European culture; The Greatest Civilising Force in History

British anti slaving ship overhauls a slaver
Ricardo Duchesne
Ricardo Duchesne


The most powerful moral assault on European pride and identity is the idea that Western civilisation achieved its greatness, industrial economic take-off in the eighteenth century, and subsequent mass affluence in the twentieth century, by exploiting and under-developing the rest of the world. This is one of the biggest lies inflicted on millions of European students in the last half century. The truth is that the diffusion of European technology has been the ultimate factor responsible for development outside the West.

Stolen Land and the Atlantic Slave Trade

The claim that Europeans built modern America, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia by “stealing” the land from the original inhabitants, sequestering them into reservations, has exacted an enormous moral price upon Europeans. Europeans are a high trust people who believe it is important to treat others fairly as individuals regardless of in-group vs out-group distinctions — unlike other races, which tend to care only about their extended family members within the moral boundaries set by their in-groups. Our hostile elites have exploited this sense of fairness to make Europeans feel guilty about everything their ancestors did in the past. Not a month goes by without a headline that Whites “should return stolen lands to Indian tribes”.

Another claim intended to inflict guilt is that Europeans deliberately introduced slavery into Africa, when in truth they simply made use of an established practice going back a thousand years and were instrumental in its demise on moral grounds. The false story that Europeans were somehow responsible for it has been recounted in hundreds of books and journals.

Meanwhile others have been morally elevated as the ones responsible for the achievements of Europeans. One of the most influential books in this respect was Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery (1944), which argued that an inequitable “triangular trade” pattern, based on the slave trade and the production of colonial goods in American plantations, played a “critical role” in British industrialisation. The British would not have been able to pay for new industrial technologies were it not for the huge profits they obtained from the selling of slave-produced “tropical goods” such as sugar, tobacco, and cotton to European consumers.

It does not matter that economic calculations would demonstrate that the total sums of money invested by slave traders in the process of industrialization amounted to less than 1% of the total capital invested during the key period of industrialization between 1760 and 1810, as was argued by Roger Anstey in his extensive study, The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1760-1810 (1975). This book is now a blanc space in the internet, whereas Williams’s 1944 thesis remains sacrosanct in academia, elaborated, celebrated, and imitated a thousand fold.

The role that millions of British farmers and workers played, together with British institutions, with their greater protection of property rights, openness to merit, including the unsurpassed presence in Britain of numerous schools and societies dedicated to the application of scientific ideas, were somehow not “crucial” but parasitic on the hard work of Africans in the Americas. How could so many academics believe that a transformation, the industrial revolution, so uniquely dependent on scientific knowledge, favourable institutions, and a population with aptitudes, foresight, frugality, and devotion to hard work — components never found before in unison — was made possible by slavery, a typical feature found in numerous societies throughout history, none of which industrialized?

Andre Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein

But the effort to inflict moral culpability on Europeans would not be restricted to their past historical actions. It was argued with increasing intensity from the 1960s on, that the current prosperity Europeans were enjoying was being made possible through their control of a capitalist world economic order systematically engaged in the exploitation of “peripheral” non-White nations. The most important advocate of this idea was Andre Gunder Frank (1929-2005), starting with his two books, Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America (1967), and Latin America: Underdevelopment or Revolution (1969). These books spearheaded Frank into international fame only a rare few academics ever attain, with countless visiting professorships and seminars at dozens of universities around the world, active involvement in leftist politics in Latin America, and numerous honours, most recently “the Andre Gunder Frank Memorial Library” at the Art Nouveau building of the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga.

The backwardness of Latin America, Frank insisted, was due to a situation in which Latin Americans suffered a balance of payments deficit in the world economy, resulting in the continuous transfer of a “surplus” from “satellite” nations to “metropolitan” European nations. This surplus transfer provided the capital necessary for the development of European nations at the cost of the “underdevelopment” of Latin America. 

Frank would come up with a very effective phrase to inflict guilt on prosperous nations: “the development of underdevelopment”. The nations outside European lands were not “undeveloped”, less developed than European nations, they were “under-developed” in the course of the last centuries. This process of “development of underdevelopment” was still going on in the twentieth century, and the only way for Third World peoples to ever achieve development was to bring about communist revolutions in their lands and “de-link” their economies from the Western capitalist order.

