Saturday, March 29, 2008

Theories of History

Why do events happen the way they do? Why not something else? At a very micro level, we can ask if one assassination or birth could change things. At the largest level, observing hundreds of years of history at once, these micro changes seem to give way to material explanations.

This, at least, is my opinion. So now I'm taking sides in the huge debate between materialists as nonmaterialists. For example, Marx was a certain kind of materialist when he spoke about history. He said that culture or great people did not drive history (I agree) but that resources and geography (I agree) created systems that competed and over time evolved towards the final utopian stage of Communism (I do not agree).

There are actually a huge number of nonmaterialist arguments in popular media today, but they get play alongside nonMarxist materialism without anyone remarking on their incompatability with each other. Not to say that the theories are entirely opposed, but they can't both be fully correct. I personally see the large sweep of history being determined almost entirely by material concerns: time, geography, population density, technology, resources. A nonmaterialist argument heard often in the US - mostly from folks on the political right, but sometimes from the left as well - is that the US and the Western world are great because of certain aspects embedded in Christianity. This is not at all the vulgar argument that the US wins because 'God favors our undertaking' - that argument requires faith in a certain kind of God and is not provable or testable in a meaningful way to a historian.

The real nonmaterialist argument is much more subtle and does not assert the existence and superiority of one kind of God. It merely says that, for example, Protestantism favors hard work theologically, and shapes Protestant nations into hard-working ones. This is one tiny example; one could argue technological innovation is slowed down by a religious or overly conservative culture [conservative meaning 'resistant to changes']. True enough, obvious enough. It's a good theory. It's not something you can defeat with just one counterexample, as some vulgarians would like to do.

Meanwhile, I think the materialist/nonmaterialist debate thinks too small, and that this is to the detriment of the materialists. While a culture may influence a specific event, or a path taken by a group of people, the aggregate effects of dozens of groups competing and defeating each other can be conceptualized more easily by materialist theories. When you observe China and Western Europe, and see that they are of relatively similar size and that until very recently were similar in cultural and ethnic diversity, you can wonder about why they are so dissimilar today.

northern China has spent the majority of recorded history either united or split between a small (at most 4) number of kingdoms. southern China has often been included, in whole or in part, in this unity. Meanwhile, the Roman unity of the Mediterranean lands looks more like a lucky accident than a pattern. While much of modern China has been politically unified for over half a millennium, not a single European empire has managed to hold both Germany and France, or England and France, or France and Spain, or England and Spain, for more than fifty years and keep it stable. It has not happened, and is unlikely to happen anytime soon - no European country is going to surrender its sovereignty to the EU in our lifetimes.

Why did this happen? Why did Europe stay in bits why China hung together? I take the materialist explanation from Jared Diamond most seriously: geography. China is surrounded by inhospitable zones and mountains, making invasion less likely to break it apart. Within China, natural boundaries are not enough to hold off armies or moving settlers. Meanwhile, Europe's rivers, mountains and forests do not cut it off from invasion - they almost welcome it. European history is full of mass migrations: Franks, Goths, Germanic Tribes, Slavic Tribes, Huns, Avars, Mongols, Turkics. The geographical features cut pockets of territory off from each other, leading to a fractured and not united Europe. Switzerland is tiny and has never been a world power. It survives because it is in the mountains and could not be destroyed by French or German attempts.

And in my opinion, this is where the debate about materialism driving history goes astray. People end up arguing over why certain very specific events happened when the really huge questions don't even get brought up. So when writing about history, or how it could have gone another way, we can indeed factor in culture, religion, ethnic and tribal ideas. But the further back we go, the more and more we can see broad patterns determining things. So, in the end, I'm not at all hostile to a nonmaterialist version of some localized event, and together the two theories make a relatively good synthesis, but priority should be given to the materialist branch in matters of debate.

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