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.

Screenshot 2022-05-14 at 14.05.29



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.



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.


Muddle, muddle, toil & trouble

It’s back to routine tomorrow, with too many (>0) Zooms in the schedule. Still, I’ve been making the most of the extra reading time since New Year, and have now polished off Duncan Weldon’s Two Hundred Years of Muddling Through. This is an aptly-titled economic history of Britain since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, a story of accidental successes and forseeable failures, told with verve.

War features prominently in the story, as it would any industrialised nation’s economic history. Raising taxes to fight wars paved the way for the expansion of the franchise and growth of the state. And the legacy of war, either financial or physical, shaped much of the 20th century’s economic history. The distinctively British parts of the experience are the long shadow of the landowning aristocracy and our dysfunctional politics, giving us a uniquely warped political economy with a ruling class running the entire country as if it were a colony (See Tom McTague’s marvellous recent article in The Atlantic on this.)

I’ve grown interested in the role of the Treasury in this, having sort of read (only sort of because reading online) a fascinating Kings College London PhD thesis by Tom Kelsey, Picking Losers: Concorde, nuclear power, and their opponents in Britain, 1954-1995. His research established the effective internal Treasury opposition to these postwar efforts to stay on the frontier of technologies the US did not clearly dominate: what we got was a shadow of what ministers had planned. (Although of course the great counterfactual is what would Britain’s role in the computer industry have been were it not for the UK gestablishment insisting on secrecy postwar as the Americans did not, and were it not for their persecuting Alan Turing.) Anyway, I’d have liked a bit more about where the consensus around economic ideas in UK policy came from, as these shifted over time. (And is there a long-view history of the Treasury looking at how it has preserved a largely consistent culture and worldview over centuries? Today’s fiscal hair shirtism inside that building is wholly consistent with the decision to go back on the Gold Standard, for example.)

This is a terrific book to recommend to 6th formers and students who know little economic history. When I was a student there was a gap for just such a book – Sked & Cook’s Postwar Britain: A Political History came out during my undergraduate years. I had a 1958 book, British Economic Policy Since the War by Andrew Shonfeld. (Both hard to find now, but still on my shelves.) Robert Skidelsky’s magisterial biography of Keynes wasn’t published yet though I read the Roy Harrod one. We are now blessed with many histories particularly of the 20th century – David Edgerton, Correlli Barnett for instance – albeit with a more detailed focus. Two Hundred Years of Muddling Through is a lively, clear and balanced overview of British economic history, & I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.


War of the words

A terrific book I read in proof has arrived here: it’s The War of Words: A Glossary of Globalization by economic historian Harold James. As the book notes at the start, this is a time of the polarisation of ideas about how to interpret the economy, society and politics. Nationalism is on the up and globalisation has become a dirty word. Well, the key point of the book is that the disputes about the world are in part due to the way different uses of the same word can lead to muddled thinking. “This book starts from the notion that moments of profound social transition spark new questions and inspire new vocabularies.” And yet fuzzy concepts obscure discussion rather than clarifying it. The book seeks to clarify potential differences in meaning, so that communication can perhaps become an exchange of ideas more than an angry shouting past people with opposing views.

The chapters each take a word, often an ism: capitalism, socialism, populism, globalism, but also technocracy, democracy, hegemony, debt, and more. They take a journey trough the history of how each term has been deployed, reflecting the changes in society along the way. The complex and changing politics of debt are a great example, and this chapter is a masterly and brief aerial view of why various types of debt – personal, corporate, sovereign – have become so problematic in the 21st century. The historical perspective is essential (I was very struck by Danny Quah’s pointing out on social media today that 2021 is as far from 1980 as 1980 was from 1939…. this is sobering if you remember 1980 as an adult). The debt chapter compares well with David Graeber’s much-praised vast tome Debt, in terms of setting out key political issues of our own time.

I also particularly liked the chapters on technocracy and populism; one could do worse than start students out with these two chapters before diving into the more extensive literature. Again, they have a clarifying focal length, just enough detail to start orienting oneself in these debates of competing isms and politiks. Professor James has the capacious knowledge that makes this possible and a wealth of historical details. Who knew that technocracy was a term born of World War 1, introduced by Californian engineer William H Smyth? He saw it was the means to ensure science and technology servied society. Technocrats took another giant leap forward with World War 2, with the recruitment of science into the comprehensive war effort and then the managerialism of the post-war era. Periodic revolts against the technocrats have occurred, such as Alasdair MacIntyre’s influential polemic After Virtue; but they are essential despite the constant need to maintain a balance between experts (techno-) and people (-cracy) which will inevitably shift over time.

Of course there are omissions but the point is clarification of terms, not exhaustive analysis. As the book concludes: “Words matter: … language can empower citizens.” This is exactly why ‘fake news’ and misinformation have had such a malign influence, why authoritarians control the media, why ‘woke’ and ‘neoliberal’ and many more words can become terms of abuse. We are indeed in a war of the words, and I recommend this book as ammo.