Book review: “The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History” by J.M. Blaut

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Book review: "The Colonizer's Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History" by J.M. Blaut. The Guilford Press; 1 edition (1993), 246 pages. U$ 25.78, www.amazon.com

Written two decades ago, "The Colonizer's Model of the World" was J.M. Blaut's first book of a planned trilogy on Eurocentrism. After the publication of his second book, Eight Eurocentric Historians, the author's death in 2000 prevented him from completing his project. His first book on the matter, however, has turned into a reference among the small number of scholars seeking alternative interpretations of global history.

Blaut disagrees with the consensus that Europe was more advanced and more progressive than all other regions prior to the beginning of the period of colonialism (1492), and that it was Europe's cultural and technological superiority that allowed it to spread its modernizing influence across the planet. Rather, Blaut believed that it was the spoils of colonialism that allowed Europe to rise, while contributing to the underdevelopment of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Why then, did Europeans discover the Americas, and not the Chinese, Arabs or Africans? Blaut responds that Europe greatly benefited from its proximity to the Americas: 

If the Western Hemisphere had been more accessible, say, to South Indian centers than to European centers, then very likely India would have become the home of capitalism, the site of the bourgeois revolution, and the ruler of the world.

One of Blaut's conceptual contributions is the idea of "tunnel history":

History and historical geography as it is taught, written, and thought by Europeans today, lies, as it were, in a tunnel of time. The walls of this tunnel are, figuratively, the spatial boundaries of Greater Europe. History is a matter of looking back or down in this European tunnel of time and trying to decide what happened where, when, and why. “Why” of course calls for connections among historical events, but only among the events that lie in the European tunnel. Outside its walls everything seems to be rockbound, timeless, changeless tradition. (....) Non-Europe (Africa, Asia east of the Bible Lands, Latin America, Oceania) receive significant notice only as the venue of European colonial activities, and most of what was said about this region was essentially the history of empire.

Indeed, even Blaut's critics must admit that global history courses taught at European and US universities dedicate very little time to events that are not directly related to the West, and very few students know about the pre-colonial history of Latin America, Africa and Asia. Textbooks, Blaut rightly pointed out, are an important window into a culture; "more than just books, they are semiofficial statements of exactly what the opinion-forming elite of the culture want the educated youth of that culture to believe to be true about the past and present world."

Perhaps even more revealing, Eurocentrism is common even in Latin America, Africa and many parts of Asia, where European history is taught far more extensively than that of other parts of the Global South. It is precisely this global pattern that has led to today's remarkable situation in which countries in the Global South know virtually nothing about each other -- and if they do, the knowledge they possess comes from Western sources: Brazilians and South Africans who'd like to learn more about China buy Kissinger's On China, and Africans eager to learn about India read Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods. These books invariably contain Western-centric views that analyze the world according to US or European interests, complicating efforts by developing countries to articulate their own views regarding the world's most pressing questions such as the rise of China. For example, China's rise is often seen in the context of two competing Western narratives -- that China will rise and seek to undermine and ultimately destroy Western order, or that it will socialize, democratize and seal the "End of History", the latter implying that Western-style democracy and capitalism successfully completed its universal diffusion.

After all, as a result of "tunnel history", most Western historians still maintain that most of the really crucial historical events, those that “changed history,” happened in Europe, or happened because of some causal impetus from Europe. In fact, many post-colonial and "anti-Western" thinkers are guilty of Western-centrism, as they often attribute greater power and influence to the West (mostly negative) than is actually the case. The mere terms "West", "rest" and "non-West" are signs of how Western-centric our thinking has become: It is as unhelpful as dividing the world between Africa and non-Africa, or Inuit and non-Inuit. In fact, dividing the world between West and non-West is even less useful since the definition of the West has changed over time, and there is no consensus about who is and who is not part of the West. Just think of whether Australia, Mexico, Israel, Ukraine, Georgia, Greenland or Brazil are part of the West or not.

While Blaut's analysis of Euro-centrism is important, some of his historic analysis is somewhat repetitive. There is little doubt that imperalism and colonialism are liberalism's darkest chapters, and many 19th century liberal thinkers had commercial interests in the colonies -- yet others have made this argument in a more comprehensive way, such as Uday Singh Mehta's Liberalism and Empire (reviewed here). He is more convincing in his argument that Europe benefited far more from colonialism than is generally assumed, detailing how colonies were not modernized, but kept poor in order to provide commodities to finance Europe's modernization.

Looking back, it is remarkable how little Blaut's arguments about Eurocentrism have impacted Western mainstream thinking international affairs. Popular books that seek to explain the rise of the West -- such as Larry Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel or Ian Lewis' Why the West rules - for now -- are strongly influenced by geographic determinism and do not even mention Blaut's arguments. The concept of Eurocentrism itself remained limited to a relatively small group of academics. That may be because, as Blaut puts it, "the critique of diffusionism has barely begun." Indeed, later works by scholars critical of Eurocentrism have been able to make a clearer and more cohesive argument -- such as John M. Hobson's The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization (reviewed here). Several of Blaut's arguments seem exaggerated or odd, and he sees the evil of diffusionism in too many places -- for example, he seems to doubt that HIV/AIDS originated in Africa and then spread from there. While Blaut may be right that some things emerged in several places at the same time, there is little doubt that a lot of ideas, concepts, etc. did originate in one place only and then influenced other regions and cultures. Taken to the extreme, Blaut's anti-diffusionist model rejects the phenomenon of globalization altogether. For example, his argument that the cannon "appeared" in China and the Mediterranean region almost simultaneously -- "perhaps in the same decade" sounds ingenuous. 

Despite these problems, Blaut makes some important arguments and even two decades after its publication, The Colonizer's Model of the World deserves to be read.

Read also:

Identity and the concept of the West: The case of Brazil and India

Book review: “The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation” by John M. Hobson

Book review: “Liberalism and Empire” by Uday Singh Mehta

Book review: “Non-Western International Relations Theory” by Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan (eds.)