Global Capitalism 1.0
University of London history professor Donald Sassoon could have written a great book for the lay reader describing the first global epoch of capitalism. Unfortunately he took all of the drama out of one of the most dramatic eras in world economic history. Perhaps I am being too harsh because of my amateur status, but his 768 page book, although loaded with information, is a long and difficult slog.
Sassoon’s book lacks the drama of Marx’s 1848 “Communist Manifesto” where praises how the rising capitalist bourgeoisie was transforming Europe. Where Marx showed excitement Sassoon is plodding. Much later Keynes’s “Economic Consequences…” highlights what was available to England’s pre-war bourgeoisie with the mere dialing of a telephone (no telephones in 1860). It would have been nice if he described the life of the bourgeoisie and the working class of 1860 and compared it to that of 1914. The world changed for better for both classes. It would have helped if Sassoon studied Robert Gordon’s “The Rise and Fall of American Growth.” Remember that the first global age began with the telegraph and the steamship and ended with the telephone, electric lights and the internal combustion engine, all three invented around 1879. It was those three inventions created under capitalist auspices that changed the world.
For a history of capitalism, very few capitalists are mentioned. I was hoping to learn about the methods and vision of the European and Japanese capitalists who built their societies, but came away disappointed. The author describes the rise of capitalism in a host of countries, but he doesn’t put flesh and bones on it. He seems to be more interested in the political leadership than the rising capitalist class.
He further sets up a straw man by arguing that the neo-liberals of the 1980s harkened back to a capitalist nirvana of the 1860s when government’s role in the economy was small. He rightly states that government played a major role in capitalist development everywhere and practically all neo-liberals knew it. Sassoon favored more government involvement and he appears to be very sympathetic to the German protectionist of the 1840s Friedrich List.
Where Sassoon is good is his discussion on the huge profits Britain generated from the sale of opium to China and that colonialism, especially in Africa, wasn’t all that profitable for Europe. Most trade took place among the more developed countries. He also highlights that much of 19th century America was built with European capital.
My sense is that only the nerdiest of lay readers will find this book of interest. There is a lot here but it takes time to plow through.
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