Review of the Book

When Histories Collide
by Raymond Crotty

John Hall*

[Reprinted from the American Historical Review, October, 2004]

* Professor, Department of Sociology, McGill University, Montreal, Canada

This is a highly original and engaging book, somewhat mad but wholly convincing on vital issues of the age; it offers nothing less than a philosophic history of humanity. The author was an Irish farmer turned statistician, who then became an agricultural economist for international aid agencies before finishing his career as an economic historian in Dublin. Earlier works by Raymond D. Crotty offered striking theses about cattle and about Irish economic history, and these were flavored by an idiosyncratic mixture of loyalties-to Irish nationalism, the views of Henry George, and to Third World populism more generally. Crotty died in 1992, but the ambitious manuscript he left has now been put into excellent shape by his son, ably abetted by Lars Mjøset (who offers a fine introduction, helpfully distinguishing Crotty's views from those whom he might otherwise seem to resemble).

1. The baseline for the argument is a particular view of life within agrarian circumstances. The Neolithic Revolution is seen as having effectively caged human populations within fertile river valleys. There was no excess land, and so no sense of individual effort given that a production ceiling had been reached. Accordingly, social life was profoundly collectivist; private property scarcely existed, making just about everyone dependent on the larger community. This static equilibrium has characterized most of the historical record.

2. Change eventually came from the pastoralists of the roof of the world. Most human beings are lactose intolerant; that is, they become sick if they consume milk. Adaptation amongst pastoralists led to lactose tolerance, allowing the possibility of a surplus and personal capital. However, limits to grazing land meant that no general evolutionary step was taken. Crotty gives stimulating accounts of the inability of pastoralist invasions to produce fundamental change within most of the agrarian world. He describes both the stalemate between agriculturalists and pastoralists in Africa and China, and the destruction of Near East civilizations. Fuller accounts are offered of the uniqueness of the Hindu and Mediterranean worlds, both evolutionary dead ends due to their respective failures: sanctifying cows and depending upon slaves.

3. But an evolutionary break did occur at the margins. The forests of Central Europe were relatively unpopulated, thereby allowing individuals to generate surpluses through their individual effort. As early as 2000 B.C. a wholly new form of political economy had emerged, namely that of individualistic capitalism. The combination of agriculture and husbandry became ever more effective, allowing for an accumulating increase in capital and prosperity. Technological innovations, revolutions in transport, and conquests of foreign lands enabled Europe to dominate the world.

4. Crotty has a strikingly differentiated view of the impact of the West on the rest of the world. A first route was that of European settler societies. Here economic development did occur under the aegis of individualist capitalism-something made possible, he wryly notes, as a result of the destruction of native populations. A second route was at once more common and more disastrous. The application of individualist capitalism to collectivist societies leads, in Crotty's view, to nothing less than "undevelopment." Population can increase, and so, too, can the production of all sorts of commodities for export. But there is no fit between native institutions and capitalist individualism, and the result is all too often a combination of declining nutritional levels for the majority together with increasing advantage for the very few who effectively act as agents of the West. The third route stands in contrast to this. Some societies were never incorporated into European empires. The possession of their own institutions makes it possible for endogenous development to take place, in collectivist rather than in individualistic form. The classic case is Japan, but Crotty's general point-that institutional autonomy matters-has a great deal of force, and it applies more widely than is realized.

5. There are problems with Crotty's account. In the last chapters, Ireland is considered in detail as an exemplar of undevelopment. This makes little sense now, given the performance of the "Celtic Tiger" over the last fifteen years. At a more general level, there is an opportunity/cost to the account. If we benefit from the reduction of world history to a single set of variables, we lose from the refusal to take any other factor seriously. But the historical record has unquestionably been affected by world religions and by political forms. Still, no one should now write a world history without coming to terms with this fabulous book.