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Nationalism and Economic Development in Modern Eurasia

Author(s):Mosk, Carl
Reviewer(s):Mokyr, Joel

Published by EH.Net (August 2013)

Carl Mosk, Nationalism and Economic Development in Modern Eurasia. London: Routledge, 2013. 298 pp. $140 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-60518-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Joel Mokyr, Departments of Economics and History, Northwestern University.

Carl Mosk is an experienced and widely respected economic historian who has done important work on comparative demographic history, with a special expertise in Japanese economic history. This current book is a deeply personal set of reflections and interpretations on what William Parker used to call Bigthink economic history. It is a sprawling and wide-ranging book, somewhat idiosyncratic as such works inevitably turn out to be, but well-written, provocative, opinionated and never for a moment dull. Some of the case studies are insightful and informed interpretations, especially the essay on Japan where, despite its brevity, the author?s deep knowledge of the country shines through.

The book consists of two parts: in the first part he outlines his views on nationalism and economic progress. In the second part he discusses five case studies: Great Britain, Germany, Yugoslavia, China and Japan. The exact connection between the two parts is not always very clear except that the case studies illustrate the diversity and richness of the connection between the forms taken by nation states and their economic history. Although the book touches on many topics (such as a long digression into the Habakkuk thesis on labor-saving technological progress), the core topic is what Mosk calls ?nationalism.? What he means by that is a particular version of the beliefs underlying the nineteenth century modern nation state, an ideology about identity more than a strong belief in particularism and exceptionalism.?

One of the attractive features of this book is that it places a strong emphasis on the importance of beliefs and ideology in historical development and the emergence of economic modernity. Mosk will have none of the historical materialism (the doctrine that asserts that dominant ideas are picked purely on an economic basis) still fashionable among some. In a few pages (pp. 30-36) Mosk delves into psychology to show how such beliefs as religion and nationalism are formed, not as the result of rational reasoning, self-interest maximization, and the careful weighing of evidence and logic, but through more primitive processes. While he does not provide a more detailed discussion of how we end up accepting the beliefs we do, he argues that what he calls ?nation-state branding? (essentially, picking some ideological commitment on which the polity is founded such as liberal democracy or fascist autocracy) is only very partially based on rational and scientific reasoning.

What is it that Mosk is arguing in this book? His view is that nationalism in its various forms allowed the nation state to create a consensus behind state formation and hence enable major infrastructural investments necessary for sustained economic progress. Throughout the book, he stresses the power of nationalism, which he thinks is the only ?ism? to come out of the Enlightenment that is ?here to stay.? Mosk fully realizes that as a historical force nationalism? was a double-edged sword, and that it has been the main reason for many of the bloody wars of the twentieth century, while also (more controversially) a major factor in the emergence of economic growth. The connection between nationalism and modernization is not altogether new. In 1993, Liah Greenfeld, a historical sociologist, wrote a massive and widely-noticed (if controversial) book (also based on case-studies) in which she laid down the connections between nationalism and modernity. In her view nationalism preceded modernity and brought it about.? Mosk?s work differs from hers in emphasis, but he might have spent a bit more time engaging her views (Greenfeld?s magnum opus is not cited; a follow-up book by her is).

Mosk recognizes that earlier forms of nationalism may well have predated the modern nation state. For Mosk, nationalism was the product of the Enlightenment. This is not altogether so obvious for those who think of nationalism as a form of loyalty to a collective entity that is juxtaposed to ?others.? At its core, the Enlightenment was a product of the transnational ?Republic of Letters,? which was fundamentally cosmopolitan, pluralist, universalist, and pacifist. While it was fully congenial with the idea of self-determination, which was the flip side of individual freedom, its emphasis was clearly not nationalist. Some enlightened thinkers realized the naivet? of the universalist ideology. The youthful David Hume, ever skeptical, pointed out in his Treatise on Human Nature (1739-40) that ?there is no such passion in human minds as the love of mankind, merely as mankind. … In Italy an Englishman is a friend; in China a European is a friend; and it may be that if we were on the moon and encountered a human being there, we would love him just as a human being. But this comes only from the person?s relation to ourselves.?

In any event, Enlightenment thought increasingly came to engage nationalist ideas in the late eighteenth century for a variety of reasons. In part this change occurred through the writings of German Romantic idealists such as Herder and Fichte, and in part as the unintended consequences of the events following the French revolution. The French Revolution, as John McClelland (1996), a historian of political thought, put it well, put nationalist flesh on the bones of the doctrine of liberty as self-determination.

