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Fragment: Concepts of Time and the World We Live In.


THE AMOUNT OF HISTORICAL, archaeological, anthropological and zoological knowledge about the human past increased exponentially in the second half of the twentieth century.  Let us investigate the frameworks developed for the understanding of this data in order to see whether analysts were also able to form satisfactory models to explain the accumulating data.

In order to do this, the first point to make applies to all historical writing – namely that, in the end, all attempts at understanding the past are political. That is to say, they cannot be free of the biases created by the time in which the thinker works and his or her implicit hopes and dreams. These biases are none the less powerful for being largely invisible to those who have them. The bias is particularly difficult to detect in our contemporaries and hence we have some advantage living and writing in a later age which distances us from the theories and shows their previously concealed biases.

That there is a general relationship between theories and their context is shown if we look at the general development of theories about the past over the last five hundred or so years in the West. A very rapid summary of what we seem to find, oversimplifying greatly, is a close correspondence between the general paradigms in the social sciences and the general state of economic and political affairs.

Sweeping our eyes across five hundred years of theory, we can detect a number of major theoretical structures or paradigms in the social sciences. These could be put in a temporal diagram as follows.

Let us briefly describe each of these.

The first is what we might call the wheel paradigm.  As in China, India or in the work (including The Muqaddimah) of the great Arab philosopher of history, Ibn Khaldun, until the seventeenth century the passage of time was roughly conceived of as circular. There might be temporary  ‘progress’, but ultimately one would ‘return’ to the same position – to the Second Coming, the re-birth, the bottom of the wheel.

In the second, which dates from the eighteenth century Enlightenment, time was increasingly conceived of as a line rather than a circle, progressive, upward-moving.  Many western thinkers came to believe that mankind moved through a series of ‘stages’, usually linked to the mode of economic production.

The confidence in such progressive time was shattered by the French Revolution and its aftermath and we get a return to a modified version of the never-ending cycle of boom and burst, most famously in the work of Thomas Malthus.

Then, in the 1830’s, the Malthusian gloom began to lift, particularly in Britain and America, and there was the start of a period of full-scale Victorian progressive evolutionism, which reached its peak between about 1860 and 1880. The birth of Marxism, the development of Whig history and the re-birth of anthropology and sociology, took place as history was increasingly seen as a long upward ascent.

This period again faded at the turn of the century and was buried in the horrors of the First World War. From the 1890’s, the talk was either of long cycles again – Spengler and Toynbee – or of functional stasis. This phase lasted until after the Second World War and continued in the new intellectual fashion, structuralism.

Then, as the wounds of the Second World War healed, and even earlier in America, optimism gathered pace, taking forms such as a revived Marxism, modernization theory, books describing the triumph of capitalism or cultural materialism in anthropology.

During the last twenty years of the century, all these different trends have mingled and theorists are now deeply divided. At one extreme are those who believe, in the company of Max Weber, Isaiah Berlin and more recently Ernest Gellner and E.L. Jones, that the development of mankind is uneven, and fraught with peril; they believe in chance and the difficulty and unlikeliness of progress. The riddle for them is that man ever ‘escaped’ from agrarian civilization at all. It is all an immensely improbable ‘miracle’.

In the other camp are those who, like Francis Fukuyama in his End of History and the Last Man, believe that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the extraordinary growth of Asia shows us that there really never was a puzzle about progress, at east after the defeat of Napoleon. ‘Progress’ is inevitable, it is just a matter of clearing blocks off the runway and allowing societies to ‘take off’. Man’s ingenuity, creativity, and the mighty power of technology are bound to lead us ever upwards. Capitalism and democracy have triumphed for good.

If we are to understand these changing paradigms in the past, and the way they swing in the present, we should note that they seem to shadow political relations and the rate of economic progress. The general rule appears to be that in periods of rapid economic and technological growth, especially when this is linked to political dominance and expansion by a certain civilization, confidence rises and optimistic, ‘progressive’ and teleological theories dominate.

