From the Ruins of Empire: Debates about the rise of the modern west remain a fertile source of historical polemic
Debates about the rise of the modern west (and corresponding decline of the east) remain a fertile source of historical polemic. Such oppositional historiography - the idea of a head-on clash of civilisations, with a clear winner and loser - seems to hold a perennial appeal in terms of both its simplicity and its drama of antagonism. Last year, Niall Ferguson - in his pugnaciously titled Civilization: The Six Ways the West Beat the Rest - brought the subject back into sharp media focus. “The rise of the west,” he argued, “is the pre-eminent historical phenomenon of the second half of the second millennium after Christ. It is the story at the very heart of modern history. It is perhaps the most challenging riddle historians have to solve.”
To condense two extremes of a now venerable argument, the old school contended that somewhere in the early modern period a progressive and free-trading Europe surged ahead through innate superiority of character and government, while ancient superpowers such as China turned complacently in on themselves. A newer, postcolonial school places the “great divergence” rather later, arguing that until 1800, the Chinese empire largely kept up with Britain, the most prosperous and vigorous of the European economies. Early in the 19th century, however, Britain began to nose ahead, through sheer good fortune. Easy access to coal and Caribbean sugar fuelled the steam-power and workforces of the industrial revolution. New World calories, timber and silver (paying for tea, coffee, textiles) in turn liberated millions of European arable acres for other productive purposes, permitting the industrial revolution to generate firepower that, by the 1840s, was trouncing the great non-European conquest empires.