Perilous Passage

Book Review Essay


Shattering the Myth of the European Miracle
by Eddie J. Girdner
Izmir University



Amiya Kumar Bagchi, Perilous Passage: Mankind and the Global Ascendancy of Capital.

New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005. Bibliography, Index, 395 pages.


            This recent and important book is an alternative history of the rise of capitalism. It debunks the standard Western Eurocentric history of the rise of modern political economy. Tragically today, most students in most universities around the world will be steeped in the standard history and in turn, will continue to spread established myths.

            This book covers a huge span of time and involves a dedicated effort to read and absorb. However, I cannot think of a single book that I would recommend over this book as a foundation for understanding the modern world.

            The defacto function of universities is not to truly educate students but rather to reproduce the ruling class. That is a function which must be performed to further the existing system and so makes universities necessary; it also ensures some funding from the state, which otherwise probably would not be the case. Books that truly educate are subversive of this function and Bagchi falls into this category. One thinks of the giants of “telling truth of power,” Noam Chomsky, Samir Amin, recent Chalmers Johnson, Karl Marx, Andre Gunder Frank, Paul Sweezy, Harry Magdoff, John Bellamy Foster and so on.

Intellectuals who develop a radical critique of the existing system provide books and articles that clue students (and professors!) into the way the world actually works, which most textbooks do not and cannot if they are to be successfully marketed.

            That is why I think this book is important and would recommend it as a virtual handbook or student guide to the emergence of the contemporary world over the last five hundred years of history. A sort of “mental floss” to clear some of the cobwebs out of the mind and let in the light of clear thinking so that things start to make sense.

            In my own case, most of my understanding of the world was not learned from books used in graduate school at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but from books which I discovered on my own. Of course, it would surely not hurt if teachers could steer students toward the truth, even though it might indeed not enhance their careers to know the truth and expound upon it.

            To a large extent, the book is about the enormous destructive toll of Western capitalism and imperialism in the emergence of the contemporary global capitalist system. Today, in respectable circles, the terms “capitalism” and “imperialism” are not to be mentioned. The book specifically presents the human side of this history, its immense human cost, and explains why the positive discoveries from science and medicine, which emerged in the capitalist era, could not be used to fill their potentials, particularly in the non-white regions of the world.

            The book is divided into four parts. The first part takes up the issue of the relationship between human development and capitalist growth. Part two explores conflicts in Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Europe came to dominate the world but the status of human development during this time has been falsified by the standard history. Part three shifts to non-European regions and explores how global  humanity was affected by capitalist rule. Part four takes up the horrendous toll taken by capitalism and imperialism in the twentieth century and suggests prospects for the future. Again, the human toll is emphasized. In this way, Bagchi traverses the “Rosy Dawn” up to the present.

            I strongly urge scholars and students to read this book. Beneficial to all, but particularly to those young scholars who are likely to be misled badly by the contemporary propagandistic scholarly literature and have a need to put things in perspective; and who are also in need of an accessible guidebook for refuting the standard history, where the relevant facts are exceedingly laborious to unearth. Here, Bagchi, in bringing a vast range of literature together, has performed a beautiful, an invaluable service to scholars of human society.

            Here, I will simply try to summarize some of the relevant arguments of the book. Bagchi has provided the sources and relevant data to the extent that these are available. The first crucial point is that for an understanding of the human condition, one must explore human development and not the accumulation of capital. Capitalism promised human freedom but led, in significant ways, to slavery for millions of people. For Bagchi, the “European Miracle” is bunk.

            Five arguments underlie Bagchi’s critique of the “European Miracle” and generally inform the book. First, economic growth is good only “if it leads to greater human development.” (p. xiv) Second, one finds little evidence of “human fulfillment” in Europe before the end of the nineteenth century. Third, free trade and free markets do not account for the rise of capitalism, which involved competition and the wide use of force. Fourth, Bagchi follows the view of dissenting historians in the view that China or India might have come out on top, rather than Great Britain, given their ability to produce commodities and their relatively high consumption. This possibility clearly existed. Fifth, what has been called civilizing Europe and civilizing the world by European powers, was closely associated with gaining power and exploiting other parts of the world. All this led to the global conditions of the twentieth century and today.

            Some of the “European Miracle” historians who Bagchi sets out to refute are Douglas North, R.P. Thomas, E.L. Jones and David Landes. I must admit that reading Landes always got on my nerves and I am happy to see his arguments about the glorious results of Western capitalism refuted here.