In periods of political confrontation and relative equality, the non-progressive mood prevails. Thus when the West became technologically dominant in the eighteenth century, or the second half of the nineteenth, or after the Second World War, ‘progressivist’ theories ‘felt’ right. When there was a rough equality in power between the West and the Rest, confidence in rapid progress ebbed away.   We can see this in the long period up to the eighteenth century, when the civilized powers engaged in internal blood-baths, as with the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, or during the rise of non-European powers at the end of the nineteenth century, or the carnage of the First and Second World Wars.

HAVING OBSERVED THE BROAD correspondence between meta-theory and political and economic patterns it is now worth looking in a little more detail at the clashing ideologies of social thinkers during the second half of the twentieth century.

There are a number of books in three major periods. One set were basically written and published during the period 1945-1965, the period of intense cold war between the Western and Communist blocs. Then there is another set of books of the period 1965-1988, which we might characterize as the period of rapid technological progress and the emergence of non-western industrial nations, particularly Japan. Finally, there is the shelf for books and articles of the period 1989-2000, which is characterized by the collapse of communism and the increasingly rapid growth of Asia, especially China.

Each period in turn needs to be broken up, with the books placed onto three shelves for each period.  Of course, this is grossly over-simplified, but with hindsight and just the few remaining standard texts to play with, it does seem that there are some patterns to what was written.  The first case of books for the period 1945-1965 can be divided onto three shelves. There is firstly one with the label  ‘liberal, progressivist’. The most outstanding work here is that of Fernand Braudel.  Sketched out in a German prisoner of war camp as a statement of hope that the liberal world of democracy and open capitalism would not succumb to the temporary power of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, it was continued in Braudel’s later work as an increasingly confident account of the natural progress of capitalist and material civilization. There was never really a theory of change behind the enormous volumes, for Braudel deliberately rejected all previous and other theories of change and never constructed his own. It was really a new narrative history, well infused with a geographical and ecological base, which celebrated the rise and spread of material prosperity across the globe in a glorious tapestry of past civilizations.

The second shelf in this case is labeled  ‘Marxist or Marxisant’.  Taking the promises of Mao and Stalin at their face value, unaware or turning away from the evidence of their real conduct, writers represented on this shelf re-shaped the past in accordance with a re-written version of Marx’s scheme, with bits of Weber thrown in.  Books on this shelf converted the past into three grand stages; pre-capitalist, proto-capitalist, capitalist, with a much to be desired future state of communism on the horizon. Many of the most exciting historians, from Tawney to Hobsbawm and Perry Anderson, and many of the leading journals, most notably Past and Present are to be found on this shelf.

This school seems to have created, in true dialectical fashion, an opposing school whose shelf of books has the label ‘modernization theory’.  A famous book on this shelf is Walt Rostow’s Stages of Economic Growth, which was explicitly labeled ‘A Non-Communist Manifesto’.  Along with numerous books in the rapidly expanding field of  ‘development studies’, these books basically argued that the ‘take off’ into sustained economic growth was possible for all, not by revolution, but by adopting a model based on the recent history of America (and Western Europe). Technological and economic growth was inevitable, as long a s certain conditions were fulfilled.  The past, at least the past few centuries, illustrated how this could be done by providing a level take-off strip and by keeping a firm grip on the controls of the plane.

We can now examine the bookcase labeled 1966-1988.  Here we find continuations and expansions of the three earlier shelves. On one shelf, we find the Braudelian model in its weakened form of inevitable material progress, coalescing with modernization theory, from which it had never differed very much.  Among the most interesting books on this shelf were those of the economist Ester Boserup. She inverted the theory of Malthus, always a sign there is optimism in the air. Impressed by the ingenuity and power of humankind, and celebrating the rapid rush of science and the ‘white heat’ of technological growth, Boserup sketched out a theory that had humankind pushing ever onward and upward. The earlier pessimistic overtones of her Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change Under Population Pressure tended to disappear in her later work, particularly in Population and Technology. Historians such as Lynne White and others also celebrated the gains to be achieved through improving technologies.

