A new and brave academic publication traces the reasons the civilisation of the West was the first to escape poverty and the Malthusian Trap, writes IPA Research Fellow Kevin You.
Palgrave Macmillan’s Debates in Business History series aims to encourage robust discussions among economic, labour, and management historians, and bring to surface diverse perspectives from a broad range of disciplines. The series does not shy away from controversy and serves as a vehicle to connect opposing sides of critical issues pertaining to business history that is relevant to contemporary society.
Slavery, Freedom and Business Endeavour, the latest work of Bradley Bowden, IPA Adjunct Fellow, has proven to be the most provocative book in the series. In it, Bowden challenges the increasingly dominant idea that the prosperity of the West, the development of capitalism, and Western democracies’ ascendancy on the world’s stage rest with slavery and exploitation. Moreover, he questions the notion that systemic racism has been weaved into and become part-and-parcel of modern Western society.
Bowden acknowledges slavery and exploitation do indeed feature in the history of the West, but he correctly points out they also feature in the history of other civilisations from Sub-Saharan Africa to the New World before Columbus to the Far East. However, it was the ascendancy of the West and the development of capitalism that permanently put a stop to the commercial trading of slaves and, subsequently, resulted in the abhorrent practice of slavery being outlawed all across the globe.
THE TRANSFORMATION OF LIFE
Slavery, Freedom and Business Endeavour is, at its core, a book about economic development: the kind of sustainable economic development that has delivered mankind from the cycle of hunger and overpopulation known as the Malthusian trap. The Malthusian trap is a phenomenon described by its namesake, Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834), in An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), whereby any increase in a society’s productivity will not lead to any improvement in living standards but rather to an increase in population up to the point at which per capita consumption drops to subsistence level. Decreases in productivity will, accordingly, result in starvation and population decline. The Malthusian trap was the default state of human existence for thousands of years and, indeed, is the default state of existence for living organisms in their natural habitats—from mice to blue-green algae to mould.
Slavery predated the West.
It is noteworthy that up until the advent of the industrial revolution, the world’s gross domestic product per capita had barely increased. Living conditions for the overwhelming majority of the population in agrarian, pre-industrial societies were no better than those of hunter gatherers before the dawn of civilisation. Neither the grandeur of Khufu’s pyramid nor the beauty of the hanging gardens of Babylon nor the magnificence of Rome’s grand hippodromes could match the power of Yorkshire’s dusty coal mines and London’s crowded, sweaty, and rat-infested factories in improving the day-to-day lives of the populace.
Bowden’s historical work is not about the kings and queens who fought wars, built grand architectural marvels, and redrew territorial boundaries. It is about the common man; the kind who work for a living and do not get involved in palace intrigues. As American business professor Jeffrey Muldoon summarised in the foreword:
The heroes of Bowden’s book are ‘the entrepreneur, the engineer, and the factory worker’, the people who made The Great Escape [from the Malthusian trap] possible. Western Civilization … [has] placed the individual at the forefront of society in ways that allow an unprecedented level of personal autonomy.
It is indeed the self-interest of the individual that created the unsurpassed prosperity of the modern world, and it is the framework created by Western Civilisation that has allowed for such prosperity to materialise. The mechanics behind sustainable economic development, and the philosophical and ideological foundations that enabled the rise of capitalism which fuelled the industrial revolution, has been subject to much discussion. In this respect, Bowden’s work adds to an already crowded field occupied by big names such as Friedrich von Hayek, Francis Fukuyama, and Daron Acemoğlu. They have all linked individual autonomy, facets of democracy, private property rights and state accountability to economic development. (Acemoğlu and James Robinson’s The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty, was discussed in Paul Monk’s article, ‘Freedom’s Narrow Corridor’, in the Winter 2020 edition of the IPA Review.) But Bowden’s work is unique in refusing to skirt around the fact Western Civilisation—not the Indus Valley, not Egypt, not Mesopotamia, not China, not the Ottoman Empire, not Tsarist Russia, and not Mesoamerica—brought to fruition the ideas, philosophy, and political order necessary for humanity to escape the Malthusian trap. Modern Western Civilisation—exceptional among all its contemporaries and those that have come before it—broke through the default state of existence of hunger and starvation and living at the absolute mercy of mother nature to achieve prosperity for the broadest section of its population.