The public sphere we associate with the Enlightenment was sufficiently malleable and protean to produce a variety of discourses or national-branding (as Mosk would call it). It created a networked society, with circles and organizations in which opinions were formed through the interactions of intellectuals. The rise of nationalism following the French Revolution directed these opinions in a direction that most of the great Enlightenment writers would have disapproved of. One could therefore see nationalism as the illegitimate offspring of the Enlightenment rather than its inevitable progeny. Mosk points out that the rise of literacy and expansion of the franchise created nineteenth century mass politics, a fertile ground for perverse nationalism for whom investing in infrastructure was less important than cultivating a xenophobic chauvinism. But not all countries became jingoist ? Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and even Italy never quite felt the need to hate their neighbors in order to build the kind of infrastructure that economic growth demanded.

Nationalism, argues Mosk (p. 41), is committed to economic progress for everyone, much like Acemoglu and Robinson?s (2012) ?inclusive society? and North-Wallis-Weingast?s (2009) ?open access society. It would have helped the reader if he had compared his approach with those two landmark volumes.? One could beg to differ whether nationalism as such is in fact that critical to modernization.? In his classic work on progress (which Mosk does not cite either), Robert Nisbet (2008) distinguished between ?progress as freedom? (which includes material progress) and ?progress as power,? which we might think of as the emergence of the nation state and institutional change. The former was decidedly transnational and cosmopolitan in nature, the latter much more in the spirit of Mosk?s view of nationalism. But the Enlightenment view of progress was based first and foremost on reason driving scientific and technological progress and institutional reform. In its classical form in the eighteenth century, it did not require a nation-centric attitude ? yet. An example of how the distinction between the two clarifies matters is in how ideology deals with trade. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century mercantilism contained nationalist (or ?proto-nationalist? as Mosk would say) elements in it, and it mostly found itself at loggerheads with Enlightenment philosophes who favored free trade and high mobility. Nineteenth century nationalist ideology turned, by and large, supportive of protectionism, while Enlightenment thought in its liberal incarnation, stressing that international trade was a positive-sum game, supported free trade and hopefully postulated the civilizing effect that ?sweet commerce? would have on international relations. Mosk (p. 233) sees it differently: trade and economic competition are a form of ?aggression,? meant to defeat one?s ideological opponents. This is reminiscent of the mercantilist zero-sum thinking that was mercifully supplanted by Enlightenment thinking.

One of the central theses of Mosk?s book (p. 65) is that ?progressive movements purporting to advance international causes are actually hitched to nation-state formation.? His example is predictably Communism which started out as an international movement, yet eventually became anchored in one country, Russia. Whether this is an accurate and fair representation of the history of socialism or not, one cannot avoid thinking of many transnational movements that made an effort to keep their cosmopolitan character, such as the scientific community, pacifism, or the movement to bring about European unification. Mosk provides a welcome antidote to the tedious odes to ?globalization? in the past decades (the word does not appear in his book as far as I can tell). Something similar can be said about the category of ?class? so endlessly beloved by historians nostalgic for their Marxist days. National loyalty and class solidarity seem incompatible (though at times they have been able to work out a modus vivendi). Nationalism as an ideology appears less popular among historians than class consciousness, and it is important to stress its role in the modern world.? Valuable as these messages are, Mosk tends to get carried away here and there. Even when he does, his engaging style and lively mind make for a readable volume.

Hopefully it will not be churlish to note that for the outrageous price that Routledge charges for this volume, they might at least have produced a quality volume. But this book seems to have had neither copy editor nor proofreader. It is full of annoying typos, especially in dates and names, and it has a barely-serviceable index. Moreover, many terms and concepts are not properly defined or explained. This is normal for books like this: the author has been thinking so long in certain terms that he forgets that some of readers may not be familiar with terms such as ?Axial Thought? (a reference to Karl Jaspers would have been helpful) or ?nation-state branding? (a term apparently invented by Mosk but not fully explained until the very end). Good copy editors still make for much better books ? one wonders why Routledge does not supply one.
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References:

Acemoglu, Daron and James Robinson. 2012. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty.? New York: Crown.

Greenfeld, Liah. 1993. Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hume, David. 1739-40. Treatise of Human Nature, Book III: Morals. http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdf/humetre3.pdf, accessed Aug. 25, 2013.

McClelland, John S. 1996. A History of Western Political Thought. London: Routledge.

Nisbet, Robert. 2008. History of the Idea of Progress, second edition. New Brunswick, NJ: Transactions Publishers.

North, Douglass C., John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast. 2009. Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History.? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Joel Mokyr is the author of The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain, 1700-1850.

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Europe
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII