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The Peasants of Languedoc

Author(s):Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy
Reviewer(s):McCants, Anne E.C.

Project 2001: Significant Works in Economic History

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, The Peasants of Languedoc.

Review Essay by Anne E.C. McCants, Department of History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

There and Back Again: The Great Agrarian Cycle Revisited

It has been thirty-six years since the original publication of Le Roy Ladurie’s now classic Les Paysans de Languedoc, whose English translation appeared only eight years later. This work of “total” regional history (p. 8), grounded in the climate and topography of its fixed place, narrated around a loving reconstruction of time series data drawn from land tax registers, grain (and other commodity) prices, population registers and communicant lists, and ultimately nuanced by an anthropologist’s sensitivity to the social impact of even small changes in literacy and spiritual affiliation, is in many respects the crowning achievement of the Annales school for the post-Braudelian generation.1 It takes for its subject a place close to the heart of Braudel himself, the Mediterranean French province of Languedoc, and the people who tilled its fields and nurtured its vines, mostly in the small family holdings which so captured the historical imagination of French scholars of the inter- and post-war periods. It also takes as its time period those in-between centuries so favored by Braudel, following the dramatic collapse of the fourteenth century, but well before the acceleration of change brought on by industrialization in the late eighteenth century and thereafter. Despite the poverty and hardship, not to mention the periodic bouts of starvation and insanity, which cross the pages of this book, it retains nonetheless a bucolic vision of the French countryside, only superficially touched by the affairs of men, at least in anything but the very long run. Finally, it attends most fully to the natural and human processes characterized best by an ebb and flow of cyclical change: climate, the productivity of the soil, and population. In all of these respects the intellectual debts to Marc Bloch, Fran?ois Simiand, and of course Fernand Braudel are immediately obvious.

Yet in important ways Le Roy Ladurie also deviates from what had by the time of this publication become the normative format for a major work of Annales history. Instead of dividing his subject into the classic, and fundamentally non-sequential, tri-part formula of structure, conjuncture, et ?v?nement, Le Roy Ladurie instead follows the older norm of telling his story in time. He begins with the tailings of the fourteenth century crisis, what he calls “the low-water mark of a society.” He then traces the effects of the so-called “wage and price scissors” of the long sixteenth century, culminating once again with population collapse and economic depression in the seventeenth century. The self-proclaimed “protagonist” of this book is “a great agrarian cycle, lasting from the end of the fifteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth, studied in its entirety” (p. 289). While as heroes go this is still a far cry from the kings and generals of old-fashioned history, it is clearly less fixed in time and space than Braudel’s mountains and seas with their capacity for geologic movement only. The Peasants of Languedoc is thus a narrative, and like all good narratives it is susceptible to accidental interventions in the plot and to their concomitant unanticipated outcomes. And so Le Roy Ladurie’s ‘great agrarian cycle’ turns out to have embedded in it a hint of something more linear, a harbinger of the demise of his otherwise so carefully crafted longue dur?e, and what he himself calls “the seeds of true growth” (p. 302). Yet his own lingering ambivalence about what others have been tempted to call progress is underscored by his choice of metaphor to describe it. In the same breath in which he invokes “incandescent particles in the darkest hours” he also speaks of the “contagion of true growth” (p. 303). Is economic growth (that is the “increase of individual wealth” (p. 303) in his definition) good or bad, or both simultaneously? This question, which seems so easily answered by anyone trained in neo-classical economics, lingers unresolved by La Roy Ladurie. Indeed, it perhaps remains to the present unanswered by those who have followed him in the French historical school, particularly as it has turned increasingly back towards the study of culture and in the process adopted many of the methodologies and proclivities of the anthropologist.2

What then are these (insidious?) interventions that push the great agrarian (read Malthusian) cycle off course? Perhaps somewhat surprisingly they are phenomena which Max Weber would have recognized even if their shading is not exactly that of a Protestant ethic. They include the spread of viticulture and sericulture to the detriment of the subsistence grain; the gradual appearance of an “industrial mentality,” admittedly never well defined but seemingly linked with the increase in production of exportable commodities; the spread of remedial education and its powerful accompaniment literacy; and finally, the most nebulous of all, “a certain psychological transfiguration and a general improvement in behavior,” that is best characterized by the “virtue of self-control” (p. 307). Le Roy Ladurie cites the decline of dueling, spontaneous knife fights, and religious fanaticism as just the most obvious evidence of the shift towards a more “intellectual” and “composed” life (p. 309). The link from this reform of manners to real (that is sustainable) economic growth is only inferred, but presumably those who can refrain from emotional outbursts of violence will also be better able to defer consumption gratification in order to invest for the future. Without these (overwhelmingly cultural) interventions the peasant smallholder might have been doomed to an endless Malthusian repetition of the great agrarian cycle of expansion — characterized by population growth, downward pressure on family farm size, the cultivation of marginal lands, the impoverishment of heirs, and rising subsistence prices — and retreat, in which all of the above signs would reverse. As long as subsistence agriculture remained the dominant activity of the agrarian economy population won the race over bread every time (p. 73). Malthus would have been right, if he had not been born too late. Certainly for La Roy Ladurie Malthus was the true prophet of the age that just preceded his own (p. 311)

Yet not many scholars remain unabashed Malthusians or even slightly watered-down neo-Malthusians these days. We have learned well from Ester Boserup that population pressure could and did drive human societies to greater intensity of work effort and the concomitant technological modifications suited to natural resource scarcity and labor abundance. We have learned from Adam Smith and his many followers the productivity advantages of specialization, encouraged as it was by the rise of urban places and the increasingly dense networks of trade among them. We have learned as well from the Marxists of Robert Brenner=s tribe that power relationships between and among individuals and social groups (dare I call them classes?) could powerfully impact the nature of economic response to demographic catastrophe, both on the individual level and for societies as a whole. And of course, we also know from the body of theory built up over the last century in mainstream economics departments that markets are capable of clearing an amazing range of commodities, and that they often did so even in the somewhat murky pre-industrial past. Finally, the “New” Institutional Economics has taught us that social and political institutions had a lot to do with how well markets were actually able to perform their pure function. What then is there for the Anglo-speaking economic historian (most likely trained in the neo-classical tradition) to take from this book and its larger research agenda nearly four decades out?

Fortunately lots. To begin with there is the terrific data series reconstructed over a substantially long period of time to allow for serious study of the macro-dynamics of a pre-industrial economy. For even if Le Roy Ladurie “confuses rent with profits” as Douglas North pointed out long ago, we do not have to follow in that confusion.3 We can read the rent series for what it really is, using it in tandem with price and wage series as a base for understanding the changing profitability of subsistence agriculture, particularly as it varied by the scale of the farm operation. For as La Roy Ladurie rightly emphasizes throughout his exposition, it is far too simplistic to speak only of booms and depressions in the agrarian economy overall. If you had a surplus to sell, falling grain prices induced hardship; but the story was very different for those forced onto the market to ensure sufficient quantities of bread for survival. For them agrarian depressions could be a time of relative plenty. Thus the macro-dynamics that inhere in his great agrarian cycle could produce both winners and losers simultaneously, depending on the distribution of property, and the larger social structure in which farming took place. It is always good for us to be reminded of this complication.

The Peasants of Languedoc also provides a model for the integration of cultural history into economic history which is still relevant today. Despite La Roy Ladurie’s now outdated reliance on Malthus for the structure within which his narrative operates, he nonetheless discerns the cultural forces which were at work in eighteenth-century Languedoc (and in nascent form even earlier) to disrupt the Malthusian paradigm. To the claim on this side of the Atlantic that ‘institutions matter’ a fresh reading of Le Roy Ladurie offers the reminder that mentalit? matters too. Adequate labor and capital resources may have been necessary conditions for economic growth of the modern variety, but they were hardly sufficient. Their application in new ways required whole new modes of thought and behavior. Thus, as any Frenchman would surely understand in the widest possible sense that we are what we eat, La Roy Ladurie would also have us understand that we produce what we think.

Finally this book remains the most accessible to the American student (of all ages) of all the major works to come out of the Annales school. It is neither geologic in its movement, nor overwhelming in its scope. Yet it achieves its stated goal to be “total” in its comprehension of its own subject. The barren mountain reaches, rolling fields of grain and vine, and scrub filled blessedly with chestnut trees; the long cycles of climate change, and the violent bursts of climatic extremes; the struggling peasant with too many children, the upstart coqs de village, and the emerging bourgeois of Montpellier; “Huguenot carders and Papist peasants” (p. 158); all of these characters come alive on the pages of this book. Their multiple, often conflicting, stories are woven together seamlessly by La Roy Ladurie into a complicated whole that looks remarkably like real human experience. If the master economic narrative sometimes goes astray or suffers from lapses of logical explanation, this seems a forgivable fault to this enthusiastic reader. There is much indeed for us to learn, not only about the agrarian economy of a Mediterranean province before industrialization, but about historical storytelling as well.


1. All quotes from the text are taken from the English translation by John Day, published in paperback by the University of Illinois Press in 1976.

2. See Peter Burke, The French Historical Revolution: The Annales School 1929-89, Stanford, 1990, especially pp. 79-93.

3. Douglass North, AComment@ in Journal of Economic History, Vol. 31, no. 1, 1978, p. 80.

Anne McCants is the author of Civic Charity in a Golden Age: Orphan Care in Early Modern Amsterdam, University of Illinois Press, 1997, and numerous articles on living standards, migration, and marriage patterns in northern Europe. She teaches in history, economics and women’s studies at MIT.

Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

The Rise of the English Town 1650-1850

Author(s):Chalklin, Christopher
Reviewer(s):Stobart, Jon

Published by EH.NET (October 2001)

Christopher Chalklin, The Rise of the English Town 1650-1850.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. vii + 102 pp. $39.95 (hardback),

ISBN: 0-521-66141-2; $11.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-521-66737-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jon Stobart, Geography, School of Science and the

Environment, Coventry University.

Urban histories of England in the long eighteenth century are like buses: you

wait for ages and then three come along at once. Following a flurry of books

in the 1970s and early 1980s, there have been remarkably few introductory

texts written about this vital period in English urban development. As well as

the subject of this current review, we now have Roey Sweet’s The English

Town 1680-1840 (Longman, 1999) and Joyce Ellis’s The Georgian Town

1680-1840 (Palgrave, 2001).

Christopher Chalklin, formerly Reader in History at the University of Reading

in the UK, sets himself an ambitious task in this text. Rather than

concentrate on particular aspects of urban development, the book aims to

provide an introductory survey of the demographic, economic and social

structure of English towns through two centuries of change. As an introductory

text, this book has two great merits. One is that it makes some mention of

most aspects traditionally seen as being important in the English urban

history of this period. The coverage is certainly broad. The seven chapters

cover the urbanization of England, the growth of different types of towns,

urban demography and society, the built environment, the middle orders (two

chapters) and the lower orders. After reading this book, students will

certainly be aware of the complex and changing nature of English towns and

town life during the period. The other real plus is that the extensive

referencing. If the reader wants to know more, then they are guided to a

wealth of further reading with over 250 books and articles being cited,

although surprisingly few are chosen from the last few years. This reflects

the traditional approach, tone and structure of the book.

There are problems with Chalklin’s text, though. Two-hundred years of urban

history are packed in to just 76 pages of text, coverage is also patchy.

Migration, for example, is dealt with in very simplistic terms and there is

little on the debate over the role of London in national economic growth. In

contrast (and perhaps unsurprisingly given the author’s previous

publications), chapter four on the building of towns is the most convincing

and thorough. It is also the longest, accounting for nearly one-quarter of the

text. Here Chalklin has space to discuss processes, trends, debates and

methodologies in the sort of detail that is impossible in other, shorter

chapters. To this thematic unevenness is added considerable variability in

detail through time. Attention focuses very much on the second half of the

study period and we are told very little about towns in the seventeenth

century. Certainly, the stark contrasts between urban life during the

Commonwealth and that in Victorian cities are only glimpsed in the pages of

this book. Indeed, one wonders why such a long time period was chosen.

Throughout the text, there is a tension between breadth and depth. In general,

analysis, interpretation and debate are sacrificed in favor of ‘facts and

figures.’ That readers are left to come to their own conclusions is, in one

sense, a strength. But the lack of space to develop discussion of (new)

interpretations and ideas sometimes leaves one wondering what to make of the

riches on offer. Furthermore, whilst the level of detail is remarkable in such

a short book, only occasionally are the examples discussed in enough detail

to really tell us anything interesting or worthwhile. For example, in the

section covering the emergence of the middle orders, being told that the

wealthiest Liverpool merchant in the early-nineteenth century was probably

John Gladstone seems slightly pointless — what are we to do with this piece

of information? In contrast, the more detailed discussion of the Cadbury

family in early nineteenth-century Birmingham gives us a real insight into the

family life and household arrangements of the middle orders.

In all, this is a book that will prove very useful to students approaching the

subject for the first time, but does not, in itself, provide an adequate

introduction. There is a lack of balance between providing information and

presenting a cohesive argument about the changes occurring in and stimulated

by towns over these two centuries. Whilst remarkably detailed, this does not

form the coherent account that is promised.

Jon Stobart’s research interests include regional, urban and industrial

development in eighteenth-century England. He recently started a project on

leisure and consumption in the eighteenth century funded by the Leverhulme


Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century

The Mediterranean Response to Globalization before 1950

Author(s):Pamuk, Sevket
Williamson, Jeffrey G.
Reviewer(s):Simpson, James

Published by EH.NET (August 2001)


Sevket Pamuk and Jeffrey G. Williamson, editors, The Mediterranean Response to Globalization before 1950. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. xvi + 430 pp. $115 (cloth), ISBN 0-415-22425-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by James Simpson, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid.

The title of the book is slightly misleading as the majority of the thirteen papers consider just the half-century prior to the First World War. The main agenda is to explain why economic backwardness in the Mediterranean persisted, and why the gap with the European leaders increased during this “first great globalization boom.”

The first problem is to show relative levels of development. Jaime Reis, after questioning the usefulness of existing real wages series for establishing cross-country comparisons, calculates new estimates of GDP for 1850 and concludes that there was “not a single ‘poor’ periphery” in Europe, but rather there existed a wide range of income levels among both Mediterranean and Scandinavian countries. Jeffrey Williamson, using real wages from a wide sample of Mediterranean countries also finds major differences, with northern Italian workers earning about four times more than Egyptian workers in the late nineteenth century. Williamson also notes that “there is absolutely no evidence of labor market integration in the Mediterranean, and plenty of evidence of segmentation” between 1820 and 1870. Although changes in real wages varied among Mediterranean countries in the half-century prior to the First World War, there was no consistent catch-up or fallback against the industrial nations. The global challenge produced different responses, the subject treated in most of the remaining essays.

