McNeill, William. The Pursuit of Power. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.
A combination of my old notes and notes from other students. But still woefully incomplete; the book deserves a real review.
McNeill believes that technology and armed forces pose a serious risk to the continuation of society. There is a direct link between the way human society interacts with microorganisms such as plagues and diseases and the way in which military organizations affect a society: just as a society is disrupted, seriously damaged or potentially destroyed by an encounter with a new organism, so too, is an encounter with a new military technology disruptive and damaging. Technological change, then, is equated with mutations of microorganism -- in the sense that organisms will open new regions for exploration or reduce the barriers that previously existed. In other words, an army equipped in a way not previously encountered by an indigenous population will have the same effect as the introduction of a disease to which that group does not have immunity.
For McNeill, the importance of raising and equipping an army are of lesser importance than the ability to acquire goods and resources from distant locations. Long-distance infrastructures are those which allow a state to become dominant. An army, for instance, was not limited by the number of arms it could acquire so much as by the length of the supply lines once it was in the field. Since all armies in the ancient world were limited in long-distance actions by supply lines, societies aiming for the acquisition of materials and goods demonstrated superiority by their skills in trade and diplomacy. Capital cities with tax and rent systems and long-distance trade were a more efficient way to create social goods than armies. McNeill suggests that Bronze Age societies were unified and centralized before the advent of iron weapons. And in the new Iron Age, kingdoms used older models, and had standing bodies of troops.
McNeill argues that Confucian China placed emphasis on stability and kept merchants hierarchically lower. Geographically it had a large and unified market which required little outside input. Iron and salt were regulated and taxed. So after an initial period of faster development, China did not keep pace with the West. In the 1100s, steppe populations using the raid-and-run lifestyle were as successful as the agricultural urban populace. Plague and gunpowder in the 1300s shifted the balance toward the urban lifestyle. A sea-land frontier was articulated through taxation and safe harbors. Disasters happened for both groups happened when grain trade was disrupted.
McNeill's thesis is that command economies were once the human norm, and that they obtained until about 1000 AD. At that point, travel and trade technology advanced so that markets began to operate: the mobilization of men and goods created power and wealth. Specifically, China had reached a point of stasis, but in Europe new shipbuilding techniques created the venue for trade and new mining techniques introduced wealth. So in the 12th century, infantry forces were capable of challenging mounted knights on the Italian battlefields. Town militia gave way to hired mercenaries, and a complex system of managing armies was operating until the French and Spanish armies invaded in 1494. However, once the Italian city states demonstrated the market -army relationship, there was no going back. A commitment to market relationships absorbed more and more of European society. As the rest of Europe began to adopt Italian ways of raising and paying armies, Northern Europe upped the ante by introducing drill and hierarchy, both ways of making armies more stable, effective and efficient. Europeans gained the power to spread abroad, bringing in more and more territories, and more and more wealth, reinforcing the market-military nexus. At the end of the 17th century, it looked like a fiscal plateau had been reached - it was impossible to pay more or raise more men. Anyway, after the additions of muskets and drill, the armies became bastions of a settled command way of life - absorbing the energies of the young, and changing little. And then the anomalous Industrial and democratic revolutions gave new life to the military machine through the 19th and 20th centuries, when Europe managed to spread out again and dominate the rest of the world.
McNeill compares the underlying problems in the French Revolution and England's Industrial Revolution: a population explosion. Unemployed and underemployed young men joined the French army. In England, that same group emigrated, joined the army, or got involved with the new factories and iron-works. Ultimately, the French weakness was costly overland transport, which the British solved by their Navy. The Crimean war demonstrated the difficulties Europeans had of supplying weapons on demand and so Europeans changed their minds about the value of having interchangeable parts. The industrialization of war, says McNeill, can be dated to the 1840s, when semi-automated mass production together with Prussian breechloaders and French efforts to exploit steam to the detriment of the British began to transform old military establishments. (262) Imperial expansion ultimately became cheap because of mass-produced weapons and cheap transportation. An intensification of that interaction occurred from 1884-1914, ending in WWI. The British Navy commissioned more and more powerful weapons, giving more and more money to arms makers, and making it almost impossible not to fight at some point. The arms firms and the armed forces were the primary shapers of the industrialization of war and the politicization of economics. A command economy began to replace the former market forces.
A global market with a rising population and increased productivity will continue
to permit war. European efforts at domination have not yet slowed down. But
McNeill predicts that it will, because at some point the limits of the world
will have been reached.