How the World Got Modern

Possibly the biggest question for historians and social scientists such as economists is the question of what modernity is and how and why it came about in the way that it did. Recent years have seen a renewed focus on this question, with the sudden revival of world history as a serious subject for historical research and a whole series of works by economists all dealing with the same question: How and why is the world we live in so radically different from that of our ancestors and how and why did this radical discontinuity in historical experience come about? The answers to these questions that are popular among classical liberals have been increasingly undermined, as have the corresponding theses of many on the political left. However a new consensus is starting to emerge, with interesting implications. At present however a couple of crucial pieces are missing from the jigsaw of historical narrative.

The starting point is quite simple. Research by historians and other scholars has made it increasingly clear that the world we live in (defined as the modern world or modernity) is different from that of our ancestors in a profound and radical way. In other words there is a dramatic discontinuity between the experience of human beings living today and in the recent past, and that of our ancestors. In fact the only comparable discontinuities in human history are those associated with the advent of agriculture and cities and the even earlier invention of complex tools, language, and the taming of fire.

There is increasing agreement as to what the defining and distinctive features of the modern world are. The most studied and for many the central one is the phenomenon of sustained intensive growth and a marked acceleration of the underlying rate of economic growth. This is associated with an escape from the Malthusian constraints that limited human life from the advent of agriculture and which imposed a regular cyclical pattern of rise and decline and periodic Malthusian crisis on human civilization throughout history. (Malthus was both the worst ever prophet and one of the greatest historical sociologists). So another distinctive feature of modernity is an unprecedented rise in human population far past any levels seen before and combined, thanks to economic growth, with steadily rising living standards and a transformation of the material conditions of life.

However there are other features of the modern world that are unprecedented. One is massive urbanization – before 1851 there had never been a society where more than 20% of the population lived in towns, much less a majority – associated with a move of labor out of agriculture. Another is rapid and sustained innovation and growth of knowledge. We can also point to a decline in the social and political role of the household, a change in social behavior and the sense of self, marked change in the social and political status of women, the advent of a new sense of self and personal consciousness, and a transformation of the nature of government and of ruling classes.

At one time there were debates about when to date the advent of this set of phenomena, i.e. of modernity. Dates offered ranged from the 14th century to the 19th. Recently however the empirical work of economic historians in particular (but also historians of culture and administration) has led to growing agreement that the start of the discontinuity can be definitely placed at the very end of the eighteenth century, with the years between 1770 and 1830 being the critical ones. It was around 1800 that economic growth rates in parts of Europe suddenly picked up and remained at a higher level and the same period also saw the start of the other changes mentioned earlier. The abruptness of the shift is one of its most important features; this was not a case of gradual transformation, but of relatively abrupt metamorphosis over no more than two generations. Full blown modernity comes into being after 1850, with a further acceleration of economic growth and population increase and an intensification of the other forms of change.

However there is still intense debate over why this happened and in particular why it clearly first began in North Western Europe rather than in some other part of the planet such as China. The debate has had a clearly ideological quality and has been partly driven by underlying differences of philosophy and ideology. For a long time what we may call the classical liberal approach to these questions has argued for a particular kind of explanation or set of explanations and for a specific view of the history of Europe relative to other parts of the world. The central element is the argument that European society had certain qualities or institutions that set it apart from other old world civilizations, in particular institutions that promoted individual liberty and commercial and intellectual enterprise. These, it was argued, gave it a quality of dynamism and innovation that other civilizations lacked and so accounted for the eruption of modernity having happened first in part of Europe rather than in the Yangtze delta region for example.

