In The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are so Rich and some are so Poor, David Landes sets out to elucidate the causes of the divergent destinies of different economies. In doing so, he presents economic history as a profoundly Eurocentric anecdote. He posits that Europe’s industrial revolution is the epicenter of modernity and the means of how some–largely western Europe and northwest Europe’s settler ex-colonies–have grown rich. He also conceives, that relative poverty elsewhere is the result of failure on the part of political, religious, and mercantile elites elsewhere to ascend (being circumstances set heavily against them) and maintain or regain independence from and assimilate the technologies of the people from Europe–merchants, priests, and thugs with guns–who came in boats, rarely with friendly intent. Thus Landes wages intellectual thermonuclear war on all who deny that the history of the wealth and poverty of nations over the past millennium is the history of the creation in Europe and diffusion of technologies of industrial production and sociological organization.
He provides strong arguments in an attempt to defeat those who believe that Chinese technology was equal to British until 1800, that equatorial climates are as well-suited as mid-latitude climates to the kind of agriculture that can support an Industrial Revolution, or any of a host of other things. Landes’ stress rests mostly on cultural factors–having to do with the fine workings of production, power, and prestige in the pre-industrial past–that gave European civilizations an edge over Chinese, Arabic, Indian, or Indonesian, in the speed of technological advance, that made it very likely that within Europe the breakthrough to industrialization would take place first in Britain, and that have made it damnably difficult since for people elsewhere to assimilate modern machine technologies and modes of social and economic organization. According to Landes, the single key to success–relative wealth–is openness: a willingness to borrow whatever is useful from abroad whatever the price in terms of injured elite pride or harm to influential interests.
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This is what weighed down China. He believes that openness is a willingness to trust your own eyes and the results of your own experiments, rather than relying primarily on old books or the pronouncements of powerful and established authorities. The Chinese remained closed off in their empire from openness is a comfortable despotism. European cultures, however, had had enough of ‘oppression’ and ‘coercion’–but perhaps only barely enough. The Spanish began on the right foot, but later regressed during the Inquisition when the church took over and defamed merchants and materialism. The second key, according to Landes, lies in politics: a government strong enough to keep order, limited enough for individuals to be secure, and willing sometimes to sacrifice official splendor and martial glory to give merchants and manufacturers an easier time making money.
A “competitive fragmented political system” was what allowed Europe to attain its economic success. Feudalism died out as the merchants brought in mercantilism, and then later a government that was an executive committee of the bourgeoisie–a government responsive to and concerned for the well-being of a business class that has a strong conscious interest in rapid economic growth. Today, we call this capitalism. This again, is where China faulted itself. Landes does acknowledge that China was ahead of Europe very early on, in terms of technological advantage, but the fundamental factor that prevented them from growing was the relationship between China’s land and its people (geographical determinism).
The land is very hilly and mountainous making only 15 to 20 percent of China’s land cultivable. The climatic conditions compound the problem of food production for such a vast population. Rainfall in China is uneven, coming in the Spring and Summer in torrential downpours. This condition necessitated an advanced system of irrigation in order to sustain life. The person who could mobilize the productive forces of China and feed the burgeoning people of the agrarian society was the one who held the power.
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Thus government, and the emperor, became the giver of life to China (imperial central authority).
This is the most delectable recipe for despotism. Agriculture in China was very well thought out. It was sustained almost entirely by man power. The hills in the river valleys are terraced and rice was, and still is, cultivated in its respective seasons by the peasant population. All accomplished with human hands. It was a system that worked for them. It was efficient and sound for their geographic conditions. The fact that it was so sustainable, combined with despotism (which I’ll elucidate later), provided no incentive for the Chinese people to advance their agricultural practices in the area of technology. Also notable, Landes describes a “treadmill” effect where the Chinese clans would have large numbers of children to work in the fields so that they can feed the population. But the large numbers of children would have to be fed and there would be more demand for labor, and so more children would be had to feed the others. The end result is a bloated population.
Europe, Landes claims, was different. Their ability to produce agriculture with sheer manpower was futile. They lived in a temperate climate with year round rainfall, but it was full of dense forest and hard unfertile soil. In order to cultivate on this land, more power than a man’s biceps was required. They began to look elsewhere. It was either look for an alternative or become extinct. They began with oxen and ploughs, then dray horses, and on to windmills and waterwheels. This was the invention of capital and this would not have been possible without the European “competitive fragmented political system,” (decentralized authority), which allowed for freedom of thought and innovation, in Landes’ narrative. The despotic nature of government and the infiltration of Confucian ideology was what decided China’s development tragedy.
Despotism left the emperor in power, in charge of all. He could only be overthrown, when he failed to maintain harmony within Chinese society; e.g. when he failed to maintain adequate flood control and irrigation systems. This was seen as a sign of the emperor’s failure in fulfilling the “mandate of heaven” in Confucian ideology. Confucianism was the undisputed orthodox doctrine of the imperial state. It controlled and conditioned the minds of Chinese rulers and served to legitimize the dynastic system. It made its greatest impact on ruling elites and left peasants in an ideological vacuum who were more concerned with the levying of taxes and the hardships of life than with theories of government. Confucianism mandated protectionism in international trade. It even influenced rulers to halt ship building and to destroy the ships in the harbors so that nothing could go out and nothing could be brought in. The Chinese were dubious of commerce and greed was questionable. Just after the Chinese had the first naval organization in the world, in the 1400s, regression ensued and China’s capitalist cancer went undiagnosed.
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Once the margin of wealth/development became grossly marked and settled in history between Europe and Asia, an internal European economic divide snuck in. After the opening of the New World, there began a pattern of stagnant development in southern Europe’s most prominent states. This is what Landes calls the ‘winners’ and the ‘losers;’ North v. South (not in the context of central and periphery nations mind you).
Specifically Spain, Portugal, and Italy. As the northern states, the French, the Dutch, the English, the Scandanavians, ventured out into the New World searching for new resources (thus new forms of capital [development]), the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the poorly stationed and apathetic Italians sat arrogantly by. According to Landes, these states had become so rich that they did not have the need to seek out resources. They could just buy them from the other states. But eventually, their money ran out and they were without the knowledge, power, and resources to provide for themselves and dependent on the states they previously conceived as beneath them. It was comfort that killed them economically. But another hand was in the pot.
Protestantism. Specifically Calvinistic Protestantism. According to Landes, it was the spread of Protestantism that aided the progression of the northern winners. While the south embraced religion in a manner that promoted movements like the Spanish Inquisition, the north took on a new theological attitude. Lnades takes on the idea that Max Weber elucidated in, “The Protestant Effort in the Spirit of Capitalim,” (Landes 174).
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In this, Weber notes that the Calvinists took on a new way of life that encouraged hard work, personal success (not greed), savings, etc. Calvinism defined and sanctioned “an ethic of every day behavior that conduced to business success,” (Landes 175) This, Landes postulates, is the real root of the winners, and the misguided lack of attentiveness of the losers. This is where Landes’ intellectual opponent the late James M. Blaut begs to differ. Blaut agrees with Landes up and until “1492” on the progression of conditions of modernization within Europe. But after that, where Landes draws his conclusions from Protestantism, Blaut seess hogwash. This, to Blaut, is an idiosyncratic, Eurocentric, fundamentalist ideal type.
 Wang, James C.F. Comparative Asian Politics: Power, Policy, and Change. Prentice Hall. Upper Saddle River, NJ: 1994. pp. 18-24.  Ibid.