The Marxist or socialist shelf also continued, but divided onto two shelves. On the hand, the rapid expansion of the global economy and communications made certain writers increasingly aware of how, in the past, a great turning point had been the establishment of a world system of trade and, in their eyes, exploitation.  Against the modernization theorists they suggested a theory of centre and periphery, of the sucking of resources from the poor to the rich, of a capitalist ‘world system’ whose tentacles had systematically spread from the sixteenth century. Instead of the dynamics of class conflict within the nation state or Empire of the older Marxism, they saw the battle between states, a vision which seemed to fit much better with the times of Che Guevara, Mao, Castro and the Vietnam War.  Its main proponents included Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank and Paul Sweezy.

Their arguments were bolstered, and in turn fed into, a re-appraisal of non-Western history. It is no coincidence that the re-emergence of Islam with the oil boom, the rise of Japan, and the growing success of China and the ‘Four Little Tigers’ should throw up historians who began to challenge the theory of the long-term superiority of the West. Joseph Needham’s re-appraisal of Chinese science and civilization in his seven-volume Science and Civilisation in China, Marshall Hodgson’s monumental attempt to describe the The Venture of Islam as a great success story until the predatory West destroyed it from the eighteenth century, and various re-appraisals of Japanese history in a Marxist framework were all the work of the 1960’s.

Meanwhile the Braudelian tradition of telling a story of steady and inevitable material progress and the rise of civilizations continued at both the popular level in television and books like Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, and in academic accounts such as William McNeil’s path-breaking A World History.

TWO MAJOR DISLOCATIONS IN the late 1980’s give us our last case of books. The first was the collapse of the Soviet Union; coincident with the revelations of the full horrors perpetrated in the name of Marx in both Russia and China, as well as the terrible harvest of Pol Pot.  Within a very short period, one of the major threads of post-war history, the Marxist interpretation, was largely discredited.  Many of the earlier believers moved sideways, particularly, as we shall see, into a continuation of the strand opened by Needham and Hodgson.

The apparent triumph of the capitalist system, with its attendant political philosophy of liberal democracy was in turn related to the triumph of the New Right in America and produced an extreme form of libertarian economics.  In history, one spirited manifestation of that shift was Fukuyama’s End of History. History had ended with the triumph of America. There is nowhere to go beyond the Rand Corporation for which Fukuyama works. All is accomplished, as Hegel prophesied. Good has triumphed and nothing better can be devised. The past can be laid out as the march to this triumphant conclusion.  Fukuyama, not being an historian, left it to others to fill in the details, and they have done so, for example in the best-selling book by David Landes on The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor.

Perhaps partly in reaction to this vision, but even more as a result of another major shift at the end of the 1980s, came books which can be put within a shelf which we can label  ‘Re-Orient’.  Alongside the collapse of the Soviet Union, the other great event of the later 1980’s and 1990’s was the abandonment of socialism in India, the abandonment of the economic central planning model of communism in China, and the very rapid economic growth of both of these and of South East Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.  Building on the earlier success of Japan and the Four Little Tigers and growth in parts of Latin America, as China loomed to dwarf the world again, this seemed to show the following.  The period from 1800 to 1980, when the West was technologically and militarily dominant was neither ingrained in human nature nor dictated by superior social organization, but just a temporary, and soon to be reversed, accident. All talk of major differences within the Eurasian continent, with its imperialistic echoes of previous talk of Oriental Despotism, the Asiatic Mode of Production, the ‘magnificent dead end’ of China, were disproved.

On this shelf were works by a number of those who had previously espoused other models in a distinguished career but now joined in a concerted attack on all varieties of the ‘European Miracle’ thesis. These attacks were on both the earlier versions of Max Weber, and later manifestations such as the work of E.L. Jones or Ernest Gellner. Therefore, writers such as William McNeil, J.R. Goody and Gundar Frank argued that there had never been anything special about Europe. The  ‘East’ and the ‘West’ were the same – with the East as superior for most of history. Anybody could be ‘modern’, and it was pure chance, based on a very recent and predatory militarism, which had momentarily inched the West ahead at a very late point. All of Europe was ideologically and in other ways much the same until about 1800, and if the West had not been so exploitative, the modern world would have soon emerged in China, Japan or somewhere else.

