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The Invention of the Modern World 1.

Spring-Summer Serial 2012.


By Alan Macfarlane.

Note: This manuscript is being published in The Fortnightly Review as a way of collecting helpful comments from readers. A box appears at the bottom of each page for this purpose. Remarks may be withheld from public view by request. –Ed.

THE ANSWER TO a question depends on how the question is posed. An inaccurate question gets unhelpful answers. This particularly applies to the large question of the nature, origins and future of modernity which is the theme of this book. The question is particularly difficult to pose now because it is so openly political and is constantly being changed. Certain ways of posing the question are thought of as politically incorrect,  hubristic or Orientalist.

It is rather tempting, with hindsight, to believe that since the great event (the development of modern industrial, urban and scientific societies) has happened, it was bound to happen, and indeed, since they have now spread over much of the planet, perhaps their invention was not so difficult after all. This temptation towards inevitability and the minimizing of the magnitude of the achievement have become greater as time passes.

WHEN ENGLAND WAS the only country in the world to have made the ‘escape’ from agrarian constraints, and remained the only one to be able to do this for two generations, everyone agreed that it was a miracle and they all wondered how it had happened and how it could be copied. It was then ‘the English’, or British (because of Scotland) miracle.

In Tocqueville’s day in the early nineteenth century the question seemed quite obvious. A new world was emerging; it was not just based on the technology of industrial production never before seen in the world, nor just on a self-evidently new understanding of natural laws through the growth of reliable knowledge (science), but above all by a new social, political and ideological structure, seen most dramatically in America, but starting to take the whole world in a new direction.

What Tocqueville termed the ancien régime countries – that is the world outside the little band of Britain, Holland and America – were faced with a different set of relations. What was this new package and how had it come about? Tocqueville never thought it was inevitable that the replacement of the ancien régime should have occurred, and he seriously fretted that it might collapse or be corrupted. It seemed unlikely that the two percent of the world’s population in this tiny corner would convert the other ninety-eight percent.

Amazingly, many elements started to spread. Firstly this happened on parts of the Continent in the middle of the nineteenth century. Yet it still seemed so unusual that it was now termed a ‘European miracle’. Even within Europe it was clearly not easy, and much of Max Weber’s original inspiration came out of an attempt to understand why parts of Germany, particularly the Protestant north, were successfully industrializing, but not other parts, particularly the Catholic south. Likewise others thought it could only happen in the West. The rest of the world was stuck in what Marx called the unchanging ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’, or what Sir Henry Maine thought of as the fate of ‘unprogressive’ societies.

A GENERATION LATER, in the 1860’s at the other side of the world, Fukuzawa Yukichi saw the same thing. All of Asia was still ancien, but the West – and this now included parts of France, Germany and other parts of Europe – were becoming ‘modern’. Unless Japan learnt the lesson and also became ‘modern’, then Fukuzawa knew his beloved country was doomed to become a colony of the West, just as India had long been and as China was in danger of  becoming. There was no doubt in Fukuzawa’s mind, just as there was no question in Max Weber’s a generation later, that something extraordinary was about to happen.

So in the period 1870-1910, Japan joined the industrial world. It did so very largely by adopting many parts of the recipe which had worked in Europe. The same great change was happening in North America. So one Asiatic society and another civilization across the Atlantic achieved a break-through at about the same time. It became a Euro-American-Japanese phenomenon, and a Europe which from the third decade of the new century also included parts of the Soviet Union.

A part of the world had changed in the nineteenth century and it was now crashing into Asia. Up to the 1970’s, with the work of people such as Barrington-Moore, Jones, North and Thomas, Landes,  Mokyr, Roberts, Diamond, Hall, Mann and Baechler, the question was focused on this puzzle.1 There was a search for certain features in the West which made the rise of modernity occur. What had caused the European miracle, why had it happened there, then, and nowhere else?

Many elements of an answer were given, broadly spread along a continuum from the inevitabilist, ‘natural tendency’ arguments to those who saw it as a highly unlikely, unpredictable and chance set of events. Those who saw it as inevitable each chose their own favourite causes – Christianity, water communications, feudalism, American minerals, coal supplies – leading inevitably to ‘modernity’. Others saw it as a ‘real’ miracle – in other words the result of accidental combinations, a mixture of necessary conditions and random chance. Even so, if it was a pure ‘accident’, we could at least investigate some of the contributing factors, especially those necessary if not sufficient.

