Published by EH.NET (November 2003)

Ronald E. Seavoy, Origins and Growth of the Global Economy: From the Fifteenth Century Onward. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. xii + 301 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 0-275-97912-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Laura Cruz, Department of History, Western Carolina University.

Ronald Seavoy’s latest book, Origins and Growth of the Global Economy: From the Fifteenth Century Onward, will not surprise readers of his previous works, including Famine in Peasant Societies (1986), Famine in East Africa (1989) and Subsistence and Economic Development (2000), as the primary argument in each is similar, i.e. that economic development requires political intervention and forced social disruption. In the case of Origins and Growth, Seavoy has placed the argument in a new framework, namely the historic growth of European mercantile empires and their evolution into a world system.

The book begins with an overview of European expansion and commercial development in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and then moves to an in-depth examination of English agricultural policy, especially the enclosure movement, which Seavoy sets up as a model for others to follow. The narrative then abruptly jumps to the late nineteenth century, drawing comparisons between old and new styles of imperialism, with particular attention paid to the political forms adopted by the latter. Nearly half of the book focuses on the late twentieth century, especially the economic problems faced in former colonies and the attempts by developed countries to address those problems, of which Seavoy is highly critical.

Seavoy is selective and eclectic in his use of historical sources and does little to address the historiography of European expansion in earlier periods. His historical overview is hardly exhaustive and a list of what-would-seem-like critical omissions would be long. Arguably, however, comprehensiveness is not the purpose of his book. He uses history not so much to contextualize but to highlight cases that illustrate his main focus — the failure of current development policies.

In doing so, he directly challenges neo-classical psychology. Beginning with Adam Smith, economists have claimed that their tenets are universal through time and across space, as they are based on assumptions about basic, inherent human nature — Smith’s homo economicus. Policies based on this assumption seek to bring out the economicus in peasants by providing incentives for them to participate in their own transformation to commercialized capitalists. Seavoy’s fundamental insight is that the main actors (usually male heads of households) in subsistence economies are not latent capitalists and, in fact, possess radically different mentalities than those assumed by policy makers. Capitalistic development, according to Seavoy, cannot be induced by such policies and must instead be forced upon populations who will never be willing participants in their own transformation. In Seavoy’s account, the English enclosure movement demonstrates this basic truth not just because it represents one of the most successful transformations from subsistence to commercialized agriculture but especially because it was accomplished almost entirely by coercion via collusion between the English Crown and the seigniorial landlords.

The colonial empires of the late nineteenth century also illustrate Seavoy’s great revelation, in this case not because of their success but because of their failure. Seavoy believes that the British imperial rulers had sufficient insight into the backwardness of their dependant populations and recognized the need for force. Unfortunately, they lacked the ability and/or the resources to effectively implement the necessary actions. In the end, they were precipitously cut short in their attempts to do so by the great wave of decolonization following World War II. Since that time, the fundamental insight into peasant mentality has been lost and replaced with neo-classical theories that have done nothing more than exacerbate the unfinished business of European, especially British, colonialism.

Seavoy does not examine nearly any recent work in developmental theory, most of which he dismisses simply as political correctness rearing its ugly head. Instead, he focuses on a few select policies and analyzes their results. According to Seavoy, these policies, as enacted by self-serving corporations, often-corrupt post-colonial regimes and well intentioned but misguided international agencies, coddle subsistence producers under the guide of social justice. Seavoy’s examples indicate that the problem is not laziness on the part of the peasants, but rather a radically different set of goals, which lead to an altered calculation of self-interest. Put simply, peasants choose less work because they do not see any increased benefits to working harder. In normal years, their efforts produce enough food for satisfy their basic needs. In bad years, problems do arise but there are plenty of agencies willing to bail them out of their predicament. Increased life expectancy, largely the result of better medical care coming from the developed world, and industrial expansion have strained the limits of these traditional economies and made famine more, rather than less, likely.

Seavoy’s arguments can perhaps justifiably be labeled as oversimplification because in many of his books he distills multivariate outcomes down to the same, single cause. This does not mean, however, that this book is without its contributions. Seavoy, now professor emeritus at Bowling Green State University, maintains unflagging optimism that economic development is possible. He posits a powerful, if problematic, defense of the idea that not everyone is born with a willingness and ability to play in the capitalist playground. The book also serves as a reminder that simple solutions (including those of the accuser and the accused in this case) will not solve complex problems with deep historical roots. Few readers will be able to deny that he has provoked them to think about the difficulties that underlie underdevelopment, even if the main source of that provocation is disagreement.

Laura Cruz is the author of “The Paradox of Prosperity: The Leiden Booksellers’ Guild and the Distribution of Books in the Golden Age” (forthcoming from Oak Knoll Press).