SUDDENLY the publication of this book looks even more pertinent than its author or anybody else could have wished. “The End of Globalisation” is a study of the origins and consequences of the Great Depression, set in the context of today's debate about the stresses and strains of globalisation. It asks, what do the economic and political catastrophes of the 1930s tell us about the prospects for the global economic order at the start of the 21st century? What are the dangers, and what might be the remedies?
The author, Harold James, a professor of history at Princeton University, is an eminent scholar in the political economy of the period. The breadth and depth of his knowledge are apparent throughout the book, but never burdensome. The study is crisp and comparatively short, intended as much for the general reader as for other historians. With any luck it will reach many of those hoped-for readers. It would be hard to think of a better instance of the right book on the right subject published at the right time.
Mr James's main theme is that globalisation cannot be taken for granted: it may slow down, or even retreat, as it did with such calamitous results in the 1930s. And it may do so again now.
The book disagrees with the view that it took the Great War to produce the Great Depression. Mr James argues that the international economic order of the late 19th century in any case contained severe and possibly fatal flaws. These included growing demand for trade protection and mounting hostility to immigrants. More broadly, the author argues, popular expectations about what states and societies might do to soften the impact of economic integration had created a burden that politics could not support. Mr James does not predict a new depression (there are no fatuous forecasts here), but he denies that you need a global war to get one.
What the author could not have anticipated was that today's frictions include not just the protectionism, resentment of immigrants, financial fragility and overburdened polities of the late 19th century, but the prospect of war as well. This makes the book's examination of the other parallels, worrying enough in themselves, all the more chilling.
After the Great War, hopes for a new spirit of internationalism soared in the 1920s. Later, after the fragility of international finance had helped to turn a slump into the Great Depression, those hopes were repudiated: the fears and nationalistic resentments of the late 19th century revived in a new and much more virulent form. Today, even after years of unparallelled economic success in the West, similar fears and resentments are expressed; and now the world contemplates the twin spectre of global recession and violent conflict leading who knows where.
The 1930s smashed the Geneva consensus; will this decade destroy its not-so-distant descendant, the Washington consensus, and with it the idea of international economic co-operation? Though it would be rash to rule this out, Mr James offers some grounds for optimism.
One resides in, as he writes, “the difference between an order imposed by treaties and an order built in sustained reflection about appropriate policy—and the gains to be derived from it.” In the 1920s internationalism was imposed; after the 1960s it developed, in the main, spontaneously, “as a result of calculations about advantage”. That seems right, though today's anti-globalists would deny it. In their view, the Washington consensus is also imposed, selfishly and undemocratically, on unwilling victims. If that were true, the portents really would be bleak.
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