Up to the 1960’s it was a European miracle with two offshoots in Japan and the United States. Then in the next twenty years the four ‘little Tigers’ were added to the ‘escapees’. All were relatively small and all either heavily influenced by Britain and America (Singapore, Hong Kong) or Japan (Taiwan, South Korea). So it became popular to believe that the miracle could be exported, but only to small and heavily influenced places.

THEN, IN THE later 1980’s, much of the two-thirds of the world’s population which had so far not achieved industrial and scientific growth, namely China, India and South America, began to industrialize. This development appeared to reverse the question. Before it had been phrased as ‘How do we explain the exceptions?’ Now the question became ‘Why are one or two areas, particularly much of Africa and a good deal of central Asia up to Pakistan and Afghanistan, still resisting the obvious tendency?’

The ‘miracle’ story had found it possible to absorb ‘Japanese exceptionalism’ by claiming that, as E. L. Jones put it, Japan seems like an island which was originally off the south coast of England – which had by chance been towed and moored off China.2 Yet while a paradigm can absorb a certain amount of anomaly, as these examples of successful economic development in Asia, were joined also by parts of South East Asia and the Pacific, and then by India in the late twentieth century, it seemed time to revise opinions.

Gundar Frank, Blaut, Goody and others argued that the question had been wrongly posed.3 The Orient had never really been backward so there had been no special western miracle to be investigated. Look at the current success of places which had previously been written off. All Weber’s speculations about things which were inhibiting modernity in the East or encouraging it in the West – religion, a certain legal system, democracy, western logic – were irrelevant and mistaken. The East could do perfectly well without them.  There was no point in even searching for analogues – such as the ‘Confucian culture’ theory. Basically the whole project from Montesquieu up to the 1970’s had been ‘Orientalist’ thinking, a making of Asia into a backward area as ‘the Other’. Another attack came in the work of Marshall Hodgson, who argued that suggestions that there was ‘something wrong’, or defective, about Islam which had slowed down its growth and finally led it to collapse in the face of the west European powers. This was nonsense. Islam was fine – it just didn’t develop in the same way as the West.4

In some ways Ken Pomeranz and others associated with the ‘California School’ were the logical final instance of this revisionism.5 In his Great Divergence Pomeranz argues that there was no divergence before 1800 – China and the Far East, and Eurasia across to Europe, were all roughly the same up to that date. Hence the divergence was superficial, caused by external factors such as coal and the profits of a windfall Empire in the case of Britain. In another way Goody, though critical of Pomeranz, pursues a similar line  – all of Eurasia is structurally the same. He argues in a series of challenging books that there is not much structural difference except in representation between East and West. The only real deep divergence is between the post-Neolithic civilizations of Eur-Asia, and the non-Neolithic civilizations of sub-Saharan Africa.6

For the revisionists the problem has disappeared. The ‘modern world’ was never a peculiar thing. In one sense it was always everywhere, in another it was a set of surface changes in economy and technology which spread rapidly and effortlessly across the world after 1800. Modernity is a tool kit of inventions, many of them originally made in China, then stolen or borrowed and improved, and then re-exported to Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

LET ME STATE a few things about what I shall not be arguing in the following account.  Firstly, the European miracle, as we shall start by calling it, has nothing to do with morality. Modernity, however we define it, is not necessarily morally superior to the ancien régime. It may be preferable to many, but it is important not to slip back into a nineteenth century evolutionary, imperial, view that if, for example, the British were the first ‘modern’ nation, they were thereby in some sense morally superior. God or destiny are not part of  the equation.

Secondly there was absolutely nothing inevitable, necessary or pre-determined about what has happened. My argument is anti-teleological. There is no pre-destined goal of history, no set of necessary steps which we shall all climb up. Instead, there are many tendencies and traps which mean that progress is, as Gibbon and later Toynbee realized, highly unlikely, that decline and fall is the normal story.7 In so far as there are tendencies in human history, they are towards stasis and decline. We are truly dealing with progress against the usual course of things, exceptionalism or random mutations in Darwin’s terms. Even someone as wise as Adam Smith in the later eighteenth century thought there was no possible escape from the agrarian limits to growth.

This implies that it is always easy to fall off the tightrope of ‘progress’. Nothing is permanently assured. Empires come and go; the Sung period in China led into 500 years of ‘high level equilibrium trap’.8 The United States, some believe, is now on the downward path, as Britain was before it.

