Post-neoliberalism?

The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order: America and the World in the Free Market Era by my Cambridge colleague Gary Gerstle has quite rightly been highly praised. It covers a whole century, starting with the New Deal and post-world war 2 era to preface the bulk of the book, its characterisation of the neoliberal turn from the start of the 1980s. It ends with Trump and the turn away – so Gary argues – from neoliberalism to something as yet undefined. Neoliberalism is described as a commitment to free trade and financial flows, to free movement of people and openness to others, and to deregulation and the expanded scope of markets. Interestingly, he frames the point about the expansion of the market domain in terms of characterising people as consumers, instead of workers, and argues that Ralph Nader played a key role in this regard through his influence on Jimmy Carter, as the old order started to give way to the new.

The book gives a twin-tracked account of what drives these transitions from one era to another. One set of drivers consists of events – economic crisis in particular, so the 1970s commodity shocks at the start and the GFC at the end. More surprising is the role attributed to the Soviet Union: the 1917 Revolution as a stimulus for New Deal politics; Cold War contestation paving the way for business and financial interests to reach a modus vivendi with organised labour through the 1960s in order to avert any threat of domestic socialism; and consequently the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 as a destabilising force because it took the brakes off corporate and financial self-restraint.

Another interesting aspect of the argument is the linking of administrations generally seen as being opposed to each others’ policies – the difference between Republican and Democrat being less decisive than that between Eisenhower and Reagan or Kennedy and Clinton. As Gary puts it, the feature of a ‘political order’ is that the opponents of the government also buy into it; it becomes the water in which almost everyone swims.

The FT review described the book as an instant classic. There are lots of talks and pods online for anybody who wants a taster. As the subtitle says, it’s US-focused; an analysis of how the neoliberal order got exported would be interesting. I highly recommend it – I read it in just a couple of days of travel. And it set me thinking about what the next political order might turn out to be…..

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Co-operation vs sovereignty in an unequal world order

Global governance is understandably something of a preoccupation as economic globalisation seems to be in retreat at the same time that the scale and intensity of global challenges – climate change, the AI race, actual or simmering conflict, organised crime – is increasing. The Bretton Woods institutions – IMF and World Bank – established in the wake of World War Two remain important and powerful, and will have a lot on their plates in the next year or two, including the possibility of a new debt crisis alongside a surge in poverty and hunger. This context raises two questions. One is what is their guiding philosophy in terms of economic analysis and policy recommendations going to be now the old Washington Consensus version of conditionality has been more or less ditched? The other is whether they can help address the new kinds of challenges, or whether instead new institutions are needed?

They were forged out of a crisis of course, but in The Meddlers: Sovereignty, Empire and the Birth of Global Economic Governance Jamie Martin traces their forbears in the international economic institutions established near the beginning of the 20th century. The key issue he highlights is on the one hand the delicate balance between mutually beneficial co-ordination and voluntary loss of sovereignty among peer countries, and on the other the exercise of power by some countries over others (Imperial powers over colonies or later the US over its debtors) at the expense of the latters’ sovereignty. Co-ordination and co-operation require ceding some decision-making ground but when there is a parity of power this expands the opportunities or benefits each party experiences. However, the international institutions also embed inequalities of power – symbolised by the Asian crisis image of an IMF bureaucrat (Michel Camdessus) leaning over a local politician (Indonesia’s President Suharto) signing up to loan conditions.

Some technocratic institutions governing for example international post or shipping have lasted throughought the century plus, while the BIS (established in 1929/30) is an interesting example of an organisation with a broader mandate yet lasting throughout the 20th century and beyond, despite its missteps during the 1939-45 conflict. Other pre-WW2 international bodies such as the Economic and Financial Section of the League of Nations fell with the implosion of the international order at the outbreak of war. The book argues that the context of post WW1 reparations, the tensions in the European empires, the growth of US economic power and the pressures of the gold standard and the tariff wars of the 1930s all contributed to their downfall. International co-ordination was both essential and impossible.

The lesson for the 21st century, it concludes, is that today’s context of shifting economic power and economic crisis pose similar challenges for the Bretton Woods institutions. The history of earlier institutions suggests that it is fundamentally hard to resolve the core dilemma of a need for co-operation with the desire for sovereignty in a world of unequal power: “Tweaks to existing international institutions, like the IMF and World Bank, may be insufficient to produce a more stable reconciliation of global governance and democratic politics.” But what form should new institutions take? This very interesting book leaves the question hanging.