The next most influential advocate after Frank was Immanuel Wallerstein. His two volume work, The Modern World-System, vol. I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (1974), and The Modern World-System, vol. II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600-1750 (1980), would bring him an international reputation rarely unsurpassed in the annals of academia, Today Wallerstein is a guru that cannot be refuted no matter how much empirical evidence has been stacked against his theory. Crowned as a “father of world history”, with journals dedicated singularly to his ideas, centres and all, as well as a permanent “section” in the American Sociological Association, Wallerstein would inflict a large dosage of moral guilt on Europeans across the world.

In its essentials, Wallerstein did not say anything that was not already contained in the writings of Frank. What was new in him was the extent to which he set out to demonstrate that the entire course of European modern history could only be properly understood in terms of its imposition of a “world capitalist system”. He was quite adept in persuading thousands of impressionable readers that his books were unlike any others in the way they sought to comprehend the “whole” beyond the histories of “isolated” countries. By emphasising the entire economy of the world, the relations of all countries to the “world system”, he did appear to be offering a truly comprehensive account. Marxists were elated, here they were, with two volumes at hand, feeling that they were dealing with the biggest subject of all, the totality of human relations across the world, how the dynamics of all countries were determined by their role within the totality of the world system. The economy was not only, as in Marx, the substructure which conditioned superstructural phenomena; it was the whole world, a “world capitalist system” pulsating according to the single logic of capital accumulation, conditioning the historical patterns of development across all the parts trapped within the system.

In truth, Wallerstein was offering one of the most reductionist accounts of modern world history ever conceived, taking one single aspect of the totality of human relations, world economic exchanges, and raising it to be the whole within which everything else would be comprehended. Everything was about the supposed wealth Europeans had extracted from others, in terms of which everything else in European history was explained, the Renaissance, the voyages of discovery, the Scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial revolution.

His argument was extremely simple; basically, it stated that a world division of labour had been created from the sixteenth century onward by militaristic European states. Once these European nations had positioned themselves at the top of the capitalist system, they imposed a division of labour with themselves as the producers of manufactured goods, using different types of labour, from wage to slave labour in various parts of the world, while relegating colonized areas to the production of raw materials for export to meet the requirements of capitalist accumulation in the “core” advanced nations. Core nations had strong states with which to police this unequal economic order, buy out their working classes with higher wages; whereas peripheral nations had weak states at the mercy of the dictates of European leaders and capitalists.


One of the central tenets of Wallerstein’s theory was that once a nation was subordinated to a peripheral role, as exporter of raw materials with a weak state, it would not be able to move up into a high income economy. The only way out from the world system was communism, not “state capitalism” as in the Soviet Union, but true communism as in Maoist China. Facts, however, were to prove his theory wrong, most importantly the rise of the so-called Newly Industrialised Countries, or NICS: South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Hong, Singapore, and even Mexico and Brazil, through the 1970s and 1980s. The Asian NICS in particular experienced spectacular growth in GDP per capita, breaking with their traditional role as peripheral nations supplying raw materials and agricultural goods to the core countries, becoming major exporters of high tech goods, radios, watches, vehicles, petroleum products, electronics, and telecommunications equipment, combined with substantial improvements in life expectancy, infant mortality, backed by strong governments.

Wallerstein and his docile pupils would have none of this, coming up with all sorts of circumstantial reasons to account for the NICS. Taiwan and Korea, they argued, had benefited from the less exploitative nature of Japanese imperialism, which developed an infrastructure in these countries; South Korea and Taiwan carried out extensive land reforms and benefited from their geopolitical situation during the Cold War as recipients of massive aid and loans, and they had strong states built on the Japanese model, with the state playing a key role in the promotion of industrialisation. The problem with all these excuses is that they don’t refute the fact that these nations, through their own internal dynamics, did escape their peripheral position in the world economy. The world system is not the totality and primary historical force Wallerstein claimed for it.