Thirdly, I do not think that what we need to explain is a miracle created from ingredients within Europe. The origins of almost all the things that led into the invention of the modern world are from outside. Almost all the great technological inventions before 1400 were made in China, while many of the greatest scientific discoveries were in Greece, and developed within Islamic civilizations. Europe in 1300 had absorbed much of this knowledge via the great trade routes across Eurasia.

THROUGHOUT THE BOOK I shall try to give some specification of what I do and do not mean by ‘modernity’, but here are some first clues. What I do not mean is modern technology. Nowadays and for some time, as in fascist or communist societies, it is quite possible to combine modern technologies with what I call ancien régime systems. On the other hand, a modern world now and in the past will indeed have a distinctively effective technology for its period. If that period is one where horses, windmills and watermills provide the power, it will use them particularly effectively. So we must not confuse modernity and technology. The industrial revolution is central, but it is not the defining moment of modernity. The developments in motive energy, medicine, communications and other technologies are important but do not, in themselves, distinguish the modern from the non-modern.

To be modern is not the same as to be recent, indeed to be at any particular point in time. Thus there exist today many countries which are ‘modern’, but also many pre- (or even perhaps post-) modern societies co-existing. The world has for many hundreds of years had societies which are ‘modern’ and non-modern. By my definition, Florence in the fifteenth century, Holland in the seventeenth, Britain for many centuries have all been ‘modern’, while France in the eighteenth century or North Korea today are ancien régime.

The ancien régime combines the separate spheres of our lives. In tribal societies people are all united within kinship as the co-ordinator; in peasant societies the social and economic are joined, as are religion and politics, and so the basic units are families and village communities – with a thin layer of literate rulers above them. Modernity makes further separations. There is no fundamental underlying principle given by kinship or religion, everything is held in check by another sphere of life.

This is Tocqueville’s picture of democracy in America – a modest religion, a restrained family, a limited political power and a circumscribed economy. It is this openness, jostling of powers, which generates our modern dynamic. Once it is reduced to one infrastructure, the civilization tends to become rigid.

HOW THEN CAN we approach the problem of the origins of our modern world? If we look at modernity as a package of inter-connected features, we can separate the ingredients – and then try to reconstitute the recipe, how the ingredients should be combined, in what quantities, order, and weights.

This approach is shown in one of the most brilliant attempts to specify the conditions for the growth of wealth. Adam Smith argued that in order for there to be the development of ‘wealth’, all that was needed was ‘peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice’. Over time these conditions (actually incredibly difficult to establish, as Smith well know) would produce wealth ‘by the natural order of things’.9

While Smith’s three ingredients are indeed central, there are many others; a certain rationality, science, politics, religion, civil society and, above all, the liberty which comes from the separation of spheres. The task I shall set myself is to trace parts of the package back through the history of the country where Tocqueville and Weber thought modernity originated in the form which we now know – namely Britain and especially England.

This investigation is not done to promote Britain as a shining model; this country hardly brought sweetness and light to many of the peoples around the world whose countries it interfered with. It is rather that in order to understand our present world and to chart a possible course over the slippery paths of the future, we need to see where parts of the present comes from. He who understands the past will understand the present, he who understands the present may understand the future, as Orwell might have said.

I investigate this not only as a historian but also as a comparative anthropologist. I love and am proud of my country. Yet I have also spent much of my time wandering through other great civilizations, not only parts of continental Europe and America, but also on many visits to Japan, China, India, Nepal and Australia. From these distant places I have looked back on the history and culture of my own small island. I have also looked at it through the writings of a succession of external eyes, particularly those of our nearest neighbours who might be thought to be most like us.

THE CENTRAL PUZZLE which has concerned me for much of my adult life has been the nature and origins of the strange ‘modern’ civilization within which I live. In most of my books so far I have tried to approach this question from one angle or another.

The quintessence of modernity lies in the necessary conjunction at a point in time of a number of historically unlikely features. One is an appropriate demographic structure – that is, a controlled mortality and fertility system. A second pillar is political. If we look around us, one of the conspicuous features of many successful modern nations is political liberty. The third necessity is a certain kind of social structure. The power of the family has to be reduced, rigid stratification based on birth has to be eliminated, and an open and fluid, relatively meritocratic system has to be established. The citizen needs to have his or her first loyalty to the State rather than any other birth-given group. This is dependent on a substitution of the individual for the group as the basic unit of society.  Yet in order for the system to work, a rich array of intermediary associations which we term collectively ‘Civil Society’ needs to grow up, based on something more than pure contract, placed between the citizen and the State.

