23 July 2019

Why are we modern?

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“In general, life is better than it ever has been,” P. J. O’Rourke wrote in All the Trouble in the World. “If you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word: dentistry.”

Stephen Davies’s The Wealth Explosion: the Nature and Origins of Modernity explains why we have dentistry and people in the past did not. Some of those people in the past were sharp and competent, too — 2nd century AD Rome, Song China, Abbasid Iraq. All three civilisations looked for a time like they would achieve what the Netherlands and the United Kingdom achieved in the 18th and 19th century: industrialisation followed by what Davies calls “modernity”. Why they didn’t is part of this remarkable and compelling book, but why the UK in particular did forms much of the rest of it.

O’Rourke’s “dentistry” is of course a proxy for many things. Before Davies starts talking about Chinese dynasties and Scottish philosophers and enlightened caliphs, he makes two related points. First, the way we live now — roughly, the last 250 years — really is different from everything that went before. Secondly, that difference has particular characteristics. He sets out his case contrarily to Steven Pinker (who makes a similar argument at book length in The Better Angels of our Nature), partly because Davies is an historian while Pinker is a scientist. This means there are no graphs or diagrams, but an abundance of “ripping yarns”. Given many people are unmoved by graphs but are moved by narrative, it’s possible The Wealth Explosion will persuade where Better Angels did not.

Materially, modernity means there are more of us, largely because four in ten children no longer die before puberty. That vast population lives uncommonly well while the proportion of the world’s people living in what the World Bank calls “absolute poverty” is dropping like a stone and has been for decades. Our economies are also overwhelmingly powered by intensive growth — that is, growth arising from inputs being used more productively. Before the 18th century, nearly all economic growth was extensive, which made the quantity of output produced dependent on expansion of the quantity of inputs used. Whence things like colonialism and brigandage.

Most of us now live in cities, something that emerged only as recently as 1851, when the “census revealed that for the first time in human history (…) a majority of the British population lived in towns with a population of more than fifty thousand”. Incredible as it may seem in light of the ongoing Brexit shitshow, governments in modern liberal democracies are also astonishingly competent. The most able Roman prefect or Chinese mandarin — placed in a time machine and deposited in Whitehall — would be stunned at the lack of corruption, how we’ve succeeded in abolishing the sale of public offices, and genuine concern for what Davies calls “the general welfare”. Governments — with relatively few exceptions — were historically extractive superpredators. And even those that did not aspire to be (such as Rome and China for significant parts of their history) were nonetheless riddled with corruption and pervasive clientelism.

We are also morally different from our ancestors, and that includes the most enlightened and high-minded of them. People across the political spectrum are concerned about harms to unrelated strangers in distant lands, while across the developed world and large parts of the wealthier developing world, men and women are legal and political equals. These moral changes are simply extraordinary in light of human history, something Davies details with skill and élan precisely because of his gift for storytelling. This means he is able to point out, for example, that societies where women weren’t considered chattel and generally had significant rights (pagan Rome and medieval Japan are the two stand-outs) nonetheless found another large group of people to treat appallingly for reasons we moderns find thoroughly obnoxious. This ensures his account of the fights over individual autonomy and slavery between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment figures is intensely gripping. In the process, it becomes clear that Am I Not a Man and a Brother — the 1787 inscription on an anti-slavery medallion manufactured by Staffordshire potter Josiah Wedgwood — would have been intellectually impossible in any previous period of human history.

Once he’s cleared the moral undergrowth, Davies then discusses why historical civilisations that looked like they were about to make like Britain in the 19th century somehow didn’t. Because his book is short he’s forced to provide more detail on one case study than others, but this has two happy consequences. His chosen focus is Song Dynasty China (960-1279), which has the effect of encouraging British readers to take a greater interest in Chinese history and capturing the extent to which (now) modern, wealthy China appears to be producing a different kind of industrial modernity from that birthed in 18th century Europe.

“Although systematic innovation was limited and hampered in all pre-modern societies and civilisations, this was less true in China than elsewhere for a very long time. The list of major innovations that were first made in China is a very long one and includes such things as paper, porcelain, gunpowder, the blast furnace, the wheelbarrow, and a civil service recruited on something like merit. China’s lead in this respect lasted until the fourteenth century but it then ceased”.

