A growth story, retold

Print edition : April 05, 2013


An attempt to show that the “mysterious” Orient was not a “changeless” entity, carefully avoiding “ideology-tainted concepts”.

THE query raised by the title of this book was of considerable interest in the past and continues to engage attention even today. The answers put forward have been diverse indeed. In the past, many Western writers had been puzzled by what they considered to be peculiar features of the peoples of the East, and because they could not offer any satisfactory explanations they maintained that the Orient was mysterious. One of the commonest mysteries was considered to be changelessness. The French writer Montesquieu, for instance, was quite categorical that “the laws, customs and manners of the Orient—even the most trivial, such as the mode of dress—remain the same today as they were a thousand years ago”. Even Karl Marx wrote about Indian society as one without history and referred to it as “that unresisting and unchanging society”.

Another person who made a comparative study of societies was Max Weber. To him the progress achieved by some European countries leaving many others behind was the result of the adherence of the former to rationality on which the Protestant ethics was based. Turning to the East, Weber attributed its tardy progress, too, to its failure to be rational. Some contemporary economic historians, represented by the Nobel laureate Douglas North, have modified Weber’s view and have claimed that the lack of economic progress of the East is because of the lack of the rationality of the market.

The view that the East is fundamentally different from the West, at least in terms of economic performance, has been proved wrong from time to time. Japan in the Far East did not have much difficulty accepting major changes in the economic order almost contemporaneously with the West. In the 1980s, some countries of the East, South Korea, Thailand and Singapore, for instance, showed remarkable economic changes, and many Western writers celebrated it as “the Eastern Miracle”. And, of course, China and to some extent even India have shown to the rest of the world that in terms of economic performance they can easily outdo anything that the West has achieved. Whether all these changes are in the right direction is a different issue.

When Asia led

In the early years of the present century, Angus Maddison, the distinguished British economic historian, after years of meticulous research made available data on the distribution of world production from the early period of the present era to the end of the 20th century. (Surprisingly, there is no reference to Maddison or his work in this book in spite of an extensive bibliography.) The data showed that in A.D. 1600, Asia (excluding Japan) accounted for 62 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP), and 57 per cent in A.D. 1700, with India alone accounting for 22 per cent in A.D. 1600 and 24 per cent in A.D. 1700, while Western Europe’s share during these two periods were 2 per cent and 22 per cent respectively. Since then, of course, India and the rest of the East have lost ground considerably. If so, the problem is not one of changelessness, but of providing explanations for the kind of changes that have taken place, leaving the East rather stagnant for a while. That is the problem that Prasannan Parthasarathi claims to tackle in this book.

Although the title mentions that the work is about Europe and Asia, it is substantially about the United Kingdom and India within a slightly broader framework.

In the ancient civilisations of Asia, commerce had a major role. Merchants from China and India took their wares to different centres, near and far. But in an age where state-centric nations did not exist, the boundaries to cross were largely physical and trade was essentially polycentric, but largely confined to the economically flourishing centres in Asia itself. Europeans wanted spices from the East and found maritime routes to reach eastern destinations, but trade did not pick up immediately because Europe had little to offer by way of exchange. What changed this pattern was the access to precious metals, especially silver that Europeans found in the new world to their west. After the Europeans found something to offer in exchange for Asian goods, trade between the two parts of the globe picked up very fast indeed, with goods manufactured in Asia flowing to Europe and the rest of the world and silver flowing into Asia.

Parthasarathi points out that India’s cotton cloth was “the most important manufactured good in world trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries”.

Exporting cotton cloth from India was one of the major activities of the East India Company, which established trade ties with India in the early 17th century. Printed and painted Indian cloth items were considered a luxury in Europe, and the Company constantly endeavoured to get such goods produced in India.

Plural paths of development

Why did this pattern change and why did the two sides resort to “plural paths of development” subsequently? Some of the explanations that the author offers are familiar. There were major technological changes in the cotton textile industry in Britain. In order to prevent the competition from Indian textiles, the government in Britain provided various protective measures to the British textile industry, and when it picked up, the government started sending cheaper textiles to India, thus ruining the traditional Indian textile industry and producers.

A second explanation is also offered. This relates to the development of the coal industry in Britain arising from the scarcity of wood on the one hand and the use of coal to generate steam on the other. Coal, therefore, became as much a necessity as bread and had industrial uses as well. The government offered a variety of protective measures for coal production and the coal trade.

Parthasarathi shows that India before the British arrived was not backward in science and technology. “…States and elites were interested in scientific and technical knowledge for its political and military utility. Craftsmen, artisans and workers in the subcontinent absorbed skills from Europeans and other outsiders in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and generated technological change in a number of areas, including shipbuilding, armaments production and agriculture…. The Indian path of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was composed of complex changes in commerce, politics and knowledge.”

Attention is also drawn to Tipu Sultan’s library, which contained an extensive collection of scientific works, and the Saraswati Mahal Library in Thanjavur, which contained not only books on a variety of subjects, but also “an air-pump, an electrifying machine, an ivory skeleton, astronomical works”. Akbar’s interest in manufacturing and experimenting in technical improvements in many spheres is also referred to.

Why was there a change later on? The answer offered by the author is quite familiar. “Within a few decades of the rise of British power, the reservoir of technical know-how that had been amassed over the previous 200 years began to be dissipated. Colonial India was, therefore, a very different place than the India of the early-modern period.” And, “…the constraints of British rule narrowed the economic options”.

Missing colonialism

What, then, is new in this work? Since the book, at least in the first round, was addressed to American and Occidental scholars (the author teaches history in the United States), the documented attempt to show that the “mysterious” Orient was not a “changeless” entity was perhaps worthwhile. But the author has another intention, it would appear. The more common expression for “the constraints of British rule” in India (and in many other parts of the world) is “colonialism”.

There is no such word in this work. There is no treatment of capitalism either, the emergence of which most historians would consider to be the chief characteristics of the period examined in the book. Why doesn’t the author say that if Britain grew rich and India did not, it was because Britain as a rising capitalist power used its Indian colony for its own purpose? Is it to appear not to be using “ideology-tainted concepts”? If so the attempt has not been particularly successful. For, there is an alternative ideological position indicated in the book right at the outset. The plural paths of development that Europe (Britain) and Asia (India) pursued in the 17th and 18th centuries were the products of human agency and choice under different contexts.

“Context refers to more than economic variables and institutions…. The essential elements of the context are the specific conditions under which individuals operated and reshaped their economic life” (emphasis added). Individuals in Britain faced the scarcity of wood and, therefore, had to turn to coal; individuals in India had plenty of wood and hence did not turn to coal. Individual cotton producers in Britain faced the competition from the import of textiles from India and so turned to mechanise textile production; Indian textile producers had no such pressure in the 17th and 18th centuries. They faced the pressure of competition in the 19th century, but by then the British had become their rulers and “narrowed their economic options”!

If this is the direction that the “Great Divergence” discussion started recently by some U.S. economic historians takes (of which, according to the blurb, Parthasarathi’s work is a stimulating contribution), one must view it with considerable scepticism.

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