To put it another way, there are a series of explanations given for the distinctive features of modernity, each identifying one factor as being the critical one and then going on to claim that this factor either first appeared in Europe or was present there to a greater degree than elsewhere. A non-exhaustive list of such models and the scholars associated with them would include increased capital accumulation (Robert Solow); legal pluralism and a distinctive notion of law (Harold Berman); economic institutions, especially property rights (Douglass North, Nathan Rozenberg); geography (Eric Jones, Jared Diamond); accessible fossil fuels (Kenneth Pomeranz); a different way of thinking about knowledge and technical innovation (Lynn White, Joel Mokyr); greater intellectual openness (Jack Goldstone); a particular kind of consciousness, associated with certain religions (Max Weber, Werner Sombart); divided and constrained political power (Eric Jones, several others); a distinctive family system (Deepak Lal, many demographers); population growth past a critical level (Julian Simon); a higher social status and cultural valuation of trade and enterprise (Deirdre McCloskey); trade and the benefits of specialization (Adam Smith and many others); the role of entrepreneurs (Joseph Schumpeter, William Baumol); some combination of these (David Landes).

These scholars have all looked favorably on the modern world and its capitalist variant in particular. In addition there have also been thinkers who see these in dark colors and regard the advent of modernity in Europe as due to a blameworthy form of exceptionalism, such as colonial exploitation, particularly of the Americas (James Blaut); Europe’s place in a world system marked by exploitative economic relations (Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin, the earlier Andre Gunder Frank); a dynamic form of class conflict and economic development not found elsewhere (Marx). However these authors still see Europe as somehow exceptional.

The problem is very simple: none of these theories work, at least not on their own. One problem is that most have been put forward by economists, whose methodology leads them to look always for one single independent variable that explains everything else. The approach of the historian by contrast is to be aware of how most factors are simultaneously cause and effect, because of multiple feedback loops. Of the theories alluded to, some are simply false; the facts contradict them. This is the case with “world systems theory” for example. (Anyone tempted to take this seriously should read Theda Skocpol’s devastating review of Wallerstein in the 1977 American Journal of Sociology). Others identify things that are important but make what are consequences into causes (e.g. Solow).

Many are onto something, in the sense of identifying things that are important but are wrong in seeing these as distinctively European. (For example, it is not the case that European societies were more market oriented, more innovative, or had better developed economic institutions; if anything the contrary is true). Thus, they cannot explain why modernity first started in Europe rather than elsewhere or have to resort to a series of ad-hoc explanations. Others are even stronger but have a problem of chronology. That is, while they identify factors that clearly play a major part in the advent of modernity, the factors in question all come into play over a hundred years before the take off occurs. So why did they take so long to have an impact?

There are three explanations that fall into this final category. The first, associated with Mokyr and Goldstone, sees the critical factor as being a change in the understanding of what knowledge was, coupled with its linking to the practice of empirical science — this takes place during the seventeenth century. The second is the argument made by McCloskey for the role of a shift in the way that trade and commercial innovation were morally viewed and evaluated. This first happens in the Golden Age Dutch Republic, again in the seventeenth century and about a hundred years later in Tokugawa Japan (with the phenomenon of chonindo).  The third, made by a number of scholars, is to do with the way early modern Europe saw the emergence of a different kind of state system to the one found elsewhere, recognized at Westphalia in 1648.

The first missing element in these accounts is the active role of ruling classes in history. In classical liberal social theory a distinction is made between social groups that gain income from production and exchange (the “industrious classes”) and those that derive it from the use of force (the ruling classes, in most traditional agricultural societies warrior aristocrats and priests). Obviously this division is not clear cut but we can still make this broad distinction. Ruling classes are not purely exploitative as they also come to provide “public goods,” notably protection.

Historically ruling classes have a deeply ambivalent attitude to economic growth and social change. They welcome the increased wealth, which they can draw upon, but also fear the social disruption that trade, free inquiry, and innovation of all kinds bring in their wake. Moreover, in most times and places exchange relations are enmeshed in a set of regulations and practices that constrain and limit them (they are “embedded” in Karl Polanyi’s expression). Some of these are enforced by explicit articulated law and a legal system (and hence by the ruling classes) others are informal and enforced by the kinds of customary social institutions analysed in the work of James Scott. In general, rulers will be driven by their self-interest to uphold and maintain them and will seek to minimize significant change, by force if necessary.  This means that episodes of intellectual and economic dynamism, such as China under the Song (“efflorescences” as Jack Goldstone calls them) are typically short lived.

