[Marxism] The Human Costs of Economic Growth

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Dec 8 12:59:41 MST 2008

The Human Costs of Economic Growth
by Immanuel Wallerstein

Amiya Kumar Bagchi, Perilous Passage: Mankind and the Global Ascendancy 
of Capital (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 395 + xxiv pages, 
hardcover, $76, paper, $34.95.

The great debate of social science for the last two centuries at least 
has been how to account for the extraordinary economic growth of the 
modern world. We all know the basic picture. The overwhelming majority 
of authors have argued that the story is that of the rise of the West. 
There have been, however, two opposing versions of this narrative. One 
is the Whig interpretation of history, which argues that it has been a 
story of steady social, intellectual, and moral progress whose 
explanation lies in some particular characteristic of the West (often 
just of England). In this version, the world is reaching its summit of 
progress today. The second version is Marxism, which has argued that the 
rise of the West is part of a larger story of steady dialectical and 
conflictual historical development. In this version, the present 
West-dominated world order will inevitably be superseded by another 
phase of historical development, in which capitalism will be replaced by 

In the last twenty years or so, there has been an important 
counter-theorization to the “rise of the West,” which is centered around 
a discussion of Chinese history. It argues that China had been the 
center of some kind of world system for a very long time, that it was 
temporarily eclipsed in the last two centuries by the so-called rise of 
the West, and that the pendulum is now (inevitably) swinging back to a 
Chinese-centered world.

Amiya Bagchi does not agree at all with the Whig interpretation of 
history nor does he really buy the Chinese-centric narrative. Instead, 
he offers us a seriously modified version of the Marxist model. Or to 
put it in his own words,

     this book brings together the insights of the historians of war, 
and those of Marxist and world-system theorists to characterize the 
emergence and operation of actually existing capitalism as a system that 
engages in unlimited combat, backed when necessary by arms, for the 
conquest of labor power, nonlabor resources, and markets. (xi)

While Bagchi is surely not the first to argue against the idea that 
markets and free trade are the key elements of capitalist development, 
he wants to do more than attack this view as an analytical description 
of the modern world. He wishes to center his attention on the degree to 
which economic growth under capitalism is very poorly correlated with 
human development, even in the West. His book is an attempt to analyze 
in detail the human suffering that has been at the basis of “the 
advantages reaped by the European ruling classes” (xiv).

And while he agrees with the Chinese-centric school that the West had no 
significant economic advantage over the Chinese and the Indians before 
the nineteenth century, he takes issue with them on two main questions. 
One is the significance of what happened in the early nineteenth century 
in the industrializing countries led by Great Britain. He says that

     there is a crucial distinction between a state (such as Qing China) 
that reins in the drive for unlimited accumulation and a social and 
political order (as in Hanoverian England) that promotes the unchecked 
centralization of economic power and thus facilitates the growth of 
factory-based industry. (xv)

The second dissent is a sort of “so-what” argument. Suppose, Bagchi 
says, that China would have emerged in the nineteenth century as the 
supreme economic and military power rather than the West. It would have 
led to the same “marginalization and immiseration of vast numbers of 
people around the world” (xvi), to the benefit of Chinese rather than of 
Western elites. To what he considers the undialectical view of Gunder 
Frank and Kenneth Pomeranz based on neoclassical and monetarist 
economics, Bagchi asserts that

     we cannot regard human history as that of a tournament between 
different countries vying for the global market nor can we confine our 
attention to the working of passive market forces. (11)

For Bagchi, capitalism is the culprit, not the West. And the damage it 
has wreaked has not merely been one of material spoliation. For Bagchi 
insists on the damage wreaked by the two dominant ideologies that 
accompanied capitalism—that of racism and the civilizing mission (in 
unbroken continuity from the Iberian conquistadores to the Bush 
administration) and that of Malthusianism and social Darwinism, which 
translated into a view that the world’s resources are limited and 
therefore should/will only be shared by the “fittest.”