Yet if we think of the modern world there are two other features which are both a consequence of the above and also their under-pinning. One is the rise of a new mode of producing wealth.  Many people would link modernity with a particular form of production, perhaps most essentially with a high degree of division of labour, applied through the use of machines which draw on non-human power. The ‘industrial revolution’ as it is now known gives liberty and equality its special flavour.

THE OTHER FEATURE which we associate with modernity is a certain way of knowing. Modernity is distinguished for its ‘scientific’ and ‘secular’ modes of thought. The ability to generate new ideas, to live in doubt and suspend judgment, to encourage challenges and to speed up evolution with experiments. It is roughly what we call the scientific revolution. Where and when did these five features emerge?

There is mystery enough in the reversal of the tendencies in any one of these five spheres. But that they should all happen simultaneously in one place at one time is incredible. Those who thought about these matters would have believed that simultaneously to sustain liberty, equality, demographic balance, and discover fabulous riches stored from the past action of the sun, as well as discovering a way of speeding up the evolution of reliable knowledge, would be beyond the wildest of possibilities.

All of the conditions needed to occur together. That place also had to develop these inter-locked parts very fast in order to gain critical momentum. If its influence was to change the world it needed to replicate itself. It looks impossible to achieve, and even as late as the generation of Adam Smith it was most unlikely that it could happen.

Yet much of the world is now ‘modern’. The revolution has been successful. However that very success has made us forget the question. As Tocqueville wrote, ‘great successful revolutions, by effecting the disappearance of the causes which brought them about, by their very success, become themselves incomprehensible.’10 The modern world has become almost invisible to us – as have its causes – for it is all around us. This quasi-archaeological journey back into its origins will not be easy, but  we need to dig down into our past in order to understand our future.

A video of the lecture on which this chapter is based:

2012 Serial Index: Introduction and Contents | Preface | Bibliography.

Chapter 1 of The Invention of the Modern World by Alan Macfarlane.

© 2012 Alan Macfarlane. All rights reserved.

NOTES (please see the bibliography for citation details):

  1. Barrington-Moore, Origins; Jones, European; North and Thomas, Rise; Landes, Prometheus; Landes, Wealth; Mokyr, Lever; Diamond, Guns; Roberts, Triumph; Hall, Mann and Baechler, European.
  2. Jones, European, 159.
  3. Frank, Re-Orient; Blaut, Colonizer’s; Goody, East and other works.
  4. Hodgson, Venture.
  5. Pomeranz, Great; Wong, China; Goldstone, Why Europe. The arguments have recently been accepted by others, for example Morris, Why West and Jacques, China.
  6. A good deal of his thinking has recently been summarized in Goody, Eurasian.
  7. Gibbon, Decline; Toynbee, History.
  8. A concept central to Elvin, Pattern.
  9. Quoted in Stewart, Works, X, 68.
  10. Tocqueville, Ancien Régime, 7.


  1. wrote:

    Well I think this is a fair start, we will have to see if this seamless perspective can hold up. 1,000 years in a line without a break is how I understand it. Then what do we say about 1066 or the Great War? Those are not “breaks” then?

    Friday, 6 April 2012 at 18:53 | Permalink
  2. wrote:

    I think this is written for academics. Who is Fukuzawa Yukichi (sp?) and Gundar Somebody and all those other people? I can see putting them in your notes but they don’t mean anything to me. I like the idea of this book though, so I will want to read more but why start out with so many names nobody knows?

    Monday, 9 April 2012 at 16:51 | Permalink
  3. wrote:

    I have biased myself by browsing the author’s website and reading some posted work:

    Fascinating problem. Related, perhaps core as well: man’s inherent inability to grasp the mathematics of population and production(cf. ‘The Universe and the Teacup’ preface).

    My encouragement: wrap _that_ problem as a well as your main points together and present at start. Startle your audience and engage more directly.

    How would the Gurang state their view the west? Of population and production? As a comparative anthropologist you’re gifted with rare insights into the unfamiliar (to us in the west – and perhaps to an audience of academes). Use the experience you’ve lived it.[img][/img]

    Thursday, 5 July 2012 at 13:02 | Permalink

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