[LE: Something I often wonder about when studying history is: why do certain civilisations develop in certain ways, and others (which are equally technologically advanced, if not more so) do not develop in the same way? I suppose it's one of the reasons why I enjoy speculative fiction so much: speculative fiction plays a game of what if x had occurred? How would history be different?
Our regular commenter, Lorenzo, has written a post about why Europe had an industrial revolution and other societies did not. He concludes that an important part of why a society can change and adapt centres around the perceived origin of its laws. If a society sees its laws as divinely ordained, then it is very hard to change such laws to accomodate changing social and economic circumstances. If, however, a society sees its laws as a human creation which can be changed when social and economic conditions change, then it is much easier to change the law to make it more efficient and responsive to changed circumstances. This allows a society to be flexible and to develop faster. Lorenzo's hypothesis is that divine law is a distinct disadvantage when it comes to becoming economically prosperous, because it makes changing the law much more difficult: it limits the possibilities of evolution in the law and invokes absolute authority to prevent people from changing the law.]
Of the various centres where urban civilisation developed — the Andean mountains and coasts, Mesoamerica, North-East Asia, South-East Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle East, Europe—why was it the cultures of the Atlantic littoral of Europe who first created global history (by connecting all parts of the globe so that, for the first time, human civilisations and cultures were directly aware of the entire rest of the globe) and then transformed human societies by that explosion in the creation and use of capital we call ‘the Industrial Revolution’? Why was Japan the first culture not of the Atlantic littoral (or descendant societies) to achieve industrialisation?
Why not … ?
Why not the Middle East—where the original production revolution, the agricultural revolution, first began and which dominated human invention until about 500BC? Why not China—the continental civilisation with the strongest history of political unity and which dominated human invention for about two millennia (from 500BC to about 1500AD)? Why not India, long a world-leader in metallurgy and mathematics? For, in history, why x? questions come with linked why not y? questions.
We can dismiss the urban civilisations of the Americas as contenders, for they were too isolated. At the time the conquistadors arrived, their civilisations were at about the level of early Pharonic Egypt. The wheel was in very limited use, they had little metal technology while the Andean cultures had not yet developed writing. They had generated states capable of generating considerable economic surpluses beyond subsistence and applying them to vast building projects; projects which both expressed elite power and ensured the surplus was directed to the purposes of the elite. In protein-starved Mesoamerica, this included a ready supply of protein to the elite. (You didn’t think they wasted all those human sacrifices, did you? Religion, like other human ideologies, has a way of selecting for elite convenience.) But the urban civilisations of the Americas were not contenders for anything but being laggard civilisations; witness their devastation by disease and massive disruption by small but much better equipped (both technologically and in range of experience) European forces.
Which leaves the Eurasian contenders. The question is: how did the selection processes of history act in a way that selected for the relevant characteristics? We know the who; the question is how and why?
Selection in history
For the selection processes of history to work, there had to be social possibilities to work upon and pressure to select for the relevant characteristics. Viewed in this way, clearly the post-Roman Atlantic littoral cultures had major long-term advantages. They were on the edge of Eurasia, protected by geography from regular conquest by outsiders; this gave time for long-term institutional learning to take place rather than suffering regular institutional “flattening”. Geography worked against political unity, setting up strong, sustained competition between polities, creating competitive pressures. They represented a range of cultures that developed a variety of institutional forms, which gave a wider range of possibilities for the selection processes of history to work from. They had enough commonality (such as a shared scholarly language—Latin—and a shared religion—Latin Christianity) for movement of people, ideas and capital between polities to be comparatively easy. This intensified the selection processes. Being on the Atlantic littoral—given, prior to railroads, transport by water was enormously cheaper than transport by land (probably by a factor of about 15: i.e. it cost the same to go 100km by land as it did 1500km by sea)—was an enormous exploration, trade and conquest possibility advantage. (One might argue that this water advantage persists.)
Other centres of urban civilisations had some of these features, but none had the full package. The Middle East and China had too much political unity, which greatly lessened competitive pressure and selection possibilities. Northern India suffered too many invasions: also something of an issue for the Middle East and Northern China. South-East Asia had a long period of a dominant polity (the Khmer Empire: see also) and, ironically, both too much institutional similarity (so less for selection processes to work upon) and insufficiently permeable cultural links (so less intensity in competitive processes).
The area of urban civilisation that had the next highest combination of these factors to Atlantic littoral Latin Christendom was—surprise, surprise—Japan. While notionally a unitary state, in practice local provincial lords had sufficient power for Japan to experience a form of “competitive federalism” while the split between Mikado and Shogun, between tenno and bakufu, added to the legal pluralism. It had less cultural and institutional diversity to work from than Europe. But once it was able to “piggy-back” on the results of historical selection processes on the Atlantic littoral and descendant polities, it was away.
Why not India?
A region that might have been something of a contender was southern India, which was largely shielded from the regular invasions that northern India suffered. India certainly developed a technologically, intellectually and religiously vibrant set of polities and cultures—India had a richer tradition of mathematics and philosophy than China, while its metallurgy was as good as or better than anywhere else’s. It was never, however, a serious contender for the “break out” that Atlantic littoral Europe achieved.
India lacked the range of political forms that Europe had (but so did everywhere else: though India did develop at least one state that used the elective principle). It also shared a specific disadvantage with the Islamic Middle East—a strong concept of divine law, with the Brahmin Laws of Manu, the Manusmṛti. Having a concept of law as divinely ordained is a barrier to institutional evolution. Outside the areas where Islam became dominant, Eastern Eurasia also lacked such a concept: law was a human matter. But China was hobbled by too much political unity, South-East Asia by too much autocracy suffering too little mutual cultural permeability. Once again, Japan—with its parallel tenno and bakufu court systems, its law-making local lords—came closest to Europe’s advantages.
The burden of divine law
Judaism, Islam and Brahminism embrace conceptions of divine law; that laws emanating from God Himself (or the Divine realm) exist, and are discoverable and applicable by religious authorities (rabbis; mufti and qadi; Brahmins). Christianity, growing up in the highly ordered Roman Empire, did not develop such a conception: in mainstream Christianity, all law — even canon law — is human law, however much it might seek to conform to God’s will. This gave Latin Christendom a great long-term advantage over Islam, since the possibilities of legal experimentation and evolution were much greater.
In Judaism and Islam, the process of creating a community order, including state-building, was intimately tied up with religion. Religion provided the basis of law, hence the strongly territorial roots of both religions. Brahmins provided an accessible form of adjudication not subject to the vagaries of fluctuating rulerships. (This control of adjudication is likely a key reason why Brahminism was able to fight off the Buddhist challenge.)
Starting with the Babylonian exile, and especially after the brutal suppression and dispersion of the Jews by the Romans, rabbis were without any authority except that which the community gave them. Rabbis were mediators without state power: they mediated by consent. This profoundly affected how Jewish law was interpreted, both its operation within the Jewish community and its (lack of claims) about any authority beyond it.
By contrast, within a single generation, Sharia went from being the basis of a local rulership to being an imperial legal order. Sharia proclaims the right not merely to be laws for believers, but over non-believers as well. There is no inherent limit to the ambit of Sharia, both in who it allegedly applies to and how much of life it claims to be able to legislate for. It is law from God and expresses His sovereignty, which has no limits. The Soviets notoriously operated according to the principle “what is ours is ours and what is yours is negotiable” as only The Workers’ State had true legitimacy. If only God’s law has legitimacy, then the same operating principle applies.
This is where the notion of Sharia within Muslim communities as merely “community mediation” breaks down. Leaving aside its pervasive misogyny, its implications within Muslim communities, there is simply no natural or inherent limit to its ambit of operation. Any ambit of operation it may be granted by the wider polity cannot be expected to be final: it is far more likely to be seen as basis from which to negotiate further expansion. Indeed, once the infrastructure of Sharia is given any legal recognition, the likelihood that its operation will stay within those alleged bounds is highly dubious.
This is not a problem entirely limited to Islam, though it is more extensive and intense in Islam. In Israel, pressure from the Ultra-Orthodox is steadily encroaching on the public realm—particularly the rights of women to use and act in public places. But such claims to restrict and control are far more “encoded” in Sharia than they are in Jewish law. That this Ultra-Orthodox civic imperialism in Israel arises from the unintended consequences of a series of exemptions granted to Ultra-Orthodox interests provides a clear warning of not creating sectional privileges, of having a common public policy realm within a specific polity.
The nature and status of Sharia in Islam also means it is harder for Islam to be a religion of the private realm than Christianity. There are no equivalent statements within Islam with the canonical status within Christianity of “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:16-18) or “he who is without sin, cast the first stone” (John 8: 6-8). In mainstream Islamic thought, any similar statements in the Meccan suras are trumped by the later Medinan suras. Harder, but not impossible, as the example of the Ismailis demonstrates. Of course, they have been in the same situation as Jews—being a permanent minority.
In the modern world, it is not clear that anyone is better off under Sharia (apart from those who gain status and income from its use for adjudication). Obviously, women and non-Muslims are disadvantaged but even male believers are appealing to a legal system which has clearly been surpassed in its capacity for promote economic prosperity and which can only “keep up” by piggy-backing on legal advances made elsewhere. Then there is how relations between men and women, between parents and children, between believers and non-believers, are poisoned by the categorical advantages and disadvantages of Sharia.
The commercial limitation of Sharia brings us back to divinely ordained law being a dynamic disadvantage. One has to be careful to not overstate the case. It was not that a system of divinely ordained law absolutely precluded legal evolution—consider the innovative ways the rabbis got around the inability of local Jewish communities to impose the penalties decreed in Jewish law. It was that to have a concept of law as divinely ordained made legal innovation much more difficult, so requiring much more pressure to drive any such evolution. (One can reasonably describe Jewish communities in Christendom and Islam as being under some pressure.)
What a system of divinely ordained law does largely preclude is serious legal variety. One might have, as Islam does, various schools of law. But Islam had nothing remotely like the legal diversity of Europe. Not only were the selection processes of history slowed down in communities with divinely ordained law, they had far less to work with. This provides a serious long-term disadvantage.
To delineate these effects takes sophisticated scholarship. As in Timur Kuran’s splendid work of economic history, The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East. Kuran carefully assesses the effect of Islamic law, and resulting institutions, on the economic development of the Islamic Middle East. In doing so, he enlighteningly analyses not only why Islamic institutions and commercial organisation stagnated, but also why Europe leapt ahead.
And leap ahead it did. Kuran quotes Angus Maddison’s figures that the Middle East’s share of world GDP was 10% in 1000 but had plummeted to 4% by 1600 and 2% by 1700. By contrast, the West European share surged from 9% in 1000 to 22% in 1700. This is a story of shifting dynamic advantage, unintended consequences and the problems of constrained social learning and legal (and other) experimentation. I review Kuran’s splendid book here, here and here.
The fragmented authority of Europe and its legal diversity, created “self-undermining” institutions that either had to, or chose to, embrace new possibilities, fuelling mutually supporting innovation. The legal unity of far more politically unified Islamic Middle East created self-reinforcing institutions that, while globally optimal for a while (and continued to provide advantages over rival offerings in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and South-East Asia) came to lag seriously behind Europe’s innovations and increasing commercial complexity. In many ways, the Commercial Revolution of Europe underpinned and encouraged its Scientific Revolution, its global expansion and led into the Industrial Revolution.
Meanwhile, the Arab world remains mired in autocratic government that sees private sector development as a threat (pdf), stifling economic opportunities and, given the dramatic demographic bulge, generating massive youth unemployment.
Resilience, restraint and social learning
To have stable mass prosperity requires a state that is resilient but restrained. Resilient against threats to order, both internally and externally, but which does not greatly oppress. In particular, there must be other paths to status and wealth than politics; for if politics is the only game in town, the stakes become all-encompassing and too absolute for restrained politics. The resilient restraint of such a state both holds the ring for, and is able to respond to, learning how to do better.
This is a dynamic balance; one that has to be able to evolve and respond to changing circumstances. Divinely-ordained law is a double barrier: it not only greatly limits the evolutionary possibilities and retards the ability to respond but it does so by invoking an authority with absolute claims. Not a good basis for either restraint or for learning how to do better. It is not surprising that civilisations which accepted divinely-ordained law lost out in the evolutionary processes of history.