As for the largely Marxist theories of imperialism—he cites specifically 
Hobson, Hilferding, Luxemburg, Bukharin, and Lenin—Bagchi sums up his 
disagreements clearly:

     I have one major difference from most of the theories I have 
sketched so briefly. Building partly on the work of Ragnar Nurkse and 
Matthew Simon, I have shown that the nonwhite colonies were primarily 
sources of surplus extracted by the capitalist powers and were not 
destinations of their net investment, except perhaps in certain brief 
phases. In short, the colonies were not merely objects of conquest; they 
also provided a significant surplus to their colonizers. (271)

Basically, Bagchi’s whole case is made in a brief preface. The rest of 
the book gives the supporting evidence for the arguments. Part one lays 
out his theoretical position and seeks as well to explain the 
construction of the concept of the European miracle. Part two 
reconstructs European history between the sixteenth and eighteenth 
centuries in order to explain the breakthrough of the West. Part three 
elaborates the kinds of human damage caused in the non-Western world as 
a result of the triumph of capitalism throughout the world. “Much of the 
celebration of the European miracle is based on the art of forgetting” 
(81). Part four addresses the dangers facing humankind at the present 
time as a result of capitalist growth.

The strengths of this magisterial work are numerous. Bagchi treats the 
modern world as a capitalist world, one that found its origins in Europe 
in the sixteenth century. In this he is faithful to the vision of Marx. 
As he says:

     I find the notion of capitalism as a mode of production still 
useful for distinguishing, say, China or India of the eighteenth century 
from England or the Netherlands of the same period. This use is fully 
consistent with my occasional use of the idea of hierarchies in the 
circuits of exchange that Braudel so fruitfully employed. (177)

Furthermore, Bagchi analyzes this capitalist world not in terms of how 
much growth it made possible but how much human development it made 
possible, and in this regard he finds it very wanting. One of his 
principal services to readers is his pulling together of the demographic 
literature on life expectancy, the public health literature on disease 
prevention and cure, data on nutrition, income levels, and the various 
forms of labor coercion to give us a nuanced picture of human 
development over time and throughout the world, one that is 
differentiated by geography, age cohorts, and gender.

He also presents a comprehensive comparative picture of the historical 
economic development of China, India, and Japan, and their relation to 
what happened in Europe and North America. It is hard to suggest another 
work that does this in as small a space, so clearly, and based on such 
extensive acquaintance with the empirical literature.

My one reservation is that, for someone so devoted to dissecting 
academic myths, Bagchi has paid no attention to the now quite extensive 
literature that raises into considerable doubt the “industrial 
revolution” as something that occurred primarily in England and 
primarily at a given moment in time (from the end of the eighteenth to 
the early nineteenth centuries).

Actually, he himself throws some cold water on the idea by talking of 
two, possibly three “axial ages”—the first being that of the late 
eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, the second occurring in the 
late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries (and in some places he says 
“only after 1945”), and a possible third one occurring now. He does say 
that the improvement in the European standard of living occurs only in 
his second axial age. He doesn’t really spell out what is supposed to be 
happening in the third.

But Schumpeter already showed in his book on business cycles that 
similar “axial ages”—Schumpeter does not call them that—could be found 
at a number of moments in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. It is 
not that machine production is unimportant. It is rather that it has 
been produced by a series of bursts forward that have been going on 
continually for four centuries. Just as the West invented the concept of 
the European miracle because it was ideologically useful, there is good 
reason to believe that the West (more specifically Arnold Toynbee) 
invented the concept of the single “industrial revolution” for similar 
ideological purposes.

But, having laid out my one major reserve, I must say it is refreshing 
to have Bagchi’s voice added to the rather small list of important works 
on the origins and development of the modern world. The fact that he is 
an Indian well grounded in India’s own economic history gives him a 
vantage point on the overall process that allows him to insert elements 
into our collective efforts that might otherwise have escaped us. One 
can only hope that the book will have a wide international reading publi

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