The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Man Is Depraved

So I’ve been on a blogging vacation. And the world kept spinning, who’d’ve guessed.

I’m reading The Wealth and Poverty Nations by David Landes currently, and although I find the writing style obnoxious, the history and the books is fascinating and his ideas about the history worth chewing on. It’s not a scientific approach to history like Guns Germs and Steel or Battle Cry of Freedom,; it’s more like an extended conversation with a brilliant old guy who’s read everything on the sun. He’s telling you what happened and his interpretation of it, a transference of wisdom moreso than knowledge.

He’s no Niall Ferguson (at least not from what I’ve read so far), that is he’s less an explicit apologist (colonialism was good for Africa, and they threw it all away pursuing a third way). Rather, he reminds me more of Edmund Burke, the English reactionary, or Gary Brecher, modern day (and disappeared) War Nerd, who have a dark view of humanity stemming from the Fall and an atheistic nihilism, respectively. If I had to guess, I’d say Landes lays closer to Burke, as he gives off that stuffy, gentleman conservative smell.

I’d sum up what I’ve read (I’m a little less than halfway done) as follows:

Centralized authority (empire) breeds stagnation, and centralized authority is the natural state of humanity. After the fall of Rome, Western Europe became a playground for military technology, spurring innovations in firepower and naval technology that lead to successive Western European countries colonizing the rest of the world.

From what I’ve heard of the book, it makes a cultural values argument for the success of Western Europe over the rest of the world. Perhaps it picks up steam, but from where I am, accusing the book of being a Colonial apologia misinterprets Landes’s point, and I think the accusations stem from his snarky tone more than from the content of the book. There’s a lot of academic cattiness in the book, where he makes fun of the research of post-colonialists, but it goes over my head.

Except there are several pages where he accuses Said of dodging refutations of his book, Orientalism, in an afterword of a new edition (which I own), and of taking on straw men instead.

But saying China lost its opportunity at overseas empire because the Emperor banned overseas expeditions, or that Spain lost its edge because the church stifled invention (the Jews who fled went to Portugal, who aided its colonial ambitions), don’t strike me as offensive, although whether it’s correct is another matter (I’m a Hayden White booster).

If you take the view that humanity (meaning the whole globe) isn’t far removed from ants on a moral level, especially as you move from the personal up towards the institutional, his thesis becomes much less offensive.

The Aztecs sacrificed humans by the thousands, and got there by brutally subjugating the surrounding tribes. These tribes hated the Aztecs so much they helped the conquistadors against their own rulers. The Spanish conquistadors then murdered and enslaved (and converted, don’t forget), all of the Natives they could get their hands on. The people are the same, barbarians, the difference is the material advantages accrued over history.

His history is one of oppressive aristocracies spanning the globe, and Europe went in and installed itself as the local mob boss, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. But they weren’t overthrowing fluffy bunny kingdoms. He pre-emptively accuses post-colonialists of believing this, and in doing so I think he’s being disingenuous towards his opposition, who have similarly nuanced worldviews.

While I’m name-dropping, the book reminded me of a line by Walter Benjamin that I can’t find on the internet, and as I gave away my collected works (which I now regret), I have no way to find it.

He’s writing about hyper-inflation and the depressed German economy and about how people are hoping for things to get back to normal. The line goes something like this:

“What these people fail to realize is that there is no normal; the baseline is annihilation, and the darkness of the abyss.”

This is the refrain of civilization, and the underlying belief of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Moore’s law is not the laws of thermodynamics, and the only certainty in our future is that the sun will one day expand and consume the Earth.

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