April 20, 2010


The Enterprise of Nations: Critics have tried to explain away the West’s centuries- long economic domination of the globe; they would do better to study its lessons. (David S. Landes, Spring 2010, Wilson Quarterly)

Western entrepreneurship and technological progress go back centuries and have changed the world for the better. That, at least, is one assessment of the historical record— one with which not everyone would agree. There are some scholars who, disapproving of Western triumphalism or solicitous of Asian (mostly Chi nese) pride and prowess, would date the Industrial Revolution as a late phenomenon in the history of entrepreneurship and treat it as lucky accident (or unlucky, depend ing on one’s sense of values). It could have happened anywhere, they say; it just fell to Europe or Britain, in large part owing to political fortune, reinforced by overseas dominion. And globalization, in the sense of worldwide diffusion of trade, industry, and technology, came even later, after World War II.

Yet newer research and reflection on comparative world history make it clear that global trade goes back more than a millennium, back to Asian and then Euro pean economic development in the later Middle Ages, back to the opening of the world with the turning of Africa, and the penetration of European vessels into Asian wa ters and the contemporaneous European invasion of the Americas. The centuries that followed saw the West grow richer than other regions of the world, pull away from the onetime leaders, establish empire in distant lands— all on the basis of superior scientific knowledge, industrial technique, and business enterprise. Much of subsequent history has been profoundly influenced by this gap and the reaction to it of lagging areas— these last resentful of patronizing, condescending, charitable and uncharitable, advantageous, and predatory Western dominion.

Poorer areas see the gap between rich and poor as the fault of the rich; they see their own weaknesses and shortcomings as someone else’s doing. In particular, they feel that advanced industrial nations have used their power not to help, but to exploit and plunder the weak. In this scenario, success and empire are forces for evil.

Nonetheless, the gains made by the more precocious industrializing countries incited other, slower nations to imitate and emulate. There was money to be made by these new ways. But wanting was not necessarily doing. Emulation required knowledge, the ability to organize and rationalize production, intelligent and active entrepreneur ship, and laws protective of property and change. The countries best equipped to under take the task were to be found in parts of the West, such as Ireland, Scandinavia, pieces of central and eastern Europe, Canada, and some bits of Latin America— places that had earlier been barred from the pursuit of new ways by political misfortune and cultural impediments.

In general, the countries and regions that have done best are precisely those that have taken advantage of the opportunities offered by active trade and entrepreneur ial freedom, often in the face of official constraints. These are the countries that have most attracted foreign advances and investment. But they have not done so by fol lowing the formulas proffered or imposed by experts from richer lands. The essence of successful enterprise lies in creative imagination and initiative. [...]

Many if not most Third World countries see globalization as a device or pretext for imposing post- imperialist domination and ex ploitation by the West of the Rest. This must be true, for the gap is apparently grow ing, and who else could be responsible? Even more vexing is the cultural conquest and destruction that accompany material triumphs: the cinema, the music, the art and architecture, the heroes and heroines, the styles, furnishings, fast- food cuisine, and manners. As the Lebanese journalist Abbas Beydoun has put it, globalization swallows all, leaving no place for those outside it.

These reactions are reinforced by the sense that history has done the losers wrong; that where once they were leaders and standard- bearers, they have now been pushed aside, reduced, humiliated. The West, say the self- proclaimed victims, rules the world, does as it pleases, and commits crimes at will. Formal empires may have dissolved, but the school of imperialism has continued to breed war criminals. Witness, they say, the bullying and oppression of Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria. Hence an abiding, festering hatred of Americans and Jews (or Israelis, seen as agents of the United States).

What is to be done?

Keep swallowing. Almost done.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 20, 2010 5:26 AM
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