How and, just as importantly, where did the modern era come into being? The driving forces of the period—industrialization, the spread of colonial rule, the financial integration of the globe, the advent of mass consumer society, the growth of working-class and anti-colonial movements—were seen, in Hobsbawm’s influential account of the long nineteenth century, as being propelled by twin economic and political revolutions: the former embodied in the emergence of England as the workshop of the world and the latter in the French Revolution, with its reverberations throughout the post-Napoleonic era. The consolidation of industrial capitalism in Europe then drove, or crucially inflected, transformations in Asia, Africa and elsewhere. C. A. Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World sets out to tackle the same period within a globalized framework: to trace ‘the rise of global uniformities in the state, religion, political ideologies and economic life’ between 1780 and 1914, while also noting that growing interconnectedness and interdependence could ‘heighten the sense of difference, and even antagonism, between people in different societies’.
Bayly’s definition of ‘the modern’ is in keeping with convention—broadly speaking, he takes it to mean the coming of industrialization, economic globalization, the proliferation of nation-states and with them, national identities. He acknowledges a degree of asymmetry in this process: ‘some Western societies retained a competitive advantage . . . because of the way they did business, made war and publicly debated policies.’ The ascent to modernity was earlier in Europe than elsewhere, and faster in its pace; Western ruling classes were able to parlay this early start into geopolitical advantage by securing actual control over other regions in Asia and Africa. As the nineteenth century progressed, imperial control over the less developed regions deepened—formally, through annexation, or informally, through economic domination; bringing in its wake the North–South divide that is with us to this day.
Even as he acknowledges this preponderance, however, Bayly wants to assert that the advantages of the Western powers were ‘contingent, inter-active and relatively short-lived’. He aims to ‘relativize the “revolution in modernity” by showing that many different agencies and ideologies across the world empowered it in different ways and at different times’. In sum:
A history of this period has to demonstrate a number of different and apparently contradictory things. It has to chart the interdependence of world events, while allowing for the brute fact of Western domination. At the same time it has to show how, over large parts of the world, this European domination was only partial and temporary.
How might such a history proceed? For Bayly, the transition to this century-long arc of modernization occurred in the hinge decades of 1780–1820. This period has, of course, long been recognized as a defining moment in European history, but Bayly reconceptualizes it as a moment of truly global crisis in which, all across Eurasia, one great state after another fell victim to fiscal overstretch, leading to political breakdown, and thence, in an interconnected process, to modernity. It was through the transcendence of this crisis that the entire map of global economic and geopolitical power was redrawn: older archaic powers fell to the side, and newer, more dynamic ones, resting on modern institutions, emerged as world powers. The process, Bayly explains, was initiated with the fall of the Safavid dynasty in Persia in 1722; it continued with the sacking of Delhi by Nadir Shah in 1739, and went on to convulse Mughal, Qing, Ottoman, French, English and Austrian regimes.