Book Reviews

Modernity and Capitalism: India and Europe Compared



A Review of India, Modernity and the Great Divergence by Kaveh Yazdani

Shami Ghosh

Centre for Medieval Studies/Department of History, University of Toronto


In India, Modernity and the Great Divergence, Kaveh Yazdani presents a compelling argument that with regard to certain technologies, agricultural productivity, financial systems and the rise of a merchant class, and even aspects of scientific culture, two regions of pre-colonial South Asia – Mysore and Gujarat – experienced what Yazdani terms ‘middle modernity’ (fourteenth to eighteenth century) in a manner comparable to other Eurasian regions. However, because certain specific aspects of modernity were less highly evolved than in Europe, and because of colonial intervention, there was a divergence between (parts of) Europe and these South Asian regions. While lauding Yazdani’s achievement, I argue that crucial aspects of the transition to capitalism as well as the Great Divergence are lacking in his, as in most studies: the significance of a capitalist ideology and the rise of consumerism.


modernity – early modernity – middle modernity – Great Divergence – India – transition to capitalism – capitalist ideology – consumerism

Kaveh Yazdani, (2017) India, Modernity and the Great Divergence: Mysore and Gujarat (17th to 19th C.), Leiden: Brill.

Since the publication two decades ago of Kenneth Pomeranz’s now classic The Great Divergence, the debate on what caused the origins of modern economic growth in Europe rather than Asia – as well as how precisely to measure both this divergence and when it began – has been possibly the most fertile and active field in economic history.[1] Every year, we encounter at least one new monograph that aims to answer the question as to ‘why Europe (or parts thereof) grew rich and Asia (or parts thereof) did not’. Kaveh Yazdani thankfully makes no such grand claims in his new monograph.

South Asia has, perhaps surprisingly, played a relatively minor role in the conversation.[2] Yazdani focuses on two regions – Mysore and Gujarat – that have long been acknowledged to have had relatively high levels of economic development, and tracks the progress not solely of economic growth and divergence, but of a much more encompassing (and nebulous) concept: modernity. Unlike most prior work addressing the question of divergence that has tended to focus on one issue (for example: living standards; material resources; technology; scientific progress; military power), Yazdani examines almost everything: his massive central chapters on these two regions consider what appear to be almost all possible angles of the debate, in order to understand what sort of modernity the regions experienced, and where they might have been going.

This review-essay begins with an overview of Yazdani’s theoretical approach and his chapter on technical, scientific, and intellectual developments in South Asia; I then survey the main substantive portion of Yazdani’s book, his two chapters on Mysore and Gujarat and the state of their development in terms of economy, society, education, politics, and (aspects of) culture. I follow this with a more detailed critique of his main theoretical contribution, namely his approach to the concept of modernity; and, in response to some key factors I believe are insufficiently addressed in this – as in all – works on both the divergence question and the question of transition to capitalism, I conclude by setting out some suggestions regarding how we may approach the twin problems of the origins of capitalism and its relation to modernity.

I         Multiple Modernities and the Importance of Culture

Sensibly (if somewhat unmanageably), Yazdani argues that looking for only one set of indicators to understand the course of history would be misleading, and therefore he uses a ‘six-dimensional approach’ comprising exo- and endogenous, long- and short-term, and continuous and contingent factors as a means of comprehending the historical processes at work (p. 15). Yazdani argues correctly that the emergence of a capitalist modernity ‘has universalized a particular form of modernity and eliminated “lost” or possible alternative modernities’ (p. 29), and thus that it is crucial to understand various other aspects of what it might have meant to be modern beyond simply economics in order both to gauge what those alternative modernities might have been, and the better to understand the causes of divergence. In doing so, although deeply influenced by a Marxian perspective – indeed, Marx is his most significant theoretical interlocutor, closely followed by various more or less Marxist scholars –, he eschews a narrowly materialist approach, and places a great deal of weight on various aspects of historical development that might be broadly grouped under the heading of ‘culture’. In this he is quite different from most (though not all) of his predecessors entering into the divergence debate.[3]

