Traditional economics and consequently neo-liberal policy, especially in terms of economic development, relies on a Eurocentric approach to the narrative of systems of accumulation. In some ways this makes sense, all theory is based on what we know of history; however, to pretend that unindustrialized countries can industrialize in the same manner, following the same principles of Western Europe is to ignore some very pertinent facts.
The Eurocentric narrative of industrialization likes to pretend that it was only with the development of mercantilism, European exploration, and the resultant exploitation of the resources and peoples of the rest of the world that other regions were connected to the world economy. During what is regarded, in a Eurocentric perspective, as “The Dark Ages,” the rest of the global economy was thriving.
Trade routes existed all over Southern Asia, the Middle East, and Northern Africa, between the Eastern African coast and the Indian subcontinent, and the Pacific Islands. European nation states participated in this exchange of goods and services, but only in a limited capacity as the exporters of raw materials such as wool and timber. The highest degree of technology at the time existed in the Indian textile industry and the financial markets of the Middle East.
Despite some border skirmishes, the regions involved in the global markets of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries existed in relative peace – albeit under the brutal thumb of the Mongol empire – until the Portuguese rounded Africa and threw the Indian Ocean trade routes into bloody chaos in the fifteenth century. This disruption impacting a functional, advanced economy by emerging European powers was the first of many in the next century.
Another fact that the Eurocentric economic history on which current neo-liberal development policy likes to ignore is that the massive capital inflows that kick-started the Industrial Revolution in England were a direct result of the slave trade and other exploitive mercantilist policies. Of course there were particular factors that enabled technological innovation in England rather than say, Spain, which despite the unprecedented riches it drained from Latin America, faced financial crisis rather than growth during the same time period; however to simply attribute the industrial revolution to the “ingenious, hardworking” Englishman is silly and dangerous.
Whom should today’s developing nations rob and enslave to fund the construction of their infrastructure and to reward technological innovation? We need systems of development that take not only the history of the victors, but the history of the exploited into account.
There are many moments in history that must be reexamined from multiple angles in order to learn their significance for future progress. I believe that reexamining the foundations of modern economics must begin long before Adam Smith. Understanding that trade and complex financial systems existed entirely separate from European development, and that development up to this point has been built upon a foundation of exploitation is a good place to start.
Previously: Persephoneconomics: Know Thy Enemy, Persephoneconomics: Why It Matters
15 replies on “Peresephoneconomics: Historical Perspectives”
Fantastic article! I’m always astonished how a neo-liberal/neo-colonial approach to development is still being forced onto underdeveloped countries seeing as how exploitative and damaging these policies have been to local communities. I feel like I’m seeing more organizations focusing on find local, stable development solutions for certain developing communities, but is it enough to influence the powers at the World Bank and other large institutions? Who knows.
Have you seen the paper/article by Peter Singer (I think it’s him and if it is, then I know, I know) that argues that we have all these pushes to lower greenhouse gases, after, you know, the West industrialized and garnered the benefit of intense air pollution. In essence, developed nations “broke” the air, but they’re asking the developing nations to help them “fix” it. I’m not doing this justice, but it seems like another facet of the unexplored historical perspective.
I haven’t, but I’ll definitely look it up! This is something that seems true across many fields from pollution to war to production standards to human rights. It’s definitely a fascinating and complex area.
Yeah this is a very interesting point. I read somewhere that Africa, the entire continent, with a billion people, only produces 2% of the world’s air pollution. TWO PERCENT.
And yet as Africa tries to industrialize everyone is all whoa whoa, don’t hurt the environment.
I live in one of Africa’s many developing countries, and I had some super eco-crazy friends from the states visit. They were horrified by what they saw: cars and trucks belching black smoke, people burning trash (including plastic) on the side of the road, everyone drinking out of plastic bottles because the city water is unfiltered and often carries diseases.
They kept tsk-tsking, but as I explained to them what are the alternatives right now for the country? There is no water purification system, no trash collection, and no emissions standards because those drivers are lucky even to be able to afford those old, out-dated vehicles.
Meanwhile the amount of waste in the US keeps piling up.
Green energy is important and these countries should be helped to clean up their environment for the health of their people and their future. But before the West heaps more blame upon them, they should clean up their own houses.
This is a fantastic article. It really underscored how little I know about the pre-Renaissance world, and about the economics of non-Western countries in general.
Just to add, because I do know a bit about industrialized Europe, Britain’s early industrialization and urbanization was spurred in part by population growth. As land ownership became concentrated fewer peasants were waiting to get married (because they had no property inheritance to wait for) and these couples had about one more child than their parents generation. These children became cheap hired labor used to build roads and canals, and increased interconnectivity spurred economic development, etc. The rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. So yeah, ingenious hardworking Englishman my ass, there were just more of them and that aligned with natural resources resulted in the industrial revolution.
Another important piece of this is the Enclosure Movement, a process by which the English aristocracy kicked peasants off their land so that they could make money off of it in the sheep farming/wool trade–their connection the world economy at that time. This massive displacement created the beginnings of a proletariat workforce.
Yes! Exactly! You speak my language! Another person who knows what the Enclosure Movement is! All of these exclamation points are necessary!!! Will we be talking about the Russian Revolution at some point? Because I would enjoy hearing/reading your thoughts.
I’m not as well-versed on the Russian Revolution, but I could certainly work on something on the relationship between popular uprisings and economic crises. That’s definitely relevant right now.
That would certainly be interesting. Or something like – ‘Is violent revolution the only way to resolve severe economic inequality?’
And for information about the accumulation of capital by way of the slave trade I recommend Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery. Some of his arguments have been contested successfully, but it contains a lot of good data regardless.
Reading this was like waking my brain up after a super long sleep. Thanks very much.
Continuing with the theme of your post, if anyone is interested in economies and trade in the pre-European contact Americas, Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus is a fascinating, academic, yet accessible read.
I also very much recommend Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony.
I kind of love that our geeky little blog is talking about European Hegemony on valentines day. : )
So basically what you’re telling me is that the current global economy is based on a system that only accepts the economic history of the countries most adept at stealing shit?
Explains a lot, doesn’t it?
(This was meant to be witty and stuff. I’m not sure if it worked. It’s been a long day.)