The world crisis of the 14th century led to an intensification of ruling class competition throughout the old world which in turn led to a transformation of warfare (the “military revolution”). In most places the dynamic this created led to the appearance of large hegemonic empires such as the Russian, Ottoman, Mughal and Chinese empires. In Europe however it had a different outcome. The critical event was the failure of the Habsburgs to crush their rebellious subjects in the Netherlands, with the crucial years being the decade between 1580 and 1590. This prevented the emergence of a hegemonic power in Europe (which had seemed likely when a series of dynastic accidents left the young Charles V as the most powerful European ruler since Charlemagne). The other likely hegemon, Valois/Bourbon France, was also contained and the result was the appearance of the Westphalian system in 1648.

This changed the incentives facing ruling elites in Europe as compared to elsewhere. Because of the competition they faced and the nature of the competitive system they were in (different from the competition faced by empires elsewhere as in, for example the case of Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Iran) they were driven to favor and encourage innovation rather than to systematically discourage it. Initially this did not have dramatic results except in the area of military organization where by the 1730s Europe (and Russia) have overtaken every other major civilization except China. What proved critical was when these changed incentives, along with the intellectual and cultural shifts identified by Goldstone, McCloskey, and Mokyr, had to operate in a particular set of circumstances, those of yet another systemic crisis.

The other missing element in the story is what happens at the end of the eighteenth century. Contrary to its popular image the years after 1770 were ones of crisis. There was in fact a global “general crisis” at this time, just as their had been in the mid seventeenth century. The features of the crisis were the same as they had been on that earlier occasion: an increasingly intense Malthusian crunch marked by famine, dearth and land hunger; major wars which contributed to another element, a crisis of state finance; large popular revolts and widespread political turbulence and upheaval. We are all familiar with events such as the French and American Revolutions (often put with other uprisings such as that in the Austrian Netherlands and major slave revolts plus rebellion in Latin America into a wider category of “Atlantic Revolution”). There was also however huge political upheaval in India with the collapse of the Mughal empire, in China with the White Lotus rebellion and a series of uprisings in Yunnan and Sichuan, in Russia with the largest ever peasant revolt, and in the Ottoman Empire with a series of Janissary rebellions and internal crises.

Faced with this, the response of many elites (e.g. in China) was the same as it had been in the earlier crisis of the seventeenth century, to seek to uphold the established order. In Europe however, the response increasingly was to encourage and enable change and innovation rather than to resist it. In this particular context the three elements mentioned earlier, and particularly the active policies of rulers, came together to bring about the sudden breakthrough alluded to earlier. It is at this point that we can see the real start of what has become a central feature of the modern world, the way in which governments and ruling classes seek to systematically encourage and stimulate economic growth by amongst other things removing all kinds of barriers to trade and exchange, at least within the territories that they directly control. This is enormously enhanced by the cultural and ideological shift that McCloskey identifies and the move to experimental science and technological innovation stressed by Mokyr and Goldstone.

This account has a number of consequences for our understanding of contemporary debate. The argument associated with many broadly classical liberal scholars for European exceptionalism has been blown out of the water, as have its Marxist and world systems theory counterparts. What is emerging from the scholarship however is a picture that is broadly compatible with classical liberal thinking and incorporates many of its insights — it just no longer makes Europe exceptional. Another consequence is that we need to radically rethink our historical periodisation.  The traditional division into Ancient, Medieval and Modern (itself a nineteenth century creation) with an Early Modern period starting around the 1490s and lasting until the later eighteenth century no longer makes sense, as people such as Jerry Bentley have argued. Rather we can see a period from the third through to the ninth century (usually called Late Antiquity) followed by another from then until around 1780, with an internal break in the later fifteenth century. In this way of thinking what we now call “Early Modern” should be renamed “Late Western,” at least as far as Europe is concerned.