Unlike some prior scholars, Yazdani refrains from pronouncing on which mode of production was predominant in the regions and periods he studies, preferring instead to argue that the regions in question ‘were in a transitory phase where different modes of production coexisted with each other’ (p. 20).[4] His main theoretical contribution has to do with his characterisation of different phases of modernity, and the important point that aspects of various modernities were in evidence, albeit in different forms and with somewhat different chronologies, in a number of world regions: the modernity of Europe was not the only one. Yazdani proposes that after a global ‘saddle period’ between 1770 and 1830, we witness a transition to a completely new epoch that he calls ‘late modernity’. ‘Early modernity’ is, for him, the period many historians of Europe would call ‘medieval’ (tenth to fifteenth centuries), and is characterised, across core regions of the world, by a number of new developments that include increasing cross-cultural interaction, rises in agricultural productivity and a growth of manufacturing and urbanisation, increasingly sophisticated systems of taxation and finance, increasing monetisation, the invention of new technologies, new modes of historical, religious, philosophical, and scientific inquiry, and even innovation in the fields of art and culture. Early modernity is followed by ‘middle modernity’, and his study focuses on the very last phases of this period; middle modernity is characterised by increasing, and increasingly rapid, convergence of development in many of the fields mentioned above, as well as a massive increase in global interconnectedness, which in turn fuels convergence of development. Crucially (though not uniquely), Yazdani stresses the fact that in this period, European developments and progress towards late modernity were not isolated, but rather were deeply influenced by factors from across the world. It is over the course of this period also, however, that we witness not just convergence, but also divergence, and it is over the course of middle modernity that Europe ultimately evolved in a manner that led to its hegemony over the world.

While specialists of each field and region will doubtless find many reasons to object to this periodisation, I would agree – and other historians, perhaps most notably Victor Lieberman, have also argued – that whatever terms we use, it does indeed make sense to look at the roughly one thousand years between c.800 andc.1800 as a single period, and Yazdani’s arguments are a compelling addition to this strand of historical scholarship.[5] It is certainly important to re-assert the fact that many if not most elements of what we think of as modernity c.1800 can be found to have roots in many parts of the world outside Europe – though whether all forms of ‘middle modernity’ could or would have led to the development of capitalist modernity is a different matter, and Yazdani believes not.[6]

Yazdani’s chapter (based mainly on secondary sources) on the history of science, technology, culture, and ideas in South Asia presents a fascinating survey, which demonstrates how vibrant the region was in these fields, admonishes us at the outset that we know far too little because the sources have remained unstudied for too long, and shows in how many respects South Asia was comparable to Europe in both early and middle modernity. In both regions new forms of critical inquiry in philosophy and the natural sciences developed, and there was a quickening of questioning – in the vernacular – of traditional forms of knowledge produced in an elite language (Latin, Sanskrit, and Persian). There was also a vibrant tradition of writing world history, which included a lively curiosity about Europe, an appreciation of many aspects of European development (including systems of law and nascent parliamentary democracy), and an ability to use observation of these to reflect critically on one’s own culture. There was even, in late Mughal India, the emergence of a ‘public sphere’ comparable to what can be found in Europe. Technological innovation and ability were also present, including in the crucial fields of ship-building and weapons manufacture, and, as Yazdani shows in greater detail in his chapters on Mysore and Gujarat, contemporary European observers found Indian weapons and ships to be the equal of, or better than, their European counterparts.

Yet Yazdani finds that there were fewer innovations in technology than in Europe, and little theorising regarding agricultural productivity and how to increase it, whereas eighteenth-century Europe did in fact innovate significantly in both respects; there appears also to have been less development in terms of education. Here I cannot help wondering what sort of education, and why it matters: the jury is still out on the extent to which literacy and scientific education contributed to the industrialisation of parts of Europe, so the fact that there was a greater diffusion of scientific knowledge there need not mean anything with regard to the causes of divergence – if indeed there was such a greater diffusion: Yazdani himself reminds us that we as yet know too little about the situation in South Asia. Similarly, with regard to agriculture, we need to consider the motivation for innovation and increasing production: in England, this was not done because of any altruistic desire to improve nutritional standards (which remained abysmally low until well into the nineteenth century), but rather out of a desire for profit. This was also the motivation behind, if not technological innovation, then at least its diffusion and use. As I shall suggest below, it is that desire for profit that is crucial: why should anyone in South Asia have innovated to raise productivity if it was felt to be sufficient?

These two initial chapters are highly stimulating, and much-needed reminders of the kinds of convergence that took place in the millennium before c.1800, and of how important it is to learn more about non-European regions in all their diversity – not just with regard to technological progress, standards of living, or even science, but in terms of their varying modernities altogether. Only such a more-holistic picture can really provide a means of comparison, and Yazdani’s work is significant in what it achieves in this respect.

