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The Mechanics of Modernity in Europe and East Asia: the institutional origins of social change and stagnation

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Erik Ringmar
Routledge (19 May 2005)

This book provides a new answer to the old Weberian question of the 'rise of the west'. Why, from the eighteenth century onward, did some countries embark on a path of sustained economic growth while others stagnated? For instance, European powers such as Holland, England and Germany emerged, while the likes of China failed to fulfil their potential. Why?

Erik Ringmar concludes that, for sustained development to be possible, change must be institutionalised. Or to be more precise, there must be institutions that take responsibility for detecting the potentials that exist in social life; institutions that allow people to act on these potentials; and institutions that allow conflicts to be resolved in a reasonably peaceful manner. These are the kind of institutions that are developed in Europe, but which China and Japan largely lacked. 

The book concludes with a critique of traditional development theory and a brief manifesto for a new kind of radical politics. 


Quotes from the book

The aim of the book:
'Why was Europe suddenly able to develop so rapidly and how did the transformation happen? Which conjunction of factors made it possible for this particular part of the world to break so radically with its past and to become so different from other societies? And why did the transformation not first take place in China or Japan which by all accounts were at least as well positioned for a similar take-off?...The aim of this book is to answer these questions.'

On the obsession with economic growth:
'The steady improvement in economic indicators has a value in itself since it gives the impression that the past is ever more remote and the future is ever closer. Every day things are getting just a little bit better, and every improvement confirms our faith in the progressive movement of time. In modern society, where the future is god, economic change is our daily act of worship.'

On modern society:
'Instead of a predetermined content, modern society has only a form, a form constituted by continuous change. Modern societies...are societies that always are becoming different from themselves. What modernisation requires can never be defined beforehand for the simple reason that we never know where the development of history will take us. Whenever modernity is equated with a particular something - the modernisation theorists' techniques, institutions or branches of industry, for example - this something is only the latest manifestation of modernity, never its essence. Since modern societies constantly change, they have no essences and every characterisation of them will for that reason soon become hopelessly out of date. Modern societies are never themselves, always other.'

On the futility of a search for a theory of growth:
'The truth of the matter is that social change - including economic growth - takes place for all kinds of different reasons. It is wrong to imagine that change is the result of a long chain of causes and effects which always begins with the same kinds of factors. There is no smoking gun and no primum mobile, not capitalism and not technology. To merely point to an agent or another is never going to be enough since this begs the question of the origin of that particular agent. If we take capitalism to be the origin of change, we will find that capitalism too has its own causes; if we point to technology, we will find that technology too needs to be explained, and so on.'