MODERN WESTERN CIVILISATION
Modern Western Civilisation is not distinguishable on the basis of either physiology or ancestry. It cannot, therefore, be essentialised through the prism of race, as Bowden’s most vocal critics seek to do. The book defines modern Western Civilisation as the re-incarnation of older European civilisations. It descended from its progenitors, around the year of the revolutions in 1848; but it is not simply a continuation of the former. Bowden identified five characteristics that set modern Western Civilisation apart from any other. These are:
- An energy-intensive economy.
- Economic liberalism (a preference for market-based mechanisms for determining production and consumption).
- Political liberalism (a system of social and legal conventions that entrench private property rights, freedom of speech, political pluralism, and individual choice).
- A powerful bureaucratic state that constantly threatens economic and political liberalism, and—at times—democracy itself.
Not all five characteristics are necessary to achieve the sustainable economic growth and material prosperity that we take for granted. Indeed, as acknowledged in the text and like many other consequential phenomena, Western Civilisation is in a constant state of flux and carries the seed of its own destruction.
Communism and fascism, for instance, owed their rise to the political pluralism and democratic fervour that engulfed 20th century Europe. An energy-intensive economy and a powerful bureaucratic state were critical to their early successes. Both were reactionary responses to the limitations of capitalism. Consequently, communism and fascism can be regarded as the product of and—at the same time—existential threats to Western Civilisation.
The relationship between slavery and modern Western Civilisation, on the other hand, is far clearer and less equivocal. The institution of slavery predated the West, was inherently antithetical to modern Western Civilisation, and was not conducive to the economic growth propagated by the West in the aftermath of the year of revolutions. Moral repugnance aside, the harmful effects of slavery on economic development is widely known and has largely been accepted by economists and economic historians alike. It served to disincentivise innovation, impeded the development of energy-intensive industry, and inhibited upward mobility for the poor and the unskilled.
The notion that slavery was not only good for economic development but was the driving force behind humanity’s escape from the Malthusian trap is a fantastical concoction. But it is one which has become increasingly dominant, to the extent it has arguably become a new orthodoxy thanks to the historical revisionism of the grievance industry and its continuous encroachment into academia, the media, and politics.
Bowden’s book convincingly challenges this narrative, and for daring to swim against the current there has been a concerted effort to have this book pulled off the shelves.
CAMPAIGN TO CANCEL THE BOOK
Upon publication of Slavery, Freedom and Business Endeavour, a group of academics petitioned its publisher to have the book withdrawn because its author had the audacity to highlight the contributions of Western Civilisation and challenge the now dominant narrative about the role of slavery in the West’s success. Rather than picking apart Bowden’s work and constructing a set of considered arguments against his theses—perhaps by publishing a review article or another book—those who campaigned against its publication preferred to appeal to authority, behind closed doors, to have the book mysteriously disappear. It did not work.
Bowden’s mastery of the narrative genre and vivid imagery are in full display throughout the book. Concerningly for his opponents, it arouses readers’ curiosity and encourages critical thinking. For instance, Bowden’s account of the impact of climate change on food production encourages readers to do more research and educate themselves on the topic instead of accepting the parroted lines of the media and politicians. His depiction of the operation of the millet system in the Ottoman Empire (limited self-government for minority religions) encourages readers to consider—and reconsider—the intended and unintended consequences of prescriptive elements of Critical Race Theory. This book encourages and empowers readers to think critically and independently. This sends shivers down the spines of those who benefit from groupthink, ignorance, and misinformation.
Bradley Bowden wrote on related themes including the British Empire’s abolition of slavery in ‘Abolition Was Exceptional’, in the Winter 2021 edition of the IPA Review.