Saturday, February 18, 2012

Why the West Rules - For Now, by Ian Morris

Why the West Rules – For Now attempts to find the reasons for the global dominance of the West. Ian Morris begins with a little counter-history, telling the story of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert making obeisance to a Chinese envoy in 1848. Why, he asks, did history not turn out along these lines, rather as it did, with the British victorious in the Opium Wars and Asia and most of the rest of the world on the eve of being carved up into European and American colonies and spheres of interest? Morris sets out the two possible answers as long-term and relatively deterministic and short-term and relatively accidental. The first answer suggests that there is something about the West that always put it in the race. The second suggests that accidental historical conditions precipitated the industrial revolution and the rise of the west and that events could easily have turned out more like his counter-history.
The long-term versus short-term problem prompts him to take an unusually far-ranging approach to considering the rise of the west. He goes all the way back to the earliest pre-history in order to ask whether there have been fundamental differences between East and West.  After arguing that there are no such differences among human populations, he then casts dominance in terms of development.  This is where the book makes one of its most interesting contributions because he comes up with an original way to define development operationally, as well as conceptually. He defines social development as per capita energy consumption, organization (indicated by urbanization, or largest city size), war-making capacity, and information technology. These are sufficiently related to be parts of the single concept of development, but also sufficiently distinct to be separate dimensions.
Morris argues that only the core areas of what we now call the Middle East and eastern China provided the environmental conditions for agriculture and interrelated societies, justifying the West-Far East concentration of his book. However, the Middle East enjoyed an advantage in its potential for agricultural productivity. Later, the Mediterranean gave the rising classical cradle of the West a continuing advantage in urbanization and information exchange.  He maintains, therefore, that there has been a long-term basis to Western dominance.  He also claims, though, that development tends to create problems of its own, such as putting pressure on its resources, spreading communicable illnesses through increasing contacts, bringing in new and often hostile population groups, and over-extending the reach of the state.  Societies sometimes push development to another level by figuring out ways to respond to these problems, but often they reach a ceiling and collapse, having communicated their development strategies to societies on their fringes, which then move to the forefront. Readers of Gibbon and Toynbee will find the ideas of state over-extension and challenge-and-response familiar.
While the West enjoyed an early long-term advantage, this was not absolute. When the Roman Empire reached its ceiling and dissolved (here the social development measure is especially useful in demonstrating that there really was a decline and fall), the West began to lag and the East, defined as Chinese civilization began to catch up and eventually moved ahead. The salvation of the West came with its shift to the politically fragmented states of the Atlantic fringe. Their competition with each other and their access to an ocean that could give passage to America gave rise to the expanding market economy that gave rise to the modern dominance of the West.
The argument that social development tends to shift to fringe societies that become new centers might suggest that China, having been absorbed into the global economic and political system created by the West, is likely to move into a position of leadership.  On this crucial point, though, Morris hedges his bets, citing both those who claim that a single new entity of “Chimerica” will emerge and those who argue for a Sinocentric future. He also speculates that the old categories of “East” and “West” will become meaningless. The exponential increase of social development, especially in information technology, may create a Singularity, in which human beings merge with machines, resulting in an entirely new way of living that makes old geographic and political distinctions irrelevant. Or, the same exponential increase could produce a worldwide environmental catastrophe.  In reading these alternatives, I was not sure which possible future I thought was worse.
Why the West Rules is a fascinating approach to comparative world history. Morris apparently sees his measure of social development as the part of his account most in need of defense because he gives an appendix devoted to it. I actually found this index convincing as well as creative, although it is unavoidably rough, as Morris admits.  One of its limitations, I thought, was the near-exclusive focus on West and Far East.  This left me wondering how Morris might account for the emergence of societies with comparatively high degrees of urbanization and sophisticated information technologies (in the form of writing) in Mesoamerica, where many of the preconditions for social development seem to be lacking. The South Asian subcontinent receives mentions only in passing, although I can imagine its access to East and West by both land and sea making it a world leader in some alternative version of history.
The definition of the West in this book is also much broader than in the normal use of the term. For Morris, this incorporates all of the civilizations that grew out of the original core on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, including what became the Muslim semi-circle of North Africa and the Middle East. Morris seems to be looking less at why the West, as a continuous entity, came to power, but how what we today call the West became what it is. In the process, he hints at why Europe and America achieved dominance over the societies associated with Islam, but never considers sufficiently how the former and the latter split apart, with consequences for the present that may be just as great as the consequences of the distinction between the West and the Far East.
Finally, Morris suggests that he looks at the past in order to draw conclusions about future trends. But then he ends on such an inconclusive note. I found his science fiction-like speculations about a possible coming Singularity of humans and technology implausible. This doesn’t mean that such a thing can’t happen. What we find implausible may be due to the limitations of imagination, rather than reality, but a line graph of technological innovation is a slender basis for this type of futurology. He also doesn’t come up with any solid suggestions about what his historical patterns suggest we should do to maintain Western dominance, encourage the growth of desired political values in a rising China, or simply maintain our own ways of life in a changing world.


  1. An interesting study might be what caused Africa to drop back as far as it did. There can be no doubt that Africa, although endowed with a wealth of resources, has failed to make its mark on the world.

    1. I'm sure you mean Subsaharan Africa, not Egypt or the Maghreb. I think Jared Diamond would answer this by pointing to the scarcity of domesticable animals and geographic challenges to transportation and communication. Morris would probably give more emphasis to the lack of anything like a Mediterranean center. One of the problems with explaining why world history turned out as it did is that given that this is the only history we have explanations are unavoidably speculative. A couple of highly speculative thoughts, though: A wealth of resources can limit development. When needs are met, why change? Second, perhaps if Africa was indeed the place of origin of humanity, this might be why those who remained retained more of the older ways of doing things, while those who left often had to change in response to new environments.