FINALLY, THE STRAND THAT assumes that progress is inevitable, once there are certain necessary preconditions present, as in the earlier work of Braudel and Boseurp, continued onto another shelf in the work of ecological and zoological writers such as Jared Diamond. If one has the right domesticatable plants and animals, the rest is inevitable.

Therefore, we see three main themes. There are the liberal inevitabilists, a sort of watered down Whig history of natural progress. There are the technological determinists and modernization theorists. Moreover, there are the Marxists and the Third world Firstites.

Obviously none of these is completely right or wrong, and indeed, as this account will show, they often overlap a good deal.   Each author takes a good idea, for instance that China was a great civilization long before modern Europe, or that the development of scientific technology is a very powerful force, and extends it so far that it tends to break under the explanatory burden placed on it. As individual theories, each lacks credibility and since they are often at odds with each other, it is difficult to combine them into a coherent and encompassing theory to explain what has happened in history.

Another defect is that in order to convince us of their plausibility they have often forced their proponents into manipulating the past. This is most obvious in the case of the 1960’s Marxists, but it probably applies as much, if less obviously, to the others. Whichever shelf we choose, we find it leaves too many anomalies and inconsistencies when placed against the chronicled events of the past.

So, what can we do to proceed to a deeper understanding of human history? Complete objectivity is both impossible and probably undesirable. Yet are we condemned merely to inhabit a post-modern hall of mirrors where all we see is our own reflection? In the belief that this is not so, I have proposed several strategies in this work.  One, already pursued, is to appeal to the authority of artefacts. While the meaning of artefacts is subjective and even their existence, as I have pointed out, is subject to selection and pressure, it does seem that up to a certain extent they act as independent witnesses. We can read many meanings into a text but, to a certain extent, a spade is a spade. Either a civilization developed a steam engine or it did not. Therefore, the archaeological record is to a certain extent uncontaminated by the grosser swings of theoretical fashion.  This is probably why there seems such a large gap between it and most of the theories put forward in the last fifty years.

A second strategy was the result of an accident.  I had assumed that the plethora of texts published between 1945 and 2000 would include and build on all the earlier wisdom, and nothing new could be lying behind them.  Then, by a chance, an archaeologist discovered a hidden store, or reserve book collection. Into this had been placed all the books, which were no longer required undergraduate reading.  Many of them were ‘classics’, but their age, complexity, and length made them unsuitable for the hurried readers of the later twentieth century and they were seldom consulted.  Yet thumbing through these majestic tombs, often written in archaic language, it began to emerge that they presented a radically different account of human history to any of those prevalent in the later twentieth century.

In investigating this library of classics, we are again limited by the random survival of just a few of the great books. We hear of wonderful books written by the Greeks and Romans, of medieval treatises and works in Chinese, Indian and Japanese.  Unfortunately or fortunately, there are only six shelves left after the destruction, but each contains the complete works of one author.  These authors are Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Malthus, Marx, Weber and Karl Jaspers.  Let us see what they tell us….

This essay was first published in 2010. See also The Fortnightly Review‘s Spring-Summer Serial 2012: The Invention of the Modern World by Alan Macfarlane.

Alan Macfarlane, author of The Origins of English Individualism and The Riddle of the Modern World: Of Liberty, Wealth and Equality, among other books, is Emeritus Professor of Anthropological Science and a Life Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. This fragment, he writes, is “part of a book which I never published. It imagined that I was a future archaeologist digging through the rubble of our civilization and finding a library… What would I have made of it.” Prof. Macfarlane’s website is here. A lecture related to this “fragment” (and many others) may be found on his channel. He is currently co-editor of The Fortnightly Review.




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