Saturday, January 17, 2004


I just finished reading Philip Curtin’s book, The World and the West. It stimulated a lot of thought. Curtin defines “modernization” to be increase in productivity and consumption, and recognizes that most societies sought modernization as so described. He looks back to the roots of modernization in Europe, and then examines reactions in many other societies to the modernization of the West, to Western colonization, and then the process of decolonization.

The book follows earlier Curtin works in illuminating the importance of international trade patterns in the evolution of the relationships between the West and the rest of the world. (Curtin makes one think about the implications of e-commerce in a new way.)

The book also gives witness to the great influence of the military in the world. It of course recognizes the importance of Western weapons superiority in the creation of Western empires. But it also underlines the importance that military elites assumed in the rest of the world after European weaponry diffused to other societies. The book suggests that new military elites often arose to run the new organizational forms created around the new weapons.

The book ascribes great importance to the cadres of people in the rest of the world who were educated in Western schools, or in schools built on Western models. The apparatus of the modern state and the Western education were synergistic. The skills required to administer governments and economies were taught in the Western style schools, and the graduates became an elite through their power over the institutions they administered.

I was most by Curtin’s depiction of the nature, and even the concept of government as changing in history. He points out that territorial maps have very different meanings in different eras. Some of the early maps of colonial empires reflected claims to territory, not the ability to govern that territory. Curtin points to a long process of invention of institutional and social technologies that enabled the institutions of governance to collect more and more revenues (with which to support themselves), and to be more and more effective in influencing the behavior of subjects according to state decisions. (He perhaps underemphasizes the importance of technological change in enabling these administrative innovations.)

Curtin differentiates the history of Latin America from that of Asia and Africa primarily in terms of the devastating effects of the diseases that invaded the Americas in the Columbian Exchange of (disease) organisms that occurred after Columbus’ voyages to America. I find that argument attractive.

Reading Curtin’s book also made me wonder whether part of the explanation for the rapid colonization by Western powers is that it is easier to substitute for the power elite when that elite doesn’t really have much of power. If the governance institutions and technology are such that the elite have relatively little ability to tax, and relatively little power to enforce laws, then people might be less resistant to changes in the elites (except of course those few people who themselves constitute the reigning elite). Note too, that the Western powers didn’t usually seek draconian changes in the daily lives of people, at least during the early stages of their grabs for power.

Curtin also made me think about the implications of different institutionalizations of power. Western governmental forms are not the only way to organize power in a society, and in other societies religious, kinship and other institutions play some roles that the West would consider governmental. Again, the ease of substituting a European power elite for the previous governing elite during colonization may have depended on how limited government was in the colony by the influence of competing institutions. Colonial powers often left the power relationships in tact in institutions that they didn’t need to achieve the European’s desired ends – of wealth extraction via trade and sometimes taxation.

Curtin is especially strong in his descriptions of development of colonization and decolonization as complex processes, teleonomic rather than teleologic, path dependent, and “self organizing” (in the sense that the process is one in which outcomes arise from the actions of many participants, each acting with incomplete information and with faulty projections of the likely consequences of their actions).

People should read Curtin before they set out on “nation building”. It might help them to understand the process, and dissuade them from undertaking it in the first place.

No comments: