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 Evans argues that postmodernist historians make the false claim that ‘traditional’ historians naively take historical documents at face value, whereas they are well aware that the degree of transparency of historical texts varies: to pit naive belief in the documents against knowing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 (which I’ll be reviewing for another outlet). It’s another perspective on the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution than covered by his earlier books, and . 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 and I devoured as an early modern history-crazy teenager to Sam Bowles’ . Speaking of the Enlightenment, the FT today has a glowing review of Anthony Gottlieb’s . 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]


Money and civilization: it’s complicated

William Goetzmann’s is exactly the kind of book I find relaxing to read before going to sleep. Apart from the fact that it’s too chunky to carry around, it is a panoramic historical sweep packed with interesting nuggets.

[amazon_image id=”0691143781″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible[/amazon_image]

Money is hardly my Mastermind special subject, and I certainly don’t get emotional about it as so many commentators do. So I have no view about the criticism of the book by people like this reviewer, whose point seems to be that Goetzmann doesn’t agree with every word of David Graeber’s . I’m certainly not going to opine about pre-history. However, Goetzmann is making a far more general argument, rather than a specific case about the role of debt in ancient society (& anyway I think that particular dyspeptic reviewer significantly misrepresents the book’s argument).

Goetzmann’s point is that there is an intimate inter-relationship between financial arrangements and instruments and other economic and social institutions. Indeed, he argues that this is causal and financial innovations made ‘civilisation’ (in the sense of social and political changes observed through history) possible. Intellectual innovations like writing or probability theory, and social innovations like the intermediation of individual savings into investment at scale, were driven by finance. Of course, the causality runs the other way round too: certain economic and social institutions were necessary for financial innovations to occur. “The joint development of financial tools and complex society was a process of give and take on many levels.” It’s complicated, folks! Simple accounts are probably wrong.

Goetzmann is certainly not a financial determinist. He writes: “Necessity is the mother of invention. … Financial technology is redundant, adaptive, and sometimes mercurial. The institutions we take to be sacrosanct, inevitable and indispensable probably are not. Given the random outcome of historical events, another set of institutions might have emerged to serve the same financial problems. Financial innovation is thus a series of accidents of history – the caprice of time, location and opportunity.” This seems absolutely convincing to me, rather than any Graeber-like projection of ideology onto the past. And – as Goetzmann notes – “In times of financial crises, society has tended to express a collective nostalgia for a pre-financial world.”

The book is broadly chronological, starting in ancient Mesopotamia, visiting China, mediaeval Europe, 18th century France and western Europe, back via Marx to China, then the 1920s, Keynes and the war, and a final short section on modern finance. There are all kinds of examples I didn’t know about – the Templars as bankers, the early example of corporate structure in the shape of Toulouse’s Honor del Bazacle. Like Jared Diamond through a different lens, Goetzmann sees the fragmentation and political competition of western Europe in mediaeval and early modern times as an important contribution to its subsequent reliance on capital markets. All very enjoyable, and I’d say essential for anyone interested in financial history.