II        Middle Modernity in Mysore and Gujarat

The two central chapters of this book, roughly 200 pages each in length, examine in turn two core regions, Mysore (in southern South Asia covering much of the present Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and parts of Tamil Nadu) and Gujarat (roughly though not precisely equivalent to the present western state of the same name), with a detailed survey in each case of economic life (agriculture, standards of living, commerce, manufacturing and technology, and property rights); administration, infrastructure, and the state; the military establishment (for Mysore only); education, religion, and social structures; and finally, political structures and interactions with and resistance to European incursion. His sources are, for the most part, the accounts of European travellers to these regions; it is extremely unfortunate that his laptop and notes regarding archival material he examined on his visits to India were stolen while he was there, since as he himself notes, these archives are as-yet rich, untapped mines of material, the use of which would doubtless have greatly enriched his study. He is perhaps not always sufficiently reflective regarding just how much we can trust the kinds of sources he uses; but I must stress that they are nevertheless worth using, and also a counter to claims regarding the backwardness of Asian economies in general: countless examples provided by Yazdani show that contemporary European observers, many of whom had professional reasons to know what they were talking about, ranked what they saw in terms of weapons production, shipbuilding, and even agriculture, on a par with England.

Little is known about social stratification in either region, and statistics regarding agricultural productivity are sparse, though not completely absent. What evidence exists suggests that in the eighteenth century agricultural productivity was certainly adequate for a comfortable standard of living, and might even in some sub-regions have been comparable to parts of England. Both regions show high levels of commercialisation in agriculture, with the cultivation of cash crops and (in Gujarat in particular) the import of some food crops being common in the eighteenth century. In some districts, up to 20 per cent of the rural population comprised wage labourers; rural manufacturing was widely dispersed and common, and often organised in a manner that Yazdani believes was analogous to the putting-out system of Europe; in both regions there were numerous cities with populations in the tens of thousands (and in Gujarat, Surat had a population of several hundred thousand); there was growing occupational diversity in both towns and countryside; and it seems fair to state (though precise statistics are still impossible to arrive at) that in both regions by the middle of the eighteenth century probably at least a quarter of the population overall, possibly as much as half, was not involved in production for direct subsistence consumption by the producing household. Both regions were to a certain extent also dependent on imports of either food crops or raw materials for manufacturing, attesting to the great importance of inter-regional trade for the economies of South Asia in this period. While overland transport infrastructure was far from ideal, it clearly functioned well enough to allow for high volumes of trade in both luxury and primary commodities, within and across regional boundaries. With respect to living standards, Yazdani sensibly does not try to intervene in the debate in any conclusive way, but suggests – correctly, I think – that there is no reason to believe there was any significant divergence in living standards between these two regions and northwestern Europe around the middle of the eighteenth century. In both regions too, there appears to have been a growing urban ‘middle class’, which also consumed increasing amounts of everyday luxury items of various kinds, many of which were also imported.

Both regions seem to have had reasonably secure property rights, including over agricultural land, though in both regions the transition between Mughal and later regimes caused something of a breakdown in legal systems that arguably disrupted the security of such rights. Nevertheless, apart from periods of conflict, both seem to have had reasonably well-functioning legal regimes, and Mysore in particular over the course of the eighteenth century developed an increasingly centralised and bureaucratised government. Mysore – especially under Tipu Sultan (who reigned in the years 1782–99) – also developed a highly trained and very well-equipped military that contemporary European observers were impressed by. Here there were also innovations in manufacturing, often inspired by European models, that led to products (textiles, weapons, and iron) of a quality comparable to or better than what obtained in Europe. Gujarat, meanwhile, was a global centre of cotton textile production, exporting huge volumes of the stuff every year; often these exports travelled on locally-made ships, which were also frequently procured by the European trading companies because of their high quality.

Over the course of the eighteenth century, economic life does not seem to have been disrupted in any sustained manner by the considerable political turmoil caused by the collapse of the Mughals, the wars with the Marathas, and the incursions of the British: there is no reason to assume any significant contraction of production or productivity, or decline in living standards, until after 1800, and indeed there is sufficient evidence to suggest increasingly diversifying patterns of consumption and a growing middle class. Although he expresses himself less conclusively than he might have, Yazdani eventually comes down on the side of those who argue that economic decline actually followed, rather than preceded, the advent of British rule, and was caused not least by the imposition of terms favourable to British production to the detriment of South Asian manufacturing, as well as the extraction of resources and wealth by the East India Company.

