How did our world—the modern world—get to be the way it is? By that I mean a world structured by an increasingly globalized industrial capitalism coupled with the nation state, and consequences arising from those two driving forces (e.g. rising living standards for some, but also international war, global poverty, and environmental degradation), and by 1900, military and economic domination of the world by Europe. Until recently, the answers to those questions have revolved around what happened in Europe in general, and for industry, in England in particular.
The usual story of the modern world thus is told in the narrative of “the Rise of the West” or “the European miracle” in which endogenous developments—sometimes seen as arising relatively recently, sometimes in medieval times (ca. 1300), or sometimes as long ago as the Greeks with their democratic institutions—propel “progress,” “development,” and “advancement” in Europe, while the rest of the world, in particular Asia, “stagnates” under “despotic” rulers and “backward” economies. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, this version of the story continues, the secrets of how to become modern diffused from Europe to Japan, pointing the way for others in the twentieth century. Modernity thus has been seen as a uniquely European invention, but one that can be universally adopted—if only non-Europe would change their cultures and institutions (a comprehensive version of this argument is synthesized in Landes 1998). In the twentieth century, when the Soviet Union existed and China was building socialism, the diffusion process was called “modernization” to distinguish it from industrialization under communist auspices; now that challengers to capitalism have been vanquished, the process is called “globalization.”
In “the Rise of the West” narrative of how the modern world came to be, the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century creators of social science, in particular Karl Marx and Max Weber, sought to explain European uniqueness by looking at Asia in general, and China in particular, asking the famous negative question: Why did capitalism not develop in China? Weber found the answer in cultural differences, while Marx implied the despotism of Asian states. Europe was rational, disciplined, scientific, inventive, and dynamic, and modernity was imminent in its historical development (a very Hegelian idea); the rest, Asia in general and China in particular, was passive, irrational, lazy, despotic, and incapable on its own of developing modern institutions (Hobson 2004: ch. 10).