This raises the final point. We should consider if it makes any sense at all to see ourselves as still living in Western civilization, given the radical discontinuity between the world after roughly 1800 and what has gone before. It makes more sense to think of Western civilization as having passed away and been transformed into a new and different civilization, in the same way that the civilizations of classical antiquity were transformed into and replaced by the Western, Byzantine and Islamic ones. What is clearly the case is that the sudden revolution in human affairs that began in Western Europe around 1800, brought about by the operation of circumstances and structural crisis on the local and distinctive outcomes of an earlier crisis episode, is continuing at an accelerating rate and has now spread to the rest of the world. The old civilizations have passed or are passing away and we now face something fundamentally new and unprecedented.

Stephen Davies is a program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, historian Stephen Davies tackles one of the biggest of big questions: How did the world we live in — the modern world — so radically and rapidly diverge from the world of our pre-modern ancestors? Davies starts with a multitude of proposed explanations and winnows them down to three: the advent of empirical science and engineering, a shift in cultural attitudes toward commerce and trade, and the development of the Westphalian system of nation-states. Yet these factors emerged over a century before modernity really took off. Why the lag? Davies argues that the missing ingredient was the unique climate of competition among ruling elites in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, which combined with the other elements to produce the scientific innovation and economic growth that created the modern world.

Response Essays

  • In his reply to Stephen Davies’ lead essay, Jack Goldstone argues that modernity was launched when “elites developed a new ‘engineering culture’ ” that departed sharply from European tradition. In order to gain from the commercial application of new knowledge by private entrepeneurs, Goldstone argues, political rulers were led to allow non-conformity with traditional religious authority and to “give up attempts to control the access of private firms and entrepreneurs to scientific knowledge and to market opportunities.” These developments helped overturn older ideas of absolute royal authority and guild privelege, which in turn contributed to the political and social revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries and a decisive break from prior Western conceptions of society. Though the liberal idea of “a community of free individuals sovereign over a limited state” arose first in the West, political and economic liberalization do not require a commitment to pre-modern Western values, Goldstone concludes.

  • In his reply, UCLA historian Anthony Pagden doubts that the historical discontinuity created by the onset of modernity is “as sudden or as all-pervasive” as Stephen Davies makes it out to be. Pagden points both to much earlier and more recent changes that seem at least as dramatic as the changes between modern and pre-modern Europe, and he questions Davies’ revised periodization of history. Pagden agrees that the emergence of the scientific method partly accounts for “the rise of the West,” but “then we have to ask ourselves why it was that Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Leibnitz, Pascal, Boyle, Newton, etc. were not Chinese or Mughal or Iranian or Arab.” Pagden submits that the answer is “the advent of secularism” following the post-Reformation sectarian wars, which drove “theological modes of reasoning forever from the public sphere.”

  • In his reply to Davies, Cato Unbound’s own Jason Kuznicki worries that the alleged gap between the beginning of distinctively modern thinking in the late 17th century and the economic and demographic takeoff in the late eighteenth century is no gap at all. “I’m tempted to invert the supposed gap,” Kuznicki writes, “and to suggest that in the earliest of early modernities … a set of social practices, and substantial concomitant rewards, generally arrived before any modern ideology existed to justify them.” Kuznicki notes that new ideas spread unevenly and over time, and he argues that the early emergence of upwardly mobile English and Dutch middle classes imply that “[i]f there was a modernity gap, its chief dimension was not temporal, but spatial.” Kuznicki suggests that, pace Davies, elites and their new ideas did not precipitate the rise of modernity, but played an intermediate role. Kuznicki challenges Davies to clarifiy “what exactly the elites are doing” in his story.