It is in the realm of culture that Yazdani finds greater divergences that to him signal a more developed move to modernity in Europe – though one crucial aspect of culture seems to be ignored, as I shall argue below. How relevant these divergences are is not, to my mind, very clear, since there is very little – and no compelling – argument from cause to effect; and in any case, it is not entirely clear just how real these divergences were. Religious discrimination, corporal punishment, the lack of democratic, secular values and modern conceptions of human rights can surely have little to do with holding back Mysore or Gujarat from industrialisation, and it is not apparent to me that any part of Europe was so much more advanced in these respects, at least before c.1750. The industrialisation and wealth of England and the capitalist prosperity of the USA in the later eighteenth and the early nineteenth century were based on a complete disregard of any concept of human rights in respect of the peoples of Africa or the Indigenous peoples of North America! Corporal punishment survived in British private schools until the second half of the twentieth century; universal male suffrage only came into effect in the second half of the nineteenth century; the conditions of labourers in factories in the first period of industrialisation were uniformly abysmal, and manufacturers extracted labour at grievous cost to health and life; religious discrimination survived well into the nineteenth, and even the twentieth century, in many ‘modern’ countries of the West (where indeed it might be returning as I write).[7] Yazdani correctly points out that under the Mughals, women had legal personhood, and thus greater legal rights than their European counterparts; but this ‘did not reflect a modern understanding of gender relations’ (p. 557). In England, unmarried women ‘in all likelihood had more sexual liberties’ (ibid.); true, but also something that was almost certainly the case as far back as the twelfth century and probably earlier, and not necessarily reflective of a ‘modern understanding of gender relations’: in the eighteenth century as in the twelfth, the sexual interactions of unmarried women were subject to severe censure. At our present moment we have reason to be all the more aware that what Yazdani might hope is a ‘modern understanding of gender relations’ is in fact woefully absent from much of the ‘modern’ and indubitably capitalist world. Given that anything approaching gender equity postdated the establishment of socio-economic formations that were indisputably both capitalist and modern (unless one wishes to argue that the USA or the UK in the first half of the twentieth century were neither), Yazdani’s views on the significance of gender relations for diagnosing a transition to capitalist modernity are, I would suggest, tenuous.

These sorts of cultural factors are not only not necessarily reflective of greater or lesser achievements of modernity; they are also, to my mind, more or less irrelevant in terms of understanding the question of divergence – though I grant that they are certainly of relevance for comprehending different kinds of modernities in the making. Overall, though, Yazdani’s work on Mysore and Gujarat, while inconclusive in many respects, nevertheless certainly demonstrates how commensurable these regions were with advanced regions of contemporary Europe. While Yazdani is rather hesitant about coming to a conclusion regarding the causes of divergence, he nevertheless believes it has to do with lower levels of development of some aspects of modernity. I am not entirely convinced by this, however, partly because I feel that a crucial aspect has been left out of consideration – on which more below – and partly because the chain of cause and effect between his chosen aspects of modernity and divergence is never made clear.

III       Modernity, Divergence, and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism

Kaveh Yazdani has written a book that is rich in information and bursting with fascinating detail, methodologically and theoretically innovative, and greatly stimulating. As an attempt to understand the nature of some form of pre-modern modernity in South Asia – and ‘middle modernity’ is a term I can work with, though personally I also find the proliferation of terms of periodisation not as helpful as Yazdani would like them to be – Yazdani’s book, despite elements in it that are frustrating, certainly demonstrates his point: these two regions, at least, were on many indicators comparable to many parts of Europe.[8] It is in the nature of such projects that their first fruits are inevitably in need of refinement, but my criticisms and suggestions should by no means detract from Yazdani’s achievement, principally one of stimulating thought, questions, and (hopefully) debate. This is a book that is not afraid to ask big questions and propose bold ways of answering them. In a debate that has now become somewhat stuck within a few well-defined pathways, Yazdani forces his readers to think about other avenues towards modernities that might have contributed to the rise of capitalism – and, equally, though he is not explicit about this, provided alternatives to it. For this, he is to be lauded.

Nevertheless, while Yazdani’s achievement in examining the trajectories of multiple modernities is certainly significant, it seems to me that the constitutive aspect of modernity as we experience it now is that it is capitalist modernity; and thus in order to understand divergence – and the origins of our world – we need to be more specific and identify precisely what features of modernity are capitalist, and where they came into being.[9] Thus Yazdani’s conclusion – that it was a combination of a lack of development on some indicators of modernity, combined with European colonial intervention, that led to a lack of industrialisation – while completely sound, still, to my mind, misses an important point.

Modernity is a difficult term, and it is not entirely clear to me that looking for the origins of modernity in a manner as inclusive as Yazdani’s is in fact the most helpful means of understanding the path to the specific forms of modernity that we experience in our present. I agree entirely that modernity could have had a multitude of components, but I feel simultaneously that including everything within the scope of analysis can make any sort of historical understanding of the processes of change towards the specific forms of modernity we live in now, and their causes, too entangled in contradictory details to be able to make much sense (as Yazdani indeed seems to acknowledge: p. 30 with n. 76). Some things can safely be discarded in any historical attempt to account for the emergence of capitalist modernity: equal rights for women (or gay or transgender or non-white people or any other minority); secularism; liberal democracies. Capitalism can and does exist and flourish without these things: even a passing acquaintance with the history of England and the USA in the first half of the nineteenth century makes that evident. Unless one is willing to accept that democracy is something other than the right of representation of all adults, regardless of sex, race, class, and property-ownership, it is hard to call (for example) industrialising England in the first half of the nineteenth century, or the Southern states of the antebellum USA, democratic; they were both surely capitalist. The imperial project of nineteenth-century Britain was, equally, deeply undemocratic; but once again, Britain was certainly capitalist. The phenomenon of Donald Trump is one that is hard to dissociate from both capitalism and modernity, but Trump and what he represents are hardly shining beacons of the positive aspects of modernity mentioned above. We could just label Trump ‘medieval’ and be done with it; and we could equally well argue that Queen Victoria’s Britain was not ‘modern’. Such an approach to defining modernity seems to me, however, a rather too convenient solution when those aspects of modernity that we cherish seem to be abandoned in what is otherwise a very modern environment. There is no reason to believe that those positive aspects of modernity that we could perhaps conveniently bring under the label of ‘greater equality for all’ are necessarily constitutive of capitalist modernity, nor indeed that they might not have evolved discretely from capitalism, and might have been – and indeed might in the future still be – part of what constitute alternative modernities. So what, then, could the defining features of a specifically capitalist modernity be?

I would argue that these are (i) the commodification – and thus the raising of the market to the primary determinant – of all materialand social relations; (ii) the fetishisation of profit-based growth as something approaching an absolute – if ostensibly (although not genuinely) ethically neutral – imperative; and (iii) the transformation (without which profit-based growth would ultimately cease) of ourselves into, above all, a species for whom the primary motivating factor for our agency is consumption of some form mediated by the market.[10] I must stress that none of these features of capitalist modernity – that, to my mind fundamentally define it as capitalist modernity – are purely economic in a materialist sense: economicsis culture and ideology. Various other aspects of modernity either serve these three fundamentally interlinked key features (for example, scientific or technical education serves profit-maximisation: Silicon Valley is an outstanding case in point), or can be easily jettisoned without, in my view, turning the society into a less capitalist one (the rule of law, bureaucratisation and centralisation, democracy and the rights of citizens, are some of the features of modernity identified by Yazdani that I would put into this category). Indeed, many aspects of modernity that Yazdani identifies were indeed probably associated with his ‘middle modernity’ across the world, but are by no means necessary components of our own capitalist modernity now.

To my mind, therefore, an approach as all-encompassing as Yazdani’s, while contributing much to our knowledge of and ability to compare South Asia with Europe at a particular stage of historical development, nevertheless misses a crucial point with regard to the causes of divergence. Even if in South Asia there had been a scientific culture and technological progress, and a centralised bureaucracy, comparable to what obtained in, say, England;even if education, or military prowess, had advanced in a manner parallel to developments in England – and Yazdani is convincing in showing that this was indeed the case in some, though not all respects: this does not mean that any of this would necessarily have been harnessed for the sake of profit-maximisation, leading to capitalist modernity in some form.[11] If Yazdani does not quite fall into the trap of productive-forces determinism, he, like all other students of the subject I can think of, nevertheless seems to believe that there was something inevitable, given the right conditions, about the rise of a profit-maximising society.

If we are willing to grant that divergence was also a matter of the rise of capitalism, it should be apparent that, for example, scientific education, centralised bureaucracies, and the rise of sophisticated financial systems did not create divergence or capitalism in and of themselves; they did so because they allowed those who controlled the productive forces and institutions to dominate those who did not, thus enabling the dominant class’s pursuit of power – and, crucially, of profit. Power, we must recall, however, has been exercised by minorities over majorities throughout history; the domination of one class by another is not what is unique about capitalism, and the means of domination are thus necessarily less fundamental in understanding a transition to capitalism – and thus the origins of divergence – than the ends. What is new and particularly harmful in capitalist relations of power is that the goal is not domination per se, but unrestrained profit-maximisation and growth; and all material and social relations –even the relations of class domination – are subordinate to these ends.[12] For that reason, feudalism is not compatible with democratic institutions, whereas capitalism is: it is fundamental to the feudal lord that he is legally privileged in a manner that the serf is not; it is not fundamental to the capitalist that he is legally privileged in a manner that the proletarian worker is not, but rather only that he is able to exploit the proletariat for the greater God of profit, which is entirely compatible with equal status before the law.[13]

