Book Review


Most of the arguments in The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (1997), by Martin Lewis and Kären Wigen, are fairly convincing. It is undeniable that such concepts as “East and West,” “Orient and Occident,” and even the sevenfold continental system are cultural constructs that have no clear objective referents. They are mere conveniences, and their mutual delimitations are to some extent arbitrary. Over the last five hundred years the accepted meanings of these geographical schemes have changed many times, as the authors demonstrate. Moreover, thinking in these simplistic binary and continental terms can cloud one’s understanding of the world—of its diversity and of the many parallels between “Eastern” and “Western” societies (as well as African, Asian, European, American, etc.)—and thereby perpetuate myths, stereotypes, and prejudices. Postmodernists can be just as guilty of these sorts of reifications as old-fashioned Eurocentrists. However, it’s possible that the authors go a little too far in their third chapter, “The Cultural Constructs of Orient and Occident, East and West,” in rejecting traditional notions of how Western Europe has differed from China, for example, and India. Doubtless it is absurd to identify “the West” simply with reason, progress, freedom, dynamism, individualism, and materialism, and “the East” with the opposites of those concepts. I will argue, though, that, if qualified, similarly sweeping contrasts are not wholly off the mark.


It is worth noting, first of all, that to reject out of hand ideas that attracted some of the greatest minds in Europe, America, and parts of Asia for over two hundred years seems intellectually lazy. Thinkers from Voltaire to Hegel to Marx to Weber and beyond have contrasted European societies with Asian societies. At the very least, one has to explain how it was possible for them all to have been so horribly wrong. One has to theorize the phenomena that misled them. But of course it is silly to say that they were all simply wrong; rather, they grasped certain truths in perhaps exaggerated ways. In recent decades, as countries in the so-called East and Middle East have become deeply capitalist, the old notions of Oriental stagnation, despotism, spiritualism, scientific non-rationality, and so forth, have lost whatever plausibility they once may have had. Nonetheless, from at least the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century, Western Europe and North America were clearly more rapidly developing, more culturally individualistic, and more scientifically progressive than the so-called Orient—because they were far more intensively capitalist.[1] Not even Lewis and Wigen deny this. Whether Europe and America in this period were also more democratic and free (politically and culturally liberal, etc.) than the “Orient” is a difficult question, but a strong case can be made that the answer is yes.


The natural question then is, “Why did Western Europe become dominated by capitalist production relations before other societies did?” The authors do not answer this question, but they treat several important elements of an answer in a rather dismissive way. “Carlo Cipolla,” they note, “powerfully argues that the tradition of urban self-government, based essentially on merchant and craft-guild oligarchies, was uniquely European, and, more important, that its emergence in the High Middle Ages represented nothing less than ‘the turning point of world history.’ Cipolla also maintains that Europe was unique in the high social position it afforded members of the medical, legal, and notarial professions.” After conceding the importance of these points, they state with no explanation, “Cipolla probably grants them more significance than they deserve.”[2] It is quite possible, however, that these phenomena both were largely unique to Europe and contributed to the rise of capitalism.


Similarly, Lewis and Wigen deny that “parcelized sovereignty,” which has often been thought to have played an important role in Europe’s development, was truer of Europe than elsewhere. They argue that governments throughout Eurasia were not as centralized, despotic, or powerful as we are wont to think, that instead they were “segmentary” in structure and “had to come to terms with local power holders.”[3] Whether this is true of most Asian governments to the extent that it was of feudal Europe is highly debatable, given the remarkably decentralized nature of feudal Europe. But in addition to Europe's parcelized sovereignty was its unique fact of political fragmentation--the proliferation of hundreds of autonomous states and cities and principalities in a relatively small area. This fragmentation was surely very conducive to European development. It meant, for example, that Columbus could roam the continent in search of a political sponsor, trying Portugal, Genoa, Venice, England, and finally Spain. An adventurer in China had no such options. Competition between states also stimulated the advance of military technology in the late Middle Ages and early modern period. Even more importantly, the differences in political, economic, and environmental conditions between Britain and the rest of Europe caused feudalism to decline first in Britain and industrial capitalism to rise.[4] In addition, the growth of relatively autonomous cities in the Middle Ages, sometimes governed by merchant oligarchies (as in northern Italy), helped make possible the Renaissance, which provided the cultural context for the printing revolution, which was a precondition for the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and ultimately the Industrial Revolution. All these consequences flowed, in part, from Europe’s unusual political fragmentation and parcelized sovereignty.[5]


Lewis and Wigen also dismiss Marx’s concept of the “Asiatic mode of production,” an idea that has been, or used to be, taken seriously by generations of Marx-influenced thinkers and scholars. Have they all been totally deluded? Has the Asiatic mode of production been merely a figment of their imagination? Again, at the very least it is necessary to theorize the things that supposedly misled them, not just to say “They were wrong” and leave it at that. Moreover, it does not strike me as ridiculous to argue that private property in land gave early-modern European landowners—under particular economic conditions—an incentive to improve agricultural productivity and expel peasants from the land (contributing to the rise of a proletariat), whereas the absence of a legally protected system of private property in China and India, where land was often in effect possessed by the state, prevented such capitalist incentives from emerging. More generally, one would think that the absence, or at least the very limited power (compared to that of the state bureaucracy), of a private landowning class would make for a very different society from that in which such a class had immense power, as it did in medieval and modern Europe. Even if, as Lewis and Wigen argue, the “Oriental” state was not as despotic as Marx thought, the concept of an Asiatic mode of production could still be suggestive, as could the thesis of a relatively cyclical Asiatic history (compared to Europe’s). Indeed, prima facie this latter hypothesis seems obviously true. A cursory glance at the last 2200 years of Chinese history reveals that, aside from invasions and dynastic struggles, China has had a much more stable social order than Europe (until the nineteenth century, at least). Postmodernists like Lewis and Wigen appear not to notice this, so they don’t try to explain it. But it does beg for an explanation.