The Mediterranean has been a great trading region for centuries, and some of the best papers in this book are devoted to trade. Gelina Harlaftis and Vassilis Kardasis contribute an interesting piece on international shipping in the eastern Mediterranean, which shows that shipping costs for bulk products such as cereals, coal and cotton fell almost as quickly as they did in the North Atlantic trade in the half century prior to 1914. Trade boomed, and provided rich opportunities for shipowners, especially Greek merchants. Falling transport costs and growing urban markets in the industrial economies also provided Mediterranean farmers with new and growing markets for their produce. Yet the response was often disappointing. Jose Morilla-Critz, Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode show convincingly one of the reasons why this was so. In their paper on raisins and prunes, they show how California as a “late comer” was able first to imitate traditional European production techniques, and then develop better quality fruit, more efficient production processes and better selling techniques. What at the outset had appeared as promising niche markets for Mediterranean farmers had, by the early twentieth century, been largely captured by the Californians.

The theme of product quality and competition in the international food market is also pursued, again highly successfully, by Ramon Ramon-Munoz in his study of olive oil. This author argues that specialization took place in Mediterranean countries according to factor endowments. The labor-intensive nature of olive production implied that it was increasingly carried out in low wage regions (Tunisia, Algeria, Greece), whereas the capital-intensive nature of refining and building brand names were activities found in France and northern Italy.

Three interesting papers underline the importance of market integration for agricultural specialization in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ahmed Akarli shows that in Ottoman Macedonia the decline in international cereal prices after 1870 encouraged producers to switch into other cash crops, such as tobacco, silk, opium or cotton, although by the early twentieth century limits had already appeared to this sort of specialization. Tarik Yousef shows that local commodity markets for farm produce were fully integrated in Egypt during the interwar period. Finally, Jacob Metzer shows how exports of citrus fruit, which by the early 1930s accounted for 77 percent of all mercantile exports, contributed to the rapid growth in per capita incomes in Mandatory Palestine.

What of industry? Unfortunately there is no paper for the 1870-1914 period, or any indication of either industrial growth, or the relative importance of manufacturing exports. There are perhaps four major arguments usually advanced for why industrial growth in the Mediterranean was limited before 1914. First, coal deposits were few and of a poor quality, making the region heavily dependent on imported British coal. Second, domestic demand was limited because of low incomes. Third, international trade was small because producers’ costs were high, not just because of the need to import coal, but also because of the impact of domestic tariffs that inflated the costs of everything, from raw materials to workers’ food. Finally, growth suffered because of the low levels of human capital. In their growth model to explain the Mediterranean’s backwardness in comparison to the UK, James Foreman-Peck and Pedro Lains find that tariffs, coal production and human capital were indeed all important. Both tariffs and illiteracy appear to have increased in importance between 1870 and 1910, but growing imports compensated for the lack of domestic coal. Only in Italy were tariffs relatively unimportant, a point Giovanni Federico and Antonio Tena (1998, 1999) have also argued, and which is the subject of the chapter by Federico and Kevin O’Rourke. These authors, using a computable general equilibrium model, not only show that tariffs had a minimal impact on GDP, but that the relative importance of the agricultural and industrial sectors would have been little different in 1911 in their absence. Only within each sector would an important reallocation of resources have taken place if there had been free trade.

With respect to human capital, Joan Ramon Roses argues that the skill levels of the workforce determined technical choice in the cotton industry between 1830 and 1860. Looking at technology, product quality and skills in four different international centers, he finds that Catalan cotton workers were more skilled than those of New England or Piedmont, but less so than those in Lancashire. This implies that the available levels of human capital were not necessarily an obstacle in establishing a competitive textile industry at this period, at least for Catalonia.

Labor markets play an important role in the integration of the international economy in this period, and this was another area where the Mediterranean response was weak. For Spain, a country where most emigrants originated from the Atlantic coastal regions, Blanca Sanchez-Alonso argues that emigration was income constrained. As a heavily rural economy, the increase in tariffs after 1891 should, by raising incomes, have encouraged emigration. However the 30 percent depreciation of the peseta between 1895 and 1905 raised emigration costs even more, and reduced by an estimated 600,000 the number of migrants who would have left if the exchange rate had remained stable. Sanchez-Alonso argues that without this currency depreciation, numbers would have been similar to those of Italy.

The economic environment of the interwar period was very different from that of the pre-1914 period and virtually all countries faced considerable difficulties, especially after 1929. The Turkish government, as Sevket Pamuk shows here, responded with a series of protectionist measures encouraging import-substitution industrialization. Unfortunately, and here Turkey was not alone, the relative success of these polices in the 1930s encouraged their continuation in the post Second World War period, when they quickly became an obstacle to growth. One major exception in this period was Mandatory Palestine, where Metzer shows that per capita income increased by about five percent per year between 1922 and 1947, despite population increasing by almost four percent per year.

It is easy to point out the “gaps” in a book that examines a geographical area as large as the Mediterranean, but this would be unfair. Most of the region’s economic historians write highly specialized local or, at best, national studies, rather than follow in the footsteps of Fernand Braudel. However the majority of the authors in this book, no doubt in some cases responding to enthusiastic prodding by the editors, have attempted to present their work in a regional or international context. Although the papers are highly varied, the overall quality is high. The book is important for those interested in Mediterranean history before the First World War.

James Simpson is lecturer in Economic History at the Universidad Carlos III in Madrid. He is author of Spanish Agriculture: The Long Siesta, 1765-1965 (Cambridge University Press, 1995) and, with Juan Carmona, Latifundistas, colonos y jornaleros. Organizacion rural y el desarrollo agraio en Espana, 1850-1936 (Biblioteca Nueva, in print). He is currently working on a book on wine production and consumption in the nineteenth century.


Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

New Spain’s Century of Depression

Author(s):Borah, Woodrow Wilson
Reviewer(s):Salvucci, Richard

Project 2001: Significant Works in Economic History
Woodrow Wilson Borah, New Spain’s Century of Depression. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951. 58 pp.
Review Essay by Richard Salvucci, Department of Economics, Trinity University.

An Obscure Century in a Backward Country: Woodrow Borah and New Spain’s Century of Depression

In 1938, the English novelist Graham Greene traveled to Mexico to investigate the condition of the Catholic Church under the regime of President Plutarco El?as Calles. While there, Greene interviewed the strongman of San Luis Potos?, General Saturnino Cedillo. In the most memorable terms, Greene called Cedillo “an Indian general in an obscure state of a backward country.” So my title, I fear, is a plagiarism, but an appropriate one. For certainly some who read this essay will wonder why a brief (58 pages) book about seventeenth?century New Spain (as Mexico was then known) counts as influential at all, let alone very influential? After all, Lesley Simpson, an authority on Mexico, famously labeled the seventeenth as Mexico’s “forgotten” century, and everyone from Adam Smith to Thomas Jefferson thought the Spanish empire both backward and obscure.

Influence, of course, is a matter of audience. There must be few economic historians of Latin America and fewer still of Mexico who are unfamiliar with the work of Woodrow Borah and the so-called “Berkeley School” of historical demography. Even with prevailing intellectual fashions, it is hard to believe that most English?speaking historians of Latin America have not heard of Borah, although whether or not they read his work in graduate school or after is much less certain. So I might best define my task as to explain why New Spain’s Century of Depression, published in 1951 as number 35 of the University of California Press’s celebrated Ibero?Americana series, should be counted one of the truly important works of twentieth?century economic history, especially for those who have yet to make its acquaintance. I take it for granted that colleagues in my field would agree. But it is a small field, and I am under no illusion that even its best work is widely known, much less regarded as a crucial contribution to economic historiography.

Woodrow Borah, who died in 1999, was one of the outstanding members of the postwar generation of Latin Americanists that included Howard Cline, Charles Gibson, John Lynch and Stanley Stein. At Berkeley, Borah, who was Abraham D. Shepard Professor of History, was one of a stellar cast of scholars drawn from a wide range of disciplines — Sherburne Cook, George Foster, James Parsons, John Rowe, Carl Sauer, and Lesley Simpson come immediately to mind. They exercised a profound influence on each other, sometimes as collaborators, but more often as valuable colleagues. What emerged from their work was a distinctive scholarship that brought together striking research and insights drawn from the natural and social sciences, precocious social science history, you might say. And Borah, his prodigious reading, meticulous scholarship and personal austerity notwithstanding, was one of this group’s more daring and imaginative members. Indeed, in a rueful aside, Borah once told me that his critics (there were a few) had accused him of “inventing Indians,” and this he meant quite literally, not in the now prosaic historicist sense of the term.

The burden of New Spain’s Century of Depression was to suggest the impact of the massive decline of the aboriginal population of Central Mexico (whom we can simply, if incorrectly, call Indians) on the material prospects of the Iberian conquerors (whom we can simply, and equally incorrectly, call Spaniards) and their descendants. As Borah understood it, the intent of the Spaniards was to live off the labor of the dense Indian population they had encountered in Central Mexico, a population accustomed to the rule of a privileged upper stratum by generations of Mesoamerican conquerors of whom the Aztec were simply the most recent. The Spaniards’ intention was no mystery. They announced they had come to the “Indies” (wrong again, but who’s counting?) to get rich, and that they had no intention of tilling the soil “like peasants” in order to do so. To accomplish their goal, the Spaniards, victorious in the wake of Cort?s’ historic expedition, rewarded themselves with the famous encomienda, the right to extract labor from the Indians. For some, like Cort?s himself, the encomienda was the source of great personal wealth and social prestige, although others, including some of Cort?s’ outspoken critics, were less richly rewarded.

For the encomienda to function as an avenue of accumulation, evidently, there had to be Indians to be distributed. At the time of the arrival of the Spaniards, Central Mexico perhaps supported an Indian population as large as 25 million. Within a century, shockingly, the same Indian population had fallen to less than a million, the victims of European disease, massive economic disruption, and the destruction of a coherent civilization that the Spaniards willingly exploited but never really understood. It was one thing for the encomienda to yield a comfortable existence for the Spaniards when Indian labor was abundant. But, obviously, such a system could hardly be expected to function when the people who supported it had disappeared. And here, then, is the gist of the argument of New Spain’s Century of Depression. What happens to a system of colonial expropriation when the society on to which it is fixed essentially disappears?

A bald summary can hardly begin to capture the twists and turns of the research agenda that New Spain’s Century of Depression ultimately entailed. When Borah published it in 1951, Sherburne Cook and Lesley Simpson had produced the population figures for New Spain on which he relied. It would require fully another quarter century, down to 1976, for what are now the standard estimates of early colonial population to emerge. There was considerable controversy along the way, and to an extent, there still is. Yet it is important to keep several things in mind. Much of the controversy regarding the population of New Spain involves the pre?contact population. About the course of events after the Spanish invasion there is far less doubt. The Indian population fell, and it fell sharply within a century, on the order of 90 percent. From an economic standpoint, only one thing really matters: factor endowments. Before the Conquest, labor was the abundant factor in Mexico. By 1620, land had become the abundant factor. No amount of scholastic contention about how many Indians there “really” were can alter that.

The other point is that even if Borah used imperfect population figures or made arbitrary assumptions, his scholarship was sound. He knew the sources and was particularly well versed in the documents associated with the relaciones geogr?ficas, the reports prepared to give Philip II of Spain an idea of what his Mexican dominions contained. While these documents are widely available today due to the efforts of the Instituto de Investigaciones Antropol?gicas in Mexico, it must have required considerably greater difficulty to master them fifty years ago. The impression from reading Borah’s notes is of a reasonably extensive investigation of the archival and printed materials available in the 1940s. In other words, you need to know something about the history of colonial scholarship to appreciate what Borah and his colleagues at Berkeley accomplished and some of the critics simply did not.

The conclusion to which Borah came was straightforward. Beginning sometime in the 1570s, an “economic depression besetting the Spanish cities because of the shrinkage of the Indian base [would last] more than a century,” and a “large number of white families must have found themselves reduced from comparative wealth to straitened circumstances as the drag in the Indian population forced a downward spiral in the economy of the European stratum”(p. 27). Although Borah presented his findings as a “hypothesis of a century?long depression” or “a hypothesis which needs much additional investigation,” the hypothesis is generally accepted as settled fact. It was not until the early 1970s that the work of the English historian Peter Bakewell raised questions about the impact of population decline on the fortunes of silver mining, but Borah’s view of the economic circumstances of the settlers went largely unchallenged. Even John Lynch, whose brilliant synthesis, Spain under the Hapsburgs (1981), called into question the entire notion of a Mexican depression in the seventeenth century, did not address the crucial issue that Borah raised. How did the elite of Mexican society — in effect the advocates, bearers, beneficiaries and putative defenders of colonialism — adjust when deprived of the Indian population on which it depended? My suspicion is that New Spain’s Century of Depression seemed logically unassailable. Borah’s citation (p. 23) of Viceroy Velasco the Younger’s report to Philip II in 1595 was especially acute: “those who consume are many and the Indians who produce are few.” What more could be said?

If you have persisted this far, you may, perhaps, think otherwise or wonder at the peculiar way in which Borah shaped his investigation. Borah did not discuss the fate of the Indians, other than to note that they “seemed doomed to relentless extinction” (p. 28). And even so, life did not come to an end in Mexico in 1576, or 1626, or 1676. Emigration from Spain continued, a fact of which Borah was quite aware. Moreover, if Cook and Borah’s later research indicated that the Indian population reached its nadir around 1620 — Borah puts its size at 750,000 — it began to recover thereafter and probably continued to do so until the 1730s, when severe epidemic disease made is reappearance. A century of population growth in a preindustrial society, however slow, does not square easily with falling living standards. And other developments, particularly the growth of colonial textile production in the middle decades of the seventeenth century, give pause as well. If a “depression” had taken hold, and more people were producing more goods, what sort of a depression was it?

To the extent that there was much data available to answer the question — and by and large, there was not — Borah made some attempt to address the objections, postulating, for instance, the existence of not one, but two economies, one Spanish, the other Indian. But there was not much he could make of the distinction, although there was a hint as to where research might lead. A dramatic change in the land-labor ratio, with the Indian population falling by 90 percent, surely affected the marginal productivity of Indian labor.

However, as Borah pointed out (p. 21), it was inconceivable that rising productivity could have offset the sheer decline in the Indians’ numbers, but the upward drift in real wages of Indian workers in cloth manufactories toward the end of the sixteenth century suggests the horrible irony of a decimated Indian population now better able to sustain itself in the face of Spanish demands. Here was one reason for the subsequent recovery in the Indians’ numbers, along with greater resistance to European disease, more aggressive defense of the Indians’ interests by the Spanish Crown, and even changes in diet — the Spaniards brought chickens with them, which came to be a ubiquitous presence in rural villages. While Borah never said as much in New Spain’s Century of Depression, Borah and Sherburne Cook would go on to argue years later that the material conditions of a reconstituted Indian society may well have been higher than they were before the Conquest. So, in a sense, Borah’s argument about “depression” was potentially revolutionary even if, in some sense, it proved a trap to the unwary who did not think its implications through. The historical intuition was of a very high order, but it was exercised by a scholar who turned twenty in 1932; who hailed from Utica, Mississippi; and for whom the term “depression” was less a technical one than a shorthand for widespread impoverishment.

Another feature of New Spain’s Century of Depression should be attractive to economic historians. It concerns the nature of institutional change that occurred under the pressure of population decline in the sixteenth century. One is sometimes struck by the fact that much (but by no means, all) of the economic historiography that relies on institutions for explanation often does a poor job of explaining why a country has a given set of institutions to begin with. In Latin America, some mix of Divine Providence, Indians, bizarre political culture, difficult geography and dumb luck often seem to be the reasons for the existence of Mexican institutions. This, for all practical purposes, means that institutions are treated as exogenously given. Well, they aren’t, or at least, not always. While Borah, of course, never wrote in these terms, he carefully links the emergence of a Mexican regime of labor and land institutions to the shifting factor endowments with which the colonists had to work. For Borah, the ultimate significance of the dramatic decline of the Indian population was the emergence of the hacienda (which reflected increasingly abundant land) and debt peonage (which reflected increasingly scarce labor). Indeed, this was another central message of New Spain’s Century of Depression. The institutions that had given rise to the Mexican Revolution of 1910 — the hacienda and debt peonage — were a product of the seventeenth century and of the demographic disaster that had destroyed the Indians. This was a remarkably clear statement of what had long been the liberal view of the causes of the Mexican Revolution. Anyone who doubts its durability need do little more than read Alan Knight’s monumental history of the Revolution (The Mexican Revolution, 1986), which largely restates the old verities.

For an historian from Mississippi, an account of “debt peonage” as the defining characteristic of rural labor may not have been untoward. But what exactly one means by “debt peonage” is another matter. Borah’s position was a moderate one. This was not slavery, open or disguised (the enslavement of Indians was forbidden under most circumstances), but an Indian peon who owed a landlord, or, indeed, any employer money was legally required to work for that employer (and for him or her alone) until the debt was discharged. The notion that debt created a form of chattel slavery in rural Mexico does not seem to have entered the vocabulary until well into the regime of President Porfirio D?az (1876-1880, 1884-1910) and provided one explanation for the Revolution in a place like Yucat?n. For a time, colonial historians went to another extreme, intent on showing the agency of free peasants as makers of their own world. They forgot that seventeenth-century Mexico was an unlikely venue for the emergence of a smoothly functioning labor market in which buyers and sellers of labor had no recourse to force or fraud. Indeed, conquest is precisely about force and fraud, depriving the conquered of their possessions, and making them do things they otherwise would never do.

A more fruitful way of viewing the phenomenon of debt peonage — or simply workers’ indebtedness, for debt did not invariably impede their mobility — is to understand how it allowed employers to determine the rate of discount at which workers in a shifting, unstable, and terribly uncertain world valued future income. There is no point in beating around the bush. Life expectancy at birth for a Mexican in the colonial period was about twenty years, and in view of the catastrophic changes that had visited the Indian world since 1519, we can only conclude that Hobbes was right, and that Mexicans knew it. Their lives were short enough, and nasty and brutish as well. In a world in which only God (and whose God was up for grabs too) knew what the future would bring, it made sense for ordinary people to get as much as they could up front, which, after all, is all the “debt” part of debt peonage meant. This was just an extreme form of live for today, for tomorrow, literally, who knew? Workers bargained for better advances and often sought to enlarge them and employers understood this. The wide variance of debts reported by farms and factories for which we have records shows that their owners struck quite different bargains with different workers, a form of price discrimination that allowed them to “pay” no more than they had to, certainly less than raising wages to market-clearing levels. In fact, in the disorganized and fluid circumstances of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, when Indian villages were forming and reforming under the pressure of Castillian administration, it would have been impossible to gauge the overall willingness of Indians to leave their communities to work for wages, or even the willingness of their communities to allow individuals to leave, a point to which Borah was quite sensitive (pp. 41-42).

Besides, the point of indebtedness was not necessarily to reduce mobility. The Spaniards had other ways of doing so, which is another aspect of the system of land tenure they devised. As Evsey Domar once wrote, it is impossible to have free labor, free land and a nonworking landlord class simultaneously. One of the three must disappear. In Mexico, the Church prevailed in the 1540s in the struggle against the frank coercion of Indian labor. For most purposes, the labor of enslaved Africans was simply too expensive, even though there was a sizeable black population in seventeenth?century Mexico. No, the Spaniards made another choice, to deprive the Indians of access to free land, for free land they very well may have had. The dramatic decline in the Indian population left vast expanses of Central Mexico essentially empty, so what was to prevent the Indians from moving on to the land as a subsistence peasantry, to the lasting dismay of the Spaniards? The answer is that the Spaniards consciously set about driving the Indians into villages over which they could exercise some level of control, as Bernardo Garc?a Mart?nez demonstrated in Los pueblos de la Sierra (1987). At the same time, they sanctioned land?grabbing by the settlers, usually in amounts far in excess of anything the settlers could reasonably cultivate. At a stroke, the Spaniards accomplished two things. First, they shifted to a system of agriculture that reflected the abundance of land, a regime vastly different from the preconquest one based on the intensive use of labor, of which the famous raised?ridged fields (chinampas) of the Valley of Mexico were but one example. Second, they regularized the settlers’ land titles at the beginning of the seventeenth century, effectively transferring much land to Spanish control, whether or not it was cultivated. The hacienda thus circumscribed the ability of the Indian communities to survive independently of the Spanish economy, and in so doing, obviated the need for a draconian regime of forced labor, at least in Mexico.