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The end of empire in Asia

I’ve strayed outside my own territory to read a book by a colleague, Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire by Tim Harper. I’ll start by saying it’s definitely a commitment as the book is 650 pages long (before counting the footnotes). However, I’ve found it completely gripping and was glad to have some long train journeys this week. This is a subject – Asian political and intellectual history from about 1900-1930 – that I knew next to nothing about beforehand. The book ranges across the whole of Asia including China and India, and follows the activists on their travels to Europe and the US, whether voluntary (seeking support) or not (sent into exile). So – to use an awkward metaphor – the book joins up unknown dots. It also completely brings home the immorality of empire, with none of the imperial powers – Britain, France, the Netherlands – coming out of it with any honour as they resisted realising that the days of empire were drawing to an end. The political developments, including the spread of actively revolutionary ideas and movements after the Bolshevik revolution, dominate the narrative; but I also relished the cultural elements of the story, including the popularity of English and French detective novels in the late 19th century or the proliferation of new journals as ideas spread along seaways and railways.

Here’s a longer and more informative review for those who know more about this subject than I do. One blurb on the back, from Peter Frankopan, describes the book as reading like a thriller. It absolutely does. An excellent beach paperback for the summer.

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Swimming against the tide

There are some books whose success mystifies me. One was Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, which I tried when it was published and couldn’t get past p50. I tried with Homo Deus recently and got as far as p138 before giving up. Despite my fondness for Big History, I just can’t figure out what it’s about. As far as I can tell, there’s no original body of research underpinning a popular synthesis (unlike, say, Oded Galor’s interesting new book The Journey of Humanity, or a book like Joseph Henrich’s big cultural history The Weirdest People in the World).

But nor is there in Homo Deus a structured synthesis of other people’s work – ample references of course, but what’s the actual analysis and argument? I could cheat and look at some reviews by people who have actually read the whole thing.* But I think 138 pages gives it a fair shot at grabbing my attention, and it has failed, despite the positive blurbs from Jarvis Cocker and Kazua Ishiguro, and the many millions of sales and high profile fans.

No doubt somebody will explain why I’m wrong.

 

*OK, I cheated. Here’s a helpful review in the LRB by Steven Shapin who read the whole thing, found the argument and sums it up (‘technology has given us the power to reshape ourselves as a species and it’s full of risks’). I get the sense he wasn’t overwhelmed but is politely positive anyway.

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Steering history?

I enjoyed Oded Galor’s The Journey of Humanity: The Origins of Wealth and Inequality. There are of course lots of grand sweep of human history books around – Ian Morris, Walter Scheidel, Jared Diamond, James Scott, even Yuval Noah Harari, not to mention all the accounts of why modern growth came about – David Landes, Joel Mokyr, Deirdre McCloskey. And many more. So I was slightly trepidatious picking up yet another. However, it’s well worth it.

I hadn’t previously been familiar with Galor’s academic work on growth, shame on me, but find it persuasive. There’s a fundamentally simple story – albeit complex and contingent in how it plays out – about interaction between humans (individually and collectively) interacting with technology in a dynamic where change starts slowly and reaches a tipping point beyond which it accelerates. The collective aspect of this incorporates an institutional trade-off between innovation and cohesion: more diverse societies generate more ideas and innovations, but are less cohesive. The dynamic also embeds path dependence: where you can get to depends on where you start and how you got there in the first place. “We are all the product of, and all contend with, the repercussions of events and behaviours that began decades, centuries and even millennia before we were born.” This model underpins the narrative account in The Journey of Humanity.

Like others, Galor sees the early 20th century as an astonishing period of progress: “It is hard to comprehend the leap in the quality of life experienced by people across the globe.” He also highlights the role of radio: “Radio appears to have had a more dramatic impact on lifestyles and culture than any other invention preceding it.” And the BBC is only 100 years old this year – and still, thanks to the World Service, profoundly important in many low-income and/or remote places.

The book is also nicely written with plenty of stories and interesting nuggets of information. The challenge it poses is, of course, how to get from where we are – under the shadow of a long history – to a world where everybody has attained a high standard of living delivering good health, longevity and quality of life and catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss have been averted. The cogs are turning as they always have, but the vehicle can be steered.

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