws, he alleges to have found exclusively English (and when he can't force them to be English, they are Dutch) 'seeds' for explaining the Industrial revolution, back in the 15th century. This, despite the general problem of finding or constructing data-series that reach further back than 1750. His attempt at writing a 'world economic history' must be seen as a failure, because the book is mostly about Europe. His effort at documentation for his narrative is good, but rather eclectic- we might call it a case of historical tunnel-vision. Landes, as Max Weber did in 1950, also places a lot of weight on cultural exceptionalism. But it ends with a circular argument where culture is special because it is special. Of course we can agree that culture is special. But it should be noted, that it is also highly plastic, adapting itself to, and echoing, changing material circumstances. The same goes for alleged, peculiar western institutions. They are made for fulfilling a pragmatic purpose, and the institutions that do not 'bend with the wind', will eventually 'break'. The 'sexual revolution' of the 1960's could be an example... be seen as a 'breaking down' of cultural mores by beatniks and French philosophers, and a loss of 'Christian Values'. But was it not also caused by the discovery of penicillin and 'The Pill'?

As a matter a fact we know 'Europe' only takes the economic lead after about 1800, and we know that this is due to the 'industrial revolution'. The exploitation of the western colonies in order to gain surplus currency to access oriental markets, had been important up to that point. (Occidental gold and silver, and shipping, because few 'Western' product were of high enough quality, to be of interest to the Asian market, until the westerners also started dealing in drugs and erotic art.) Frank does not completely decline the plausibility of 'inherit qualities' or a longer period of preparation for this jolt in European productivity, and he explains it best in his own words:

“But it was not so thanks to any of the 'qualities' and 'preparations' alleged by Weber, Marx and their many followers, including Landes still today, who observed nothing in Asia and only myths in Europe...Instead he [Vries] makes repeated references to possibly peculiarly European institutions. Since Vries does [can?] not specify or even name any, he conveniently also protects himself from any specific rebuttal. But I can assure him again, as the book already did, that every previously alleged European institutional exceptionalism has long since been knocked down as a straw man. To illustrate the point, I quoted what Hodgson wrote over thirty years ago already: "All attempts that I have yet seen to invoke pre-Modern seminal traits in the Occident can be shown to fail under close historical analysis….This also applies to the great master, Max Weber." If Vries can do better, let him.; but he would be well advised not just to refers us back to the tired old shibboleths of David Landes.”

He then proceeds to illustrate his point, by comparing the European surge by the rise of mammals, after the wiping out of the dinosaurs, meaning that the external economical factors of Indian and later Chinese relative decline, made room for European growth. Only because the surroundings changed, expansion was made possible.

“But Europeans [sic: Some European historians] have wasted nearly 200 years of time erroneously and uselessly examining their own allegedly obviously exceptional navel instead of looking for possible exceptional qualities that only became particularly useful due to an event largely extraneous to ... Europeans themselves.” In the wake of this feud, some good work was done to explore the subject further. Jack Turner's documentary 'What the Ancients knew' (2005), gathered a wealth of evidence supporting what Frank already claims, especially in relation to Chinese economic-force-superiority up until the 19th century."

An other example from the 'Occidentofile' perspective is Robert Bucholtz' lecture-series on the rise of modern western civilization. It is even more fitting for the place and period that will be discussed later in the paper. Bucholtz specialization is the English royal court, and he is therefore, quite familiar with England. Bucholtz' 'West' therefore, is a constantly eastwards growing
'West', into areas less known to him. The eastern border is at the outset of the lecture, in the period after the black death, drawn alongside the Rhine river, and, including Italy in the south. 'The West' to Bucholtz is as much a state of mind, as it is a geographical term, and as time progresses, more areas mature into this proposed (English) mindset. It is an Anglo-centric proposal, connecting to 'The West', things that are considered virtues in Bucholtz' culture today. A more critical interpretation of the lecture would give us, that what happens actually has the opposite causal effect of what is suggested by the narrative of Bucholtz. -As England integrates values and techniques from abroad, this shapes England. The protestant reformation takes place in the 'Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation', and as we know, some of its principles are adopted in England. Suddenly the H.R.E. is party to Bucholtz' narrative of the 'West'. It is a case of 'tailor-fitting' the data to fit with a preordained result.