Leftist Reactions against Refuting Facts

But Leftists replied against these inconvenient facts that the periphery as a whole, with the exception of a few “circumstantial” examples, had experienced an “absolute decline” in living standards over the 1980s and after, and that this declined showed that the ability of countries to move from low income status to a higher income status was still “severely limited”. Yet, according to World Bank statistics, in just the brief period from 2008 to 2013, for example, seven countries moved from upper-middle income into a higher income category; nine countries moved from low income to lower-middle income, and fifteen from lower-middle income to upper-middle income.

One would think that world systems theory would not survive these refuting facts, but all the introduction sociology texts I have examined over the last 20 years still employ world systems theory, and variations therein, to explain development issues to students. University textbooks continue to inflict guilt on Europeans by focusing, for example, on the “widening gap” between rich and poor countries in technological innovations, and on the fact that the total number of poor people has increased over the last decades.

Diffusion of European Technology Is the Ultimate Factor

All these arguments constitute a complete inversion of reality. Rather than causing underdevelopment, Europeans have been the ultimate developers of the world. Without the diffusion of European inventions there would have been no development anywhere. But since WWII, with the spread of cultural Marxism, Europeans were made to feel there was something immoral about their affluent status, and so the most asked question in economics has been: Why are Western countries so much richer than others? The most influential answer was that European development came at the cost of the underdevelopment of others.

Of course, there were other answers to this question; a very popular one expressed recently, not really original, but well argued, came in the book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (2012), by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. They argue that development depends ultimately on the existence of “inclusive” political institutions that are open to innovators, protect property rights, and thus encourage inventions and economic growth. In contrast, countries with “extractive” institutions are dominated by monopolistic elites who view the state as a means of acquiring wealth, giving preference to their clients and kin members, relying on unfair regulations, rather than allowing the profit motive to express itself freely in an open environment in which the most talented innovators can find opportunities. This argument, strong as it is, has been effectively criticised for relying on a single factor explanation, ignoring the role that geography, geopolitics, and cultural beliefs have played. It has been correctly pointed out that Germany under Prussia’s authoritarian rule, Japan under the non-democratic Meiji Restoration, South Korea and China under authoritarian institutions that were not “inclusive”, all managed to achieve industrialisation.

Yet, after one examines all the varying factors involved in the developmental experiences of non-European nations, the truly ultimate factor, the one variable that stands apart as the most important, has been the diffusion of technologies invented by European nations. Geographical conditions, type of governments, and cultural values have undoubtedly played a role in encouraging or obstructing diffusion, but the rider in all cases of non-European industrialisation has been the diffusion of European inventions, not whether non-Europeans were able to invent new technologies. All the countries that developed after England, except for European countries, which contributed many inventions and innovations, managed to industrialize only in the degree to which they created the setting for the assimilation of European technologies. Japan, China, South Korea did not industrialize thanks to domestic inventions but only insofar as they carried out political reforms conducive to the integration of technologies invented by Europeans. Only after they industrialized, Japan first, and now South Korea, Taiwan, and China, are we witnessing domestic inventions.

Moreover, it should be noted, that the modernisation of the political institutions, upon which Asians relied to create the framework for the adoption of European inventions, was itself a European creation. Europeans were not responsible for creating liberal-democratic states only; they were also great rationalisers of institutions and governments, which sometimes came together with liberalism, but not always, as the case of Germany showed with excellence. The German path has been called “authoritarian modernisation from above”, that is, industrialisation led by the old agrarian Junker class in cooperation with the new industrial class, both committed to the creation of an efficient rational state and capitalist economy, by means of universal conscription, centralisation of power, state promotion of industry, technical training of future state officials, emphasis on a scientific (but also a nationalistic-authoritarian) curriculum. Japan’s industrialisation is unthinkable without a consideration of their adoption of this “German model” of rational authoritarianism.

Therefore, the question should never have been how Europe underdeveloped the Third World, but why did Westerners came to hold themselves morally culpable for the poverty of other nations when it should have been evidently obvious that without diffusion of their technologies no development would have been possible anywhere outside Europe.

Ricardo Duchesne is a Canadian historical sociologist and professor at the University of New Brunswick.

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