English exceptionalism

The Riddle of the Modern World

December 15, 2000

The new millennium has inspired a genre of writing that reflects on the broad sweep of history. Alan Macfarlane’s book, addressed to scholarly generalists, is in this genre. Its premise is that, in the last 300 years, there has been a fundamental change in human life. After thousands of years of human history, in which no sustainable route out of agrarian society was ever found, we have finally found a “permanent exit” into a new form of life. There are now irreversible trends towards improving living standards, longer life expectancy, greater equality, more democracy, less warfare, and the growth of scepticism, tolerance and scientific rationality. The “riddle of the modern world”, as posed by Ernest Gellner (to whom the book is dedicated), is to explain how “agrarian mankind has, once only, hit on this path”.

Macfarlane takes it as self-evident that mankind is on this path. That, within the last 80 years, the developed countries of Europe have produced two world wars and the largest programmes of mass murder known to history does not disturb his optimism. He also takes it as self-evident that all the developments he describes originate from a single point of “escape”. Since England (Macfarlane always refers to England, not Britain) was the first industrial nation, he thinks we must look to the peculiarities of English history to explain the escape. (He does not explain why the first development of modern industry is the start of the path and not, say, the development of modern commerce or of scientific rationalism, both of which might be traced back to Renaissance Italy.)

Macfarlane tries to answer Gellner’s riddle through the writings of Montesquieu, Adam Smith and de Tocqueville — writers chosen for their perceptive social observation, their concern with the broad trends of human history, and their location in time and space on the “great fault-line of history” that divides the modern and pre-modern worlds. England plays a central part in the work of all three. Montesquieu, writing in the early 18th century, took England as his model of a free society. For Smith, half a century later, England and Holland exemplified the most developed stage of commercial society. For de Tocqueville, writing in the 1830s, America was the model of the future; but it was also a controlled experiment for testing the effects of Englishness. (As he put it: “the American is the Englishman left to himself”.)

Macfarlane points to the common themes in the work of these writers. All three saw liberty as the main source of dynamism and progress, and stressed the importance of limited government and of civil society. But, while pointing to working examples of free and economically progressive societies, they were acutely conscious of the vulnerability of such societies in the long run of history. They all saw the danger that a wealthy commercial society may succumb to militarily stronger predators. Smith expected population growth and capital accumulation to lead to a long-run equilibrium in which large populations were sustained at low standards of living. De Tocqueville feared that democracy and equality of wealth might lead to a new form of bureaucratic despotism. Macfarlane thinks his writers all saw the escape route, but doubted whether it would succeed. Macfarlane’s readings of these writers are convincing; but he does not demonstrate the truth of his central thesis that “England was the exception that somehow solved the riddle”. Nor does he ever really tell us what this thesis means. What we are given is an eloquent and scholarly, but not altogether coherent, hymn to English exceptionalism.

Robert Sugden is professor of economics, University of East Anglia.

The Riddle of the Modern World: Of Liberty, Wealth and Equality

Author - Alan Macfarlane
ISBN - 0 333 790 X
Publisher - Palgrave (formerly Macmillan Press)
Price - £45.00
Pages - 326

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