Studies both of the origins of capitalism, and of divergence, generally seem to assume that given the opportunity, people will do whatever they can to maximise profit. There is now, however, sufficient scholarship (on pre-modern Europe at least) to show that even at the level of the classes that we might have expected to have embodied capitalist tendencies – medieval bankers and merchants – there existed a moral check against unconstrained profit, and this moral restraint was, in medieval Europe at least – and in sharp contrast to the more-or-less global capitalist present – enshrined in the consensus of economic thought of the time.[14] The fact that this check may not have operated well enough to prevent the pursuit of profit is irrelevant. It is crucial that we do not understand this restraint in terms of an anti-profit or anti-market mentality: the point is not that profit-making was necessarily perceived to be bad in and of itself, but that profit-maximisation was,if it came at the cost of justice; and there was a notion of a justice that trumped the needs of even profit-making. The existence of this ethical framework that provided amoral (or ideological) rather than productive-forces based constraint on both the unrestrained pursuit of profit, and unrestrained consumption, and its later dismantling, demonstrates a change in what humans believe they should be doing. It is symptomatic of the rise to dominance of the ideology ofHomo economicus.[15] And it is a prerequisite for the emergence and flourishing of capitalist modernity.

There is also a sufficient body of scholarship to demonstrate that even as the ideology of productivity became dominant among what became the capitalist class, it was met with resistance both among intellectuals and by the not-yet-proletarianised labouring masses.[16] Did any of these developments occur in South Asia (or elsewhere) as well? What non-economic forms of self-interest existed there, and how did they come into conflict – if did they come into conflict – with any emerging ideology of profit? What sort of ethical thinking existed regarding economic behaviour, and how, if at all, did it change? Did a form of Homo economicus, driven primarily by economic self-interest and the need for acquisition, emerge in South Asia as well? On the evidence Yazdani presents – including evidence for the existence of capitalists, who invested their profits in order to make more profits – it certainly seems possible that these developments were not confined to England; but that seems to be all we can say at the present state of research.

The task, then, is to try and identify both alternative modernities – and let us not forget that socialism of any form has to be viewed as ‘modern’, even if it is modern in ways that are different from capitalism – that we might be able to work towards in dismantling capitalist modernity; and from the perspective of the historian, to use the existence of such alternatives in the past as a remedy against a teleological fatalistic acceptance of the capitalist present.[17] In a less Utopian mode, the task for historians is to identify those specific features that are diagnostic of the rise of capitalist modernity, of which a crucial – I would argue, the crucial – element is indeed our evolution (if that is the right word) fromHomo sapiens toHomo economicus. And here I wish to stress the importance of an appeal to both Marxand Weber. The ‘spirit’ of capitalism is perhaps too mystical a way of defining it, and Weber was undoubtedly wrong in many of his details regarding the connections between Protestantism and capitalism: but it must be said that the pursuit of growth is something that has achieved the status of religion; indeed the replacement (in north-western Europe at any rate) of the moral constraints of religion by this new creed was arguably fundamental to the rise of capitalism; and this development cannot be explained solely by materialist arguments.[18]

The other side of the coin of the holy grail of growth, however, is our dependence on constant consumption. Understanding the rise of the ideology of growth is useless unless we can also understand how, when, and why we became a race of consumers. And here I would argue that an examination of the mode of production (in any narrowly defined manner as a matter of the social relations of production) is insufficient: we need to understand the origins of the capitalist mode of production in conjunction with the origins both of the capitalist ideology (or ‘spirit’; or even religion) of growth, and of what I would term the aspirational mode of consumption, with which capitalism is inextricably linked.[19]

Modernity, in this sense of the term specific to capitalist modernity as we experience it now, is inextricably linked with a desire to be modern, a desire for ‘progress’ – and that desire in turn, at the level of everyday life and ordinary people, is typically married to consumption of some sort. The persistence of the creed of profit depends on this fact: the capitalist cannot maximise profit unless there is a market for the results of the increasing productivity by which the capitalist hopes to maximise profit, since it is only by means of selling that product that profit is maximised. This is therefore arguably the most insidious aspect of capitalism: that we choose – more or less freely – to perpetuate it, by engaging in a constant cycle of consumerism.[20] And just as there is sufficient historical research to show definitively that there existed, at least in some past societies, a moral check against constant growth, and that the ideology of productivity and profit was not a constant in human (or at least European) history, there is also more than ample evidence to demonstrate that the preference for things other than consumer power has been prominent among the labouring classes as well.[21] How and why this changed is crucial to any understanding of the transition to capitalism, and the great divergence.





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Osella, Caroline and Filippo Osella 2006, ‘Once Upon a Time in the West? Stories of Migration and Modernity from Kerala, South India’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 12, 3: 569–88.

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Rosenthal, Jean-Laurent and R. Bin Wong 2011, Before and Beyond Divergence: The Politics of Economic Change in China and Europe, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Studer, Roman 2015, The Great Divergence Reconsidered: Europe, India, and the Rise to Global Economic Power, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Vries, Peer 2013, Escaping Poverty: The Origins of Modern Economic Growth, Göttingen: V&R unipress.

