Why did Europe become so powerful?

Niall Ferguson has written and spoken many times on what he believes is a central question that historians should help us answer: why did Europe become so awesome. I saw Ferguson speak, and he revels in the politically incorrect interpretations that can be teased out of what he considers to be a purely scholarly question.

He has really thought about the issue, and he notes that cynical explanations are not really that convincing. Yes, Europe made heavy use of slavery and exploitation, but it was hard to find an established political entity during the years of Europe’s rise that DIDN’T make use of those tools. Instead, Ferguson, thinks that western europe exploded in power because of the institutions that it developed, such as systems of property as well as legal codes enforced by judges.

Now that I’m reading through European history, I’m in a position to think more seriously about his claims. I’m barely scratching the surface, but one thing that stands out to me is the organization of European politics as a group. In the 1300s and 1400s Italy was divided into small city states, and this lead to an explosion of thinking about art, sociality, and politics. This trend continued when after around 1555, the germanic area of Europe was filled again with small, relatively internally cohesive, provinces, baronies, or whatever you want to call them. What this says to me is that an explanation of European growth might be due to the concentration of political bodies in a such a small area which forced innovation across a range of institutions as well as social development towards identities as citizens.

The trick in these sorts of debates is to find what is basic. Did Europe just strike upon institutions that helped shape its populace in certain ways (toward being patriotic, and relatively scientific, and capitalistic?). Or did social changes create people who wanted the revolutionary institutions that were later created. It’s very hard to know because the effects of “culture” or living in this society as opposed to that society is very poorly understood.

In my mind, there is something about competition that creates attitudes that are very useful for growing economically and militarily. Economists often talk about the effect of competition in how one creates goods, but I’m thinking more philosophically about competition in sports or just among individuals to ACHIEVE some goal (not necessarily just to make something). For me, competition is the cooperative production of excellence. Competition makes us consider ourselves critically (what can I do to be better?, why can’t I do what that person did?) while also forming a unique type of relationship with those we are competing with as well as those who are helping us compete. I think something like this may have been responsible for the strong national identities that were in place after 1648.

One thing I need to figure out is the best date or time period to say when Europe started outdistancing other regions in terms of economic growth and military power.


3 Responses to “Why did Europe become so powerful?”

  1. June 27, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    The reasons for why Europe eventually dominated the world I suspect will be debated for a long time to come. Niall Ferguson, however, is more interested in promoting ideology than in examining the roots of the question. For instance, if I am reading your post correctly, Ferguson dismisses out of hand the role of slavery in the rise of European economies because other societies also used slavery.

    There is no question that slavery was common in many places of the world at the time of Europe’s rise. But that complete ignores the fact the slavery as practiced by Europeans was enormously different, and on a much larger scale, than other places. For instance, in the Ottoman Empire, slaves were mostly used as household servants, while a minority were used as administrators, among other roles. Slaves were not used in production, and no capital accumulation was reaped from their labor.

    Europeans tapped into existing coastal African slave-trading networks, but vastly increased the number of captured slaves, putting the enterprise on a much different plane. These slaves were used as plantation workers in the New World, directly using their labor to create surpluses that provided a base for accumulation from trade. Thus the triangular trade rested on slavery; the transport of slaves was itself an immensely profitable activity. Entire economies in Europe became dependent on slave labor, most certainly including Ferguson’s Britain. Money in those days was based on gold and silver, and Spain used slaves and the conquest of the New World to extract vast quantities of gold and silver, greatly increasing Europe’s money supply as almost all of Spain’s metal extractions were passed on to creditors in other countries across Europe.

    To blithely ignore all of the above is the mark of an ideologue, not a scientific examiner.

    • 2 questionbeggar
      June 27, 2012 at 5:03 pm

      Yea, this is interesting to hear. I’ve only read some of Ferguson’s works in a cursory way, but from his speech, it seemed like he had a lot of arguments against the idea that simple exploitation was a primary driver of Europe’s success. It also depends on when you believe Europe diverged from other regions of the earth, because slavery on the scale you’re talking about was a feature of the mature Europe, and not, for example, of a pre-age-of-discovery Europe. Correct me if I’m wrong. Do you believe that Europe can attribute its rapid technological and economic growth to new patterns of brute exploitation?

      thanks for weighing in.

      • June 27, 2012 at 5:39 pm

        I would agree that the reason for Europe’s rise to a dominant position can’t be reduced to simply exploitation; I am arguing that it is the decisive factor. The vast expansion of slavery was indeed a feature of a relatively mature Europe, incomparable to the pockets of feudal slavery that existed before the age of discovery. Slavery on a large scale in Europe died with the collapse of the Roman Empire; serfdom was its eventual replacement.

        I don’t believe that Europe’s rapid technological and economic growth is reducible to new patterns of exploitation. That growth is a function of a capitalist market system, where competition drives innovation. As capitalism expands to new places, more players will eventually result in more innovation. But the emergence and ensuing expansion of capitalism didn’t materialize out of thin air. There are concrete reasons for that, with different historians offering different theories.

        At bottom, however, capitalism is a system based on accumulation, and accumulation is created through extracting surpluses. Early capitalism was reliant on agricultural products and merchant trade, and slavery is best suited to extract agricultural surpluses. The products grown in the Caribbean, for example, were immensely profitable for the European plantation owners and the traders back in Europe. Slavery was the backbone of that system. As more is accumulated, the more the winners in this dynamic are able to expand, both by opening new markets and by moving into new industries.

        The industrial revolution grew out of this dynamic. Slavery is not conducive to a capitalist system because there would be very few who could buy any of the products produced, and because the factory owners did not want the responsibility of taking care of their workers the way that slave owners had to feed and house their slaves, however miserably. Over time, slavery was no longer in the interests of economic elites, and slaves became more prone to rebellion because of the increase in communications (another function of the rise of capitalism).

        Thus, slavery died out as a mass economic phenomenon. The U.S. Civil War was the last great battle on this question: Southern plantation owners could not beat Northern industrialists and those industrialists’ productive capacities.

        There is also an open question about the political role. Ferguson is far from alone in giving credit to the fact that Europe was split into so many countries, in contrast to the Ottoman Empire and to China, where a single government could by fiat bring a halt to innovation. I haven’t studied this question nearly enough to formulate an opinion, but the idea does seem to me to have validity. Nonetheless, the extraction of surpluses can’t be ignored, and slavery was crucial to those extractions.

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