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:
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.
The problem for such an argument, of course, is how to explain the connection between the plunge into crisis during the eighteenth century and the development of modern political and economic forms. It cannot be the mere fact of crisis that gives rise to modernity: fiscal crises, imperial overstretch, new challengers to power, military innovations—all of which Bayly presents as the culprits pushing states into instability—were hardly new to the eighteenth century. All the great agrarian zones of the Eurasian land mass had long histories of these phenomena over the preceding millennium; yet never before had the collapse of empires or the spread of commerce been associated with the particular political forms of the modern state, or with the nineteenth century’s explosion in economic growth and productivity, the epochal shift of economic structures away from agriculture toward industry. What Bayly, or anyone else trying to link the late eighteenth century crises to the onset of these phenomena, must do is to explain this connection—what was it that implicated this crisis with the transition to modernity across much of the world?