This poses a problem to us, because it follows that 'The West' of Bucholtz, Ferguson and Landes is seen from a tunnel, opening in the direction of what they express to hold dear. Then, the 'West' is not the dictatorships of Franco or Pinochet, even though both were situated in the the West? Is it not the slums of former 'Western' colonies? Is it not the 'antebellum' United States, where the Congressmen wrote in high-born poetic prose about freedom, to hide the fact they were owning slaves? - And something that is too often under-communicated: The situation of the African slave, is not all to unlike to the situation of the European peasant from the 16th to the 19th century. Is 'The West', not the cheap labor of children in the coal-mines of South Yorkshire, that fueled the industrialization of England, and the constant state-sponsored murder of those that opposed the exploitation? Winston Churchill may not have had Gandhi murdered, as Adolf Hitler allegedly suggested to him. But the Great British Empire surely had no problem with starving away, both the Irish, and Indians, or the inhabitants of White-chapel. The Royal Navy did in the end contribute its bit to halt the slave-trade, but only after the criminalization of the trade in 1807. It took, however, until the late 1860's, before total compliance to this act was forced through. We could go on, the examples are many, -of what 'we do not want' 'The West' to be. But what is 'The West', or rather, what would we like it to be? -In this context, it is Parliamentary systems, the rule of law, and the freedom of private enterprise and property. Liberty and justice, checks and balances, prosperity and the right to voice ones opinion. Features that Niall Ferguson in his latest book dubbed “the six killer-apps of western civilization”. A problem is of course that many of these institutions, and freedoms, first materialize much later than even 1800. Through unions and 'class-struggle' (*in a broader sense of the word). Equal voting and legal rights, never materialised during the existence of the Great British Empire, and on the mother-isle, they only became reality in 1928. In Ferguson's U.S.A., It took until 1965 for these basic civil rights to be signed into law by president L. B. Johnson.

It seems, every time that non-European state-formations have stability, their governments can inherently within this discussion be described as despotic or tyrannical. “Freedom” from this sort of government supposedly leads to innovation and development, caused by market-like competition and exchange. There is a different perspective on development in general. There is a certain truth to the words of Hobbes; that the 'freedom' of the 'barbarian' might be nasty brutish and short. The least developed areas of today are at the same time the most unstable and conflict ridden ones. Order was prevalent in the East, when these areas up until about 1800, also had a technical lead, on poor, war-torn, Western Europe: Stability equals surplus of capital, surplus of capital; wealth, equals innovation, because it reduces relative risk when it is affordable to take a loss. In modern firms research and development is the relatively, most costly sector, and access to capital, and a large amount of surplus-capital, distributed among a large part of a population will open the possibility for innovation to a aggregated extent. In Ferguson's narrative the end of the Ming dynasty in China and the factionalism and wars that followed, are a definitive triggers of decline and stagnation of development. But he has no quarrels with portraying this same sort of contemporary fractioning, as the institutional strength of Europe, spurring proto capitalist competition. It is a total contradiction, spurring doubts about the reliability of the competition narrative, as a European advantage.

All in all, it is a question of perspective, of focus, and of intent, when one wants to write about 'The West'. Another challenge is of course also that the 'West' has changed over time. It has not always been as ideal, as the connotations to the term may imply. As we will see, historical thinking and historical accuracy can be a huge challenge. 'The Cult of British Exceptionalism' does in this regard also overemphasize and distort the subject when handled by many 'Western' historians, forcefully superimposing present structures on the past. Davis' “Late Victorian Holocaust”, is an exception from the rule. -A rare example of the opposite, as it rather focuses on the brutal, 'despotic' manner in which the 'Victorians' of Great Britain, spread 'Western Civilization' in order to exploit and enslave the world.

It seems quite likely that the 'Cult of British Exceptionalism', is a result of non-recognition of the exceptional ceterius paribus development, that the surplus accumulation of the Industrial Revolution, the harnessing of immense amounts of natural power for human needs, caused, for what it was: A brief fluke of West-European material-wealth-superiority. Because some gentlemen had unlocked the secret of turning heat into motion, giving them and their peers a leading role for two hundred years. Of course it was extraordinary, like the locomotive suddenly speeding up, next to the horse and cart. There was a need to culturally explain it, ex post factum, so historians and thinkers started making up stories, cultivating plausible explanations for the fluke. Like Marx, writing his short essay on the positive effect of British imperialism in India. Or Weber, inventing the tasty, elegant theory about how 'Jesus and Luther caused factories to be built'. It is about as verifiable as the Book of Genesis. It is of course also a philosophical question, where the person trained in a tradition of Hegelian idealism will undoubtedly be looking for 'the emperor's new robe' cheering, while enthusiastically not seeing it.

As a last thought on this issue; maybe it was not enough, or maybe it was to vulgar, for the Europeans, starting our craft of writing histories, back during their age of industrial revolution, that the 'political power had grown out of the barrel of a gun', -that had been mass produced. For Harald 'Haarfagre', one of the first kings in Norway, it had not been enough simply to be King, by holding
a sword either. He had traced his linage back to Methusalem The Old, Jupiter, King Priamos of Troy and the Norse God-King Odin. Caesar had claimed to be the heir of Venus, and Swedish noble houses of the 17th century traced them selves back to Atlantis of legend. So why not claim to be the noblest race? Have the purest blood? And a to be in possession of a special, inventive, mind? The
best Kings and the finest state-institutions, or the best culture? Or can we content ourselves with the fact, that turning heat, into motion, into work, into wealth, is miraculous enough? Landes' friend in arms, Samuel Huntington sums it up elegantly when he writes: “The West won the world, not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion, but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do.”

Comments? Questions? :)

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