            In fact, the “European Miracle” is a historical construct, as Bagchi explores. In this paradigm, European civilization is traced as a direct heritage going back to the ancient Greeks, with the contributions from Asian and African civilizations ignored. Europe is seen to have emerged triumphant due to the relevance of the market in the North-Thomas Model (N-T Model). Landes argues that it was private property and democracy that put Europe over the rest of the world. But Bagchi shows that there is not much evidence for this.

            Another part of this construct is the neoclassical economic model of capitalist competition, supply and demand, which actually has little to do with how capitalism has acted historically to take over the world and accumulate capital. It is necessary, after all, to read Marx and some of the long march of radical writers who have followed in the radical tradition of analyzing colonialism and imperialism if one is to understand how the contemporary world works.

            It is necessary to leave most of the detail to the reader. And it is a fascinating and refreshing journey. To make but a few observations, in part two of the book, which explores the emergence of capitalism in Europe, in the roughly five centuries considered, war was an almost constant factor. War was an essential part of the struggle of Western European countries to dominate. This involved massive human slaughter, which greatly affected the human welfare of the common people. Spain established colonies in the Americas and gained wealth from the inflow of silver, but the common people did not benefit. Spain was in almost continuous war against England, the Netherlands, and the protestant princes of the Holy Roman Empire. The Thirty Years War (l618-1648) cost the Holy Roman Empire some twenty percent of its population. All of this took a vast toll upon the common people.

            When Europe extended its reach to the outside world and indeed colonized most areas by the end of the nineteenth century, we observe the use of military force against local populations to take over resources and markets. The “civilizing mission” wiped out a large part of the considerable population of the Americas through disease and forced labor. The slave trade emerged in the opening up of sugar plantations and even when slavery was banned, a system of indentured labor emerged with labor transported from India for conditions little different from slavery. Colonialism created the conditions for famines in India and elsewhere, while policies in China ensured a store of grain for years when food supplies would fall short. The emergence of industrial capitalism in Europe generally cut the average height of the working population, increased infant mortality, and shortened life expectancy for the working classes. Cities lacked sanitation and produced slums and overcrowding. The working class died off at an early age, essentially worked to death. But the wealth gained from global exploitation eventually improved the wealth and health of Europeans. It does not take much reflection to understand that the functioning of the current global political economy is but an extension and variation of this historical colonial system.      

            In terms of population growth in Europe, Bagchi argues that the human conditions in Europe have been exaggerated compared to India and China during these centuries. The chances of human survival in Europe only greatly improved in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. New crops from America, such as the potato, improved European health. Sugar was imported from slave-run plantations in the West Indies. Inoculation against smallpox was imported from Ottoman Turkey. Moreover, when conditions were hard in Europe, there were major migrations of population to America which relieved the situation.                          

            The last section of the book discusses the twentieth century. This also is not a bright picture, to understate. For example, it has been estimated that wars killed 187 million people from l900 to l991. This is ten percent of the total global population in l900. What can one say about this in terms of providing “global security?” World War Two killed between 20 and 40 million people with half of them civilians.

            During the first half of the twentieth century, the imperialist powers in Europe, which had colonized most of the outside world, fought it out to see which one would come out on top. In the end, it became the “American Century.” It was the US that emerged triumphant by the middle of the century. Since then, it has been America on top. And the slaughter has continued. Western Europe, being over the historical hill, went into its little shell, under the US umbrella, and played its games in Brussels. Talked about unity, the Common Market and eventually the European Union. The US was largely in control of the world from l945 on and “providing security” meant largely crushing any threat to US global hegemony wherever it arose. This killed many millions around the globe who yearned for freedom.

            The essential problem was how to prevent any society from emerging which might free people from the exploitative shackles of industrial capitalism. The cold war was fought under the ideological rubric of “stopping communism.” This was used to crush the American working class and labor mobilization at home during the McCarthy period in the l950s. Any country which threatened to slip out of the US orbit must be destroyed. First in this line of applying the “Truman Doctrine” was Korea. The relatively short war destroyed the country. Nuclear war was threatened. Chemical war was used massively with villages napalmed. Biological warfare was almost certainly used by the US against the north, using techniques learned from the Japanese.

            European colonialism was defended, the French in Vietnam, leading the US attack on Vietnam, both north and south. The Vietnam toll was some three million dead in the name of providing “global security.” About 60,000 American soldiers died and as many more committed suicide after the war.

            What can we say? Here we have to refute the established paradigm. Established Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and later China, was not really the feared enemy, although it was there. In a way its existence was an advantage, an authoritarian regime as a counter example that could be presented as the only alternative to Western capitalism. The real threat was nationalism and possible national variations of socialism which might develop countries, parts of the world outside of the orbit of Western capitalism. It was the fear that the masses of the world might break free from the bonds of global capitalism and actually gain some degree of freedom.

            In the same way, political religion is actually a relief, a blessing to the US and Europe today. With religious obscurantism on the march, there is no threat of genuine human liberation, and it provides the image of a necessary enemy too, vital requirements of a global super power today. If the Pakistanis were not trying very hard to find bin Laden, then how hard was George W. Bush and Barack Obama trying? Whether he was found or not, for the West, was six of one and half-a-dozen of the other. On the other hand, imperialism can find uses for religious extremists when they can carry out their objectives and serve their purposes through state terrorism. Those who talked of human liberation and freedom can now be written off as dreamers and it is business as usual.

            Counterinsurgency, the new warfare of the Kennedy era, was designed to keep the global imperialist system in place, while selling the world on “American Freedom,” Culture, Music, Human Rights, the Peace Corps and so on. The world would have to learn about the glories of the market and want it, or else have it shoved down their throats with military might. They could get it the easy way or the hard way. What the world had to understand and digest was that “the West was the Best” and the “European Miracle” was part of the ideology which would enable the coming onslaught of neoliberalism.

            Earlier in the century, what a blessing that the alternative to American capitalism could be depicted as Stalinist labor camps, the Gulag Archipelago. Today, what a blessing that the alternative to neoliberal capitalism can be depicted as talibanic feudalism, al Qaeda fanaticism and terrorism. Today we can see a picture, surely if we see clearly, that is not inconsistent with Bagchi’s picture of China, India, the Ottomans, as well or better than Europe in these centuries. Rampant neoliberal capital continues to take its toll on the world right at the heart of the system, while countries which resist fare better.

            Today, the United States itself is not a pretty picture, indeed so much of American politics is laughable, were it not so insufferably sordid and backward in many ways. Consider the degree of cretinism which must exist for politicians to run around the country seriously calling Barack Obama a “socialist.” Here is the paradigm country, with two million families thrown out of their homes by the “mortgage crisis,” essentially by greedy bankers, who got carried away by the profits on their derivatives. People burdened with three wars, see their sons killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, lacking access to health care. Where but in American would a public health plan boil down to passing a law that simply tells Americans to go out buy some health insurance from a private company, and some will get some help from the government if they cannot afford it.

            Or Europe, where the excesses of American neoliberalism spilled over to the point where it is not at all clear if the European Union will survive. The “PIGS” (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain) on the economic rocks. Indeed, today the European Miracle is looking a little tattered in Athens, Madrid, and Lisbon, while Beijing and Shanghai have emerged as glittering and powerful economic centers. Meanwhile, as Joseph Stiglitz has shown, those countries are better off which ignored the demands of the Washington Consensus.

            The human toll to humanity by the drive for accumulation under capitalism continues. Corporations continue to deprive peoples of the benefits of medicine and science to reap profits. The food industry, to cite but one example, is a disgrace by any standard and now the multinational corporations seek to control the food industry globally. If the human population suffers that much in the very eye of the system, sweat shop labor around the world under outsourcing to supplement their life styles, robs millions of lives of their human freedom and potential around the world.

            If a large stretch of the population of the Middle East was kept under dictatorships for more than half a century to keep the oil flowing to enrich lifestyles in the West, the fight for freedom now takes its deadly toll. The Western countries try to control the damage to the system wile pretending to be on the side of the local people. One should not be fooled. The US and Europe cling to their pillars of stability in the region until it is no longer possible. Forced to borrow money from East Asia, mainly China, for weapons, they struggle in the game to maintain their hegemony in the heart of the oil regions. The Arab revolutions are a wake-up call which they did not welcome.

Capitalism must go on robbing people of their potential and the imperialist West must go on bombing and destroying countries until the contradictions in the system dictate that the West can no longer carry on this enterprise.       

            This book helps to puncture some to the balloons constructed by the Eurocentric historians. It shows that Europeans did not have a monopoly on emerging public policies that can provide human welfare, such as policies in China and India that were not caught in the deadly web of neoclassical economic ideology. The important thing about the book is that it brings together many sources to refute the standard discourse. In this way, it is extremely valuable to teachers, researchers, graduate students, and other scholars who wish to challenge the established paradigm. Indeed, it is useful for all who wish to approach the history of the emergence of capitalism in a truthful way. It is important for scholars to get this important book and read it.                     

Eddie J. Girdner, Professor

Department of International Relations

Izmir University, Izmir, Turkey  

(Author of USA and the New M

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