Some arguments in chapter three of The Myth of Continents are very plausible. For instance, it is misleading to identify Western culture with reason or rationalism, because religion and various forms of irrationalism have been at least as prominent throughout its history. The authors quote William McNeill approvingly: “The striking transformation of the culture of the Roman world from the naturalism and rationalism of Hellenism to the transcendentalism and mysticism of the fifth and sixth centuries had no real parallels elsewhere in the [Afro-Eurasian] ecumene.... Unusual instability, arising out of a violent oscillation from one extreme to another, may in fact be the most distinctive and fateful characteristic of the European style of civilization.”[6] Again, though, such instability has to be explained, and if it is distinctively European (as McNeill claims), the explanation is going to have to postulate significant differences between European and Asian societies. Moreover, environmental factors—which many historians prefer not to invoke because they supposedly justify “Eurocentrism”—will probably play a role in the explanation.


The point is that sometimes it is justifiable to make generalizations about “the West” and “the East,” or at least parts of the East, and that there are major historical differences between societies that exemplify the West and the East. At the same time, The Myth of Continents serves as a useful reminder that we should be cautious in our generalizations.




[1] [What I meant by that term was relative predominance of the capitalist mode of production (viz., wage-labor vs. capital owners), competitive capital accumulation, a more deeply “marketized” economy, and so on.]


[2] Martin Lewis and Kären Wigen, The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1997), 93.


[3] Ibid., 99.


[4] See Robert C. Allen, The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).


[5] [Barrington Moore says the following (on p. 174 of Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy): “Imperial Chinese society never created an urban trading and manufacturing class comparable to that which grew out of the later stages of feudalism in Western Europe, though at times there were some starts in this direction. Imperial success in uniting the country may be advanced as one of the more obvious reasons for the difference. In Europe the conflict between Pope and Emperor, between kings and nobles, helped the merchants in the cities to break through the crust of the traditional agrarian society because they constituted a valuable source of power in this many-sided competition.” In other words, kings, nobles, emperors, and popes had an incentive to let relatively autonomous cities thrive. Very different from China. Parcelized sovereignty, you see.]


[6] Lewis and Wigen, The Myth of Continents, 86.




[Other notes I wrote on this subject: Janet Abu-Lughod is probably right that industrial capitalism would not have arisen in Europe, certainly not when it did, had not the “discovery” of the Americas facilitated primitive capital accumulation and, later, the production of raw cotton to be worked up by English laborers. In general, exogenous factors obviously contributed to Europe’s rise. On the other hand, I find it hard to believe that if the Chinese, Indians, or Arabs had discovered the Americas sometime between, say, the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, industrial capitalism would have subsequently (within a few centuries) spread over their lands. For one thing, these peoples were not as savage as Europeans. Given the nature of their societies, it is unlikely that they would have barbarously slaughtered, plundered, and exploited Amerindians for the sake of extracting surplus, or transferred millions of Africans to the Americas and put them to work on plantations and in mines. In the early modern period, Europe was a savage place continually at war with itself. Why? Largely because of its political fragmentation and parcelized sovereignty—together with the attempts of emerging states to triumph over this political fragmentation and parcelized sovereignty, to subordinate foreign and local powers to themselves. To do that, among other things they had to protect and encourage manufacturing and trading in cities and abroad, since this ultimately increased their own wealth and power. The accumulation of surplus (and use of it to increase power in a very competitive environment) was a driving, overriding political and economic imperative; unprecedented institutionalized brutality—soon enacted all over the world—was the means by which to carry it out.

            In other words, the emergence of the nation-state--which wasn’t fully accomplished even in Western Europe until the beginning of the twentieth century--was an essential cause of the rise of Europe (even before the Industrial Revolution, and to an extent even before the Americas had really started to show their economic potential). No such entity was emerging elsewhere, or at least not a cluster of such entities in a relatively small continental area that impelled them all to fight savagely for their survival and power. Like most old insights, this insight is still profound.

            —I might almost say it would have been hard for the capitalist mode of production to become the dominant mode anywhere in the absence of political competition approximately analogous to that that existed in medieval and early-modern Europe. Otherwise states and other powerful entities (e.g., feudal landowners and warlords) would have had little incentive, at least no pressing incentive, to not only tolerate but encourage the rise of relatively autonomous cities and manufacturing/trading/artisanal classes that could in the future potentially threaten the power of the entities that had initially supported them. This, of course, is what finally happened in Europe—proving that the Chinese government was, in a sense, wise never to have let urban areas and proto-capitalist classes gain substantial autonomy and accumulate enormous power vis-à-vis the state. In Europe, the bourgeoisie and its intellectual hangers-on (descendants of earlier burghers, etc.) had by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—even earlier, in some places—so gained the advantage over the ancien régime that they could, in conjunction with popular social movements, undermine and eventually topple the old order to remake society in ways more congenial to unfettered capital accumulation and bourgeois political power.]


© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright