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10-08-2015, 16:27

Reflection

The late nineteenth century witnessed two major developments: the Industrial Revolution and European domination of the world. Of these two factors, the first was clearly the more important, for it created the conditions for the latter. It was, of course, the major industrial powers—Great Britain, France, and later Germany, Japan, and theUnited States—that took the lead in building large colonial empires. European nations that did not achieve a high level of industrial advancement, such as Spain and Portugal, declined in importance as colonial powers. Why some societies were able to master the challenge of industrialization and others were not has been a matter of considerable scholarly debate. Some observers have found the answer in the cultural characteristics of individual societies, such as the Protestant work ethic in parts of Europe or the tradition of social discipline and class hierarchy in Japan. According to the historian David Landes, cultural differences are the key reason the Industrial Revolution first took place in Europe rather than elsewhere in the world. While admitting that other factors, such as climate and the presence of natural resources, played a role in the process, what is most important, he maintains in his provocative book TheWealth and Poverty of Nations, are “work, thrift, honesty, patience, and tenacity,” all characteristics that are present to a greater or lesser degree in European civilization. Other societies were entangled in a “web of tradition” comprised of political authoritarianism, religious prejudice, and a suspicion of material wealth. Thus they failed to overcome obstacles to rapid economic development. Only Japan, with its own tradition of emphasis on hard work, self-sacrifice, and high achievement, succeeded in emulating the European experience. Other scholars criticize Landes’s approach as Eurocentric and marked by lamentable ignorance of the dynamic forces at work in the non-Western world. In their view, other more practical considerations may have played an equally important role in determining society’s winners and losers, such as the lack of an urban market for agricultural goods in China (which reduced the landowners’ incentives to introduce mechanized farming) or the relative absence of a foreign threat in Japan (which provided increased opportunities for local investment). In the view of some theorists of the “world systems” school, it was in fact as a result of the successes achieved during the early stages of European expansion during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that major European powers amassed the capital, developed the experience, and built the trade networks that would later fuel the Industrial Revolution. In that interpretation, vigorously argued by the sociologist Andre Gunder Frank, the latter event is less important as the driving force of the modern age than the period—marked by Western military conquest and the degradation of many non-Western peoples—that immediately preceded it. It is clear that neither side possesses a monopoly of truth in this debate. Although culture clearly matters, other factors, such as climate, geography, the quality of political leadership, and what has been called “social capital” (such as the strength of the civil society), are also important. On the other hand, the argument that imperialism is the main culprit cannot explain why some previously colonial societies have succeeded in mounting the ladder of economic success so much more successfully than others. What is increasingly clear is that there is no single answer, or solution, to the question. Whatever the ultimate causes, the advent of the Industrial Age had a number of lasting consequences for the world at large. On the one hand, the material wealth of those nations that successfully passed through the process increased significantly. In many cases, the creation of advanced industrial societies strengthened democratic institutions and led to a higher standard of living for the majority of the population. The spread of technology and trade outside of Europe created the basis for a new international economic order based on the global exchange of goods. On the other hand, as we have seen, not all the consequences of the Industrial Revolution were beneficial. In the industrializing societies themselves, rapid economic change often led to resentment over the vast disparities in the distribution of wealth and a sense of rootlessness and alienation among much of the population. Some societies were able to manage these problems with some degree of success, but others experienced a breakdown of social values and the rise of widespread political instability. Industrialization also had destabilizing consequences on the global scene. Rising economic competition among the industrial powers was a major contributor to heightened international competition in the world. Elsewhere in Europe, old empires found it increasingly difficult to respond to new problems. The Ottoman Empire appeared helpless to curb unrest in the Balkans. In imperial Russia, internal tensions became too much for the traditional landholding elites to handle, leading to significant political and social unrest in the first decade of the twentieth century. In Austria-Hungary, deep-seated ethnic and class antogonisms remained under the surface but reached a point where they might eventually threaten the survival of that multinational state. In the meantime, the Industrial Revolution was creating the technological means by which the West would achieve domination of much of the rest of the world by the end of the nineteenth century. Europeans had begun to explore the world in the fifteenth century, but even as late as 1870, they had not yet completely penetrated North America, South America, and Australia. In Asia and Africa, with a few notable exceptions, the Western presence was limited to trading posts. Between 1870 and 1914, Western civilization expanded into the rest of the Americas and Australia, while most of Africa and Asia was divided into European colonies or spheres of influence. Two major factors explain this remarkable expansion: the migration of many Europeans to other parts of the world as a result of population growth and the revival of imperialism made possible by the West’s technological advances. The European population increased dramatically between 1850 and 1910, rising from 270 million to 460 million. Although agricultural and industrial prosperity supported an increase in the European population, it could not do so indefinitely, especially in areas that had little industry and severe rural overpopulation. Some of the excess labor from underdeveloped areas migrated to the industrial regions of Europe. By 1913, for example, more than 400,000 Poles were working in the heavily industrialized Ruhr region of western Germany. But the industrialized regions of Europe could not absorb the entire surplus population of the agricultural regions. A booming American economy after 1898 and cheap shipping fares after 1900 led to mass emigration from southern and eastern Europe to North America at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1880, on average, around half a million people departed annually from Europe, but between 1906 and 1910, their numbers increased to 1.3 million, many of them from southern and eastern Europe. Altogether, between 1846 and 1932, probably sixty million Europeans left Europe, half of them bound for the United States and most of the rest for Canada or Latin America. Beginning in the 1880s, European states began an intense scramble for overseas territory. This “new imperialism,” as some have called it, led Europeans to carve up Asia and Africa. Imperialism was not a really new phenomenon. Since the Crusades of the Middle Ages and the overseas expansion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Europeans established colonies in North and South America and trading posts around Africa and the Indian Ocean, Europeans had shown a marked proclivity for the domination of less technologically oriented, non-European peoples. Nevertheless, the imperialism of the late nineteenth century was different from that of earlier periods. First, it occurred after a period in which Europeans had reacted against imperial expansion. Between 1775 and 1875, European states actually lost more colonial territory than they acquired as many Europeans had come to regard colonies as expensive and useless. Second, the new imperialism was more rapid and resulted in greater and deeper penetrations into non-European societies. Finally, most of the new imperialism was directed toward Africa and Asia, two regions that had been largely ignored until then. The new imperialism had a dramatic effect on Africa and Asia as European powers competed for control of these two continents. In contrast, Latin America was able to achieve political independence from its colonial rulers in the course of the nineteenth century and embark on the process of building new nations. Like the Ottoman Empire, however, Latin America remained subject to commercial penetration by Western merchants. Another part of the world that escaped total domination by the West was East Asia, where China and Japan were able to maintain at least the substance of national independence during the height of the Western onslaught at the end of the nineteenth century. For China, once the most advanced country in the world, survival was very much in doubt for many decades as the waves of Western political, military, and economic influence lapped at the edges of the Chinese Empire and appeared on the verge of dividing up the Chinese heartland into separate spheres of influence. Only Japan responded with vigor and effectiveness, launching a comprehensive reform program that by the end of the century had transformed the island nation into an emerging member of the imperialist club.

 

 

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