This dramatic transition, from an economy based on intensive agriculture and the exploitation of a dense indigenous population, to one that relied on extensive agriculture and scarce Indian labor could not be accomplished rapidly. Moreover, the shift from an economy with relatively high levels of personal wealth in the form of Indians held in encomienda to a poorer one with fewer Indians and no encomiendas reduced New Spain’s capacity to import. It was now necessary to produce at home many goods that were, in the early years of the colony, imported through Spain. A reduction in consumption and a reorientation of expenditure toward investment was required to accommodate such a change. Borah, for instance, noted that the construction of churches tended to slow dramatically in the 1570s (p. 31), attributing this primarily to a redeployment of scarcer labor. (The demand for churches sadly fell as well, for there were far fewer souls to fill them.) For Borah, presumably, all this was a depression. To a later generation of historians, however, notably the British school headed by John Lynch, Borah’s “depression” was more a case of deferred consumption, the redirection of productive effort toward mining, manufacturing and farming that a colony living on its own required. None of this could have come easily or cheaply — the mining and irrigation works, the granaries, fences, sugar mills, ranches and textile manufactories absorbed resources. Hence, for Lynch and his followers, the apparent stagnation of the Mexican economy in the seventeenth century was just that, an apparent stagnation that marked the reorientation underway, one that would result in the visible renewal of economic growth under the Bourbon monarchs of the eighteenth century. It was not so much that Borah was wrong about what he had seen, but that he had, instead, seen wrongly.

Viewed fifty years after its publication, New Spain’s Century of Depression reads much like the pioneering work it was, full of insight, largely intuitive, sometimes wrong in detail and premature in judgment, but, all the same, arresting and audacious. It was, above all, a great work of history, for it sought to explain the present through the past, and to explain in simple but persuasive terms how what was distinctively Mexican, the play of institutions, political economy and an emerging social structure, came together out of the shock of the Conquest in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. If there is anything disappointing about New Spain’s Century of Depression, it is that the response to it has been admiration or assent from most students of Latin American history, but few studies in which appropriately trained scholars have undertaken the work necessary to establish Borah’s hypothesis fully, or to revise and extend it in ways consistent with contemporary population studies. That is the problem with writing a classic about an obscure century in a backward country: it is hard to get people to notice. Those of us who spend our time studying the history of Mexico know full well how important Borah’s elegant “hypothesis” was. It is time for mainstream economic historians, and, one hopes, their students, to develop an interest in replying to Woodrow Borah’s pioneering work as well.

Richard Salvucci teaches economics at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. He was a colleague of Woodrow Borah’s at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1980 through 1989. He works on the economic and financial history of Mexico between 1823 and 1884.


Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):17th Century

Losing Control? Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization

Author(s):Sassen, Saskia
Reviewer(s):Aaronson, Susan Ariel


Published for (April 1998)

Saskia Sassen. Losing Control? Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization. University Seminars/Leonard Hastings Schoff Memorial Lectures. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. xvi + 148 pp. Bibliographic references and index. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-231-10608-4.

Reviewed by for H-Business by Susan Ariel Aaronson , George Mason University

Reordering the World?

The spoken word is often easier to understand than the written word. That’s why I was eager to tackle a series of lectures on globalization by Columbia University Professor Sasskia Sassen. This collection however, is a tough hike. The language is like a jungle that the reader must cut through.

Although Sassen’s words are a thicket, it is a hike worth taking. Sassen’s turf has been well traveled by economists, business leaders, policy analysts, and historians, but Sassen brings a different perspective as a professor of Urban Planning who teaches at Columbia’s Graduate School of International and Public Affairs. She is interested in how a new economic system centered on cross border flows and global communication has affected “two distinct features of the modern state: sovereignty and exclusive territoriality”(p. xii). She wants the reader and listener to see how it will affect the institution of economic citizenship as a “strategic research site and nexus” (pp. xiii) (this is what I mean by a jungle of unnecessary words). Sassen alleges that “we must consider the possibility that there exists a form of economic citizenship that empowers and can demand accountability from governments.” But these economic citizens are not people; they are “firms and markets”: “The fact of being global gives these actions power over individual governments…I use the concept as a kind of theoretical provocation, outside the accepted lineage of the concept of citizenship” (p. xiv). Finally, Dr. Sassen is concerned about immigration and worries that we need to “deconstruct the state” in its role in the migration process. “It is in this sense,” she says, “that immigration is a strategic site to inquire about the limits of the new order…it is embedded in a larger dynamic of trasnationalization (sic) of economic spaces and human rights regimes” (p. xvi)

Sassen begins by tracing the evolution of the term sovereignty. Here her path is easy to follow. She describes how sovereignty has been affected by globalization and how globalization has been accompanied by the creation of new legal regimes and practices. To many observers that process has been U.S. driven. In many countries, international or transnational has become “a form of Americanization” (p. 18). Who can disagree as we listen to Madonna and type on our IBM computers while wearing our Levi’s jeans. Finally she notes that the “virtualization” (a new word?) “of economic activities is a challenge both to regulation and to business. “This,” she concludes, “may signal a control crisis in the making” (p. 21).

Sassen argues that this crisis is occurring at the same time that “global capital has made claims on national states, which have responded through the production of new forms of legality” (p. 25). These new legal regimes “negotiate between national sovereignty and the transnational practices of corporate economic actors” (p. 26). Thus, sovereignty is being transformed by economic globalization. The next two chapters compare how economics is undermining the role of states, while immigration in contrast is “renationalizing politics.” Chapter Two tries to relate these developments to the notion of citizenship and the rights associated with citizenship. Here Sassen has forged something new. She argues that our notions of citizenship will change as the global economy changes. Global forces challenge the authority of the nation states. “There are enormous problems,” she notes “of state membership for aboriginal communities, stateless people, and refugees” (p. 34). She believes the challenges of globalization and “virtualization” will have important implications for human rights, and who or what will enforce these rights: “Today’s welfare state crises, growing unemployment and growing earnings inequality…can certainly be read as signaling a change in all the highly developed countries in the entitlements of citizens.” Other analysts of globalization such as Dani Rodrik have taught us that globalization has undercut the social bargain that many democratic capitalist nations have adopted since the Great Depression (a welfare state, regulation, and capitalism). However, Sassen adds that international investments searching for global opportunities “do not favor the growth of a large middle class.” Thus, “economic globalization has hit at some of the major conditions that have hitherto supported the evolution of citizenship and particularly the formation of social rights” (pp. 37-38). All of us should worry if globalization undermines democracy. At the same time, however, Sassen notes that the powerful in the global economy, (global corporations, international financiers) have acquired new rights and that there is “a consensus among states to further the interests of economic globalization.” But Sassen shows no primary sources or evidence of government action over time to illustrate this allegation. She cites two articles in one book and her own forthcoming work to prove this point [1]. She then notes that fifteen agencies around the world (including the Justice Department) reviewed the merger of Gillette and Wilkenson in 1989 and acceded to it. But does this prove the consensus she alleges? I doubt it. The evidence she cites might also be used to make the opposite point. The fact that so many agencies reviewed this merger illuminates, I believe, elite and public concerns about the consequences of globalization and a desire to hamper and halt it. (We certainly hear this in the ongoing debates over refunding the IMF and in fast-track authority, how Congress grants authority to the President to negotiate trade agreements.) Moreover, globalization often pits one national champion against another. (We see this in the 1980 market competition between Japan’s Komatsu and America’s Caterpillar Corporations and even more recently the European Community’s response to the Boeing/McDonnell Douglas merger.) Governments weigh such mergers to ensure that some of their taxpayers, citizens, consumers, and shareholders benefit. Government actions can tilt the balance.

Sassen’s last chapter addresses how in the face of globalization, nations have retained sovereignty to control immigration. In fact, this week NPR noted that the largest police force in America was that of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Sassen notes “a fundamental framework roots all the immigration policies of the developed countries in a common set of conceptions” (p. 64). She sees globalization behind many changes in immigration (“the international activities of the governments or firms of countries receiving immigrants may have contributed to the formation of economic links…that may invite the movement of people” [p. 84]). However, Sassen notes that human rights challenge immigration policies because “human rights are not dependent on nationality, unlike political, social, and civil rights” (p. 89). In recent years, court cases have shown that individuals and non-state actors brought claims based on the notion of international human rights codes as expanding international law. This lets the judiciary mediate “between these agents and the international legal order.” The result, she claims has been a shift to the rights of individuals “from an exclusive emphasis on the sovereignty of the people and right to self-determination” (p. 95). This has devalued the institution of citizenship, affecting “the configuration of the international order” (pp. 96-97). But perhaps the international defense of human rights may also make us better citizens because of our willingness to defend and attribute rights to individuals in states that do not honor or enforce human rights. I don’t see this phenomenon as a big negative but something positive.

This chapter ends with a summation of globalization’s impact upon sovereignty but no answers as to what to do about it. Moreover, the author has no suggestions for the public who surely should be worried about the effect on them as citizens in democratic regimes challenged by globalization. I will look forward to reading Sassen’s upcoming work on these issues. However, I wish she had not left us hanging.


[1]. James H. Mittelman, ed., Globalization: Critical Reflections International Political Economy Yearbook vol. 9 (Boulder, Co: Lynne Riener, 1996).


Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Industrial Constructions: The Sources of German Industrial Power

Author(s):Herrigel, Gary
Reviewer(s):Shearer, Ronald A.


Published by (January, 1998)

Gary Herrigel. Industrial Constructions: The Sources of German Industrial Power. Structural Analysis in the Social Sciences Series, 9. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. x + 480 pp. Tables, notes, bibliography, maps, and index. $54.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-521-46273-8.

Reviewed for H-Business by Ronald A. Shearer , University of British Columbia

The question, addressed in this book is: does the literature on German industrialization accurately describe the process that occurred? Alternatively, considering the long sweep of history, how did one of the most successful examples of industrialization in modern times come to pass? Readers may want to extrapolate the analysis to address a broader question: how does any economy industrialize? While Herrigel does not explicitly answer this broader question, his analysis may nonetheless be very relevant in various other contexts.

For economists, Herrigel’s analysis is at once informative and frustrating. Two aspects of this book are important for economists interested in the process of industrialization and economic development. First is the forceful demonstration of the interaction between the social environment, governmental structures, and politics on the one hand and profit seeking decisions of business firms and the supporting activities of business associations on the other. In the German case, the interaction partially shaped the course of industrialization and was partially shaped by it. Second, but equally important, is Herrigel’s careful exploration of the nature and role of regional diversity in German industrial development, an aspect of economic development that has important echoes in many countries. What economists will find frustrating is what is missing in the analysis and the exaggerated assertions made or implied regarding the relevance of “traditional” social and economic analysis. Both are reflected in the virtual neglect (perhaps better, the rejection) of very basic economics in the exploration of the behaviour of firms and industries in the various episodes considered in the book. The problem is most acute in the sections dealing with long run industrialization up to 1945 but is not absent in the post World War II material. Economists will also be concerned about the lack of verifiable quantitative evidence on the importance of the regional industrialization process so clearly described in the book for the long run growth of the German economy. If we grant the story of the development of a “decentralized industrial order,” what difference did it make, not only for the growth of regional economies but also for the growth of the national economy?

The book is well researched and carefully documented. The author’s research included an impressive number of interviews with significant people in industrial firms and associations, universities and governments, and the analysis and conclusions are carefully related to the existing literature. Indeed, some 40 percent of the pages are devoted to notes and bibliography, a rich treasure for students and researchers. The index is short but adequate. Several maps help elucidate the geographical dimensions of the analysis. Many readers will find the writing style of the opening, quasi theoretical chapter overly laden with dense, unrelenting, unfamiliar jargon and may be annoyed by the excessive repetition of some theoretical propositions. By contrast, the historical material and illustrative case studies are presented clearly and effectively. The book has the added merit of being as up-to-date as can be expected. Herrigel pursues his analysis of German industrialization into the 1990s with interesting interpretations of the problems that began to haunt German industry at the beginning of this decade.

While I find aspects of the book less than satisfactory in terms both of content and presentation, on balance, the strengths of the book vastly outweigh its defects. It is a rewarding work for anyone interested in German industrialization and the development of the German state and for anyone interested in the process of industrialization in general. It is a book that merits careful study.

The theoretical approach is presented in an Introduction (Chapter One), and the main theoretical propositions are restated at various places in other chapters. Herrigel’s bete noire is an explanation of German industrialization that focuses almost single mindedly on large, complex, largely self contained conglomerate firms (with strong links to associated banks) what he calls “autarkic firms.” He argues that an interpretation of German industrialization of which the primacy of such firms was the fundamental pillar dominated the “post World War II research agenda” on German industrial development, to the detriment of a deeper understanding of German industrialization. He attributes this agenda to Gershenkron and his disciples, building on the shoulders of Schumpeter and augmented by various later analysts of business management, industrial organization and technological invention, innovation and diffusion in capitalist economies. In this agenda, the smaller industrial enterprises, if considered at all, were seen as an appendage of the central autarkic firm sector or a minor enclave in the aggregate economy. The autarkic sector was the driver; the small business sector a passenger. To the contrary, Herrigel argues, what he calls the “decentralized industrial order” had a vibrant, independent development based in the states of western and southwestern Germany. It played an important role in German industrialization, although Herrigel is deficient in not presenting convincing quantitative indices of how important.

As befits a political scientist, Herrigel’s focus is on governance, namely on what he calls “industrial governance.” While the precise meaning of governance in this context is a bit vague, it is the emphasis on more or less independent regional industrial networks that leads to his depiction of this sector of the economy as an “industrial order.” The decentralized industrial sector is not seen as a part of a larger “industrial structure,” but as something separate in organization, ethos and production characteristics, with its own historical roots, social coherence and governance institutions. Herrigel’s analysis of the development of this sector is evolutionary, reflecting his rejection not only of the language (“which I dislike”, p. 23) but also the substance of neo classical economics. As a result, we have a picture of the development of an industrial sector without reference to underlying production economics.

In three chapters (Chapters Two through Four), Herrigel explores the history of the decentralized and autarkic sectors up to World War II, including an important chapter on the interaction between the firms and business organizations in these sectors and the political system. He finds the roots of the divergent development of the two sectors in the systems of land inheritance in different sections of Germany. Where impartible land inheritance was the rule, a landless proletariat was created, providing the necessary labor force for large scale enterprises. Where partible land inheritance was the rule, the division of the land into smaller and smaller units resulted in a population of land owners for whom cultivation of the land could not be a full time occupation. They engaged in “rural industry” while retaining their land, developing specialized skills and social traditions. The result, the substance of Chapter Two, was the development of regional concentrations of specialized, small scale, mutually supporting factories producing for domestic and eventually world markets. They cooperated in various ways, including farming out production to each other and to home producers and in the development of common services. In the process they developed a distinctive social ethos and an appropriate set of industrial institutions that became the basis for subsequent evolution of the sector.

The emphasis on the long run consequences of impartible land inheritance is interesting. It is surprising, however, that in this context Herrigel does not devote attention to the possibilities for market transactions in land which could have led to consolidation of holdings and the creation of the landless labor force that he sees as so important in the other regions. Similarly, it is surprising that he does not devote considerable space to the analysis of patterns of interregional migration (or limitations thereon) which would seem to be an important adjunct to his analysis.

Underlying it all, no attention is devoted to the economics of production of the products in question. Economic considerations intrude only so far as market conditions affected the performance of the firms and led to adjustments in products and institutions. However, there must have been more than just the ethos of the industries that made industrial production viable in these regions. I looked in vain for some consideration of traditional (“neoclassical”) location of industry considerations, including careful consideration of the nature of the products and available production techniques, including questions of potential scale economies and the optimal scale of production. Nor is there any consideration of relative factor prices in the different regions. Herrigel’s use of the concept of governance in this context is also puzzling. It is clear from his discussion that the firms were autonomous units; they made the production and investment decisions in their own self interest. The role of regional associations in facilitating production as described by Herrigel seems far from the rule making and enforcement that I associate with governance. In part, these associations provided various kinds of support for the firms (in the jargon of neoclassical economics, their activities created “external economies,” services whose benefits could not be fully captured by any individual firm but which lowered the costs or improved the competitive position of the industry as a whole). In part they were cartels, attempting to protect the firms from adverse developments in the market or to take advantage of a strong collective position in the market. As with any cartel of independent firms, when the individual firms saw a strategic advantage in diverging from cartel policy, the cartel became unstable and tended to break down. That is all familiar to economists who study industrial organization. From Herrigel’s discussion, I think the governance concept is stretched very thin in this context. The analysis would be helped immensely by incorporating relevant economics. The analysis of the autarkic sector (Chapter Three) is built around a case study of the Ruhr iron and steel industry with a shorter but still important study of the machinery industry. The analysis has the same character as the analysis of the decentralized sector; the same strength and what I see as the same weaknesses. Heavy emphasis is placed on the evolution of the institutions of the sector and the interaction among firms within the institutions and between the institutions and government, with minimum consideration for locational and production economics. About the only non institutional locational factor noted is passing mention of the availability of abundant iron and steel in the Ruhr Valley. Careful attention is given to the interaction between industry and banks, and the impulse to cartelization is carefully documented. As in the case of the decentralized sector, the analysis of the instability of the cartels could benefit from incorporation of relevant economics, but the analysis on the social and political levels is well developed and persuasive.

The third chapter in this group (Chapter Four) is a stimulating analysis of the interaction between the industrial structure and the political system. Careful attention is given to the role of industries in affecting public policies and the effects of the structure of government on industrial development in Imperial Germany, the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era. The strong message emerging from the analysis is the importance of a federal system of government in promoting the development of the decentralized industrial order and the prevention of its domination by the autarkic industrial order. There are also interesting conclusions about the inconsistency of the centralized Weimar Republic with the established pattern of decentralized industrialization and the roots of the attraction of members of the decentralized sector to the Nazi movement. The period since World War II is the substance for the third part of the book (Chapters Five through Seven). The organization is the same as in the second part: a chapter on the decentralized sector (Chapter Five), one on the autarkic sector (Chapter Six), and one on the interrelations between business and government in the process of industrialization (Chapter Seven). The latter includes the unduly brief conclusion to the book. The analysis of the decentralized and autarkic sectors is in three phases, the period of the economic miracle from 1945 to the mid 1970s, the struggle for restructuring through the 1980s, and finally some relatively brief but nonetheless insightful observations on the pressures that appear to be emerging in the 1990s.

Given the longer run argument developed earlier in the book, the central issue in the analysis of the early part of the post war period is the apostasy of a number of firms in the decentralized sector. Penetration of the autarkic form of organization into the regional domain of the decentralized industrial order occurred as some producers “adopted mass production strategies … by breaking out of the institutional and practical framework that governed production and administration” in the decentralized industries (p. 148). The informative case study is of the Daimler Benz AG automobile manufacturing firm, but it is said to be representative of a number of firms in the decentralized regions. The Daimler Benz process of conversion from specialized production of luxury vehicles to mass production of standardized vehicles is carefully documented. A strong measure of vertical integration of production relationship replaced what Helliger refers to as the horizontal relationships among firms in the decentralized order. The lesson is clear: technology and markets changed and the reality of the production economics of the modern automobile industry intruded. Once again, a healthy dose of economic analysis is called for. While hinted at, it is never adequately developed.

The 1980s brought another major shift in German industrial behaviour. Through cases studies of steel, machinery and automobile manufacturing, Herrigel traces the renewed development of the large scale industrial conglomerates in the postwar period and their amazing production performance during the economic miracle. Intensified international competition in the 1980s induced a reconsideration of the merits of centralization. A search for flexibility and reduced costs led to some decentralization with positive effects on the decentralized industrial sector. However, in this instance, decentralization created dependency in the sense that it involved the use of decentralized firms as sources of supply. As Herrigel argues, the organizational problems of large scale industry seemed to intensify in the early 1990s.

The final chapter (Seven) returns to the themes of Chapter Four, the interaction between industry and government in the postwar period. Not surprisingly, the influences flow both ways as pragmatic adjustments in government fostered and accommodated necessary adjustments in the industrial structure. In the early postwar period, the federal structure of government imposed by the allies provided support for both the decentralized industrial system and autarkic firms. Both sectors flourished. As centralization of industry spread through the economy, greater centralization of economic policy also occurred, particularly in labor relations and in the management of aggregate demand. The reversal of the centralization movement in the 1980s also saw some relaxation in the centralizing governmental arrangements. The mutual adjustment and adaptation of government and industry was not always smooth and trouble free, but it occurred and is an essential element in the Herrigel story. What are the broader lessons that can be abstracted from this analysis? It would be interesting to have an extended discussion of this question by Herrigel, but I carry away three points from his work. First is the proposition that regional diversity is likely to be a basic element in any industrialization process and that radically different forms and scales of industrialization are likely to be appropriate in different regions. It follows that industrialization policies should not pursue as a single-minded objective the creation of large scale, vertically integrated manufacturing firms. A mixture of types of firms and industries is more likely to be appropriate. Second, over time, the relative balance among types of industries is likely to change as technology, external competition and market conditions change. Flexibility and the capacity to adapt to fundamental changes are vitally important if crises are to be avoided. But perhaps the most basic lesson of all is the third one. To be successful, industries have to be compatible with the social and economic characteristics of the regions in which they are located. They are best cultivated by a governmental structure that is sensitive to regional aspirations, possibilities and concerns. I read Herrigel’s work as an argument for a decentralized federal structure of government that adapts pragmatically to changes in fundamental economic conditions. I have criticized Herrigel for the lack of economics in his analysis of German industrialization. Perhaps I am unfair. Within its own terms of reference, Herrigel has written a remarkably good book. He explicitly disavows any intention of presenting a general theory of German industrialization, and he does not present himself as an economist. Indeed, he abruptly rejects the approach of the economist. However, in an age that values interdisciplinary studies, there has to be a happy medium somewhere. What I would like see as the ideal is a Herrigel paired up with an equally well prepared and research-minded economist to produce a definitive work on German industrialization which carefully integrates the political and social institutional analysis with appropriate production, locational and organizational economics (probably in a game theoretic context).


Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):General or Comparative