[OPE-L] Hobson's Eastern Origins of Western Civilization

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Thu Feb 02 2006 - 01:44:00 EST

Some here may find John Hobson The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization
interesting. I found it to be a compelling and at time breathtakingly

To be sure, many Marxists will be irked by his understanding of
"oriental trade" and Islamic globalization between 500-1500 AD capitalist. But
the strength and sophistication of mercantile activity and commodity production
are  rather astonishing; especially arresting is the discussion of
the advances of the
Sung economy. The enmeshment of what came to be known as the West in
what Hobson
calls oriental globalization seems to have been rather profound,
and Hobson's account is spirited, massively detailed and endlessly interesting.
  Of course there was probably nothing like the contemporary global
market in which the law
of one price prevails, as Cyrus Bina has shown in his analysis of the
globalization of the
oil market.

This may be a general problem in the book. To the extent that he
wants to argue for
the Eastern origins of Western civilization he has to underestimate
the qualitative
breaks effected by Western capitalist modernity. So we learn of debts
to especially Arabic
mathematical and experimental thought, but are given little analysis
of the ways in
Galilean and Newtonian mathematical physics represents a novel form
of thought. For
example, didn't Joseph Needham argue that the mechanistic world view
would not likely have
developed in China?
And we are not given any diagrams or detailed analysis to judge how
indebted English
steam engines were to Chinese technological advances.

On the other hand, Hobson would doubtless agree with Kenneth Pomeranz that the
  servile colonial system based on a brutal and racially exclusive
slavery that Europe
developed in the New World had no precedent.

Hobson also reprises several criticisms of the image of oriental despotism,
though he does not focus on its theorization by James Mill and
Richard Jones who
as Brendan O'Leary has argued were the most important precursors to
Marx's own theory
of the Asiatic mode of production. While Hobson's criticisms are well
taken, one does
wish that he would have paid more attention to intra European
difference in political form:
did the nature of sovereign power in Spain and Portugal curtail the
kind of mercantile activity
by which the English enriched themselves?

On the question of the role of slavery in industrialization, Hobson
makes a strong and empirically
rich argument for the former's centrality to the latter. The nursery
rhymes of capital's origins
in fortitude , savings, ingenuity, etc are replaced with a sharp
account of the role
of force abroad and at home--in the slave system and in the
regressive tax system--
in the amassing of profits with which industrial investments were
made. Those who
would sanctify the present due to its putative origins in just
transactions--what Andrew
Collier has called the genetic fallacy of the myth of primitive
accumulation--are sharply
undercut by Hobson. (See also Acemoglu, D., Johnson S., Robinson J.A., 2002.
The rise of Europe: Atlantic trade, institutional change and economic
growth. NBER Working Paper #9378)

The conquest of the Americas allowed for the unexpected rise of
Northwest Europe
and called forth subsequent myth making about the West as an
autonomous society cut
off from the rest of the Eurasia and about its rise being due to
its own cultural resources. In this way, Hobson accepts and deepens Martin
Bernal's understanding of the replacement of the Ancient by the Aryan model.

Hobson is critical however of James Blaut whose arguments anticipate many
of his. For Hobson, Blaut paid insufficient attention to ideas and culture, for
the opportunity of the Americas did not foreordain that the indigeneous people
would be exterminated and a permanent racial slavery deployed. It was
not foreordained
that culture itself would provide a set of reasons to exterminate  the
Indian peoples and develop a kind of slavery that was reserved for one people
and that eliminated connubial rights, previous protections against cruelty,
possibilities for manumission, and many  opportunities for some
entrepreneurial exertion and that stigmatized even the free or freed
members and children of the persecuted 'race'.

For Hobson, only the West seems to have been capable of developing and did
in fact a culture that made available to actors socially valid
reasons and incentives for
said behavior. It was not to be expected that culture would provide
so little resistance
to extermination and a racially exclusive completely degraded slavery.
  It was not given by economics that such a culture
would develop. A cultural revolution had to be won, and Hobson thinks
the racists
happened to have won it in the West (as
the success of the Nazi movement would later reveal
to those for whom only European lives taken by racism really counted),
and had the racists not won, even the opportunity of the Americas
would possibly not have allowed for the rise of the hegemonic West.

Hobson insists that he is not prioritizing ideas and culture in the
development of
a Euro America founded on colonization and slavery.

But it is difficult to understand why he does not propose a materialist reading
of the origins of racism.

Hobson recognizes that his ideas about the importance of identity are
but I think he is here as elsewhere trying to unsettle and provoke
debate and to do
away with comfortable ideas. The book is successful and inspired
and massively scholarly in its research (though often polemical in style),
though the actual revisioning of  world history will not come easily at all.

This book will stay with me for many years. I do hope many take up
its challenge.


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