Global (Dis)order

I’ve been on a run of reading history books, and am about to finish Adam Tooze’s The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order 1916-1931. It’s beyond my professional competence to review properly, in the sense that the book clearly has a distinctive perspective on the way Woodrow Wilson used America’s financial lifeline during and after the war, and the Treaty of Versailles negotiations, to shape the impending American Century. My guess is some historians would disagree about how purposeful this exercise of financial power was. Nevertheless, to the non-expert reader, this is a brilliant and compelling book – above all for taking a global perspective. I particularly liked the inclusion of substantial sections on Japan and China, and on India and the seeds of collapse of the British Empire. It is easy for a west European to forget for example the role of Japan in Siberia, and to concentrate on Russia’s western borders.

91HjfjpIRfLThere are also illuminating perspectives on the impact of the war on America itself, including the deployment of the new Federal Reserve Board and the governance of the US economy. Tooze points out that before Wilson committed to support the Entente, substantial private finance had been directed to the war effort: “Through the private business contacts of JP Morgan, supported by the business and political elite of the American Northeast, the Entente was carrying out the mobilization of a large part of the US economy, entirely without the say-so of the Wilson Administration.” When the US officially entered the war, the state’s role in the management of capitalism expanded greatly, only to be firmly contained again in the post-war era. It is often forgotten how severe the post WW1 recession was, even in the US – Tooze underlines its impact on the inter-war order. (Another book that focuses on this event, in a fascinating albeit maverick interpretation, is James Grant’s The Forgotten Depression)

Another very interesting thread running through The Deluge, at least for economists whose only perspective to date comes from Keynes’s famous The Economic Consequences of the Peace, is Tooze’s argument that Keynes’s polemic was a distortion of the truth. Tooze argues, contra Keynes, that the Germans tricked the Entente into the armistice, rather than the other way round. He agrees that the book reflected widespread disillusion with the Treaty, but also contributed to its loss of legitimacy and “helped to further poison the atmosphere between London and Paris.” It might not even have helped Germany, Tooze suggests: “A good faith effort to honour the Treaty, even if it had fallen short, might well have steered the Weimar Republic away from the ruinous crisis of 1923.” Furthermore, Keynes painted the alternative financial settlement he suggested as “an entirely novel idea, a great opportunity that had been missed at Versailles,” knowing well (as he had been there) that it was discussed at Versailles and rejected by Wilson (not Clemenceau). For if there had been greater generosity toward the Germans, the British and French would have had to seek debt write-offs from the US. “The result was grossly to misrepresent the politics of the peace making process,” Tooze concludes.

As it happens, I was (nearly) finishing the book at the Trianon Palace hotel in Versailles where the treaty was signed. Another fine historian, Margaret McMillan (The War That Ended Peace and Peacemakers) was attending the same conference. Here she is in front of the commemorative plaque.IMG_3905


Truth is possible – and important

For reasons too lengthy to go into, I just read In Defence of History by Richard Evans (first published 1997). It’s a spirited counter-attack on the post-modernist/structuralist attack on history, particularly its most extreme versions. Consider for example Barthes’ claim that history is, “A parade of signifiers masquerading as a collection of facts.” Evans argues that postmodernist historians make the false claim that ‘traditional’ historians naively take historical documents at face value, whereas they are well aware that the degree of transparency of historical texts varies: to pit naive belief in the documents against knowing relativism about texts is to create a false duality.

Richard Evans has been back in the news as he acted as an expert witness for the High Court in the trial portrayed in the new film Denial. As he has noted on Twitter (@RichardEvans36), this account of the court battle between disgraced Holocaust-denier David Irving and the historian Deborah Lipstadt is extraordinarily timely. His book seems newly timely as well in the post-truth, alt_facts era; history is shaped by the present but not only by the present, and the search for truth is meaningful. As he tweeted again earlier this month:



The merit of methodological individualism: individuals count

I’m reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History, which accompanies the excellent BBC series (& is an amazing bargain at £6 for a big hardback on Amazon at the moment). Just a short way in, I’m delighted to find reference to the true origins of Thomas Carlyle’s description of economics as ‘the dismal science’. Carlyle was, as Olusoga notes, “an apologist for slavery.” He thought economics was dismal because prominent economists were in the abolition campaign, and thereby – in his view – undermining the sanctity of private property rights with their ‘expertise’. This was surely an occasion when the methodology of economics – based on identical, individual agents – was surely on the side of right. There is an excellent detailed essay on this in the Library of Economics and Liberty (in 2 parts).