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[1] Pomeranz 2000. Major landmarks include Findlay and O’Rourke 2007; Allen 2009; Parthasarathi 2011; Rosenthal and Wong 2011; Vries 2013; Hoffman 2015; Vries 2015; and Mokyr 2016. For recent surveys of the debate, see Ghosh 2015a and Vries 2016.

[2] Only two monographs of note have thus far addressed the question of divergence and South Asia: Parthasarathi 2011 and Studer 2015. For an overview of the other relevant literature on South Asia, see Ghosh 2015b, p. 1607 et passim. Note that Yazdani uses the term ‘India’, though he acknowledges that this is anachronistic without providing further explanation.

[3] For the most significant recent works looking at factors that are not primarily economic, see Davids 2012 and Mokyr 2016.

[4] I cannot help wondering whether, if a period of transition that did not conform to any mode of production as defined so far in Marxist theory could last several centuries, we need to conceive of the possibility that, instead of viewing the period as a ‘transitory phase’, we may need to conceptualise a wholly different mode of production to characterise the socio-economic formation in question. At any rate, it is surely crucial that we understand the period on its own terms without the teleology of ‘transition’ between one thing and another, which would risk missing what might be defining about this period in and of itself. For an empirically grounded elaboration of this argument, see Ghosh 2016.

[5] Lieberman 2003; Lieberman 2009.

[6] He seems himself not to be completely immune to the tendency to see modernity as more ‘Western’ than Asian, as for example in his statement that a drive towards ‘semi-modernization’ in Mysore took place ‘despite Tipu’s [the ruler of Mysore’s] roots in South Asian, Indo-Persian and Islamic context and traditions’ (Yazdani 2017, p. 351; my emphasis). Were these traditions not also partaking of forms of modernity themselves?

[7] The beaches of Toronto displayed signs saying ‘No Jews or dogs allowed’ in the 1930s: it was not just Nazi Germany that discriminated. In any case: was Nazi Germany not ‘modern’?

[8] Despite its many achievements, it should be noted that this book’s quick transformation from dissertation to monograph is very apparent. There is often far too much discursive matter in the footnotes; too much secondary scholarship is cited at very great length, and often with little or no commentary; there seems to have been an effort to obtain and satisfy too many diverging critical opinions, with the result that, far too often, differing views are simply juxtaposed, with no evidence allowing us to choose between one or the other scholar’s opinion, and no judgement on Yazdani’s part, so that the reader is left wondering what the argument actually is.

[9] Although Yazdani is well aware that it is the specifically capitalist modernity that has displaced other potential alternative modernities, he nevertheless argues that the ‘rule of law, democratic institutions, civil society, secularization’ are characteristics that ‘need to be at work to deserve the label of a modern society’ (Yazdani 2017, p. 30). As I argue below, these are not constitutive of or even prerequisites for capitalist modernity.

[10] These points are well established in Marxist theory; for some prominent examples, see e.g. Marx 1976, pp. 738–43, et passim; Lukács 1971, pp. 83–111; Cohen 1978, pp. 302–20; Harvey 2014, pp. 92, 192–4, 197, 232, 273–7.

[11] We must accept also that capitalist modernity itself exists in different forms, and while profit-maximisation and growth, and consumerism, seem to be crucial in all its forms, they are less critical in some manifestations than others. One of the complications in a globalised environment is posed by the capitalist welfare state that might minimise exploitation and cushion the effects of profit-maximisation at home, while exporting its ill effects, and being mercilessly exploitative abroad.

[12] That profit-maximisation is one of the key defining features of a capitalist socio-economic formation is well established in the Marxist scholarship; in addition to Marx, Cohen, and Harvey cited above at n. 10, see e.g. the historical perspective provided by Wood 2002 (with the caveats expressed in Ghosh 2016).

[13] On freedom and equality under capitalism, see e.g. Harvey 2014, pp. 43, 64; Weber 2002, pp. 363, 364. Feudal legal privilege was important not solely for economic reasons, of course; but it is precisely such privilege that legally allowed for the extra-economic coercion that characterises the feudal system in most Marxist definitions. That the actual existence of such a system adhering to all the characteristics of any such definition was in fact a very limited historical phenomenon does nothing to detract from the characterisation of a basic difference between the feudal and capitalist systems given here. On the feudal system, see e.g. the succinct characterisation in Hilton 1990, pp. 2–6; for some caveats regarding its empirical application, see Ghosh 2016.

[14] For this point and the rest of this paragraph, see Davis 2012, and Armstrong 2016, especially pp. 12, 25–8, with further references.