The Song rulers did things like abolishing internal passports (a version of the Hukou system has existed for most of China’s history, making this a major policy shift); allowing a genuine free market in land (including the crucial right to alienate); ending the payment of taxes in kind or by corvée labour and preferring money instead; constructing navigable canals to facilitate internal trade, and building a huge merchant navy. Song China began to enjoy modern-style intensive growth: agricultural output doubled over the period 960-1279, an extraordinary achievement in a society without modern fertiliser and the scientific interventions of Norman Borlaug.

What undid the Song? Why wasn’t the Industrial Revolution Chinese rather than British? As is always the case when historians examine “root causes”, Davies’s explanations blend external shocks with domestic government policy. The Black Death was a major factor, scything down nearly 90% of China’s population in some regions long before it made its way along the Silk Road to wipe out half of Europe. Shortly thereafter came the Mongols, who scythed down anyone left standing and sacked Baghdad — the leading centre of Islamic civilisation at the time — while they were at it.

Crucially, the Mongol victory over Song China’s largely Han population inflicted a form of psychic harm on the country. Long after China threw the Mongols out and re-conquered vast amounts of territory, Song Dynasty policies were associated in the Chinese national imagination with weakness and defeat. Subsequent dynasties eventually set about reversing every single one of them, sometimes in extraordinarily stupid and destructive ways. Peasants lost the right to sell their land, internal passports were re-introduced, and the immense ocean-going junks of the merchant marine (called “Treasure Ships”) were deliberately destroyed.

What, then — come the 18th century — made North-Western Europe, and especially the UK, different? Here Davies scotches most of the “European exceptionalism” arguments (everything from an average older age at marriage for women to the presence of large numbers of animals suitable for domestication to the independent Roman and English development of the rule of law) and focuses instead on the extent to which Europe never became a “Gunpowder Empire”, despite concerted attempts by the Habsburgs to make it one (“the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”). Every other relatively developed region in the world in the same period — from Russia to the Ottomans to China to Safavid Iran — did.

Instead, Europe — and especially Western Europe — became a system of states. No regional hegemon emerged, and the only way for the European powers to keep pace with competitors after the crucially important Peace of Westphalia in 1648 was to innovate. Failure to innovate meant the country next door eating one’s national lunch. Even if a given ruler didn’t particularly like capital markets and science (they had a nasty habit of blowing holes in organised religion, which until that point European rulers used to unify their respective countries), he or she was forced to not only allow but encourage them. The price otherwise was being shoved definitively to the back of the military queue.

“Modernity” thus took on a European — and especially British — cast. Because the UK already had strong institutions of governance independent of the Crown (Parliament and the Courts), and because it was first to break away from the peloton (most European states remained absolute monarchies for some time), liberal democracy and market capitalism came to be twinned in the minds of many observers. For decades the claim that one implied the other was treated as a species of historical inevitability, a phenomenon that came to be known as “Whig History”. Here, once again, Davies departs from what is a common (and newly re-popular thanks to Steven Pinker’s efforts) account.

In short, while modernity is very special and we’ve only had it for a short time, it is pure historical contingency that it looks British. It could have looked pagan Roman, or Abbasid, or Chinese. It may still come to look Chinese for the simple reason that China has been in pole position as a civilisation for much of world history. I was forced to confront this historical reality when I wrote my last novel, Kingdom of the Wicked. A work of speculative fiction, it takes place in a Roman Empire that’s undergone an industrial revolution.

My initial academic training was in classics (I became a lawyer later to pay the bills), so I’m well aware pagan Rome had different cultural values from those now associated with the present. The most striking difference between the Romans and us — and also between modern Chinese and us — is a much greater tolerance for authoritarianism as long as government remains competent. During a presentation to an educated British audience unfamiliar with Chinese history but reasonably knowledgeable about classical history, Davies described Chinese as “basically like the Romans”.

Which means if progress is to remain about more than dentistry and material comfort, those of us committed to liberty and individual autonomy need to make our case far better than we have done of late, because there is nothing inevitable about human freedom.

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Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, and read law at Oxford. Her most recent novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, was shortlisted for the Prometheus Award for science fiction.