Cotton Famine Road, above Norden

Cotton Famine Road, above Norden

Among the others on the right side at this time were those Lancashire mill workers who supported the Union blockade of the southern ports in the American Civil War, despite the great personal cost the Cotton famine imposed on them. I hadn’t heard of Cotton Famine Road, despite growing up nearby. Manchester still remembers the episode thanks to the donated statue of Abraham Lincoln. There was a super In Our Time about it a while ago.

Lincoln in Manchester

Lincoln in Manchester

I’ve also enjoyed the book’s demolition of the vile Enoch Powell, a pompous man who prided himself on historical knowledge, as completely unhistorical in his beliefs about the England of yore.


1989 and all that

One of the most brilliant history books I’ve ever read is the late Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945. It was revelatory, not just because he was a brilliant writer, but also because of that framing of modern history on this side of the Atlantic as a story of all of Europe. The Iron Curtain turned out to have been an internalised barrier too. So Judt was able to reveal the epochal importance of German reunification and membership of the EU for other central and Eastern European countries. For many of us ‘Remainers’, the failure of the official campaign in the UK’s disastrous EU referendum to remind voters about how hard won modern Europe has been was inexplicable.

I’ve just finished Europe Since 1989: A History by Philipp Ther (a translation from the German original). While not on the same scale, Ther acknowledges his debt to the way Judt framed the continent as a whole. Having said that, this is a book focusing largely on the experience of the former Soviet bloc, and exploring the reasons for the different outcomes for different countries. One message is how much earlier history influences the present, for example in the differing cultural and social attitudes to entrepreneurship, or conformism. Another is the extent to which east Germany (and Berlin until relatively recently) suffered from what Ther describes as “the most radical shock therapy in postcommunist Europe.”

I found the detail interesting – Ther is obviously familiar in great depth with many of the former planned economies. I had one big frustration, which is that the entire post-1989 history is interpreted through the prism of ‘neoliberalism’. I agree with my colleague Colin Talbot that this is largely used as a generic term of abuse, one often aimed at economists in general. Ironic, really, when applied in the context of the dramatic economic collapse of the non-market economies. Ther isn’t as bad as many users of the term, in that he does appreciate that there was a specific ideological project – spearheaded by Reagan and Thatcher, supported by a group of economists. However, while talking freely about ‘neoliberal hegemony’, he also writes: “The political practice of reform in eastern Europe always diverged from pure theory,” and “Brussels’ agenda was not strictly neoliberal,” (writing about transfers of funds to the former communist countries amounting to many times the amount of Marshall Aid). He continues: “Overall, European integration and its attendant programms were a tremendous success.”

So one ends up with the impression that the first neoliberal wave was Jeff Sachs with his ‘shock therapy’ theory, and the second was Vaclav Klaus. It’s a bit thin, although of course the ‘shock therapies’ were simplistic and indeed quickly disowned by many economists. So although at least this book doesn’t claim all of economics, the mere idea of economic reform in a disintegrated planned economy, is neoliberal, it’s an analytical frame that hinders rather than helping understanding of post-1989 Europe.


Being enlightened

I’m reading and enjoying Joel Mokyr’s forthcoming [amazon_link id=”B01EGQA1Z2″ target=”_blank” ]A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy[/amazon_link] (which I’ll be reviewing for another outlet). It’s another perspective on the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution than covered by his earlier books, [amazon_link id=”0195074777″ target=”_blank” ]The Lever of Riches[/amazon_link] and [amazon_link id=”0140278176″ target=”_blank” ]The Enlightened Economy[/amazon_link]. The book is out in October.

[amazon_image id=”0691168881″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy[/amazon_image]

One of the things I’m enjoying is the range of references – from Frances Yates, whose [amazon_link id=”041527849X” target=”_blank” ]Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition[/amazon_link] and [amazon_link id=”0415254094″ target=”_blank” ]The Rosicrucian Enlightenment[/amazon_link] I devoured as an early modern history-crazy teenager to Sam Bowles’ [amazon_link id=”0691126380″ target=”_blank” ]Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions and Evolution[/amazon_link]. Speaking of the Enlightenment, the FT today has a glowing review of Anthony Gottlieb’s [amazon_link id=”0713995440″ target=”_blank” ]The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy[/amazon_link]. One to add to the wish list.

[amazon_image id=”0713995440″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy[/amazon_image]