[15] I must stress that I do not here argue that self-interest is not at the core of human activity (I do not make a claim either way in this regard); rather, the point is that self-interest need not be solely or primarily economic. There is no lack of historical evidence of cultures in which other forms of self-interest were more prominent. Even in current capitalist conditions, it is certainly not the case that all or most of us are motivatedsolely or even primarily by the ‘rational’ desire to maximise utility. Nevertheless, it is certainly the case that the principle ofHomo economicus is the most prominent one in modern economic theory (as it was not in medieval European economic theory, for example; we need to know more about equivalent economic theories from elsewhere). It is this principle of rationalising self-interest for the purpose of maximising utility defined as greater powers of consumption and profit that tends to motivate most economic thought and action in capitalist societies (on this point see, in addition to Harvey 2014, the more sustained critique of this approach in Cohen 2008). It is also the case that, wittingly or not, most of us tend to move into a position in which consumption is one of our principal goals, thus unintentionally reifying many forms of social and material relations with a view to enhancing our consumption capacity.

[16] See Ghosh 2016, pp. 282ff., and the references contained therein.

[17] Given that all current theories of socialism derive ultimately from the works of thinkers of the later eighteenth and (principally) the nineteenth centuries, themselves largely developed in reaction to the great social, economic, and political transformations of that era, it should not be controversial to assert that socialism – both in any theoretical version, and insofar as it has ever actually existed – is a modern phenomenon. Perhaps for this reason, looking for indicators of modernity has never featured greatly in most of the Marxist debates on transition; for all the problems I have raised with Yazdani’s arguments, his work does serve nevertheless to point up the fact that there were diverging forms of modernity, which could help us – though in his presentation this does not really happen – to turn away from the telos of a particular form of modernity that has plagued much historical and theoretical reflection of all political flavours.

[18] I am not here making an anti-capitalist argument in favour of religion as such, merely pointing out that at least in medieval Europe, it did provide an ethical framework to economic life in which other considerations could and often demonstrably did overshadow material gain. Might it be possible to envisage a societynot founded on theology in which, however, there is similarly an ethical framework that trumps the logic of profit and consumption? As a historian, I essay no attempt at developing a theory of what such a society might be or how it might work in practice, but it is worth noting both the historian Lawrin Armstrong’s recent forceful argument that there is something to be learnt from history in this regard (Armstrong 2016, pp. 28–31; for the similarities between Marx’s own formulations and those of medieval thinkers, see pp. 26–7); and that, for example, G.A. Cohen (a philosopher) and Amartya Sen (an economist) both place some sort of ethical framework, however defined and designated, at the fundament of their conceptions of what society should or could look like. Cohen’s view of a socialist society is founded on an egalitarian ethic – which is not based on profit or consumption, nor on theology, but is nevertheless clearly an ethical framework; Sen’s approach to development economics is founded on a belief that people often have reason to value things that are unrelated to profit and consumption, but are related to their conceptions of what is in some manner ‘good’, and development practice must be based on these conceptions. See e.g. Cohen 2008; Cohen 2009; Sen 1999. Cohen’s views explicitly draw on Marx’s own preoccupations with adumbrating an ethical framework for a socialist society: see Cohen 2008, pp. 1–2.

[19] I have sketched out – briefly, but in more detail than is possible here – the importance of ideology and the rise of an aspirational mode of consumption elsewhere: Ghosh 2016, pp. 274, 281–3. A fuller version of the theory adumbrated in those pages is still a work in progress. On modes of consumption and their relation to modes of production, see the preliminary reflections in Ghosh 2017.

[20] On the interdependence of capitalist production, and therefore growth, and consumption, see Marx 1973, pp. 90–4; Harvey 2014, pp. 274–6.

[21] The conflict between this kind of modernity and a leisure preference is illustrated in Thompson’s classic study of England: Thompson 1967. For an argument that people chose to be more ‘industrious’ in order to increase their consumption power, see de Vries 2008; for an argument that ‘industriousness’ can be caused by the creation of new ‘needs’ in a manner that is in itself coercive, see Mintz 1985; and see further the discussion and the references in Ghosh 2016, pp. 281–3; Ghosh 2015a, pp. 33–7; and specifically on South Asia, Ghosh 2015b, pp. 1642–4. In the context of modern South Asia, the conflict between a leisure preference and the choice to be ‘modern’ through the pursuit of money – and what is more, the awareness of this conflict – is illustrated in a recent ethnographic case study: Sheker 2014, pp. 75–82; on the connection between modernity and consumption, see also Osella and Osella 1999; Osella and Osella 2006. Historical scholarship on these issues for non-European regions is lacking and an urgent desideratum