The West and the Rest

The rapid economic growth of China, India, and Brazil has dramatically shifted the balance between rich and poor countries. Until recently, the gap separating Western Europe and North America from almost everywhere else in the world seemed impossible to bridge, and nobody believed that much could be done about it in the near future. The situation was generally assumed to be a historical constant. Whether attributed to religious, cultural, scientific, or military differences, the superiority of the West versus the Rest has dominated historiography for centuries.

In the nineteenth century the view gained currency that economic growth in the West had been the decisive factor. Karl Marx blamed the owners of ‘capital.’ Their actions inevitably brought about a dichotomy between haves and have-nots, both within the wealthy nations and between countries all over the world. He believed that the system later known as ‘capitalism’ was driven at first by merchants and later by industrialists.

According to this – very widespread – view, the era of merchant capitalism defined world history. The rise of markets was regarded as a prerequisite for commercial expansion in Western Europe between 1500 and 1800, from the Great Voyages of Discovery and the Renaissance until the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment. The subsequent course of events appears inevitable: capital earned through trade made the Industrial Revolution possible; spurred by the competition, industrialists had no choice but to exploit their workers; in response to this exploitation, workers united; but their organizations then broke up into different movements. A motley crowd of more or less practical ‘rebels with a cause’ offered solutions. To this day, such individuals are the backbone of all our political, social, and cultural movements.